Paris, December 14, 2003
This Old House, the Versailles Version
By ALAN RIDING
WHEN it comes to sprucing up historic monuments, the French like to think big. The $1.2 billion Grand Louvre project, which spawned I. M. Pei's glass pyramid in 1989, is still renovating museum galleries two decades after it was begun. Now, in a separate initiative, it is the Château of Versailles' turn to undergo a major restoration.
The palace and its splendid gardens will remain open to the public during the work, but the so-called Grand Versailles project, budgeted at $455 million, will nonetheless take 17 years.
At least in this case no dramatic modern implant is planned. The idea is to make the sprawling 17th-century palace look more as it was, or as architects intended it to be, when it was successively home to three kings - Louis XIV, XV and XVI. There is even a plan to reverse some of the changes, like the removal of a wide staircase, ordered by King Louis-Philippe when, during the chateau's last major rebuilding, which took place in the 1830's, he installed the Museum of the History of France in its North Wing.
Yet if today's visitors return to Versailles in 2020, they will find few surprises. Linking the Dufour and Gabriel pavilions, to the left and right of the Royal Court, they will see a new 10-foot-high gilded balustrade and gates, a replica of the so-called grille royale that was torn down and melted after the 1789 revolution. They may also notice a cleaner facade and new roofing as well as friendlier visitors' entrances. But the main attractions - the Hall of Mirrors and the royal apartments - will look much the same.
In truth, undramatic as it might sound, what the French Government has in mind is largely maintenance and restoration, the sort of job a new homeowner might carry out on an old property. Except that this old property has 700 rooms, 2,153 windows, 352 chimneys and 28 acres of roof, plus 2,250 acres of gardens, parks and woods. And it comes with 6,300 paintings, 2,000 sculptures and statues, 15,000 engravings and 5,000 decorative art objects and furnishings, some of which require restoration.
The need for action has been apparent for years. In 1997, Le Figaro ran a series of articles describing the chateau's problems, which included the fact that the Museum of the History of France, with its 3,000 paintings in 125 galleries, was closed to the public for lack of security guards. Embarrassed, the Versailles complex's administration began preparing a 10-year restoration plan costing $200 million. By the time the plan was unveiled in late October, it was still more ambitious.
The project became more urgent after a fire earlier this year largely destroyed the Château de Lunéville, which was known as the Versailles of Lorraine. Suddenly the Culture Ministry in Paris was haunted by the specter of a fire at the real Versailles. Little wonder, then, that the first priority of the Grand Versailles project is to avert such a disaster by installing fire-detection and alarm systems and by replacing electrical wiring installed in the 1950's. The 18th-century Royal Opera, made almost entirely of wood, is considered especially vulnerable.
Returning the chateau to its former glory, as the Culture Ministry puts it, is the next priority. This involves a host of measures, including replacing the frames of more than 400 windows, restoring several courtyards, repairing facades and replacing much of the roof. Work on the chateau's formal French-style gardens and adjacent park will also be accelerated, although replacement of thousands of trees destroyed in a ferocious storm in December 1999 is already well advanced.
Inside the chateau, space will be gained when administration offices from the Dufour Pavilion are transferred to a nearby building called the Grand Commun, which until recently served as a military hospital. In time, this building will also house a new research center, including a library of 15,000 books dealing with Versailles in the 17th and 18th centuries. Art objects not on display will be stored in the Grand Commun and in the 17th-century stables opposite the chateau known as the Grande Écurie and Petite Écurie.
Not forgotten, though, is the need to improve facilities for visitors, who currently number some three million a year (60 percent of them foreigners). At present, to the confusion of many, the chateau has six visitor entrances. But within a few years, individuals will enter only through the Dufour Pavilion and groups through the Gabriel Pavilion. They will be served by new gift shops, a larger number of restrooms, additional cafes and a new restaurant in the North Wing. Access for handicapped visitors will also be improved.
Ultimately the purpose of the Grand Versailles project goes beyond making life easier and safer for tourists. To judge by official statements, it is also to perpetuate an important symbol of French power and pride. Versailles may once have represented the outrageous opulence of an absolute monarch, but a beautifully renovated palace will also say something about 21st-century France.
A Month in Normandy
Since I was very young I have wanted to own a house in Normandy.
A few years ago I began traveling to Paris to purchase antiques for my showroom at the Boston Design Center. On one of these buying trips I was invited to travel to Normandy with a Parisian friend and antiques dealer Alexander Vossion. Our plan was to tour the countryside, enjoy the sights and shop for antiques. After a pleasant week, I found myself eager to return to Normandy and now do so. Once I got the lay of the land it became apparent that it was time to start shopping for the house of my dreams.
I began by window shopping the real estate agencies in the towns and villages that appealed to me. The few properties I saw were disappointing, most of them ordinary dark houses, many badly restored and often remote. It was on one of these forays that I discovered that my taste in houses had changed, I no longer seemed inspired by the small, quaint cottages I once preferred.
The more cottages I looked at, so abundantly for sale in Normandy, the more convinced I became that I wanted a larger, more refined, light filled house, particularly Louis XIII period. I discovered that the early manor houses and chateaux which dot the Norman countryside, are often located if not within a small town or village. This proximity to civilization also began to make sense for practical as well as esthetic reasons.
I feel at ease in Normandy. The lush, rolling landscape reminds me in many ways of New England. The volatile weather for which the area is known, is the kind I like best. Normandy is unpredictable, filled with unexpected pleasures and surprises found in every bend the road. However narrow, and seemingly endless the country roads are, they often lead to somewhere special.
Norman cuisine is as varied as the landscape from which the food grows. It is an area of France with endless, fertile farmland, flush with knee-high wheat, and chartreuse colored flax swaying to the rhythm of the wind like a giant Hula skirt. Suddenly, fertile lowlands kiss the steep hillsides where emerald pastures reach up and touch the low slung clouds. Fat cows, dressed in fashionable spots and dots of color, and coifed, wooly, black-faced sheep graze unattended to their hearts content. Wind, driven by the whims of the sea, drops in on the land without notice and the inevitable calm that follows helps make Normandy the stuff poems and paintings are made of.
Although casual house hunting can be fun, when I got down to serious business, I discovered the process can be frustrating. Shopping with a real estate broker in France is time consuming. French brokers do not share listings with one another as American realtors do, so their repertoire of listings is limited. Since keys are often unavailable to the agents, showings are difficult to arrange without the presence of the homeowner. Agency's are closed on Sundays and Mondays, and phone calls and faxes are often not returned.
Disenchanted with real estate brokers, I came to rely on French real estate magazines and web sites I visited from the comfort of my home. Since my buying trips to France are planned in advance, I scheduled appointments before I left Boston. This proved to be efficient, but I saw few properties that interested me.
Last winter, browsing the web, I logged on a real estate site, one that I had never seen before. A 17th century relais de chasse or hunting lodge, caught my eye. The house was reminiscent of the brick and limestone architecture of the Places des Voges in Paris, built by Henry IV remaining popular during the reign of his son, Louis XIII.
Although my mind was set on the hunting lodge the agent convinced me to see two other listings, and he suggested we save the hunting lodge for last. When I arrived in France the following week I quickly finished my business in Paris, and headed by train, on what had become a familiar route to Normandy, again, accompanied by my friend Alexander.
We arrived in Bernay, a charming, bustling town an hour and one half from Paris and a few miles from the lodge. We met up with the broker and looked at two houses which made no impression on me. I was eager to get to the hunting lodge I learned was called the Manoir de Berthouville. After a delicious lunch, we headed for the manor. Approaching the house, my decision was made. Enchanted with the property on first sight, I made an offer. The owners, twelve brothers and sisters, who lived all over France, accepted the offer a few weeks later.
By French law, real estate cannot change hands until ninety days after signing an "Offer to Purchase." I thought this process was a courtesy to the buyer, a time to reflect on what he or she was getting to. As it turns out it gives the French government time to process the paper work. The closing, or "Date du Signature," happens in a notary's office, our equivalent to a real estate lawyer. It took place in a room the size of a closet. Eight of the twelve brothers and sisters, sitting like ducks in a row, my friend Alexandre, acting as my translator, the Notary, and her assistant (who popped in and out), and myself, somehow squeezed into that tiny space where we managed to sign all the endless forms.
Foreigners are required to have a translator present at closings, even if the buyer speaks fluent French. Again a courtesy I thought, but actually it is to protect all parties from legal misinterpretations.
The bad news buying French real estate is the 6% sales tax. And even worse: if you inherit property the death tax is 60%. Few people beat the tax collector, except the deceased. Sadly, many properties which have been in the same family for generations are sold to pay the tax. It's not good news for the over sixty buyers who require financing. They are required to take out a hefty life insurance policy.
The good news is legal fees, property taxes (while one is alive) and mortgage rates are extremely low. Fifteen year mortgages are the norm at the low rate of 4.5%. All in all purchasing real estate in France is a pleasant experience, easier than I had anticipated.
After all the paper work was signed, my friend Alexander had to return to Paris. I dropped him off at the train station in Bernay. Disbelieving I had actually gone through with the purchase, I made my way to Berthouville.
As I drove through the gates, I paused, staring at the glorious house before me. I had followed the rainbow to it's source, and found the elusive pot of gold. With an armload of flowers, a house gift from Alexander, a baguette of warm bread, fruit, cheese and a bottle of excellent Bordeaux, I turned the key in the iron lock and pushed open the heavy oak door to step inside. My month in Normandy had begun. I had come home.
CORDES-SUR-CIEL, France, Aug. 6
Occasionally, in the 90-degree-plus heat here, Paul Bedford longs for a rainy day.
"We were back in England recently on a cool and wet day, and we thought, this is bloody marvelous," said Mr. Bedford, 45, a London shipping insurer.
But such sentiments are fleeting. If there were
not a France, the British might have to invent one, and in a sense they already
have. Lacking wines, they put claret on
the map; subsisting on heavy meat and little vegetable,
That trickle has lately become a torrent. Indeed, so many British are arriving that they brought with them their own mortgage bank, Abbey National, whose French branch is flourishing.
While real estate purchases by foreigners rose 3 percent in 2002, Abbey National found in a study last month, British purchases soared 40 percent. By last year, the British accounted for 36 percent of foreign real estate holdings in France, followed by the Italians with 13.5 percent and the Dutch with 5.2 percent.
After conquering the Dordogne region of western France, they are fanning out south and east. Real estate agents regularly post "English Spoken" signs. Here and there mutterings are heard. Old-time British residents who migrated to France decades ago shudder at the formation of British vacation colonies. The French,observant as the affluent British inflate property prices, talk occasionally of a new British invasion centuries after the Hundred Years War and Joan of Arc, when they cast the British back across the Channel. "A sentiment of rejection, still diffuse, is beginning to arise," the daily Le Monde ominously cautioned last month.
Yet they keep coming. Considering the reasons why, Mr. Bedford, who bought his home at the foot of this hill town a decade ago, said: "The space, the weather, the pace of life are all attractive, and the proximity to the U.K. At school you got to speak rudimentary French, and summers you packed up the jalopy and went camping here, so to a large extent you're capturing your past."
"You think of it as a land of endless summers and wine and pbti," he said. Some, like Mr. Bedford, come to live and work, others for retirement; still others just for a vacation or because the price is right.
Last year Jonathan Roe and his wife, Liza, joined with Pamela and Michael Paul, whose wine import business brought them to France, to buy a rambling farmhouse with 10 bedrooms and 7 baths about an hour's drive south of here.
"We have a right crowded country," said Ms. Paul, explaining the choice of France. "Some of us like to go European."
Mr. Roe, 47, a London investment banker, added, "I think it's because we can." Between purchase price and renovation costs, he said, they paid about one million euros, or about $1,133,000 at current exchange rates. A similar home in southern England would cost two to three times that, he reckoned.
"We budgeted 400,000 euros, we spent a million," he laughed. "If you're coming on holiday, you don't want a hovel - it's got to be better than home."
The British invasion also reflects increased accessibility. After new cut-rate airlines began flying into tiny French airports like the one at Carcassonne, a 40-minute drive from here, arrivals there soared from 20,000 in the late 1990's to 200,000 in 2002.
Mr. Bedford, who in 1993 spent 70,000, then worth about $104,000, to buy an entire hamlet. After spending 70,000 to restore it, he commuted to London for years after installing his wife and four children in France.
"It's less hassle than commuting in the U.K.," he said.
Jean-Gabriel Jonin, an artist and writer who is the adjunct mayor of Cordes, said many French admired the British flair for acquiring abandoned properties and fixing them up, as Mr. Bedford has done. "They have taste," he said.
Most French welcome the British. "It's good; it brings fresh blood, a different vision," he said. Some British neighbors are less sure.
David Laidlaw is a Scottish-born artist who abandoned a career in a family textile business to settle in France 30 years ago. "When we arrived and restored this house, there weren't many foreigners," Mr. Laidlaw, 73, said in his studio in the hill town's upper stretches. "Cordes was in the middle of nowhere."
He views with disquiet the storming of the British. "It's not that I'm anti-English," he said, "but I have a horror of living in an English colony."
Caroline de Roquette-Buisson has similar feelings. A sculptor, she settled in France 13 years ago, not least because, she confesses: "I felt I was back in the England of the 1950's. It was a feeling of going back in time a bit. This landscape felt like a Wiltshire landscape."
She married a Frenchman, speaks fluent French, took French citizenship and has two boys who are very French.
Her husband, Louis-Charles, who produces local delicacies like cassoulet and pbti, is amused by her discomfort. The newcomers, he says, will have to learn to understand the French.
"If people live in certain ways, it is a
result of centuries of development," he said. "They are not idiots;
Yet he dismisses the horror over the trickle widening to a flood. "When only the rich had a car, it was quite special," he said. "When the poor got cars, people complained it caused traffic jams."
By Pierre Tran, Sunday Business, London
Jul. 6--France is in the grip of a property-buying mania, with house prices rocketing across the country, fuelled by mortgage rates at historic lows and dismal stock market returns.
Paris has traditionally been a property hot spot, with prices supported by scarce housing stock. But the novel factor has been strong increases in the regions, particularly in the "sunbelt" provinces in the south and west, where urbanites have fled in search of a better quality of life and foreign buyers are busy snapping up properties.
House prices rose an average 10 percent across the country last year and 3 percent in the first quarter of this year. The figures conceal sharp increases in regions that have long been neglected corners of the property market.
Pierre Fabre, a Paris-based sculptor and artist, has been looking for a farmhouse with a barn, for conversion into a studio, in the southwest Charente department. He has had to scale back his property plan because prices have soared out of reach. He says prices have risen 25 percent to 30 percent over the five years in the south and southwest, as outsiders like him scour the countryside for a property.
Another factor pushing up prices is the influx of foreign buyers, such as the Dutch and British, looking for a second home or a retirement in the sun.
The British can be found in the most remote pockets of the countryside, miles from the nearest large town, attracted by a pile of old stones to renovate, Fabre said.
He blames British buyers for much of the price increase of recent years, which have taken houses out of the reach of local people, who are forced to build new houses in ugly estates on the edge of picturesque villages.
In the urban areas, Paris property goes for an average E3,744 ($4,380, UKpound 2,658) per square metre, while Marseille prices average E1,729 per square metre, making the southern port city one of the most expensive in France.
Property lending rose 18.6 percent last year, according to Bank of France figures. Property professionals estimate there was a 15 percent increase in just the first half of 2003. Falling interest rates have driven mortgage rates down. Those with money to invest are putting it into bricks and mortar, rather than buying into the feeble stock market.
Banks are selling fixed-rate 4.5 percent mortgages on a 15-year loan, while foreign players such as Barclays and the Dutch ING group are aggressively attacking the mortgage market with products that carry an initial one-year variable rate of around 3 percent.
The rush to buy property, besides pushing up prices outside the reach of first-time buyers, may be a sign of financial conservatism, potentially depriving the economy of risk capital, analysts warn.
NEW YORK--(BUSINESS WIRE)--June 18, 2003
COPYRIGHT 2003 Business Wire
New Service Helps Buyers Come Home to Bargain Properties in France;
Make Your Next House a Castle
What is the ultimate dream home? A chalet in the Alps? A villa in Provence? An apartment in Paris? Or how about a 16th century French Chateau in the middle of a vineyard? For many of us, these residences have long been the stuff of fantasy. But the dream is becoming reality for a growing number of buyers, according to Renaud Jacquet, Vice President of Abodes Abroad & Associates, a licensed New York real estate brokerage that matches up international buyers with properties throughout France. He says purchasing a high-end home in France is much more affordable - and convenient - than most Americans would imagine.
"For the price of a typical two-bedroom apartment in Manhattan or a tiny vacation house in the Hamptons, a buyer can purchase a renovated castle in France," Jacquet said. "It's a bargain hunter's paradise." He added that the closing process in France is easier than in the U.S. A purchaser can close and begin moving usually within two to three months.
Jacquet said many Americans are surprised to learn that they can legally own real estate in France.
"As in the United States, there is no law in France that bars foreigners from owning property." Jacquet said. "The same laws and protections apply whether you're a citizen or not."
Jacquet and Loree Buksbaum, president of the company, started the New York-based Abodes Abroad in 2001 in response to a growing interest in French real estate both here and in Europe. Jacquet, a native of France, gained extensive knowledge of the diverse real estate market there while working as a real estate agent in Paris. Together, Jacquet and Buksbaum have over 10 years' experience in the business.
The company has steadily expanded its services to include a powerful Web-based property search engine, a free personalized search profile, free email updates on the latest properties to hit the market, and detailed legal and practical information on buying property in France.
"We want to make buying a high-end property in France as easy and safe as purchasing a house in the U.S.," Jacquet said. "That's why we've spent so much time in developing a network of credible licensed real estate affiliates within France."
Abodes Abroad offers properties in virtually every region of France and, for the urban-minded, the company lists elegant apartments in Paris. The site features 500 select properties represented by 60 independent real estate agents who collectively carry over 7000 listings across France. Abodes Abroad's English-speaking associates meet clients at pre-arranged times and places upon arriving in France and personally accompany them on property visits. The associates assist in all aspects of the purchasing process through the closing of the transaction. Find out more at www.abodesabroad.net.
AFP , VANCOUVER, CANADA
Monday, Jan 26, 2004,Page 6
Following in the footsteps of their British cousins, Canadians are buying up vacation property in France in droves.
They are mostly aging and affluent and don't mind flying thousands of miles to bask under the French sun.
Taking advantage of e-mail and Internet armchair shopping, they are buying up old farmhouses in Provence, town houses in Languedoc-Roussillon, and even small castles in Midi-Pyrenees, as easily as they might buy property in the picturesque British Columbian interior or Gulf Islands.
Predictably, they say they are drawn to the charm of the French countryside by the local foods and wines, beautiful centuries-old buildings and enlightened French attitudes or the joie de vivre.
But mostly, they are attracted by real estate that is cheap compared with close-to-home property.
"There is so much history and culture in France compared to Canada because it's so much older," said Sheila Rambeau, who over the Christmas holidays was engaged to be married in France bid on property near Bergerac the following day.
"I love exploring all the little villages. I love cooking too. I could go to a market every day," she said. "It's certainly cheaper than if we bought a place on the west coast of Canada."
She said the rent on her apartment in Vancouver's downtown Coal Harbor district is higher than the mortgage payment on her French retreat.
She concedes that comparably priced vacation properties can be found in Canada, but notes rural towns here are widely dispersed. In contrast to the closely clustered villages in France, rural residents in Canada are often isolated, often requiring long drives to visit the nearest neighbor.
The proximity of towns in France offers vacationers more shopping and dining opportunities without going to a large city, said Rambeau.
Also, it is hard to compare these properties to Canadian real estate because there are no 400-year-old farmhouses in western Canada, said Anne Marie Lawrence, a Vancouverite who organized a social club for Canadians who vacation regularly in France to swap stories.
British Columbia "is beautiful, but France has a long history ... When I stand where all those people have been, a tingle goes up my spine," she said.
Her club has grown to 100 members in eight years, and next month French Consul-General Jean-Yves Defay will be a guest speaker.
"It is a very diverse group, persons from different sectors of life," Defay said. "When you're Canadian, you go from Vancouver to Montreal. It doesn't take much longer to go to Paris. And it's sometimes less expensive to fly to Europe than across Canada."
"It's an alternative to Palm Springs [California]," said Alex Kerr, a 56-year-old publicist who bought a 300-year-old renovated barn near Carcassonne two years ago.
Paul Deggan, a 71-year-old artist from Bowen Island, British Columbia with a keen interest in French painters, bought a farm in Auvergne on the edge of a medieval village and turned it into an art center offering summer workshops.
He sees Canadians moving in where young French people are leaving, causing some to grumble that villages are being taken over by vacationers, but he's not concerned.
"The young French in Auvergne are leaving because it offers no challenges for the future in view of the sort of education they're getting these days," said Deggan. "They don't all want to be farmers."
Some say the trend is fleeting, however. Already, some regions have become too pricey. France's high-speed trains are creating more domestic commuters, and the strengthening euro is threatening to curb transatlantic travel.
"I've seen prices go up significantly in recent years," said Linda
Alexander, who hopes to buy soon in France. "I don't think there are a
lot of bargains anymore, but prices are still reasonable."
24.5.2013 | Abodes Abroad & Associates, Inc
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