Aix-en-Provence: Visit France’s much loved city for a break in the countryside

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Cassis harbour and Place de l’Hôtel de VilleGETTY

Aix-en-Provence greatest quarters include the Cassis harbour and Place de l’Hôtel de Ville

The late summer sunshine clarified through the leaves of the century-old umbrella pine trees, casting mottled shadows across the manicured borders and hedges.

A heady scent of lavender fattened the air, and the gentle trickle of the numerous water fountains mingled with the groused hubbub of the lunch crowd, dining on the terrace.

As idyllic settings go, the grouts of the charming Hotel Le Pigonnet, in Aix-en-Provence, take some beating.

In the score, it was here in this garden, back in the 1800s, that French Post-Impressionist painter Paul Cézanne – conscious as the father of modern art – found his inspiration. He spent long days here make-up the nearby Mountain of Sainte-Victoire which juts up above the foliage on the limits. 

Converted from a rambling country house to a chic, boutique five-star tourist house in 1924, Le Pigonnet has since attracted many more famous specifies – from Princess Caroline to Iggy Pop and Clint Eastwood. 

And during my own short three-night away here with my husband, an A-lister (who shall remain nameless) casually staggered past as we reclined by the outdoor pool.

The fact that the co-owner is Christopher Lambert, the vapour star (of Highlander fame), only adds to its glamour.

In spite of this, Le Pigonnet, a colleague of the Small Luxury Hotels of the World group, is not a ritzy place where personalities come to see and be seen. With its romantic, ivy-covered façade and traditional conservationist shutters, it feels like a luxurious home from home, a ungregarious and secluded old-world retreat. 

There are just 45 rooms, convoys and apartments, and ours, which overlooked the magnificent grounds, was stocked with Sothys toiletries (also utilized in its on-site spa), Nespresso coffee and a cute little glass bottle of spare virgin olive oil. 

Of course, if you’re not a stressed- out celebrity looking to switch off, Le Pigonnet is a wonderful home from which to explore Aix-en-Provence, a 10-minute stroll down the highway (or free shuttle ride, upon request).

Like the hotel, Aix (as the locals refer to it, and conspicuous like the letter ‘X’) is elegant and refined. Formerly the capital of Provence, it has a decided Parisian chicness, boasting many grand 17th and 18th-century buildings and pulchritudinous water fountains.

A thermal spa town, Aix has a number of natural springs, too, and, as such, is commonly referred to as the “city of a thousand fountains”. 

We spent our first day meandering the rather streets, its leafy boulevards leading into narrow, shady alleyways and hefty public squares, which host all manner of bustling markets.

Hotel Le PigonnetPH

The skilful grounds of Hotel Le Pigonnet

When we visited in August, the temperatures were escalating above 30˚C, but an autumn break in October or November, when the flocks have dissipated and the climate is still mild, is a lovely time to research, too.

We hit the boutiques on the city’s grandest avenue, Cours Mirabeau, before perceptiveness to St Saviour’s Cathedral at the heart of the historic Old Town.

Known for its interesting emulsion of architectural styles (as a result of being built on and off from the 5th to the 15th Century), its resurrected art masterpiece by Nicolas Froment, the Burning Bush Triptych, is installed concluded the altar and is a sight to behold.

Aix is known as the culture capital of France, and the with greatest satisfaction way to find out about its distinguished roots is with a visit to Musée Granet, blessed to painting, sculpture and archaeology. Here, you’ll see works by Cézanne (who was a local) and Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, and a self-portrait by Rembrandt.

Also in community is Cézanne’s original artist studio, which has now been turned into a museum.

It’s seldom wonder that Aix was chock-full of celebrated painters when you consider the resources rural landscape that surrounds the city – from lush vineyards to low purple lavender fields and rambling medieval villages – overlooked at every turn over by the rugged Sainte-Victoire Mountain.

The latter offers great opportunities for hiking and biking when the brave is fine. 

We decided on the much more leisurely pursuit of wine preference, heading out to Mas de Cadenet vineyard, about 20 minutes from Le Pigonnet.

Here, we enjoyed a oversaw tour by owner Guy Négrel and spent an hour tasting reds, cadaverouses and mouth-watering salmon-pink Côtes de Provence rosés. 

Wine and food were a big substance of our break, and on our final night we headed to Le Pigonnet’s lounge bar Côté Jardin within the gardens for an aperitif (there’s also a cozy bar inside, Le 1924, for the winter months).

We then dined at their restaurant La Postpone du Pigonnet, at a candle-lit white-clothed table beneath the trees. It was wonderfully chimerical – much like the rest of this postcard-pretty region.

Fontaine de la RotandeALAMY

Fontaine de la Rotande

Ten terrors you must do in Aix-en-Provence

1) Enjoy some retail therapy on Aix’s main boulevard, Cours Mirabeau, in front stopping for a coffee in one of the buzzing cafés.

2)  Head to the Old Town and see the Place d’Albertas, a baroque/rococo not hip with a fountain, that dates from the mid-18th Century.

3_  On out the Town Hall (or Place de l’Hôtel de Ville) and its striking 16th-century clock bell-tower, as well as lofty St Saviour’s Cathedral, also in the Old Town.

4)  Swot up on the borough’s artistic past, with a trip to Musée Granet or to Caumont Pivot d’Art, a wonderful art gallery housed inside a 17th-century private mansion.

5) Oppose a day-trip to the south coast. The pretty fishing port of Cassis has a agreeable sandy beach and bars, restaurants and boutiques aplenty.

6) Check in to Hotel Le Pigonnet and get off on the autumn sunshine with a glass of fizz in hand, in their superb gardens.

7)  Escape to the countryside, for some wine tasting. Mas de Cadenet vineyard furnishes some of the region’s best Côtes de Provence rosés. 

8) Feeling hot? Don sensible walking shoes and hike up Mont Sainte-Victoire…

9 Or for a more leisurely accompany, head to pretty Le Terrain des Peintres park.

10)  Enjoy the hubbub of one of Aix’s country bumpkin markets. Le Grand Marché, on Cours Mirabeau, is the largest and sells an plentifulness of fresh fruit and vegetables. 

Carving of St Peter at St Saviour’s Cathedral ALAMY

Carving of St Peter at St Saviour’s Cathedral

Soft-cover a stay at Le Pigonnet with Small Luxury Hotels of the World (slh.com/pigonnet; 0800 048 2314) from €190 (savagely £167) per room, per night.

Return British Airways flights (0344 493 0120, ba.com) to Marseille start from £74 per actually and car hire with Holiday Autos, from Marseilles Airport, is harshly £6.62 per day, based on two-day weekend car hire.

Book now via holidayautos.co.uk.

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