The 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.
At 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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
Built 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).