Aix-en-Provence, city of Mirabeau’s oratory and Cézanne’s canvases, has always been a place of great elegance and prestige. The capital of Roman Gaul and long-independent Provence, even after its acquisition by France in 1481 Aix retained its own laws and privileges, right up to the French Revolution of 1789. In the eighteenth century, nobles, churchmen and leading burghers all vied with one another to build increasingly splendid mansions. Many line one side of the Cours Mirabeau, faced by luxury shops and fashionable cafés on the other, making this one of Europe’s finest thoroughfares. It has four beautiful fountains and rows of huge plane trees that stretch majestically across the street to form a cool, verdant canopy.
Count Gabriel de Mirabeau was a womaniser extraordinaire who spent many more years behind bars as a cuckold-maker of his fellow nobles than for his opposition to the Bourbons; yet it was his wonderful speeches that brought down the dynasty. Elected to the national assembly to represent the common people of Aix, he inspired his fellow deputies to defy the king. Mirabeau died suddenly of a stroke in 1791 and was buried a hero at the Panthéon in Paris, only for his double-dealings with Marie Antoinette to be discovered, whereupon his remains were disinterred and thrown into a ditch at the public cemetery.
The renowned impressionist painter, Paul Cézanne, also took the road to Paris but in his case, reluctantly, when his family, wealthy local money lenders oblivious of his natural genius, paid for him to go to art school in the hope that the teachers would turn him into a pedestrian artist. Fortunately for posterity, they failed, and Cézanne returned to Aix. He was at his happiest with a simple crowd of provincials, and often sold for a few francs pictures that would have commanded huge prices in the capital. His studio at the Atelier Cézanne, facing north on the first floor, has been preserved just as he left it upon his death in 1906: palette and easel, pipe and beret, and the half-empty bottle of rum he had drunkenly discarded the night before.
The entire municipal budget would not be sufficient to buy a Cézanne original and very few of his masterpieces are on display in the city. Aix does however possess two exceptional works of art. One can be found in the nave of the gothic cathedral of Saint-Sauveur: called the ‘Triptych of the Burning Bush’, when God appears to Moses, it was created by the Province court painter, Nicolas Froment. Another famous triptych, three painted panels hinged together, is preserved in the north aisle of the church of the Madeleine. It portrays the Annunciation, with the Virgin Mary in dazzling gold brocade. Few visitors are aware, however, that the side panels are copies: the originals were sold long ago to Amsterdam and Brussels.
Original branded merchandise commands high prices in the centre of Aix but the markets, held on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, represent excellent value for money. Food, flower and antique markets are held in separate central locations: just follow the crowd. The most promising for visitors is probably the display of bric-à-brac in the place de Verdun.
The charm of Aix spills over into the nearby countryside. To the south, Fuveau’s clock tower was once at the crossroads of the great Roman routes to Italy and Spain. The town lies in a tranquil setting of olive groves and vines. To the north, Venelles, perched on a rock, has superb views of the Durance valley and the Luberon Mountains from the Place du Château. Venelles is surrounded by exquisite châteaux, although stripped of their furniture when their owners fled during the Revolution. The best known, called La Pauline, is really a bastide. Located just outside nearby Les Logissons, on the road back to Aix, it stands at the end of a drive lined with magnificent plane trees. It was here that Pauline Bonaparte entertained her lovers with such reckless impropriety that it reached the ears of her disapproving brother, the Emperor Napoléon, in distant Paris.
Photos © Jean-Claude Carbonne