A Summer Vacation in Aix-en-Provence and Environs

The Saturday fruit and vegetable market in Aix-en-Provence, France. August 17, 2019.

The Saturday fruit and vegetable market in Aix-en-Provence, France. August 17, 2019.

With a short window for a proper summer vacation and little time to plan it, Arnaud and I decided to rent a car and drive from Lausanne to Provence for ten days, with half of it in the Bouches-du-Rhône area and the other half in the Luberon (and a side trip to Avignon!).

Provence has seven subregions—and you can’t see them all or even two of them in a mere ten days. The trip punctured my naïve notion of “Provence” as one quaint little region with a unified culture, landscape, and story. Instead, Provence has layers of history from the Celts through the Romans through the French Revolution through 19th century post-impressionist artists and on through WWII and the French Resistance. (And it continues.)

We spent the first part of the trip based in Aix-en-Provence to see the Bouches-du-Rhône area, including Aix, Marseille, and some of the smaller towns. And though we thought we’d relax on this trip, we probably needed a vacation after the vacation, given our sustained attempt to do all the things.

A Base in Aix-en-Provence

We did a two-hour walking tour of Aix-en-Provence on one our last days in town, arranged by the Aix-en-Provence tourist office, and wished we’d done it earlier in the trip. If you visit Aix, I highly recommend joining a guided tour, which will show you areas you won’t otherwise see—even after days of walking—and will give you an entirely different understanding of the city and its history than you can gather from the historical plaques and signs all over town.

Aix-en-Provence gets its name from its natural hot springs, which the Romans prized and which still exist today. (The Roman name for the city, Aquae Sextiae, got mangled over the centuries into the word “Aix.”) Present-day Aix has little Roman-ness left; instead, it flourishes its medieval and Renaissance fabulousness from the time when the counts of Provence made Aix their capital and the town became the center of showing off wealth and privilege for nobles and the nouveau riche alike.

The old town, which has motorbikes and scooters and even cars mixing with pedestrians on narrow medieval streets opening into small squares with fountains, winds around and around and delights tourists with shops, restaurants, ice cream parlors, cafés, and markets, which take place every single day of the week. Each evening during our visit, the town featured free concerts from bands of all kinds—from classical to punk—which made post-dinner walks positively magical.

Two Aix-en-Provence restaurants of note: Le Petit Verdot and Jardin Mazarin. We highly recommend both if you visit Aix; each featured fresh, delicious, local, Provencal food; welcoming and warm service; and beautiful settings. (However, I don’t recommend eating frog legs, which Arnaud had me try at Le Petit Verdot. Frog legs, as it turns out, have a chewy texture and a sour taste.)

Aix-in-Provence has a reputation for post-impressionist art, especially from local boy Cézanne. Though Arnaud and I aren’t huge fans of post-impressionism, we couldn’t not go to the Musée Granet and the Caumont Centre d’Art. I enjoyed the architecture and the historical room furnishings in the Caumont Centre d’Art more than the art itself, I confess. The Musée Granet has an impressive collection of modern art from all the big names, from Cézanne through Van Gogh, Picasso, Monet, and beyond—one I feel glad to have experienced, as photographs of the art I’ve seen didn’t have anywhere near the effect on me that the paintings I saw in person had.

We made Aix our base for our Bouches-du-Rhône visit due to its central location in the region and its sparkling reputation as the height of artistic and chic Provence. It delivered! We lodged in an AirBNB off Cours Mirabeau, which put us in the center of the world of Aix-en-Provence—and loved every minute of our stay.

Marseille in Eight Hours

Marseille is the second largest city in France, after Paris, so it begs a visit (even after mixed reviews of the place).

I liked Marseille upon first impression. We parked across the street from a former warehouse that developers had turned into a hip multilevel shopping and activity center, which only reveled itself in full when we went in to find a coffee, tea, and bathroom. (After wandering around for multiple floors before finding the bathroom, we forewent the coffee and tea.)

Also, the city has a gritty, urban Mediterranean feel that hints at hidden depths and treasures that the tourist sites will never reveal. However, with less than one day in town, we did the tourist sites.

Avoid The Vieux Port

The Vieux Port, the most highly recommended area in Marseille across multiple guidebooks, felt like a jam-packed, tourist-laden nightmare.

Crammed shoulder-to-shoulder in blazing Mediterranean sun with people watching street performers, shopping in tourist traps, and ogling over menus at touristy restaurants—the majority of whom behaved badly (including roving Roma, in full pickpocket mode)—Arnaud and I quickly found our most sour moods. That the entire area featured waves of noxious sulfuric odor from unknown depths of maintenance needs didn’t help.

Arnaud and I trekked miserably back and forth across the Vieux Port to get from one place to the next. I can only feel thankful that we saw other, better things in Marseille to temper the negative experience.

I’d recommend avoiding the Vieux Port, despite guidebooks’ recommendations. You can see it from a much better vantage point at one of the city’s other—and more pleasant—tourist hotspots.

Le Panier Feels Like Greenwich Village

We walked through Le Panier, a historic neighborhood with an artsy, bohemian feel, on our way back to the car at the end of the day. It reminded me of Greenwich Village in New York City and Arnaud of the Montmartre area of Paris.

The area houses La Vieille Charité, a former poor house that now accommodates two museums: a museum highlighting archaeology in the Mediterranean and a museum of African, oceanic, and American Indian art. We walked past the outside of the building, tucked into a small medieval street and featuring a beautiful façade, but didn’t go into the building or visit the museums. I might have found it interesting to see a European take on the American Indians. Seeing a museum dedicated to the topic in southern France felt bizarre. Yet, by the time we reached the neighborhood, we’d tapped out our energy reserves.

Fort Saint-Jean and the Musée des Civilisations de l’Europe et de la Méditerranée

Fort Saint-Jean houses the Musée des Civilisations de l’Europe et de la Méditerranée, and we visited it primarily to see the highly recommended museum.

However, I found myself far more impressed with touring the beautifully restored Fort Saint-Jean, which has a long history of importance to the Marseille port starting in the pre-Roman era and continuing through Napoleonic times and the French Revolution. Don’t miss the neatly produced, succinct multimedia historical presentation hidden in a series of five rooms. Further, the upper levels of the fort provide some of the best views of the Marseille port and coastline—and the fort, free to the public (whereas the museum as an entrance fee), has several gardens and terraces away from the city’s hubbub to picnic or just relax.

The city has recently built the pristine and stylish museum, which houses a variety of permanent and temporary collections across multiple buildings and levels. We enjoyed wandering through it, but if it didn’t have a home base in the fort, I don’t know that I’d recommend a visit.

Churches: The Cathédrale de la Major and the Basilique Notre-Dame de la Garde

We parked not far from the Cathédrale de la Major. When I entered the massive and impressive building, it seemed without question that it made for Marseille’s main historic church.

However, after a bit of exploration, I learned that the church built the cathedral in the late 19th century—making it new by European standards. Still, you should pop into the cathedral if you visit Marseille, as it has a very distinct Byzantine flavor that feels intrinsically Mediterranean, with marked differences from the more Roman and Gothic Catholic cathedrals you’ll see elsewhere in France.

As we trudged through the Vieux Port, we saw the Basilique Notre-Dame de la Garde on the high hill at the far side of our starting point. Given the hot sun, tourist throngs, and sulfur stink, I really had to muster my “you really should”s to push myself to visit. (Arnaud felt the same, I think, yet when I said I wanted to see it, I got no complaints.)

Hiking the steep hill to the basilica on narrow, medieval, dusty, cobblestoned streets in the blazing sun feels like a pilgrimage, no matter your religion. We arrived soaked with sweat and encrusted with a thin layer of grit. Yet the astounding views of the region once you make it all the way to the top, and the mysterious yet majestic feel of the 13th century basilica itself, made it well worth the trek.

Arles and the Camargue

Thousands of years after its construction, the massive Roman arena in Arles still hosts events—mainly two variations on bullfighting (the more well-known Spanish kind and a Camargue-style kind). Its neighbor and contemporary, an amphitheater, hasn’t much survived the years or received the arena’s level of restoration, yet it plays a role today as well through hosting theater and musical performances.

Outside of these events, you can tour the two sites on a two-fer ticket. Both structures will impress visitors with the sheer ability—engineering and organizational—of the ancient Romans. However, if you don’t speak French, you may want to arrange a private tour in advance of your visit. Most of the signs have limited English translations.

Given that the arena, the amphitheater, and Arles have incredible Roman history, I wish I’d had the chance to learn more. (One interesting fact I did glean: The Romans built the arena to house all the social classes—and to ensure that none of the classes would mix when entering or exiting the building.)

If ancient Rome doesn’t interest you, fret not: You’ll find plenty of Van Gogh in Arles. We’d had our fill during our recent visit to Amsterdam and in other stops in Aix-en-Provence, so we skipped the Van Gogh-themed restaurants, the Fondation Vincent Van Gogh, and the Espace Van Gogh.

On our way back to Aix-en-Provence, we drove briefly through the neighboring Camargue to the Musée de la Camargue, which we used as a turnaround point. (We didn’t visit the museum or walk around in the marshes, however. We’d heard to avoid getting out of the car if we didn’t have bug spray, which we didn’t.)

I’d hoped we’d see some of the little white horses from the region, one of the region’s famed cowboys (called “gardians”), or even a Camargue black bull or two on our drive. No such luck. However, even a quick pass through the area will impress you with the difference in terrain between the dry, dusty Arles and the marshy, humid, reed-filled Camargue.

La Table de Ventabren and the Château de la Reine Jeanne

We’d have never seen Ventabren if it didn’t house a recommended restaurant, Dan B, also known as La Table de Ventabren. We had lunch there on our way to the Luberon for the rest of our vacation.

The restaurant has incorporated itself into a mountain and perches over the valley below—stunning views of which it features from its one open “wall.” It serves some of the best food we had in Provence (and had a groovy playlist that included ‘90s hip-hop). We ate every bite of our four-course tasting menu, including several between-courses amuse-bouches.

After lunch, we walked through the tiny town to move our bodies a bit. At the top of the village, we found the ruins of the first-century Château de la Reine Jeanne and further views over the countryside.

Château de la Coste in Le Puy Sainte Réparade

In truth, we returned to this area of Provence after we’d left it to explore the Luberon. Arnaud encountered an intriguing yet brief mention of Château de la Coste in his Michelin guide one evening, which prompted him to seek out more information on the web. I didn’t get the full scoop of what he found, just his expression of surprise and his assertion that we absolutely had to visit it.

Finding the spot took a bit of sleuthing, as it doesn’t exist in most guidebooks and didn’t show up in our GPS. When we arrived, we knew we’d hit the right place given the sleek concrete entrance sign and the expansive green lawn with a rusted metal box-within-boxes sculpture on the main lawn. (Later, I learned that the artist, Sean Scully, called this sculpture “Boxes Full of Air.”) As we drove up the pathway, we saw an infinity pool with a spider-like sculpture and more sleek concrete and clean lines ahead. (Louise Bourgeois made the spider sculpture, which she named “Crouching Spider.”)

The entrance to Château de la Coste in Provence, France. August 23, 2019.

The entrance to Château de la Coste in Provence, France. August 23, 2019.

A wealthy man bought the lands for Château de la Coste in 2004 and began a still-in-progress effort to turn the estate into a playground of modern sculpture. The extensive lands—the property seems to go on without end, though I know it must have borders somewhere—features work by Frank Gehry, Tadao Ando, Alexander Calder, Renzo Piano, Richard Serra, Ai Weiwei, and even Michael Stipe. (I stop listing here only because to name them all would take more space than it makes sense for this post to provide. You can find the full catalog of art and artists on the Château de la Coste website.) Temporary exhibits at the time of our visit included a building full of drawings and paintings by Basquiat.

Truly, the entire museum or center or estate or whatever I should call it will astound you. I found it impossible to fully absorb on one visit.

Even after his on-line research, I don’t think Arnaud realized the breadth of the place. We walked the grounds at a clip and it still took us about three and a half hours—and in the August heat of Provence. Though the chic feel of the grounds made me thankful for dressing somewhat more stylishly than I would have dressed for a day of schlumping around, say, Marseille, I wished I’d had on hiking clothes to better withstand the trek and the temperatures.

The Château de la Coste attracts the type of clientele that you’d imagine a highly exclusive, hidden modern-art center would attract. Some people had arrived by helicopter. Some people stayed on the grounds in the small hotel, which we later discovered offers rooms that start at $2,250 per night. (A set of four teacups for sale in the museum gift shop had approximately the same price tag. No, we didn’t buy them.)

Repeating the Trip with Hindsight

What would I do differently, if we did it again or could do it for the first time with the benefit of hindsight?

I’d repeat our stay in Aix-en-Provence, visit the Château de la Coste (in more appropriate attire and with a full-day mindset), eat at La Table de Ventabren, and stay a couple of nights in Marseille to do the city more justice—while avoiding the Vieux Port area entirely and containing my tourist-site visits to the basilica and the St. Jean Fort.

Yet if you visit Aix-en-Provence and the Bouches-du-Rhône region, you almost can’t go wrong.