Aix-en-Provence, the art gallery that became a city

Aix-en-Provence is not only the home of Cézanne or of Post-Impressionist inspiration. Art springs up everywhere you look, just like the almost one thousand fountains that flow continuously, reflecting the cultural enchantment to be enjoyed both within its charming city centre and outside of it. That was my first impression of the art gallery that became a city in the heart of Provence.

Musée Granet in Place Saint Jean de Malte

On the trail of Paul Cézanne, the favourite son of this city, I started not with his studio, nor at the Café des Deux Garçons, a frequent haunt of his in Cours Mirabeau. I wanted to begin with the Musée Granet, the place housing a treasure trove of the greatest number of works by this painter in Provence (there are eleven in the permanent collection). It is in the heart of the Place Saint Jean de Malte, next to the beautiful Gothic church of the Knights of the Order of Saint John of Malta, which used to be the priory of that Order. Here I found not only Cézanne’s painting of the Mont Sainte-Victoire but also other French masters such as Ingres, Duqueylard and, of course, the man who gave his name to the museum, François Marius Granet. It also has a wonderful collection of Roman sculptures.

Caumont Art Centre, a new use for a great house

It is only a few years since the Hôtel de Caumont (Caumont Mansion), at number 1, Rue Joseph Cabassol, opened as an art centre. Until 2011 it was a music conservatoire. But when this palatial eighteenth century residence in the Quartier Mazarin opened its doors to the public it became obvious that not only did the building provide a sumptuous setting, but it also acted as an artistic magnet, capable of attracting some of the best exhibitions of the time. When I was there it was hosting the exhibition "Masterpieces of the Guggenheim: From Manet to Picasso, the Thannhauser Collection". As the name implies, masterpieces by the greatest painters in nineteenth and twentieth century European art are on display (Van Gogh, Picasso, Renoir, Gauguin, Cézanne, etc.).

Château La Coste, modern art among the vineyards

Scarcely 20 km north of Aix-en-Provence I managed to leave the city behind, but its art came with me. At Château La Coste I came across the ultimate in modern art in Provence, an outstanding fusion between a natural setting of ancient vineyards and wine cellars and the most avant-garde and striking works by artists of the stature of Frank Gehry, Tadao Ando, Tom Shannon, Paul Matisse, Sean Scully and Hiroshi Sugimoto, among many others. There is something for everyone, from art connoisseurs to families who want to lose themselves among the vines and explore the various objects on show in the midst of nature. The visitor is greeted by a giant spider by Bourgeois, a clear statement of intent.

La Terrasse, rather more than just a summer café

Still at Château La Coste, as I was going to need several hours for the visit, I went for a bite to eat at La Terrasse, a charming open-air café where it is impossible not to enthuse over the wonderful selection of regional cheeses that are on the menu. I cannot think of a better and more Provençal combination than enjoying the sophistication of modern art in the middle of the countryside, while sitting in the sun at a table laden with typical local foods perfect in every detail.

Strolling through the old centre of Aix-en-Provence

Museums are great, of course, but in Aix-en-Provence there is nothing better than wandering through the delights of its historic centre of enchanting buildings, shops, hundreds of fountains, little terraces that open up as soon as the good weather arrives and, of course, being enthralled by the architecture left behind in the city by various eras of history. For example, Saint-Sauveur Cathedral has one Romanesque nave, one Gothic nave and another in Baroque style, although its greatest treasures are its wonderful Romanesque cloister of twin columns and of course, the triptych of the Burning Bush, painted by Nicolas Froment, placing him alongside the great Flemish Masters of the fifteenth century. I was also entranced during my visit by wandering through the fruit and vegetable market in Place Richelme and sitting having a coffee in Cours Mirabeau, the boulevard at the centre of this city’s being.

Place des Cardeurs, the hub of restaurants and terraces

How I love sitting at a terrace outside a restaurant! In Aix-en-Provence the place for inveterate foodies lies in the heart of the historic centre. There are so many restaurants (and terraces) in Place des Cardeurs that I could have stayed ten days in the city and never visited the same one twice. My favourite was Les Baratineurs, at the end of the square, with dishes from various parts of the world at affordable prices and with excellent background music. It’s a free and easy place with an impressive selection of beers, where I was able to enjoy a different experience of Aix-en-Provence.

Les Petits Plats de Trinidad

Just a few steps away from Cours Mirabeau, at 10, Rue d'Italie to be precise, is a gastronomic option of a particularly home-made Provençal nature. Les Petits Plats de Trinidad is more than just a good place to eat. And although the interior has a very welcoming atmosphere, I recommend one of the outside tables, unless the weather is very cold. And you must not leave without trying their tarts. They are delicious.

Cézanne’s last studio

I could not leave Aix-en-Provence without following in the steps of Paul Cézanne. There are so many places bearing his name that the Tourist Office even offers a numbered route you can follow on foot. But if I had to choose just one place I would go to L’Atelier de Cézanne at Colline des Lauves, to the north of the old city. His work room is wonderfully preserved there with the original objects that appear in his works. You feel as if the painter is going to appear at any moment to continue working on one of his Still Life with Apples, vases and tablecloths. Being there is just like being inside one of the paintings by the Provençal genius.