Were it not for the great metropolis of Marseille, just 30km south, Aix-en-Provence would be the dominant city of central Provence. Historically, culturally and socially, the two cities are moons apart, and for visitors the tendency is to love one and hate the other. Aix is more immediately attractive, a stately and in parts pretty place that’s traditionally seen as conservative. The proudest moment in its history was its fifteenth-century heyday as an independent fiefdom under the beloved King René of Anjou, while in the nineteenth century it was home to close friends Paul Cézanne and Émile Zola. Today, the youth of Aix dress immaculately; hundreds of foreign students, particularly Americans, come to study here; and there’s a certain snobbishness, almost of Parisian proportions.
Known as Vieil Aix, the tangle of medieval lanes at the city’s heart is a great monument in its entirety, an enchanting ensemble that’s far more compelling than any individual building or museum it contains. With so many streets alive with people; so many tempting restaurants, cafés and shops; a fountained square to rest in every few minutes; and a backdrop of architectural treats from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, it’s easy to while away days at a time enjoying its pleasures. On Saturdays, and to a lesser extent on Tuesdays and Thursdays, the centre is taken up with some of the finest markets in Provence.
During the annual music festivals, the varied contemporary showcase of Aix en Musique (June) and the Festival International d’Art Lyrique (opera and classical concerts; last two weeks of July), the alternative scene – of street theatre, rock concerts and impromptu gatherings – turns the whole of Vieil Aix into one long party. Tickets and programmes are available from the festival offices in the Palais de l’Ancien Archevêché on place des Martyrs-de-la-Résistance ( t 04 34 08 02 17, w festival-aix.com).