Choose Marseille or Aix-en-Provence? Give me both!
One of the favourite pastimes of the Aixois is fervently discussing the town’s many qualities. They cite the climate, culture and architecture; rave about the shopping and surrounding countryside; and compare notes on their favourite Luberon village, Mediterranean beach, local wine and restaurant. When we first moved here, I would often enthusiastically add how wonderful it was to also have Marseille on our doorstep. I don’t do that anymore . . .
A Long Story
The Aix-Marseille rivalry goes back a mere 2000 years or so. Massalia, as Marseille was then called, existed as a thriving Greek port and an important commercial centre for over four centuries before Aix-en-Provence was founded. When the Salyens – a nearby tribe of poorly-behaved Gauls – started attacking Marseille and generally becoming bad for business, the pragmatic Greeks called on their allies in Rome for help. Roman consul Gaius Sextius Calvinus arrived at the head of an army and in 123 BC conquered the Salyens. He found a warm-water spring in a valley near his camp and decided that it would make a good place for a settlement. Aquae Sextia (literally “Sextius’ Springs”) would become the city we now call Aix-en-Provence.
The origins of Greek Marseille and Roman Aix seem to have influenced the two cities ever since. Marseille’s character is that of a Mediterranean port filled with savvy successors of the fractious Greek merchants. It is a working city shut off from the rest of Provence by a ring of hills but connected to the entire Mediterranean basin via the ships that use its harbour every day. Italians, North Africans, Armenians, and Chinese all leave their mark, giving the city its cosmopolitan and gritty charm. While an ancient Athenian would not know what to make of the dazzling modernist architecture of the newly-opened MuCEM (Museum of the Civilisations of Europe and the Mediterranean), he’d feel at home among the buzz of dozens of languages that can be heard in the time it takes you to drink your petit café on a terrace in the Vieux Port.
Aix, meanwhile, is the living embodiment of the ancient Roman obsession with conspicuous luxury. In 1481 the city lost the political power it had long enjoyed as the medieval capital of Provence but continued to thrive as a haven for wealthy aristocrats. While the university gave the city academic standing, the need to demonstrate wealth assured that its architecture and cultural life flourished. During the Revolution, Aix remained monarchist, and angry mobs from Marseille made the short trip north to settle old scores and wreak havoc among the wealthy.
Today Aix remains an architectural landmark filled with elegant Hotels Particuliers, impressive squares and fountains, and famous cultural venues like the Pavillion Noir and Grand Theatre de Provence.
The Aixois still look down their noses at their scruffy southern neighbour, while the Marseillais cannot help but be dismissive of their northern patrician cousins. But for those who can see beyond the rivalry, the synergy is pure magic. I can spend a morning enjoying coffee and calissons on one of the many elegant terraces of the plane tree-lined Cours Mirabeau and after a 20-minute train ride arrives in a Mediterranean metropolis. There I can wander to the hip cafes of the Cours Julien, take a detour into the North African Noailles quartier, or head down to the Vieux Port and stand on the spot where Greek colonists landed 2,600 years ago.
Greek or Roman? Bustling crowds or elegant mansions? They can fight all day over which is better as far as I’m concerned. In the meantime, I can have both!
This article appeared as Sophia’s “Life in Provence” column in France Today Magazine – Aug/Sept 2013 issue.