Long, long ago, before early humans migrated north from Africa, hot springs bubbled up through rocky cracks in a parched land, forming pools where moss and ferns flourished. 

Millennia later, our forebears from the south walked around the great inland sea and trekked westward.    One group stopped by these springs to rest and wash away the travel grime. They never left, settling close to the thermal pools. Artefacts excavated here show habitation as early as 6000 BCE. The first community thrived and soon domesticated the wild sheep in the hills. More migrants arrived; tribes formed.

By 400 BCE, their descendants living around the hot springs were called Ligures. Their land was rock, the climate dry, and food scarce, but still they stayed. They became warriors, assisting Hannibal reach Rome in 218 BCE and defending their territory from the Celts moving south. Later the tribes lived side by side, each with their own king. Both built hill forts and traded with each other before they united. The settlement by the hot springs endured and centuries later was named Entremont, “between the mountains.”

South of the hot springs lay a major port, Massalia, founded by the ancient Greeks, with nearly 10,000 inhabitants. When the Ligures persisted in threatening Massalia, the town asked Rome to protect them. In 125 BCE, the Romans routed the Ligurian Celts, razing Entremont, and began building permanent garrisons throughout the region. Mirabeau fountain02The Roman consul Sextius Calvinus, who loved traditional Roman baths, selected the hot springs for the location of the first Roman town in 122 BCE and called it Aquae Sextiae, the waters of Sextius. Roman roads began to link settlements and wider trade followed – Pax Romana had arrived and with it came monuments, arenas, fora, and aqueducts, many of which still exist.

So, of course, do the hot springs. They still bubble up from the rocks under Aix en Provence in southern France, near Marseilles, which the ancients called Massalia. Today the waters supply some of Aix’s many fountains with their 93ºF water. You can tell which ones by the moss and ferns that grow on them in such profusion they look like huge green balls. Since the Middle Ages, the Provencals have built fountains everywhere; so much so, the need to hear trickling water must be embedded in their genes. There’s even a self-guided walking tour of the Aix fountains, which is worth doing.

During la grande chaleur (the big heat) of 2011, I arrive in the heart of old Aix by the fountain in La Place des Prêcheurs, Preachers’ Square. Market stalls are pressed cheek by jowl together, hiding the fountain from view except for its obelisk. This one commemorates Sextius and three other historical figures. I come early to watch the vendors setting up from a cafe where I enjoy a tiny, strong coffee. Several of old Aix’s many squares have big markets every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday and they fascinate visitors.

In des Prêcheurs, the antique and old book dealers are at the south end, in the middle are clothes and hats, china and baskets. Nuns02Two nuns pick out some colourful Provencal bowls – they wear habits of lightweight denim (!) and one has a long black veil.

Nearer the fountain are stalls selling local fruit and vegetables, breads, spices from the East, fragrant cheeses, and woody-smelling sausages. SausagesLater I buy fromage blanc to complement the juicy peaches and apricots I eat for breakfast here and some wild boar sausage for picnics.

I have a date with the cathedral as St-Sauveur has a connection to the hot springs.. At barely 9:30a.m. it’s hot as I head up the narrow, pedestrian-only streets watching the small stores and galleries open. Half-way there I spy the 1661 astronomic clock tower and walk into a wide square smelling like a florist’s – this is Aix’s flower market. Another fountain here is supplied by a cold spring and has an original Roman column in the centre of its pool. People sit around the edge chatting on their cell phones.

St-Saveur west doorA short way further and the cathedral’s stones glow honey-gold in the sunshine. Small as cathedrals go, this has been a sacred site of some kind since before the Roman occupation. The baptistery I’m seeking lies to the right of the west door. It is cleared of the excavation debris I saw on my last visit. Archaeologists recently discovered conduits underground that carried water from the hot springs to a deep, 6th century octagonal basin in the stone floor.  BaptisteryHere new believers were baptized at Easter with full immersion and surfaced as Christians “born to new life.” In 500 CE, the newbies were undressed for baptism and curtains hid their nudity from the sight of the faithful in the adjacent nave. Today, above this ancient font is a Renaissance cupola supported by six green marble columns and two of local granite. But here too is a Roman wall with the restored remains of a fresco and a mosaic. The fresco shows figures in togas but is medieval, but the mosaic is probably part of the original Roman forum of Aquae Sextiae. Here, if it’s quiet, the spirits whisper in Latin.

Tower and poolI return to Aix on my last weekend in France to complete my quest for the source of the hot springs. I follow the restored Roman rampart on la rue des Guerriers, close by the cathedral, into the garden of the Aqua Bella Hotel where the wall becomes the backdrop to a big swimming pool. At the western end of the wall is a tower – Le Tour Tourreluque – that was built in the Middle Ages. Quite a setting for a hotel pool, I think, but quickly learn the pool is fed by the hot springs. I’m in the area of old Aix named Thermes Sextius and so close to success I can smell it.

At the hotel desk I meet the young assistant manager who offers to show me the hot pool in the newly renovated spa. “Yes!” he says. “This water is 93ºF and comes directly from the springs below.”

SpaAs I regard the ultra-modern hot tub with disappointment, the guests soaking in the pool are intrigued by the words of my guide. They obviously had no inkling of the origin and significance of the hot springs in which they luxuriate. The only nod to the hot tub’s Roman connection is the newly installed blue mosaic decor. I yearn for it to be surrounded by green moss and ferns as it once was or, at least, some rocks and greenery.

“Can I see the source?” I ask.

The manager gives me a Gallic shrug. “It’s only a pipe three metres below the hotel’s foundations.”

I sigh – no romance in that.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAHowever, even without romance, the hot springs still exert their ancient magic, drawing thousands of guests to take the waters in Aix and to enjoy the offerings of this modern spa hotel. At lunch, the terrace is packed with red-faced people in their white terry robes ordering steak frites (fries) and luscious fattening desserts after a morning of expensive massages, facials, and cures.

When Sextius harnessed Aix’s hot springs largely for his own pleasure, he cannot have imagined their reach before and after his time. The waters are directly responsible for Aix’s longevity and history, its abundant fountains, its growth in the Middle Ages and Renaissance, and its leisure activities, to say nothing of today’s tourism. The endless springs have poured out their sustenance and comfort for the early humans from Africa to the current Aixois. Even I have been nourished by their bounty. 

© Julie H. Ferguson 2011


If you go

Best months to visit: April, May, and September because it is cooler than mid-summer and less crowded.

Transportation to Aix: Fly into Marseilles or arrive by high-speed SNCF train (Train Grande Vitesse) at Aix station.

SNCF trains: Start at www.raileurope.com   

Major car rental companies: at Marseilles Airport (Marignane) and Aix station.

Shuttle to Aix centre is also available from the station.

Tourist Office, Aix en Provence: http://en.aixenprovencetourism.com/

Guided tours of Old Aix: http://en.aixenprovencetourism.com/aix-guides.htm

St-Sauveur Cathedral: www.sacred-destinations.com/france/aix-cathedral

Markets’ info: http://to.aixenprovencetourism.com/marches-aixois.htm

Aqua Bella Hotel: www.aquabella.fr/english2005/index.html


IMAGE COPYRIGHTS:  All © Julie H. Ferguson 2011, except the last, SpaCustomers, which is © James S. Ferguson 2010


BIO:  Julie H. Ferguson is an addicted freelance travel writer and photographer, as well as the author of twenty books, four of which are about Canadian history and five are photo portfolios. She is a proud member of the Travel Media Association of Canada and invites you to visit her travelog, Stamps in My Passport, and  her photo portfolio at www.juliehferguson.crevado.com.

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