lostinfrance » 5pm - May 24, 2009
Aix-en-Provence: Various French surveys have deemed this the most...
Aix-en-Provence: Various French surveys have deemed this the most desirable city in which to live, for its ambience. A modest population of 150,000 gives Aix-en-Provence a small-town charm, yet it's big enough to provide all the necessities and comforts of urban living. Nearly 30 percent of residents are university students, lending an air of youthful energy, culture and enthusiasm.
The large pedestrian zone is an idyllic urban landscape of pretty low-rise buildings three and four centuries old, crisscrossed by tranquil pedestrian lanes lined with shops and cafes. Plazas with fountains and benches often accent street intersections. This is French living at its best.
You'll spend most of your time in this oldest part of Aix - easily reached via a 10-minute walk from the train station, up Avenue Victor Hugo leading away from the station. Walk six blocks to the giant fountain, La Rotonde, set in a busy traffic circle, and stop at the Tourist Information Office for a free city map and other guides. Take a right on Cours Mirabeau, the broad street established in 1651. Simply called the Cours, it is considered one of the most attractive of France's boulevards, lined with shops, outdoor cafes and restaurants, with magnificent trees towering overhead and three moss-covered fountains in the middle of the street. Its most chic cafe is Les Deux Gar_ons, at No. 53. The historic pedestrian center is "Le Vieil Aix," the old neighborhood north of the Cours. About a half-mile square, it's easy to cover in a few hours but offers enough variety to spend an entire day exploring. Even if you run out of time for Marseille at day's end, it's no great loss.
Walk a few blocks along the Cours, turn left on Nazareth or Clemenceau and plunge into the magic of Le Vieil Aix. In two short blocks you arrive at Place d'Albertas, one of a half-dozen small squares.
Continue north along what is the main pedestrian lane of the old section, at first called Aude, then changing names to Foch, to arrive at the prettiest of all squares, Place de l'H(tm)tel de Ville. Drop anchor at the terrace cafe to absorb the grand sights of Baroque city hall columns and triangular pediments, punctuated by a tall clock tower, sheltering trees and constant parade of people. The Neoclassical grain market, now a post office, completes the scene with a matching pediment of sculpted allegorical figures.
Another attractive square two blocks west is the Place des Cardeurs, with pastel facades enhanced by a row of outdoor restaurants. Cardeurs is frequented by university students, so it's a prime budget lunch location. Among the most enjoyable places to admire the food, flowers, antiques and local life are Aix's many outdoor markets, open Saturday morning and to a lesser degree on Tuesdays and Thursdays. The main market takes place in front of the Palais de Justice on Place de Verdun and Place des Pr_cheurs, then continues on back streets all the way to Place Richelme, whose food market has been operating daily since the Middle Ages.
That main pedestrian lane continues north, changing names to Rue Gaston de Saporta, and leading to Aix's main church, the Cathedrale St-Sauveur. This ancient Gothic, Romanesque and Baroque building has a peaceful cloister that closes at midday for siesta, as do many of the shops.
After exploring the old section, return to the train station with a walk on the south side of the Cours, the Mazarin district. This rectangular grid, five blocks long and wide, has a series of attractive mansions now divided into private apartments, along with the Musee Granet, exhibiting a broad range of prehistoric art through works by Aix's most famous native son, Paul Cezanne.