From Arles we headed to Aix-en-Provence. It has a history of public and private patronage of the arts which dates from the 1700s, and one of the most prestigious art collections in the country outside Paris, Add a Mediterranean climate, 300 days of sunshine a year and its location in the midst of a region renowned for wine and fresh produce and the result is an elegant city, a centre of art, wine, fine food and great shopping.
Aix is known as the ‘city of a thousand fountains’. Important for drinking water, clothes washing and watering cattle during the annual transhumance from mountains to lower pastures, plus thermal springs feeding health spas, there must have been a lot at one time. A thousand was probably always an exaggeration but there’s still upward of 40 just in the main centre.
At one end of the scale there are cute little drinking fountains.
At the other end, there are monumental ones such as Fountain de la Rotonde built in 1860 and topped with statues representing the town’s three main historical activities: art, justice and agriculture.
Fountain de la Rotonde sits at the beginning of Cours Mirabeau, Aix’s grand plane tree lined boulevard constructed in 1650 through the heart of the town. Three times a week, an outdoor market stretches along the entire 440 metre length.
When the market isn’t there, the restored facades of the 17th and 18th century public buildings and hotel particulaires (private mansions) of the wealthy are on show.
The family of Emile Zola moved to Aix from Paris when he was three years old and he remained here until returning to Paris at age 18.
At school he met Paul Cezanne and they remained firm friends into adulthood. But Zola found fame and commercial success as a writer while Cezanne struggled as an artist. When Zola published his novel L’Oeuvre, the story of a painter who fails to achieve his dreams and ultimately commits suicide, Cezanne thought it was about him. Insulted, he broke off the friendship.
Cezanne was born in Aix and lived most of his life here. During his lifetime he received only modest recognition for his art and never did find commercial success. As late as three years before his death, an art critic wrote such a disparaging review of his work that locals left letters on his doorstep asking him to leave Aix as he was “dishonouring the town”.
These days, they love him. And fully capitalise on his posthumously acquired status as the artist who ‘formed the bridge between late 19th century Impressionism and early 20th century Cubism’. And why not? Henri Matisse described him as “a kind of dear god of painting” and Pablo Picasso claimed Cezanne was “the only master for me” and, speaking for Cubists everywhere, that “he was the father of us all”.
The tourism office publishes a map of The Cezanne Trail which is marked with bronze plaques embedded in the footpath. It starts with a statue of the man himself.
The trail takes you past no less than 35 Cezanne sites. There’s the house where he was born, the church where he married and the law school where he failed to complete his studies.
There were lots of other truly obscure ‘sites’ like the studio of a lesser known sculptor who was a childhood friend of Cezanne. In googling him, the most interesting fact we found was that he died of pneumonia after working in the rain and as he was being taken to hospital is said to have murmured “what a pity about the weather”. That one’s in the running for understatement of the year.
In truth, following the trail was more a way of giving structure to a walk around the old city.
And when it got too hot, to stop in a shady square for a glass of the rosé for which Provence is justly famous.
Atelier Cezanne is, however, worth a visit. Cezanne spent his final years living and working in this house and studio built to his specifications on a hill just outside Aix. After his death, an admirer bought the property but only lived on the ground floor, leaving the studio intact, like a shrine. It’s now in the hands of a foundation which manages visits.
Cezanne’s equipment, models for his still life paintings and furniture are on display.
One really has to wonder about the sanity of a guy who paints a green pot more than 80 times. But we must admit, he got quite good at it. Here’s one of his ‘green pot’ paintings and the original pot in the studio.
Likewise he got quite good at skulls.
A 15 minute walk up the hill from the studio is Terrain des Peintres, a favourite spot of Cezanne’s from which he would paint Mont Sainte-Victoire. On his own admission he was captivated by it. He completed 36 paintings and 45 watercolours of the mountain, all from this location. There are sign boards of some of them which you can compare with the view.
Back in town, the permanent collection at Aix’s premier art museum, Musee Granet surprisingly contains only ten of Cezanne’s paintings and none of them are his most famous ones. But we did see an impressive temporary exhibition of 17th century paintings by artists from Naples.
At a second site, the museum has the Planque Foundation collection with some marvellous Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings, several of Picasso’s best and a sizeable cache of early 20th century art, all housed in a restored 17th century chapel which is worth a visit in its own right. Julie admires some of Picasso’s work. John thinks what should be admired was his ability to monetise art a child might produce.
Walking around town it’s impossible to miss shops selling the local specialty confectionery, calissons d’Aix. These bite sized sweets were created in 1473 for the wedding banquet of King René held here in Aix. Ground almonds and fruit syrup are blended and placed on a diamond shaped wafer, then glazed with fruit flavoured icing sugar. Lovely little flavour bombs.
Aix has some excellent classical French bistros and, of course, a lot of top notch rosé, making it a most agreeable town to spend a few days. Even if you aren’t interested in art, the food, wine and ambience make it worth a visit.