Compared with some of France’s more elegant seaside resorts, the origins of Saint-Tropez are humble indeed. The tiny fishing village grew up around a port founded by Phoenicians from Marseille, was destroyed by the Saracens in 739 and finally fortified in the late Middle Ages. Its sole distinction from the numerous other fishing villages that lined the Côte d’Azur was its inaccessibility: stuck out on the southern shores of the Golfe de Saint-Tropez, on a wide peninsula that never really required real roads, Saint-Tropez can still be reached most easily by boat.
This was certainly the case in the 1880s, when the novelist Guy de Maupassant sailed into the port on his final high-flying fling before succumbing to the effects of syphilitic insanity. Shortly afterwards, the neo-Impressionist painter Paul Signac was sailing down the coast when bad weather forced him to moor in Saint-Tropez. He immediately decided to build himself a house there, where he was frequently visited by artist friends such as Matisse, Bonnard, Dufy, Marquet, Derain, Vlaminck, Seurat and Van Dongen.
The 1930s saw a new influx of Bohemianartists and writers, among them Cocteau, Colette and Anaïs Nin, whose journal records ‘girls riding bare-breasted in the back of open cars’. Then, in 1956, Roger Vadim arrived in Saint-Tropez to film Brigitte Bardot in Et Dieu… Crea La Femme, and the international cult of Tropezian sun, sea and celebrities finally took off. Given the recent takeover of the eastern end of the Côte d’Azur by billionaires from Russia and elsewhere in Eastern Europe, it was only a matter of time before they discovered the more laid-back delights of Saint-Trop’. Roman Abramovich has been buying expensive houses for himself and his friends in the exclusive enclave of Les Parcs de St-Tropez, where top-level prices range from €30 million to more than €100m.
Former Russian president Vladimir Putin is reported to be renovating a 20–30 room château nearby. In high season, the Russians, led by Mr Abramovich, who owns a fleet of mega-yachts including the 115m Pelorus, built for £72m lead the flotilla of super-yachts that throng the port, as other insiders avoid the notorious Riviera traffic jams by jetting in by helicopter or private plane. There’s no train station at Saint-Tropez, but lesser mortals can fly to smart low-budget airports such as Toulon-Hyères or Marseille. ‘In the real world,’ says Hugo Skillington, Knight Frank’s local associate, who prefers to travel everywhere by motorbike, ‘buyers can find a relative bargain in the hills behind Saint-Tropez, where €10m to €15m will buy plenty of house, land and privacy.
The golden triangle formed by Gassin, Ramatuelle and Saint-Tropez is also extremely popular with Britons and north Europeans.’ Mr Skillington (00 33 4 94 44 10 44) quotes a guide price of €13.5m for the delightful 45-acre Domaine du Moulin near Grimaud, where its Swiss-German owners have completely transformed a 19th-century farm-house and buildings, surrounded by ancient olive trees, umbrella pines, vines and lavender into an idyllic, private, Mediterranean mini-estate within easy reach of the beaches and buzz of Saint-Tropez.
A manmade lake and pond connected by a small creek, and populated by swans and ducks, add to its atmosphere of country charm. Eleven buildings some new, some old make up a unique ensemble provençale, which includes an immaculate, 5,280sq ft, stone villa, a new guest villa, a three-bedroom staff house and the totally reconstructed former farm buildings—the whole installed with high-tech fixtures, fittings, light-ing and security. High in the hills of the Fôret de Morieres, the dramatic, 120-acre Moriere Lez Tourne estate, near Hyeres, an hour’s drive from Saint-Tropez, has been the subject of a similarly inspired long-term renovation project by its English owners. Savills International (020–7016 3740) quote a guide price of €10.5m for the estate, which dates from about 1860, and was built by a Marseillais of aristocratic Italian origin for his eldest
In the 1980s, the property was bought by an antique dealer/vintage-car collector who reno-vated the main house and built the swimming pool, pool house and huge heated garage. He sold to a Norwegian artist, Kjell Erik Killi Olsen, who converted the former bergerie, or sheep-barn, into an artist’s studio. Then came the present owners, Mr and Mrs Wheeler, who employed the Swiss interior designers Herman and Katharina Stucki-Schmezer to refurbish the main house, which has a fabulous entrance hall, two large reception rooms, a dining room and a vast, fully fitted kitchen. Upstairs are five double bedrooms, and the top floor houses an enormous master suite with en-suite bathrooms and shower rooms, a huge walk-in wardrobe, a fireplace area and a covered terrace with fantastic panoramic views of the Îles du Levant.
The Parisian designer Eric Gizard was commissioned to transform the bergerie into a delightful three-bedroom guest house. The grounds are dotted with 100-year-old trees including oaks, cypresses and plane trees, as well as lavender and other Mediterranean plants. This haven of tranquillity includes a chapel, a vestige of the past that still retains its colourful stained-glass windows and carved woodwork.