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!
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.
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
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
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 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.
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
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.
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.
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
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
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 Marseille–Provence 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.