The Aix-Marseille rivalry goes back a mere 2000 years or so. Massalia, as Marseille was then called, existed as a thriving Greek port and an important commercial centre for over four centuries before Aix was founded. When the Salyens – a nearby tribe of poorly-behaved Gauls – started attacking Marseille and generally becoming bad for business, the pragmatic Greeks called on their allies in Rome for help. Roman consul Gaius Sextius Calvinus arrived at the head of an army and in 123 BC conquered the Salyens. He found a warm-water spring in a valley near his camp and decided that it would make a good place for a settlement. Aquae Sextia (literally “Sextius’ Springs”) would become the city we now call Aix-en-Provence.
The origins of Greek Marseille and Roman Aix seem to have influenced the two cities ever since. Marseille’s character is that of a Mediterranean port filled with savvy successors of the fractious Greek merchants. It is a working city shut off from the rest of Provence by a ring of hills but connected to the entire Mediterranean basin via the ships that use its harbour every day. Italians, North Africans, Armenians, and Chinese all leave their mark, giving the city its cosmopolitan and gritty charm. While an ancient Athenian would not know what to make of the dazzling modernist architecture of the newly-opened MuCEM (Museum of the Civilisations of Europe and the Mediterranean), he’d feel at home among the buzz of dozens of languages that can be heard in the time it takes your to drink your petit caféon a terrace in the Vieux Port.
Today Aix remains an architectural landmark filled with elegant Hotels Particuliers, impressive squares and fountains, and famous cultural venues like the Pavillion Noir and Grand Theatre de Provence.
The Aixois still look down their noses at their scruffy southern neighbour, while the Marseillais cannot help but be dismissive of their northern patrician cousins. But for those who can see beyond the rivalry, the synergy is pure magic. I can spend a morning enjoying coffee and calissons on one of the many elegant terraces of the plane tree-lined Cours Mirabeau and after a 20-minute train ride arrive in a Mediterranean metropolis. There I can wander to the hip cafes of the Cours Julien, take a detour into the North African Noailles quartier, or head down to the Vieux Port and stand on the spot where Greek colonists landed 2,600 years ago.
Greek or Roman? Bustling crowds or elegant mansions? They can fight all day over which is better as far as I’m concerned. In the meantime, I can have both!
This article previously appeared as Sophia’s “Live in Provence” column in the France Today Magazine Aug/Sept 2013 issue.
Sophia Mose is a licensed French Agent Immobilier. She runs PROVENCE SEARCH, a property search agency offering bespoke property search and acquisition
services in southwest Provence and the Côte d’Azur, including Aix-en-Provence, the Luberon, Alpilles, Cannes and Nice. Get in touch for an initial consultation.