hotel de caumont exteriorAn elegant 18th century hôtel particulier in Aix's historic and aristrocratic Mazarin Quarter, the Hôtel de Caumont has been converted into a sumptuous new gallery space under the banner of the Caumont Centre d'Art.

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The first stone was laid on this site three centuries ago, in 1715, and it became one of the largest and most lavish of Aix's bourgeois houses. Today the Caumont Centre d'Art hosts major art exhibitions: click here to read about the current one. But it's much more than an art gallery.

The house itself has been stunningly restored: it's one of very few 18th century hôtels particuliers in town which is open to the public. And, unusually for a private residence right in the heart of Aix, it has large and very lovely formal French gardens on two levels.

You can have lunch, tea or dinner, either here or in one of several dining rooms decorated in rococo style. They turn in the evenings into a bar, open even after the period rooms and galleries are closed.

These areas can be visited separately from the house and gallery rooms, under certain conditions (see below). The aim is to turn the Caumont Centre d'Art into a buzzing social hub. And, just a couple of years after it opened, in 2015, it has become, by a very long way, the most popular tourist attraction in Aix.

hotel de caumont gardenThere are good reasons. Apart from the magnificent setting, all the shows here are immaculately presented with tremendous attention to detail.

The galleries are specially decorated for each exhibition with motifs that echo and enhance the themes of the artworks, and these are hung with plenty of space to breathe.

There are always some added extras too: a film of some kind, a maquette or interactive display. And unlike many French galleries, the helpful explanatory panels are in English as well as French. No need to buy a brochure or audio guide!

The entrance fee is, admittedly, quite high (almost twice as much as the Musée Granet just up the road, for instance). But this really is a class act on every level.

The Hôtel de Caumont was originally conceived by Robert de Cotte, the chief architect for King Louis XIV, the Sun King. (It's not to be confused with the building of the same name in Avignon, now the home of that city's own contemporary art gallery, the Collection Lambert.)

Aix's Hôtel de Caumont went through various incarnations over the centuries. It was a centre for the Resistance during the Second World War and became the base of Aix's Conservatoire de musique et de danse in 1964. When the Conservatoire moved to a new building designed by Kenzo Kuma, the Hôtel de Caumont was purchased by Culturespaces.

hotel de caumont music roomThis private foundation runs a small but select portfolio of museums and monuments, mainly in the South of France (they also include the hugely popular Quarries of Lights near Les Baux de Provence, that village's Château and the Roman amphitheatre in Orange).

The Hôtel de Caumont had greatly deteriorated over the years, and so Culturespaces instigated a massive, 12.6 million €uro refurbishment programme.

It involved extensive work on the façade and the total remodelling of some of the salons with reproduction wallpaper, plaster mouldings, wood panelling, fabrics, furniture and works of art. The whole project took 18 months to complete. But the wait was worth it: the restoration is truly fabulous.

Passing through the exterior Cour d'Honneur, where visiting noblefolk descended from their carriages, you go into the entrance with its sweeping staircase guarded by two enormous caryatids.

On the left is a large book and gift shop. On the right are pretty salons decorated in 18th century style and an outdoor terrace overlooking the gardens. The tea rooms / bar are located here.

On the first floor there is a music room, pictured above, and the bedroom of Pauline de Caumont (1767-1850), the lady of the house and the inspiration behind its bright, light and very feminine decor.

The other rooms on the first and second floor of the Hôtel de Caumont are used as spaces for prestigious temporary exhibitions. They alone are surprisingly large - 400 square metres / 4,300 square feet - and can accommodate substantial shows.

In the auditorium, a specially commissioned 28 minute film about Aix's very own great artist, Paul Cézanne, is screened throughout the day. Music recitals are also held there during the year.

News for the Caumont Centre dArt in Aix en ProvenceThe winter 2017-2018 show at the Caumont Centre d'Art runs from 24 November-11 March. It celebrates the contemporary Colombian artist Fernando Botero, and his links to Pablo Picasso.

pierrot fernando boteroThe two men lived on different continents and never met (though Botero did once unsuccessfully try to visit the Spanish master).

But their work shared much in common. Both artists played with the distortion of shapes: Botero's colourful, curvacious, outsize characters might remind some readers of the British painter Beryl Cook.

And both Botero and Picasso were drawn to similar themes, including the circus, portraits and still lifes. Bull-fighting is a constant too (Botero originally trained as a matador!)

The exhibition is called Botero, Dialogue with Picasso and explores these connections.

It contains around 60 pieces by the Colombian artist (sculptures, including a mighty, two ton horse, as well as paintings), as well as around 20 major works by Picasso himself. Pictured: Pierrot by Botero (2007), private collection, © Fernando Botero.

In summer 2018 it's the turn of the Franco-Russian abstract painter Nicolas de Staël, with a show of some 80 pieces created by the artist during a year in Provence. 27 April-23 September.

And then Marc Chagall steps into the limelight. This artist is famed for his vibrant use of colour but here, intriguingly, some 200 works trace his experiments in black and white. 1 November 2018-24 March 2019. No-one can claim the Caumont is not adventurous and ecletic!

Click here to read our review of the inaugural, summer 2015 event at the Caumont Centre d'Art, an outstanding show dedicated to the Venetian artist Canaletto and here to read about the winter 2015-2016 exhibition of pieces on loan from the collection of the Princes of Liechtenstein.

Click here to read about the summer 2016 exhibition of work by JMW Turner, here to read about the winter 2016-2017 show of photographs of Marilyn Monroe. and here to read about the summer 2017 show of paintings by the Impressionist Alfred Sisley.

Where: The Caumont Centre d'Art, 3, rue Joseph Cabassol, 13100 Aix-en-Provence. Website for the Caumont Centre d'Art.

The all-inclusive entry price includes access to the period rooms of the Hôtel de Caumont and to the art exhibition, as well as to the tea rooms / bar and gardens.

If you just want to enter the tea rooms during the day you have to buy a ticket for the gallery. Alternatively, you can purchase an annual pass to the café and bookshop.

Once the gallery is closed in the evening, there's free access for all to the tea rooms, which morph into a cocktail lounge. Cosy in winter, open on to those glorious gardens in summer, it's a great place to stop by for a drink.

Photo credits (from top): © defrance.de, C Moirenc, C Michel, all for Culturespaces.

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