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 millennia, of history. logoClick here to book a hotel in Aix en Provence

The Old Town or Vieille Ville fans out from the Cours Mirabeau, on the opposite side of the boulevard from the Mazarin Quarter. And it presents a sharp contrast to the latter's neat grid-pattern layout, sedate atmosphere and homogenous architectural style.

In this maze of narrow alleys and hidden squares, all is hustle and bustle and a real mix of periods. Although Aix reached its height 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 at various squares dotted around the Old Town (details below) and shop for everything from salt cod to rare antiquarian books.

Place d'Albertas, Aix en ProvenceLa Rotonde, at the bottom of the Cours Mirabeau, is a good place to start. From here, the first main sight you come across as you thread your way up 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.

Often glamorously photographed, as in the picture, the square is, in reality, 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.

And check out 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, 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 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 1300-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).

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 - with one extraordinary exception.

Archeological excavations in 2004 uncovered a jewel in La Seds, a suburb on the 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.

But you will look in vain for it today. in 2006 the city filled in the site to protect it. The reason: a full excavation and restoration would be enormously long, complex and costly.

If and when it ever happens, Aix will take its place alongside Arles, Orange and Vaison la Romaine as a major Roman site in Provence.

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

News for the Old Town of Aix en Provence

There are currently huge disruptions to Aix's market scene. The Prêcheurs-Madeleine-Verdun complex of squares in the Old Town is being completely renovated and pedestrianised. The utilities (electricity and water) are being repaired and a new car-park created.

At the same time archeologists have been eagerly checking for buried treasures. All this means that most of the markets that usually set up in this part of Aix are displaced.

The daily fruit and vegetable market is at the bottom of the Cours Mirabeau, around the Rotonde. The craft market is in the Espace Cézanne, by the Tourist Office and the Allées provençales (Tues, Thurs, Sat). The antiques are at the top of the avenue Victor Hugo (Tues, Thurs, Sat).

The flower market is now be held daily on the place de l'Hôtel de Ville, except for the first Sunday of the month, when the square is given over to antiquarian and second-hand books. The clothes market on the Cours Mirabeau (Tues, Thurs) is unaffected by the changes.

And everything will be reshuffled yet again in December to accommodate the various Christmas markets. Expect plenty of traffic jams and parking problems during this enormous 20 million €uro project which won't be fully completed until 2019.

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: Many Old Town restaurants are lined up along the Forum des Cardeurs, pictured, 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.

Several other good value options are in the narrow backstreets: Le Bistrot at 5 rue Campra, L'Alcôve at 19 rue Constantin and the slightly pricier Vintrépide at 48 rue du Puits neuf.

At the bottom of the Old Town near La Rotonde are some great addresses such as Les Vieilles Canailles at 7 rue Isolette and La Cerise sur le Gâteau on the very pretty little place Ramus, a cobbled pedestrian square lined with good value restaurants. Click here to read our full guide to the best restaurants in Aix en Provence



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