A Week in Provence

The statue of Cézanne that stands near the modern hub of Aix-en-Provence: he looks towards Mont Sainte-Victoire while nursing an empty bottle some wag has left for him

Maryse Joissains Masini et al (editors)
Les Architectes et la Ville
Livret des Journées Européennes du Patrimoine
Aix-en-Provence et Pays D’Aix

In mid-September the city of Aix-en-Provence and its hinterland hosted a long weekend dedicated to the architecture of the region, ranging from the Gaulish oppidum (the precursor to the Roman town of Aquae Sextius) to 21st-century structures that housed both people and the culture for which Aix is famous. We missed this celebration by a week but, with the help of a booklet in French produced for the occasion and aimed towards students, we were able to explore the city’s historic delights in between enjoying the modern successor to the Roman baths. Aix is most famous for Paul Cézanne but there is more to this ancient provincial capital than its most renowned inhabitant.

Hotel pool above Aix’s Roman baths complex, and cathedral tower

Aix was founded in the second century BCE though little visible survives. Excavations in the last decade have revealed the remains of a theatre about 100 metres in diameter, sited within the city walls and on the north side of the decumanus maximus, the axial east-west road in Roman towns. This thoroughfare led to the 1st-century CE forum where the medieval cathedral now stands; this structure incorporates pillars taken from the forum in its large baptistry. In between the theatre and the forum was situated a thermal baths complex, on top of which a modern spa hotel has been built adjoining medieval walls.

The early medieval burg was centred on the cathedral which had been established in the Roman forum, but over the centuries the town expanded. The presence of springs encouraged the growth of trades related to access to water — for example, carding and leather-working — occupations which have left traces in the modern names of streets such as place des Cardeurs and rue des Tanneurs. In the 12th century the Palace of the Counts of Provence was built to the southeast of the cathedral, forming the core of a new district; the most famous of the Counts was King René d’Anjou who turned Aix into a royal capital in the 15th century. Gradually, as bona fide architects were given their head, new quartiers were established: Villeneuve (from 1583), Villeverte (from 1608) and Mazarin (from 1646), this last a project initiated by Cardinal Mazarin on a grid system beyond the southern city walls, themselves demolished to form a wide, fashionable east-west thoroughfare called the Cours Mirabeau.

Remains of Aix’s northern medieval walls, now often incorporating flats and small businesses

Within the growing city new elegant town houses faced with the local honey-coloured stone were being constructed, some very reminiscent of Italian palazzi, along with beautified churches and public buildings. And yet the medieval layout at the core of the medieval burg remained largely intact: narrow winding streets shadowed like canyons and now largely pedestrianised (though scooters and motorbikes require a healthy regard from those same piétons).

Come the modern period and Aix hasn’t merely rested on its laurels. Generally spared the worst aspects of 20th-century brutalism, Aix has nevertheless embraced the new by the 21st century; long a university town, its new cultural hub within walking distance of the historic centre includes venues for dance and music, a regional theatre and a library complex, along with stunning designs for its tourist office, the bus station and retail outlets.

But at the heart of Aix — what constitutes its charm and delight — are its thoroughfares, overlooked by dwellings, mansions, museums, public buildings and artisan shops, punctuated with squares with Aix’s ubiquitous fountains. Failing a visit in person, this generously illustrated booklet grants the reader a vicarious visit to this jewel of a place and its environs; it’s available to view online (http://www.aixenprovence.fr/IMG/pdf/jdp-prog2017-web-aout.pdf) if you are somehow unable to travel to Provence to pick up a free copy for yourself. If you’re not fully conversant with the language just wallow in the images.

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All photos mine, taken with a cheapo camera phone and occasionally edited on Instagram. Superior quality photos will presently appear on my photoblog MyNewShy, now long overdue its promised relaunch


22 thoughts on “A Week in Provence

      1. Problem is, you can get in the habit of not having holidays, can’t you? The other half and I haven’t had more than a weekend away sonce 2001 — a ridiculous situation by any standards. Book the next one now, before it’s another seven years 🙂

          1. Ha! Largely self inflicted, never fear. Being low waged, married to someone with sporadic work, then saving like mad for our house deposit … all sucks up the pennies. We’ve promised we’ll try to go abroad with our son some time soon. Preferably before he’s embarrassed to be seen with us in public 🙂

            1. Hope the house move is proving as wonderful as you hoped it would be. Can your exotic holiday be that far behind?! Fingers crossed it’ll happen before embarrassment kicks in . . .

  1. What a lovely sojourn you have had, with your week in Provence. I’ve been enjoying your photos, and now you treat us with this. And I’m looking forward to My New Shy’s return.

    1. Thanks, Lizzie, Aix is so picturesque but, unlike for example Venice, it’s not primarily a tourist trap but a working town and a student city. Hopefully MyNewShy’s refit is nearly over and its relaunch soon.

    1. I last visited Provence and the Côte d’Azur as a schoolboy, Stefy, but surprisingly remember very little; I’m sure you have a better memory than me! And certainly a romantic place — what’s not to like about local food, a good hotel and evening strolls?

  2. Thank you Chris for the wonderful guided tour, it was lovely to see what we should have seen in our second week in France, but never mind there will be other times. The week before in France when we were there, they had an open weekend, you didn’t have to pay to visit any buildings and also many buildings were open that are normally not, very similar to what we have here in the UK once a year. Is this the same thing as you have mentioned, we had a great time in Albi visiting secret courtyards of ancient city castles, that you have no idea of their existence 🙂

    1. Glad you enjoyed this mini-tour (more to come on MyNewShy) and hope your time here will come. I suspect you’re right about the Open Day aspect: and this event was particularly angled towards students and young people. At least we took time to visit a couple of museums located in mansions, seeing some fabulous modern ceramics.
      Albi, now there’s somewhere I’d love to have visited, especially the cathedral.

      1. Glad there is more to come, and yes Albi is stunning, with the cathedral, it is in other words….. awesome, took my breath away when I first saw the interior, visited 4 times to try and get photos in the different lights. Unfortunately my laptop is playing up at the moment and I have to clear a lot of old photos….hence lots of old photo posts 🙂 Hopefully it will be Albi’s turn soon. Looking forward to the return of MyNewShy 🙂

    1. Thanks, Gerts et al, glad you appreciated the virtual tour! (Please note, I haven’t been sponsored by Aix to promote it.) The photoblog? It’s on the starting blocks. I think.

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