48 Hours In Aix-en-Provence

  • Apr 8, 2015

 

Newly built in January ’14 in the city’s arts
and culture neighbourhood (a mere five minutes walk away from the town centre),  Renaissance Aix-En-Provence is a pristine, modern hotel, with everything from the manicured lawns to the spacious lobby, two restaurants and Cloud Nine-like bedrooms removed from so much as a
speck of dirt. Inside it’s creative and characterful with over 400 artworks
from local contemporary artists. Loony lithographs feature next to each room
number and downstairs in the lounging space via a grand spiral staircase,
decorative birdcages dangle and wicker baskets hang form the ceiling, which I
struggle to decide if are art installations or furniture. Upstairs, the 133
rooms are fresh and inviting with big wide windows, large mirrors, plush white
bed linen and saturated orange highlights. The shower is giant and powerful,
and the room is spacious enough for me to dance around my room to, embracing
the nifty iPod dock.
After unpacking it’s most definitely lunchtime
and Bistroquet is just the spot.
Hearty portions use fresh and local ingredients, and assuming its warm enough
you can sit outside, watching local life occur. The risotto here is rich but
satisfying, but if you’re looking for something a little lighter, the seafood linguine
is excellent. The waiter will bring your bill with a shot of Limoncello, which
will be the perfect sweet finish if you forewent dessert.
40 water fountains pepper the historical city
adding to its character and beauty, along with tree-lined streets, busy cafés
on every corner, arts, craft and flower markets, delicious smelling bakeries
and gourmet delicatessens. The colours here are beautiful (as expected, we are
in Provence after all), with blue skies, terracotta roofs, chalky rainbow
coloured buildings and leafy green trees. It comes as no surprise that Aix was of
such interest to Paul Cezanne, who created many of his great works here. (If
art is your thing, don’t pass up a visit to Cezanne’s studio on Lauvres Hill, which remains exactly as it was,
with many of his famous still life objects scattered around the room).

I visit in October but learn spring is even
more stunning, with flowers and colours at their very best. Though compact the
city has some lovely shops (Maje, Zara and Zadig & Voltaire included) and
plenty of places to pick up mementos. It’s worth ducking your head into the St Sauveur Cathedral to appreciate the stained glass windows and giant organ, and
you can bet there’ll be a wedding going on in the town hall square, set against the photographable 16th-century clock
tower. Aix-en-Provence is a city that gets a lot of sunshine, couple that with
the beautiful architecture, fine food and Provence countryside that surrounds
it, and it comes as no surprise that Aix is popular for weddings.
Stop for a sit down with a coffee and a couple
of Calissons (‘little hugs’) — oval shaped iced almond sweets, that are the official
sweet of Aix-en-Provence, featured throughout the city’s rich history and even
have their own festival. (If you find yourself particular fond of these sweet
treats, you may want to take a trip to the Léonard
Parli Calisson Factory,
which is an interest stop and still very much in
use.)
Back at the hotel, it’s time for dinner at Le Clos. Now I’m the first person to
turn my nose up at a hotel restaurant, especially when the standard of food is
so high in the area, but Le Clos doesn’t disappoint. It’s an intimate 40-cover
restaurant headed up by Michelin-star chef Jean-Marc Banzo. Course after course
is unveiled from a theatrical silver cloche and just as I think we’re done, another
course is brought out. Of the seven courses and various amuse bouches I can
remember (each one paired with a local wine probably have something to do with
fuzzy memory), highlights include a bite-size truffle croque-monsieur, cep
mushroom ice cream (sound vile, is spectacular), a sweet and salty Denti fish, and
a chocolate sphere dessert with cocoa nib ice cream – by far the richest, most
decadent dessert I’ve had. You’ll sleep easy after all that…
The next morning, wake up early and get in a
swim in the pool before anyone else has the same idea. Striking pearly grey
tiles cover one wall of the 11m pool and a floor-to-ceiling window floods it
with sunshine. A strong current in one direction makes swimming not only more
fun but more of a workout too. Pound the treadmill if you fancy it before
easing your muscles in the large and beautifully tiled hammam. If you’ve got
time, book in for a Ymalia massage and be kneaded into a state of pure bliss in
one of the spa’s private massage rooms.
Shower, dress and head down to brunch, which
starts at a leisurely 12pm here and is an event that will really need mental
and physical preparation due to the sheer size of it. There are brunch buffets
then there’s this brunch buffet. I’m
familiar with 5* breakfasts and I know how truly epic they can be but here,
where no online write up or booking page highlights the brunch, it surprises
and delights. There’s everything from fried potatoes to savoury yoghurts,
cheese platters, meats, elegant patisseries, fruits, nuts and more. I’m merrily
offered rose wine, not something I usually have with brunch.
For memories a little different it’s worth
getting out of the city centre. Paul Cezanne’s workshop as mentioned is a short
20-minute walk away from the city centre, and in a similar artistic vein in
Saint-Remy de Provence, Maison de sante
Saint-Paul de Mausole,
the asylum where Vincent Van Gogh spent time in 1889
is an interesting stop, with many of his oil paintings on display and with a
beautiful floral courtyard. Carrières de
Lumières
is a must-visit. Though sounding a little touristy and gimmicky, standing
in giant limestone caves, excavated through quarrying, watching trompe d’oeil
projections of Klimt artworks bounce across the walls and floor, to an eerie
classical soundtrack, is like something you’re unlikely to have done before and
something you definitely won’t forget
– enchanting and mesmerising and easily a highlight of Aix.

 

If you’re staying for longer, remember Nice, Avignon, Cassis and Marseilles are all manageable
distances away, and all with beautiful journeys guaranteed along roads lined
with olive groves and vineyards. If you’re headed straight home, don’t forget
to pick up a little bottle of local wine and a few snacks to enjoy on the
Eurostar, being appreciating how great it feels to be able to just stroll off
the train and onto the tube at the other end – holidays have never been so
simple.
This piece was originally written for Grazia Daily
May 13, 2015

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