Word of Mouth: Aix-en-Provence
Word of Mouth: Aix-en-Provence
Cézanne's workshop, a historic old town and some of the world's most magnificent light
A mention of the south of France often conjures visions of Slim Aarons-style grandeur, neatly positioned umbrellas stretching along strips of beach and perhaps a yacht or two. And yet, 30 minutes north of Marseilles (and easily accessible by an inexpensive, frequent bus from the Marseilles airport), Aix-en-Provence appeals more to the quiet aesthete—someone traveling to appreciate centuries-old beauty dressed in summer sun that lingers beyond expectation. One may be hard-pressed to find such glorious, gentle light so eager to stay in the skies elsewhere, or a light more befitting of Aix's historic center—a city of yellows, tans and taupes gracefully tying together a rich architectural history. Aix can be explored wholly in a matter of days and it's entirely walkable making it ideal for solo adventurers, romantics and even those with families. And, of course, the reliable food options are plentiful. Below is a slice of cultural activity, from lunches to walks and museums, that acts as a launch point for explorations of Aix-en-Provence.
La Villa Gallici Relais & Châteaux
Sprung from an 18th century Provençal home, La Villa Gallici Relais & Châteaux sits a seven-minute walk from the center of Aix, but it feels miles away—isolated and enveloped in greenery. There's a pool, Michelin-starred restaurant and petite spa, as well as an impressive outdoor art collection. For those seeking a reprieve only steps from town, this is the establishment. That said, Aix is in no short supply of hotels. From the reliable Adagio Hotel Aix Centre to Hôtel des Augustins and Hôtel des Quatre Dauphins, all price ranges can be meet in the historic old town.
You understand, when stepping foot inside the second floor of Atelier de Cézanne, what inspired the influential artist. Objects and tools adorn tables everywhere—delightfully cluttering the studio. A window offers a view to the rolling hills and slender trails just outside. From 1902 to his death in 1906, the artist painted from this space and, while it's small, visitors can go in-depth through drawer upon drawer of materials beyond what lies on tables, chairs and the walls.
Brasserie de L'archevêché
Set outdoors in a shaded city square, Brasserie de L'archevêché offers everything from French fare to coffee and wine. Perfect for lunch or dinner, its location in town also makes for ideal day dreaming. English menus are available for those timid with French, and the staff is incredibly helpful. The brasserie is a quick walk to the plaza that houses the Hôtel de Ville as well as the tree-lined main thoroughfare, Cours Mirabeau—a street one must stroll.
If a sweet treat has been around since 1830, the maker has done something right. Maison Bremond has been producing calisson in Aix since the aforementioned date—though, they moved shop (down the street from the current location) once. Basically, a calisson is composed of ground almonds and candied fruit, ground together in a thick paste and topped with a crisp icing. They're certainly worth trying and, even if one isn't a lover of candies, these make a great gift.
At the Musée Granet, visitors will find a balancing act of pressing, relevant contemporary works, archaeological sculptures and 18th and 19th century French Provençal work—including a room dedicated to the museum's namesake François-Marius Granet. It's this diversity that makes the museum so surprising and dynamic. Aix also holds the historic gardens of Pavillon de Vendôme, Hotel de Caumont Art Centre and the Fondation Vasarely, all worth visiting (the former two in particular), but Granet's depth and uncommon curation truly impress.
Le B Bar a Bières
Wandering the streets of Aix at night, one finds an almost uncommon number of Irish pubs. These are relaxed venues, with general beer options served until 2AM. For late-night music of all genres—and a strange but tasty punch—Sextius Bar is a different option. But the cramped, rough but fresh plywood decor of Bar a Bieres offers a different sort of experience. While the name translates directly to "beer bar," its local charm and friendly people sets it apart. For a cocktail, head over to any hotel bar, but to truly experience the beverage scene of the city, surprisingly it makes sense to drink a beer.
With programming occupying the months of June and July, Festival D'Aix acts very much as a motivation to visit the city in the first place. For lovers of opera, or those who've been scared to indulge but need an immersive experience, the festival provides productions drawn from centuries of the art form—with modernity tapped to demonstrate the medium's continued relevance. Here, it's quite possible to see five operas in four days—delivered in four languages—at three different venues (one of which is outdoors). Aix has long been known as an intellectual city and while opera has often been associated with intellectualism, seeing a brand new commission of a work like "Pinocchio" is just plain fun.
Le B Bar a Bières and Festival D'Aix images courtesy of venues, all other images by David Graver