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Tripping the light fantastic - ST REMY DE PROVENCE
Tripping the light fantastic - ST REMY DE PROVENCE
Published FT August 4 2007

As increasing numbers of adventurous property buyers chase residential dreams in “up-and-coming” markets – from Croatia to Christmas Island, Turkey to Turkmenistan – there are still many who prefer their second homes in countries and towns that have already up and come.

Provence in the south of France has long been a chosen destination for European artists and aesthetes, offering a quintessentially French elegance and, as frequent visitor Terence Conran once commented, an “extraordinary quality of light [that] casts its magic across town and country alike”. The coastal cities are, of course, most popular but the region’s charms are perhaps best expressed in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, a town between Nimes, Avignon and Arles that has been called “the capital of the art of living”.


Saint-Rémy’s most famous former resident is Vincent van Gogh, who spent his last year in the nearby asylum of Saint-Paul-de-Mausole, making good use of the exquisite light. He painted 150 canvases during his stay, showcasing the cypress trees and olive groves, the boulevards of plane trees that led up to the town and the chalky white limestone peaks of Les Alpilles, the miniature range of mountains jutting out from the surrounding plains. Other artists followed, setting up their own easels, but today different types of celebrities abound, with Princess Caroline of Monaco (whose Grimaldi family once owned the town) and actors Johnny Depp and John Malkovich all spending time in the area. New French president Nicolas Sarkozy was even recently spotted visiting the local estate agency run by Emile Garcin.

“Fifty years ago there were lots of houses for sale and hardly any buyers [but] now it’s the other way round,” says Garcin, a Saint-Rémy native. He launched his business, which now has branches across France, with a sale in his hometown worth Fr30,000 (about €4,500) in 1964. Today, village houses go for €500,000-€1.2m and there are about 20 local estate agencies. The most coveted property type is the bastide , historically the second home of a rich family, which has a different architectural style from the L- or U-shaped, south-facing mas , or farmhouse, designed to house both people and animals. “A mas in a beautiful situation will generally cost between €1.5m and €2.5m,” says Sarah Francis of estate agency Sifex, which has on its books an unrestored 18th-century property for just over €1.5m.

Savills International is meanwhile offering a mas with outbuildings on 9ha of land, minutes from the village for €3.2m and a stone tower built in 1448 and once occupied by Nostradamus, priced at less than €1.1m.

“As a rule,” says the agency’s Jerome Liffran, “if you wish to buy a typical farmhouse with a pool you will need at least €1.5m. If your budget is less than that you can find some good renovation projects or you can buy a new-build apartment in the town. Prices have risen substantially recently with the more expensive, quality properties (€1.5m upwards) showing the best appreciation.”

Agents estimate that about 60 per cent of buyers in the area today are foreign and say that property values in Saint-Rémy’s département of Les Alpilles are 20 per cent higher than in surrounding counties.

The high prices have not put off buyers in search of the classic Provençal lifestyle, however. Aside from the region’s natural beauty, there is a strong culinary tradition. Saint-Rémy has many restaurants as do its surrounding villages, including Les Baux, with the restaurant hotel Le Baumaniere, overlooked by the ruined 12th-century castle of Château Baux. Sipping pink champagne on the terrace at sunset, Provençal scents of thyme, lavender, rosemary and pine wafting by, it’s easy to see the attraction of a home nearby.

Accessibility is also a draw, with Avignon’s TGV train à grande vitesse ) station, with 2½-hour connections to Paris, a half-hour’s drive away and international airports at Marseilles, Nice and Montpellier. Crowds are an increasing problem; Saint-Remy’s Wednesday market overflows not only with oils, linen and local produce but also with visitors speaking a host of languages even out of peak season. But a peaceful Provençal idyll can still be found in the countryside. “People love to buy a mas and come and sit by the pool,” says Marie Gendebien in the tourist office.

The shortage of properties in pristine condition has led to owners upgrading more modest dwellings too. Saint-Rémy-based restoration specialists Bruno and Alexandre Lafourcade and architect Claire Perraton now take on up to 20 projects a year, working with local artisans to make new elements look as if they have always been there. A typical project might involve using freshly quarried local limestone for window surrounds, fireplaces and fountains, incorporating salvaged materials in chimney pieces and flooring and pruning an overgrown lawn into an elaborate garden. An Italian client recently commissioned the team to preserve and modernise an old abbey surrounded by vines and olive groves .

Like the artists before them, newcomers want homes that capture the area’s famed sunlight, Perraton says. The process starts with questions such as “Where does the evening sun hit the building? Where would we want to eat outside?” she says. Later it’s “Where should we store the wine?”

Local agents

Emile Garcin, tel: 33 (0)4-9092 0158; www.emilegarcin.fr

Savills International, 44 (0)20-7016 3740 www.savills.com/abroad

Sifex, tel: 44 (0)20-7384 1200; www.sifex.co.uk

Bureau D’Etudes Bruno & Alexandre Lafourcade, tel: 33 (0)4-9092 1014; www.architecture-lafourcade.com
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