A visit of Aix en Provence must include a tour of the surrounding countryside, the Pays d'Aix. Especially the area to the East of Aix en Provence is lovely - Cézanne country. A good area to stay overnight in a small country hotel, B&B or to rent a vacation home. The area south and west, especially the stretch between Aix and Marseille is densely populated. There are some nice hilltop villages, especially Ventabren, but the whole area is increasingly becoming an outer suburb of Marseille with heavy traffic. Avoid the area close to the Marseille airport and the huge petro-chemical complex around the Étang de Berre, very smelly. So we recommend to either stay in Aix, in the countryside to the East around Mt.Ste.Victoire, in the area around St.Maximin de la Ste.Baume and in the area Northwest of Aix, around the towns of Lambesc and La Roque d'Anthéron.
If you want to visit all the villages and sites important to Cézanne, you should follow the sign Route de Cézanne, which will take you to Le Tholonet, Mont Ste.Victoire, Beaurecueil, St.Antonin, Gardanne and Meyreuil. If you are pressed for time you should at least drive the 10 min. to Le Tholonet, a lovely village close to Aix at the foot of Mt.St.Victoire, a favorite theme for Cézanne. The tourist office in Aix (at the La Rotonde square) has an excellent brochure in English describing the Route de Cézanne.
Is visible throughout the Pays d'Aix, a rugged mountain range in a rolling terrain of farmland and vineyards. An image familiar to all who know Cézanne's paintings. He painted it more than 80 times and once said:"... to paint from nature is not to paint the subject, but to realize sensations."
You get your first glimpse of Mont Ste. Victoire from the Moulin Cézanne, an old mill that today houses a gallery just outside Le Tholonet. You immediately understand Cézanne's fascination. Endless ridges of grey, white and beige stone dotted at the bottom with scrubby green plants; a constantly changing play of light and shadow against a brilliant blue Provence sky. The ruggedness, the grey and white colors give you the sensation of being at a high elevation; a brilliant contrast to the red-orange clay and green vineyards at its feet. The Mont Sainte Victoire range reaches a height of 3320ft (1012m). The most Western peak with the Croix de Provence (Provence Cross) on top has an elevation of 3103ft (946m). The Croix de Provence points to four directions: Paris, Marseille, Aix and Rome, all the places which played an important role in Provence history.
On the southern slopes of Mont Ste.Victoire is the small hamlet of St.Antonin sur Bayon, only a few houses and the Maison de Ste. Victoire, with a small exhibition of the geology and fauna of the nature reserve (open from 10:00AM to 6:00PM).
There are hiking paths up Mont Ste.Victoire. The one we walked starts at St.Marc de Jaumegard on the Northern slopes. You pass the dam of Lac du Bimont, an important water supply for Aix and Marseille, and hike up to the cloister of Notre Dame de Ste.Victoire, where you reach the GR9 trail. Another 50m up the mountain gets you to the Croix de Provence. From there you take the GR9 trail back to the cloister and from there to Vauvernagues. Takes roughly 4 1/2 hours, but the trail is normally closed from July 1 to September 15 as a precaution against bush fires.
Now that we marvelled at Mont Ste. Victoire, the pièce de résistance, let's visit some of the historic towns and villages in the Pays d'Aix and in the adjacent Western part of the Departement Var (in alphabetical order).
A peaceful village (pop.570) close to Aix and Le Tholonet at the foot of Mont Ste. Victoire. When you enter the village you will pass in front of the Château de Beaurecueil, a retirement home. The village is rather small, but the landscape is wonderful. Numerous hiking trails to the Mont Ste.Victoire reserve. A favorite spot for amateur painters.
An outer suburb (pop.12.500) of Marseille, densely populated and with lots of traffic. The village proper on top of the hill does have some historic sites next to the modern, spacious market place with two agreeable eateries for lunch. Noteworthy are the château (unfortunately graced by an ugly antenna) and the 18th century Albertas Gardens. The old village on top of the rock is surrounded below by suburbia with endless lotissements, the French version of single family developments. Marseille is spreading East along the A51 Autoroute and towns like Cabriès, Bouc Bel Air and Simiane Collongue have grown together to an outer suburb.
The village (pop.6.000) is perched on a hill 10km West of Aix en Provence. Great views and a favorite residence for l'Aixoise. The old village is nestled at the foot of a 17th century château, which nowadays houses the town hall. The town clock, built in the 1870's by the watchmaker Paul Odobez, is still in perfect working order. Pretty busy village, but certainly an option if you want to stay close to Aix.
The origins of this busy market town (pop. 8.000) go back over 2000 years. In the 19th century mining was an important industry. It has a picturesque bell tower, romantic village houses and great views to Mont Ste.Victoire.
The character of this town (pop. 20.000) has changed from quaint village to outer suburb of Marseille. Its historic center has some nice spots, the Chapelle des Penitents, the ancient town houses, squares and fountains. Cézanne lived here for 15 months, at 27 Cours Forbin. You can view his painting "Gardanne" at the Metropolitan Museum in New York. Overall a busy place with lots of traffic.
An old mining town (pop. 3.600) on the slopes of the Chaine d'Etoile, the mountains between Marseille and Aix. Busy place, a favorite residence of les Marseillais, but with a certain charm. The 17th century château, the former home of the count Castellane-Majastre, now houses a music, a painting and a dance school. The château's wonderful gardens take advantage of the area's natural beauty. The town is surrounded by forests and, again, endless residences of people working in Marseille.
A historic town (pop. 6.800) located 20km Northwest of Aix. Built by Louis XIV it was the political capital of the Provence from 1639 - 1787. Stroll through the historic center and view the belfry, the numerous mansions, squares and a 18th century lavoir (washhouse). Also noteworthy is the 18th century Notre Dame de l'Assomption church. A lively town, retaining its Provençal charm. There are lots of B&Bs, restaurants and vacation homes in and around Lambesc.
The village (pop 4.500) is practically a suburb of Aix, but has retained some of its village charm. Walk along the banks of the river Arc and visit the 17th century 3 Sautets Bridge, painted by Cézanne and a rather less famous painter, Sir Winston Churchill. Meyreuil also has the dubious distinction of possessing the highest chimney in Europe, 300m of it (EDF power plant). Funny enough, you don't notice the chimney from Aix and most of the surrounding countryside. If you like Santons, this is your place, the famous living crèche of Meyreuil.
This is the highest village (pop. 3.500) in the Département Bouche du Rhône. The old village on the hilltop is pretty; wonderful views over the Arc Valley and Mont Ste.Victoire. The remainder of the village, where most of its inhabitants live, resembles more and more a suburb of Marseille.
A small town (pop. 4.700) on the Durance River 25km Northwest of Aix not far from the Luberon hills. The only town in the Southern Provence where the population has remained Protestant. The 17th century Château de Florans has a splendid interior courtyard, shaded by palms, plane and chestnut trees. The famous Silvacane Abbey is nearby. The town hosts the well known Internationl Piano Festival during July and August in Silvacane Abbey and the Château de Florans. As a contrast program it also hosts in July the Country Roque Festival, a country music festival US style, "... founded by a bunch of friends that loved country music, line dancing and vintage US cars".
Just outside the town is the Abbaye de Silvacane, a large Cistercian abbey founded in the 12th century. It is similar to the Cistercian abbeys in Senanque (near Gordes in the Luberon) and Thoronet (halfway between St.Maximin and Frejus). The oldest part is the 13th century church, followed by the cloister and the galleries running along the monks' buildings. The chapter house and the monks' room have 13th century gothic vaults. The great refectory was renovated in the 15th century. During the French Revolution the buildings were turned into a farmhouse; they were later restored by the government. Definitely a place worth a visit, you will be impressed by the simplicity and perfection of its architecture.
A pretty Provençal village (pop. 3.000) halfway between Aix and St.Maximin le Ste.Baume in the heart of the Arc valley. It has preserved its medieval heritage, the Romanesque church, the village houses, the narrow alleys and small squares. The 18th century château at the base of the village houses a boarding school and is not open to visitors. The Chapelle St. Pierre behind the cemetery was constructed in 1098. Nearby is the Hameau des Michels, an idyllic hamlet in a forest, again, wonderful views to Mont Ste.Victoire. A great area for a hideaways type vacation.
Located at the foot of Mont Ste.Victoire, a historic village (pop. 4.000), many times visited by Cézanne. One of the best wines in the region are grown here. The Foreign Legion has a hospital and retirement home here, the Institut des Invalides de la Légion Etrangères. It also houses a small museum of uniforms, ceramic and wrought iron works. Great countryside around the village; good for spending a vacation.
A pleasant village (pop. 4.800) 16km northwest of Aix en Provence. You might want to stay here, where it is quieter, and explore Aix and surroundings. The village has retained some of its old charm, with several fountains dating back to the 17th and 18th century, a number of old lavoirs (communal washing areas), remains of the medieval ramparts and the Chapel of St.Cannat. Bailli de Suffren was born in the château here, which today houses the town hall and local museum. Pierre André de Suffren de Saint Tropez (1729 - 1788), who received the title "ailli" from the Maltese Order, was one of the best known admirals in the French navy. You can view his statue in the village.
A quiet place (pop. 1.100) on the Northern slopes of Mont Ste.Victoire yet a few minutes drive from Aix. Unlike the typical Provençal villages which cluster around the church, this one consists of a hamlet and a number of even smaller hamlets spread out over the area. There are few noteworthy sites in the village, except for the Romanesque church next to the town hall and the ruins of an old castle. Beautiful countryside with Lac du Bimont, the reservoir serving Aix and Marseille, and the much smaller Lac Zola close by. There are two great hiking paths, one around Lac Zola and the other one up to the Croix de Provence on Mont Ste.Victoire. An excellent choice for a hideaways vacation close to Aix.
The village (pop. 2.300), one of Cézanne's favourite places, is located 5 km East of Aix. This is your southern starting point to explore the Mont Ste.Victoire area. A small village with two nice restaurants, a large pétanque area (a favorite sport in the Provence), lots of trees. The splendid château, painted by Cézanne, now houses the headquarters of the Société du Canal de Provence, the company managing the extensive irrigation projects in the Provence (closed to the public). At the Western end of the village is the Moulin Cézanne, which is used for art exhibitions. Le Tholonet is a very nice place to rest, have lunch or dinner and wile away the day. The vineyards here - only 12ha - produce the well known "Vin de La Palette" whites, reds and some rosés. They were created by the Carmelite order in medieval times and received AOC status in 1948.
Located between Aix and St.Maximin le Ste.Baume, a medieval town (pop. 9.400), which has preserved its heritage. The historic center, a maze of small alleys, arched passageways and historic houses, has recently been restored. In its center is the 12th century Notre Dame de Nazareth church. The historic center is surrounded by 12th century ramparts with two gates still intact, the Portail de Saint Jean to the south and the Portail de Pourrières to the west. Overall a nice town, peaceful countryside, good views to Mont Ste.Victoire.
On the Northern slopes of Mont Ste.Victoire, a small village (pop. 750) in an idyllic countryside 14 km north-west of Aix en Provence. Great place to go hiking in the shoulder season; from July 1 - September 15 the trails on Mont Ste.Victoire are closed as a preventive measure against bush fires. The Château de Vauvenargues, just south of the village, was bought by Pablo Picasso in 1958; he is buried there. With its closed shutters it has a somber appearance, flanked by two 14th century towers and a 16th century rampart.
Located 14 km west of Aix, a very pretty hilltop village (pop. 4.800), an oasis in an otherwise pretty busy area. On top are the ruins of the Château of Queen Jeanne. Very picturesque with colorful village houses, steep cobbled alleys, lots of charm. But you want to be in the old village on top. Wonderful views from there. Below you find an ever larger area of lotissements, i.e. single family homes on small parcels for people working in Marseille or Aix. The village is pretty close to the Étang de Berre, so we wonder if you don't get a whiff of the petro-chemical complex there once in a while, especially if there is a westerly breeze. East of the village is the largest stone aqueduct in the world, the Roquefavour Aqueduct, constructed in the middle of the 19th century to transport water from the Durance to Marseilles.
The Pays d'Aix is a great area to vacation. But you have to choose carefully if you want to experience the " Provençal" charm. Don't go by the official web sites and certain travel guides, which have a tendency to copy from each other. As outlined initially there are lots of nice areas where you can find ideal hideaways lodgings. You just need to know where to go in order to avoid the busy spots. Dining out in the countryside is ok; not as varied as further North. But you can always go to Aix en Provence or venture into Marseille, two of the best dining out spots in the Provence.