Paul Cézanne: In the footsteps of a master

Paul Cézanne, the father of modern art, returned to tranquil Aix to escape the industry of Paris and Marseille. Natasha Edwards traces his legacy
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The Independent Travel

When Paul Cézanne died in 1906, Aix en Provence couldn't have cared less about its now favourite son. "Never in my lifetime," said then curator Henri Pontier at the prospect of having any of the artist's works in the Musée Granet. One hundred years on and the Musée Granet is staging a major exhibition called "Cézanne en Provence", investigating the inextricable relationship between Cézanne's art and his native region (9 June-17 September, place Saint-Jean-de-Malte; open daily 9am-7pm, until 11pm Thursday; www.cezanne-2006.com, advance booking www.fnac.com). Indeed Cézanne's ghost is everywhere: as well as the artist's studio, and numerous exhibitions and events, two other "Cézanne sites" have opened for the first time.

Cézanne is not all there is to see in Aix, one of most France's most beautiful cities. First a Roman spa and garrison town, later the capital of Provence and seat of the regional parliament in what is now the town hall, Aix long set the fashion in the south, as its powerful politicians and burghers imported new styles from Paris for their grandiose town houses and country bastides. In Cézanne's day, Aix had become something of a provincial backwater, which was a relief for Cézanne, who may be the father of modern art but mistrusted modernity, fleeing the frenetic industrialisation that had hit Paris and Marseille. Today, although the outskirts of Aix have sprawled over the past 20 years, the historic centre remains beautifully preserved: aristocratic, urbane and slightly snooty. It is the ideal place for upmarket shopping, indulging in café society, stocking up on fruit, veg and olive oil at outdoor markets (see pages IV-V) or simply perfecting the art of flânerie - aimless strolling in the streets. Almost everywhere you'll come across a fountain, a fine wrought-iron balcony or sculpted heads, saints or muscular atlantes.

Maximise your time by opting for one of the characterful hotels in the town centre. Between the Quartier Mazarin and the station, Hôtel Cézanne (40 avenue Victor Hugo; 00 33 4 42 91 11 11; www.hotelaix.com; double from €140/£100) is a rare case of a chain hotel (a former Mercure) returning to private ownership. It is now a lovely boutique hotel with a relaxing downstairs bar with neo-baroque armchairs, individually decorated rooms with brand new king-size beds, and very helpful staff. The Grand Hôtel Nègre Coste (33 Cours Mirabeau; 00 33 4 42 27 74 22; www.hotelnegrecoste.com; double from €85/£61) is not as grand as it once was (its original reception rooms have lost out to a pizzeria), but bedrooms are reasonably sized with antique wardrobes and views of the lively Cours Mirabeau, or over pantiled rooftops to the cathedral. Also in the Quartier Mazarin, the pretty Hôtel des Quatre-Dauphins (54 rue Roux Alpheran; 00 33 4 42 38 16 39; double from €78/£56) has lots of fans. Rooms aren't huge but after recent refurbishment are now air conditioned. For a tranquil luxury retreat, Hôtel Pigonnet (5 avenue Pigonnet; 00 33 4 42 59 02 90; www.hotelpigonnet.com; double from €240/£172) is an 18th-century bastide a short walk from the centre, with an upmarket restaurant and a shady garden, in which Cézanne once painted a view of the Montagne Sainte-Victoire. The swimming pool is a bonus in summer.

Apart from the new Cézanne sites, for which you need a car, taxi or public transport, Aix is best negotiated on foot. The artist rarely depicted the town itself but you can follow a trail of brass medallions in the pavement of the numerous places associated with the artist. The best place to start is the café-lined Cours Mirabeau, the broad carriageway created in 1650 on the trace of the old ramparts. At the heart of town, it divides Vieux Aix, the old town that is still the commercial hub of Aix with its medieval tangle of narrow streets and irregular squares, and the Quartier Mazarin, the aristocratic district laid out on a grid plan in the 17th century.

About three-quarters of the way up at No 53, the Café des Deux Garçons (00 33 4 42 26 00 51), known as "les deux Gs", is perhaps the city's most famous landmark. Cézanne used to stop off for an apéritif here, as have pretty much all the good and great who have passed through Aix, from Winston Churchill to Edith Piaf. It has a great people-watching terrace and a Consular period interior. A couple of doors up, No 55 was once the hat shop where Cézanne lived as a small child.

Musée Granet, in the Quartier Mazarin, in the former Commanderie of the Knights of Malta and later the art school where Cézanne took drawing lessons, is obviously the museum event this year, but a couple of others are worth a look. The Musée du Vieux-Aix (17 rue Gaston de Saporta; 00 33 4 42 21 43 55; open Tue-Sun 10am-noon; 2.30pm-6pm) focuses on folk art and offers a chance to see inside one of the string of noble residences on this street, including its exquisite "cabinet", a tiny room with ornately carved and painted domed ceiling; a Cézanne-related exhibition rediscovers the local "little masters". Almost opposite in the bishops' palace, see historic tapestries in the Musée des Tapisseries (place des Martyrs de la Résistance; 00 33 4 42 23 09 91; open Wed-Mon 10am-6pm) and homages to Cézanne by contemporary artists Vincent Bioulès and Pierre Buraglio. The Cathédrale Saint-Sauveur next door is a curious architectural hotchpotch, which takes you from Merovingian baptistry and Romanesque cloister to three mismatched Romanesque, Gothic and Baroque naves.

A short walk from the centre beyond the cathedral, the Atelier des Lauves (9 avenue Paul Cézanne, 00 33 4 42 21 06 53, open daily until end May 4-6pm, June-August visits at 12.30pm, 1.30pm; 4.30pm, 6.30pm; mornings for groups only, admission €5.50/£3.90; pass for three sites €12/£8.60), which Cézanne had built in 1902, was the artist's last studio. The clutter of easels and palettes, jugs and broken cherub statues has been scrupulously preserved. A steepish 15-minute walk further up the hill brings you to the plateau where Cézanne painted many views - illustrated on enamel panels - of the triangular limestone peak of the Montagne Sainte-Victoire, or what he called "the motif".

Two other Cézannian sites opened to the public for the first time this year. Jas de Bouffan, (visits daily, €5.50/£3.90, reserve in person at the tourist office; 2 place du Général de Gaulle; 00 33 4 42 16 11 61; www.aixenprovencetourism.com; 00 33 4 42 16 11 82; bus 6), the solid 18th-century country residence acquired by Cézanne's father in 1859 was a sign of his rising status from hat maker to banker, as co-founder of the Banque Cézanne et Cabassol. Although much of its grounds were sold off for public housing in the 1960s and the murals Cézanne painted in the Grand Salon (evoked in a multimedia presentation) have been stripped off the walls, the ornamental pond with sculpted lions' heads and dolphins, and the avenue of chestnut trees, which appear in several paintings, remain. Nearby, you might visit the Fondation Vasarely (1 avenue Marcel Pagnol; 00 33 4 42 20 01 09; open Mon-Sat, 10am-6pm) now something of a 1970s timewarp, where the Hungarian kinetic artist put his principles into practice on an architectural scale: the black and white hexagons of the building are part of an artwork reflected in pools of water.

The second new Cézanne site is a group of atmospheric disused quarries, the Carrières de Bibémus (visits daily, morning only in July and August; €5.50/£3.90; reserve in person at the tourist office; bus 4 to 3 Bons Dieux then a shuttle). As you clamber along a circuit past viewpoints depicted by Cézanne, works you previously thought of as stylised proto-Cubism suddenly seem realist. It is a curious mix of wilderness and the man-made, as blocks of ochre rock, pine trees growing at strange angles and clumps of rosemary contrast with blue skies in the hues of green, yellow, cream and orange that dominated Cézanne's palette.

Aix long had a reputation for its social scene and cheap student eats rather than as a gourmet destination but several new restaurants have revitalised the scene. Reine Sammut of La Fenière at Lourmarin in the Luberon and one of France's leading female chefs is behind fashionable Le Passage (10 rue Villars; 00 33 4 42 37 09 00; www.le-passage.fr), a converted sweet factory with galleries, metal gantries and glass-roofed atrium, and a modern take on Provençal cooking (cod with caperonata, red mullet with artichokes, steak tartare). It also holds cookery courses, wine tastings, photo exhibitions and an afternoon tea room.

Hidden away on one of Vieux Aix's busiest streets, Le Formal (32 rue Espariat, 00 33 4 42 27 08 31) in a vaulted cellar hung with modern paintings, haute-cuisine trained chef Jean-Luc Le Formal modernises classic ingredients, such as foie gras, pigeon and excellent fish, with flair.

After three years in Vieux Aix, Les Deux Frères, trendy success story of the two Bouchérif brothers, reopens on 12 May in larger premises (4 avenue de la Reine Astrid; 00 33 4 42 27 90 32; www.les2freres.com) with a contemporary design, spacious terrace and a giant screen on which images of the excellent mod-Med food are projected.

Aix's second big cultural claim to fame is its summer opera festival (00 33 4 42 17 34 34, www.festival-aix.com). This year the two come together on 5 July (pick up a coupon from the festival office or tourist office) for a commemorative, free open-air performance at nightfall of Mahler's 5th Symphony by the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Sir Simon Rattle, in the Puyloubier clay quarries at the foot of the Montagne Sainte-Victoire.

LOOKING FOR VINCENT

Are you humming it yet? For travellers of a certain age, the name "Vincent" evokes Don McLean's haunting hit about Van Gogh. But travel to the pretty and absurdly historic city of Arles, and you can stand at the point where the tragic artist splashed the cosmos on canvas in his Starry Night.

Van Gogh's early professional life was spent teaching and preaching, without notable success. He began to draw and paint only in 1880, aged 37, but in the following decade he produced 800 intensely expressive paintings, many of which are now regarded as masterpieces.

The best were produced during his brief, unhappy time in Provence. He came here in 1888, and moved into a bright yellow house in Place Lamartine in Arles. La Maison Jaune, as it was depicted, is no longer standing; perhaps the descendants of the town planner who ordered its destruction still get heckled by locals mourning the cultural and financial loss the decision entailed.

In Arles, Van Gogh lived and worked in sometimes uncomfortable proximity to Paul Gauguin, one of the many other artists drawn to Provence by the quality of light. For most of them, the quality of life was much enhanced, too. But Van Gogh's torments actually increased after the move from the colder climes of Paris and the Low Countries.

Arles now celebrates its favourite adopted son with a guided walking tour, and two locations that invoke his name: the Espace Van Gogh (place Felix Rey; 00 33 4 90 49 37 40), in the former hospital where he was treated for depression, and the Fondation Van Gogh (24-bis rondpoint des Arenes; 00 33 4 90 49 94 04), which aims to take forward his artistic legacy.

The railway that carried the artist to the exquisite village of St-Rémy de Provence no longer exists, but there are good bus links from both Arles and Avignon. Van Gogh moved here in 1889, a year before his suicide. He spent most of his time as a patient in the asylum of Monastère St-Paul de Mausole (00 33 4 90 92 77 00), a cheerful 20-minute walk south of the town. Here, he created some outstanding work - notably the Yellow Cornfield, depicting the meadow that blazed beyond his window. Today, you can visit a reconstruction of his room, and wander through the pretty cloister.

St-Rémy's other claim to fame is as the birthplace of the prophet Nostradamus, but the artistic legacy is ascendant - there is a Centre d'Art Presence Van Gogh (8 rue Lucien Estrine; 00 33 4 92 34 72), where his life story is told, plus a regulation walking trail. In addition, plenty of galleries sell canvasses by artists who are, for now at least, less celebrated than Van Gogh; visit the Galerie Malvina Clauzel at 35 boulevard Marceau for some of the more impressive works.

Van Gogh died by his own clumsy hand in July 1890, cutting tragically short a life in which his genius went unnoticed: as the song goes, "This world was never meant for one as beautiful as you".

Simon Calder

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