Photos and story by CHUCK HINSON
A four-hour train ride from the hustling and bustling streets of Paris sits a village that is not only proud of its heritage, but equally enthusiastic about its diversity and cultural scene. Though it is called the “Paris of the South,” its serenity and beauty separate the city from any other French town.
For those who enjoy more of the countryside, rather than the city of lights, then Aix-en-Provence is the perfect getaway. The city prides itself on the arts, the wine, the food and the history that has made it what it is today.
Tourists can be overwhelmed when flying into Paris and waiting for the various trains to carry them throughout the city and country, from the Charles de Gaulle Airport. From the French language and the high exchange rate, to the masses of people crowding the station and waiting for a taxi, the French culture can be hard to grasp when trying to get around in a city that rivals New York for complexity.
But just a few hours away, lies the city that was once the capital of Provence (same as states in America), and it still remains the capital of French art and culture and has been serving as the epicenter of cultural life in the southern part of France, for centuries. With its azure blue skies and below average temperatures, Aix is one of the most sought after vacation destinations for not only world travelers, but French citizens as well.
When walking the streets of the city, it is not hard to realize why great artists, such as Paul Cezanne, called the place home, and created some of his most beautiful and important works while living his last several years there. Some say it was the unusually blue skies that captivated the artist’s eye, while others say it was the architecture of the city that drew him to produce his best works.
Aix-en-Provence attracts hundreds of thousands each year, to its quaint streets, its open-air French markets, the incredible restaurants that line the town squares, and of course the people that make up the French style of living in the city. But Aix is more than just another beautiful tourist stop in Europe, it has a rich history that has made it one of the most desirable vacation destinations in the world.
Throughout the week, more than just art and wine is celebrated in Aix. There is a plethora of goods and services that help make this city more than just a one-day trip.
Markets take place throughout the city all throughout the week, and at particular markets, not only do the restaurants find the catch of the day, but so do locals and those who just want to have the freshest produce and seafood. An array of seafood, vegetables, spices and flowers can be found from all regions of the country.
Different markets can be found at different town squares throughout Aix. On days that the market is not taking place, then several nights, the main street of the city, turns into an artists market, where an array of jewelry, gifts, handcrafted furniture, clothing and more. Can be purchased. The market gives the locals that cannot afford a shop, or gallery, an opportunity to get their work shown to the public.
Once you have strolled the markets, and smelled the warm fresh breads baking in the many bakeries and pastry shops, maybe it’s time to try one of the dozens of restaurants and cafes that line the streets, and even the alleys of Aix. From authentic French cuisine and Chinese, to American hamburgers and pizza pie, the French are known for the harvest of the vine, and their food.
Le Passage, Le Clos de la Violette and Le Bistro Latin, offer a wide variety of meals, at a variety of prices to fit any dining budget. In many American restaurants the weekend is usually the busiest time to try to get a reservation. In Aix, because of the heavy influx of tourists, especially in the summer, don’t be surprised if you can’t find an empty table, even on a Tuesday night.
Many of the authentic French restaurants that line the main streets of the city, can be a bit overwhelming, a little more than a tourist can take the first time they visit Aix. Try some of the out-of-the-way restaurants, that might be found in the alleys, or down a small cobble stone road. They are worth the search, and even more so worth the wait!
Once you have had your fill of fresh bread, escargot, a Boulette d’Avesnes, crepes, or a sunflower heart salad, then it is time to walk off all those calories and see some of the most exciting and historical sights in the city. From historical landmarks and Roman ruins, to modern architecture, it can all be seen by walking the streets.
In every part of Aix one will encounter fine mansions (Hotels) covered with fine decorations of stone. One of these is the Hotel d’Alberas which extends along three sides and has a fountain in its front open area. Further east is the Palais de Justice in the Pl. de Verdun. next to the Church of Sainte Madelaine in the Pl. des Precheurs, initiallly finished in 1274.
The cloister of the church of St. Sauveur is one hundred years older than the church. It is Romanesque and was built between 1180 and the early years of the 13 century at the same time as the cloister at Arles.
It is rectangular and has bas relief statues at the corners. There are pairs of delicate columns between the ends that are topped by capitals that have floral or human figures. The columns of the inner row are round, while the outer ones are hexagonal.
One of the prominent views in the city is the Clock Tower next to the Hotel de Ville. The basic instrument was built in 1510 and expanded in the 17th century with a calendar which changed with the seasons and a belfry of 1661, plus an astronomical clock.
At its west end the Cours Mirabeau reaches the Fountain of the King Rene and his statue where he is holding his famous grapes. From here the Cours runs east past the Fountain of the Nine Canons and at the mid-point past the Fontaine Chaude which oozes 34-degree centigrade water. At the east end of the Cours is La Rotonda, a 19th century elaborate fountain. sited at the center of a traffic round-about, which is now named for General de Gaulle.
Aix-en-Provence, is one of the most interesting and historical cities in France. Its rich history has been told and seen by millions, for centuries and it has become one of the most important meccas for cultural diversity, anywhere in the world.
But it is the people, the culture and just the way-of-life, that have become such a draw to those who make their way by train, or car, to the Paris of Southern Provence. It is well worth the visit and well worth taking the time to explore every aspect of the city.