Paris - Starting next week, the city of Paul Cézanne and Emile Zola becomes more accessible as Eurostar steps up its direct trains between London and the south of France from three to five a week.
The extra departures, on Thursdays and Sundays, open up options for a weekend in a compact, civilised city as rich in cuisine as it is in culture.
Direct Eurostar trains (0343 218 6186; eurostar.com) run from London St Pancras to Marseille St-Charles. At the adjoining bus terminal, bus 50 leaves every 10 or 20 minutes, taking half-an-hour to reach Aix bus station on the edge of the city centre, for a fare of €6 (about R100).
Alternatively, you can take a range of other Eurostar trains to Lille, and change for a high-speed train to Aix TGV station - from which bus 40 runs four times an hour. The bus ride takes 15-18 minutes for a fare of €4.10.
Get your bearings
Aix-en-Provence is 17 miles north of Marseille, where the southwest extremes of the Alpine foothills subside towards the Rhône delta. The centre is a rough diamond shape, and its dominant thoroughfare is the Cours Mirabeau. To the north of this broad and elegant boulevard is Vieil Aix, the Old Town; to the south, the remarkable Mazarin quarter, a grid of handsome 17th and 18th century hôtels particuliers - lofty townhouses.
At the western end of the Cours Mirabeau is the circular Place Général de Gaulle, with the Fontaine de la Rotonde at its centre; note the three statues in the centre, with Justice looking towards Aix, Fine Arts towards Avignon and Agriculture towards Marseille. Just to the west is the large and helpful tourist office; 8.30am-8pm daily except Sunday (10am-12 noon and 2-6pm). To the south, along Avenue Victor Hugo, is the diminutive Aix Ville railway station, now supplanted by the high-speed gare; to the south-west, along the Avenue des Belges, the bus station.
The three-star Hôtel Saint-Christophe at 2 Avenue Victor Hugo (0033 44226 0124; hotelsaintchristophe.
com) has a traditional feel and an excellent location. The exterior is Art Deco, the public areas are elegant and the 67 rooms are well-appointed. This weekend a “comfort” room with a shower is €128 (breakfast €9 extra per person), while a “prestige” room with a bath is €30 more.
Tucked away a minute's walk from the railway station, the boutique Hôtel Cézanne at 40 Avenue Victor Hugo (0033 44291 1111; hotelaix.com) is a four-star with 55 stylish rooms and a beautiful outdoor terrace, plus a Nespresso machine on each floor. The hotel offers a free transfer from Marseille airport or Aix TGV rail station with a minimum two-night stay. A standard double this weekend costs €152.
For lower rates, yet an entertainingly bourgeois feel, the two-star Hôtel des Quatre Dauphins is a private mansion at 54 Rue Roux Alpheran (0033 44238 1639; lesquatredauphins.fr). With prices this summer rarely more than €100 double, rooms are in high demand, and a two-night minimum stay may be required.
Take a hike
The tourist office is the starting point for a self-guided walking tour, “In the steps of Cézanne”. It commemorates the artist who was born in the city in 1839 and died there in 1906. A series of brasses placed in the pavement and marked with a “C” takes you from birth to burial. The tourist office will give you a tour leaflet, or you can find it at bit.ly/AixCez.
The tour begins at the statue of the painter adjacent to the tourist office, and leads you past the College Mignet at 41 Rue Cardinale where Paul Cézanne studied and befriended Emile Zola. It has an optional excursion to the St-Pierre Cemetery where he is buried (in lane 6). Next along is Cézanne''s birthplace at 18 Rue de l'Opera, followed by his favourite bar, Les Deux Garçons at 53 Cours Mirabeau. The walk ends at St-Saveur Cathedral, where his funeral mass took place on 24 October 1906.
An organised walk each Thursday at 10am from the tourist office covers this itinerary, while on Tuesdays and Saturdays at 10am you can join a guided tour of the Old Town; each costs €9.
Lunch on the run
From the main cathedral door there are dozens of eating options within a few minutes' walk. Just to the right along Rue Jacques de la Roque, A Casa Bianca (0033 44223 3713) is a Corsican restaurant where the Menu Express Corse comprises a plate of charcuterie and a glass of Corsican wine. For something less carnivorous, among the many options along Rue Paul Bert is 60 Degrés (0033 44223 9145; 60-degres.com) a “Tisanerie Moderne” that serves fresh vegetarian dishes along with a mug of an Ayurvedic infusion for less than €10.
For something even cheaper, assemble a picnic from the market stalls in Place Richelme and enjoy it on the steps of the fountain in the middle of the square.
For a city of under 150 000 souls, Aix has remarkable retail opportunities. The highest concentration of designer boutiques can be found on Rue Granet. Just north, Artisans du Monde at 7 Rue Littéra (0033 44296 0747; 10am-7pm from Tuesday to Saturday) is part of a French fairtrade network.
A recent addition to the Place Général de Gaulle is a striking glass cube that houses the Apple Store. Running west from here, Rue Giuseppe Verdi is flanked with stores - the most intriguing of which is Nature & Découvertes, a French take on National Geographic (natureetdecouvertes.com).
For advice on wine, Cave Conseil Aix at 3 Rue de la Molle (0033 44296 0557; cave-conseil.fr) is the place to choose. It opens 9.30am-12.30pm and 3.30-7.30pm daily except Sunday and Monday, and serious buyers are welcome to taste.
Raise a glass of Provencal rosé to Cézanne at his local, Les Deux Garçons at 53 Cours Mirabeau.
The venue (commonly abbreviated to “2G”) opened in 1792. Since then it has has hosted celebrities from Pablo Picasso and Edith Piaf to Hugh Grant and George Clooney, though not all at the same time. Pictures of the rich and famous hang in the bar, which trades rather heavily on its reputation. For something less pretentious, try the down-to-earth Café des Negociants, just beyond the Old Town at the start of Avenue Pasteur - and nip next door for a look at the Joseph Sec mausoleum, an impressive monument of Revolutionary style.
Dining with the locals Le Bistrot, a classic French restaurant with red-and-white tablecloths, spills out onto the trottoir at 5 Rue Campra (0033 44223 3461). Dishes such as homemade terrine and tartare de charolais (steak tartare) are prepared from local ingredients; house wine is inexpensive and excellent; and the ambiance is cheerful and relaxed.
Sunday morning: go to church
St-Saveur Cathedral is a magnificent muddle of architectural styles with a deep history: planted at the former Roman forum of the city of Aquae Sextiae, on the ruins of a temple to Apollo, with eight columns from a Roman basilica in the baptistry (0033 44223 4565; cathedrale-aix.net).
Construction lasted from the fifth to the 18th century, which helps to explain the Romanesque, Gothic and Baroque styles of the three naves. Look out for the Triptych of the Burning Bush, which is on show to the public only from 20 June to 20 September. The cathedral keeps generous hours (8.15am-8pm on Sundays; other days 8am-7pm), and the main mass on Sunday morning is at 10.30am.
Out to brunch
Restaurant La Mado at 4 Place des Prêcheurs (0033 44238 2802; la-mado-aix.fr) is an ever-reliable Sunday stalwart - opening at 11.30am daily. The Salade Cézanne (€19.80) is made from one of the oldest varieties of fromage in France, fourme d'Ambert, together with chard quiche. The restaurant also has a sideline in sushi. Outside, the Sunday morning flower market adds colour to the square.
Ten years ago this summer, the Musée Granet opened. This impressive collection starts with pre-Roman sculpture but gets into its stride with 19th-century art. It includes works by Van Gogh and Monet as well as nine Cézannes, one depicting the author Emile Zola. The venue is a 17th-century priory founded by the Knights of St John at Place St-Jean de Malte (0033 44252 8832; museegranet-aixenprovence.fr; 12 noon-6pm daily except Monday; admission €5, or free on the first Sunday of each month).
Your ticket includes admission to the annexe containing the Planque Collection, which occupies the Chapelle des Penitents-Blancs. In 2013, the church was transformed into a home for the works amassed by Jean Planque, a Swiss art dealer and amateur painter. Picasso leads the roll-call of 20th-century artists.
Inside a pretty, walled garden west of the city centre, the cultural theme continues at the Pavillon de Vendôme, a small 1665 chateau with a grandiose façade (0033 44291 8875; 10am-12 noon and 1.30-5.30pm; €5). Inside, the house shows how the 19th-century aristocracy lived.
A walk in the park
South of the city centre, the hilly Parc Joseph Jourdan is in the shape of a rough arrowhead pointing south. Climb the monumental staircase to the sharp end to contemplate the landscapes that inspired artists and writers, notably Cézanne and Zola. The latter gets his own bust.
Icing on the cake
Enjoy one final gastronomic treat at Aux Petit Oignons at 2 Rue Peyresc. It opens at 7.30pm on Sundays and every other evening except Monday and Tuesday, dispensing crêpes and gourmet burgers with a Provençal twist, plus exquisite desserts such as the summer special: meringue floating in a strawberry soup.