The bustling spa town of Aix-en-Provence is often likened to a petit Paris. Like the older parts of the French capital, it hasn’t changed that much over the centuries, with its cathedral, fountains, beautiful hôtels particuliers (grand town houses), Provençal markets and quiet squares shaded by plane trees. ‘Aix is one of the best places to live in France,’ affirms Claude Segalin of Knight Frank (020-7629 8171). ‘It’s very chic, very bourgeois and very attractive to expatriates because of its international schools, proximity to Marseille Provence Airport and three-hour TGV services to Paris.’

In the past, the abundance of water attracted the wealthy, who, in turn, employed the best architects to build splendid houses in the Quartier Mazarin. ‘There is still an expression in Provence to describe an influential family: “Ils ont leur rue à Aix” (“They have their street in Aix”),’ explains Stuart Baldock of buying agents Hindle & Baldock (00 33 962 190 814). It was these families who started the great tradition for patronising the Arts, leading some to call it Provence’s answer to Florence. Each summer, an opera festival takes place in locations throughout the city, and there are museums devoted to two world-famous artistic sons of Aix, Cézanne and Vasarely.

Unlike many cities in the south of France, Aix buzzes year-round. The heartbeat of the city is on the Cours Mirabeau, a wide avenue lined with plane trees in the historic centre, which has been described as one of the most captivating streets in Europe. It’s also the location of the famous brasserie Les Deux Garçons, a watering hole for Hemingway, and Zola, among others. ‘People come to here to enjoy the cafe society,’ says Nicola Christinger of Winkworth France (020-7870 7181). ‘Aix offers the best quality of life in the south, but it means that property is expensive,’ adds M. Segalin.

Top-end buyers want one of two things when looking in and around Aix: a classic bastide Aixois either near the centre or overlooking Mont Sainte-Victoire, to which Cézanne devoted many canvases, or to be in the heart of the action-an hôtel particulier or 18th-century apartment near the Cours Mirabeau. ‘The latter will start at €2 million and a country house within easy
travelling distance of the city can range from €5 million to €7 million,’ explains M. Segalin.

‘One of the downsides to buying in Aix is that you have to choose the right neighbourhood,’ warns Mr Baldock. ‘The criss-crossed ring roads, bypasses and motorways can be a serious blight if you get it wrong.’ The area south of Aix isn’t recommended, as it’s been swallowed up by the satellite villages that have mushroomed out of Marseille. ‘When the rich Aixois built their country houses, they chose two precise places, which remain the most attractive and peaceful,’ explains Tess Sheeran of Sheeran Serre, associates of Savills based in Aix (00 33 680 64 03 75). ‘They are Les Pinchinats to the north of the centre and the Chemin de Saints Peres to the west.’

The alternative is to drive a little further out and enjoy guaranteed peace-villages such as Puyricard, Rognes, Le Tholonet, Puyloubier and Vauvenargues are recommended. ‘Push out a little further into the Lubéron and you discover a wonderful combination of peace, space and beauty at sensible prices that is usually hard to find so close to year-round civilisation,’ concludes Mr Baldock.

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