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In 124 BCE, Greek merchants from Massalia (now called Marseille) called for Roman help to defeat the Salian Franks, Germanic-speaking barbarians who lacked proper respect for the civilized Greeks. The Roman general Sextius drove out the Franks and established a camp called Aquae Sextiae— “the waters of Sextius”— around a hot spring. As public bathing was central to Roman life, hot springs were highly desirable locations. Puritans can be glad that generations of lazy tongues have eroded Aquae Sextiae into Aix rather than Sex.
Sextius’ waters still flow in Aix. But today they’re reserved for the patrons of Thermes Sextius, a luxurious spa and hotel. There the well-heeled can get well-healed of various ailments by bathing in and drinking the mineral-laden water, a treatment still within the medical mainstream in Europe. Tourists can visit the lobby and see the glassed-in remnants of the spa’s Roman predecessor. The management also provide paper cups for sampling the water from a spigot in the lobby. It tastes so bad that it obviously must be good for you!
Given its watery origin, it should not be surprising that Aix is known as the “City of a Thousand Fountains.” But as with so many marketing slogans, that number is significantly exaggerated. Still, I’ll admit it really does sound better than the more accurate “City of Twenty-Three Fountains.”
Here are three of those fountains (left to right): La Fontaine des Quatre-Dauphins is decorated with four dolphins that look more like large scaly fish, presumably reflecting the limited knowledge of marine biology that existed in 1667. The first fountain in Place des Augustins was built in 1620. People started washing their clothes in it in 1786, until the current fountain replaced it in 1820. Place d’Albertas has one of the newest fountains in Aix. It was built in 1912, as a student project at the city’s school of art and design.
Guidebooks describe Cours Mirabeau as a picturesque tree-lined avenue full of shops, cafés, and “atmosphere.” Unfortunately, when I was there in May 2000, the entire street was a giant construction site. The shops and restaurants were open for business, but the shady plane trees were mercilessly pruned to be out of the way. The “atmosphere” was dominated by automobile and pedestrian traffic snarled around scaffolding and steel plates, accompanied by the sound of jackhammers.
The construction fortunately didn’t affect what has to be the strangest fountain in Aix, officially called la Fontaine d’Eau Thermale. This “Hot Water Fountain” in the middle of Cours Mirabeau is completely covered with moss! It is thus commonly known as Moussue— “Mossy.”
When it was installed in 1734, Moussue was a conventional fountain decorated with four cherubs. Nourished by the spray of warm water from Sextius’ spring, moss naturally accumulated on the fountain. At some point someone decided that the moss looked better than the cherubs, and allowed it to engulf the fountain as a kind of natural sculpture.
The construction also didn’t affect Viel Aix, Aix’s picturesque “Old
Town.” (Just about all the larger towns in Provence have an “Old Town”
quarter.) Among the more illustrious buildings of Viel Aix is the 17th
century Hôtel de Ville. It’s not a hotel, but the local Federal
Building. Of course, this being Aix, the square in front of the
Hôtel de Ville has a large 18th century fountain.
Aix was the home of the Impressionist painter Paul Cézanne. Numerous merchants now exploit his legacy. Cézanne made many paintings of Montagne Sainte-Victoire, a rocky ridge near Aix. The “holy victory” that gave the mountain its name was in 107 BCE. Barbarians again threatened Aquae Sextiae, and the Roman General Marius routed the horde— reportedly over 200,000— by pinning them against the mountain. As an example of how seriously the French take their history, Marius is still a common first name in Provence.
The Michelin “Green Guide” to Provence— one of an indispensable series of French travel guides— has a very nice day-long driving tour from Aix that offers views of the mountain and surrounding countryside. One of the first stops on the itinerary is Vauvenargues.
Vauvenargues is seemingly one of the many pretty but nondescript little villages that dot the landscape in Provence. But on a beautiful spring morning, it offered a what is possibly my favorite image of those I brought back from Provence. It overlooks the Château de Vauvenargues, a 17th century red brick castle that Pablo Picasso bought in 1958. He is buried on its grounds. With no sign of modern construction, this bucolic scene could plausibly have been painted by an 18th or 19th century landscape artist.
Salon de Provence is another side-trip from Aix. Salon is best known for its most famous resident, the 16th century apothecary and astrologer Michel de Nostredame, better known as Nostradamus. Some people insist— with a straight face, no less— that his enigmatic apocalyptic quatrains uncannily predicted everything from the rise of Adolf Hitler and the assassination of John F. Kennedy to the 1994 Los Angeles earthquake and the September 11 attacks.
The Château de l’Empéri is Salon’s main tourist attraction. Originally built in the ninth century, several Holy Roman Emperors lived in the castle. That’s how it got its name, which means “Castle of the Empire.” After appropriate improvements in the 15th and 16th centuries it became a vacation home for French kings and queens, before the Revolution turned it into a barracks and prison. Restored in 1926, the Château is now a military museum.