A pocket of Left Bank Parisian chic deep in Provence, it’s hard to believe Aix-en-Provence is just 25km from chaotic, exotic Marseille. Aix (pronounced like the letter X) is all class: its plane tree–shaded boulevards and public squares are lined with 17th- and 18th-century mansions, and punctuated by gurgling, moss-covered fountains. The city’s grandest avenue, cours Mirabeau, is guarded by haughty stone lions – and by fashionable Aixois sipping espresso on wicker chairs on elegant café terraces.
Like Paris’ Left Bank, Aix is a prestigious student hub (and like Paris’ Left Bank, it’s expensive, too). First established in 1409, the Université de Provence Aix-Marseille has a 30, 000-strong campus, including many intensive French-language foreign students.
Aix marks the spot where, under the proconsul Sextius Calvinus, Roman forces enslaved the inhabitants of the Ligurian Celtic stronghold of Entremont, 3km to the north. In 123 BC the military camp was named Aquae Sextiae (Waters of Sextius) for the thermal springs, which still flow today. In the 12th century the counts of Provence proclaimed Aix their capital, which it remained until the Revolution, when it was supplanted by Marseille. The city became a centre of culture under arts patron King René (1409–80); two of Aix’s most famous sons are painter Paul Cézanne and novelist Émile Zola. But for all its polish, it’s still a laid-back Provençal town at heart.
Forty kilometres northeast of age-old Aix is Cadarache, a revolutionary new thermonuclear experimental reactor.
Last updated: Feb 17, 2009
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