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After Anne’s extensive house hunting in Aix en Provence in January, I (Kirk) was finally able to join her in February to continue the search. While we were home in Virginia, we’d spotted a few interesting apartments on the Internet that were for sale by owners and had scheduled some appointments to see them. Aline – the realtor, whom Anne had chosen since she’d best understood our priorities – also had some apartments she felt were possibilities. We were psyched although somewhat discouraged. Finding the right apartment wasn’t going to be easy.
The first place we saw was a FSBO (for sale by owner) on Rue Entrecasteaux. It had tomettes (18th-century hexagonal terra cotta floor tiles) throughout, high ceilings, tall windows, one of which looked down into a neighbor’s small courtyard, and a beautiful entry carved from the honey-gold stone of Aix. The owner had recently re-done the kitchen in what is called the American style. A”cuisine américaine” means it opens up into the living/dining room rather than being segregated from it, as opposed to a “cuisine séparée“, which, as the name implies, is a separate room.
The apartment was in move-in condition, was in a quiet neighborhood and had a lot going for it. Because it was for sale by owner, there wasn’t an agent’s fee, so the price vis-à-vis euros per square meter was right. It was also across the street from a charming small hotel that had previously been a convent. The hotel had parking, convenient for friends and family who would come to visit.
After our second visit to the apartment, we were close to making an offer. However, both of us felt 45 square meters (about 482 square feet) and one bedroom was simply too tight for us. Since we had other places to look at, we thanked them for showing us the apartment and told them how much we liked it.
We learned something after seriously considering this apartment. We were looking for at least 50 square meters, and even though we liked what they had done and tried hard to imagine our living and entertaining there, we just couldn’t squeeze our dreams into something that small. We vowed that no matter how attractive the pictures were in the immobilier windows or how perfect the description sounded, we wouldn’t visit places with less than 50 meters.
The following day, we went with Aline to a 4th-floor apartment that had lots of appeal. There were even some beautiful antiques left by the previous owners. It was spacious enough, had exposed beams, a generous though rustic kitchen, and the apartment was situated so it had a dramatic view to the façade of a classical-style church. The 70-plus steps we climbed to get there were not rewarded with a sunny rooftop terrace. The apartment’s low ceilings left us feeling as if we were in a cottage in the countryside rather than a dwelling in one of France’s cultural centers. That apartment taught us we didn’t want to live on a high floor.
Walking down the streets of almost any city center in Europe could be compared to strolling through a classy shopping mall in the States. Long series of interesting shop windows lure you with the most tempting displays of everything from chocolate creations to adorable children’s clothes to optometrists and even auto dealerships. But they also do something insidious: the windows keep you from the most interesting things in town that you can only see if you LOOK UP! The grand architecture, sometimes with columns, or stone figures, and ancient ornamentation can only be seen when we un-glue our eyes from the shop windows.
Here’s what is typical of the buildings in the historic center of Aix. Each building was once a three- or four-story townhouse that was a single family home. In the 15th century, the first floor was not a retail shop but the home’s utility floor, where until perhaps the 18th century, the clothes and dishes were washed, food was stored, and even a few animals were kept. There was a central staircase, the “piano nobile” (noble floor) where guests were received. This level was built to impress: everything’s on a large scale compared with the rest of the house with lots of volume to awe the guests. This floor, which Americans would call the 2nd floor, is considered the 1st floor in Europe and is usually decorated with architectural ornamentation, large-scale furniture, and fine fabrics. The next floor was the bedroom floor. Guests rarely saw this floor with its lower ceilings, smaller windows, and plainer architectural features. The last floor under the beams with the lowest ceilings and smallest windows was where the family’s servants lived.
It took a while for us to catch on to this insight, but once we did, when we heard about another possibility, the first thing we wanted to know was how far up it was from the sidewalk. The apartment that felt too rustic to us was on the last floor. And we determined that unless a previous owner had opened up the roof to make a nice sunny terrace, we would not look at any more 3rd or 4th-floor places either. As we observed and learned about the town’s apartments, we narrowed down our criteria and, in the process, eliminated the need to visit every possibility.
The next day, we violated the lesson we learned on the first day – that we would not waste time looking at anything under 50 square meters. It was Aline’s fault; “I know it’s only 45 meters but it’s currently a doctor’s office and when her office hours are over for the day, she’ll let us take a look.” Two things intrigued us: first, it is adjacent to a tiny little triangle park (a favorite of ours, the Place des Trois Ormeaux) with a beautiful fountain; and second, it has the elegant charm of a classy first-floor formal parlor. We agreed because we thought it might be useful to inform our tastes, like tasting an expensive Bordeaux lifts one’s sights from Two Buck Chuck. When Madame the doctor welcomed us in to her office we were more than intrigued, we were positively enchanted. Gorgeous drapes flowed beside stately windows with iron-banistered mini balconies, polished parquet floors were covered by luscious Asian carpets, and plaster ornamentation graced the intersection of wall with ceiling. Ga Ga would describe the sentiment pretty well. We hadn’t visited any apartment in Aix with this kind of appeal. This is where the words “classy elegance” entered our apartment hunting vocabularies. However, the former aristocratic family’s piano nobile had been subdivided into too many apartments – too tiny for living, no kitchen to speak of, and the entry? Right into what would have to be the bedroom – can you imagine?
We happened to bump in to Madame the doctor waiting to cross a busy street a couple of days later and we told her how much we loved her place but that it was too small to meet our needs.
What an interesting education we’ve had – and we now have a picture of what we’re looking for that we could not have articulated when we began our search: the charm of the ancient (a great French real estate phrase – charme de l’ancien) in a first-floor apartment larger than 50 square meters on a quiet street. Having narrowed our criteria to such a degree, could we possibly find all this within the confines of the historic center of this medieval town?
Anne & Kirk Woodyard have written about food and travel for France Today, Dream of Italy, and BonjourParis.They are the founders of Music and Markets tours, through which they introduce others to the wonders of Europe. Bonjour Paris premium members are entitled to a 10 percent discount on their tours.
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