What a jewel! The little Paris of Southern France! As far as real estate prices go Aix - 3 hours from Paris via the TGV high speed train - is nearly equal to Paris. Aix is a sophisticated town with elegant streets and squares, magnificent buildings with hidden gardens and student quarters in tiny alleys. It offers a wide array of cultural activities, excellent shopping and a great restaurant scene.
We like Aix best in the April - June and September - November periods, when it is less hot. The streets are full of university students, local residents and visitors. There is an air of optimism and expectation. Unlike nearby Marseille (we use the French spelling, it is "Marseilles" in English), the big, unruly, bustling and colorful port city, for centuries a magnet for immigrants, Aix retains its special Provence flavor.
Aix is surrounded by marvelous countryside, the Pays d'Aix, dominated by the white cliffs of Mt. Sainte Victoire of Cé;zanne fame. Between Aix and Marseille it's mostly suburban, a densely populated stretch with lots of traffic. This is where the new high-speed train station (TGV) is located. But the countryside east, north and west of Aix is lovely - Cézanne landscape!
Aix en Provence is the cultural capital of the PACA region - PACA stands for Provence-Alpes-Côte Azur. It used to be the capital of an independent Provence until 1481 when it was bequeathed by the last ruler to the King of France. It has a long history going back to Roman times: The name Aix derives from Aquae Sextiae - the spring waters of Consul Sextius Calvinus, who conquered the area in 125 BC. By the way, do pronounce the "x", it is "ax" like the ax and not "ae". Without delving too much into Aix's history there are three periods which have shaped it:
- Christianism was officially recognized in 313. Visit the 5th century octagonal baptistry of Cathédrale St.Sauveur, the 2nd oldest in the Provence after the one in Fréjus. The roof of the baptistry is supported by eight Roman columns.
- In 1387 the reign of King Louis II began. During his reign the university was founded. He was succeeded by his son, the much revered "good" King René, a cultivated ruler and sponsor of literature and the arts. Over the centuries, with Aix's fortunes going up and down, the university was a steady pillar in the town.
- Aix's reputation as a cultural center got a boost in the middle of the 19th century when artists discovered Aix, which unlike nearby Marseilles had avoided industrialization and had retained its Provençal charm. These were the times of the Impressionists, like Paul Cézanne, scion of a wealthy merchant family in Aix, who was often visited by his friends Renoir and Monet at his estate Le Jas de Bouffan near Aix. In 2006 Aix commemorated the 100th anniversary of Cézanne's death with special exhibitions and festivities. These were also the times of Cézanne's friend, the legendary writer Èmile Zola. There are many other famous residents of Aix, like the painter Victor Vasarely and the designer Emmanuel Ungaro. After World War II Aix started the international festival for classical music (operas, symphony concerts, chamber music and recitals), which developed into one of the most famous in Europe. For more information and ticket sales click here.
Let's do a tour of La Vieille Ville (old town), which is for the most part pedestrianised. Aix is growing rapidly, like many French cities in the South. You have to make your way through the modern parts of Aix, some nice, some not so nice until you reach the one-way ring road circling the old town (counterclockwise).
Parking is a real problem in Aix, especially during vacation times. Don't drive into the old town, you won't find a curbside parking space there. Best bet, if you arrive before 10:00 AM, is to park the car at one of the underground parking garages on the ring road. Try the huge Parking Carnot (1) first. Other viable parking garages are Pasteur (2), Bellegarde (3), Signoret (4), Cardeur (5) and Mignet (6). An open air parking space (7) can found on the road to Tholonet a bit further out; takes you 10-15 minutes to walk back to the historic town.