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.
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.