Aix-en-Provence vs Avignon

by Anthony.Peregrine

Avignon has culture, history, good food and beautiful women. So does Aix-en-Provence. How on earth are we to choose? Allow me to explain

Step into Avignon or Aix-en-Provence and you’re stepping onto ground pre-hallowed by history and reputation. You feel damned lucky to be there – an impression which not all locals go out of their way to dispel.

Around an hour apart, both towns may claim to be cultural capital of Provence. Avignon had the Papacy for most of the 14th century, after pontiffs fled anarchy in Rome. As filthy-rich capital of Christendom, it attracted architects and artists by the cart-load.

Aix meanwhile had been a brainy university centre for centuries - full of intellectuals, jurists and nobles – when Paul Cézanne was born there. Townsfolk didn’t like him much when he was alive but they’ve taken to him with gusto now he’s a famous artist of a tourist attraction. His memory runs like a seam through the place.

Both cities have their great annual festivals – theatre in Avignon, lyrical arts in Aix – and both assume their pasts with such a rooted elegance that the visitor might wonder whether he should risk wearing shorts. The answer is: “He should” - firstly because he’s on holiday and can wear what he damned well likes. And secondly because neither town is a temple. Far from it. All that history and culture feeds from, and into, a throbbing southern life happily approximate in distinguishing the sensual from the spiritual.

During the popes’ time, Avignon was – according to contemporary poet Petrarch – “a sink of vice ... (where) prostitutes swarm over papal beds”. Those good old days have gone (believe me, I’ve looked) but both cities do have a frisky, sunlit swirl about their old stones and streets, their bars and café terraces. There’s wine in the glass and voluptuousness in the air. Both spots, in short, provide tasty off-season breaks. But which to choose? Please read on.

Round one: headliners

The main attraction in Avignon is the Papal Palace rising sheer, powerful and awesome above the town. It’s pretty empty within, and the imagination struggles to furnish the vast chambers and halls with their former pomp and luxury. But the scale remains overwhelming. One senses authority. And, in the private Papal apartments, frescoed with bucolic scenes, one senses the sub-plot of licentiousness. The “swarming-over-beds” image is a difficult one to shift.

Without any doubt, Aix’s headliner is Cézanne. You can spend a full day following him around – first, to the Atelier Cézanne (9 Ave Paul Cézanne). Set among gardens on the edge of town, this was the old boy’s last studio. It’s been left as if he’d just popped out for tobacco. With a vast window shedding light, one may gaze upon his beret and bowler hat, smocks, artist’s clutter and the stuff of his still lifes.

Later, you must nip to the Bibémus Quarry, a wild chaos of rocks, scrub and forest which supplied Cézanne with the off-beam geometrical motifs he sought. Reproductions of his Bibémus works stand where he painted them. The quarry also affords arresting views to the Mont Ste Victoire, the great slab of mountain outside Aix which so obsessed the artist.

Finally, to the Jas de Bouffan, the Cézannes’ mini-manor house family home. You may compare the gardens with the artist’s versions of them. It’s riveting and, even if you don’t warm to the man, you’ll end up admiring him. Visits to these sights (the quarry and Jas de Bouffan involve shuttle buses) are best organised through the tourist office – either on arrival at 2 Place Général-de-Gaulle or in advance at www.aixenprovencetourism.com.

And the score? The Papal Palace is magnificent, but the Cézanne visits more vibrant; Aix takes it.

Round two: B-features

It’s time to mention the Pont-d’Avignon, the most famous fifth-of-a-bridge in the world. Only four of 22 arches remain, so le pont stops part way across one branch of the Rhône. It should be seen, of course – best from up above on the Rocher-des-Doms (see below). But little is gained by paying to walk along it, not least because there’s no room to dance. Dancing was, anyway, ‘sous (below) le pont’, not ‘sur (on) le pont’. The song got it wrong.

Save your money for the far more engrossing Musée du Petit Palais, across from the Papal palace. Its halls are stuffed with splendid Italian art from the 13th to 15th centuries. Botticelli’s Virgin & Child alone repays the entry price. Over in Aix, the Musée Granet (Place St Jean-de-Malte) would be much better if, in 1896, the then-curator hadn’t said: “Never in my lifetime will one of (Cézanne’s) works enter here.” The artist had offered a hundred. The museum refused the lot. A few have crept in since – the portrait of Mrs Cézanne doubtless explaining why her husband was such a grouch - but they’re not front-rankers. The round goes to Avignon.

Round three: strolling

From the Papal Palace, an Avignon stroll should swing past the cathedral and then up the path behind onto the great Rocher-des-Doms, the rocky plateau upon which Avignon was founded. Now it’s a big park, with water features and edifying views across the Rhône and le pont below.

Next, head for the Place-de-l’Horloge where, outside the fine classical theatre, statues of Molière and Corneille look quite as bored as if they’ve just been obliged to read one another’s collected works. This is, though, the only boredom in what is the hub of Avignon affairs. It’s populated with bar terraces, a carousel and women handsome enough to turn any pontiff’s head.

From there, wander down the main Rue-de-la-République and dart off into the little streets on either side where commerce scurries alongside some splendid Renaissance town houses. Further from the centre, though, things become a bit seedy, as if the sinuous streets had run out of puff. Only when you get to the ramparts is dignity restored.

Aix doesn’t have ramparts. What it has, in the Cours Mirabeau, is the most cultivated central thoroughfare in southern France. Lined with plane trees and superb townhouses, studded with fountains and statuary, it is Provençal culture in street form. Amble it and you’ll understand why Aix doesn’t do self-doubt.

Call in at the Café des Deux Garçons (N°53) where Cézanne drank on the rare occasions he craved conviviality. It’s next door to the hat shop (N°55) which his dad owned. Opposite is the Mazarin district, where the Aixois notables put up mansions in the 17th and 18th centuries. These still conceal more than they reveal.

Behind, older Aix twists and turns through tiny streets, before bursting out into rather fine squares. On Rue Gaston Saporta, fancy Renaissance façades press in, the better to concentrate contemporary life. At the top, the St Sauveur Cathedral, a study in grandiose asymmetry, harbours fine cloisters. If you’re hoping to see Nicolas Froment’s Burning Bush triptych – as I always am – it should be back from restoration in January 2010. But they’ve been saying that sort of thing for years.

And so you wander on. No street is unworthy of investigation. Aix swings this round with inches to spare.

Round four: shopping

Both cities have equivalent shopping in and around their centres, the sort you expect in southern French cities. But Aix also has the best market in France. On Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, le Grand Marché colonises old town squares and streets with colour and noise on an epic scale. Stalls will madden you with food lust. Aix wins again.

Round five: food

Both resound with good Provençal eating. But neither brings much specifically of its own to the table. Aix may boast the calisson but the sweetmeat of almonds and candied melon is no more remarkable than a pear drop.

And, although Avignon offers even less, I’m going to allow it to claim the truffle – on the grounds that it’s capital of the Vaucluse, France’s heaviest-producing truffle county. Truffles are over-rated but they remain inherently more interesting than a sweet. Avignon wins.

Round six: nightlife

Enjoy apéritifs in a café on the Place-de-l’Horloge in Avignon, the Cours Mirabeau in Aix – amid the early evening whirl. Then shoot off into the labyrinths of old streets for food and more drinks. In Aix, Rue Bedarrides, Rue des Tanneurs and streets around host an entire civilisation of bars, restaurants and café terraces.

Avignon, too, is lively enough, but doesn’t give the same impression that you’re heading into a city-wide party. I’m scoring this one to Aix.

The results

Four-two – so it seems that Aix is my favourite, as I rather thought it might be. But I don’t expect agreement to be universal.

Where to stay and where to eat

In Avignon, the traditional style of the Hotel d'Europe (14 Place Crillon; doubles from £177) suited, among others, Charles Dickens, Victor Hugo and Jackie Kennedy. It has been modernised a bit since Dickens’ time, mind. Tighter budgets might try the Hotel Boquier (6 Rue Porail-Boquier; doubles from £45.50). Rooms are small, but ambitiously decorated, the place is central and the welcome first-class.

Among the finest restaurants in town is Christian Etienne (10 Rue de Mons, 0490 861650, www.christian-etienne.fr, lunch menus from £32, dinner from £60). In a historic spot hard by the Papal palace, Etienne gives Provençal cooking an inventive twist. La Fourchette (17 Rue Racine; 0490 852093, menus from £27) has a more orthodox take on regional cuisine.

In Aix, there’s high design and contemporary art at the Hotel Cézanne (140 Ave Victor Hugo; doubles from £163). More traditional, and much cheaper, is Hôtel des Quatre Dauphins (54 Rue Roux Alphéran; doubles from £59). Crammed into a central side-street, it’s friendly and practical.

Eating-wise, the centre of Aix offers Le Formal (32 Rue Espariat, 0442 270831, www.restaurant-leformal.com, six-course menu, £40), wine-cellar surroundings for imaginative class. Not far away, under a 300-year-old plane tree on the tiny Place Ramus, Chez Maxime (0442 262851, www.restaurant-chezmaxime.com, menus from £23) does Provençal basics like beef daube better than most.

Anthony.Peregrine

For generations, the rich, noble and celebrated among English-speaking peoples have had their foot-holds in the South of France. In 1988, I was among a subsequent wave of the poor, common and unknown. I arrived as a freelance journalist, working for the wine and food press, then the travel pages of the Sunday Times  and Daily Telegraph. None of these materially altered my condition but, frankly, I'd had no choice in the move. My French wife had insisted. She loved England and, more particularly, Lancashire – where we lived. Still does. But, after a few years, she’d forgotten what the sun looked like. “That’s acceptable in November, not in August,” she said.

So we left in search of heat, and found a lot more besides. Space, for a start. (France is two and a quarter times the size of the UK, for roughly the same population). And crystal-clear light. Long meals, longer beaches and a lifting of restraints. The kids could play outside pretty much all the time, and we, too, felt freer.

Of course, the French authorities can be as meddlesome as any but, as I discovered, French people will only put up with so much. On a micro-level, they insist on being left alone. Heaven knows what a British local council would make of the bulls which charge through our village streets at festival times. Or the mountain roads where barriers are placed, at best, whimsically. Or the summer friskiness for which certain remoter beaches are famed. There are busybodies in France but they get less of a hearing than in health-and-safety-crazed nations.

Felicity Kendall

Over two decades of reporting from the country, this is something I have come to appreciate quite as much as I appreciate grandeur of the mountains or of the beauty of a sunset over the sea. I also admire the French respect for their past, its protagonists and the sites which history has left. This can get out of hand; sometimes it seems that every wall more than 20 years old has a preservation order. But both landscape and the nation are deeper for it.

In Provence – even amid the glitz of the Côte-d’Azur – you’re never far from a reminder that man has been on this land for millennia. It’s a great sub-plot to pleasure-seeking. Talking of which … sometimes, the finest pleasures are the simplest. A good day for me would involve a decent walk in the hills or along the coastal path, followed by a early-evening dip in the sea. Then on to town for dinner on a warm evening terrace. We might later take in other terraces for a night-cap or two, safe in the knowledge that we shall not be inconvenienced by excitable youths falling into flower tubs, showing their bottoms or vomiting upon us.

By and large, Southern French cities remain the preserve of everyone – grandparents, strolling couples, kids – until well past the time that I want to go to bed. It’s the Latin way, and quite a surprise after Friday nights in Lancashire.

There are elements of France which drive me nuts. (Only innate decency stops me mowing down French civil servants whenever I’m called upon to deal with them.)

And there are aspects of Britain I miss – Sandwich Spread, Felicity Kendall, Preston North End and, not least, the newspapers. No paper in France has the variety, depth, wit and colour of the Sunday Times or Daily Telegraph, to pluck two examples at random. (By an astonishing coincidence, also the two I tend to write for.) The stilted tedium of most French papers tells us a lot about public life in France, but you’ll not want to hear that. What you want to hear is that France in general, and Provence-Côte-d’Azur in particular, are terrific places. As they are. I’ve been roaming all over them for 20 years and wish I’d started earlier.

I would return to GB only if Felcity Kendall beckoned me back to play for PNE, a jar of Sandwich Spread in her hand. And even then it’s not certain.

My Provence

Where I get a coffee: To do it for me, a French café needs to be a French café and not a lounge bar. It needs the scrape of metal chairs on a wooden floor, blokes at the bar talking horses over mid-morning beers and photos of an amateur soccer team c. 1974 on the wall. It’s an extension of the street by other means; local life must flow through. No point in picking out a particular favourite. They’re all over the south of France, usually called Café du Commerce, Café des Sports or Chez Juju. Coffee’s much cheaper too, especially if you stand at the counter.

Favourite stroll: Tempting to say that the best walk is wherever you happen to park the car; it’s hard not to have an uplifting amble on this outstanding coast. But a real favourite? Well, if you can tackle the coastal path from St-Tropez village round the peninsular via the Rabiou headland and not feel the world is a better place, I’ll be surprised. You’ll have deserved Tahiti beach by the time you arrive, mind: it’s a tidy trek.

Literature for inspiration: The most perceptive account of Provence remains James Pope-Hennessy’s 1952 classic, Aspects Of Provence. The much more recent Seeking Provence by Nicholas Woodsworth comes pretty close, though neither really touch on the Côte-d’Azur.

The best coverage of the Côte that I know is Robert Kanigel’s High Season In Nice. It has its faults but gets the story told eventually. Fiction-wise, you shouldn’t miss Marcel Pagnol. His My Father’s Glory and subsequent My Mother’s Castle may be soft-filtered but they’re mighty heart-warming. For grittier coverage of Marseille, I turn to the crime novels of Jean-Claude Izzo. One Helluva Mess is a stirring place to start.

Breathtaking view: Just open your eyes pretty much anywhere: this coast was created by the Almighty to show what he could do when he really tried. The panoramas from the top of Castle Hill or Mont Boron in Nice, or from Notre-Dame de la Garde in Marseille are the ones I expect to see when I’m ushered through the Pearly Gates myself.

Peace & quiet: Head out of Cannes, along the Esterel corniche towards St Raphaël. The land grows wild. Red porphyry rocks drop direct to the Med. Tales of the over-development of the Riviera suddenly seem absurd. Here, humanity hangs on where it can. Stop when possible: there’ll be a little-populated creek below and, behind the Esterel mountains. I’ve walked this untamed, savage massif in July and met no-one. You’d never guess you were 30 minutes from a cornetto.

Shopaholics: Bad question for me. I hate shopping more than I hate folk-dancing, and that’s saying something. Except if it’s for food, and except if there’s a market on. You may leave me among the North African uproar of Marseille’s Capucin market, or the sensual promise of the Provençal stalls on St Tropez’s Place-des-Lices for as long as it takes food-lust to overcome me completely.

Soundtrack: There’s a lot of rap from Marseille and Italianate balladeering further along the coast. But a quiet southern mood is best accompanied, I reckon, by jazz-crooner Henri Salvador. The music isn’t specifically Provençal but has a gentle sipping-in-the-shade vibe that’s quite irresistible. Try the Chambre Avec Vue album, recorded in 2000 when old Henri was 83. (He checked out finally in 2008, still performing.) The man is a legend in France. Even in the unlikely event that you don’t like the album, say you do: this will enhance your popularity immeasurably.

Favourite place for regional food: I have a soft spot for the Voyageur Nissart in Nice (19 Rue Alsace-Lorraine, 0493 821960). It’s not hip, star-rated or impressive to look at. And it’s in an indeterminate district, not far from the station.

All it has going for it is an outstandingly friendly welcome (the young owner speaks English better than I do) and the best traditional Niçois food at prices significantly lower than you’ll pay in the Old Town and other busier tourist zones. Fifteen euros sees you fed admirably. I discovered the restaurant only recently. Now it’s my Nice staple.

Don’t leave without…glancing at the gardens: The Côte-d’Azur has horticulture like Venice has canals. It’s a distinguishing feature. Our green-fingered British forebears started gardening down here in the 19th-century – it’s what noble residents did back then – and locals have taken up the trowel with gusto. Pick of the lot is, I’d say, the Domaine du Rayol at Rayol-Canadel (between St Tropez and Hyères, www.domainedurayol.com). Staggering steeply to the sea, the 48-acres are coated in flora from every region of the world sharing a Med climate. It’s a wonder-world. I took my garden-crazed wife there last year – and had to return two months later to find her.

Sport: Along the coast, one may take part in every sea-related activity known to man, short of whaling. But there are times when only a big, professional sporting event will do. For soccer, I go to Marseille and the Vélodrome – the only stadium in France which generates an atmosphere comparable to that at Anfield or the Emirates. For rugby, it has to be Toulon – where our own Jonny (known locally, if oddly, as “Sir Wilkinson”) has punted standards up-field with panache.

Where to be seen this winter: As Sigourney Weaver said recently, real A-listers never go where A-listers are supposed to go, because they only get mobbed and fawned over. I’d suggest you follow this advice. The best place to be seen this winter is, then, wherever you actually want to be. It’s even better if you’re with a loved one – and don’t care a toss whether you’re seen or not.