Aix-en-Provence

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Aix-en-Provence

Pop. 125,000 plus 40,000 students, dépt. Bouches-du-Rhône. Aix does not appear as an overnight stay in the passports repertoire but you may well find yourself here for lunch and/or a little sightseeing on the way from Avignon or Nimes to the Riviera.

This is a beautiful city, perhaps the archetype of provençal loveliness. It seems to possess a great ambience. It is a major university city, a thriving place, full of well-dressed people. It has the amenities of a large city combined with the intimate charm of a provincial town. It has the youngest population in France. It is the city of Paul Cézanne and Emile Zola. Its annual festival of art and music is internationally renowned. The surrounding countryside is beautiful. It is only 20 miles from the Mediterranean. According to polls, Aix is the city in which most French people would like to live.

A little History  Aix plays an important role in provençal medieval and modern history. It was a residence of the Counts of Provence, a major political and commercial centre. The university was founded in 1409. It fell into a deep recession at the time of the Revolution but re-emerged during the C19 as a cultural and juridical centre par excellence. (The Court of Appeal here is the second highest in France.) The most interesting part of Aix's history, however, is probably the story of its pre-roman and Roman beginnings.

Before the days of Roman influence this part of the South of France was dominated by a confederation of Celto-Ligurian tribes who had their capital just 2 miles north of here at a place called Entremont. On the coast, however, in what is now Marseille was a long-established, prosperous colony of Greek traders. About 125 BC hostilities broke out between the populations, and the Greeeks appealed to the Romans for help. Two years later the Roman Consul Gaius Sextius captured and dismantled Entremont. He set up an entrenched camp to protect the conquered region at the nearby abundant thermal springs. The camp was named Aquae Sextiae, "the waters of Sextius," which has subsequently been bastardised to become Aix.

The Visit  Park by the tourist office on the Place Général de Gaulle just off the Cours Mirabeau. At the tourist ofice you can pick, for free, beautiful maps of the city with suggested walking tours 'In the footsteps of Cézanne.' You will have time to stroll the length of the Cours Mirabeau, take a look possibly at the Fontaine des Quatre Dauphins, and explore a little of le Vieil Aix.

The Cours Mirabeau is one of the loveliest avenues in France. It replaced in the 1650s the old city walls on the south side of town. It is shaded with four rows of plane (sycamore) trees, dotted with fountains and lined with C17 and C18 sandstone mansions, some with beautifully decorative facades. The north side is largely made up of shops, especially bookshops, and sidewalk cafes; the south side is mainly banks and offices. The Cours is always lively and the cafes make excellent possibilities for grabbing a snack for lunch.

You may find yourself with a group that possesses a penchant for fountains. If so, they have come to the right place:

The first and the biggest of the fountains, the Fontaine de la Rotonde from 1860, honours Mirabeau himself. Honoré Mirabeau was a C18 revolutionary statesman, the greatest orator in revolutionary France, elected deputy for Aix in 1789 and then President of the Chambre des Députés. His stance remained fairly moderate and he was eventually saved from political defeat by his own death in 1791.

The second fountain is the C17 Fontaine des Neuf-Canons, about which these notes know nothing.

The third is the Fontaine d'Eau-Chaude, a moss-covered stone which pours forth warm water (not for drinking) just as it did 2,000 years ago for the first Roman settlers. The water is not drinkable nowadays.

The fourth is the Fontaine du Bon Roi René. Le Roi René was actually King of Sicily and Count of Provence. He made Aix his capital from 1471-1480, and was largely responsible for the growth of Aix as a cultural and political power in the late Middle Ages. He was a poet, mathematician, lawyer and painter, apparently "enamoured of all things that this earth offers man," and is chiefly remembered for introducing the muscatel grape to the region. Accordingly he is seen here heroically holding a bunch of grapes for all to see.

The charming Fontaine des Quatre Dauphins, from 1667, lies at a junction to the south of the Fontaine d'Eau-Chaude in Aix's elegant C18 Quartier Mazarin. It is a short detour of a couple of hundred yards. Alain Delon used to have a house on this square.

Return to the Cours Mirabeau and cross to the other side to see le Vieil Aix, lively, intimate and to a great extent pedestrianised, very different from the elegant formality of the Quartier Mazarin. You do not need to do a walking tour. It is the charm of the whole ensemble, rather than specific buildings, that stands out. Just walk people in the direction of the rue Aude, where the town is at its most studenty, and towards the Place de l'Hôtel de Ville, the heart of Aix. If you continue a little further you reach the eclectic cathedral of St.-Sauveur, from where you can point out the way across the Blvd. Jean Jaurès towards Cézanne's former studio.

Aside from the usual array of provençal products, the speciality of Aix is calissons, iced almond paste sweets.

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