Perfect Provence in Cezanne Country
Autumn is a seductive season in Provence. Arty Aix-en Provence is a window on the Cézanne trail, but also serves up the high life, from Baroque mansions to beguiling retreats. I’m off to sleep in a courtesan’s bed, before tucking myself into a contemporary wine estate with more world-class art than most museums.
From the French Riviera coast, I head inland towards Aix and a superior short break. Soft-core Provence awaits, with glittering Van Gogh cornfields and scented lavender beds as fragrant as a perfumery. Populated by Provencal diehards and the olive-nibbling classes, Aix is suitably smug about its picturesque setting – a canvas for Cézanne’s lush landscapes. Aix is even snootier about its artistic heritage and looks down on gutsy Marseille, its brasher big brother. I’m here for the high life in lofty-minded Aix, but also to hang out with the ‘ladies who lunch’. The city also has a secret boudoir side.
Arguably the most haute-bourgeoise city in France, Aix was built by power-broking lawyers and leading aristocrats. Their lofty legacy lies in the many private mansions that give the city its noble character. A walking tour celebrating the 18th-century golden age begins close to café-lined Cours Mirabeau, the main square, otherwise known as show-off central. Each “hotel particulier” (townhouse) is grander than the last. Art historian Nicole de Palatinat points out private mansions built with fossil-studded stone from Bibémus, Cezanne’s quarry: “Look at the luminosity – if you’d come here 20 years ago you’d have seen drab, blackened facades, but now they’re back to bright, lifting our spirits.”
We call into a branch of BNP Bank, reserved for the poshest clients. It shows: the monumental stuccoed ceiling is matched by paintings in the style of Watteau, all languid ladies dressed in Madame de Pompadour pastels to match the decor. These are wistful yet aspirational scenes that flatter the sitter and the buyer, perfect for a posh bank. The artist’s buyers were indeed bourgeois bankers and society types, at one with the ‘ladies who lunch’ sitting in the salon before us. Time often seems to stand still in Aix.
Grandest of all is the Hotel de Caumont, an 18th Century mansion with secret gardens as formal as the mansion itself. Now an impressive exhibition centre, Caumont justifies the city’s snootiness. The array of 17th and 18th Century mansions makes Aix the third most Baroque city in France, after Paris and Versailles. Taking tea on the terrace feels very much in the spirit of Madame de Pompadour and even today’s ‘ladies who lunch’.
Luckily, the city’s snobbery is softened by its seductive side. A city stroll reveals secret fountains, sculpted balconies and doorways supported by giant figures. Eventually I slip into Maison d’Aix, my private mansion for a night. Now a boutique hotel, this bijou townhouse once belonged to a high-class courtesan. Laura Juhen, the current owner, created this languorous retreat in honour of Henriette Reboul, the Champagne-drinking courtesan who sold her the mansion. I retreat to the grotto-like spa, with its candle-lit plunge pool and sultry steam room. A blend of marble and bronze mosaics, it’s a voluptuous hideaway in the spirit of Henriette.
Laura refers to the free-spirited Henriette as “a high priestess of love” and tells me that the courtesan numbered Cézanne, Picasso and Coco Chanel are among her conquests. The playful Salon Rouge boudoir once entertained all three lovers, but is now a den made for Champagne-sipping and flirting. It feels like a fitting homage to an artful courtesan who, even at the age of 97, was still beautiful and kept a cellar stocked with vintage Champagne.
There is no escaping Cézanne in Aix: from his favourite squeeze, to his favourite café, to his favourite view, the city is one long tribute to the trailblazing artist. His colour-drenched work captures the essence of things, from the `appleness’ of an apple to the geometry of cuboid mountains. I start my Cézanne trail in the Empire-style Café des Deux Garcons on Cours Mirabeau, where the artist used to meet his friend, Emile Zola.
From there, it’s onto his studio on the outskirts of Aix-en-Provence. It was in 1901 that the elderly and increasingly isolated artist designed a studio close to his beloved landscape. In this low-key spot Cézanne painted major works, such as The Bathers. The artist was inspired by Mont Sainte-Victoire, the brooding limestone mountain beyond Aix. Cézanne’s intimate studio catches some of this intensity. In need of air, I amble along Chemin de la Marguerite, a headland with views of Cézanne’s `magic’ mountain matched by copies of his paintings.
One of the grandest tribute sites is Bibémus, the rocky limestone outcrop where Cézanne set up his easel between 1895 and 1904. This quarry, carved into the forest, was sacred to Cezanne. Bibémus was first chiselled out by the Romans and was only abandoned in the late 18th century. It is a luminous landscape framed by cobalt skies, tawny limestone rocks, dark pine groves and the bleached-out Sainte-Victoire Mountain dominating the horizon.
My Cézanne pilgrimage culminates in Les Lodges Sainte-Victoire, with a punchy Provencal feast overlooking Cezanne’s `magic’ mountain. Sunset over the mountain is heralded by loud frogs bursting into song. Celebrations are definitely in order for chef Mathias Dandine’s truffled eggs and saddle of lamb. Time for frog-filled dreams in my manor-house hotel, less a lavender-scented reverie than pared-back Provence for contemporary tastes.
Chateau La Coste – wine and art estate
Chateau La Coste, just twenty minutes from Aix, is the all-encompassing creation of Paddy McKillen, Irish property magnate, art-lover and wine buff. Framed by vineyards and 600 acres of sculpture-studded slopes, the setting is arty Aix meets rural Provence. “Cezanne, Picasso, Matisse and Van Gogh were all inspired by this landscape, so the artists are drawn here because they want to make something in response to the site that inspired the masters” – so says the Art Manager, Daniel Kennedy, pointing to the sprawling sculpture park behind him.
I stroll down to the Chateau’s mirrored lake, complete with a bespoke Louise Bourgeois sculpture of a crouching spider. The estate is as curated as the open-air art museum that envelops it. World-famous contemporary names are encouraged to choose a place that speaks directly to them. Artists ranging from Damien Hirst to Tracey Emin have already made their mark, delighted at being given the freedom to create a site-specific work that should last forever. Bronze foxes cavort in the woods, courtesy of Michael Stipe of REM. The Music Pavilion is designed by Frank Gehry, a giant of modern architecture best-known for his titanium-clad Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao. Up on the hill, a five hundred-year-old chapel is encased in a giant vitrine, a showcase designed by Tadao Ando.
After tearing myself away from the sculpture park, I collapse in the wine estate, hotel and restaurant complex. Even here, there’s a national gallery’s worth of artwork. In the cluster of contrasting restaurants, the pared-back look blends Zen and arty internationalism. Dinner is in Louison, a sexy glass box suspended over a moated pool, the signature restaurant run by Marseille-based Gérald Passedat. It’s a sophisticated celebration of Provence, with produce from the estate vineyards, beehives, olive groves and organic herb garden. The biodynamic bubbly at the wine-tasting has befuddled my senses so dinner is a happy blur of bees and trees.
My arty bedroom in a sun-drenched villa suite comes with a secret courtyard. The mellow architecture is fifty shades of pale, with Provence reduced to its essentials of light, stone and scenery. Like the entire estate, it’s luxurious, but bling-free, the Provencal equivalent of barefoot paradise. It’s pricey, but so is the Provencal highlife.
However, from Cezanne’s shared courtesan to contemporary artists, Southern France has rarely been more fun.
Provence in style:
Aix-en-Provence tourism: Place General de Gaulle: www.aixenprovencetourism.com
Cezanne trails around Aix: www.cezanne-en-provence.com
La Maison d’Aix, Aix: www.lamaisondaix.com
Sleep in a romantic boutique hotel which was once the home of a top courtesan
Chateau La Coste: www.chateau-la-coste.com/en
Even if not staying in the luxury Villa La Coste hotel, visit the amazing art and sculpture park and dine in one of the many estate restaurants, with prices for all pockets
Lisa Gerard-Sharp is an award-winning travel writer whose work, including blogs, can be found on www.lisagerardsharp.com