A self-guided walk in Aix-en-Provence
From our archives and long time friends in Aix, we’ve re-published this leisurely “stroll through history” which will take you from the medieval era to the end of the 18th century while you make your way through the busy streets of Aix-en-Provence. This is intended to be only a presentation of the major sights of the city and you might want to plan to return and visit some sights a little better as you have more time.
Fortunately the old town has become a mostly pedestrian area: you still may see some cars, mostly for delivery purposes, but they are well aware that they don’t have “right of way” over the pedestrians, particularly during the long months of the Tourist Season – and that’s almost all year around now!
One last note before you get on your way: Aix never forgot its origins: Aquae Sextiae: “Sextius Waters”. Not only the city is still a thriving thermal town but fountains are everywhere and they are an integral part of the urban landscape: we’ll find them on almost every square, or against a wall, here and there, and maybe you’ll remember the short poem by French poet Jean Cocteau :
Aix, un aveugle croit qu’il pleut. Mais s’il pouvait voir sans sa canne, il verrait cent fontaines bleues, chanter la gloire de Cézanne.
Aix, a blind man thinks it is raining. But if he could see without his cane, he would see 100 blue fountains sing the glory of Cézanne
The fountains… Cézanne… the poets… the quintessential description of Aix… “Aix, Ville d’eaux, Ville d’arts” as the Tourist Office motto claims.
Begin your walk in front of the main Cathedral of St Sauveur
Pause for a few minutes in the small square across from the church and take a good look: nearly 2000 years of history stand before you. On the right, note the solid Roman wall with its huge rectangular stones. This is the remnant of an official building of the Roman city, Aquae Sextiae. You are very likely standing where the Roman “forum” was. Next to the Roman wall, the construction is much less meticulous, with smaller, irregular stones. The entrance gate is a perfect example of 12th century Romanesque architecture with its semi circular frontspiece (note the recycled Roman era columns flanking the door of the church). To the left is the main body of the church, a 15th c. late gothic façade soaring to the sky! The triangular frontspiece above the Virgin and Child is empty, ravaged by time. Several of the statues of biblical figures were beheaded by 16th c. Protestant militants who vandalized the church during the Reformation. The superb 16th c. wooden sculpted doors were spared, though and are now enclosed in protective shuttersto protect them from modern vandals!
On the left of the building is an unusual octagonal steeple. Give the steeple a second look and admire its golden color: you’ll find those honey-colored stones everywhere in town, in the most elegant buildings, as they come from quarries active since Roman times: “les carrieres de pierres de Rognes”, a few miles north of town.
Take time for a quick peek inside the cathedral and you will find the same distinctive architectural styles behind these walls: on the right, the oldest part of the church with a Baptistry built in the 5th century with huge Roman columns surrounding the basin; the Romanesque nave, and the entrance to the 12th c. cloister; finally, on the left, the tall gothic nave with its rich decor of stained-glass window, carved wood, 15th c. “primitive” paintings and its impressive 17th c. organ. (If you are lucky you might catch the organist rehearsing for his next concert!)
Leaving the Cathedral
As you exit the Cathedral the buildings facing you are part of the original university founded in 1409. On the square is the old School of Law, now the graduate School of Political Science, and just down the street, the old Humanities School, now the Institute of French Studies for Foreign Students. Both buildings were renovated in the 17th c. and the latter still carries the name of the noble family who rebuilt it: “Hotel Maynier d’Oppede.”
A few steps to your left is the elegant “archbishop’s palace” with its richly decorated façade and the archbishop’s coat of arms above the door. Today the building houses the “Musee des Tapisseries” with tapestries from the 16th to 18th centuries. In July, the courtyard is one of the main stages of the Aix Music Festival.
Continue down the Rue Gaston de Saporta, to number 17 – “Hotel d’Estienne de St Jean” – today the museum of “Vieil Aix” (“historic” Aix) with a lovely collection of artifacts from life in old Provence. Soon we see in front of us the Belfry, or Tour de l’Horloge as the Aixois call it most often, referring to its “astronomic” clock showing the passing of the seasons. This tower was the gate to the medieval city. Look back at the houses you just passed and you’ll notice the lower stones of these buildings, both right and left, are huge, worn stones which are all that’s left of the medieval ramparts which surrounded the oldest part of the city you are now leaving behind!
Outside the City Wall
As you exit the historic Medieval town you are entering the 17th and 18th century part of the town, the next concentric ring, if you will, as the city outgrew the 13th century wall. The square you’ve just entered is the “Place de la Mairie” with current city hall or “Hotel de Ville” , occupying a mansion built around 1660. It isis famous for its large wrought iron gate. Take a few steps into the courtyard to admire the classicRenaissance layout of the different wings and the majestic staircase in the main building.
On the south side of the square the other large building is “la halle aux grains,” the “Grain Exchange,” built in the mid-18th century as a storage facility for wheat collected as taxes! This has a classic, late Renaissance look, too, but with an unusually interesting group of sculptures on the frontspiece, representing allegoric figures of the Rhone and Durance Rivers, the two main rivers in the area and the mainsources of irrigation and agriculture in Provence. Very fittingly, there are lively markets, every morning, on either side of this building: a flower market on Place de la Mairie and a fruit and vegetable market on the other side of the building on Place Richelme. (If you have a spare half-hour some morning do come back to visit!)
As you continue your walk down the same street (Rue Marechal Foch) and before you leave Place Richelme, note on your right the impressive entrance of “Hotel d’Arbaud,” easily recognizable with the two huge sculptures framing its door. These “Titans,” portrayed as grimacing old men who seem to support the weight of the top floor of the building, are common decorations of the time and you will notice them on many other buildings around town. Along the way, you will notice that these architectural marvels play host to a variety of bustling business activities with shops calling out to you. Aix is anything but a museum city, resting sleepily on its past. It is, instead, a dynamic commercial center where you can buy just about everything from tourist trinkets to fancy (and expensive!) clothing, and food supplies of all sorts.
As Rue Marechal Foch becomes Rue Aude, the feeling of hectic commercial activity slows and allows you to return your attention to your “historical walk.” The Place d’Albertas is one of the best known architectural marvels of the city, a small island of peace, with its fountain in the middle of the cobblestone square. Facing the “Place” on your left is the “hotel” built in the mid-18th century for the Marquis d’Albertas. Surrounding houses were demolished at the same time to form the square in front of the hotel. This was done both to properly frame the building and to give Marquis adequate room to turn his fancy horse drawn carriage! If by chance the big door to the mansion is open,take a quick peek at the inside courtyard, still very private, with its tiny garden and wisteria climbing on the façade. Behind the fancy doorways and the grand façades of these private mansions throughout Aix are charming “secret gardens” where life in the 17th and 18th centuries was lived in private (and still is!)
Just a few steps down the street “rue Espariat” and on your left is the monumental entrance to yet another fancy home: the “hotel Boyer d’Eguilles” (built in 1672), today the Museum of Natural Sciences with an amazing collection of dinosaurs and other fossils (bones and eggs) found around Aix and on the mountain of Ste Victoire.
Cross the little square at the end of the street (decorated with yet another fountain) and continue to the Place de Verdun, better known as Place des Précheurs, a reference to an old convent. This large square is mainly occupied by the huge building of the Court House. As impressive as it may be, just close your eyes for a minute and let your mind wander back in time. On this site stood the Castle of the Counts of Provence. King Rene planted gardens in front of the historic castle where the square is today. But, since it had been started in the end of middle ages, and although it had been renovated many times, the castle was thought totally unfashionable at the end of the 18th century and was demolished with a goal to rebuild it as the new seat of the Parliament of Provence. The French Revolution interrupted the project in 1790, and construction was not finished until the mid 19th century. Today, one can only dream what a true medieval castle in the middle of Aix would look like! On the other side of the large square is the 18th c. “Madeleine” Church, formerly part of the Dominican convent (hence, the “couvent des Précheurs”).
The Cours Mirabeau
Brasseries and Cafés invite you to rest under the shady “platanes” (sycamore or “plane”) trees. Stop here or keep going just a little while longer until you reach the Cours Mirabeau .The quickest way to do that is to go to the far left end of the square and venture through “Passage Agard”, a narrow pedestrian passage way in between the buildings of yet another former convent, which takes you directly onto the Cours Mirabeau. You are at the east end of the “proud carriage road” – “le Cours à carrosses” -created in the 1650s on the location of the ramparts which bounded the south side of Aix in the 15th and 16th centuries. We suggest a stop in a sidewalk café before continuing.
Are you rested enough for one last effort? Walk slowly down the Cours. Right and left on both sides of the Cours are some of the most elegant and largest mansions in Aix. It is easier to admire the “hotels” on the south side of the street as the buildings are today mainly occupied by banks or offices that did not mar the majestic, classic look of those façades with advertising. Admire the fancy doorways with their sculpted “Titans” holding up the buildings and the elegant wrought iron balconies outside the first floor windows (“l’étage noble,” the noble “floor” – normally the second floor, used by the family, while the servants had only small rooms and small windows, in their quarters on the upper floors.)
You may notice how clean and well preserved these façades are: Aix has invested lots of money in the last 20 years in the restoration and preservation of its architectural treasures and the soft texture of the building stone from Rognes lends itself well to the careful preservation. There are benches along the sidewalk, so take your time, sit down in the shade for a few minutes and enjoy this display of 18th and 19th century architecture. Mansions on the right (north) side of the Cours are not as easy to admire as Cafés, restaurants and stores of all kind have crowded the sidewalks! Further down the Cours, though, “hotel d’Arbaud Jouques” will attract your attention with its superb façade and its impressive sculpted wooden door. And remember, behind every façade a secret garden is hiding!
In the middle of the Cours you can explore a succession of lovely fountains! Take a minute to dip your fingers in the basin of the “Fontaine moussue” –covered with green moss – and, yes, it’s quite warm since this particular fountain is directly fed by the hot thermal waters of ancient Aquae Sextiae!
From the mossy Fountain, cross the Cours and take Rue du 4 Septembre into the “Quartier Mazarin.” Created in the late 18th century on a rural site, well outside the city wall, the area was occupied by meadows and marsh land. Part of it was owned by the order of the Knights Hospitallers, an order of religious knights created at the time of Crusades, who had their monastery here. King Louis the XIV gave the land and right to build to Michel de Mazarin, powerful archbishop of Aix.
The Mazarin quarter came to be a remarkable urban development which has survived untouched to this day, a rare occurrence that might be compared to the “quartier du Marais” in Paris. The streets here form a perfect checkerboard pattern. At the heart of the quarter is the “Place des quatre Dauphins” and of course one of the best known fountains in Aix welcomes you.
On all sides of the square you can see the elegant façades of historic Aix. On the northeast corner, “Hotel de Boisgelin” is the fanciest one with its intricate decoration, and one of the largest, too. Above the high walls, the foliage of the large trees shade the inside “private garden” of a still-private home. At Place des 4 Dauphins, Rue du 4 Septembre intersects with Rue Cardinale (the archbishop Mazarin was the brother of the Cardinal Mazarin, prime minister of the king) and at the end of Rue Cardinale, here is the Church of St Jean, founded by the knightly monks of the Hospital. The church is lovely, very different from the cathedral but as interesting in its own way, as this one is a church built in one single architectural style, 18th century Provençal gothic. On the square, next to the church, the former Palace of Malta, now the Fine Arts “Museum Granet.” (After the Crusades, the monks had first fled to Malta and their unusual “Malta cross” is a symbol you can recognize above the door and, yes, on the fountain!)
On your way back to Cours Mirabeau , take Rue Joseph Cabassol (parallel to Rue du 4 Septembre) just for the pleasure to walk past another grand mansion: “Hotel de Caumont” now the official School of Music: take a peek in the courtyard for one last look at a private garden: this one is, really, a mini-park!!
Written by Josette Smyrl; Josette has lived in Aix and the Marseille area for about 45 years, not counting 26 years of residence in the U.S. She and her husband Sam live just outside of Aix.