If you’re in Provence and missing the café culture and sophistication of Paris, head straight to Aix-en-Provence, a little piece of heaven in the south of France.
The Romans discovered France for its thermal waters that still flow in the town today. In fact, Aix is often called the city of a thousand fountains and halfway down the main street, Cours Mirabeau, you’ll find a fountain dating from Roman times with hot water that flows from the ground at 34ºC.
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The wide tree-lined boulevard Cours Mirabeau, which follows the path of the old city wall, divides Aix neatly into two halves. To the north is the old town with its narrow winding streets of mansions dating from the 16th to 18th centuries; and to the south is the new town. This grand street is the heart of café culture the area and the place to have a meal in Aix is Deux Garcons. Dating from 1792 it’s one of the original cafes along Cours Mirabeau and was a favorite of Ernest Hemingway, Emile Zola and the painter Paul Cezanne.
Cezanne is one of Aix’s most famous sons and the nearby mountain, Sainte-Victoire, is featured in many of his paintings; you can walk there and climb it for lovely views. Cezanne’s studio on the outskirts of Aix is now a museum and Jas de Bouffan, the family estate where Cezanne painted for over four decades, is also open to the public but not every day so check before you go.
Aix has some lovely architecture including the Cathedral of the Holy Saviour (Saint Sauveur) which is built on the old Roman forum and is a wonderful mixture of styles – go on Sunday at 4:30pm to hear the magnificent Gregorian chanting. Saint Jean de Malte is another church worth a visit, filled with paintings and dating from the 13th century. The 17th century Hotel de Ville (town hall) faces the Place de l’Hotel de Ville, a significant square with a 16th century clock tower and the 18th century Corn Exchange. The original Roman baths are nearby, the Aquae Sextiae or baths of Sextius. You can still bathe there following in the footsteps of Plutarch, Picasso and Winston Churchill.
Part of the lively café life of Aix undoubtedly comes from the large student population at the Universite de Provence Aix-Marseille. Many foreign students come here to study French.