On the second day of our two-week southern Provence trip, on a hot summer day, we made our way to explore Aix-en-Provence, the former capital of Provence, now the European Capital of Culture. Leafy boulevards, elegant 17th-century Baroque architecture, the birthplace of the impressionist painter Paul Cezanne, a pedestrian-friendly centre, delightful shops, lively cafe terraces, numerous bars and clubs, and universities with a thriving student population have made Aix-en-Provence well-know among the travellers.
The map below shows our family’s walking route. It starts from the parking area near Place John Rewald. Not an intentionally designed walking route, it did cover many appealing scenes that define Aix-en-Provence:
- Impressive shade canopy of plane trees
- Church Saint Jean-de-Malte
- The narrow Provençal streets
- Buildings around Place de l’Hôtel de Ville
- Place des Cardeurs, a unual square without plane tree
- Cathédrale St. Sauveur with the remarkable Burning Bush Triptych
- The taste of the delicious local Calissons (Les calissons d’Aix) and Tapenades
- Explore Aix-en-Provence many fountains
- Place d’Albertas
- Cours Mirabeau, the city’s boulevard
- Other things to explore in Aix-en-Provence
Impressive shade canopy of plane trees
Plane trees are appreciated mainly for its shade. Like in most French villages, Aix en Provence has many plane trees in small squares and on roadsides providing ample shade for cafe terraces and pedestrians, keeping the air fresh in the hot summer days. We felt magically comfortable to stroll around the streets and squares under the towering of plane trees.
Plane trees represent the French way of life. More than a century ago, when the French founded their settlement in Shanghai, they carried plane trees from France and decorated the entire French Concession. Today, the former French Concession is still the ideal place for the Shanghainese to escape the summer heat.
Looking around the cluster of mighty plane trees, we could not wait to explore Aix-en-Provence and marched to the old centre.
Church Saint Jean-de-Malte
The first church we saw in the old town was Saint-Jean-de-Malte. Built in the 13th century, Saint-Jean-de-Malte was Aix’s first Gothic building as well as the first Gothic-styled church in Provence. It used to house the tombs of the Counts of Provence in its side chapels.
The church features stained-glass windows and paintings dating from the 1700s. Built in 1376 with a height of 67 metres, Saint-Jean-de-Malte’s arrow-shaped bell-tower is the highest point in Aix-en-Provence. In addition to that are two rose windows above the entrance of the church.
The narrow Provençal streets
On the way to the old town, we came across Aix-en-Provence’s maze of side streets and narrow alleys. They connect mansions exhibiting the influence of Italian baroque, small squares, and a thousand fountains. Those buildings are coloured that distinctive Provençal yellow. Bathed in the most glorious southern sunshine, the narrow streets between the buildings have the unique ambiance that reflects the sweetness of life. With the warmth and intensity of light, even a hobby photographer like me could take some beautiful pictures without using any special skills.
Buildings around Place de l’Hôtel de Ville
The Town Hall of Aix-en-Provence
The Town Hall has two parts, one bordering the square and a U-shaped inner courtyard giving access to the noble rooms. It has a fine façade in the Italian style. At the centre of the façade, the door is erected by two coupled columns that support the iron-wrought balcony above. The balcony is framed by two pairs of pilasters which serve the same purpose.
The ornate belfry
Located to the right of the Town Hall, the city’s old belfry is a piece of a well-crafted monument. The belfry has a base made up of ancient blocks of white limestone. On top of the arched tower gate, it is the Commemoration Plaque.
The astronomical clock above it dates back to 1661 and has four wooden statues representing the four seasons. Today, to activate the rotation requires manual effort in each season. Between the wrought-iron ramped balcony and wrought-iron terrace, it is the clock activated by a modern mechanism and showing the actual time. And, the bell still rings for the hours of the day.
The Corn Exchange Hall (la Halle aux grains)
Corn Exchange, built by the architects Vallon brothers in the 18th century from an existing building, is a symbol for the trade of wheat and cereals in the Provence at the time. The Southern façade faces the Place Richelme and has motifs such as fruits, cereals, and olives. The Corn Exchange Hall is actually on Place Richelme, a vicinity of Place de I’Hotel de Ville.
Today the corn exchange houses the post office and an annex of the Méjanes library that has around 450,000 documents, including the book of hours of King René I and the estate of Albert Camus.
Place des Cardeurs, a unual square without plane tree
Direct next to Place de l’Hôtel de Ville is the Place des Cardeurs. It caught our attention because the square has no single plane tree. It is rather unusual to see such a plaza in a typical French town.
Later, I did some research and found out that the new urban space was on the site of a group of insanitary houses demolished in 1963. Then, it functioned as a parking area. Today, the parking area is underground, and the square converts into the restaurant terraces. Enclosed by beautifully restored houses, the square is adorned with a moss-covered fountain created in 1977 by Jean Amado.
Cathédrale St. Sauveur with the remarkable Burning Bush Triptych
Further north, Cathédrale Saint Sauveur is surrounded by two museums (Musée des Tapisseries and Musée Estienne de Saint-Jean) and two universities (Institut d’Etudes Politiques and Institute of Public Management and Territorial Governance).
Built on the site of an old Roman forum, the Cathédrale Saint Sauveur Aix-en-Provence demonstrates a variety of architectural elements. It has, for example, a Gothic bell-tower, Roman columns, cloisters with elegant arcades, sculptured columns, the facade’s walnut doors featured figures of the major prophets of the Old Testament, and some vaults sculpted by Jean Guiramand.
One of the notable religious artworks is the remarkable Burning Bush Triptych by Nicolas Froment, The king Rene was happy to be one of his characters, accompanied by his second wife, Queen Jeanne. All three panels are in glorious rejuvenated colours.
Taste of the delicious local Calissons (Les calissons d’Aix) and Tapenades
On the way back, between the narrow alleys, we found several local shops selling the Provençal delicacies, Calissons d’Aix, and Tapenades. Calissons are a traditional diamond-shaped sweet, and we have never tried before. Tapenades are a kind of bread spread. Sometimes, the restaurants offer that as a starter. What we did not know is that there are so many different types of Tapenades in the shops.
The French are crazy about Tapenades. Tapenade is a Provençal name for a dish consisting of puréed or finely chopped olives, capers, and anchovies. It is a popular food in the south of France, where it is spread on bread and eaten as an hors d’œuvre.
There are several shops in the old town selling different type of tapenades. We brought several flavours and tried the other day in our apartment. The best one, in my opinion, was still the original one that combined with chopped olives, anchovies, capers, olive oil, and additional ingredients and spices.
Interestingly, both delicacies had originally Italian influence. However, as the French appreciate what food can offer and uphold their culinary traditions, they have made Calissons and Tapenades the Provençal exquisite delicacies.
The main ingredient of Calissons is French candy consisting of a smooth and pale-yellow confiture of candied fruit and ground almonds topped with a light coating of royal icing. It has a similar texture to that of marzipan, a traditional sweet from Germany, but fruitier, less almond flavor, and less sweet as well. We bought a pack of Calissons and some fresh-made candied fruits, which were very sweet compared to Calissons.
You can join a guided tour to taste these products and explore the historical town.
Explore Aix-en-Provence many fountains
Aix is well-known as a city of many fountains. It is difficult for us to imagine there are 1,000 of them. But when we walked through the town, we found fountains nearly in every neighbourhood. There are all kinds of shapes and sizes, such as simple circular fountains, the Roman column featured fountains, fountains decorated with sculptures, or gurgling moss-covered fountains. Some of the famous fountains are such as Rotonde fountain (the first to have a cast-iron basin) and Hot Water Fountain in Cours Mirabeau.
The fountains can be a meeting point for weddings, tourist groups, and friends, etc. Some teenagers often play in the water to cool down in the summer. Sometimes, the local restaurants cool their wines in the summer months. My favourite is the thick moss-covered fountains at the Place des Cardeurs. The green plants in the dazzling sunlight looked like a small piece of an oasis.
There are simply fountains everywhere in Aix-en-Provence. On that hot summer day, it was a nice treat to sit next to the fountains, watching the splashing of the fountains and feeling the coolness.
In 1724, Henri d’Albertas commissioned architect Laurent Vallon for the reconstruction of the façade of his private mansion. Then, in 1742, he asked Laurent’s son to build a square in Rococo décor style. The buildings border the square have identical façades whose large windows are adorned with wrought-iron balconies and feature Baroque ornaments.
Albertas rented the newly built apartments to other people to grow his wealth further. Today, the buildings surrounding the Place d’Albertas are also for rent as individual apartments. But the colour of the beautiful façades is worn out. Still, it showcases the family’s wealth and the elegant Baroque architecture.
Cours Mirabeau, the city’s boulevard
Many French towns have a celebrated tree-lined boulevard, and Cours Mirabeau is the one that determines Aix-en-Provence. Once a street for horse-driven coaches, Cours Mirabeau is the central axis of the city and stretches from the royal fountain Fontaine du Roi René in the east to La Rotonde with its three statues in the west.
Today, the 440-metre long Cours Mirabeau is the city’s tourist promenade. It connects the Mazarin quarter (new town) to the south with the old quarter to the north. Cafes and elegant mansions, and numerous souvenirs shops lines along the Cours Mirabeau.
Other things to explore in Aix-en-Provence
A few hours of walking around have made our visit very enjoyable. The random walking route was enough to convince us to come back and spend more time there. Particularly, we would have spent more time to examine those fountains since they tell the stories of the city’s past. It would also be a great pleasure to watch the sellers presenting their goods in their way in the markets, such as the daily fruit and vegetable market on the Place Richelme at the Halle aux Grains and the flower market on Place de’l Hôtel de Ville. To explore Aix-en-Provence should not be in a hurry.
Hotels in Aix-en-Provence
In the centre there are a handful accommodations. If you have a couple days to explore Aix-en-Provence, then take a look at the following three accommodation that have good reviews:
- Luxury accommodation: Luxury Design Hotel Particulier le 28
- Mid-range accommodation: Grand Hôtel Roi René Aix en Provence
- Budget level: Hôtel des Augustins
How to reach Aix-en-Provence
From Paris, you can take the French high-speed train TGV and arrive in Aix-en-Provence in just three hours. The TGV Méditerranée trains to Aix leave from Paris Gare de Lyon throughout the day.
Air France operates nonstop flights between Paris and Marseille. Aix-en-Provence is only 17 miles (28 kilometers) from the Marseille Provence Airport. From the Marseille Provence Airport, it only takes 45 minutes to reach Aix by a taxi or a shuttle bus.
Bus companies like such as FlixBus offer multiple tickets a day from Paris to Aix-en-Provence. It takes more than 10 hours to arrive in Aix-en-Provence.
The distance from Paris to Aix-en-Provence is around 760 kilometers, and the journey takes around 8 hours. There are tolls on the main highway. You will drive on A7 and then turn into A8 to reach Aix-en-Provence.