Days of wine and rosé in Aix-en-Provence, under the brilliant sun.
Mention Provence and it’s easy to imagine undulating fields of fragrant lavender, a glass of a local rosé and bustling outdoor cafés lining the wide, tree-lined avenues. Welcome to the small once-Roman town of Aix-en-Provence.
Before my Mediterranean cruise, I decided to spend a few days in Aix-en-Provence (pronounce “Aix” like “ex”). Located in the very south of France, Aix-en-Provence is only a 20-minute drive to Marseille. To add to the excitement of spending three days in a new city, I was fortunate to reconnect with Valérie, whom I met on a cruise a couple of years earlier. This would be a novel treat and a fun reunion.
A smooth 186 mph, three hour train ride aboard France’s TGV from Paris, and I was at the station in Aix-en-Provence. I scouted the platform for a familiar face. There was my friend Valerie waiting to greet me and drive into the city to my hotel. She had suggested a very unique and affordable hotel for my stay: Hotel des Augustines, a twelfth-century convent turned hotel, located right in the heart of sun-drenched Aix-en-Provence. The nondescript hotel entrance is in a cobblestone alley of sorts, right in the center of town, but off the main street.
The lobby at the Hotel des Augustins. Note the “orbs” overhead…
The charm and ambiance of the simple, church-like lobby took my breathe away. Hotel des Augustins would be my home base while I wandered the streets of Aix, taking in all the sights, sounds, tastes and aromas that this ancient once-Roman city had to offer.
My room at Hotel des Augustins. Not bad for 800 years old.
Speaking my best college French, the hotel clerk quickly began to converse in English, sparing me from further embarrassment. With an actual metal key to open my hotel room door, I entered, checked out my room and opened the drape-covered shutters to reveal a typical French street scene three stories below. To continue this non-imaginary dream sequence, there was an accordion player directly below my window, wearing the caricatured striped t-shirt and bandana.
Along the bustling Cours Mirabeau in the center of Aix en Provence.
Aix-en-Provence is an easy city to explore. Through the center of town runs the Cours Mirabeau, a tree-lined boulevard dotted with lively cafés, beckoning patisseries and a variety of small shops. Interspersed along the Cours Mirabeau and nearly every small street throughout the city are a myriad of historic and artistic splashing fountains.
Thermes Sextius spa with hot spring thalassotherapy center. Near the original Roman thermal spa.
A truly ancient city, Aix-en-Provence dates back to 122 B.C.E., when the Romans laid claim to the land after they discovered the thermal waters flowing from hundreds of natural springs. That, plus days on end of dazzling sunshine and moderate temperatures, would entice anyone passing through to set up house. Or a fortress.
What follows is my pictorial account of three sunshine-filled, wine-tasting, food sampling and otherwise sensory-overloaded days in Aix-en-Provence.
La Rotonde fountain at the bottom of the Cours Mirabeau
You can pick up a guided walking map at the tourist center which is near this fountain. One choice is the “Footsteps of Cézanne” walking tour. It’s marked by these brass plates embedded in the sidewalk and extends through the city marking places frequented by the artist.
Footsteps of Cézanne in Aix en Provence guided walking tour
Of course this is a free self-guided tour. But if you’d like to learn more about Paul Cézanne, for about €8 you can join a guided tour. Reservations are requested.
For €7 per adult, hop on this fun tram ride.
Walk down to almost the bottom of the Cours Mirabeau and at the corner before Le Rotonde Fountain is the queue for le petit train. You can choose either a Paul Cézanne tour or one through historic Aix en Provence.
The famous (or infamous) Les Deux Garcons Brasserie
Built in 1660, this is the place where the likes of Ernest Hemingway, Victor Hugo, Paul Cézanne and dozens of intellects, artists, poets and politicians have had a glass of wine or two. Paul Cézanne used to meet his friend, Emile Zola and spend hours chatting away, drinking and eating. Located along your stroll towards top of the Cours Mirabeau, it’s a must-see and if time permits, stop for a glass of local rosé and a late lunch.
A local staple, Coquille St. Jacques can be found in many restaurants throughout Aix en Provence.
Found on almost every restaurants’ dinner menu, Coquille St. Jacques, with fresh-caught scallops, is a traditional dish in France. And totally addictive, especially when prepared with a cheese sauce.
Another popular place for dinner is Chez Grand Mère.
As long as we’re on the subject of food, Chez Grand Mère, though touristy, is an excellent place for an authentic Provencal meal. Located at 11, Rue Isolette, I just happened to stumble past it while exploring the area near my hotel. Do bring a little map along with you on your strolls; the narrow, crowded streets twist and turn and it’s easy to get turned around.
Market day in Aix en Provence
If you are lucky enough to be in Aix en Provence on a Tuesday or Saturday, be sure to head to the Market. The fragrance from thousands of bars of rainbow-hued soaps fills the air along with the fresh local produce, artisan cheese and homemade sausages.
Home-made and locally produced sausages of all kinds.
Music is everywhere in Aix en Provence.
Aside from being a mecca of tourists, Aix en Provence really resonates as a college town. On this one walk-about, I encountered at least four spontaneous musical “concerts.” Not to mention solo musicians and stereotypical French mimes constantly fighting their way out of an invisible boxes.
The landmark Roi René fountain (King René) at top of the Cours Mirabeau.
As you make your way from the bottom of the Cours Mirabeau to the top, you’ll run right into the fountain built in 1819, dedicated to the beloved King René. He is standing atop a pedestal overlooking the entire Cours Mirabeau, holding a bunch of Muskat grapes which he introduced to this area. If you follow the King’s gaze, you can see clear down the Cours Mirabeau to Le Rotonde Fountain at the bottom of the avenue.
Just steps from my hotel is this outdoor creperie. Yes, the aroma fills the air all too well.
As night falls on Aix en Provence, the streets come alive with a fresh round of tourists and students. Outdoor cafés are mobbed by 10pm and even outdoor vendors, like the Nutella Crepe Man above, have lines for service.
I could share another 100 photos with you, but that would take too long. Instead, plan your own trip to the south of France. Here’s my idea for you: Fly into Paris where you’ll spend 3-4 days. Then catch the TGV to Aix en Provence. Plan to grab a taxis since my friend Valerie probably won’t be waiting at the station for you. Stay at Hotel des Augustins, try a Nutella and banana crepe, spend a few hours at the Thermes Sextius spa and walk the Cours Mirabeau.
These little pups are everywhere; restaurants, markets, on buses, in shops. And always looking trés chic!
Soak up the sun, the aromas, pet a few hundred small dogs and eat as much locally produced food as possible. There are a few quaint bed and breakfast inns and several conveniently located hotels with complimentary breakfast. I would suggest making a reservation a few months in advance. Aix en Provence is host to a plethora of cultural events throughout the year and finding accommodations can be a bit of a challenge.
Sherry is editor and creator of CruiseMaven.com. An expert on ocean and river cruises plus trains in the US and Europe, Sherry’s goal is to share her experiences to entertain, inform and inspire readers to travel the world.