Slowing the Pace of Life in Aix-en-Provence
Most foreigners moving here love the fact that life in beautiful Aix-en-Provence is lived at a slower pace. However, the daily business of living doesn’t always go slowly here because of a conscious lifestyle choice. Instead, it often is a consequence of this medieval capital of Provence having expanded over time to respond to immediate needs without knowing what the future would bring.
I was first confronted with this years ago when I went to pick up some big pots of designer paint at the chic decorator in rue Frederic Mistral in the quartier Mazarin. As I squeezed my little Fiat Panda up the narrow one-way street leading to the paint shop, I saw that there was no place to park anywhere nearby. After considering the two options – park far away and carry the heavy pots, or simply block traffic – I nervously stopped the car in front of the shop, ran in, threw the paint in the back and waved apologetically at the driver patiently waiting behind me. If I were a true Aixoise, I, of course, would have taken my time, chatting to the owner, unflustered by the honking cars outside.
Ironically, the quartier Mazarin was the first “planned development” in Aix. When the capital of Provence was bursting its seams in the 17th century, the newly appointed Italian-born Archbishop Michel Mazarin was granted permission to develop church land to the south of the existing town and its crumbling ramparts. Architect Jean Lombard created a grid of perfectly straight streets around the Benedictine convent that later became Emile Zola’s high school, the Lycée Mignet.
The new quartier allowed the gentry of Provence to build elaborate townhouses with walled courtyards in front and formal gardens at the back, all designed in the then fashionable Italian style. Over the next century, the new neighbourhood was filled with these elegant hôtels particuliers, designed by the time’s most famous architects. One of the best examples can be seen in its full glory in the magnificently restored Hôtel de Caumont, which until recently housed the town’s music conservatory, but has now become one of the most beautiful small museums in Europe.
The streets were wide compared to the cramped old town so that carriages could pass through, but today they only allow for narrow sidewalks. Most of the wealthy inhabitants of the quartier also owned country estates, where they spent most of their time. When in town, life was lived behind high walls, away from the public eye.
And it still is. Over time the mansions were mostly divided into apartments and offices for doctors, lawyers and upmarket estate agents. To the outsider, this part of Aix does not seem suited to modern city living. Hardly any space for parking, no nearby supermarket and precious little of the outside space that most people would look for in this Mediterranean climate.
This, however, has not stopped the Mazarin from being the chicest part of town with the well-heeled Aixois living their lives in elegant apartments behind imposing façades and intricately carved front doors.
These inconveniences, though frustrating, in fact, create the very conditions that make the quality of life here so high. They are why there still are daily farmer’s markets in the center of Aix and why people walk around town running their errands, stopping to chat with friends, rather than jumping in their cars to shop at the nearest Carrefour hypermarket.
And as frustrating as it can sometimes be, this way of life is why people come here, and why so often they never want to leave.
This article previously appeared as Sophia’s column “My Life in Provence” in France Today magazine.