On our way from Les Baux de Provence to Nice, we made a visit to Aix en Provence, another ancient town with roots further back than Roman days…and with heydays in the 17th & 18th centuries. It is a beautiful little city with a distinct character (at least from all of the other towns we have visited on this trip)…very aristocratic, I would say. I think many have called it a “mini-Paris”. I’m not sure I would go that far, but many of the buildings do present an air of elegance.
We found parking in a public lot just outside of the old part of the town…only a 5 minute walk. For whatever reason, my immediate reaction to Aix was that it reminded me a great deal of Bath in England. It’s all very lovely…but I have to say that it’s very commercial. All of the street level storefronts are retail stores…but not just quaint shops…more like sleek clothing stores you would find in a mall. It definitely irked me in Bath and it kind of bothered me a bit in Aix. It wasn’t as obvious on the side streets, but on the main streets, the commercialization definitely gave everything a “Disney Main Street” feel. All that being said, we also saw some beautiful architecture and there were picturesque moments that I could capture in a photograph.
One of the first buildings we came upon was the Cathédrale Saint-Sauveur d’Aix-en-Provence, or the Aix Cathedral of the Holy Savior. I didn’t know anything about the Cathedral until after our visit, when I had a chance to read some information about it. It has a pretty fascinating history that dates back to the year 500 A.D. when the Baptistery was constructed on top of an old Roman Forum (but they used the Roman era Corinthian columns in the Baptistery design). The remainder of the church, including the bell tower, was constructed in the 12th century right up thru the 1400’s, with pauses during the Black Death and the Hundred Year’s War. In hindsight, you can definitely see the distinct styles in the church…areas with more Romanesque arches and columns, and then the more graceful gothic additions, and even touches of the Renaissance, such as the dome in the Baptistery.
As I mentioned, our visit to Aix was more of a pit stop than a planned-out visit, such as when we went to Arles or the hilltop villages that we visited. We could only allow about 2 or 3 hours, so the brevity of our visit did not allow for a full exploration of all that Aix offers. But we did get a chance to walk through town and as I mentioned, what strikes you the most about Aix are all of the very stately facades from the 17th & 18th centuries.
We stopped for a bite to eat (two very large “personal” pizzas that could have fed 6 people) in a shaded square and decided to visit the (free entry) Musée Estienne de Saint Jean which was just across the street. The museum used to be called the Museum of Old Aix…and is housed in a former hotel (or townhouse). It is quite tiny and has a rather small collection of artifacts from everyday life in Aix. Children (including Lena) are delighted by their collection of dioramas with little dolls depicting life in 17th century Aix. They also have a collection of puppets used for an annual Fete (party) held in Aix.
Unfortunately, after we left the museum, we got a text from the apartment manager in Nice (our next stop)…who was very anxious about our arrival time, which in turn, made us anxious about how long it would take to get to Nice. So we had to end our visit in Aix and get on the road. We quickly picked up a few gifts at one of the many shops, including some sachets of lavender and some locally made soap.
We would have like to have seen more of Aix as well as visit the Cezanne museum, so we would definitely like to come back for a visit. However, I’m thinking that a visit here would be best in Spring or Fall, when there are fewer tourists, which would make all the difference and provide for a much more enjoyable experience to explore this lovely city.