Slowing the Pace of Life in Aix-en-Provence

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Slowing the Pace of Life in Aix-en-Provence

We all love the fact that life in Aix-en-Provence is lived at a slower pace, but this doesn’t always happen because of a conscious lifestyle choice. It often is a consequence of this medieval capital of Provence having expanded to respond to immediate needs without knowing what the future would bring.

I was confronted with this problem years ago during my first practical encounter with the quartier Mazarin. I needed to pick up some big pots of paint from a decorator in Rue Frederic Mistral. As I squeezed my little car up the narrow one-way street, I saw there was no place to park, or even pull over. After considering my options – park far away and carry the pots, or simply block the traffic – I nervously stopped the car in front of the shop, ran in, threw the paint in the back and waved apologetically at the driver waiting behind me. If I were a true Aixoise, however, I would, of course, have taken my time, chatting to the shop owner, unflustered by the honking cars outside.

Ironically, the quartier Mazarin was the first “planned development” in Aix. When the capital of Provence was bursting its seams in the 17th century, the newly appointed Italian-born Archbishop Michel Mazarin was granted permission to develop church land to the south of the existing town and its crumbling ramparts. Architect Jean Lombard created a grid of perfectly straight streets around the Benedictine convent that later became Émile Zola’s high school, the Lycée Mignet.

The new quartier allowed the gentry of Provence to build elaborate townhouses, with walled courtyards in front and formal gardens at the back, all in the fashionable Italian style. Over the next century the neighborhood was filled with these hôtels particuliers. One of the best examples is the magnificently restored Hôtel de Caumont, which until recently housed the town’s music conservatory, but is now a beautiful small museum.

The streets were wide in the Mazarin – or at least they were compared to the old town – so that carriages could pass through, but today they only allow for narrow sidewalks. Most of the wealthy inhabitants of the quartier also owned country estates, where they spent most of their time. In town, life was lived behind high walls, away from the public eye.

And it still is. Over time the mansions were mostly divided into apartments and offices for doctors, lawyers and upmarket estate agents. To the outsider this part of Aix does not seem suited to modern city living – no parking, no supermarket, precious little outside space. This, however, has not stopped the Mazarin from being the chicest part of town, with well-heeled Aixois living their lives in elegant apartments behind the imposing façades and intricately carved front doors.
The inconveniences, though frustrating, in fact create the very conditions that make the quality of life here so high. They are why there are still daily farmer’s markets in the centre of Aix and why people walk around town running their errands, stopping to chat to friends rather that jumping in their cars to drive out of town and shop at the nearest Carrefour hypermarket.

And as frustrating as it can sometimes be, this way of life is why people keep coming here, and why so often they never want to leave.

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Sophia Mose left behind life as an international finance lawyer when she moved to the South of France with her family in 2005. She lives in Aix-en-Provence and runs Provence Search, a property search company covering southern Provence and the Côte d’Azur.

Comments

  • Cheryl
    2019-02-21 01:14:30
    Cheryl
    Hello, I am planning a day trip to Aix in October, 2019. I visited Aix in 1994 and loved the market selling tissu. Do they still have a market and when is it held? Are there any suggestions you can make of things to do and see? I have just completed reading French Lessons by Peter Mayle. Thank you, Cheryl

    REPLY

    • Sophia Mose
      2019-02-21 12:57:50
      Sophia Mose
      Hi Cheryl, Aix has changed a lot since 1994! Yes, the market is still there, in fact, there are several markets in different locations. The textile market is on the Cours Mirabeau on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. For dates and details of all the markets, please see this flyer from the Tourist Office: http://www.aixenprovence.fr/IMG/pdf/lesmarches_plaquette_deplacemement_site-2.pdf Make sure you visit the Hotel Caumont in the Mazarin, the Musee Granet (and the Granet XX in a nearby chapel, really fab ) and simply wander the streets of the old town. The blog Aixcentric has lots of info on things going on in Aix. Enjoy! Sophia

      REPLY

  • sheila
    2017-01-04 17:47:13
    sheila
    I lived in Aix as a student at IAU back in the seventies. I can still walk the streets of Aix in my mind. I hope to return one day! sheila

    REPLY

    • Sophia Mose
      2017-01-16 18:21:03
      Sophia Mose
      Hi Sheila, I'm glad that my article brought back good memories for you. You should definitely come visit again - a lot has changed, but I'm sure the wonderful overall atmosphere is the same! Amicalement, Sophia

      REPLY

  • Sophia Mose
    2016-06-30 17:06:47
    Sophia Mose
    Thanks Lolita!

    REPLY

  • Lolita Lacuesta
    2016-06-30 16:26:17
    Lolita Lacuesta
    A very engaging article. Good job!

    REPLY

  • Sophia Mose
    2016-05-11 14:15:58
    Sophia Mose
    Hi Betty, yes that's it! Across from the Musée Granet. Have you been to Aix recently? The new Hotel du Caumont museum is fantastic.

    REPLY

  • Betty Mills
    2016-05-10 20:53:29
    Betty Mills
    Aix is my most favorite city in France which I have visited many times(27) . When I went to Aix for 2 weeks in 1996, I stayed at the Hotel Cardinal in the lovely Mazarin quartier; I believe it is in the picture which you featured with the small sign hanging out front. Am I right?

    REPLY

  • Lesley Hall
    2016-05-09 18:31:51
    Lesley Hall
    I've just come back from a weekend in an apartment just next door to the hotel in your picture! A beautiful courtyard apartment on different levels, so traditional and quiet. You're right about the roads, our taxi to the airport had to do three point turns on the corners.

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  • Sophia Mose
    2016-05-06 10:03:55
    Sophia Mose
    Thanks Jill and Ashley. I can’t imagine living anywhere else. I do also love Marseille and it’s great to have that fascinating city right next door. If you’re Aix lovers you might like this France Today article comparing Aix and Marseille (can’t find it on the new FT site, so referring to my site): http://www.provencesearch.com/marseille-or-aix-en-provence-give-me-both/ Sophia Mose

    REPLY

  • Ashley
    2016-05-06 06:27:46
    Ashley
    Aix is my favourite town in Provence. I absolutely love the quality of the markets and the winding streets where you can find beautiful architectural details on every corner!

    REPLY

  • Jill BARTH
    2016-05-05 18:15:34
    Jill BARTH
    Lovely piece! Thanks!

    REPLY