The first time I visited Aix-en-Provence was in the mid-1980s. It was early evening in the first week of December when we arrived, and chillier than I expected the sunny South of France might be. We were immediately enchanted by the picturesque Cours Mirabeau – the city’s “main drag” with its ornate fountain in the center of a roundabout and streets lined with plane trees, each dressed with twinkling white lights for the holiday season. The sidewalks were crowded as people rushed home or to the shops and cafes after a long day of work or school. Vendors sold paper bags stuffed with hot, roasted chestnuts, and we even spotted the occasional Pere Noel (a sleeker version of our American Santa) clad in red velvet, a splash of Christmas color in the crowded cobbled streets of the old town.
I wish I had photos from that trip nearly 30 years ago, but sadly, I don’t. When I had the opportunity to return to Aix last October, I admit that I looked forward to it with mixed feelings. Would I think it was as unique and beautiful now as I believed it to be years ago? After all, I hadn’t seen much of Europe at all back then. I don’t think I’m jaded – I love travel far too much and swoon over practically everything I see! – but would Aix-en-Provence live up to my fond memories?
I’m so happy to tell you that the answer is a resounding yes! Yes, yes and YES! Unlike the first visit, this time I was fortunate to spend a couple hours with a local guide who led us through the old streets, telling us tales of Roman temples and Impressionist painters. As an aside – I never understand people who decide they’d rather just “wing it” on their own in a foreign city. If you have the opportunity to learn from an expert, I say, go for it. I think you’ll appreciate your further explorations even more when you’ve started with a little education about the place you’re visiting. Plan at least a short orientation before jumping into the fray and you’ll probably have more fun and waste less time bumbling around, trying to decide where to go and what to do next.
On this little tour, we started at the Cathedral of the Holy Savior, or Cathedrale Saint Sauveur. There is speculation that the original church was built on the foundations of a Roman temple, and architectural influences across centuries can be seen in this building that was begun in the fifth century, and finally – finally! – completed in the seventeenth.
The city itself was actually founded by the Romans in 123 BC. Since that time, the good people of Aix were occupied, plundered by and maybe sometimes just annoyed by all kinds of tribes from the Franks to the Saracens to the Lombards to the Visigoths. The region of Provence finally became part of the French kingdom toward the end of the 15th century.
And Aix-en-Provence has been a college town since before it was officially part of France. In 1409, the first university was established in the town and today it is home to many schools, including a number of study-abroad programs for American universities. On our Saturday visit in October, it appeared that the French equivalent of a fraternity hazing was taking place as small groups of young men sporting crazy wigs and makeup had to pose and sing in various courtyards and piazzas in the old town.
Naturally, after learning a little about the city and cathedral and history from our knowledgeable guide, we were ready to move on to activities I also cherish during my European travels: shopping and eating. After a restorative glass of wine at an outdoor café on the Place de Hôtel de Ville, we purchased souvenirs of Provencal linens from one of the tiny shops in a medieval alley, then stopped for flaky chocolate croissants at the patisserie with the most irresistible window display. Magnifique!
Here’s my problem with Europe: I seem to fall in love with every place I visit, and Aix-en-Provence is no exception. I was truly so happy to visit it again so many years later and find it even more appealing – if that’s even possible – than it was 30-plus years ago. Now I am determined to go back for a third, and longer, visit. To savor Aix and the surrounding countryside and villages for a week or two. Doesn’t that sound great?
If the South of France is on your bucket list, be sure to include Aix-en-Provence in your itinerary. Besides just being flat-out gorgeous and charming, the city hosts a world-class opera festival each summer, the Festival d’Aix-en-Provence, and concurrently puts on the Musique dans la Rue, or Music in the Streets, where classical, jazz and popular music concerts pop up in the streets and courtyards of the city for all to enjoy. You can visit Cezanne’s studio, if you’re an Impressionist fan, and even eat at the famous Deux Garcons brasserie, a restaurant that’s been around since 1792 and has served the likes of Emile Zola, Ernest Hemingway and the great Paul Cezanne, himself.
As always, I suggest you Google Aix-en-Provence to find out more about where to stay and what to visit while you’re there. And don’t forget to pick up Rick Steves’ newest volume on France before you leave home for outstanding (and always practical) recommendations on hotels and things to do. Bon voyage!