AIX-EN-PROVENCE would be the dominant city of central Provence were it not for the great metropolis of Marseille, just 25km away. Historically, culturally and socially, the two cities are moons apart and the tendency is to love one and hate the other. Aix is complacently conservative and a stunningly beautiful place, its riches based on landowning and the liberal professions. The youth of Aix are immaculately dressed; hundreds of foreign students, particularly Americans, come to study here; and there's a certain snobbishness, almost of Parisian proportions.
From the twelfth century until the Revolution, Aix was the capital of Provence. In its days as an independent county, its most mythically beloved ruler, "Good" King René of Anjou (1409–80), held a brilliant court renowned for its popular festivities and patronage of the arts. René was an archetypal Renaissance man, a speaker of many languages (including Greek and Hebrew), a scientist, poet and economist; he also introduced the muscat grape to the region – today he stands in stone in picture-book medieval fashion, a bunch of grapes in his left hand, looking down the majestic seventeenth-century cours Mirabeau.