Her engaging smile lights up the elegant salon in which we are sitting. Martine Legrand has started talking about the love of her life, the villa in the rue des Roses.
It all started thirty years ago when Martine came to Grasse to work with the mayor on an urban planning project. Towns and what makes them tick has always been her work and, along with the aforementioned villa, her obsession.
“I felt an immediate attraction towards Grasse, it was triggered by the impressive architecture,” says Martine, a Parisienne by birth if not entirely by nature. “I will never forget my first visit to the Villa Fragonard, the model of the ideal house in what many people regarded as a sleepy backwater.
The south façade offers superb view
“But there was more to Grasse than just beautiful and interesting buildings, it was the spirit of the town that spoke to me. I had found a real, living town, with an organised, stratified society, so different from the life on the coast, and at that time it was an industrial centre, the industry being perfume of course.
“Grasse had grown wealthy, but a long time ago it had turned its back on the Côte d'Azur.”
Martine found the majority of grassois at that time were regarded by people on the coast as living in “a city apart”, as she puts it. They were proud independent people.
Martine wanted a little part of this way of life, but what she finished up with was a mighty big slice.
“I was recently divorced and I didn't have much money, but my savings plan, the plan épargne logement, had matured, and I asked an agent to find me a modest apartment I could buy that had some history to it.
A romantic staircase add to the charm“He didn't find a modest apartment, but he did show me the villa in the rue des Roses. I walked through the imposing front door and was immediately captivated by the elegant sweeping staircase. I'm a cinophile, and I pictured the famous movie actresses of the Forties sweeping down its marble steps – just so romantic.”
The villa had been built by a perfume industry family in the late 19th century. Its position on the hillside above and to the west of the old town gives it a breathtaking view over the towers and pinnacles of old Grasse to the sea and the Esterel mountains beyond. But the fabulous vista was incidental to the main purpose of the villa's situation. As I learnt from Martine, it was likely that the owner could have overseen what was going on around the factories scattered through the paysage below.
Martine fell in love with the villa, with the way it still wore its history. Most of the original features, from the fountain in the entrance hall to the peacock cage in the garden, had been preserved. Martine was determined to keep it that way. But there was a big obstacle standing between this highly motivated woman and her dream – money.
“It was six times more than I could afford,” she says.
But being the resourceful woman she is, Martine came up with a plan. “I told the bank that if they lent me the money I would turn part of the villa into flats and rent them to pay back the loan. That sort of thing was easier to do back in those days, the banks were prepared to take a risk.”
It took genius to achieve what Martine achieved. The three flats were converted from discreet and little-used parts of the building, but the historic core of the villa, with its grand entrée, imposing salon, fumoir and the rest remains as it was.
The past has caught up with the singular Martine. She suffers from a bone disorder, and although for much of the time she can walk without aid, on many occasions she has found herself in a wheelchair. Now in her middle sixties, Martine realises that the great house on the hill is too much for her.
“Of course I am sad, I love this place so much it will be heartbreaking to leave. I just hope I can find a buyer who shares my passion for keeping these beautiful old things as they were meant to be kept, someone who cherishes a link with the past that today still speaks to us so clearly. An artist perhaps, a writer, an archiect … someone with imagination and a feeling for the old ways combined with a flair for creative and sensitive decoration.”
The villa is no museum. It cries out to be lived in, enjoyed, to keep a dream alive.
The villa, with a large terraced garden and pool, is divided into 4 apartments, each with a separate entrance.
The master apartment: On 3 levels. Stunning hall with cloakroom and WC, large living and dining rooms, panelled fumoir/office, 3 main bedrooms, I smaller bedroom, 2 kitchens, scullery, 2 bathrooms, WC, conservatory, terrace, floors in marble and parquet. Loft extension possible.
3 other apartments: Each with living room and bedroom and either loggia, balcony or veranda, each with possibility of use as a guesthouse.