Things to Do in Aix-en-Provence
The heart and soul of the Vieil Aix (Old Town) the historic Cours Mirabeau is the main thoroughfare of Aix en Provence, passing between the ring roads that mark the boundaries of the old medieval center and the new town. A broad tree-lined avenue crammed with shops, restaurants and cafés, Cours Mirabeau runs from the iconic statue of King Rene (Fontaine du Roi René) in Place Forbin, to the stately Place du General de Gaulle.
Simply strolling the wide avenue – a spacious 42 meters wide - is enough to unveil many of its charms. Elegant 17th-century mansions, walled gardens and ornamental fountains line the sidewalks and a pit stop at one of the many alfresco cafés is the perfect way to take in the scenery. Once home to the city’s elite, Cours Mirabeau boasts one-time residents like a young Cezanne and architectural highlights include the monumental entrance of Hotel de Villiers and the regal Hôtel d'Arbod Jouques.
Nestled in the hills above Aix-en-Provence, the Atlelier Cézanne, or the Cézanne Studio, is a museum devoted to the life and works of its namesake. The studio, the upper floor of a Provençal country house, was commissioned by the artist in 1902 and remained his place of work until his death in 1906, a tranquil retreat with a blooming garden and expansive views over the surrounding countryside.
Since opening its doors in 1954, the museum has set to preserve the studio as left by Cézanne, with many of the artist’s personal effects and inspirational objects laid out around the room. Cézanne’s easel and paints lie in the spot where masterpieces like Les Grandes Baigneuses (The Large Bathers) and La Femme à la Cafétière (The Woman with the Coffee Pot) were created; elsewhere, vases, scarves and fruits are laid out into carefully construed still art creations.
The mountainous Lubéron Natural Park, a popular day trip from nearby Aix-en-Provence, is a scenic pocket of natural beauty, lying in the Vauclause region of Provence. Largely uninhabited and reaching heights of 3,000 feet, Lubéron boasts some of the region’s most unspoiled terrain, dotted with picturesque vineyards and pretty hillside villages.
A hotspot for cyclists, hikers and rock climbers, Lubéron is a wildly scenic landscape to explore – deep valleys carpeted in lavender, dense sloping woodlands criss-crossed with walking trails and rustic villages like Saignon, Bonnieux and Gordes hugging the hillsides. Add to that the sunny Mediterranean climate and a dusting of wildflowers, and it’s easy to see why Lubéron has inspired so many of the region’s famous artists. The protected area also made literary history as the setting for British author Peter Mayle’s international bestseller ‘A Year in Provence’.
Immortalized in a number of famous paintings by local resident Cézanne, the towering peak of Montagne Sainte Victoire (Sainte-Victoire Mountain) is one of the most iconic symbols of Provence. Looming 1,011 meters on the horizon of Aix-en-Provence, Montagne Sainte Victoire is a picturesque sight, framed by the idyllic vineyards of Provence and changing its hues with the sunset.
A hugely popular spot for hikers, Sainte Victoire offers a striking backdrop for walking and climbing expeditions, with the bright red clay of its foothills giving way to a stark white limestone ridge. A number of trails run around the mountain side and from its peak, the views are the best in the Aix region – a breathtaking panorama that takes in the rolling plains, lush river valleys and hilltop villages that inspired so much of Cézanne’s work. Whether you’re exploring on foot or by car, there are a number of points of interest dotted around the mountain.
Set at the foot of the majestic Verdon Gorges (the largest canyon in Europe) and the Valensole plateau is the Lake of Sainte-Croix, a manmade lake created during the construction of a nearby arch dam in the 1970s. Far from being just a run-of-the-mill stretch of water, Lake of Sainte-Croix is famed for its stunning, vivid emerald-turquoise hues that could fool anyone into thinking they’ve been teleported to an exotic Caribbean island.
The largest lake in Provence (third largest in all of France) is an ideal summer destination. France’s poster region for art de vivre doesn’t disappoint, especially as far as aquatic sports and beaches are concerned–some of the best in the southeast according to locals, with water temperatures rivalling that of the more crowded Mediterranean Sea.
Located on the limits of the Alpes-de-Haute-Provence department on the edge of the Luberon, Manosque is an old walled town filled with ancient doorways, fountains, meandering streets and charming squares like Place du Terreau, Place Marcel Pagnol and Place du Contrôle. Furthermore, Manosque has numerous historical buildings like Hôtel d’Herbès, the Town Hall, Hôtel de Gassaud, the Gothic-Romanesque Saint-Sauveur Church and, of course, the Notre-Dame-de-Romigier Church, which was built in the 10th century. A “walled town” implies gates and fortifications, and Manosque has both, with two of its most popular attractions being the Porte de la Saunerie and Porte du Soubeyran, which both date from the 14th century.
The Provencal village of Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, 20 km south of Avignon, is most famous for its impressively preserved Roman ruins, but behind its ancient façade lies a lively town full of character. The magnificent Triumphant Arch of Glanum is the town’s most dramatic attraction - the oldest Roman arch of the narbonensis region - and the ruins of its 14th century defensive walls still encircle the ancient Gallo-Roman center, with the original portes still used as gateways to the center. The Nostradamus fountain, in honor of its namesake who was born in the town, is another popular sight, as is the elegant 16th century Mairie (Town Hall). The town also possesses a more unusual claim to fame – the town’s Monastery de Mausole housed Van Gogh during his period of psychiatric treatment prior to his untimely death and was where he painted his late masterpieces Starry Night and Self-Portrait.
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