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Centre des Archives d'Outre-Mer (CAOM)

Page history last edited by Paul Keenan 14 years, 2 months ago

Date of tip: June 2005

Source: Stephanie Hare, stephanie.hare@sant.ox.ac.uk


Location: 29, chemin du Moulin Detesta, 13090 Aix-en-Provence, France


How to get there: The closest airport is Marseille. Exit the airport and turn right, and then walk about 100 metres where there are bus stops. One of these is clearly marked “Aix-en-Provence”. It will cost €7,70 and will take approximately 35 minutes to get from the airport to the Gare Routière in Aix. (To note: when I got onto the bus, some locals kept looking out the window to make sure that no one was coming up to steal our baggage stored in the hold underneath! Apparently this has happened, so now I too take an extra precaution and often hang outside the bus until the driver closes the hold. It may be paranoia, but it can’t hurt either.) Once you get to the Gare Routière, head for the roundabout and turn left down the Avenue des Belges. This will take you to a roundabout with a stunning fountain, called La Rotonde, and the base of the Cours Mirabeau, the central alley of the town that is a green tunnel of trees in the summertime.

From La Rotonde roundabout, walk down the Avenue Victor Hugo, turn left at the Gare SNCF, right down the Avenue Robert Schumann. You will pass the Faculté de lettres and the Faculté de droit. Turn left on the chemin du Moulin Detesta and walk a couple of minutes. The archives will be on your right.  


Language: French. 


Getting started: You will want to bring your student id with you, and also a general letter from your supervisor confirming that you are a student and need to use the archives. This will save you from having to pay the €20 annual card fee. They will take your picture and create your annual card.  If you are not a student, too bad! You have to pay either the €20 annual card fee, or €5 for a card for seven consecutive days. For reasons that I cannot fathom, the inscription process takes several steps, involves a variety of employees, and takes place in multiple locations. First, you fill out a form downstairs at the reception. Then, receptionists will give you a reading place and a locker key, and you will go upstairs to get started. Finally, at 2pm, they will make an announcement that you can purchase/renew your reading card. You will go into a little room just to the right of the Président(e) de la Salle and pay up. I am sure that the archivists have their reasons why it can’t all be done in one go, with one member of staff, but there you have it.

There is a free locker room downstairs near the reception. You have to use the little plastic carry bag they give you, in which you may have your laptop, loose-leaf paper, and a pencil. 


Opening Hours: 9-5, Monday through Friday. At 4:45-4:50pm, the Président(e) de la Salle will announce that the archives are closing. This is the polite but firm signal to clear out! 

Note: the archive is closed on the first Thursday morning of each month (reopens at 1pm), as well as the normal French holidays, and the last two weeks in July starting the Monday after 14 July. 


General working conditions: Congratulations: you have wisely decided to work on a topic that necessitates a visit to one of the nicest archives in France. CAOM is beautifully designed — it has won an architectural prize — and attractive as a working environment, all light wood and nice colours and windows that make the most of the natural light while protecting you from direct sunlight. There are 100 seats in the reading room with plenty of space for each researcher, and everyone has their own little lamp and electrical outlet.  

There is the salle des inventaires, where you can read the inventories and note down the files you need, and a microfilm room. The reading room has 4 computers with Internet access. 

I have found the archivists here to be consistently friendly and very helpful in answering my questions. Be sure to introduce yourself to the Président(e) de la Salle and discuss your research topic, as he or she can then put you in touch with the resident expert. At the time of this writing, the person to contact Algeria is Monsieur André Brochier, who possesses in-depth knowledge of the collection on Algeria and has helped me on several occasions. There are equivalent experts on the other topics covered by the archive – Mme Vachier and Indochina, for example – so go and have a chat! If you would like to get in touch with an expert on your topic before your visit, write to the archive at caom.aix@culture.fr.

Also, there is a very nice atmosphere in the archives. People introduce themselves and refer one another to other researchers who are also working on similar topics.


Consultation: In the same day, you can consult:

  • 8 cartons or registres
  • 8 ouvrages (books, magazines, press, official publications)
  • 8 cartes et plans
  • 8 microfilms

Work smart, not hard: You can have three ordered at any one time. Thus, the smart thing is to order a new one just after you’ve returned a box. That way you always have three on the go without any lag time. You can also hold over (prolonger) two boxes for the following day. On your return visit, you can reserve two boxes ahead of time on-line so that you can hit the ground running.


Policy on technology: Laptops and digital cameras are allowed. I did not see anyone using scanners.


Photocopy policy: Just as every rose has its thorn, so CAOM has its photocopy policy. I am afraid to report that if you try to photocopy here, you will enter a world of pain. If you cannot bring your own digital camera, or if you simply feel like hearing about inefficiency in action, then read on. You buy a copy card in the reading room and then you present your documents to the archivist, who will photocopy them for you, but only for two hours in the morning and two hours in the afternoon. God help you if you should miss this window, or if there is a long line of researchers needing photocopies, or if the archivist is operating at a chilled out pace, is running late, or feels like having a chat. Furthermore, it costs 0.30€ per page. 

Note: Fragile documents (e.g. carbon copies) cannot be photocopied, nor can really big documents, such as maps.  You can photograph them, though.


Particularities: The cafeteria is more of a smoking room, though there is a vending machine for coffee and bottled water. When the weather is good, you can eat at a picnic table in the parking lot outside, under the trees. Technically, you are not allowed to store your lunch in the lockers; instead, you can purchase a sandwich or something suitable at the café five minutes’ walk down the road. Prices at this café are reasonable, and they make good quiches and brownies, which sell out by 1pm. Across the road from this café is Les Cousins, where the staff is incredibly friendly and the food is good and reasonably priced. 


How to apply for classified files: Once you have noted the cotes, analyses and dates de limites for the files requiring a dérogation, you will have to fill in a dérogation form. If you really have your act together, you will have several copies of non-dated letters from your supervisor in perfect French in support of any dérogation applications you may need to make, as you can file it then and there. In my experience, it only took 3 weeks for my dérogation to come through, but it meant that I had to make separate trips to Aix. 

Note: when you get your dérogation, you may be escorted to a new desk where you can consult the file under the supervision of the Président(e) de la Salle. I have only had this happen to me once, when the archivist handing me my box had a sudden desire to observe the rules, but on most occasions I have been allowed to sit at my existing place. You may consult your file sous dérogation while using your laptop, but you cannot have your digital camera on your person.


Contact name in case of questions regarding classified files: You will want to contact the Président(e) de la Salle. Email the archive directly for the name: caom.aix@culture.fr

Ask to speak with M. Brochier for Algeria, and Mme Vachier for Indochina. Both of these conservateurs are experts in their knowledge, and extremely helpful.


Etc: Across the street from the archives is a university library. During the school year it is open Monday-Friday, 9am-7pm, and Saturdays from 9am-1pm. From July the library operates on reduced hours: 9am-5pm, Monday-Friday. The book selection is not bad, and there is a section (upstairs, to the left, behind the glass partition) where you can plug your laptop into the LAN and – bliss!- have access to the internet from your own computer. 

Aix-en-Provence is also the home of the La Maison Méditerranéenne des Sciences de l'Homme, a teaching and research campus specialising in the domain of social sciences in the Mediterranean world. The library is great. Check out the website for more info:



Notes on life in Aix:

If you are on a short trip and do not have time to enjoy Aix, tant pis. If you have some time, read on:

Aix-en-Provence is a wonderful place to be, and even if you are only here during the week, you can take advantage of what it has to offer. Stop into the Office de Tourisme near the Cour Mirabeau and find out what’s going on that week – the staff there are so friendly. Here you can get information on sporting activities (swimming pools, yoga studios, gyms), museums and exhibitions, markets, and cinema listings. 


When to go: I have stayed in Aix in January and February, not the typical time for discovering Provence, but lovely nonetheless. The town is quiet and calm and relatively free of tourists. Do note that while winter here is generally sunny, it can also be freezing. Hat, scarf, gloves, and warm clothes are a must. 

In the summer, Aix roasts like anywhere else in the south. Sandals and light cotton clothing are recommended. This adds to a certain atmosphere in the archives, where everyone – even the staff – is walking around in tank tops and flip-flops. Please note, though, that the archives are closed for the first week in July, and also for all of the normal French holidays. There is also a festival in Aix from June-July, so hotels tend to get packed out.

Some places you might enjoy:

Thé Chez Toi is a great little salon on the Rue Vandoo, run by a fun and welcoming Aixois named Olivier. He has decorated the salon very beautifully, and everyone sits on pillows on the ground around little tables. The salon is open late and has a range of teas from around the world, as well as coffees, hot chocolates, and North African patisseries. You can meet lots of young people and relax to some music and chatting after a day of silent work in the archives. 

Newsflash: there is a fabulous restaurant in Aix that does not break the bank! On the rue Brueys, the Café La Chimère offers a three-course menu of top quality French cuisine for €24.50 (at the time of this writing). I have rarely eaten better. They have a good wine list and very friendly staff. If you want to eat on Friday or Saturday night, you will want to make a reservation, as this place will be packed with locals, who dress up for the occasion. The décor of this restaurant is beautiful and fun – there are effectively three dining experiences you can have: the floor where you enter, and where the very groovy bar is (all glass and mirrors and an impressive array of booze), has a ceiling painted with blue sky, clouds, and little naked cherubs. Cherubs are the theme on this floor: you’ll see them propping up a mirror or dangling a lamp or peeking out from behind the large potted plants or the heavy red velvet curtains. The second level of the restaurant is the “red room”, for reasons that will appear obvious. Finally, in the basement, the arched ceiling is painted electric midnight blue with big gold stars, and there are these great blown-glass lamps adding some colours so that the whole place looks like Aladdin’s Cave of French food. The basement can get a little hot in the summertime, but in the wintertime it was a positively intimate dining experience. It is original, creative, and gives you the opportunity to taste Provençal cooking by an innovative and passionate chef and his team. I cannot say enough good things about this restaurant!

Les Deux Garçons on the Cours Mirabeau offers a slightly more expensive menu (€28 for three courses, not including wine) but it is a veritable institution in Aix and thus merits at least a look. Various famous people have dined there, and Cezanne and Zola (both former Aix residents) used to meet there every day. The décor is truly beautiful and the staff are friendly.

The American/British bookstore on the rue 4 septembre, just on the corner of the Place des 4 dauphins, is worth stopping at for a number of reasons. They sell all sorts of dictionaries and reference books (not just English-French), English-language fiction and regional guides, but the best part is the food supplies from the USA and the UK that you don’t think you need…until you see them. I know it is disgraceful to come to France and to Provence especially and even *think* about not making the most of eating French food everyday, but this didn’t stop tears of pleasure welling up in my eyes at the sight of A&W rootbeer in the shop’s fridge. You can counter any feelings of guilt from consuming these goods by checking out the French conversation exchange board, where French people looking to have language exchanges in all sorts of languages post their contact details. 

On the rue J. Cabassol you’ll find Book in Bar, a French and English bookshop that also does fruit smoothies. The staff are very friendly and the book selection is good, including a used book section.

Markets: Every day on the Place Richelme there is a market selling fruit, vegetables, cheese, saucissons, breads, and flowers. On Saturdays and Sundays, the squares all around the Hotel de Ville are transformed into lively markets selling fruits, vegetables, cheese, herbs, fish, cut meats, clothing, household goods, etc. It spans out all through this side of town and is an event in and of itself – I have spent entire Saturdays in this way, ostensibly extending my French vocabulary, but in fact tasting my way through the market!

Cinemas: Aix has three cinemas: the Renoir, on the Cours Mirabeau; the Cezanne, on the Avenue Victor Hugo, and the Mazarin. Be sure to stop in at the Tourist Office to see if there are any discount deals on tickets. They usually show a mix of French films and foreign films – check to see if these are dubbed or in version originale.

Swimming pools: The Yves Blanc piscine is in the northeast of the city, about a 20 minute walk from the archive. This is an Olympic size swimming pool, though it can get busy in the evenings. There are lanes for people who like that sort of thing, and then there is a free-for-all section of the pool where little kids do cannonballs off the side, old people swim four people abreast, and everyone else sort of weaves around them. It is mildly chaotic but you can still get a good workout or at least stretch out and impress the kids with your own cannonballs – after all, you will most like weigh more than them. The pool costs between 2 euros but you can get a small discount if you produce your student card. It costs 1 euro to store your things in a locker beside the pool. You will be given a little band that you can wear around your wrist or ankle while you swim. 

Note: the showering and changing facilities are quite primitive here and slightly grim, but they do get the job done. The important thing is that, if you so desire, you can cheaply go and get some exercise and stretch out all those muscles that have been sitting for way too long during the day at the archives. Also, you must have a swimming cap to use the pool! You can purchase swimming accessories at the pool.


Places to Stay: The Hotel St Christophe is not too bad in terms of price, has comfortable rooms, and is relatively close to the archives (10 minutes’ walk). However, hotels are an expensive way to go, so I would not do this for more than a week – for example, when you head down to check out the inventaire. For longer stays, many researchers rent a flat or a studio. You can get information on this through the Office de Tourisme.  

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