From Roman Spa to Contemporary Cultural Center – Aix-en-Provence

From Roman Spa to Contemporary Cultural Center – Aix-en-Provence

Aix-en-Provence is a remarkable center of European history that has managed to preserve the integrity of its rich architectural and cultural heritage while evolving into a thriving, highly livable contemporary city.

Always the Romans!

FR-Aix Fountains.

The many fountains of Aix are fed by thermal springs. The mineral content of the water spurs the growth moss and ferns.

When contemplating the development of the Mediterranean basin around the time the tide of history turns from B.C. to A.D., it’s usually the Romans that get the credit, or the blame depending how you look at it. And Aix-en-Provence is a vivid illustration of Julius Ceasar’s “veni, vidi, vici,” doctrine, although not quite in that order.

Roman Consul Sextius Calvinius comes in 122 B.C., promptly lays waste to Entremont, the iron-age capital of the Celtic-Ligurian Confederation (now an archeological site three kilometers north of the city), and decimates its population. Back on lower grounds, abundant thermal springs bubbling out of the earth catch his eye and Aquae Sextiae (Waters of Sextius) is born.

FR - Aix cathedral baptismal fond.

The baptismal fond is surrounded by Roman columns.

As the first Roman city founded in the newly conquered Roman colony of Provincia, it quickly grows as a thriving urban center and spa. Then, with the spread of Christianity after it is declared the official religion of the Roman Empire in 380 A.D., Aix-en-Provence becomes the seat of the ecclesiastical province, making it the de facto capital of the region.

 

The Dark Ages

FR - Aix Saint Sauveur Cloister.

The early medieval cloister of the Saint Sauveur cathedral.

A cathedral rises from the Roman forum. Soaring columns that once graced a Roman temple now define the octagonal baptistery, and the baptismal pool is fed from the nearby baths. However, while full immersion is an accepted rite of early Christian baptism, the Catholic Church takes of a dim view of public baths. The vast pools and the sources that feed them all but disappear under new monasteries. Stripped of its antique luster, Aix morphs into a typical medieval city constrained within its protective fortifications.

Unfortunately, these are not sufficient to deter the successive waves of the invading Visigoths, Ostrogoths, Franks, Saracens and other “barbarians.” Provence remains a highly contested province through most of the medieval period, and Aix continues to deteriorate. It is not until the twelfth century that it begins to shine again.

The Reign of the Counts

FR - Aix Clock Tower.

A clock tower tops the medieval belfry of the town hall.

In 1182, the Counts of Provence who, through judicious moves in the great chess game of history, are by now issued from the Aragon (Spanish) and Anjou (French) royal houses, make Aix their permanent residence. An era of development ensues that will shape the future city, starting from three key areas that are now the core of the historic district: the Saint Sauveur Cathedral, the Counts’ Palace and the thriving artisans and merchants district. Soon Aix spills out of its ramparts with the southward construction of several large monastic institutions. The most important, the Prieuré des Chevaliers de Saint Jean de Malte (Priory of the Knights of Saint John of Malta) becomes the burying place of the Counts. New walls are erected to encompass the expanding city

The Age of Mansions

The Fountain of the Four Dolphins is a landmark of the Mazarin Quarter.

The Fountain of the Four Dolphins is the Mazarin Quarter.

The last phase of Aix’s growth comes in the seventeenth century, during the reign of Louis XIV (1638 – 1715, the Sun King of Versailles fame). By now, Provence has been annexed to the kingdom of France for over two centuries. Louis takes a shine to the judiciary and religious capital of Provence. He mandates Archbishop Michel Mazarin (who happens to be the brother of his prime minister) to oversee the further southward expansion of Aix.

The crumbling twelfth century ramparts are dismantled and replaced by the tree-shaded boulevard dotted with fountains that we enjoy today as the Cours Mirabeau.

FR=Aix Mansion.

Seventeenth century mansions are a common sight in Aix.

To the south and west of it, the Mazarin Quarter flourishes. The cream of local society vies for land along the neatly laid out grid pattern of streets to build their elegant mansions of ocher-colored stone. One last time, the ramparts are expanded to include the “new town,” only to be replaced in 1848 by the wide boulevard that now encircles the city.

 

A Tradition of Culture

FR-Aix Musee Granet.

The former priory of the Knights of Saint John of Malta is home to the prestigious Musée Granet.

Along with prosperity the Counts introduce culture and refinement to their court. In 1409 the founding the university opens the door to a Golden Age that firmly establishes Aix as a center of artistic and intellectual creativity that will flourish until the outbreak of the French Revolution (1789). In the aftermath of the political chaos it unleashes, Aix loses its administrative powers, and is mainly bypassed by the great nineteenth century industrial revolution. But it remains a center of learning, art and culture. In the latter part of the century, its native son the great post-impressionist artist Paul Cezanne elevates the city’s artistic prestige to new heights.

FR - Aix Warriors Heads.

Sculptures of severed heads from the Celtic-Ligurian settlement of Entremont  on display at the Musee Granet.

An earlier Aixois artist, Francois Marius Granet (1775-1849), has already made a significant contribution to the artistic standing of Aix-en-Provence. A pupil of David and friend of Ingres, Granet is himself a Neoclassical painter and water-colorist. However posterity remembers him best for the bequest of his fortune and art collection to the city of his birth. It forms the basis for the original permanent collection of the city’s art museum, housed since 1838 in the seventeenth century Priory of the Knight of Malta. It will eventually be renamed Musée Granet in honor of its benefactor.

Picasso works from the Planque Collection

Picasso works from the Planque Collection.

In 2010 the status of the Musée Granet rises further when it becomes the beneficiary of the long-term loan of some 300 paintings, drawing and sculptures from impressionists, post-impressionists and leading twentieth century artists, from Renoir, Monet and Van Gogh to Picasso, Braque, Duffy, Klee and Dubuffet from the Jean and Suzanne Planque Foundation (the estate of Swiss art dealer and collector Jean Planque). A new space is created to house the collection in a stunningly renovated seventeenth century chapel just minutes away from the main museum.

A City of Music

FR - Aix Archbishop Palace.

The International Festival of Vocal Arts holds performances at the Palace of the Archbishops.

But in Aix, visual arts are only half the story. Created in 1948, the Festival International d’Art Lyrique (International Festival of Vocal Arts), is now a mainstay of the annual international classical music calendar. Devoted mainly to opera and vocal music, this three-week July event also includes orchestral, chamber and solo instrumental concerts. Performances take place in several of the great classic mansions around the city, including the Archbishop’s Palace, the eighteenth century Italian-style Théâtre du Jeu de Paume, and the new Grand Theatre de Provence (built in 2007).

However, music in Aix is not limited to The Festival. It begins in early spring with the Easter Festival, and continues through August, first with the Nuits Pianistiqiues (Piano Nights) at the new music academy building of the Conservatoire Darius Milhaud (also a native son). Then, to close out the summer in style, the Conservatoire offers Musique dans la Rue (Music in the Street) in late August with dozens of free open-air concerts from Baroque to classical to Jazz, presented all around town in the early evening hours.

The Waters of Sextius

Fr - Aix Thermes of Sextius.

A vast modern spa facility now sits atop the baths dear to Sextius Calvinius.

After days filled with art and music and taking in the fascinating history written in the ocher stones of the great mansions that line the tree-shaded avenues and squares, it’s time to return where it all started. A vast modern spa facility now sits atop the old baths, still visible through the glassed walls of the lobby. But the hot mineral Waters of Sextius still gurgle from their underground springs to be used in treatments throughout the spa. And they seem to have maintained their restorative powers so prized by the Romans.

 

Good to Know

  • Getting There – Aix-en-Provence is easily reached by train, with several direct TVG (high speed train) connections throughout the day from Paris (3 hours) and Lyon (1 hour) as well as Geneva (3 hours) and Brussels (5 hours). The Aix TGV station is located 15 kilometers (9.5 miles) southwest of town, with a shuttle running every 15 minutes between the station and the central bus terminal. The MarseilleProvence airport is 25 kilometers (15.5 miles) southwest of Aix, with numerous flights from Paris, London and other major European cities. It is served by the same shuttle bus as the TVG station.
  • Getting Around – To explore the historic city, walking is definitely the way to go. Road signs at the approaches to Aix direct motorists to large facilities where they can park their vehicles for a nominal daily fee that also includes free round trip bus tickets to the center of town for all their passengers.
  • What to do – With so much to see and do in Aix, it is a good idea to start with a visit to the Office de Tourisme (Tourism Information Center), 300 Avenue Guiseppe Verdi. Tel: +33 (0) 4 42 16 11 61. Located just a few steps away from the Cours Mirabeau Rotonde (Rotary) , it is open daily from 8:30 A.M. to 7:00 P.M. The staff is knowledgeable and multilingual.
  • Visiting – Cezanne fans may want to plan a pilgrimage to the Lauves Studio, 9 Avenue Paul Cezanne, where he lived and worked for the past four years of his life. Tel: +33 (0) 4 42 21 06 53. It’s a 30-minute walk to the northern outskirts of town, or a short ride on Bus No. 5 (Cezanne stop). Opening days and times vary throughout the year. Check with their website or the Tourism Information Center.
  • Relaxing Thermes Sextius, 55 avenue des Thermes, is a vast state-of-the-art facility offering a full range of hydrotherapy and spa treatments. Tel: +33 (0) 4 42 23 81 82. Appointments a must.

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

Aix-en-Provence

The Gem of the Vermillion Coast – Collioure

The Gem of the Vermillion Coast – Collioure

The Côte Vermeille (Vermilion Coast) is the southernmost corner of France, its last stretch of Mediterranean coastline before the Spanish border. It’s where the rugged, vineyard-covered foothills of the Pyrenees Mountains tumble into the sea. And where Collioure, the sundrenched fishing village clustered around its massive medieval fortress rising from aquamarine waters, wears its history on its sleeve.

The Bay of Collioure has been attracting visitors since Antiquity.

The Bay of Collioure has been attracting visitors since antiquity.

It seems that since antiquity, every new wave of civilization to come upon its shores has wanted to settle there. This rich and often bellicose past has endowed Collioure with a spectacular architectural heritage and a unique culture that reflects the traditions of its successive invaders.

 

 

Ancient History

France - Collioure Foothills.

The Phoenicians introduced vineyards to the Vermillion Coast.

First came the Celts, in the sixth century B.C., who settled the area now known at the Roussillon, then the great ancient sea traders, the Phoenicians. They sailed into this quiet inlet and declared it ideal for a trading port. In return, they introduced wine-growing to its rocky hillsides, the ancestors of the strong sweet Vins de Collioure we enjoy today.

France - Collioure Château Royal.

The origins of the Château Royal reach back to the earliest medieval times.

The Romans came in 120 B.C., followed by the Visigoths some six centuries later, then the Moors, once they conquered the Iberian Peninsula. It was finally Charlemagne who decisively tossed the latter back behind the Pyrenees in 811. He asserted his authority over the Roussillon region, which he set up as a buffer territory against future Moorish ambitions. He also established the feudal system of government that would three centuries later deliver the area to Spain. And sow the seeds of the Catalan culture that flourishes to this day.

Medieval Times

France - Collioure Castle Fortifications.

Fortificaton details of the fortress.

Fast forward through three centuries of frequent border conflicts between Spain and France. By the twelfth century, Collioure has acquired a fortified enclave in the center of the harbor, to protect its small seaside castle and dungeon. When in 1172, the last Count of Roussillon bequeaths his domain to his ally Alfonso II, King of Aragon and Count of Barcelona, Collioure becomes a royal residence. The new ruler invites Knight Templars back from crusading in the Holly Land to build their own castle within the protective walls. This is the beginning of the mighty Château Royal.

France - Collioure Fortress Courtyards.

Interior courtyards of the fortress.

The tug-of-war for control the region continues with each successive dynasty. Collioure gains in strategic importance. The Kings of Majorca expend the castle. Then the Spanish Hapsburgs, Charles V and his son Philip II, turn it into a modern fortress capable to withstand sixteenth century advances in artillery. This doesn’t prevent the French to capture it one century later and hang on to it for good this time. Whereupon Vauban, the foremost French military architect of all times, reinforces the castle once more, into the colossal citadel rising from the sea that we now know.

Notre Dame des Anges

France - Collioure Church

The medieval beacon tower is repurposed as church steeple.

Another iconic landmark of the waterfront influenced by Vauban is the village church, Our Lady of the Angels. It is built in 1684 at the far end of the beach after the original one is torn down to accommodate the expansion of the fortress. It is located on a strip of land already occupied by a tall beacon tower that guides ships into the harbor with smoke by day and fire by night.

France - Collioure Altarpiece.

The main alterpiece is by seventeenth century Catalan artist Joseph Sunyer.

The interior of the church is in the Southern French Gothic design with a single nave surrounded by multiple altars of lavishly gold-leafed wood. The tower is now connected to the church and serves double duty as its steeple. By the nineteenth century, its services as a beacon non longer needed, the steeple is capped with a Tuscan-style dome (that has the unintended effect of giving it a rather phallic appearance).

The Birth of Fauvism

France - Collioure Matisse,

Seen through the lense of medieval glass from the fortress, the harbor takes on the appearance of a Matisse painting.

The summer of 1905 marks a turning point in the artistic life of Collioure. It is customary then, once the Paris spring exhibition season is over, for artists to work on the Côte d’Azure for the summer. That year, however, thirty-five-year-old father of three Henri Matisse, still an emerging artist full of creative uncertainties and short on cash, transports his family to the modest fishing village where his sister-in-law lives. Dazzled by the luminosity of the vivid Mediterranean scenery, Matisse summons his friend André Derain to join him. In one manic summer, they unleash the new, simplistic vision of a style based on the bold use of primary colors that earns them the moniker of Les Fauves (the Wild Beasts).

France-Collioure Alleyway.

The flower-filled alleyways that inspired Fauvism.

Others will follow, among them Braque, Chagall and Dufy, drawn by the now famous interplay of scorching sunlight on terra cotta roofs and aquamarine sea. But it’s the two pioneers that the city adopts as its own with the Chemin du Fauvisme (Fauvist Trail). The mapped walk through the old town is punctuated by 19 reproductions of their famous works, right on the spot where they were painted.

The Catalan Soul

France-Collioures Barques.

The Barques Catalanes are still moored along the quay.

The magic of Collioure goes far beyond its dramatic backdrop of medieval architecture and artistic landmarks. I find it in the maze of bougainvillea-filled alleyways lined with pastel-washed houses of the old town. It’s on the three small beaches right in the center of town, scalloped around the church and the castle. And in the brightly painted barques Catalanes moored at the quay. They may be museum pieces these days, their single triangular lateen sail raised only on holidays to give visitors a tour around the bay, but they are a reminder that for all its warring history the village is above all a Catalan fishing port.

France - Collioure Catalan.

The red and yellow Catalan flag flies next to the French atop the Chateau Royal.

This rich Catalan tradition permeates everyday life. It’s in the yellow and red flags that flap in the sea breeze. I taste it in the food, the sardines and squid grilled à la planxa and the generous assortments of tapas where the famed Collioure anchovies (still locally fished and hand-processed as they have been for centuries) always find a place of honor. I hear it under gnarled plane trees of the Place du General Leclerc, on market days in the lilting accent of the local farmers and artisans who sell their products there. And I feel it most of all when on summer Saturdays and holidays the music of the cobla (traditional Catalonian wind and brass music ensemble) fills the square and espadrille-footed dancers gather in circles for the Sardana.

Good to Know

  • Getting there – The closest TGV (Express train) station is in Perpignan, located 25 kilometers (16 miles) north of Collioure. There are several trains a day from Paris (5 hours’ ride) and Barcelona (90 minutes). From there a local train follows the coastline to the deliciously retro train station in the center of the village (30 minutes). There is also small airport in Perpignan that accommodates daily local flights from Paris, London, Brussels and Madrid.
  • Getting around – Within the historic village, walking is definitely the way to go. But for a tour of the vineyards, a close-up view of the mountain-top Fort St-Elme and a glorious bird-eye perspective of the bay, the Petit Train Touristique is the local version of an open-top tourist bus.
  • Where to Stay – With tourism now the main industry of Collioure, Bed and Breakfast have become a primary local activity, offering accommodations to suit all tastes and budgets. For a great view of the old town, there are also two hotels wedged into the hills on the south side of the bay, the four-star Hôtel Relais des Trois Mas. relaisdestroismas.com. Tel +33 (0) 4 68 82 05 07, is notable for its direct access to the farthest of the Collioure beaches and its own plunge pool with a view. A bit higher on the hill, the two-star Hôtel Les Caranques. www.les-caranques.com. Tel: +33 (0) 4 68 82 06 68, offers simpler accommodations, but equally spectacular views.
  • What to do – Head for the Collioure Tourist Office, 18 Place du 18 Juin. http://www.collioure.com/en/. Tel: +33 (4) 68 82 15 47. It’s a few steps away from the castle. They dole out all necessary maps and directions to all the points of interest, including the map of the Fauvist Trail, and the schedule for the Sardane dances.
  • Visiting – The Château Royal is open every day from 9:00 A.M. to 7:00 P.M. during July and August and 9:00 A.M. to 6:00 P.M. in June and September and 9:00 A.M. to 5:00 P.M. the remainder of the year. It is a fine exemple of medieval architecture and the dungeon and ramparts offer a spectacular view of the village and the coastline. It also hosts temporary art exhibits and occasional scheduled concerts in its courtyards . There are no provisions for mobility-impaired visitors. Notre Dame des Anges is open daily from 9:00 A.M. to 6:00 P.M. Drop one Euro in the box on the side of the altar to turn on the lights and appreciate its gilded altars in all their glory .
  • Touring Petit train touristique – petit-train-touristique.com. Tel: +33 (0) 4 68 98 02 06. The 45 minute round trip itinerary runs several times daily from April to November. Tickets may be purchased at the staring point, in front of the castle.
  • Wine Tasting Cellier des Dominicains, Place Orphila, dominicain.com. Tel: +33 (0) 4 68 82 05 63. Located in the church of a former fourteenth century Dominican monastery, the cellar is open for a visit, an introduction to local wine-making in Collioure and Banyuls, followed by a tasting, every Thursday at 4:00 P.M. from June to September. There is a nominal entry fee.

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

Collioures