Perfect Provence

Sophia Mose gets under the skin of Provence and discovers that there are many faces to this ever-popular part of southern France

When looking to buy a house in Provence, quite often the difficult question isn’t “Which property?” but rather “Which Provence?” For some, Provence is the hills of the Alpilles and the Luberon; Peter Mayle’s immortal landscape of steep, wild slopes dotted with picturesque villages. For others, it’s the Mediterranean with its fishing ports, beaches and yacht harbours. Some are drawn to the classic bouillabaisse and excellent transport links of Marseille, while others tend more towards the chic boutiques of St-R�my-de-Provence or the stunning architecture of Avignon.

Desirable location

But for many Aix-en-Provence stands out as the best-of-all-possible-worlds option. Nestled between the Luberon and the Mediterranean coast, Aix has been a highly desirable location ever since the Romans founded it in 123BC. Once the capital of Provence and still the cultural capital, Aix has it all. Basking in the sun at the foot of Mont Ste-Victoire (loved by Paul C�zanne), it is blessed with a wonderful climate similar to that of southern California; a seemingly endless supply of glorious 17th/18th-century Proven�al architecture, art galleries and museums, chic restaurants and upscale shopping streets. Unlike the Luberon, Aix does not go quiet in winter. All year round there are music festivals, ballet and opera performances, and the 40,000 students attending the excellent universities and world-renowned art schools create a lively and vibrant atmosphere. Only half an hour from Marseille, three hours from Paris via TGV, an easy driving distance to the C�te d’Azur and the Italian border, and a mere one and a half hours from the ski slopes, Aix is one of the most well-connected towns in France.

It therefore will come as no surprise that the Aix property market has hardly been affected by the economic crisis. Although demand might have slowed down a bit, it always outweighs supply. H�l�ne Le Corre, of Immobilier & Financement on the Cours Mirabeau, tells me: “Very few people who move to this incredible town ever want to leave!” She explains that many Parisians choose Aix as their home while commuting to Paris on the TGV and she even has British clients who commute to London, with their children happily ensconced in one of the international schools at Luynes.

H�l�ne did not see a drop in prices in 2011 and does not predict one for 2012 either as investment in property in Aix is seen as a safe investment in this time of recession. H�l�ne has seen the British returning after a short absence and confirms that the French, Belgians, Dutch and Americans have never stopped buying properties in Aix.

For the wealthy, Aix is an embarrassment of riches. Rural estates, ch�teaux and mas proven�als dot the landscape around the town, often glimpsed only at a distance behind rows of tall cypresses. Larger estates, particularly if they are in good shape, command prices well into the millions and a stunning 17th-century ch�teau in the north of Aix is currently on the market for €6,900,000.

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The statistics of FNAIM (French estate agents association) and the Notaires de France show that prices paid for such properties reach almost €9,000 per square metre. The other option for those with large budgets is an apartment in the historic centre. The old quarter includes the maze of streets and squares clinging to the north side of the wide, tree-lined boulevard of the Cours Mirabeau.

It is a shopper’s paradise and the Mus�e Granet, antique shops and galleries are just a few of its other attractions. Unsurprisingly, it is not easy to find a property here. Camille Campana, of Caroline Laurent Estate Agents, tells me that the Quartier Mazarin remains the most sought-after part of the old town and that for apartments outside the centre, the Quartier de la Torse is the most popular.

The elegant Quartier Mazarin is a residential area south of the Cours Mirabeau built in the late 17th century for the city’s gentry. Large and small apartments in the area’s h�tels particuliers are scarce on the market, and the most desirable properties are often snapped up at prices ranging well over €5,000 per square metre before even reaching estate ageny websites.

Family homes

For families with children, there are many options, depending on the budget. Within Aix itself, families with larger budgets tend to congregate in north Aix, particularly in the area near the hospital or the St-Donat district, where 1960s villas with gardens can be found for upwards of €700,000. Likewise, parts of the city to the west and south offer many opportunities for family homes, with Luynes property commanding higher prices due to its vicinity to the international schools.

Better deals can be had either west towards Les Milles or east to Meyreuil. In general, prices are lower south of Aix, where villages such as Bouc-Bel-Air, Gardanne and Fuveau are essentially commuter villages for Marseille, but there are many micro-markets throughout the Pays d’Aix and prices vary enormously.

Just to the north of Aix lies a constellation of smaller villages with attractive apartments, family houses, and larger estates: Celony, Puyricard, Eguilles and Venelles. These villages are surrounded by countryside and vineyards and are ideal for families. Celony and Puyricard are part of the agglomeration of Aix and are therefore slightly more expensive than the other two and here it is hard to find a family home with three bedrooms or more for less than €500,000. Smaller houses start at €350,000, at which price they tend to still need some work.

Laurence Anjubault, of LC Gestion estate agents in Puyricard, notes that there is always a shortage of houses in the €350,000 to €700,000 range. Although prices increased quite a bit in 2010, she did not see an increase in 2011 and notes that, unless it concerns a very exceptional property, houses do now sell slightly below the asking price. She expects things to pick up this spring and is hoping that more properties will come onto the market to satisfy the high demand.

Village life

Most houses in these Aix neighbourhoods were built after the 1970s and it is the slightly older houses needing some refurbishment where prices can be negotiated. The villages within the agglomeration are served by Aix public transport, and Puyricard and Celony are only a 15-minute bus ride away from the Cours Mirabeau and Aix train station.

To the east of the city, gorgeous Le Tholonet huddles at the foot of Mont St-Victoire and is the starting point for the walking paths that criss-cross the mountain’s famous slopes. The neighbourhoods here are very green and the houses very expensive and Le Tholonet feels more like a nature reserve than a quartier of Aix.

One of the great attractions of the Pays d’Aix is its blend of rural charm with a cosmopolitan population, and the city owes much of that diversity to its universities. Students make up nearly 30% of Aix’s population of 146,000, and naturally they are accompanied by a diverse and highly educated army of teachers and professors.

For investors, this means that small, affordable rental apartments near university facilities offer an almost guaranteed return on their investment. While properties close to the town centre are always in demand, studios and one-bedroom apartments in the Quartier des Facult�s to the south are ideally placed for both student and faculty rentals.

With an average square metre purchase price for houses at €4,245 and apartments at €3,802, Aix is not a low-budget town. But with prices holding steady in spite of the recession and its incredibly high standard of living, Aix-en-Provence is hard to beat as a place to invest, have a holiday house, or start a new life. n

Sophia Mose runs Provence Search and is a buying agent covering the Aix-Arles-Avignon region.

www.provencesearch.com