You're going to find that the city of Aix-en-Provence in the south of France is one of the most delightful places you could ever visit as you’re about to discover out in this detailed movie.
The loveliest attraction of Aix-en-Provence is the large pedestrian zone with its charming historic buildings, many shops, cafés, restaurants and the very famous outdoor markets selling fresh produce, clothing, antiques and all kinds of stuff with lots of local characters to observe and interact with. This small city is the perfect size, big enough to keep you busy for several days and yet not too large that you're going to feel lost or frustrated that you can't see everything.
Aix is located in the heart of Provence, a region that has so many wonderful destinations from Avignon to Nice. And you will see that AIX is one place that you must not miss. You could easily spend a few days here and travel out to visit other nearby destinations, or if you only have one day, it is certainly possible to see most of AIX as we’re going to show you in the movie.
We're standing in the heart of Aix-en-Provence, a beautiful French city. It's been called the most desirable city in France to live in. And it's because of the ambience of the place. It has a remarkable history that goes back to the 15th, 16th centuries when it was a very fashionable place to live, right up through the 17th and 18th centuries. The pedestrian zone is quite extensive, lined with shops and cafés and little places where you can get a takeout sandwich, or there are high-quality restaurants. The traffic is pretty moderate here. The population is only about 150,000 in the whole city. There are a lot of young people here. They say nearly 1/3 of the population is students. There is a large university.
The city is roughly divided into an Old Town and a newer town. It's the Old Town that has the greatest charm. And the main boulevard is lined with elegant cafes, a good place to sit to while away some time. Behind me is the Fountain of the Dolphins. We're in the Place Dauphin, and it is one of the 200 fountains in the city of Aix.
That fountain is in the Mazarin section of town but in this movie we’re going to focus attention on the main boulevard and the pedestrian zone just to the north in which we will walk with the camera, showing you all of the most interesting pedestrian lanes and the large outdoor markets and will go inside the great cathedral.
You’ll most likely begin your explorations of Aix on the main street, which is also the first street you’ll come to probably, it’s the Cours Mirabeau, a broad street that was established back in 1651. Simply called the Cours, it is sometimes considered the most attractive boulevard in all of France: lined with shops, outdoor cafés and restaurants in all price ranges along a wide sidewalk with magnificent plane trees towering overhead. Cours Mirabeau, is a wide boulevard that does allow some cars but even here, most of the roadway consists of wide sidewalks for people, with only two central lanes for a small amount of motor traffic, primarily for small public buses and service vehicles, and a few private cars.
If you're here on a Tuesday or Thursday you're going to see the fabric market with those typical Provençal pastel colors in the bolts of cotton and some clothing and shoes. The markets are usually busy from 7 AM right through about noon or 1 o'clock and you can always try some bargaining if you're going to make a big purchase. Even if you're not buying or don't care about fabrics, you’ll enjoy the sights and sounds. Creating a pleasant environment on this street is more important than moving traffic as you can see from three fountains in the middle of the road.
The fountains along the Cours are called, first of all the "fountain of the nine canons", and then the "mossy fountain" from which flows a warm thermal water that generates a thick foam that covers the fountain with the green moss. And at the top of the boulevard there's the fountain of King René designed in 1819, and it adorns a work of the artist David Angers. At the other end of the Cours is the largest fountain in the city, La Rotonde, set in the middle of a hectic traffic circle with cars swirling all around. Three statues adorn the fountain representing justice, agriculture and fine arts.
While you're down at this end of town you should stop into the Tourist Information Office, and here you can get an excellent free map of the city, and various other brochures. The workers here speak English and they're quite nice and friendly and they can answer your questions, provide sightseeing tips, find accommodations, and generally point you in the right direction. Here you can also get information about hotels, restaurants and shopping areas and maybe find out if there's any special entertainment happening tonight or sometime during your visit.
With those good suggestions we' re heading out to find those little streets of the old town, particularly nice for walking on. From the Cours Mirabeau, we are going to take a turn and plunge into the old town, passing yet another sidewalk café, walking along Rue de la Masse. It's one of the first lanes that you'll come to. Passing the intriguing looking Hotel des Augustins, we stepped into the lobby to find it's a very old building that started out as a 12th-century convent. The rooms, however, are all modernized and quite comfortable. It's one of the very few quality hotels located in the old town.
The historic pedestrian center is the Old Town, the Le Vieile Ville. About half-mile square, it is easy to cover in a few hours but offers enough variety and texture that you might be tempted to spend the entire day exploring, or maybe a couple of days.
Many of the lanes in the Old Town of Aix are exclusively for pedestrians. But, most of these narrow streets allow some cars to go down the middle and yet it's all very friendly, very casual. The cars go very slowly. And most often you'll find that people are just walking in the middle of those streets anyway, so it's a wonderful kind of a mixed use. Of course the buildings are human scale as well, no higher than five stories throughout the Old Town. There are no skyscrapers, no high-rises in old Aix. And the buildings are arranged together in a medium-density that creates an urban vitality, with shops and cafes lined up next to each other along most of the lanes.
Next you’ll arrive at Place Albertas, one of the half-dozen small squares you are about to discover. Nearby is Place Saint-Honore a typical small plaza with a fountain in the middle and five streets.
It was the French back in the 19th century who perfected the art of walking for sheer pleasure. They called it the flaneur, the aimless wander where you're just walking along, alert to your surroundings, observing things, interesting, even unimportant details, not so much worried about your destination, but enjoying the journey. This art of walking, or the flaneur, was very well described by a 19th century French writer named Victor Fournel, who asks us: "have you ever reflected on everything contained in the term flaneur, this most enchanting word which is revered by the poets? Go on infinite investigations through the streets and promenades, drift along with your nose in the wind with both hands in your pocket, with an umbrella under your arm, and an open-minded spirit. Walk along with serendipity without pondering where, and without hurrying. Stop in front of stores to regard their images, at street corners to read their signs, by the book stands to touch and smell. Give yourself over captivated and enraptured with all your senses and all your mind to the spectacle." The 19th century Parisians elevated walking to a fine art.
Aix has one of France’s best collections of narrow lanes for that pleasant stroll, something like a miniature, old-fashioned Paris without the noise, crowds or congestion. This lovely neighborhood is a curving grid of more than 30 streets that are all entertaining to walk along. This is French living and urban planning at its best, with fountains, benches, trees, cafes all around. Walking these narrow lanes will be delightful no matter where you go, especially when you come across a little intersection with a fountain, such as Place des Tanneurs, the kind of little surprise that you'll find around many corners.
This pedestrian zone is an idyllic urban landscape of pretty, low-rise buildings three and four centuries old, criss-crossed by a maze of tranquil pedestrian lanes lined with shops and cafes. This automobile-free zone is only about one half-mile across, so you can see most of it in one day, but it feels larger because the lanes are narrow and winding in a pleasant tangle.
Then you will soon arrive at the prettiest of all squares in town, the Place de l’Hôtel de Ville, the City Hall Square. Drop anchor for a while at the terrace café to absorb the grand sights all around: the baroque city hall’s columns and triangular pediment define the square, punctuated by the tall clock tower and a Roman column in the center, sheltered under a generous sprinkle of trees and livened by a constant parade of people passing through this central crossroad. The neoclassical grain market, now a post office, completes the scene with a matching pediment of sculpted, allegorical figures. The statues represent two major rivers, the Rhône and Durant, symbolizing the fertility of the region, appropriately, because growing wheat was the most important part of the economy back 250 years ago when this building was the office of tax collector on grain and the market took place right in front in the main square. The clock tower was built in 1510 and became the symbol of local power in the city, towering over the City Hall. The arch at the base of the tower is a remnant of the earlier wall that once surrounded the town. There's also a flower market here every day, and is especially big on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday, market days in Aix. On the other side of the square you'll find some small shops with souvenirs, with chocolates, and even a pharmacy for the locals.
And there's another market one more blocks further on Rue Vauvenargues, called Place Richelme. It's a beautiful little plaza with trees and sunshine streaming in. The natural lighting is filtered by the leaves to give it a golden glow and another lovely mix of items for sale. The markets of Aix add one more element to this enchanting town in Provence. This market has rather special hours, because unlike most markets in Provence, Place Richelme is open every morning except Sunday from 7 AM until about 1 PM. The vendors are the real producers who grow, or bake, or create whatever it is they're selling.
The attractive square is the Place des Cardeurs, a couple of blocks over behind the City Hall. It's a little bit tucked away, you might miss it because the entrance is fairly narrow but it opens up as a large courtyard filled with outdoor restaurants, surrounded by pastel-colored buildings with a Provençal atmosphere , somewhat similar to the ambience of Italy. After all we're in the South of France, and there is a definite Mediterranean twist that is a little different than French towns in the middle of the country or further north. This is a great place to eat. It's often frequented by the university students and the local yuppie crowd out for lunch, so it's a prime spot to sit down and have a meal.
It's located on the side of the former Jewish quarter from the Middle Ages with a later mixed population, and became congested with old housing that was cleared out in the 1960s to create this vast open plaza. Some of its side streets are tempting to explore. It gets pretty lively at lunch but the busiest time is in the evening from seven till nine PM when it's packed with young locals out for dinner and a drink. Visitors always benefit eating in local neighborhoods because the restaurants here have to offer good quality and service at a reasonable price to keep the regulars coming back. There are several more restaurants along the upper side of the Place where it narrows approaching City Hall Square.
Just a block away around the corner you'll find another lively street, rue des Cordellieres and it is a wonderfully local kind of experience mostly for pedestrians with a few cars coming through and packed with shops and cafés and all kinds of nice attractions. With not so many tourists around, you'll experience a more authentic sense of place. It's easy to miss, but it does connect right into City Hall Square.
Next we're walking a few blocks north to the Cathedral along what may be the city's most interesting pedestrian lane, understandably, since it connects the two most important spots in town, City Hall and Cathedral. The main pedestrian lane continues north, changing names now to Rue Gaston de Saporta, and leads to Aix’s main church, the Cathédrale Saint-Sauveur.
Rue Gaston de Saporta is a complete street. It's the perfect pedestrian lane with little shops offering postcards and souvenirs, ice cream, sandwiches. It's just a few blocks long at this point and it connects up the City Hall Square with the Cathedral Square. This is really the heart and soul of the center of town. And for those who enjoy shopping these blocks could be the highlight of your visit to Aix. And along the street you've got an interesting mix of restaurants, there's some shops, there's a few offices and then upstairs you've got apartments. Throughout this whole central historic district you got this kind of mixed-use. It's very much a living neighborhood. People upstairs in their apartments, they been there for generations.
And this is what gives it that vital mix, so there's always people around, there is a neighborhood market, there is the coffee shop on the corner, perhaps you are even working in the neighborhood or going to school here. So this is what keeps the central part of the city alive.
This gift shop had a wide variety of items visible from the street so we had to go inside and found those Provençal fabrics with those characteristic tones of green, orange and yellow. They've got some small original oil paintings in somewhat of an impressionistic style, reminding one a little bit of the greatest local artist, Paul Cézanne. The painter grew up in Aix and lived here for most of his life with his artist studio now open to the public, preserved just as he left it in 1906 at the end of his long, productive life. It does not have any paintings by the artist but his brushes, furniture, desk, hat and wine bottle are still there. The studio is located about 800 meters north of the Cathedral.
The Cathedral of St-Sauveur is a church of very early origin, displaying a wide range of styles from Romanesque to Gothic, and Baroque. It is believed some parts go back to late the Roman 5th century period, such as the columns of the octagonal Baptistery that’s said to occupy the site of a temple of Apollo. The Baptistery contains eight antique columns, six of them in green marble and two in granite, with the capitals delicately carved in white marble.
We were able to speak with a friendly church volunteer who told us about it. “St-Sauveur, the name of the church. You have a Roman bath, and in the middle, Gothic, and afterwards, Baroque, 17th century.” (Laughter) Thank you so much.
It has a magnificent multi-pipe organ, and we were fortunate that somebody was practicing. The main part dates in its present form from the 11th century; the choir is from 1285 and one aisle was added in the 14th century, making this an architectural patchwork built over a 500 year time period which has now survived nearly 1000 years. The doors of the Gothic portal have really statues representing the prophets send symbols and niches adorned with garlands and flowers. The tower of the Cathedral is 210 feet high, built between the years 1323 on 1425, with the lantern added on top in 1577.
Out in front of the Cathedral you have got a picturesque sidewalk café, a great spot to sit and take a break, have a drink, enjoy the scenery. The pedestrian lane passes right through it. And then just in front is the University, which was founded in 1409 and ranks high among French colleges. In front of the University there is a statue of Nicolas-Claude Fabri de Peiresc who was a scholar and astronomer who lived nearly 500 years ago in Aix.
The Archbishop's Palace is located right next to the Cathedral. It was built between 1650 and 1730, and was the residence of the Archbishop for many years. Now it's the Museum of Tapestries and decorative arts. There's a beautiful Regency-style door leading into the front courtyard, located on the Plaza of Martyrs of the Resistance. And naturally you have another pleasant outdoor terrace café.
The Museum of Old Aix is in a magnificent townhouse mansion right on the main pedestrian lane, and it contains furniture, little figurines, costumes, paintings, earthenware and a collection of wooden puppets. The museum is located along Rue Gaston de Saporta, which is where were going to be resuming our walk.
Our route takes us south towards Place de l’Hôtel de Ville, and then continue strolling through other narrow pedestrian lanes on the east side of the town, ending up at the main outdoor market in the large square in front of the Justice Palace.
You might sometimes find yourself going in circles getting a little bit lost but that's part of the charm of exploring anyplace for the first time. Don't be dismayed if you’re walking along a lane and you seem to recognize some of the shops or the building fronts. Maybe it's the second or third time you've gone down there in different directions but you'll always notice new things to see. It's a scientific fact that we can only absorb or notice a small fraction, maybe 5% of the sites and stimuli that are always surrounding us.
Even when strolling along slowly, there is a vast information stream going by. It's hard to catch it all. One reason is physiological, we have a narrow field of focus with our eyesight, and another is psychological, because we are really only looking for things that we’re interested in. Shoppers will see a lot of things to buy, history buffs will notice the architecture, when hungry the focus is on food, some people look at fashions, others look at faces, drinkers might be scanning for a wine bar. You just can't take everything in at once so a second and third visit down the same attractive lane can really be quite entertaining.
Little plazas with fountains and benches often accent the intersections of these various paths. This is French living and urban planning at its best.
Rue Boulegon is a very typical street in the heart of town, just one block long and yet quite fascinating in its own right. There's a slight curve to it. It's got protected sidewalk areas for pedestrians and yet there's a lane down the middle, so there's some vehicle access, but you really don't see cars going through here. It is restricted historic area.
This kind of vital mixture generates an ambience that modern city planners are striving to re-create and yet here it just sort of happened naturally, it has grown up over the centuries. People built cities from the ground up. You’ve got shops on the ground floor and people live upstairs. And today in our old and decaying downtowns in the modern Western world, in America for example, we're now trying to rediscover this very humanistic way of living.
Place des Trois Ormeaux is an especially beautiful little square with this wonderful fountain. It's clean, it’s functioning, and there's interesting buildings all around it. You get just outside the pedestrian zone and even here, it's very quiet. Some cars are allowed, but they need special permits, they can't park in the area so it retains that ambience.
As usual we’ve been providing rather practical tips and specific routes and outlines on maps to help you navigate your way around the city, and yet while it's good to develop a plan for your visit and locate the various attractions and pedestrian lanes on a map to make sure you find the right neighborhoods, you also want to leave time for that aimless wander. Follow your nose and stroll about casually, turning here or there depending on which way looks good at the moment. Have a peek around the corner. If it looks boring then just keep going. You can make up your mind as you're walking. The Old Town is small enough that you will not get lost for very long. This mystery of discovery after all is a big part of the travel adventure. That said there is certainly a role for some advance planning before you take the trip and it's a fun way of looking forward to your upcoming journey. It's always helpful to do some research, especially if you're only in town for one day as we are in this movie, with limited time that you don't want to squander by getting lost or going the wrong way.
One of your great pleasures in the visit will be the open markets. There's some kind of market every day in Aix but it's especially notable on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday when there is a very large farmers market and antique market, fabrics and flowers. It's one of the most famous markets of Provence.
The main market takes place in front of the Palais de Justice on Place de Verdun and Place des Prêcheurs, then continues on the streets behind at Riffle Raffle where you'll find all sorts of clothing, some of it new, inexpensive, and some of it secondhand. More of that coming up in a few minutes.
And part of the market is sort of a flea market, an antique market. They've got a whole variety of furniture, there's the usual, the bric-a-brac, clothing, jewelry, the old books, knives, various sculptures and paintings and other kinds of arts. You've got some antique electrical items, you’ve got old cameras. One person's junk is somebody else's treasure. It's a way to recycle old goods and give them a new life at a bargain price. Or maybe just look at it as a living museum.
And then in the other section of the market is the wonderful foods of Provence. You've got a big variety of fresh foods here, your vegetables, most of them grown in the South of France. If it's out of season, if its wintertime, they would be brought in from perhaps the Middle East, from Israel, from Africa, from Italy, but the South of France has got a wonderful climate for growing agricultural products all year round.
And one of the specialties is the olive. There must be hundreds of kinds of olives that are grown in France. You can get it ground up as the tapenade, ground-up olives. That's a wonderful and delicious way to consume this healthy food. They've taken the pits out for you and done all the work.
All sorts of greenery, there's lychee, there’s oranges, apples, every kind of fruit imaginable. How about the incredible variety of mushrooms so important to French cuisine, such as chanterelle. And yes, the French have cheese, cheese galore. Variety of cheeses, some of it is not even pasteurized so you get that real fresh, zingy flavor. Cheese is an item easy to purchase and makes a good snack while you're out walking, or accompany it with those olives and a loaf of fresh bread and a bottle of wine and you've got a meal.
You probably are not cooking food on your vacation and you just wandered into the market to have a look and take a few pictures maybe and you will be tempted to purchase some of the fruits, there's nuts, there's other kinds of snack foods and there's cafes around the market stalls as well. So it just makes the perfect spot to wander take in the aromas, talk to some locals and get some good food.
It's really a delight to see the French in their comfortable market, in their glory really, this is the authentic kind of experience that you are never going to get if you're sitting on a tour bus, or are just paying a quick visit to a place and taking a few photos, and then moving along. People-watching is always part of the game here, and you'll certainly run into some French characters.
It helps to know the market schedule for each of the towns that you’ll be visiting, and this is easily available. Aix is unusual in having three large markets every week. Most towns have one main market a week and then couple of half days, perhaps, if you're lucky. The savvy traveler plans their Provence schedule around these market days.
While the main market activities are taking place in the broad open plaza, there are also many shops around the plaza that are open for business at the same time, and they usually get quite busy on market day, so they're fun to pop into as well, and you might even find some covered alleyways leading off to explore.
Just behind the Palace of Justice, there is another little market square. To find this other clothing market just walk around the corner and the side of the courthouse and go to the back of it, and there you'll find another intersection of streets filled with market stalls. And here you're going to find clothing, piles and piles and piles of clothing, and local people out looking for a bargain. Now the prices on this kind of a sidewalk market are probably about half or 1/3 of what you're going to find in the stores, and the quality is probably just as good.
You know, too often we are in a bit of a rush when we’re traveling or in our daily life, and you walk by some sidewalk musicians and you might not even stop. But it's worth a moment to listen to such a fine sound.
People living in this sort of historically dense urban neighborhood often have a very high standard of living, with everything you need in easy walking distance. This is a much different lifestyle than American suburbia, where you might be living an hours drive to the drugstore, you have to drive to a marketplace, there is nothing in walking distance of where you live, but in the European towns, you have much more sociable and convivial atmosphere. The Passage Agard was founded in 1846. This passage is the most direct and most popular connection between the Cour Mirabeau and the Place du Palais de Justice.
So you really have the best of all worlds. It's an urban place, and yet it's a small city, so you've got all the amenities, of the walking distance, you've got a shop on the corner you got the café around the bend, there's a bar, there are restaurants, there’s the outdoor plazas, there’s fountains, beautiful boulevards, wonderful colors in the buildings, tree-lined streets. What more could you possibly ask for? There's a mix here in population of University kids, there's older folks, there's working people, there's some immigrant vitality.
You've got train stations that will take you to some nearby places that are wonderful, such as Arles and Marseilles. You've got the entire Côte d'Azur just an hour or two away and you're in Provence, this is the good life.
As we returned to Cours Mirabeau, the main street, we notice the transit system here has minibuses, a very efficient way to get around. And they also have a fleet of micro-buses. They can carry 7 people, and they have a low floor that makes it easy to get in and out. You just buy your ticket from the bus driver. It's very inexpensive to ride, it is about €50 cents per ride and they have an extensive network with these little tiny buses that run throughout the old town with those narrow lanes. They can manage to find their way through. They operate all day from 8:30 in the morning till 7:30 at night, and there's no bus stops, you just flag them down as they go by and board the vehicle. There's also a tourist train that will take you through the center.
That completes our in-depth visit to Aix. Now we’re going to show you how to get out of town, if you're not spending the night. Perhaps you're staying nearby in Avignon or Arles or even Marseilles and it's very easy to get around, as we'll show you right here. You walk along the Cours Mirabeau, passing through a lovely modern shopping mall with some apartments upstairs. If you're heading to Marseilles, the easiest way to get there is walk to the local train station. It just takes about 10 minutes along Avenue Victor Hugo and it's a short 30-minute train ride that will bring you down to Marseilles with the regular train. Or if you're coming to Aix from Marseilles, this is the station you want to arrive at and it's a short walk to town. However, if you're going up to Avignon, as we are, you take the local bus to the TGV station because you want the high-speed train to bring you up to Avignon, that's only a 20 minute train ride.
In this case we’re taking the city bus over to the Avignon TGV station, that's the high-speed train. You do pay separately for the bus ride which is short and scenic and it soon brings you to the very modern TGV station.
And that way we can enjoy a very fast and comfortable train ride through this very pretty scenery, heading on down from Avignon down to Aix-en-Provence for the day, and you see these TGV trains are spectacular. Arriving at the TGV station of Aix and then there is a convenient shuttle bus that'll take you right into town. To find the bus, you go up one level from the train tracks to the main station, then down one level to the bus.
We started out the program with the claim that the French consider Aix to be the most desirable city in which to live. French public opinion surveys have shown that if they could retire anywhere in France they would choose Aix and in today's program you have seen why that makes a very good choice. You are probably not retiring there, but you would certainly enjoy the visit.
This is one of many pages that we have about the South of France covering Carcassonne, Arles, Avignon, Marseilles, Nice, Cannes, Antibes, Sant-Paul-de-Vence, and on to Monaco. Look for them in this website.
Aix combo video https://youtu.be/Iu1f6S_Mek4