A luxury travel guide to Aix-en-Provence in southern France
There is unlikely to be a better line to promote the city of Aix-en-Provence than the famous words from Cézanne: “When you’re born there, it’s hopeless, nothing else is good enough”. Post-Impressionist painter Paul Cézanne is widely regarded as the father of modern art influencing a variety of greats such as Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso. The impact of this monumental figure is still seen today in a city filled with art museums, boutique hotels, and creative independent shops.
You will struggle to find many chain hotels at Aix-en-Provence but instead, you should look for the smaller, quirkier accommodation offerings. One I would recommend is Maison Du Collectionneur; with only 6 rooms available, this is about as boutique as they get. All the rooms have a decidedly artistic or poetic feel to it; for example, in the art room, the owner’s artist friend used his objects, souvenirs, music, and books to help decorate the room. The breakfast/aperitif area is adorned with countless artworks including a very impressive mural of Aix-en-Provence in years gone by and the reception area has very quaint theatre seats as the waiting area.
This is an extremely walkable city with some of the most famous museums very close-by. The Musée Granet is also in the quartier Mazarin and has nearly 600 paintings, sculptures and archaeological pieces with very famous pieces like the Jupiter and Thétis by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres. There are also a handful of art pieces from Cézanne who studied life drawings there as a young man but famously had his donated paintings rejected by the then curator of the museum. But the museum has tried to make up for that blunder since then.
The Hôtel de Caumont is another must-visit museum, not only for their blockbuster rotating exhibitions but architecturally it is of the most lavish of Aix’s bourgeois houses. It is one of the very few 18th-century hôtels particuliers in town with an immaculately manicured garden where you can enjoy sumptuous lunch or afternoon tea. During my visit, I managed to catch 50 French and German masterpieces on loan from the Thannhauser Collection in the Guggenheim Museum including several works from local hero Paul Cézanne.
Aix-en-Provence isn’t just about looking at the past but a very forward-thinking city too. Just a short drive out of the town centre is arguably one of the best modern art installation collections in the world, situated at Château La Coste. The glittering array of artists who have contributed include Tadao Ando, Ai Weiwei, Renzo Piano, Tracey Emin, Frank O. Gehry just to name a few. My favourite piece which has come to signify the Château is ‘crouching spider’ by Louise Bourgeois. The main purpose of Château La Coste is as a futuristic wine producer which includes their 500-acre biodynamic vineyard (hence all the space available for towering art installations).
Being in the idyllic southern part of France, the culinary offerings are not-to-be-missed. One place to check out in town is La Fromagerie du passage, selling over 100 artisanal French cheese and an extensive selection of wines from local producers (particularly check out the rosé wines which is a speciality for Provence). They also have a roof terrace space for wine tasting and dining.
If you are looking for a laidback bistro option, do consider Pointe Noire. This family-run restaurant might serve uncomplicated dishes, but the execution will please the most demanding of palates and that isn’t a surprise considering one of the owners has a Michelin-starred restaurant in Marseille. Their steak tartare is packed with herbs and spices whilst their grilled fish main course is cooked with just the right amount of timing to ensure the freshness from the sea is maintained.
If you want a show-stopping tasting menu experience, then look no further than Mickaël Féval. Their tasting menus are beautifully named like the Temptation menu or the Seduction menu. Owner and executive chef, Mickaël has a keen love of fish dishes which was developed from the days when working at restaurant Antoine, where he earned his first Michelin star. This was very much in evidence as the first 3 courses of the Seduction menu was all seafood with clever use of quinoa in the tuna tartare course to offer textural variety. Langoustine with beautiful verbena and courgette was the 2nd course, whilst a fish course with artichokes barigoule and a shellfish emulsion.
Their signature dish is a black peppered challans chicken with truffles and charred spring onions. I would challenge you to find a more flavoursome chicken dish in town. However, dining at Mickaël Féval isn’t about stuffy, fine dining but a bridge between different artists to show their talents. They frequently have live music and performances to ensure dining there is a multi-sensory affair.
There is no excuse to not head to Aix-en-Provence, especially nowadays with fast Eurostar trains direct to Marseille and then it is only a short transfer bus ride away to the heart of Aix. You can enjoy the beauty of the French countryside whilst stretching your legs out on super-comfortable seats with free wifi and desk space. There are no immigration issues to deal with on arrival whilst the 2-piece luggage policy and no liquid ban is ideal for those who want to bring back souvenirs from this picturesque region.
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