The decision was made, we would travel to Aix en Provence France by train – ALL the way!
Door to door…. Dorset to Aix en Provence in just under 10 hours. Relaxing into the rhythm of the train, reading, resting, speeding through the countryside. What a great start to a holiday in the South of France. Gradually the temperature increased, and gradually the skies turned deep blue…!
Arriving at the TGV station in Aix en Provence could not have been easier. This newly built station for TGV’s is just outside the town and after a short ten minute car journey we were in the very heart of Aix en Provence.
My first glimpse of Aix was the very centre – The Cours Mirabeau. It is a fabulous classy boulevard; to the south 17th and 18th century houses which are occupied by banks and businesses, and to the north – this is the sunny side – throngs of people seated at cafes, restaurants and shoppers looking in shops, that entice you deeper into the Old Town where there are myriads of boutiques, bookstores, restaurants, squares and fountains.
The Cours – as it was originally named, is 440 metres long by 42m wide, is lined with plane trees today, but once lined with elm trees – sadly these became diseased and were replaced. These magnificent trees, green and graceful offer much needed shade during the heat of the day. They appear as a leaf tunnel during the summer, a delight to sit under and watch the world pass by. Fortunately there is an underground stream in Aix en Provence which provides the necessary water directly to their roots.
Passing along the Cours Mirabeau you cannot help but notice the fountains. There are four along the Cours Mirabeau. The first and largest at the bottom of the street (it is 41 metres in diameter) La Rotonde. It was bulit in 1860 and has 8 lions, 8 cherubs in the water on swans, and on the top a smaller basin with leopards’ heads. On the very top are three allegorical female statues representing Justice, Agriculture and the Arts. Whilst watching this one evening seated by the Les Deux Garcons, the water from the fountain changes to a sparkling silver as the light fades and the evening sky turns midnight blue. Most beautiful.
Further along is the fountain of Saint Lazarus, also known as Fontaine des Neuf Canons (Fountain of the Nine Cannons). It’s on the site of a spring where herds of sheep were brought to drink between their winter and summer pastures – however this was covered in moss, so I mistook it for the third fountain with is known locally as the Fountaine Moussue . This is a hot water fountain and is reputed to have healing properties. Later in the week I passed my hands through the water….
Lastly, just past the café Les Deux Garcons, is the Fontiane Du Roi Rene- known as the wine growing king! He is said to have enjoyed the good life, (hence he is holding a bunch of Muscat grapes which he first introduced to Provence, in his left hand). A popular ruler, a keen amateur writer and painter known as Good King Rene, made Aix famous throughout Europe as a centre of learning and art. This was my favourite statue. The plane trees above this statue gave a sense of protection and safety, and that this beautiful town of Aix en Provence would always be a place of welcome to all who stayed.
We shortly turned into Rue Cardinal in the Quartier Mazarin district. It was a typically narrow street with another fountain in the middle (Les Quatre Dauphin) lined with honey coloured tall residential buildings. We had arrived at our apartment. These beautiful buildings, once large homes are now mostly divided into elegant apartments. Ours apartment – 30 Rue Cardinal – had had been completely renovated to the highest standard, with modern heating, lighting, flooring, and a garden (a very rare addition in Aix) complete with a high walled patio and its own well! It was cool, serene and very welcoming after the heat of the day.
This district is known as the Quartier Mazarin. In the 17th century Aix en Provence was growing fast and so Michael Mazarin ordered the construction of a smart residential area to the south of Cours Mirabeau. This land, once marshland and meadows belonged to the archdiocese and the Order of Malta, soon became the ‘must have’ address. The land was sold off to the very rich, resulting in an exclusive and expensive residential area for politicians, the newly rich merchants and the city’s gentry.
Taking time to explore Aix during the week was incredibly easy, its size perfect to wander the streets, cafes, galleries, museums, restaurants and gardens on foot without a map, and just taking time to look and feel part of the crowd. The tourist information also has a plethora of ideas for visitors, from Walking in the Steps of Cezanne, Lavender in Luberon, Walking among the Vines at Rognes to actually Walking a genuine picture by Cezanne – The Saint-Victoire Mountain. The weather, every day perfect with blue skies, so it was easy to plan whatever took your fancy!
The Church of Saint Jean de Malte and The Musee Granet were just a few steps away from our apartment, and to our delight The Musee Granet, we discovered, was presenting the most amazing collection of 14th to 20th century paintings, from June through to October composed of masterpieces from the collection belonging to Jean Planque. This included a special extensive exhibition of paintings by Cezanne, Impressionists and Post-Impressionists including Renoir, Monet, Van Gough and Degas and leading 20th century artists such as Picasso, Cezanne, Braque and Paul Klee to name but a few! Stunning! In total a collection of about 300 paintings and sculptures of the 19th and 20th century.
This incredible collection of art by Jean Planque resulted from a lifetime of dialogue with a range of painters, many of whom were directly influenced by Cezanne. Incidentally Cezanne was born 19th January 1839 in 28 Rue de L’Opera and grew up, worked and painted in Aix en Provence. There is a trail around Aix which can be followed on foot – marked by brass plaques in the pavement – showing where he was born, where he was christened, where he worked at his father’s bank, the hat shop owned by his father and so on…). From this Jean Planque continued to meet other famous artists’ and subsequently began collecting their work including Picasso, with whom he became a good friend. Jean Planque acquired somewhere around 15 of his paintings, many of which were on show at the exhibition. At the bottom of this vast Museum I discovered a room filled with beautiful sculptures. It is a shame that no photos were allowed. The detail, smoothness and beauty of these were overwhelming, and I longed to just reach out and touch them! The cost of viewing all the art and sculptures, masterpieces – just 6€ !
Having travelled by train to Aix, we decided to hire a car with Euoropcar. Their office was central, very close to the Tourist Information Office and La Rotond. After a short wait for our car to arrive, we were heading towards Bonnieux a small hilltop village via Cours Elzear Pin. The road weaved ever upwards and nearer to Montagne du Luberon along the D943 and D36 finally arriving at Bonnieux. What a view!
From here we followed the D943 onto the D56 to Cucuron – a delightful hilltop town complete with amazing 360 degree views, and when you can no longer bear the heat of the midday sun, you can sit by a pool of water towards the end of the town surrounded by 200 year old plane trees, restaurants and cafes which are guaranteed to cool you down!
Leaving this sleepy town behind on small winding roads – with a few hair pin bends just to keep us on our toes, we decided that next time we visited Provence we would bring the motorbike!
The exciting thing about Aix en Provence is that there is always something happening in the town to entertain its inhabitants, visitors and students. The vibrant market stalls most evenings along the Cours Mirabeau, selling colourful gifts and delicious local produce, live music in the late afternoon and evenings, on purpose built stages in the squares around the town including energetic gypsy/jazz bands, duos, trios, quartets and quintets and all part of Aix’s ‘Musique Dans La Rue’ at elegant squares such as Place Sainte Jean de Malte, at Cour De L’Hotel de Ville, Hotel Maynier D’Oppede and Place D’Albertas. Entertainment also included a man with his motorbike who made the crowds laugh with his antics and a fabulous free concert with music by Bach and Handel in the Cathedrale St. Sauveur.
As with all holidays – they must come to an end. Time to leave Aix en Provence and catch the TGV back to Paris, and Eurostar to London. Will I return to Aix en Provence? Most certainly YES!