Why Cézanne’s Provence is always perfect: discovering the artist’s birthplace, Aix


The crest of Mont Sainte-Victoire rises 1,000 meters from the thyme-scented hills overlooking the ancient boulevards and alleys of Aix-en-Provence.

One of the most recognizable geological formations in France, this enormous piece of limestone has been the object of reverence and pilgrimage since the first humans arrived here and wisely decided to stay.

There’s a marked trail to the top and the tricky hike takes two to three hours each way, so it’s best to start early in the morning, well before the Provençal heat makes things even more difficult.

Michael Hodges travels to Aix-en-Provence to discover the curiosities and landscapes that inspired Paul Cézanne. Pictured is Mount Sainte-Victoire, which the French artist has painted more than 80 times

Michael moved to Les Lodges (photo), a luxury hotel-spa in the village of Tholonet with a view of the Sainte-Victoire mountain.  He writes:

Michael moved to Les Lodges (photo), a luxury hotel-spa in the village of Tholonet with a view of the Sainte-Victoire mountain. He writes: “The terrace of his restaurant is refreshed by a breeze with the scent of pine and herbs”

Above, a self-portrait by Cézanne

Above, a self-portrait by Cézanne

If you’re feeling adventurous, you can ride it by mountain bike or paraglider. Better yet, don’t leave at all.

Because if you’re here for a long weekend – Marseille Provence airport is 20 miles away, or by train the Paris-Aix TGV takes three hours – then Mont Sainte-Victoire, as much of the beauty clouded by the heat of Provence, is best enjoyed from a distance with a glass of something cold and local.

In my case, it’s a fresh pastis on the terrace of Les Lodges, in the neighboring village of Tholonet.

Once a nobleman’s country home, the luxury hotel-spa is set among vineyards and olive groves, and its restaurant terrace is cooled by a breeze scented with pine and herbs. Rooms for two are around £185 a night, excluding Saturday/Sunday (leslodgessaintevictoire.com/en).

There’s also an infinity pool – something that might have perplexed Paul Cézanne, the French artist who painted Mount Sainte-Victoire more than 80 times, plunging it into Europe’s collective unconscious and, without doubt, inventing modern art along the way.

You can see how he’s done it right now during Cézanne’s unique and luminous show which runs at the Tate Modern in London until March 12 (tate.org.uk).

The citizens of Aix were first sniffed at all those mountains, apples, and men in hats he painted, but today Cézanne’s bronze statue faces the Fontaine de la Rotonde, the grandiose round -point of the city, draped with lions, mermaids and female representations. figures, including Justice. Follow his gaze and you will find the Cours Mirabeau, the wide avenue that leads to the heart of Aix.

The Lodges (above), once a nobleman's country home, is set amongst vineyards and olive groves

The Lodges (above), once a nobleman’s country home, is set amongst vineyards and olive groves

Michael says that eating in Aix

Michael says dining in Aix “tends to be pure pleasure, with the pantry full of Provençal delights”. Pictured is a town square

The Hotel de Caumont (above) in Aix is ​​a grand mansion

The Hôtel de Caumont (above) in Aix is ​​a grand mansion ‘with delightful period interiors’ which houses an art gallery

Only the nobility were allowed to walk along the Cours Mirabeau 250 years ago. We all know what happened to them, but their grand mansions remain, often with wrought iron railings and towering gates, and perhaps the grandest is on Rue Joseph Cabassol.

It is now the Hôtel de Caumont, a former ballet school and now restored with lovely period interiors and an art gallery on the upper floors which hosts traveling exhibitions by big names (Raoul Dufy more recently ).

Founded by the Romans, Aix has been a baker for two millennia. But one of the coolest (and oldest) spots is Aix Cathedral, a ten-minute walk north of Cours Mirabeau. The cathedral is built over a 1st century Roman forum and you can trace layers of history within its walls. Ask the volunteer office and they will open the cloister garden for you. Inside, you’ll find a quiet, timeless space where the columns are carved with eerie religious carvings.

Next, cut into Town Hall Square, where an iron cage atop the 15th-century bell tower protects the bells from the fierce mistral wind. Then stroll around the Allées, a network of streets and small squares largely devoted to chic and expensive shopping. Now you will need another glass. Unfortunately, Cézanne’s favorite Cours Mirabeau café burned down two years ago. Instead, sit on the café terrace of the historic (and often busy) Bar Le Grillon with a rosé and a bowl of pistachios and watch the city come out to smooth out in the relative cool of the evening.

Eating in Aix, from the smallest to the most expensive, tends to be pure pleasure, with the full pantry of Provençal delights. If you’re offered a plate of calissons d’Aix, the irresistible diamond-shaped version of the almond slice, grab one and run before you eat it all. Or enter the Granet Museum, one of France’s finest art galleries, nestled in a square in the Mazarin district and featuring ten works by Cézanne.

But for a truly magical experience, follow Cézanne to the lower foothills of Mont Sainte-Victoire and the deserted limestone quarries and pine forest of the Carrières de Bibemus. Used since ancient times, it would once have been a dangerous place, full of shouting and hammering. Today it is as Cézanne knew it in the 1890s, a hushed, still space that is part nature reserve, part archaeological wonder, part artistic monument.

Michael visits Cézanne's Atelier, above, the artist's purpose-built studio on the outskirts of Aix

Michael visits Cézanne’s Atelier, above, the artist’s purpose-built studio on the outskirts of Aix

Pictured is a painting by Cézanne of an old quarry, Carrieres de Bibemus

Pictured is a painting by Cézanne of an old quarry, Carrieres de Bibemus

Follow the trails and you’ll pass limestone cliffs that still bear the marks of Roman scissors. Stand in front of the rectangular blocks and you’ll suddenly understand why art historians claim Cézanne invented Cubism here.

There is another kind of revelation at the Atelier de Cézanne, the artist’s purpose-built studio on the outskirts of town, as he left it. Her coat and hat hang on pegs, her palette and brushes are still in place. The gardens are a bit overgrown and rife with tripping hazards including electrical cables – if this were National Trust property there would be warning tape draped over the rhododendron and l place would be all the poorer.

Long live dangerous France – but don’t forget your travel insurance.


Accompanied seven-night tours of Cézanne’s Provence cost from £1,975 pp and include return train tickets from London St Pancras to Aix-en-Provence, B&B, hotel dinners and local restaurants, all local transfers, entrance fees, tours around Aix-en-Provence, the Bibemus Quarry and Cezanne’s studio, a boat trip to Cassis and a day trip to Marseilles (adagio.fr).


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