Visiting Aix-en-Provence

This item appears on page 14 of the January 2020 issue.
Street in the Quartier Mazarin, Aix-en-Provence, France. Photos by Stephen Addison

Aix-en-Provence is not one of France’s more sought-after destinations by international travelers, but the city is pleasant, very walkable and affluent. Plane trees are abundant and accentuate the city’s French ambiance.

The city was a favorite of Cézanne, so there are plenty of Cézanne-related sights and activities. It’s also a great base for exploring Marseille, a 40-minute drive away. You can spend the day touring gritty and busy Marseille, then return to the welcome elegance and calm of Aix-en-Provence for the evening. 

Flanked by very wide sidewalks, tree-lined Cours Mirabeau is the city’s premier street. Like many streets in Aix, vehicle traffic is limited. Not unexpectedly, it’s populated with several overpriced restaurants offering outdoor seating where you can see and be seen. Near the western end of Cours Mirabeau is the city’s large and busy tourist office.

For many visitors, Aix doesn’t offer “can’t miss” attractions, but there are several worthwhile places of interest. The Musée Granet may have the largest art collection in town. It features works by Cézanne, Picasso and van Gogh.

During our September 2019 visit, my wife, Paula Owens, and I spent a pleasant three hours exploring the museum and its nearby annex.

The Caumont Centre d’Art offers architecture, period furnishings and gardens. It also provides a 30-minute movie about Cézanne. We really enjoyed our 2-hour visit.

The Musée Granet and the Caumont Centre d’Art are both located in the Quartier Mazarin, which dates from the 17th  and 18th centuries. This part of town is convenient and quiet and doesn’t have the crowds often found in Old Town. We were glad our hotel was located in this district.

However, we were disappointed with the gardens of Musée du Pavillon de Vendôme. These gardens (free to visit) are a rare expanse of green space in the city, but they are nothing special. We skipped the museum (displaying modern and contemporary art), since that wasn’t of interest to us. This attraction is located in the northwest portion of Old Town.

• Restaurants tend to be expensive in Aix. Of the more reasonably priced, the family-owned La Brocherie (5 rue Fernand Dol, Aix-en-Provence; phone 04 42 38 33 21, [in French]) was our favorite. 

Our two meals there averaged $75 (for both of us), including a bottle of wine and the tip. Three of the four entrées in these two meals were beef. Their grilled beef was the best I’ve eaten in France. To accompany the main course, there was a buffet of side dishes.

Cours Mirabeau on a sunny afternoon in Aix-en-Provence, southeastern France.

House wine wasn’t served in pichets (pitchers), but a satisfactory selection of 50cl (17 oz.) bottles of wine was available. Reservations are recommended.

• If you’re in the mood for pizza, try La Pizza (3 rue Aude, Aix-en-Provence; phone +33 4 42 26 22 17, enprovence) in Old Town (not to be confused with the ubiquitous chain pizza places in town).

• One tiring afternoon, we discovered Plaisirs des Thés (29 rue d’Italie, Aix-en-Provence; [French only]) in the Quartier Mazarin. This family-owned and -operated tea shop was filled with a huge variety of loose teas. Pots of tea plus a small selection of dessert treats were available. 

Each pot of tea was quite large, enough to serve two. One pot cost 4-5 (near $4.50-$5.50); a pastry was about the same price.

There were a few tables hidden in the rear of the shop and a single table on the sidewalk out front. We can vouch that their Indian Assam teas and their Chinese green tea pastry were excellent.

We didn’t use local trains during our visit to Aix-en-Provence due to track work, which closed many routes, but service was scheduled to resume in November.

In addition to the in-town local train station, there was a TGV (high-speed train) station about 15 kilometers from town. We didn’t see any English signage, nor were there any announcements in English when we were there.

The TGV station has only two platforms, but they are confusingly numbered 3 (on the far side of the tracks) and 4 (adjacent to the station).

Period furniture and art at the Caumont Centre d’Art in Aix-en-Provence, France.

Intercity buses, departing from the city’s bus station (gare routiere), are a fine way to travel around the region. The bus station’s staff was very helpful. We rode Lecar Aix-Marseille’s buses and were pleased with their comfort, reliability, free Wi-Fi and friendly staff.

Lecar Bus 40 provides easy transfers between Marseille’s airport and Aix-en-Provence. With a one-way fare of 10, this service runs every half hour and takes 35 minutes. This bus also stops at the Aix TGV station, 23 minutes from Aix. A one-way ticket between Aix and the TGV station cost 6.

Lecar Bus 50 is the choice for an easy day trip to Marseille. The fare was 10 round trip. During our visit, service was frequent, every 10 minutes. (Perhaps that will be reduced once local train service resumes.)

Counterintuitively, buses make the trip in less time (35 minutes) than trains (50 minutes). I see no reason to take a train for this route. Buses and trains from Aix-en-Provence to Marseille both terminate at the excellent Marseille Saint Charles train station.

Charlotte, NC