Lord Brougham famously launched the English love affair with the Riviera when he discovered the allure of Cannes in 1834, and built his villa there. Soon, his countrymen were streaming south and a winter holiday colony was in full swing. For a great deal of the 19th and much of the 20th century, the British might be said to have owned the Côte d’Azur. They established splendid homes and luxuriant gardens over vast tracts from Menton to Théoule, most notably on the still-covetable Caps-Ferrat and d’Antibes -where the coast’s most vertiginously priced properties are today.
Despite the recession and sterling’s decline, for many British buyers, the Riviera is still the best. The coast is studded with well known names, from Elton John in Nice, where Sean Connery also had a home, Bono and Julian Lennon near Eze to Johnny Depp and Vanessa Paradis in the countryside near Saint-Tropez. But now, the definition of the Riviera is more elastic. The Côte d’Azur is no longer just that slim line hugging the Mediterranean.
It has extended up into the hinterland hills and goes way, way off the beaten path, to the new retreats of starry names. ‘There is nowhere else in the world in English eyes that comes anywhere near the Côte d’Azur for all of its qualities,’ affirms Tim Sanders of John Taylor in La Colle sur Loup. ‘I don’t have to tell my clients-they’re telling me: ‘We’ve been around the world. The only place is the Côte d’Azur, whether it’s Saint-Tropez, Cap Ferrat or up in the hills.’ It’s a question of taste and budget.’
Côte d’Azur hinterland
Right now, a prime British destination, especially for family oriented buyers, is the area of picturesque hill villages above Nice and Cannes-from Saint Paul de Vence to Mougins by way of Tourrettes-sur-Loup, Opio and the very popular Valbonne, a medieval village with cobbled square, lots of restaurants and two golf courses. For Paul Humphreys at Knight Frank, this area is where ‘we’ve had most of the demand for the past six months, and where we’ve sent most buyers in the first three months of this year’. Prices, he says, average ‘between €2.5 million and €3.5 million-€4 million’. Mr Humphreys sees a return of British buyers who have accepted the sterling exchange rate because they don’t want to put their lifestyle purchases on hold any longer. ‘If their children are three, seven and nine, they don’t want to wait until they are six, 10 and 12 to enjoy a South of France house for family holidays.’ Last winter’s British weather was a motivating factor. ‘Since spring began in France, my telephone has been ringing, but I’m not saying it’s like it was two years ago.’
For Mr Sanders, hinterland prices go from €1 million to €40 million, ‘but most stop about €10 million. For that, you’ll get a 500sq m property in an acre with wonderful views of village and sea in the exclusive St Paul de Vence gated estate where Roger Moore, Peter Sellers and Rex Harrison had homes.’ And, another 10 minutes up the road in Tourrettes, an old mas and olive grove is priced at €2.2 million. Antibes-based Carlton International‘s Philip Weiser points out: ‘The South of France notary figures show prices have gone down by 15%-20% across the board, but the decline is mostly at the bottom end.
Once you have a property in good condition with a pretty garden, nice views, facing the right way and with no nuisance factors, prices are stable.’ And, he adds, ‘the truly exceptional properties, such as those situated on the waterfront, are still going up.’
Mr Weiser sees an evolution in expectations due to more realistic prices and increased selection. ‘A property worth €3 million is no longer priced at €4.4 million, and negotiated down,’ he says. Increased supply may be due to British owners, who, having bought when sterling was strong, ‘are making up to 30% on the currency exchange (even on the smaller margins in Euros), when they sell and go back to the UK to buy there’.
Cap Ferrat, Cap d’Antibes and Cap Martin
‘The jewels in the South of France crown are Cap Ferrat, Cap d’Antibes and Saint- Tropez,’ says Stuart Baldock of Property Vision in Nice, who advises buyers. ‘Its market is distinguished by the fact that asking prices bear no resemblance to what a property is worth. We regularly see things on at twice the proper value. Prices were accelerated by Eastern European buyers who came in the late 1990s and carried on through to 2006 and 2007 in a sort of frenzy. They weren’t concerned with value, but with putting their sums somewhere they thought of as safe.’
As nothing pleased these exuberant buyers more than bragging about what they had paid, prices spiralled upwards to climax in the recent saga of La Leopolda, which would have been the biggest private property sale ever at €500 million. When the Russian buyer withdrew, he went to court to get his €38 million deposit back (10% of the official €380 million price, the other €120 million covered a superb collection of paintings and antique furniture) and lost. ‘At the height of the boom in 2006-07, it wasn’t unusual to see properties change hands at more than €100 million on Cap Ferrat,’ Mr Baldock says. ‘Now, the mood has changed. The top level of price is more likely to be in the €20 million-€25 million range than the €80 million-€90 million of a few years ago. One property offered at €50 million 18 months ago is now at €25 million, a whopping drop.’
Everyone agrees that well-off British buyers are coming back into the market, and they’re not all heading for the hills. ‘British buyers are looking at the Caps, a notable part of the mix,’ remarks Mr Humphreys, who quotes Cap Ferrat at €40,000 per sq m, with a lot of property priced about €20 million; Cap d’Antibes at €30,000 per sq m, closer to €15 million. ‘For a rare waterfront location, vendors will ask what they want.’
‘We’ve been handling British clients for 150 years,’ John Taylor’s Mr Sanders notes. ‘They are entrepreneurial and flexible. There is always someone with the necessary to buy the most sumptuous properties, and they find it’s not a bad idea now to invest wealth in a villa that will be a major player in their family’s lifestyle equation.’
Gigantic yachts have long overshadowed fishing boats in its picturesque harbour and the road into-and out of-town is a legendary traffic nightmare in season, but the resilient Provençal port of Saint- Tropez is still going strong.
What makes the Tropézienne peninsula so alluring? A rural sweep of verdant vineyards and olive trees, the landscape here is like a breath of fresh air in contrast with the urbanised development of Nice and Cannes. The absence of a train station or nearby airport adds to its exclusivity; trendy restaurants and bountiful boutiques fill the moments between sunning and swimming on the Pampelonne beaches, where Club 55 is still the beacon of chic. And it’s likely to stay that way. ‘Saint- Tropez is very undeveloped and unspoilt,’ Mr Sanders confirms. ‘The town has had hugely strict planning regulations for decades, and the rules are strictly implemented, too. When they are contravened, people get fined and go to prison, and properties are demolished.’
Saint-Tropez has a younger vibe, and its laid-back party atmosphere is a potent magnet. From breakfast overlooking the harbour on Sennequier’s terrace to dancing till dawn at the Byblos, the town is an ongoing fête. ‘This ambiance doesn’t exist anywhere else on Earth,’ declares Karine Breuer of the Emile Garcin agency. ‘From July 15 to 31, the entire world comes to be seen in Saint-Tropez.’
For those who want to check in permanently, the price is steep. ‘On the Saint- Tropez peninsula, you can’t pay less than €5 million for properties with a view,’ Miss Breuer says. Prices began to rise with the advent of the Euro in 2000, when the French began to sell and English buyers accounted for four out of 10 clients, she explains. ‘The absolute top is Saint-Tropez, Ramatuelle or Gassin, with a whacking sea view and complete privacy,’ contends Hugo Skillington, Knight Frank’s associate in Grimaud. ‘About €7 million to €8 million gets you a very nice house, and then the sky’s the limit. There are properties on the market for €100 million, but none have been sold at that price that I know of. The top [public] price achieved last year was €37 million.’ He also warns: ‘There are a lot of substantial houses between €10 million and €30 million, most of which are probably 10%-20% overpriced.’
‘Golden triangle’ hill villages
The traditional Saint-Tropez alternative is to opt for the ‘golden triangle’ of Var hill villages: Grimaud, La Garde Freinet and Plan de La Tour. Although the Côte d’Azur hinterlands attract full-time English residents, the hills behind Saint-Tropez appeal to those who appreciate the peace, tranquillity and lower prices of this area, but also want the proximity to click into the Tropézienne summer action.
Closest to the sea, Grimaud has long been a popular chic, but cheaper, choice for English buyers. ‘The same house that goes for €10 million in Saint-Tropez will be only €5 million-€6 million in Grimaud, and have an even better view,’ Miss Breuer reports.
And Mr Skillington confirms: ‘You can get a nice, modest house with a pool for €1.2 million, a substantial five-bedroom house with garden and view for €4 million -€5 million, or a lovely compact estate for €11.4 million.’ If people once bought here for price, now they are buying for privacy- which is even greater in La Garde Freinet and Plan de La Tour. Johnny Depp and Vanessa Paradis have an estate in the nearby countryside. ‘A hugely fashionable couple are leading a quiet existence in their little hamlet not pestered by the paparazzi,’ he says. For the über A-list, distance equals discretion. Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie retreat to a vast wine-producing property in the Haut Var north of Brignoles; David and Victoria Beckham bought a fairytale estate well off the beaten path north of Draguignan.
It’s a trend. ‘In the first quarter of last year, when the world had just fallen apart, we sold two enormous properties to English clients: one in our golden triangle, the other in Seillans. We are going further afield for big properties that we can sell well,’ confirms Mr Skillington.