It is nearly a century since F Scott Fitzgerald arrived on the French Riviera with his wife Zelda, hoping to “live on practically nothing a year”. The idea seems laughable now, as this dramatic coastline, where the Estérel mountains plunge into the Mediterranean, probably has one of the highest concentrations of property capital in the world. The three peninsulas – Cap Martin, Cap Ferrat and Cap d’Antibes – are now splinters of property gold.
Fitzgerald and his friends, with their parties, jazz and love of modernity, unwittingly created the blueprint for a millionaires’ playground that would endure wars, stock-market crashes and the fickleness of fashion. As you drive along the Corniche d’Or, visit the villas planted above the luminous sea, or dine in the old fishing villages, you cannot ignore the legacy left by the glitterati of the 1920s.
It isn’t just that Fitzgerald wrote much of The Great Gatsby and Tender is the Night here. Or that, years later, the area dazzled filmgoers in the Bond movie Diamonds are Forever. Glamour oozes from every twist in the road and from every myrtle-covered rock. At the Hôtel du Cap-Eden-Roc on Cap d’Antibes, the roll call of the famous reaches back to the Duke of Windsor, Winston Churchill, Marlene Dietrich, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton and stretches all the way forward to Kylie Minogue, Mick Jagger and Johnny Depp.
Many villas sit right on the water – pieds dans l’eau – or hide their hushed wealth in the umbrella pines. In the sybaritic summer of 1939, just before the second world war, you would have found Henri de Rothschild at Villa Meurisse in Monaco, the Aga Khan at Villa Jane-Andrée on Cap d’Antibes, Winston Churchill at Château de l’Horizon in Golfe-Juan, and the Duke of Windsor and Wallis Simpson at Château de la Cröe.
Houses like these are often part of a colourful portfolio of international real estate. “You are looking at three of the most exclusive holiday destinations in the world,” says Mark Harvey, partner and head of Knight Frank’s French team. “Owners are often seriously high-net-worth individuals with superyachts and properties all over the world. They are certainly likely to have something here and a place in the Caribbean to escape the European winters.” And the capacity of the area to retain its values better than others makes it interesting to global investors.
So how did it perform in the recession? It seems that the slump froze the market, with few sales taking place, and so price slips were not felt by owners who hung onto these investments through the downturn. Knight Frank’s France Prime Residential Insight 2014 report estimates that prices in southwest France dropped by a further 10 per cent in 2013, taking total price falls to nearly 40 per cent since the 2007 peak. President François Hollande’s hostile tax regime and the weak French economy haven’t helped. Reckonings vary, but Riviera prices have probably gone down by no more than 15-20 per cent by comparison, according to Knight Frank, and buyers are re-emerging.
“The area has proved that it is eternally popular,” says Harvey. “People here don’t need to sell. The houses are bought for their own pleasure with the fruit of their earnings. They aren’t going to sell in a weak market. These are highly desirable luxury homes.” The result has been the reduced number of sales in the past few years, as owners have sat out the storm. Deals are often done off‑market and discretion is everything.
The least well known of the caps is Cap Martin, which has some of the most exclusive addresses of all inside its Private Domain. It is so close to Monaco that the principality’s residents can gaze across at mansions that families hold onto for generations, sometimes until the buildings start to crumble. Above it stands Roquebrune-Cap-Martin, and in a grandstand seat is the Coco Chanel-designed-and-built Villa La Pausa, which entered the market last year for an eight-figure sum and is now available through Knight Frank. It was here that Chanel entertained the likes of Stravinsky, Picasso and Dali.
One of the few other properties for sale on Cap Martin is a neo-belle-époque villa, in the style of the pre-first world war age of peace and prosperity, for sale at €25m through Knight Frank. It has four bedrooms, a terrace, a pool and water views, as well as secondary accommodation. Back in Roquebrune-Cap-Martin, prices are considerably lower. There is a startling modern house here on three levels, with four bedrooms, a flat roof and a pool, on the market at €2.65m through Christie’s International Real Estate affiliate Michaël Zingraf.
Cap Ferrat is the most famous of the promontories. “It is synonymous with the Côte d’Azur, the place to see and be seen, where famous actors and authors gathered,” says Harvey. Look east and you have dramatic views towards Menton, with the rising sun and sheer drops into the sea. All summer superyachts make their way along the coastline, so ocean watchers can chart the progress of Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen or Chelsea Football Club owner Roman Abramovich as they pass.
Planning is very restrictive along the whole of the Côte d’Azur. Tired villas are therefore endlessly upgraded and refurbished by interior designers so that new owners can walk in, drop their suitcases and start to holiday. There is precious little land beside the sea, so developers dig down to create games rooms, spas, cinema rooms and staff quarters. “It escalates because everyone wants the next best thing. Hammams, incredible wine cellars, massive gyms, outdoor hot tubs – it gets more and more elaborate,” says Harvey. “Staff quarters are a huge plus. A lot of owners will bring their own staff or keep a guardian and a gardener all year round for peace of mind.”
Cap Ferrat’s most flamboyant house has to be the Villa Ephrussi de Rothschild. Rose-pink and palatial, it was built by Béatrice Ephrussi in 1907 and housed part of her collection of more than 5,000 works of art. It is wrapped in four hectares of gorgeous themed gardens, and after her death she left it to the Académie des Beaux-Arts of the Institut de France. It is now open to the public.
The architects of the 1920s left their mark, too. One in particular, Barry Dierks, came to Cap Ferrat to rebuild Somerset Maugham’s mansion and then went on to design dozens more. Recent villa renovations are now full of 1920s grace notes, interest in Dierks is being revived and a biography is being written by Maureen Emerson. In a draft of her first chapter, she tells how he understood the need for entertaining, as “with the vogue for vacations in the heat of summer, dining on large candlelit terraces became de rigueur”. Outdoor living was now all the rage and swimming pools were making their first appearance in private homes.
Close to the Grand-Hôtel du Cap-Ferrat, which has its own funicular down to the seafront, a newly refurbished villa is for sale at €26m through Michaël Zingraf. It has six bedrooms, a pool and pool house, ocean-liner-like terraces and a separate studio. The incredibly glamorous belle-époque villa La Rocheraie, on the neck of Cap Ferrat near Beaulieu, is also for sale, at €28m through Côte d’Azur Sotheby’s International Realty. It has been restored to its early splendour, with five large bedroom suites, a three-bedroom guest house with a roof terrace, and charming green shutters pinned back to afford sea views.
Savills, too, has a strong presence on the Riviera. Top of its list at the moment is the Villa Mirador, with six bedrooms, a seven-car garage, staff villa, infinity pool and 360-degree views, at €28m.
But Harvey believes that the most westerly of the caps, Cap d’Antibes, is by far the most popular. “It has huge appeal because it is so accessible. It is half an hour from Nice airport, and offers a wider price range and a broader demographic,” he says. “It has pebbled and sandy beaches and a south coast that is very sought‑after, plus tennis and sailing clubs and things to do. In Antibes you find a classic old town with ramparts, marina, bars, the Picasso Museum; it’s just a lovely place to wander. In nearby Juan-les-Pins there are nightclubs, bars, sexy private beaches, where the beautiful hang out, and funky restaurants.” Here, homes have been selling well. “We have sold €60m-worth of property in the past couple of years. The entry level, at about €2m, is much lower than on the other caps.” A waterfront position doubles the price of anything.
“At the very top end of the micro market I would say that values have not changed at all throughout the recession,” says Jean-Claude Caputo, head of Savills French Riviera, who has lived in the region all his life.
Echoes of the past are stitched into the houses here, too. Aristocrats and royalty recognised its beauty in the 19th century. Then wealthy Americans Sara and Gerald Murphy settled in the 1920s and persuaded the Hôtel du Cap-Eden-Roc to open in the summer. They lived near La Napoule, which was the setting for The Garden of Eden byErnest Hemingway, who was their guest. It is also where the Irish author Frank Harris brought Oscar Wilde after he was released from Reading Gaol. The Murphys themselves were the inspiration for Dick and Nicole Diver in Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night.
An exquisite newly renovated 1920s house on the water’s edge where the sun bounces off the sea, with a spiral staircase up to a rooftop sunbathing terrace, plus a pool, summer kitchen, five bedrooms and a hot tub, is being offered by Knight Frank at €8.5m. For the same price and from the same agent you could buy a more Provençal stone house designed by André Svetchine, with five bedrooms. “The reason this house is the same price, even though it is set back from the sea, is that it has lovely gardens and is located in a gated community,” says Harvey.
Knight Frank is also selling a waterfront villa, with five bedrooms, terraces, a home cinema, wine cellar, infinity pool, underground garage and the Mediterranean at its feet, for €9.8m. There are excellent restaurants and bars within reach. “This is such a fantastic part of the world,” he says. Down at La Garoupe on the south coast there are a handful of estates that rise above €100m. “But if one came on the market, scarcely anyone would know about it.”