It’s famous for its outdoor markets, handsome pedestrian lanes, and cultivated, bon vivant residents.
Westminster Abbey, the Eiffel Tower, the Sistine Chapel — these are some of the reasons you came to Europe. They’re also why millions of other tourists are here as well. Nothing kills a sightseeing buzz like waiting in line for hours to see a popular sight or being crammed shoulder to shoulder as you squint up at Michelangelo’s masterpiece.
Then there are places where the city itself is the main — or only — attraction, allowing you to avoid the hordes and linger as long as you want. In France’s sunny south, Aix-en-Provence is one of those magical destinations.
Located north of Marseille in the foothills of the Alps, Aix may not have any blockbuster sights, but its old center offers a postcard-worthy square around every corner. It’s famous for its outdoor markets and handsome pedestrian lanes, as well as its cultivated, bon vivant residents. Nowhere else in France is “l’art de vivre” (the art of living) so stylishly displayed.
The main boulevard, Cours Mirabeau, is designed for the rich and famous to strut their fancy stuff. This “Champs-Élysées of Provence,” lined with 17th- and 18th-century mansions, divides the higgledy-piggledy old town and the stately Mazarin Quarter. It survives much as it was: narrow for traffic and very wide for pedestrians who would promenade under their elegant mansions. To this day, Cours Mirabeau remains the place for trendiness.
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One of the best places to take it all in is Les Deux Garcons cafe. It was once frequented by hometown artist Paul Cezanne, and remains the top hangout on the boulevard. Peek inside at its classic old interior. The Cezanne family hat shop was next door. Cezanne’s dad parlayed that successful business into a bank, then into greater wealth, setting up his son to be free to enjoy his artistic pursuits.
Paul Cezanne loved Aix-en-Provence. He studied law at the university, and produced most of his paintings in and around his hometown — even though, at the time, this conservative town really didn’t understand him or his art. Cezanne’s rather impersonal canvases can be difficult to appreciate. Bowls of fruit, landscapes and a few portraits were Cezanne’s passion. Because of his style — cube-shaped blocks of paint — he is often called the first “modern” painter.
A man of independent means, Cezanne ignored Paris, the critics and the buying public. He worked to capture the best of both artistic worlds: the instantaneity of Impressionism and the realistic depth and solidity of earlier styles. Aix wasn’t alone in ignoring him; Cezanne was virtually unknown and unappreciated in his lifetime. Estranged from his wife and son — who lived in Paris — he worked alone, lived alone and died alone, shunned by all but a few revolutionary young artists who understood his genius.
Today the city fathers milk anything remotely related to his years here. While there’s almost no actual art by Cezanne in Aix, fans of the artist will want to pick up the “In the Footsteps of Cezanne” self-guided-tour flier at the tourist information office and follow the bronze pavement markers around town.
About a 30-minute walk from the city center is Atelier Cezanne, the artist’s last studio. It has been preserved as it was when he died and is open to the public. Although there is no art here, his tools and personal belongings make it worthwhile for enthusiasts. Look for porcelain vases, paper or fabric flowers, a small plaster cupid, and other items that turn up in his famous still lifes.
As you wander the city like Cezanne did, stroll into the Mazarin Quarter. Built in a grid plan during the reign of King Louis XIV, it remains a peaceful, elegant residential neighborhood — although each of its mansions now houses several families rather than just one. The Place de Quatre Dauphins (Square of the Four Dolphins) has a fountain inspired by Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s masterpieces in Rome.
Cross Cours Mirabeau and head for Aix’s old town, where inviting pedestrian streets hum with activity. Travelers who plan well enjoy the most vivid experience: Aix’s farmers’ market is a classic Provençal scene — rustic farmers selling fresh produce under the shade of graceful plane trees. Place Richelme hosts a lively market, as it has since the 1300s. The cafes at the end of the square are ideal for savoring the market ambience: Pause for a drink at one or get a fresh-baked snack at a local “boulangerie.”
Aix has a timeless, linger-longer quality. It was that way when the French king made the town his administrative capital of Provence, and it’s that way today. For a tourist, it’s happily free of any obligatory turnstiles. It’s just a wealthy town filled with people — most of whom, it seems, know how to live well and look good. Once you surrender to its charms, you may never want to leave.
If you go
SLEEPING:Pavillon de la Torse is an upscale B&B in a parklike setting (splurge, www.latorse.com). Hotel des Quatre Dauphins is an Old World place in the quiet Mazarin Quarter (moderate, www.lesquatredauphins.fr).
EATING:Les Deux Garcons is a vintage French brasserie along the central boulevard (splurge, 53 Cours Mirabeau, tel. 04 42 26 00 51). Le Papagayo, on a traffic-free esplanade in the Old Town, offers a good selection of salads, daily specials and trendy burgers (moderate, 22 Place Forum des Cardeurs, tel. 04 42 23 98 35).
GETTING AROUND: The city is made for walking, though you may want to take an electric minibus (Line A) to Cezanne’s studio.