It’s pronounced ex.
The distinguished French city of Aix can be reached through a cheap flight to Marseille followed by a short bus ride straight from the airport to the city centre. With the rest of the city best explored on foot, Aix is a destination that serves any budget.
Fresh from the bus, we sauntered along the famous Cours Mirabeau to Aix’s oldest museum; Musee Granet. Entry is free for students, so we walked inside without touching our pockets, and wandered about their fabulous collection of predominantly eighteenth and nineteenth century artworks, with a more modern exhibition on display upstairs. Amazingly, tickets included entry to the museum’s second gallery; the Musee Granet XXe. Housed within a glorious 17h century chapel, it serves to a celebrate the life of collector Jean Plaque, who struck a firm friendship with Picasso. As such many of his masterpieces are within the walls of this enthralling institution.
In desperate need of a rest, we walked back in the direction we came from, and settled down for an outrageously priced coffee in Cezanne’s haunt, Les Deux Garçons. In late March, the weather here is markedly better than that in England, and as such we took it upon ourselves to enjoy the tables that spill out into the road, trying to ignore the fact we’d just spent 8 euros on two coffees. With our remaining appetite for sightseeing, we meandered through the gorgeous winding streets of the old town, before travelling north to Atelier de Cezanne. Surrounded by a luscious garden, with it’s red shutters and blue framed windows, the building is a marvel in its own regard. Ascending the stairs, we were met with a studio bathed in the light of its wall-sized window, and left free to explore many of the items left behind after the artist passed. Hats and coats, bottles of absinthe, unfinished drawings and paintings, letters and easels, mirrors and ladders adorning the mantlepieces; a chaotic order that creates a unique sense of the artist, separate from any museum or gallery exhibition of the great man.
It was time now to journey to check into our hotel – an unbelievably central location considering the amount of money being spent on it. Aix’s ‘Sejours & Affairs’ is located a few minutes’ walk from Cours Mirabeau, next to the extravagant Grand Theatre de Provence, and (more importantly) nearby a Monoprix, meaning our breakfasts and lunches were kept cheap. After checking in and a short rest, we stepped forth into the evening, enjoying a glass of the cheapest red and a decidedly average meal back on Cours Mirabeau, which was well priced especially considering the average amount restaurants on this strip charge for their dishes.
As we rose on our second day, the city was basked in clear blue skies and fabulous sunlight, so as such we took to the fine ‘Caumont Centre d’Art’. ‘Caumont’ is one of the earliest mansions to reside in Aix, distinctive from others due to its ‘stepped back’ nature, boasting both a courtyard at the front and luxurious gardens at its rear. Exploring this wonderful home, we were given a history of both the family that resided here and of Aix itself over the last 300 years. Inside, everything is wrapped in the once fashionable Parisian style of the 18th century, and the unashamed grandeur continues into the café and gift shop. From here, we stopped for an espresso on the tables outside ‘Solferino’, just off of Rue Roux Alpheran, before heading through Parc Jourdan, past the University, and across the A51 to get to the incredible ‘Fondation Vasarely’. This is the ultimate in Bizarre; ‘Fondation vasarely’ appears on the horizon in 8 monochrome panels which, as we approached it, became clear that this is a redevelopment project well underway. Making way past the diggers creating the path, and stepping through the glass doors, we found ourselves in a building not unlike honeycomb in structure. Hexagonal rooms lit by huge hexagonal windows above us, displayed huge works by the founder of op-art and kinetic art, Victor Vasarely, providing a gallery experience like no other. Each room presents 6 works, with sofas liberally placed throughout the rooms to offer an opportunity to soak up the other-worldly nature of this establishment. The foundation is continually being restored, and as a result just under half the rooms weren’t yet visible. However, what is visible is well worth the time, effort and money required for the visit.
After stopping to eat lunch outside the gallery, and walking another mile to find Cezanne’s mansion, Jas du Bouffan, closed for refurbishment, we took a break by sitting in the courtyard of the most picturesque mansion in all of Aix; Pavillon Vendome. The golden façade of the mansion reflected the golden sun that faced it, and inside we found ourselves amongst a free modern art exhibition, involving a lot of hair and skulls, all of which was untitled. A downside to Aix is that the cheapest dish for dinner tends to average at 20 euros, regardless of the restaurant. However, look for long enough and in the right areas, you will eventually find a diamond amongst the extortionate rough. For us, that diamond came in the form of ‘Maharajah’, an Indian which quickly became flooded with customers as soon as we took our seats. For dinner, we shared the most tender chicken we had ever eaten, in a madras for 9 euros and a naan to share, a far tastier and much more economical choice than any other eatery nearby. Ambling back towards Cours Mirabeau, we enjoyed another glass of the cheapest red at ‘Le Petit Bistro’, situated in the charming ‘Place des Augustines’, before taking the short journey back to our hotel room.
On our final full day, we awoke early to enjoy the weekly market, where you can buy anything from baguettes to toy cars, jazz records to silk scarves, which if nothing else, serve to add to the provençal allure of the city’s broad avenues.
With some forward planning, we managed to journey to the illustrious Chateau La Coste without the luxury of our own automobile. Calling up the reception 2 hours before the pickup time to order a shuttle bus from the middle of nowhere, after getting an hours bus from Aix to said ‘middle of nowhere’, seemed an ordeal that only something spectacular would make us forget. And something spectacular it was. I will likely never see anything like Chateau La Coste again; a Tadao Ando designed chateau sits amongst a gorgeous vineyard, home to a multitude of modern sculptures by the likes of Louise Bourgeoise and Alexander Calder. The ‘Art and Architecture’ walk takes around 2 hours, including a wine tasting and two additional exhibitions, which make the fee to enjoy the walk seem like something of a bargain. We relaxed with an espresso in the café, with a tapestry by Le Corbusier hanging behind us emphasising this supreme example of destination tourism.
After the long-haul home, we rested at the hotel before heading to local favourite ‘Chez Jo’ for dinner. Located in ‘Place des Augustines’, the restaurant was warm, friendly and inviting, serving many delicious Italian dishes at reasonable prices. As darkness enveloped the skies, we once more took to ‘Le Petit Bistro’, suffering some discourteous service in our quest to have the cheapest glass of wine possible. We left for Marseille the next day, revelling in the wake of the most beautiful of holidays.
Stay: Sejours & Affairs Aix-en-Provence Mirabeau
Eat: Maharajah, Chez Jo
Drink: Le Petit Bistro, Les Deux Garcons
Visit: Musee Granet & Granet XXe, Atelier de Cezanne, Fondation Vasarely, Caumont Centre d’Art, Chateau La Coste
Be: Pavillion Vendome, Cours Mirabeau, Markets