Aix-en-Provence City Guide – Unearthing the Treasures
This article was originally published in Global Living Magazine (December 2012), details and contact information have been updated.
Magnetic Aix-en-Provence is one of the wealthier cities in France, with a long history of civilisation and an impressive roster of distinguished inhabitants. This city guide only begins to scratch the surface of over two millenniums of history. Enjoy this town!
The Romans well understood the need for fresh water for a settlement to thrive, and survive. As such the hilltop oppidum of Entremont, established by the Salyens a Celtic-Ligurian tribe (180-170 BC), was abandoned (after conquering it) in favour of the easily accessible water sources down the hill. In 122 BC a new community was named Aquae Sextiae, the waters of Sextius, a tribute to the highly respected Roman consul Caius Sextius Calvinus. Strategically located this new city had ready access to natural, water sources including, les Etuves and les Bagniers, which supplied warm water for the Roman thermal baths.
The remains of these ancient pools can be seen today at the site of a modern, luxurious spa, the Thermes Sextius. The spa and fitness facility is roughly 3,200 square meters of pure indulgence. The Spa offers a full array of treatments in a temple of cooling limestone and marble. Inviting crystal blue pools and cascading water calm the senses. The soothing springs heal the body just as they did in Roman times.
In Arles, Orange, Vaison la Romain, Glanumn and Pont du Gard, among other locations, large Roman structures have been restored and preserved. In Aix-en-Provence, the traces of Roman history are not evident. This historical purge is in part due to population expansion and the need to use building materials to support that growth. The reality for municipalities is that funding for large-scale excavation and preservation projects is scarce and hard to balance with contemporary city requirements. However, it is possible to see traces of the Roman era in Aix, visit the Place des Precheurs to look at the vestiges discovered during a recent dig.
Water and Posh Digs
Countless fountains were built in Aix, to meet both domestic demands and requirements for animal husbandry. Perhaps the most iconic fountain is the immense la Rotonde, with its pool 32-meters in diameter, commanding the heart of a central roundabout. The fountain is adorned with beautifully crafted white marble figures depicting the historical affiliation with neighbouring cities of Marseille and Avignon.
By the Middle Ages, the population of Aix-en-Provence pushed the boundaries of the walled city. In 1646, Archbishop Michel Mazarin commanded the Director of Public Works Jean Lombard to develop plans for an expansion of the rampart walls to incorporate the homes of the merchant class. The Quartier Mazarin lies to the south of the famous Cours Mirabeau, with an urban plan distinctly different from narrow winding streets of the old city. With a grid pattern streetscape, the Quartier Mazarin allowed for more comfortable movement of private carriages and a location for the wealthy to build their hôtel particuliers (mansions).
Today the streets of the Mazarin Quarter remain relatively uncongested. There are boutiques, restaurants with inner courtyards and several beautiful squares with ornate fountains. It is also possible to see some of these once private homes, converted to other uses such as gallery space. Make sure to stop by Hôtel de Caumont, Hôtel de Gallifetthe Musée Granet, and the Church of Saint-Jean-de-Malte.
Aix has long been a thriving community, a natural trading centre located between Italy and Spain. The city evolved as a cultural capital. Inspired by the Provençal climate and pleasant surroundings famous names such as Cézanne, Picasso, Zola, Mistral and Hemingway frequented the cafés. Stroll through the streets, have a drink on a terrace, enjoy the squares and the fountains.
There are several hotels options located in the city centre, but two that deserve a mention for their 5-star quality service and exquisite surroundings. The Villa Gallici part of the “Relais & Châteaux” label was once a private residence. Converted into a hotel in 1991, the Villa sits on a three-hectare property with 22 richly decorated guest rooms. Hotel clients are encouraged to feel at home in this sublime location steps away from the ancient fortified walls.
The decorative touches and manicured gardens are a captivating blend of Provence meets Italy. Hotel interiors strike an elegant tapestry in warm shades of yellow, splashes of red and punches of olives and blues all chosen to mimic the natural regional colour palette. Guest rooms are decorated with luxurious linens and plush wall coverings. The thoughtful design of the hotel and gardens create intimate corners for guests wishing to enjoy a quiet moment and a touch of privacy.
Described as a small Florentine Palace, Villa Gallici is also recognized for the gastronomic cuisine created by Master Chef Chistophe Gavot. Guests are treated to a menu, inspired by the seasons of Provence and influenced by products local to this Mediterranean region. In warmer months, meals are served on a terrace shaded by a large plane tree, overlooking the aqua pool and meticulous garden beds. In less favourable weather, guests are invited to relax in intimate candlelit spaces offering romantic seclusion.
The second hideaway is Hôtel le Pigonnet with 44 rooms (includes 4 suites) located a quick drive from the historical centre. This hotel was purpose built in 1924 on a one-hectare parcel. Le Pigonnet has been owned and operated by the same family for three generations. The rooms are tastefully decorated in contemporary fabrics and comfortable furnishings.
Plane trees contour the entranceway at this five-star hotel, a classical leafy canopy. The gardens are a feast for the eyes; a metal trellis covered in red climbing roses shades a walkway, as a small fountain trickles gently on sand-coloured stones – a cooling effect on a hot day.
These two properties are so divine that you might need encouragement to visit the old walled city and stylish Mazarin section. Do not miss the charm of the old cobbled streets, narrow alleys, towering church steeples and sunny squares filled with restaurant terraces, the scenes are intoxicating. Period buildings flank the tree-lined Cours Mirabeau, a wide boulevard that has been compared to the Champs-Élysées. This short stretch of road begins at la Rotonde and is punctuated by mossy fountains, a shaded backdrop for strollers and café loungers.
Exploring the City
Even with all of the above, a visit to the ‘city of art and water’ can be a challenge for travellers where selective addresses need to be coaxed out from under her scruffy layers. In less than a decade, infrastructure changes in Aix some have included pedestrian-friendly streets and a new commuter bus terminal. However, during that period there has also been a significant infiltration of fast food and chain restaurants. Sadly these have edged out some of the charms of the independent eateries.
The tourist office is a good resource for maps and details on current events. Depending on the length of your stay consider buying a City Pass. This card includes access to some venues and discounts throughout the city.
Shopping in Aix is abundant. However, quality products and luxury goods are limited to only a small section of the map. Just off Place St Honoré are Rue des Baginers and Rue Marius Reinud this is an area for shoppers searching for exclusive fashion brands.
Provence is a paradise for markets and food lovers. In that regard, Aix is exceptional there is a market every day of the week. Walking around the old streets and shopping should work up an appetite for gourmet creations. We do have some favourites but choose in your budget range from the hundreds of restaurant options.
Once unearthed the treasures of Aix are almost guaranteed to bring you back for more in the future.
Key Addresses for Your Visit:
Tourism Office (website)
300, avenue Giuseppe Verdi
Tel: + 33 (0)4 42 16 11 61
960 Avenue Fernand Benoît,
The opening hours seem to change best to phone first
Tel: +33 (0)4 42 21 97 33
Spa Thermes Sextius (website)
55 Avenue des Thermes
13627 Aix en Provence
Tel: +33 (0)4 42 23 81 82
Le visible est invisible (website)
Tel: +33 (0)6 29 67 62 81
Tours offered in English, French and Italian
Hotel de Caumont (website)
3, rue Joseph Cabassol
Tel: +33 (0)4 42 20 70 01
Open daily – hours change seasonally
Café Caumont is open daily from 11:30 am (they do not take reservations)
Lounge Bar Caumont for light bites and drinks is open until 23h
Villa Gallici (website)
18 Avenue de la Violette
Tel: +33 (0)4 42 23 29 23
Hôtel le Pigonnet (website)
5 Avenue du Pigonnet
Tel: +33 (0)4 42 59 02 90