Explore Aix-en-Provence in a weekend
Be inspired by Paul Cézanne’s birthplace which is bursting with modern art and gastronomic delights
I’m sitting at a café on the Cours Mirabeau, enjoying the Provençal sunshine almost as much as I’m enjoying my glass of so-pale-you-could-mistake-it-for-white rosé wine.
In Aix-en-Provence it’s important to take a pause now and then, to watch the chic and well-heeled Aixois and Aixoises perambulating past, relaxed in the knowledge they live in the capital of the Kingdom of Provence. Nevermind that René of Anjou died in 1480 and Provence became part of France shortly thereafter, Aix-en-Provence still has the grandeur and grace of a capital.
My morning had been an indulgent introduction to Aix-en-Provence and its bounty of fresh produce and gastronomic traditions. An on-foot food tour has to be one of the most enjoyable ways to discover a place and the Tastes of Provence tour, led by Mathilde Ploix, who also runs her own cookery classes here, definitely gave me a taste of the town.
Starting at the thrice-weekly main market, just off Cours Mirabeau, we tasted tiny juicy strawberries, creamy goat’s cheese redolent of the herbs on which the beasts had fed, savoury cured meats, as well as complex and delicious preserves and pastes, both sweet and savoury. The fruit and vegetables on display were as much a feast for the eyes as for the mouth, with riotous colours bursting out from the carefully arranged displays.
From the market we ventured to find out more about Aix’s famous calissons, made here for hundreds of years from ground almonds and the liquor of candied melon and orange.
A visit to Pâtisserie Béchard, one of the oldest bakeries in Aix-en-Provence, furnished me with the history of the almond-shaped treat, as well as a taste of the decadent Tropezienne, so loved by Brigitte Bardot.
Tastings were interspersed with fascinating historical titbits and a wander around both sides of the town, medieval jostling with Baroque splendour, separated only by the gracious Cours Mirabeau. The tour gave a real sense of Aix-en-Provence’s place on the map both socially and economically.
One of my original reasons for wanting to visit Aix had been its connection with painter Paul Cézanne. The artist who was arguably the driving force behind the naissance of Cubism was born in the town and lived there for a large part of his life until his death in 1906.
No stay here is complete without a visit to the great painter’s atelier, so on my first morning that had been my goal. Located as it is high up above the town, it’s amazing to think that Cézanne walked there and back at least once a day, carrying his equipment, sometimes popping down to his home in town for lunch as well, before heading back to the studio once more. It was here the painter worked on his huge Grandes Baigneuses series of works and the massive easel that Cézanne built himself to support such enormous canvases sits inside the studio today, along with assorted furniture and items familiar from his still life paintings. There is a serenity to the workspace and a genuine feeling of stepping back in time. Visiting the studio hadn’t been enough for me though. While I hadn’t had sufficient time to actually climb the mountain, a trip to the Terrain des Peintres with its luxurious homes offered me the chance to contemplate the view that Cézanne painted so often – more than 30 times in oil alone, not counting other studies. The mountain still sat there, framed by cypresses, much as it had been in the 19th century.
After a morning of indulging my fascination with Cézanne, my afternoon was filled with modern art galleries of a scope well beyond what I had expected of a relatively small city, housed in buildings just as remarkable as their contents.
The Musée Granet occupies two locations, the more modern of which – the XXe – is located in a former chapel, showing off its collection of works by Picasso, Braque, Bonnard and other 20th-century artists to great effect.
The more traditional building of the main museum has a permanent collection of paintings, sculptures and archaeological artefacts and is fascinating in its own right.
The Caumont Centre d’Art is housed in one of Aix’s archetypal baroque houses, complete with hidden courtyard and fountain. Inside I found rooms harking back to the heyday of the house and an astonishing display of contemporary art from the Guggenheim Foundation’s Thannhauser collection.
I have finished my glass of rosé, so now it’s time to make like an Aixoise and go for a stroll. I feel I have barely scratched the surface of lovely Aix. I still have fountains to count, secret courtyards to peek into and possibly a little window shopping to indulge in. I’d like to think that Roi René would approve.
WHERE TO STAY
Hôtel des Quatres Dauphins
Friendly B&B in 19th-century house in the Mazarin district, just a few minutes walk from Cours Mirabeau. Doubles from €79.
WHERE TO EAT
Tadao Ando Restaurant
Chateau la Coste
A modern light-filled glazed dining room serves dishes based on seasonal ingredients and produce from the kitchen garden. Mains from €22.
Le Jardin Mazarin
Arty surroundings and a gorgeous garden terrace deliver elegant and delicious food.
Mains from €22, menus from €29.
WHERE TO VISIT
The studio where the artist worked on paintings such as the Grandes Baigneuses until his death in 1906. Admission €6.50 (adult)
This museum is on two separate sites, the XXe, housed in a former chapel shows 20th-century artworks, while the original museum is home to earlier works as well as sculptures and archaeological pieces. Entry €8 for both museums.
Caumont Centre d’Art
A beautifully restored mansion and gardens with exhibition spaces. Entry €14.
Château la Coste
This independently-owned wine estate is home to a wealth of fascinating contemporary art installations and several places to eat and drink. Well worth a visit if you have a car. Art and architecture walk €15.
Tastes of Provence Food Tour
Group tours on Thursday and Friday from 9.30am to 12.30pm. €70 per person includes wine tasting and visits to local producers.
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