Stage 6: Aix-en-Provence to Montpellier
The Rencontres du 9e Art comic books fair in Aix-en-Provence celebrated its 10th edition last spring, becoming a landmark event in a town renowned for its love of books. Comics in France (bande dessinée) are often dubbed the 9th art and Aix made them an important feature of its Cité du Livre (book city) in Mejanes, a complex dedicated to publishing and reading set in a former match factory. The 10th edition of the festival was part of the programme of the 2013 European capital of culture, held in Marseille and most of Provence. To boost exchanges and confirm the vitality of comics in the world of publishing, the festival invited cartoonists from all over the world – France, Germany, Belgium, Colombia, Lebanon, the Netherlands, U.S. The 10th edition was thus more international than ever, showing the diverse aspects and approaches of the art globally.
In ten years, the event matured and included 19 exhibitions spread over 14 different locations across town for more than two months between March and May. Each year, the highlight of the festival is the weekend fair organised in April in the Cité du Livre, when the public can meet cartoonists and authors for signatures, debates, projections and various animations. More than 50 cartoonists and other professionals, publishers, journalists, librarians and booksellers were invited to meet the public.
Aix-en-Provence had to wait for more than half a century to hold another Tour de France stage. In 1962, fans had lined along the Cours Mirabeau to watch the riders come from Montpelier, a similar stage to this year, only backwards. More recently Cezanne’s hometown was the stage of another important cycling event when Slovak Peter Sagan, taking part in his first big stage race in the 2010 Paris-Nice, sprinted to his second professional victory, two days after his maiden win in Aurillac. Aix also organises one of the earliest and oldest criteriums, Ronde d’Aix, celebrating its 65th edition this year. Riders from Aix include Team Sojasun’s Remi Pauriol, who already took part in four Tours de France.
PLACES TO SEE:
Aix-en-Provence would not be quite the same without its fountains. Some 40 of them refresh the city, adding a little bit of grace and coolness to its narrow streets. The most famous of all is certainly La Rotonde. Its construction in 1860 was a turning point in the history of the town firstly because of its enormous size for what was then a small city but also because it is partly made of cast iron. Three statues representing justice, agriculture and the fine arts decorate the fountain. Swans, naiads and lions were added later.
A walk along this large street – 440 metres long and 42 metres wide – in the shade of plane trees, is an opportunity to discover baroque townhouses and several fountains. But Corus Mirabeau is above all renowned for its terraces and cafés, the most famous being Les Deux Garçons at the top of the street.
Fountain of the Four Dolphins:
The fountain is one of the oldest un Aix. Sculpted in 1667 by Jean-Claude Rambot, it represents four dolphins surrounded a pyramid initially topped by a statue of St Michael. The statue was later replaced by a fleur-de-lis, a Malta cross and a pinecone.
A genuine architectural patchwork, St Sauveur retained in its stone the various traces of the past centuries. The legend has it that it was built over a pagan temple and it was constantly refurbished so that it houses three naves of different styles – Romanesque, gothic and baroque – while its crypt dates from Antiquity and its cloister from the 12th century.
St Sauveur shelters a 15th century masterpiece, a retable by Nicolas Froment representing the burning bush.
A first museum was created in 1828 in the priory of the St Jean de Malte church and inaugurated in 1838. The Granet extension was built in 1860. A second building is added after 1870 then a third in 1900, the whole building being enlarged in 1940. The premises were then thoroughly renovated between 1990 and 2005. The collections come from antiques collected by Fauris de Saint Vincens in the late 18th century and from the donation made in 1849 by painter François Marius Granet, who gave his native town all the paintings he possessed. Several donations completed the collections: Jean-Baptiste de Bourguignon de Fabregoules gave more than 800 works of art. In 1984, the French state gave the museum nine paintings by Aix-born Paul Cezanne.
A bustling, booming and attractive city, Montpellier became in the last decade one of the capitals of sport in France with several major league teams in dozens of different disciplines. Montpellier’s football, rugby union, handball, volley, water-polo and base-ball teams have all been crowned French champions in recent years while no sport really overshadowed the others.
The highlight moment for sport in Montpellier was arguably the French Ligue 1 title conquered by the local football team in 2012 as it crowned the story of a club launched in the working class suburb of La Paillade by Louis Nicollin almost four decades before. Nicollin, one of the most outspoken characters in French sport and a dedicated collector of Tour de France memorabilia, dyed his hair in blue, white and red in celebration. Handball also became one of the best-loved sports around the cafés of Place de la Comédie as the local team won 14 French titles between 1995 and 2012, one Champions League in 2003 while its players formed the backbone of the French team who won several world and Olympic gold medals.
Rugby union also found a home in this land close to former rugby strongholds like Beziers and Narbonne and the men coached by former international scrumhalf Fabien Galthie reached the French championship final in 2011 while giving France some key internationals like Francois Trinh-Duc.
Montpellier was also crowned water-polo French champions in 2012 while its ice hockey, volleyball of women’s basketball teams all play in their respective sport’s first division.
Montpellier’s position halfway between the Alps and the Pyrenees always made it an ideal stage finish for the Tour. In 1930, Chalres Pelissier won the fourth of his eight stage victories in the edition, which is still a record.
The most beautiful battle on the road to Montpellier took place in 1951, when Hugo Koblet, involved in the winning move initiated by Abdelkader Zaaf and Raphael Geminiani, took Fausto Coppi, Gion Bartali and Louison Bobet off their guard. Koblet won his fourth stage on his way to final victory while Coppi had one of his worst days ever on the Tour. Since then, sprinters regularly stole the show, Robbie McEwen in 2005 and Robert Hunter in 2007 taking the laurels while a team time-trial took place in 2009. In 2011, for the Tour’s last visit, Mark Cavendish had won his 5th stage of the edition.
Montpellier was also the base of the defunct Grand Prix du Midi Libre and it also is the birthplace of Stephane Goubert, who rode ten Tours between 1999 and 2009 and is now a team director for AG2R and a respected consultant.
Built in the 18th century and surrounded with cosy and elegant townhouses, it is closed to its end by the Comédie Opera House, built in 1888. In the centre of the square stands the Fountain of the Three Graces and the Egg, drawn on the pavement with a red marble line. The square is today entirely pedestrian and is prolonged by the tree-lined Charles-de-Gaulle esplanade, a huge open space and the site of several events.
Closes in 2003 for renovation, the most famous museum in Montpellier reopened in 2007. Over 9,200 m2, it exhibits some 900 works from the 15th to the 21st century.
The Galileo planetarium is one of the main realisations in the Odysseum complex. It includes mysterious stones, a stellar crossword, a wall of constellations, the solar system, asteroids floating in the air and meteorites on the ground.
It possesses a huge Amazonian greenhouse, used by researchers to study the Amazonian biotope.
Many prominent architects have changed the face of Montpellier since Ricardo Bofill created the neo-classical Antigone quarter in 1978. In the 1990s, the new suburb of Port Marianne developed and included several buildings designed by some of the world’s most renowned architects like the new Town Hall, conceived by Jean Nouvel or the Crowne Plaza hotel, the work of Michel Macary. In September 2012, a huge 26,000 m2 complex, Cité des Savoirs et du Sport (City of knowledge and sport) was created by architect Zaha Hadid, the first woman to be awarded the Pritzker Prize.
In 2013 will start the construction of a new concrete building called “The Cloud”, the first architectural adventure of designer Philippe Starck.