Omni Traveller

Budget Backpack Travel in Europe

Aix-en-Provence: The Scent of Lavender

Cafes in the Aix-en-Provence Town Centre

Place de l’Hôtel de Ville, Aix-en-Provence Town Centre
 Photo: Miguel Virkkunen Carvalho


The only thing more French than Aix-en-Provence is a tight-knit group of artists, poets, and philosophers arguing under a cloud of cigarette smoke outside a café while a musician plays the accordion at a nearby fountain. On second though, that is exactly what you will find in Aix-en-Provence. This is arguably the most beautiful town in France and if you disagree, take it up with Emile Zola, Paul Cézanne, Ernest Hemmingway, John Malkovich and Johnny Depp; all of whom were among Aix’s proud residents at some point in history. This is the town of a thousand fountains. This is the Paris of Provence. This is France.

Those staying outside of town can easily commute to Aix-en-Provence from Marseille via a bus that shuttles between the two towns at regular intervals during the day. Other visitors to the town can come into the regular train station in the town center or the TGV bullet train station that connects all the way to Paris and is only a short bus ride away.

 

This is Not Paris

Let it be understood that almost all of the infamous French attitude seeps out of Paris. The further south you go, the more the sneers and indifference is dissipated by the sun and by the time you get to Aix it is all but gone. For a town with a not so secret ‘secret’ of being mostly controlled by the Corsican mafia, this is one of the safest cities you will visit in Europe and maybe the world. With the exception of a few notoriously grouchy felafel makers, most residents are used to tourists and are glad to help out and for those whose French conjugation has rusted over, most locals speak enough English to get you pointed in the right direction, which can be very handy in a town designed with as many curvy streets as Aix.

 

The Allure of Aix

Aix-en-Provence is a center of fashion and couture in south France, and a casual stroll down the Cours Mirabeau (the grand thoroughfare cousin of Champs Elysées in Paris) will confirm that claim. The best time to visit for the smart shopper is during the two “solde” seasons of the year: the balmy, sweaty summers or the icy winters made cold by the shockingly powerful Mistral blown down from the nearby Swiss Alps. During these two seasons, the highest in French fashion can be bought for up to seventy percent off the normal price, a fact that alone draws a large portion of the town’s visitors two times a year.

The allure, beauty, and social culture of Aix are the reasons to visit this town, but for those who don’t have enough time to devote several happy years of their life enjoying daily life here (which can easily be done), it is probably best to spend a couple days exploring and then move on.

There are a handful of museums and historic sites to pay a respectful visit, but the real tourist highlight of the town is Paul Cézanne’s Studio. This quaint little house is a short walk out of town that will give you beautiful views of the rooftops and the powerful Mont St. Victoire that Cézanne so often made his subjects. Inside, the legendary artist’s original setup is mostly preserved, including his original paint stained furniture, his old coat and hat and a few of the actual still life stars seen in so many renowned museums across the globe. If you were not a fan of Cézanne, or art in general, you will be after a quick visit to this studio and then contemplating life while strolling the surrounding grounds with its beau views. But back at home, should you mention to anyone remotely interested in fine arts and art history that you toured Cézanne’s home and studio, watch their face light up.

 

A Food For Every Mood

One of many outdoor cafes open at night

One of Many Cafés at Night
 Photo: Ben Bowes

Daily open air markets with fresh farm vegetables and the sweetest vineyard fruits you will ever sink your teeth into, crèpes, pizza, Provençal cuisine and an entire street lined with quality shawarma shops; what more do you need?

Being both a tourist hot spot and a town that is home to about half a dozen universities, Aix-en-Provence can cater to any taste bud or taste budget. For the university crowd, the tiny pizza cart known as Pizza Capri can provide the hungry traveller with the best pizza slice that can be found anywhere between Italy and New York.

A street that could easily be dubbed “shwarma row” has window after window of cheap and delicious varieties of the middle eastern/North African equivalent of fast food. The underground (literally) Crèpes a Gogo has a wall-sized menu offering any type of savory or dessert crèpe you could imagine, and most for under $6.50 USD (€5 or £4).

For those with a sweet tooth and a slightly heavier wallet, Aix is home to a couple world-renowned gourmet chocolate shops and is also the epicenter of the calisson— the delicacy of Aix-en-Provence. If you love to be overwhelmed by lemon and honey sweetness, this particular cookie is for you.

The fact of the matter is, no matter if you’re eating low budget or high at the countless restaurants with most genres of food to be found, you will not be disappointed.

 

Sleeping Around

For those staying in town, there is a budget hostel a walk out of the city center but if you are travelling with a partner I would recommend getting a room at one of the many hotels in the city center. Some of these establishments are extremely posh and decadent but there are many more sensible options available that, when sharing with another, can be very affordable and the experience of staying in the middle of all the action is definitely worth it.

 

La Belle de France

For even the most cynical French detractor out there, if there is one place in France that can change their attitude, Aix-en-Provence is it. If the beauty, ambiance, and hearty food doesn’t win them over, surely the strangely charming aroma of bread, pastries, and cigarette smoke that hangs over the town, will. At the very least, it will be a destination that will not soon be forgotten. All one has to do at any point in their life after they say their final goodbye to the town is to smell a sprig of lavender and they will recall their memories of Aix.