Seclusion or social Siberia?
The news that the Beckhams are buying a £1.5m home in the Var region of France sent most of the British press scurrying to the small village of Bargemon (population 1,228). The hacks were amazed to find themselves in a medieval village where the only neon light belongs to the pharmacy. Bargemon has just one hotel and a handful of restaurants. The only clothes shop belongs to Françoise Muzzin, whose most expensive item probably costs less than Posh’s lip gloss.
The village is 25 miles inland from St Tropez and at least an hour’s drive from Nice. St Raphael is the closest coastal resort anybody has ever heard of, but as one resident says: “This place is more usually associated with the upper-middle classes, not the Beckhams’ style at all.”
Surely the Beckhams, whose fortune is worth £50m, according to this year’s Sunday Times Rich List, can afford to live anywhere? So why Bargemon? Why not a place in Cannes, where they can hang out with the stars? They did think about it. In fact, they considered viewing the former home of film director Sir David Lean. Their friend Sir Elton John offered advice on where to buy, warning them against “the wrong side of Cannes”. David and Victoria, and children Brooklyn and Romeo, often spend holidays at the pop star’s Pink Villa in Mont Boron, high in the hills to the east of Nice.
“He told them the only place to be was over his way, between Nice and Monaco,” says the agent, who does not want to be named.
“Sean Connery used to have a house there. People who live over that way tend to be a bit snobby about it. Khashoggi (Adnan, the Saudi Arabian billionaire), Paul Allen (Microsoft co-founder) and Bono have properties over that way. It’s surprising Posh and Becks didn’t go for this area.”
But increasing numbers of people are moving away from the coast to the hills. As one Var resident, Carolyn Mas, says: “It is much more chic to find a property tucked away in the hills. Any idiot can follow the crowds to St Tropez or Cannes. What the Beckhams have done is to show a little bit of taste for once.”
The Var has always been popular with celebrities, but hardly overrun. Princess Diana used to holiday in Seillans, the next village to Bargemon. Sarah Ferguson still comes to the region and Noel Gallagher has a house there.
Damian Tudor, a former golf professional who moved to the Var two years ago to set up Provence Holiday Properties, says: “A lot of wealthier people from Cannes and Nice have moved back this way.”
“Basically, they have realised that to be anywhere near the coast during the summer means spending most of your time in traffic jams. In addition, Bargemon and the surrounding villages are particularly charming. They have a genuine community atmosphere and I’d be surprised if the Beckhams are noticed at all. If they’re looking for seclusion but to be within easy reach of the limelight that St Tropez and Monte Carlo can offer, then it’s an ideal spot.”
John Wright, who runs Var Property, an internet property marketing company, agrees: “You are closer to the real France here. It may not be as cosmopolitan as Cannes, but there are no problems parking.”
According to Pat Bellis, director of Riviera Villa Search International, a local estate agent, space is one of the main reasons the Beckhams opted for the Var. “They obviously want privacy. And the Var is now one of the few remaining areas in the Riviera where you can buy a place with lots of land surrounding it,” says Bellis.
On her books looking in the region is the former managing director of a major record label. He wants a house here because there are properties with enough space to land a helicopter.
The Beckhams’ new hideaway is next to Canjuers military base, so at least one side of the property is guarded from the paparazzi. Feverish tabloid reports suggested a potential downside to the military’s presence. Revealing that the last owner, Leslie Duck, committed suicide and is interred in the private chapel, The Sun quoted a local as saying: “He went there for peace and quiet but they said he got depressed because the army kept flying microlights over.” Local reactions to this theory are dismissive, with neighbours reporting no bother from plane noise, although Tudor says: “The fact is, it is near to a military training zone and you are going to hear the occasional tank and plane.”
According to Tudor, the £1.5m the Beckhams paid for their 15-room property with private chapel and 250 acres is very reasonable.
“It must need a lot of work doing to it,” he says. “You will typically pay around half a million pounds for a villa with four bedrooms and a swimming pool in this area. If it is half as big as the papers are saying, then they’ve got a bargain.”
One of the reasons houses are so expensive is that there is an extremely active rental market during the summer months, with villas fetching up to £2,000 a week. Something on the Beckhams’ grand scale would fetch close to £10,000 a week.
Local agents believe the Beckhams’ move will have an impact on the market. “People will visit out of curiosity at first and then come back again because it is so beautiful. They will realise that these hilltop villages are actually better than the coast and that will change the shape of the rental market here,” says Tudor.
“There are basically three categories of properties on the Riviera,” says Bernard Desterac, owner of the Côte d’Azur Network, which has two agencies, one for rentals (Riviera Rental) and one for sales (Goldo International).
“The most expensive is the water’s edge, second is a close sea view, third is hinterland.
By hinterland, I mean places like Mougins, behind Cannes, or St Paul de Vence. These places are full of famous people and spectacular villas. If the Beckham house had been here, it would have cost anything up to £10m.
“Where they are is the hinterland of the hinterland, nobody wants to live there. There is no easy access to anywhere, just to get to the airport will take an hour and a half,” says Desterac.
Betsy Brill, a textbook author and editor, has been visiting the Var since 1996 and bought a house in Carces with her husband, a photojournalist, just over a year ago.
“What makes living there so special is the people, who are so warm and accepting,” she says. “There’s a lot to visit and do. Just outside our village there is kayaking and canoeing and wonderful roads for cycling.”
Anybody wanting to be the Beckhams’ new neighbour has the choice of a wide range of rental properties and a handful of luxury mansions for sale. One, being sold through Provence Holiday Properties, has a tennis court, go-carting track, crazy golf course, 11 bedrooms and a 15m swimming pool for just over £2m. Another is an old farmhouse less than a mile from Bargemon with four bedrooms in the main house and two cottages on the estate. It also has a 15m pool and is on the market for £1.2m through Var Property.
Provence Holiday Properties, 00 33 494 853 288, www.php-villas.com; Var Property, www.var-property.co.uk; Riviera Villa Search International, 00 33 611 798 235, www.francenetvillas.com; Côte d’Azur Network, 00 33 493 886 677, www.rivrent.com
Pick of Provence
Near the village of Artigues, an hour from Marseilles, this 16th-century chateau has 25 furnished bedroom suites and another nine bedrooms. The 11 acres include a swimming pool. It is for sale with Latitudes (020 8951 5155, www.latitudes.co.uk) for £2.1m
An 18th-century, provençal-style house set in 4.5 acres, La Manangerie is half a mile from the village of La Garde Freinet and 8 from St Tropez. It has four bedroom suites and a guest cottage. It is for sale with Knight Frank (020 7629 8171, www.knightfrank.com) for £1.2m
Set in wooded and landscaped grounds of 1 acre, near Barjols, this four-bed house has a large living/dining room with fireplace, opening onto a south-facing terrace with a swimming pool. Latitudes (020 8951 5155, www.latitudes.co.uk) is selling the villa for £380,000
Situated near Le Castellet, about 60 miles from Bargemon and 15 minutes from the beach, this modern villa has three bedrooms, a large living room, swimming pool and studio. It is for sale with Francophiles (01622 688 165, www.francophiles.co.uk) for £400,000
Helena Frith Powell was born in Sweden to a Swedish mother and Italian father, but grew up mainly in England. She is the author of eleven books, translated into several languages including Chinese and Russian. She wrote the French Mistress column The Sunday Times about life in France for several years. She is a regular contributor to the Daily Mail, Mail on Sunday, The Times, Daily Telegraph, Tatler Magazine and Harper’s Bazaar.
Helena has been the editor of four magazines, including M Magazine, a supplement for the Abu Dhabi based National Newspaper and FIVE, a high-end fashion glossy, also published in Abu Dhabi. Helena was also editor in chief of 360 Life, a quarterly glossy magazine published with the Sports 360 Newspaper in Dubai, part of the Chalhoub Group.
Helena contributes regularly to UK-based newspapers and magazines and holds a Masters in Creative Writing from the University of Cambridge. Helena is working on a thriller called Thin Ice that will be published in 2021 as well as a novel about the relationship between Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield called Sense of an Echo.
Her latest non-fiction work Smart Women Don’t Get Wrinkles came out in hardback in 2016 and in paperback in April 2018.
Helena, who was educated at Durham University, lives in the Languedoc region of France with her husband Rupert and their three children.
More France Please, we’re British; Gibson Square 2004
Two Lipsticks and a Lover 2005; Gibson Square (hardback)
All You Need to be Impossibly French; (US version of above) Penguin 2006
Two Lipsticks and a Lover; Arrow Books (paperback) 2007
Ciao Bella Gibson Square; (hardback) 2006
Ciao Bella Gibson Square; (paperback) 2007
So Chic! (French version of Two Lipsticks) Leduc Editions 2008 (also translated into Chinese, Russian and Thai)
More, More France; Gibson Square 2009
To Hell in High Heels; Arrow Books 2009 (also translated into Polish)
The Viva Mayr Diet; Harper Collins 2009
Love in a Warm Climate; Gibson Square 2011
The Ex-Factor; Gibson Square 2013
Smart Women Don’t Get Wrinkles; Gibson Square 2016
The Arnolfini Marriage; Amazon Kindle December 2016
Smart Women Don’t Get Wrinkles (paperback); Gibson Square spring 2018
The Longest Night; Gibson Square spring 2019