We left a chilly London with high hopes of being embraced by the warmth of southern France in Aix-en-Provence, but what we were actually greeted with could not have been further from this fantasy. Our first glimpse of Aix was a wet one; a rare day for the usually perpetually sunny university hub but once the downpour cleared, the town of pretty streets and endless fountains did not disappoint. Widely known as the home of Cezanne, it draws a lot of tourists for this alone, but even if you’re not an art buff, there’s still plenty to keep you occupied during a weekend getaway…
One of the best ways to introduce yourself to a new country, city, or region is to sample its cuisine, and that rule most definitely applies in this part of the world. Traditional Provencal cuisine is often described as rustic and comforting, with a strong focus on the quality of the produce; this principle is employed at Chez Feraud, a local restaurant tucked at the end of a small lane serving hearty fare with typical French elegance.
Highlights include a rich duck terrine, the chicken Provencal which just fell away from the bone, well paired with a delicate ratatouille, and a dessert of candied clementines and ginger with ice cream.
Spend the day strolling through Vieil Aix, the city’s picturesque old town where the streets are cobbled, irregular, and so narrow in parts you wonder how the large trucks weave their way through them. Take in some sights such as the stunning Saint Saveur Cathedral or the Hotel de Ville with its astrological clock and lovely flower market brightening up the square.
There’s plenty to feast your eyes on if you choose to do a spot of shopping; those who love to pick up reminders of their travels can indulge in those famous Provencal soaps or lavender products, while those more fashionable amongst us can alternate between the chic French chains or unique boutiques.
When you’ve worked up an appetite, head towards one of the food markets at Place Richleme or Place Verdun, you can nibble as you go along, or pick up a baguette and a selection of tapenades and cured meats for a picnic of your own. But if that seems like too much effort, the surrounding streets are filled with bustling cafes and boulangeries.
After all this hustle and bustle you may want a quiet spot to relax; a short walk away is the Pavillion de Vendome, a tranquil park where you’ll find locals and tourists alike, taking a break from their days.
There are so many options for dinner in Vieil Aix so why not spend some time looking through the menu boards outside every restaurant and pick one that takes your fancy. There are lots of tourist traps out there, but follow your instincts and take a chance on one. We took a gamble on Le Tire Bouchon, a quiet restaurant with an underground dining room- the food was traditional, and while it didn’t exactly excite the tastebuds it also didn’t break the bank.
Spend the morning getting your art fix at the city’s famous Musee Granet, best known for the wide range of works from artists such as Cezanne, Picasso, and Giacometti. If you want more culture, the city has quite a few other museums around from the Musee Arbaud to the Musee des Tapisseries. Or you could grab yourself a patisserie (Tart Tropezienne, a cream filled brioche is my personal favourite) and spend some time taking in the quiet streets and lovely residences of the Mazarin Quarter where you’ll find the Place des Quarter Dauphins, the city’s first freestanding fountain.
After lunch, take in the atmosphere at Cours Mirabeau; once labelled Europe’s most captivating street, it is rather prettily flanked by trees and lined with shops and restaurants. While the restaurants aren’t known for their food, do order a bottle of wine and settle in for some quality people watching.
For your last dinner in Aix, get a taste of traditional Provencal flavours with more refined execution at L’Alcove, a modern bistro in another cosy cave. The menu is small but all items are appetising; the highlights include the garlic escargot on potato mousse, foie gras with figs, and the plum clafoutis, a baked fruit flan type dessert. The atmosphere is also lovely, making it the ideal place to linger and enjoy your final meal in Aix.
So Make a Move
- Take a direct train from London to Aix-en-Provence or fly to Marseille then take a 30 minute bus ride from Marseille airport.
- Musee Granet, Place Saint Jean de Malte; entry fee of €5.
- Chez Feraud, 8 Rue Du Puits Juif; 3 courses for €35/pp.
- Le Tire Bouchon, 7 Rue Felibre Gaut; 3 courses for €25/pp.
- L’Alcove, 19 rue Constantin; 3 courses for €35/pp, bookings recommended.
- For more information, visit the Aix-en-Provence Tourist Office.