The Cours Mirabeau, Aix en ProvenceThe Cours Mirabeau is one of Europe's great boulevards. The first thing you're likely to see when you arrive, it cuts a dash of Parisian Left Bank chic and sophistication under the sun of Provence.

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On the south side of the thoroughfare, the 17th and 18th century houses are occupied today by banks and businesses. On the north, sunny side, an array of bookshops and enticing pavement cafés are an invitation to linger, or to dive into the labyrinthine Old Town behind them.

They're also a reminder that Aix en Provence is a venerable university centre (its first royal charter was granted in 1409) and still has a large and lively international student community.

A Thumbnail History

In the mid 17th century Aix was growing fast thanks to its new archbishop, Michel Mazarin. Keen to expand the town to the south, he ordered the construction of a smart residential area, known today as the Quartier Mazarin (Mazarin Quarter).

Its wealthy inhabitants required a pleasant spot to stroll and drive and thus the mall, at first called simply the Cours, was born. 440 metres long by 42 metres wide and punctuated by four graceful fountains in contrasting styles, it was built on the ancient city ramparts.

The Comte de MirabeauA stream flowed under it too and this subterranean water supply nourished the grand old trees that lined it, forming a cool green tunnel in summer and a stark guard of honour in the clear winter light. The original elms were afflicted by disease and replaced by the current, quintessentially provençal plane trees in the 19th century.

At first the Cours was primarily reserved for the nobility, who strutted its length in their finery. Little by little the street became popularised and shops and cafés moved in.

In 1876 it was renamed the Cours Mirabeau after Honoré Gabriel Riqueti, Comte de Mirabeau (pictured), a colourful character and sort of folk hero, who was at various times in his life a legendary womaniser, a writer, a prisoner in the Château d'If and a fighter on the side of the moderates in the French Revolution.

 

The Fountains of the Cours

Huge, splashy and perhaps just a little vulgar compared to the other fountains of Aix, La Rotonde (the Rotunda, and images nos. 1 and 2 in our gallery of Aix fountains) may well be the first sight you'll clap eyes on when arriving by road from Marseille or Paris.

La Rotonde fountain in Aix en ProvenceThe centrepiece of a huge traffic roundabout at the bottom end of the Cours Mirabeau, this ornate structure, 41 metres in diameter and dating from 1860, consists of two basins.

The larger, lower one is guarded by four groups of two lions; in the water, eight cherubs ride around on swans made of cast bronze. The smaller, upper basin has a pedestal decorated with leopards' heads.

The whole fountain (detail pictured) is topped by three allegorical female statues representing Justice, Agriculture and the Arts. Multiple jets of water shoot in all directions, criss-crossing in an intricate, sparkling crystal filigree. When illuminated at night, it's even more spectacular.

A little up the boulevard is the fountain of Saint Lazarus, more commonly called the Fontaine des Neuf Canons (Fountain of the Nine Cannons).

It's on the site of a spring where herds of sheep were brought to drink during the transhumance (the migration of herds between their winter and summer pastures). The present fountain was built in the 17th century by Laurent Vallon and is a lovely example of Louis XV design.

Further along still, there's a hot-water fountain dating back to 1734 which everyone calls the Fontaine Moussue (image no. 13 in the gallery) because of the thick overcoat of moss that covers it, entirely concealing the decorative sculptures below. For over 2,000 years its waters have been reputed for their healing properties.

Statue of King Rene, Aix en ProvenceA light mist rises from it in cold weather. In her memoir Two Towns in Provence, the American travel writer MFK Fisher compares it, rather delightfully, to "an elderly and benevolent dog, a little steamy and pungent."

The top of the Cours is commanded by a statue of King René (pictured), which stands over a fountain in his honour, the Fontaine du Roi René. This cultured and popular ruler (1409-1480), known as Good King René, made Aix famed throughout Europe as a centre of learning and art.

A Renaissance man who spoke several languages, he was himself a keen amateur writer and painter, as the books and artists' palettes strewn round his feet attest.

He was also a bit of a bon viveur: look closely at his left hand, which holds a bunch of the Muscat grapes which he first introduced to Provence. René was also famously known as le roi vigneron: the wine-grower king. Click here to see a picture gallery of these fountains and others in Aix en Provence.

 

The Hôtels Particuliers

Wander down and up the Cours Mirabeau to admire its numerous and extremely sumptuous private mansions, or hôtels particuliers. Starting from King René and walking along the south (left-hand) side, watch out in particular forthe Hôtel Maurel de Pontevès, or Hôtel d'Espagnet, at no. 38.

Caryatids at the Hôtel Maurel de Pontevès, Aix en ProvenceThe oldest private home on the street, it was built in 1647 - slightly predating the Cours itself - and belonged to Pierre Maurel, a rich local textile merchant who spared no expense on this lavish residence.

The façade is dominated by two mighty caryatids (pictured left), sculpted by Jacques Fossé, who flank the door and hold up the first-floor balcony, while inside is a magnificent staircase. Today the building houses the Chamber of Commerce.

Also of interest: the Hôtel de Forbin (no. 20), one of the street's largest mansions, built in 1656. At no. 10, the Hôtel d'Entrecasteaux, today known as the Hôtel d'Isoard-Vauvenargues, is notorious for the crime of passion committed there by the Marquis d'Entrecasteaux.

On 31 May 1784, the Marquis slit his wife's throat with a razor in order to be able to marry his mistress. He was caught and sentenced to a grisly death by torture but died of a fever before he could be executed.

The Hôtel de Villars (no. 4), or Hôtel d'Esmivy de Moissac, was named after the unpopular Governor of Provence, Honoré-Armand, Duc de Villars, and boasts a lavish entrance by Georges Vallon.

As you walk back up the north - and less gentrified - side, don't miss the Hôtel d'Arbaud-Jouques at no. 19. With its richly carved front doors, sweeping interior staircase with a wrought-iron handrail and elegant reception rooms, it ranks among the most beautiful on the Cours.

Detail no 23 Cours Mirabeau, Aix en ProvenceThrough the glass doors at the back of the hallway is Côté Cour, an Italian restaurant in a delightful courtyard setting. Once fashionable, it has, however, been attracting negative reports from local diners since the change of management a couple of years ago.

Keep your eyes peeled throughout for amusing details such as this supercilious, or just plain sleepy character (pictured right) above the doorway to no. 23, the Hôtel du Chevalier Hancy.

At no. 27, the Hôtel Estienne d'Orvès, a magnificent Louis XIV-style mansion, was stripped of many of its original features after being acquired by the Prisunic supermarket chain in the 1930s, and was de-listed as a National Monument in 1936.

The façade retains some attractive stonework and iron balconies on the upper storeys, while the Hôtel de Nibles at no. 37 has another of those imposing doors with intricate carved friezes.

At no. 53 bis, the former Hôtel de Gantès has, since 1792, housed the most celebrated and oldest brasserie in Aix, Les Deux Garçons (pictured), named after the two waiters, or garçons, who purchased it in 1840.

Informally known as the 2Gs, this legendary institution was a favourite watering hole of Paul Cézanne, who was born in Aix, and Emile Zola, whose family moved there from Paris when he was three. Above it the upper floors of the Hôtel de Gantès are now a luxury boutique hotel of the same name.

Les Deux Garcons, Aix en ProvenceAt no. 55, just across the rue Fabrot, on the current site of the CIC Bank, Cézanne spent his childhood in his father's hat shop. A small plaque marks the spot and, if you look up to the first floor, you can still see an old, faded painted sign: Chapellerie du Cours Mirabeau.

Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, Jean Cocteau and Pablo Picasso are among the other writers and artists who were known to down a glass at the 2Gs and so it makes an excellent pit-stop to the end of your tour.

 

 

Where (else) to eat and drink: Restaurants on the Cours can be expensive but, for a good, reasonably priced meal, the Bistro Romain at no. 13, at the bottom end near La Rotonde is a reliable bet. The tariff is set by the national restaurant chain of which it's a part, it offers a variety of food including snacks, prix fixe menus and children's portions, and hot meals are served throughout the day.

The setting is as lovely as you'd expect, whether you're in the dining room with its high, stucco'ed, painted ceiling or on the wide terrace with views across the boulevard.

In another life as Le Café Oriental, this was yet another establishment where Cézanne was spotted on occasion enjoying an apéritif...

Upscale from the Bistro Romain is the Bastide du Cours at no. 49, a pricey restaurant and hotel with the usual two open-air and glassed-in terraces for views of the passing parade. The dining area on the first floor - spacious but divided into alcoves, with the walls lined with trompe l'oeil painted bookshelves - is a cosy place to spend a crisp winter's evening.

The master-pâtissier Philippe Segond has a little cake shop / tea room tucked away right at the top of the Cours at no. 67 - and his delicious, elegant confections are surprisingly affordable.

At the opposite end of the Cours, just a few metres from La Rotonde, on the place Jeanne d'Arc, Le Cintra is a great spot for very cheap, round-the-clock refuelling.

Find further reading on Amazon:

Two Towns In Provence by MFK Fisher. One of America's leading food writers, MFK Fisher lived for many years in France, principally Marseille and Aix-en-Provence, which she celebrates in this humorous, vivid, offbeat and incisive memoir.

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