The city of Aix-en-Provence: Oozing with history and enchanting atmosphere, Aix-en-Provence began life as a Roman settlement fed by the warm springs and was capital of the region for several centuries. Aix was a centre for art and learning in the 15th, it has earned the epithet 'city of a thousand fountains'. The town itself is a jewel of a Provencal town, with an outdoor market open every day of the year and many nationally-renowned restaurants. Stroll down the Cours Mirabeau with its tree-lined promenade, as well as old Aix with the old town hall and Saint-Sauveur cathedral with its cloister. There are over 400 restaurants to choose from, plus annual summer Music Festivals.
Orientation to area close by to Villa la "Dolce Vita": Aix's population between 130,000-170,000 (summer/winter figures, as there are 40,000 students during the school year at the univeristy), but it is integrated into a large area called "Pays d'Aix", with many small (or tiny) villages spread out north of Marseille. Although Villa la "Dolce Vita" is totally in the countryside, it is still only a few minutes from two villages: Eguilles (2 km) and Puyrciard (5 km), where there is shopping and cafes. The Villa is within Aix-en-Provence's city limits (in a part of town called Puyricard). Ten kilometers away (6 miles) is the center of Aix: la Rotonde (see photo on right), a large fountain with sculptures, used as a roundabout for traffic. On one side, the main street of town juts out, le Cours Mirabeau, with its platane-lined trees and local cafe life. Shopping, cafes and restaurants are on the north side of le Cours Mirabeau (the beginning of the historic center), and banks and 18th century apartment buildings are on the south side. There is lots to explore in the older part of Aix, many tiny pedestrian streets with lots of shops, leading up to the Major's office (Place de la Mairie).
Food Shopping: The historic heart of Aix has an ancient tower, with a bell tolling twice an hour. Here is la Place de la Mairie, probably the most beautiful town square in Aix, with a flower market on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. Just next to it is another town square that hosts a vegetable market every day of the year -- quite colorful! Best is to visit Aix on a market day (Tuesady, Thursday and Saturday, although Saturday tends to be very crowded and touristy). For the kitchen and house basics, you will need to go to either supermarkets (Carrefour, Casino Géant or Intermarché), all of which are 7-8 km away, or to the smaller stores in Eguilles (2 km away) or Puyricard (5 km away). There is an open market in Eguilles on Tuesday and in Puricard on Friday mornings.
Museums: If you like art, visit the Musée Granet, which has many of Cézanne paintings. There is also a museum of Old Aix that shows how life was like in centuries gone by. East of town, some 15 km (10 miles) is the castle that Picasso bought at the end of his life, le Château Vauvegargues, which can be visited in the summertime; he spent the last few years of his life here, and is buried here.
Provence Summer Festivals:
The music festival in Aix is one of the top opera festivals each July. There are minor festivals in and around Aix all summer, for classical or jazz music, modern dance and wine tasting. Nearby Roque d'Anthéron hosts a very active Piano Festival (mid-July to late-August). Nearby Avignon hosts a large theatre festival every July. In the summer here in Provence, there are 20-30 musical, artistic and theatrical events every evening.
Things to do in the area:
Golf is available at several local clubs, the closest being Les Milles Golf Club (10 km from the house). Horseback riding is possible in 3 clubs in the vicinity (one just a kilometer from the house). There is also a tennis club-swimming pool with restaurant that is open to the public nearby. Many hiking trails throughout Provence, as well as wine-tasting and visiting historic sites and chateaux. Ferry boats in Marseille and Cassis can take you to visit local islands and calanques (see picture on right - there are many of these 'calanques' between Marseille and Cassis, accessible by tour boats from either port; or you can hire a boat to drop you off for the day and pick you up in the afternoon).
Provence in general: what to visit
Aix-en-Provence is a perfect spot to base yourself when you want to visit Provence. There is much to see in all directions -- cute Provencal towns on a hill, beaches, Marseille, the Luberon national park, St. Remy-de-Provence... Excellent wine chateaux can easily be found in any direction, depending on your taste, and the local wines are excellent. Other small towns dot the Aix countryside near Villa la Dolce Vita, each with its open market one day per week, its local cafe life and occasional cultural events. Good wine chateaux can easily be found in any direction.
South: Marseille, a city of over a million population, is a half an hour from Villa la "Dolce Vita", and has lots going on all year round. Cultural events (concerts, modern dance, jazz, theatre, opera), many restaurants (especially around the Old Port, in "la Plaine" or along the coastline, Corniche Kennedy), beaches (you would think you are in Los Angeles when you drive south from the center of Marseille, along the beach). And towards the southern tip of Marseille, the city proper ends and you will discover several fishing villages (good destinations for trying local "bouillabaisse", fish soup) and large hills right next to the sea -- nature is quite spectacular here.
You can take a boat from the Old Port to the islands near Marseille, or to "les Calanques" (a seriss of fjords that have incredibly beautiful scenery). The nearest island is le "Château d'If", famous for its prison where Dumas' Count of Monte-Cristo was imprisoned (you can visit the chateau).
North: The Lubéron National Park, a large area of hills and beautiful scenery that deserves a day (at least) in itself. There are many hilltop villages that dot the landscape. A good day-trip from Villa la "Dolce Vita" is to start with Lourmarin (20-25 minutes away), a beautiful little Provencal village (Friday market, but come early, since parking is hard to find). Continue north to Bonnieux (perched on a very steep hill) and nearby Lacoste (a tiny village where the Marquis de Sade had his chateau, which Pierre Cardin recently bought and hosts a summer music festival, opera arias mainly). Another town to see for its large market is Apte (Friday market), and nearby Saignon, with the ruins of a Roman chaeau on the top of the hill, overlooking all of Provence.
West: Arles and the Camargue are both worth seeing. Arles, a city about half the size of Aix, not quite an hour's drive from Villa la "Dolce Vita". Its Old Town is a smaller, less chic (and less expensive) version of Aix (especially for the Saturday morning market). Several weekends every year there are bullfights in the Roman arena in Arles, and the whole town parties like there's no tomorrow -- it's really something to experience.
Fifteen minutes south of Arles, The Camargue area begins, which is a bit like a "French Texas". Lots of bulls (grown for the meat, which is served in local restaurants, or for ending up in the bullring in Arles and Nîmes). Pink flamingos on the lakes. Lots of horses (you can rent horses for your group and go riding for an hour or two). And, for gypsy fans, Ste.-Marie-sur-la-Mer is a small town on the Mediterranean where lots of gypsies live, and they enliven the local restaurants at night (especially during the gypsy festival of 15 August).
Another trip to the west you could visit St. Remy-de-Provence, a very cute little Provencal town that has become quite chic lately (Princess Caroline of Monaco used to have a house there). Very close by are the Roman ruins from 2000 years ago, and medieval town Les Baux de Provence, which is well worth seeing.
Avignon, some 45 minutes drive from Villa la "Dolce Vita". You can probably see most of the sites in the Old Town in half a day, but make sure you see the "Palais des Papes", where the alternative pope was establish some 800-900 years ago.
Châteauneuf-du-Paper, a little over an hour's drive from Villa la "Dolce Vita". Beautiful medieval village with some of the best wine in the world. If you stay in Provence the first weekend in August, be sure to go to la "Fete de la Veraison" (Google it to see photos and info); it's the best medieval fair in Provence in the summertime, and you can sample many local Chateauneuf wines for free. The locals dress up in medieval clothes, and the town does its best to re-create a medieval atmosphere during this weekend. Otherwise, go for lunch to this town and sample the wines - they are much cheaper at the vinyards than buying the same ones in the supermarket.
East: St. Maximum is 35 minutes west of Villa la "Dolce Vita", where you can visit a 12th century monastery. Many good vinyards are around St. Maximum, especially in the town of Rians, north of St. Maximum.
If you want a real day at the beach, leave early in the morning (to avoid morning traffic snarls) at go to St. Tropez (1h50 of driving each way). Avoid the town, and head right to the beaches of Pampelone south of town. There are many restaurants where you can rent lounge chairs and have lunch (click here for a full list, but I like Nioulargo the best: a Provencal restaurant and an Asian restaurant, and during lunch there are fashion shows that stroll through the tables (read: bikini fashion)). During high season, wait until after 10 pm to return home to Aix, as there are unbelievable traffic jams in St. Tropez from 4-9 pm, and it takes hours to get through them.
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