By Rebecca Brown
The smell of olive trees, honey, and flowers, with a soundtrack of babbling fountains in the background; congratulations, you're in Aix-en-Provence, one of the jewels of the south of France. This small university town feels more bustling than its 143,000-inhabitant size suggests, probably because there's a lot to do, most of which revolves around taking in the scenery of the countryside and enjoying the slow pace of the South. Below, find some of our favorite ways to while away the time.
(Check out our insider's guide to Cassis, too, to travel like a local all over the South of France.)
1. See the fountains—at night.
Aix is often referred to as the City of a Thousand Fountains, and while they're pretty by day, they're extraordinary at night, all lit up. Each fountain has its own history that's featured on an adjacent placard, but if you're not proficient in French, you might eventually tire of seeing yet another fountain without learning the history behind it, so make it a little more interesting with an evening fountain walk. It's romantic, especially after a glass of wine at one of the cafés on the Cours Mirabeau, which we also recommend.
2. Eat like an Aixois.
You're in France, so hopefully you've already bid (a temporary) farewell to lettuce and lentils and are living with a little reckless Mediterranean abandon. Loosen the reins a little more to enjoy some of Aix's delicious offerings.
Start with a croissant au beurre at Béchard, dig into a pizza at the famous (and delicious) Chez Capri, then finish with a chocolate from Puyricard. Visit Confiserie Leonard Parli to sample the specialty of Aix, the callison, an almond-shaped wafer made with ground almond paste and topped with candied melon, orange peel, and icing. If you still have room, find one of Aix's famed open-air markets and indulge in the delicious bounty from the south of France. Next stop: la pharmacie for indigestion relief.
3. See the city through Cézanne's eyes.
Before Peter Mayle, there was Paul Cézanne. Revered by many as the father of modern art, he painted a little in Paris, but he did most of his work in Aix-en-Provence, where he was born. His favorite subject was Mount Saint-Victoire, which was central in 44 of his oil paintings and 43 watercolors. He also loved the landscapes and light of Provence, so it seems only fitting that your visit to Aix should include seeing some of that beauty from his unique perspective.
Insider's Tip: Start at Cezanne's studio, which is a short but uphill walk from old Aix. There are a few personal artifacts, but no paintings, so if you're running short on time, this is the least scenic and easiest to take a miss on. Then, walk around Aix in Cézanne's footsteps, giving you more insight into his life. If nothing else, it's a nice walking tour. Pick up a guided brochure at the Tourism Office, or if you're really on the ball, print it out before you go. Look for the nails with the initial "C" to guide you.
If you have a car, you can take in some of his beloved landscapes and light. Take the road marked "route de Cézanne" at the Rotonde fountain (you can also visit the Tourism Office for more help or follow a PDF on their website) and you'll pass all kinds of Cézanne-inspired scenery, including Mount Saint-Victoire, his family home, the Bibémus quarries, and more.
4. Talk a walk or hike on Mount Saint-Victoire.
If you've succeeded with #2 (and we hope you have), you might be itching to burn off some of that pizza and the bites of calisson you sampled. For two Euros round trip, you can take a bus to the base of the mountain that Cézanne was obsessed with—Mount Saint Victoire—and explore it. There are well-marked trails up the mountain and wooded, more flat walks around the base of it.
Thinking of a trip to France?
For up-to-the-minute hotel and restaurant recommendations, as well as the best planning advice, check out our France Travel Guide.
Rebecca Brown is a Southerner-turned-San Franciscan-turned-Parisian. She is an enthusiastic taster of French pastries, baguettes, and wines; a Kentucky hoops junkie; a devoted Bikram yogi; a baker of sweets; a lover of fog, bacon, coffee, surfing, breakfast, porch swings, roof decks, all things French and fried, and traveling to places she's never been.
Photo Credits: Fountain: La Rotonde fountain in Aix via Shutterstock.com; Eat: Homemade French Cakes by Michael Gwyther-Jones Attribution-NonCommercial License; Cezanne: DSHover, via Wikimedia Commons; Mont Sainte-Victoire: Mont Sainte Victoire via Shutterstock.com