Hotel de Caumont, Aix en ProvenceThe Mazarin Quarter is Aix's answer to the Marais in Paris. Like it, this ultra-elegant residential district was built on marshland just outside what was then the city walls and swiftly became the most desirable address in town.

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A THUMBNAIL HISTORY

One winter's day in early 1646, Michel Mazarin, the Archbishop of Aix, received what amounted to a licence to print money: a letter from King Louis XIV authorising him to expand the city.

Street plan of the Mazarin Quarter, Aix en ProvenceAt that time Aix's boundary followed a route which would later become the Cours Mirabeau. The proposed site for development was the meadows and marshes south of the Cours. This terrain belonged to the archdiocese and the Order of Malta, but now Mazarin had control of it.

He did not intend to use the land to build housing for artisans and workers. Instead, his vision was so grandiose that the Sun King himself might well have been impressed. Parcels of land were sold off at prices that only the affluent could afford.

The result was an extremely exclusive and expensive estate reserved for the city's gentry, its army officers, its politicians and, above all, its newly rich merchants.

Michel was the brother of Jules Mazarin, a cardinal who was also Louis XIV's prime minister, and his appointment was one of political expediency. There were complaints at the time that Michel was using the scheme to line his own pockets and that he wasn't up to the job. But it all went ahead anyway.

WHAT TO SEE

The Mazarin brothers were, in fact, born in Italy - their birth name was Mazzarini - and the town planning here is inspired by the Italian Renaissance.

The streets form an orderly grid bordered by the Cours Mirabeau, the rue d'Italie, the boulevard du Roi René and the avenue Victor Hugo. The area is bisected from north to south by the rue du 4 Septembre, and from east to west by the rue Cardinale named after Mazarin himself (he became a cardinal in 1647).

Fontaine des Quatre Dauphins in AixWhere these two streets cross, right at the heart of the Mazarin Quarter, is the place des Quatre Dauphins. Originally named the Place Mazarin, it was, according to popular legend, intended to have a statue of Jules in the middle.

But Michel died in 1648, before the full extent of his vision was realised, and instead the square is embellished by one of the most graceful and celebrated fountains in Aix.

The baroque Fontaine des Quatre Dauphins (Fountain of the Four Dolphins, pictured) was designed by Jean-Claude Rambot in 1667 and was the city's first fountain to be built as a free-standing structure rather than fixed to a wall.

Mazarin had certainly intended to leave his thumbprint all over the quarter, although several of the streets named in his honour were later rechristened: apart from the rue Cardinale, he created the rue Saint Michel (today called the rue Goyrand), the rue Mazarine and the rue Saint Sauveur, referring to the cathedral over which he presided (now the rue du 4 Septembre).

On the north-east corner of the Place des Quatre Dauphins, the Hôtel de Boisgelin, constructed in 1650, is one of the most elaborate hôtels particuliers in the quarter, and one of the largest, too. Unusual in design, it consists of two wings set at right angles to each other and is privately owned.

Down the rue du 4 Septembre, the 18th century building at no. 2 is the Paul Arbaud Museum, named after the scholar and collector who bequeathed to the city his important collection of provençal earthenware, paintings and manuscripts.

Saint Jean de Malte, Aix en Provence

At the end of the rue Cardinale at the corner of the rue d'Italie is the Church of Saint Jean de Malte. The first Gothic church in Provence, it actually predates the Mazarin Quarter since it was built by the Knights Hospitallers in the 12th century.

Originally set in the middle of open fields outside the city walls, it was swallowed up and incorporated into the new urban development.

The facade (pictured, on Christmas Eve) was extensively reworked to help it blend in with its surroundings. It remains severe, but in certain lights has a commanding, angular beauty.

The arrow-shaped, 67-metre high bell tower is the highest point in Aix. Inside are a number of paintings, the most notable of which is a Crucifixion by Delacroix and a new organ that was inaugurated in 2006.

Next door, the Musée Granet, named after the local Aix painter François Marius Granet (1777-1849), was originally housed in the priory belonging to the church and was enlarged several times in the course of the 19th century.

The permanent collection consists of paintings from the 14th to the 20th century, including a handful of minor Cézannes, and it regularly hosts extensive special exhibitions. Read a full review of the Musée Granet.

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Finally, on the rue Joseph Cabassol (which runs parallel to the rue du 4 Septembre) you will find the Hôtel de Caumont (pictured at the top of the page).

The staircase of the Hotel de Caumont, AixBuilt between 1715 and 1742, it was formerly the Darius Milhaud Conservatory of Music and Dance (the Conservatoire relocated in 2013 to a new building designed by the Japanese architect Kengo Kuma).

A native of Marseille, the composer Milhaud (1892-1974) spent several years of his childhood in Aix and returned there to die. He was a member of the group of French composers known as Les Six, and created works influenced by jazz and Hebrew chant.

One of the most sumptuous residences built in Aix in the 18th century, the Hôtel de Caumont has richly carved exterior stonework featuring details such as a stag and a laughing faun above the main entrance, elaborate ironwork and, inside, a lovely staircase (pictured) with iron railings and two 17th century caryatides.

Amid some controversy, the municipality of Aix put the Hôtel de Caumont up for sale in the spring of 2010. It was, to widespread relief, acquired later that year by Culturespace, an arts organisation which intends to convert it into a gallery, concert venue and culture centre.

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