Saturday we went to a crafts market in Old Nice. We were in an open plaza at midday and the sun was beating down on us. Since neither Jeff nor I can take too much heat, we browsed along one side where there was a bit of shade and then went to look for lunch. As we entered the narrow winding streets of the old city, the temperature dropped drastically. It was amazing how much cooler it was in the streets than in the plaza.
It’s not just by chance that the temperature is lower in these streets. The Old Town was designed to keep its cool under the hot Mediterranean sun. It was laid out hundreds of years ago and those ancient architects had some pretty good ideas for beating the heat.
Since there were no automobiles when the city was built, the streets were made just wide enough for people – and maybe a horse-drawn cart or two. The tall buildings and narrow streets mean that the pavement and the sides of the buildings are protected from the fierce sun and stay at a comfortable temperature.
But it’s not only the streets that are protected from the heat; many of the buildings actually have an early form of natural air conditioning. Strolling through the old town, you will notice many openings fitted with iron grills just over the doors , as in the photo above. They are charming, but they are more than just decoration. These openings bring in the fresh, cool air from the street level. It enters the foyer and then rises up through a narrow central courtyard which has an opening at the top. This creates a column of refreshing air rising through the centre of the building. The apartments have windows that open to this interior courtyard and bring in the cool air. How clever is that?
On the exterior of the building, the shutters have a part to play as well. They have a section that can be opened when the rest of the shutter is closed. This design catches the air rising from the street and brings it into the apartment. Other features that help to regulate the temperature of these old buildings are thick masonry walls and high ceilings.
I don’t know about you, but I am very impressed with how these early architects designed a cooling system that is free, ecological, efficient, and it has continued to work for hundreds of years without having to call out the repairman.
Are there lessons to be learned here?
*More About Nice – You can read more about the history of Nice in my book, Curious Histories of Nice, France.
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