Aix-en-Provence is a most impressive city. Located north of Marseilles, about fifteen miles from the Mediterranean coast, it has a population of just over 140,000. It was founded in 123 BC by the Roman consul Sextius Calvinus, who established baths there. The Romans named the place Aquae Sextiae, which means the waters of Sextius. Now, it is simply called Aix.
In an ongoing homage to water, Aix is festooned with fountains. It is sometimes referred to as the city of a thousand fountains. They adorn the city like enormous jewels randomly deposited by some benevolent giant. There are fountains commemorating kings, some celebrating dolphins, ornate little drinking fountains set into ancient walls, huge fountains on city boulevards dominating the streetscape with intricately sculpted stonework and loud watery din.
A most striking fountain for its size and splendor, La Rotonde is located at the end of the city’s main boulevard, Le Cours Mirabeau. This fountain dates from 1860. It is an elaborate structure surrounded by a series of protecting lions seated in pairs. Towering over it are three semi-clothed statues representing Art, Justice and Agriculture. Halfway up Le Cours Mirabeau is a moss covered natural hot spring fountain, dating back to the time of the Romans. The fountain at the top the boulevard commemorates King René of Anjou and features a tall statue of the king on a column at its centre.
Even in the midsummer sun, it’s pleasant to saunter around this city. The buildings on the narrower streets screen the sun’s rays and a canopy of plane trees provide mottled shade on the wide boulevards. It is a stroller’s dream city; most sights are a short walk from the centre. There could hardly be a more pleasant way to get to know such a beautiful city.
If strolling gets too tiring, taking a break is easy. There are bars, cafes, restaurants and brasseries around every corner. A favorite spot on Le Cours Mirabeau is Les Deux Garçons brasserie. Visitors and locals, young and old, relax on the terrace and watch the world go by.
Les Deux Garçons is the most celebrated brasserie in Aix. Since it was built in 1792, it has been a favorite haunt of many famous artists who lived in or passed through the city. Paul Cézanne (who was born in Aix in 1839), Émile Zola (who spent his childhood in Aix) and Ernest Hemingway were regular patrons. Many of Cézanne’s most famous works depict landmarks of the region; Mont Sainte-Victoire, the iconic mountain to the northeast of Aix, was painted numerous times by him from different angles.
There’s more to Aix than fountains. The city offers an abundance of places well worth visiting, such as Atelier Paul Cézanne, which merits a short note because people might expect to see some of his paintings there; they would be disappointed. This was the artist’s last studio. His tools are strewn all around, as if he had briefly stopped painting and popped out to borrow something from a neighbor. Of course, the markets of Aix are so spectacular that it’s worth visiting the city for them alone. Every day, some city square or boulevard is transformed into a buzzing, multi-coloured bazaar displaying a huge selection of goods and foodstuffs. Vendors sell antiques, ornaments, pottery, books, tools, clothes, furniture, fish, fruit and flowers. Much of the produce is distinctly Provençal so the markets are great places to turn up unique gifts and mementos.
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