Thursday, December 13, 2012

A Guide to Aix-en-Provence, or, What I Learnt On My Research Trip

Aix-en-Provence isn't the most obvious place to go for research... unless you're studying French colonisation, in which case, like me, you'll be spending a lot of time here! Aix lives up to all the clichés, with buildings the colours of honey, an almost constant scent of lavender and sky that turns pink and then blue at twilight. The stone can be explained by the town's proximity to the Bibémus Quarries and the lavender can be explained by all the shops and street stalls capitalising on tourist expectations, but the sky is seriously just magical. It's also 100% blue most days.

So Aix is ravishing beautiful*, but Cezanne's studio is the town's biggest tourist attraction and that takes less than an hour to visit if you examine absolutely everything in the room with a magnifying glass. It's smaller than Cambridge and the museums can't even slightly compete. There isn't much to do. 

Strangely enough, this is a good thing.

It's definitely excellent for productivity. I decided today that I wasn't going to go to the Archives d'Outre Mer and yet still ended up reading books on suitcases (i.e. kind of relevant to my research) at the Cité du Livres. One of Aix's biggest assets is how much the town makes you want to sit around and read.

The Cité du Livres is one of the most enchanting libraries I've ever visited. It used to be a match factory, and the entrance is located behind three-storey high books (Le Petit Prince, some Molière and L'Étranger by Camus). The walls and windows are covered with quotes about books, reading and writing. There's also a cinema and this week they were showing Frank Capra films!

It's also incredibly welcoming, with a huge room dedicated to comic books and an incredibly intuitive shelving system throughout.

I've spent a lot of this week reading in various places, though, and wandering through the streets stopping at shops and fountains, because that's really what Aix-en-Provence excels at, so I thought I would note down some of the places that I've particularly liked. When I was trying to research the city I found information relatively scarce, perhaps because few people stay more than a day or two, so this can be my version of a travel guide.

Places to Eat & Drink
(though I'll list shops for buying food further down, under shops)

Book in Bar
I really love Book in Bar, Aix's English bookshop and cafe, and have been there three days in a row, reading and writing and looking out the window and drinking coffee and buying Primo Levi books. If I go back again tomorrow, I might try the hot lemon on their winter drinks menu, and their muffins also look good, but mostly I always like bookshops that are also cafes.

Coffee To Go (on the same street as the Cathedral, just uphill from it)
I have to admit that I went into this cafe because the sign outside advertised it as a l'Australienne and that I ordered a flat white and the barista (who was French, surprisingly for an a l'Australienne cafe) switched to speaking English and told me he could tell I was from Australia because I'd ordered a flat white. It was really good coffee, though, among the best I've had in France and better than some that I tried when I systematically visited every coffee shop in the Melbourne Coffee Guide a few year ago. I also made friends with an American exchange student here and she gave me all sorts of great tips on daily life in Aix.

Boutique du Glacier (1 Rue Maréchal Joffre)
This is one of the recommendations Trish, the girl I met at Coffee To Go, gave me, telling me it had the best pain au chocolat in town. It has all sorts of other things, too, and is really pretty and has a nice seating area. I also like the tiled floor and the plates on display behind the counter. The pain au chocolat is really good and it's hard to write this without having one here to eat...

Shake Stars
I wouldn't recommend having your drink sur place because the bad house music and disco lights vibe doesn't work at all, but Shake Stars has more varieties of milkshakes than anywhere I've ever seen. The area behind the counter looks like one of the best candy stores ever, but all the chocolate and candy can be blended in your milkshake (even mentos! I'm curious about how that works). I had a violet milkshake, which was delicious.

La Brûlerie (Place Richelme)
This is right in the centre of town, on a square where a market is held at least twice a week. I didn't buy anything at the market, but it's the only place I've ever seen fishmongers giving away fresh oysters to potential customers. La Brûlerie is a good place for a quick coffee, with a counter to stand at or some small tables outdoors. You can also buy coffee beans to take away with you. It feels Italian, smells wonderful and the espresso is good. 


I'm kind of tempted not to write about shops to visit, as the shops in Aix are dangerous... but they're also wonderful.

There are too many good shops in Aix-en-Provence. I bought the most amazing t-shirt in the world as a Christmas gift for my brother at Kulte (link); their clothes were surprisingly well-priced and they sell skateboards with Raphael paintings on the underside. Le Petit Souk had lots of beautiful little things for putting in one's house (or for children, but you know, whatever). Maison d'Emmaus (link) is especially wonderful, a charity shop set up like a house with a living room and playroom and bedroom and kitchen, all filled with beautiful old objects for sale (I bought a tie for three euro from the closet). And while I'm not sure if it qualifies as gallery or shop, arranged by a tattoo parlour, I liked the Art Gallery of Tattoo (link) in a laneway lit by fairylights.

Blow Up (link) is one of the best vintage stores ever. It looks tiny on the outside but is actually cavernous and I only wish I'd gone inside before my last morning. The things I wished I'd had time to try on include a pair of blue buckle up doc martens and a corduroy baseball jacket with the name 'Anna' (my name!) embroidered on it. They also had great rollerskates and lomography cameras at 50% off, including an awesome Diana camera with a Renaissance Adam and Eve painting printed on it.

In the littoral world where food meets shops, I loved the Fromagerie Savelli and Torréfaction Noailles (for chocolate, candy and coffee), both in Rue des Marseillais, and Aix et Terra on Place Richelme, pricey but wonderful. And the markets are predictably amazing, colourful and scented and everything you've ever wanted from a French market. They're held everywhere and every morning and it's impossible not to stumble upon them.

The Christmas market at this time of year is also really lovely, though expensive. There are always crowds around demonstrations at the magic stand and lines for vin chaud, but alongside the festival atmosphere are some really lovely ceramic plates and rhubarb candles. There's a surprising lack of kitsch, perhaps partially because Aix isn't one of the stereotypical 'Christmas cities'. 

Sightseeing/Art and Architecture 

I've now seen most of the main sights in Aix's centre, though some were closed for restoration and some were just inexplicably closed. This is probably a good thing, since I'll be coming back for research again and I'll need places to visit. From what I have seen, though, I can say (as noted earlier) that this isn't really a city for museums. The Natural History Museum was the same size as the Maison d'Emmaus and more expensive, while the Musée Granet's display of Plossu's photographs of Mt Saint-Victoire, though lovely, made me feel this was a region more for hiking than the indoors.

While Cezanne's studio was pretty and worth the quick trip up a hill, I liked best the Cathedral Saint Sauveur, particularly the cloisters. You can only see these on a tour and it was freezing (sometimes too cold to understand all the French, though generally my comprehension surprised myself), but really worth it. Every column is different yet fits together, intended to reflect the idea of being separate and yet united, and the detail and imagination of the carving is astonishing. I generally have a thing for cloisters,  but these ones were exceptional. Altogether, I spent almost two hours in the Cathedral and may go back tomorrow to see the carved doors.

Another of my favourite things was this fantastic exhibition of posters promoting gender equality. It's on only until the 21st of December, but I'd definitely recommend it to anybody in Aix this week.

And, of course, there's the Archives d'Outre Mer which I'm pretty sure is on almost nobody's sightseeing itinerary. You can't get in without a subject to research and it's hidden away in such a style that I'm sure they chose the location to stop people from prying into colonisation, but I think the building is surprisingly stylish!

So, well, that's Aix-en-Provence so far. I'm going back to the Archives d'Outre Mer tomorrow, and then to Paris, so I won't see much more of the town on this trip (though I am planning to get up the courage to try one of the cute restaurants I've noted down on my list). I am looking forward to coming back to properly research, though, for a more extended period. I think Aix will be a good place to stay for a while; I can go hiking and try the lavender and honey gelato at Philippe Faur...

*though I got an iPhone and my newfound love of Instagram means my photography has suffered. Aix is especially pretty at twilight and I haven't mastered phone photography in low light situations... but you should follow me on instagram; my username is lookitsanna.


  1. This just verifies that I must go back to Paris! I wish I had known about the Cité du Livres when I went last summer!

    1. Aix-en Provence is quite far away from Paris, Jess...