Aix marks the spot for Impressionists

Cézanne and Matisse star in a new exhibition in this Provençal gem. Mick Webb gets the picture

As strawberries go with cream, so the name of Paul Cézanne is inseparable from Aix-en-Provence. Rarely, if ever, has a painter been as closely identified with a single place. Next week, a much-heralded exhibition, From Cézanne to Matisse, opens at the Musée Granet in Aix. Part of the celebrations for nearby Marseille's year as co-Capital of Culture 2013, it provides a good excuse to pay a visit to this attractive little city where the "father of modern art" was born, worked and died.

The vast tourist office (00 33 4 42 161 161; en.aixenprovencetourism.com) at Avenue Giuseppe Verdi, where you can pick up brochures on the painter's life, makes an apt starting point for a Cézanne walk. Join the main Avenue des Belges and follow it to Place Général de Gaulle, the roundabout at the heart of Aix-en-Provence. It's adorned with a bronze statue of Cézanne, with hat, walking stick and canvases.

Take Avenue Victor Hugo back off the roundabout and peel off left for Rue Mazarine and the much quieter Rue Villars, passing Cézanne cinema (Aix's other one is a Renoir) and into the 17th-century Mazarin district, filled with elegant town houses with spacious gardens. Among them, at 41 Rue Cardinale was the secondary school, now the Collège Mignet, which Cézanne attended between 1852-58.

Continue along Rue Cardinale to the Musée Granet. This was the art school where Cézanne studied drawing and received the second prize for a painted figure study in 1859. Now, it's the city's main museum (00 33 4 42 52 88 32; museegranet-aixen provence.fr; free for permanent collection, temporary €11/£9.40). Although hosting the new exhibition, its permanent collection has only nine of Cézanne's 1,000 or so works.

At the end of Rue Cardinale, turn left into fashionable Rue d'Italie, with its speciality food shops, then left again into Cours Mirabeau, the broad boulevard, lined with plane trees, where the well-to do of Aix have paraded since the 17th century. Among the cafés and restaurants is Les Deux Garçons, whose green and gold decor recalls the period when Cézanne would meet friends here. To the right of the café, an arched alleyway, Passage Agard, takes you into the Old Town, where narrow streets open on to impressive squares. At the end, the Place du Verdun, with a bustling market on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, links with the Place des Prêcheurs, whose church of La Madeleine is where Cézanne was baptised in 1839.

Bear left along Rue Matheron, where Number 14 is one of several houses in which the Cézanne family lived. A right turn at the end into Rue Boulegon takes you past Number 13, the site of the bank where Cézanne worked briefly and reluctantly for his father, the owner. Number 23 was the painter's last home, where he died of pleurisy in 1906. A left turn, however, will bring you to the Hôtel de Ville, the Town Hall, where Cézanne married Marie-Hortense Fiquet in 1886. It was not a very happy union, as the portraits of her seem to suggest. Behind the Hôtel de Ville, the Place des Cardeurs is an ideal place for lunch: restaurants range from the smart Epicurien (00 33 6 89 33 49 83) to the pizzeria Prima Pasta (00 33 4 42 21 33 00) with its sunny terrace.

Turn left off the end of the square for the main axis of the old town, Rue Gaston de Saporta, which leads uphill towards the Cathédrale Saint-Sauveur, an endearing hotch-potch of styles and periods (00 33 4 42 23 45 65). This is where Cézanne attended mass and where his funeral was held in October 1906. The cathedral's best painting is a 15th-century triptych entitled the Burning Bush. According to Cézanne's friend Emile Bernard, the figure of Moses bore an uncanny resemblance to Cézanne.

To capture the real spirit of the painter requires more of a walk, 1km northwards out of town, up Avenue Pasteur. The Atelier Paul Cézanne is the house which he had built in 1902 with the inheritance from his father.

In the peaceful studio, surrounded by woodland, and flooded by light from the huge window in the northern wall, Cézanne worked every morning of his last four years, producing masterpieces such as Les Grandes Baigneuses. On a guided visit (00 33 4 42 21 06 53; atelier-cezanne.com; €5.50/£4.70) you can see the clothes, palettes and the fruit bowls used in his still-lifes. Most striking is the huge slot, like a vertical letterbox, through which Cézanne dragged his enormous canvases as he went out to paint directly from nature.

A further 500m up the hill, past the Paul Cézanne retirement home is the Terrain des Peintres. It's the vantage point from which, day after day, Cézanne observed and painted the ever-changing colours of Mont Sainte-Victoire, which rises starkly in the distance. It's fascinating to sit and compare the real thing with the nine panels showing reproductions of the master's stunning takes on the mountain, which he painted more than 80 times.

Fresh cuts

Aix's opera festival, with its open-air performances, is one of the cultural highlights of the Provençal summer. It runs from 4-27 July and new for this year is a special package of three performances: Elektra, Don Giovanni and Rigoletto (00 33 434 08 02 17; festival-aix.com).

In September, Marriott will open the new five-star Hôtel Renaissance in Aix at 320 Avenue Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (00 33 4 425 905 79: marriott.co.uk).

Travel essentials

Getting there

Mick Webb visited Aix-en-Provence courtesy of British Airways and the Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur Tourist Board.

Fly to Marseille from Heathrow with BA (0844 493 0787; ba.com), from Gatwick with easyJet (0834 104 5000; easyJet.com) or on Ryanair (0871 246 0000; ryanair.com) from Edinburgh, East Midlands and Stansted. Shuttle buses to Aix leave the airport every half hour, from 5.30am to 11pm; €7. 60 (£6.50) single.

 

Staying there

The Hôtel St Christophe at 2 Avenue Victor Hugo (00 33 4 42 26 01 24; hotel-saintchristophe.com) is well placed for the start of the walk. It has doubles from €97 (£83), with breakfast an extra €6 (£5)pp.

 

More Information

Aix tourist office (00 33 4 42 161 161; aixenprovencetourism.com) or the UK French Tourist Office (090 68 244 123; 60p/min at all times; uk.franceguide.com).

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