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Home has history on so many levels

LIVING with your children on different levels in the same building is a way of life favoured by many French families.

1 July 2012

ESTELLE PHILLIPS talks to retired antiques dealer Georges Martin in Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur, in the latest in our series of interviews with people who love their home in France.

HISTORY is in the walls of this 13th century building housing two generations in the medieval town of Vence, a 40-minute drive from Nice on the Côte d’Azur. The property is located within the ancient walled town, which was only opened to the outside world in the 1840s and retains much of its original renaissance architecture.

Owner Georges Martin has lived there for 57 years, his two grown-up children now living above and below him. Born into a family of antique dealers, Mr Martin moved from a nearby village with his new wife to set up his own shop in the town, at the age of 22.

“Our two children were born in the flat. It was a period when there were old families who had been in the neighbourhood for 100-150 years, who had lived through times of little comfort, electricity or water. Among these gens du quartier were agricultural folk who would return with vegetables each evening.”

Inside Mr Martin’s second-floor flat, a frieze of angles and greenery covers the bedroom walls. This part of the apartment is a pontis – a house built above a street. Two houses were often joined in this way.

Mr Martin believes the frieze may have been drawn by tradesmen working at the castle or church. “They were lodged in this room above the street and would often thank the person with whom they were staying by drawing a frieze.

“There was a Roman temple inside the town walls [on the site of the 14th century cathedral which is still standing] and the frieze looks to be inspired from Roman times.”

The flat is unique in its setting as the only building in the square (Place Godeau) to have an authentic 13th century twinned-arch window.

This feature indicates the house once belonged to a nobleman, says Mr Martin.

“It is because of this window that we know the house belonged to someone important within the town. It was perhaps the house of a governor or wealthy member of the bourgeoisie.”

Along the window’s base, was a stone on which people could sit and look down on the square. “Ladies would sew, chat and watch passers-by. Often the chat would be les commérages [gossip] such as you find in the fables of Jean de la Fontaine. It was chat about others and who was seeing whom.”

In keeping with the period, Mr Martin has set a long-legged chair in front of the window, with a foot rest. The chair was designed so nobles with long robes could sit without gathering them up, deemed the behaviour of lower-class women.

Embedded in the eastern wall of the flat’s main room is a long, narrow alcove which may have served for defence purposes in a hilltop settlement once ringed by towers, moat and drawbridge, says Mr Martin. “We are just inside the medieval ramparts here and there may have been a defensive tower,” he said.

Although they assumed the building belonged to a nobleman during the 19th century, it was built by people with modest incomes. “The house is built of stone with an infill of straw and small stones. A 9th century staircase gave access to the building’s four levels.

“It was accommodation belonging to the very poor. People often kept horses and donkeys below. To feed them there were shafts in the wall to send down hay and straw. The problem was that if there was ever a fire, everything caught light.”

The open-plan flat’s main room serves as a dining area, kitchen, sitting room and study. In the dining area, a window faces south-west towards the cathedral, bell tower and 12th century battlements, rebuilt following an 1887 earthquake.

Thanks to his business, Mr Martin has furnished his flat with relics from different centuries. So, he and visitors sit down to dinner at a 19th century table.

Candles are a strong feature in the dining room, including a lamp used in the 15th century, which would have contained a chandelle – an early candle made of animal fat – with a holder for a piece of wood to light it.

It would have been for poorer households: “It was used mainly for the kitchen because it smoked so much. The animal fat smelled really badly – it was poor-man’s smoke. Roman lamps used fat but in Vence oil was common. From the 16th century a fat/oil mix was used.”

At the back of the former antiques shop on ground level, is the wall and window surround of a house which may date from the 8th-10th centuries.

Place Godeau has its own story to tell. It was once the site of an 18th century graveyard, behind the church, and its centrepiece is a column, dating from the same era as Mr Martin’s property.

The column stands on a stone with a Latin inscription, which is one of a pair, with the second outside the city walls in the Place du Grand Jardin. Vence culture chief, Marc Chaix, said: “The columns formed the base of an arc de triomphe in Roman times. We are not sure where the arch was located in the Roman town.”

Around Place Godeau, the architecture and street names are evocative of the town’s Roman and medieval past. In front of Mr Martin’s property, a walk down La Rue des Portiques takes you down a particularly well-preserved section of the former Roman road linking Cimiez, the Roman heart of Nice (Alpes- Maritimes), to the medieval town of Castellane at the start of the Gorges du Verdon (Alpes-de-Haute-Provence).

Vence is known for its spring waters and some locals are said to use water from the town’s 22 fountains rather than tap water.

Mr Martin remembers locals washing using fountains around the town and in the square. “In 1955 people with no water at home would wash in the square. A spring known as la Source de la Foux runs very close to Vence. People still come from far to collect this water as it is very pure and has a pleasant taste.”

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