Marseille may be one of this year’s European capitals of culture but its smaller neighbour, Aix-en-Provence, will not be outdone. This weekend the city hosts a series of free concerts as a prelude to July’s Festival d’Aix-en-Provence – an annual music jamboree, focusing mainly on opera – which is a testament to Aix’s bustling reputation.
After all, this is where the likes of Cézanne, Sartre, Hemingway and Picasso sipped away their evenings, finding the wide boulevards spilling over with good-natured people, even in winter. “Aix, with all its festivals and visitors, is a year-round party,” says Mark Harvey, the head of Knight Frank’s French team.
The buildings in Aix are an artful blend of the ancient and modern. Take Quartier Mazarin, south of the Cours Mirabeau, where grand 17th-century town houses are located near the Granet Museum, the Paul Arbaud Museum and the 13th-century church of St Jean-de-Malte. Or take La Rotonde, near the opera house: an impressive modern development of restaurants, shops and apartments. In both quarters you could pay between €5,000 and €6,000 per sq metre for a good apartment.
There are, of course, more bohemian outposts where you will find apartments for as little as €200,000-€400,000. However, these are usually snapped up by investors who rent them to students. A two-bedroom apartment in that price range will let for between €800 and €1,200 a month.
International buyers usually favour the outskirts of Aix. You can be in truly rustic countryside – as opposed to urbanised sprawl – within 20 minutes of leaving the centre of the city. There is an added cachet to having a view of Mont Sainte-Victoire, overlooking Aix, which Cézanne painted so many times. Wealthy incomers often commission architects to modernise the classic Provençal-style homes with their deep alcoved fireplaces, broad whitewashed walls and distinctive plafonds à la française, with their exposed wooden beams.
In Les Pinchinats, 10 minutes outside Aix, Savills is selling a six-bedroom, 17th-century bastide which the owners modernised seven years ago to include an infinity pool, cinema and gym, for €7.9m.
Near Puyricard, also about 10 minutes from Aix, Karen Warhol has spent more than €1m modernising her six-bedroom bastide. The front of the house has been replaced by huge windows so now there is a view from the drawing room, through the dining room to the pool and terraces at the rear. It has a guide price of €4.5m.
International buyers are also attracted to Aix for sound financial and practical reasons. Although the area has not come out of the economic downturn unscathed, average prices have fallen by only three per cent since 2008, according to Knight Frank. Sales volumes have dropped since the recession but the same agent says that over the past 10 years, property prices have doubled so that in the long term, Aix could be regarded as something of a “safe haven”. Crime rates, for example, are significantly lower than on the Côte d’Azur.
There are good international schools nearby and transport links to the area are improving. Eurostar is trialling the first direct London-to-Aix service until June 29 (there will be another train to Avignon for the rest of the summer), while Paris is just three hours away by TGV, so many businessmen based in the capital live in Aix at weekends. Marseille airport is 20 minutes away; the beaches of the Côte d’Azur are nearby and you can drive to the ski slopes of Serre Chevalier within a few hours.
Aix has a growing community of part-time residents. “I contact the Anglo American Group of Provence the minute I get off the plane here,” says Karen Warhol, who is in her sixties and spends four months of the year living in Aix. “We have a wine club, French classes, rambles and a gourmet club – just about everything you need to integrate. I prefer to visit Aix in winter because going to galleries and listening to concerts in a church is better without the crowds of visitors.”
Most newcomers to Aix are from northern Europe, North America or Australia. Russian and Chinese buyers usually prefer the coast. “There is a saying that people move to Saint-Tropez to be seen,” says Warhol. “They move to Aix not to be seen.” Large homes with vineyards are popular and their appeal is as rooted in economics as it is in an appreciation of fine wine. Buy a house with a commercial vineyard attached and you avoid paying wealth tax on the house, as well as transfer tax, inheritance tax and capital gains tax when the property is sold. Provence Dream Property is selling a bastide with 150 hectares of land, 40 hectares of which are vineyards, making 150,000 bottles of wine a year, a short distance outside Aix for €19.5m. Savills is offering an organic, family-run winery, with seven hectares of vines on the foothills of the Luberon, for €2.9m.
The main drawback of buying in Aix is that you have to be careful over the choice of neighbourhood. The tangle of roads and bypasses that subdivide the city make it easy to buy in an undesirable area. Some quarters to the south of Aix are virtually swallowed up by the outskirts of Marseille and are best avoided. By contrast, the villages of Puyricard, Rognes and Le Tholonet are all very pleasant.
Drive further out into the Luberon and property becomes appreciably less expensive. The downside of this is that it also means drifting further away from Aix, the art-de-vivre city where the Cours Mirabeau is canopied by plane trees, the famous fountains send their translucent green spray to the heavens and the flower market in the Place de l’Hôtel de Ville is heady with scent. Many prefer to pay the extra price to live closer to the city known by many as “Provence’s answer to Florence”.
● Aix has a population of 143,000
● Daily temperatures range from 6C in January to 21.9C in July. It has, on average, 300 days of sun a year
● According to Knight Frank, while volume of sales in Aix fell after the recession, viewing figures doubled between Q4 of 2012 and Q1 of 2013
What you can buy for . . .
€500,000 A two-bedroom apartment near Aix town hall
€1m A three-bedroom house on a one-acre plot in St-Marc-Jaumegarde
€5m An 18th-century town house in the heart of Aix or a modernised bastide in a sought-after suburb