The Old Town

The Place de l'Hotel de Ville, Aix en ProvenceAix's Old Town is perfectly poised to seduce the visitor with its winding streets, craft shops, boutiques, restaurants, elegant squares, refreshing fountains, markets - and all steeped in centuries, if not millenia, of history.

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Fanning out from the Cours Mirabeau, on the other side of the boulevard from the Mazarin Quarter, it presents a sharp contrast to the latter's neat grid-pattern streets, sedate atmosphere and homogenous architectural style.

In the Old Town, or Vieille Ville, all is hustle and bustle and - although Aix reached its apogée of glory under the leadership of Good King René (1409-1480) - "old" is a catch-all term spanning everything from Roman times to the 19th century.

You can get a free fold-out map from the Aix en Provence Tourist Office with brief notes on the most important buildings, but probably the most enjoyable way to experience this part of the city is simply to wander where the mood takes you.

It's also an excellent opportunity to browse Aix's numerous colourful daily markets found at various squares dotted around the Old Town (details below) and selling everything from salt cod to rare antiquarian books.

In terms of the main sights, the first you come across as you thread your way north through the back-streets is the place d'Albertas, a baroque/rococo square dating back to the mid 18th century with a superb fountain in the middle.

Placed'Albertas, Aix en ProvenceVery often photographed (as in the picture), the square is, in reality, somewhat more dilapidated than it looks in the glossy tourist literature - but all the more full of character for it.

Nearby is the Palais de Justice (Law Courts), a monumental 19th century neo-classical pile that's France's most important Appeal Court after the one in Paris. Facing it is the Church of La Madeleine, a 13th century Dominican church with a 19th century facade.

At the Italianate 17th century Hôtel de Ville (Town Hall), pause to admire the lavishly sculpted wooden doors with their mighty lion's head knockers (sadly, fixed in place to prevent tourists banging them), as well as the magnificent wrought ironwork and clock tower with its belfry, sundial and astrological clock with a revolving parade of statues representing the four seasons (pictured top left: cafés on the place de l'Hôtel de Ville).

L'Ancienne Halle des Graines, Aix en ProvenceOn the south side of the same square is L'Ancienne Halle aux Grains (the former Corn Exchange), built in 1759-1761. At ground level, it's now a mundane post office and library, but look up to spot an imposing allegorical pediment featuring the Rhône and Durance rivers as male and female figures (the latter, pictured left, dangles a languorous leg).

Jean-Pancrace Chastel (1726-1793), who sculpted this watery couple, is also responsible for the fountain in the middle of the place de l'Hôtel de Ville, topped with a Roman column, as well as the one on the place des Prêcheurs.

Keep heading north up the rue Gaston de Saporta. On your left at no. 17 is a 17th century hôtel particulier, the Musée du Vieil Aix (Museum of Old Aix), also known as the Musée Estienne de Saint Jean, which exhibits local memorabilia.

A little further up on the right is the Palais de l'Archevêché (Archbishop's Palace). The building itself is quite lovely. On the ground floor, a vaulted Gothic hall harks back to the origins in the Middle Ages. Then a grand, sweeping baroque staircase leads up to the first floor, which was constructed between 1650 and 1780.

Here, the Musée des Tapisseries gives you the chance to inspect the cleric's humble abode and you can peer through the windows into the vast inner courtyard which every July becomes a 1,300-seat theatre, a principal venue for the Festival d'Aix, the city's annual Festival of Lyric Art, one of Europe's leading celebrations of opera and classical music.

The museum's permanent collection is really of interest only if you're seriously into tapestries. It comprises some two dozen large pieces from the 17th and 18th century, mainly from Beauvais, including a rare series of nine tapestries illustrating the story of Don Quixote.

Dotted between the tapestries are items of period furniture and displays of sets, props and maquettes from past productions at the Aix Festival as well as temporary exhibitions of photographic portraits, contemporary art or even graphic novels (bandes dessinées).

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The Cloisters, Cathedral Saint Sauveur, Aix en ProvenceAlmost next door is the Archbishop's daily workplace. Built, and constantly rebuilt, on a Roman site, the Cathedral of Saint Sauveur is a rich mélange of architectural styles and art from the 5th to the 17th century.

Among its treasures are the fantastically carved walnut doors, the ancient baptistery with its 6th century octagonal font and a massive, 18th century green and gold organ (the identical organ facing it across the aisle is fake, constructed for the sake of symmetry).

The cathedral's star work of art, which recently emerged from a seven-year long restoration at huge expense, is a triptych, The Burning Bush, by the 15th century Avignon artist Nicolas Froment. Its side panels depict the middle-aged King René and his 21-year-old second wife, Jeanne.

Frustratingly, this treasure is only open for viewing at certain times of year, linked to the key religious festivals. There is also restricted access to the cathedral's other main sight, its lovely 12th century cloister (pictured above), which may only be visited accompanied by a guide.

Continue to the end of the street and turn left along the ring road to find the crumbling remains of the mediaeval ramparts.

A short walk further takes you to the Thermes Sextius, a luxurious modern spa on the site of the Roman baths. Built in the second century BC, its excavated remains are on display beneath a glass floor by the entrance to the lobby.

Other than that, precious little survives in Central Aix from the Roman era. However, archeological excavations in 2004 uncovered a jewel in La Seds, a suburb on the north-west outskirts of the city: an ancient Roman theatre or amphitheatre 100 metres in diameter and built in the first century AD (the exact date is yet to be established). It's about 15 minutes' walk from the Thermes Sextius.

Markets can be found every day somewhere in Aix's Old Town, but Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays are the busiest times.

Place des Prêcheurs: fruit and vegetables (Tues, Thurs, Sat); flowers (Mon, Wed, Fri).

Place de Verdun, in front of the Law Courts: collectibles, antiques and crafts, and new and second-hand clothes. (Tues, Thurs, Sat).

Place Richelme: a farmers' market selling local produce (every day).

Place de l'Hôtel de Ville (in front of the Town Hall): flowers (Tues, Thurs, Sat) and antiquarian and second-hand books (the first Sunday of each month).

Warning: If you are driving into Aix, pay special attention to the no-parking signs on market days, as both the police and the tow-away companies patrol these areas zealously. Useful phone numbers are the police station, (+33) 4 42 93 97 00, and the car pound, or fourrière in French, (+33) 4 42 20 37 54.

Forum des Cardeurs, Aix en ProvenceWhere to eat and drink: Most of the Old Town restaurants are lined up along the Forum des Cardeurs (pictured left), a large open square built in 1963 on the site of what, in the Middle Ages, was Aix's Jewish Quarter.

This array of terrace cafés offers a good choice of cuisines, from classic French to Italian, Asian, Turkish or simple pasta and salad snack bars, and the best plan is probably just to stroll along and check out the menus. Some offer a set meal deal (prix fixe) at lunchtime. It's a very pleasant place to sit and catch the sun, though there is something of a tourist trap feel to it.

At the western end of the square at no. 40, Le Poivre d'Âne is a long-established restaurant much loved by locals. Just opposite it, Au Pet't Quart d'Heure at no. 21 sells pays d'Aix wines by the glass at very cheap prices.

Three other great value options are in the narrow backstreets: Le Comté d'Aix at 17 rue Couronne, L'Alcôve at 19 rue Constantin and the slightly pricier Vintrépide at 48 rue du Puits neuf. Click here to read our full guide to the best restaurants in Aix en Provence

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