The Mole Diaries: Aix-en-Provence (Volume 4)
Aix is a great place to choose for your year abroad. It truly is the whole Provençal package. Bustling markets line the cobbled streets, the sun shines throughout December and delicious rosé is enjoyed by everyone. Aix boasts an incredible location - right on its doorstep there is breathtaking natural scenery and coastlines as well as the recently revamped city of Marseille being only half an hour’s drive away.
Although small for a ‘city’, Aix and its inhabitants definitely live by the rule of quality over quantity - the whole atmosphere is unmistakeably chic. You’ll notice the lady buying fruit next to you at the market is decked out in designers, you’ll realise that your whole Erasmus grant couldn’t buy a sock from some of the boutiques and never again will you forget to brush your hair before leaving the house (for fear of the locals' judging looks). Aix isn’t nicknamed the Paris of Provence for nothing - it’s a classy place*.
L’Université d’Aix Marseille
During my time in Aix, I was on an Erasmus study exchange at the Fac de Lettres of l’Université d’Aix Marseille.
The building looks like a prison and the students look about as happy as prisoners too. On top of that, it’s ridiculously disorganised, nothing is available online and the building is helpfully laid out like a huge cube. Expect unfriendly secretaries (you’ll meet them when you have to sign up for classes) and teachers who will openly say ‘I don’t care’ when you ask if you can sign up for said class.
When your application is first accepted, you might be given the option to take part in an intensive language course. I would fully recommend taking the course. We did a variety of oral, written, reading and aural exercises for about 5 hours a day for two weeks before term began (not as bad as it sounds). I found it very helpful to get used to the language in this way. It’s also a good way to meet other ERASMUS students when you first arrive.
If you want to get involved in university sport, come prepared with a letter from your doctor. The letter should say that you are in good health to participate in sports. If not, you will have to pay a French doctor to examine you and give you this letter. The university then provides you with a membership certificate and you can join in with any sport.
It feels a bit like being back in Year 7 at the start. But in the end, your timetable will work itself out and, arguably more importantly, you will memorise which toilets to avoid. Also, you probably won’t have as many hours as the French inmates, which means a lot more time for the important (Year Abroad) things: Exploring and Food.
My Aix-ploring (sorry) Top Ten
As the Cote d’Azur is within a very reachable distance, you’re already spoilt for choice for luxurious long weekends. St. Tropez, Cannes, Nice and Monaco are all favourites. For day trips, the surrounding areas are also rich with beautiful landscapes and historic towns.
This beautiful beach town is the place to head to if you’re looking for a true holiday-style sun, sea, and sand day. Only 1 and a half hours away from Aix by bus or train, Cassis must be visited more than once! The tiny town offers everything touristy- ice cream parlours, postcard shops galore and an inviting array of restaurants around the port. The beach is sandy and the sea sparkling (although freezing). A personal favourite!
2. Les Calanques
Although also located in Cassis, these scenic rocky inlets definitely deserve their own place on my Top Ten list. Les Calanques stretch along the coastline from Marseille to Cassis and can be reached by foot or boat. However, the more impressive the Calanque, the harder it is to reach! The giant rocky cliffs are truly breath taking. Some have small secluded beaches where you can relax for the day but remember- you’ll need more than flip flops for the climb there!
A historic town located about 2 hours from Aix in the Camargue. Features throughout the town date back from Roman times, including a large amphitheatre, which means it’s the perfect place to release your inner history geek! Your inner art geek will also come alive when following the Van Gogh trail! An easy walk through town leads you to some of the Provençal features painted by the master; you can even enjoy an espresso at the café depicted in famous Café Terrace at Night.
Despite a sometimes dubious reputation, The Capital of Culture 2013 now has a lot more to offer visitors. The Vieux Port has been given a mini makeover and the abundance of restaurants surrounding it means that it’s the perfect place to enjoy some Moules Frites whilst overlooking the water. There’s more museums and galleries than you can fit in a day and the huge shopping streets (apparently there’s now a Primark?!) mean multiple visits are necessary.
5. Le Mont St. Victoire
An inspiration for many artists-including Aix’s home grown Cezanne. The incredible mountain is also a brilliant day trip/physical challenge. Climbing to the top is hard work- it takes about 3 hours up and the same again down and a minimum of trainers is required for the rocky limestone terrain. The views from the top are spectacular, as is obvious by the amount of tourists and locals you meet on the route! There are also routes around the base of the mountain and the nearby lake for gentler, but equally as scenic, walks.
A website, not a place- but it helps with the exploring! This website generates the cheapest flights based on your airport of departure and the dates you want to go. I went to Valencia for 4 days for €60 return during the ‘half term’ of Semester 1. As Marseille is a well-connected airport, cheap flights to Croatia, Spain and Italy can be found during off-peak months.
Obviously on the other side of the country, but thanks to the TGV, the capital is only about 3 hours away by train. The company OUIGO, offers tickets from just €15 one way - a lot cheaper than the regular SNCF prices! You might have other ERASMUS friends to visit or perhaps you just fancy experiencing the metropolitan lifestyle for a weekend. Either way, there’s no excuse not to visit one of the most fabulous cities in the world when you’re living in France!
8. Les Baux de Provence
Unfortunately, I never got to visit here myself (not great transport links). However, I heard from a few friends that it’s one of the most beautiful places in Provence! Due to its positioning, it has spectacular views overlooking the plains of the South. Beautiful for a visit in the summer months! Nevertheless, there are also cute Christmas markets in December for when it gets a bit too chilly to watch the sun set of an evening.
9. Fondation Varsarley
Not far out from the city, this gallery is a must see. Huge interconnection rooms display giant geometric pattered pieces. Although a little shabby nowadays, the pieces have not lost their striking qualities!
Obviously this is already your base, but don’t forget that it’s also home to an abundance of hidden gems. Although I thought that I knew the place like the back of my hand after a month or so, I was still stumbling across hidden shops and secret cafes down little side streets in my last weeks! Remember to take time to really get to know the town itself.
Cartreize is one of the transport systems in Aix. If you are under 25, you can go to the bus station and apply for a reloadable travel card. Once you have this card it costs just €2 for 24hrs travel for any of their buses to many destinations. This also includes the airport bus.
Food in Aix is brilliant. This might seem like a sweeping statement, but whether it’s from one of the swankiest restaurants in town or a grubby takeaway, it’s probably going to be delicious. Food is something the French do excellently - be sure to make the most of it while you’re there!
Easily the best bread in town/the world. You can gaze at the variety of breads, tarts, pastries through the big glass window until you give in! Everything is super tasty and at the town centre location you can watch the cute French Boulanger bake it.
Also known as the 24h bakery. There is one at the top end of Cours Mirabeau and one in Place Richelme. Both perfectly located for an end of the night (or daytime) snack. The giant cookies and fugas breads are favourites.
3. Place Richelme Market
With fresh ingredients at good prices, avoid DIA and shop like a true Aixois! Pick up a basket on a fruit and veg stall, fill it with what your ingredients and a friendly seller will weigh it all up for you and charge you less than a fiver. Cheese, fish and saucisson should also not be missed!
4. Poulet Frite
End of the night food French style. Basically your standard 3am chicken and chips, but brilliantly served in a baguette instead of a polystyrene box. Genius! Find it on the Verrerie.
5. Pizza Capri
Not typically French, but the most delicious pizza, ever. 2euro gets you a huge quarter slice and entieres are from 8euros. You can also get sweet (Nutella) versions. I waited too long before I tried this for the first time- don’t make the same mistake!
6. Coco Bohème
Underground café close to Parc Vendome. Incredible food and drinks menu and great atmosphere to work or chat with friends. There are also weekly language exchange meet ups here.
A treasure trove of a shisha café close to the Verrerie. An extensive choice of teas and a brilliant homemade chocolate cake make it great choice for a chilled afternoon or evening.
8. Au P'tit Quart d'Heure
Delicious local wine served in €1 glasses = Pre drinks location for your entire stay.
9. Chez Charlotte
Simple family run restaurant, located away from the busy streets and masses of outdoor tables. Very French but unfussy food is served in a friendly and relaxed atmosphere. Menu is limited but changes depending on produce and the season. A certain je ne sais quoi.
10. Le P’tit Bistro
A tourist hot spot but totally worth it. The Picturesque location just off the Mirabeau, complete with a fountain, means that this place ticks all the boxes for atmosphere. Great charcuterie and camembert boards and an incredible wine selection.
*As similarly chic as Paris is, Aix is just as expensive. Apart from cheese, wine and bus travel, expect your living costs to rise.