By reputation, the French Riviera is a place for oligarchs and billionaires, socialites and celebrities – a place of decadence, glamour and stunning belle époque architecture. Less charitably, author Somerset Maugham once described it as a ‘sunny place for shady people’. But how true is all this today? Is the French Riviera seriously only for the mega-rich, or are there accessible parts for the rest of us?
French Riviera Cities to Visit
The French Riviera, or Cote d’Azur as it’s known in French, has no defined borders, but it’s widely accepted that it stretches from Menton in the east to St Tropez in the west, incorporating the principality of Monaco, the city of Nice, and glamour-spots such as Cannes, best known for its annual film festival, in fact Cannes is increasingly popular for global conferences, which makes it an excellent choice for property investment. World renowned International Property Exhibition MIPIM is due to exhibit in Cannes on the 13th March 2018 for 4 days. How far it reaches inland is up for debate, too, but the perfume city of Grasse is included, as well as Fayence, Mougins, Valbonne, Vence and Europe’s equivalent to Silicon Valley, Sophia Antipolis.
For many reasons – the hours of sunshine, the light and the dazzling coastline among them – the area has long been frequented by artists and authors, and this remains the case today. Ruby Soames, prize-winning author of Seven Days to Tell You and Mothers, Fathers and Lovers, has lived in Nice since 2010, having moved from Aix-en-Provence. ‘With teenagers, city life is more exciting, we’re less dependent on the car and, for my husband’s work, it’s easier to zip to and from London,’ she explains.
France’s fifth largest city, Nice became a popular winter destination among Victorian society, with Queen Victoria herself a frequent visitor. ‘Right now, in February, the turquoise coast is flanked by snow-topped mountains and hills of mimosas,’ says Ruby. ‘There’s no best time for Nice. In a few months tourists will gather on the pedestrianised zones around Place Massena where it’s lively until late into the warm nights.’
Despite the city’s liveliness, Ruby still manages to find the peace she needs to write. ‘In July and August, the beaches can get crowded, but I tend to swim in the early mornings after a few hours writing on my terrace, watching the sunrise. Before 10am, the sea is calm with only fishing boats and a few local Niçois, many of whom bathe all year round.’
There is plenty of scope for exploring as well, with a wide range of entertainment on offer. ‘When we moved here we vowed to stroll on the Promenade des Anglais every day, unfortunately, real-life kicked in and I haven’t always managed it. However, every time I walk the dog I discover new places, though never tiring of our old favourites,’ continues Ruby. ‘There are always enticing boutiques springing up, exhibitions, interesting places to eat – right now there seems to be a calling for either American burger bars or vegan eateries – but there are also the classic French cafés and bistros, not forgetting the city’s celebrated restaurants, such as La Petite Maison frequented by Riviera celebs.’
Being close to the Italian border, it’s possible even to nip over for a spot of shopping. ‘Nice is cosmopolitan but heavily influenced by Italy, so you can always find somewhere to buy fresh pasta or ice-cream. Even so, we usually visit Italy once or twice a month to stock up on olive oil and Parmesan,’ says Ruby. ‘What I love about Nice is that there are so many possibilities: it’s feasible to swim in the morning, have a fresh-fish lunch in the bustling old town food-and-flower market, ski in the afternoon and be back to catch a film in V.O. (version originale, undubbed with subtitles) and pizza in the evening.’
The Riviera’s glorious coastline is particularly a draw for those who love sailing. Having lived and travelled all over the world, Liz Murphy and her retired sea captain husband Quentin chose to settle on the French Riviera, but wanted a berth for their boat, as well as a home.
‘We spent four months based in Biot looking for a suitable berth and our search took us further along the coast,’ explains Liz. ‘We looked at around forty properties and found our house in the local newspaper, in a classified ad! We went to see it in the twilight, and with the lights from the village twinkling down it looked magical, like a gingerbread house!’
The house was deceptively large, however, with enough space to create a separate apartment. ‘We’ve enjoyed welcoming guests from all over the world,’ Liz says. ‘Many are house-hunters choosing to base themselves here for a while to explore the area. It’s been a real bonus for us, and has really helped to support the lifestyle we enjoy here on the Riviera.’
Four years ago Simon Taylor, his wife and two daughters moved to Valbonne, where his work in cyber security took him to the European technology park of Sophia Antipolis. ‘There are hundreds of companies based here, operating mostly in computing and electronics,’ he explains. ‘It’s a really international feel, and I have colleagues from all over Europe.’ Settling down in France wasn’t a problem as his wife Amanda already spoke French. ‘Amanda was great about finding our house and getting everything set up, and our girls now go to a local French school. We initially moved here on a two year contract, but we love the life and have no desire to go back!’
Another family who feel well and truly settled are Ben and Suzy Kefford, and their three children, two of whom were born in France. A personal trainer and fitness coach, Ben’s work takes him along the coast, from Monaco to Antibes and Valbonne. While 70% of his clients are English-speakers, he has recently found demand from French families wanting family fitness training in English. ‘It’s a whole new market, but people are really enthusiastic,’ he says. ‘One of the great benefits of doing this kind of work on the Riviera is the weather. It’s so good here pretty much all year round that I rarely have to cancel a session.’
His wife, Suzy, a former Fleet Street journalist, works full time in Monaco. ‘I enjoy the international working community there, and the salaries are more on a par with the UK than France’, she says. And British commuters take note – her train ride is a highlight of Suzy’s day. ‘It’s such a beautiful commute along the coastline,’ she says. ‘It’s a real pleasure – forty minutes where I can read the papers and listen to music. I always get a seat and my season ticket is just €63 a month!’
Their three children are fully bilingual and the two oldest attend the Centre International de Valbonne, or CIV, which teaches in both French and English. ‘They’re getting a first rate education, but what I really love about it is there’s no tier system in France – people have faith in the local education system. My children’s friends have fathers from across the wealth divide, there’s no snobbery or class system here, and I feel we’re so fortunate to have all this.’
A sense of community is important for Anna Fill, creator of the online magazine The Riviera Woman. ‘Moving to a new country can be daunting and it’s reassuring to have networks where you can meet new people and build new friendships,’ she says. ‘I have lived in this region for 15 years and have met so many dynamic women who live and work in the area. Many are entrepreneurs and all have very interesting stories.’
Joining a club, of course, is the ideal way to meet new people and make contacts. ‘Most expats rely on information we have on the web, but when there is an occasion to meet people at an event or lunch, it is so much more empowering,’ continues Anna. ‘I am on the board of the local Professional Women’s Network and this is a wonderful network of women who offer support and motivation. We have people living here who have come from all over the world, it is truly international and this is one of the main reasons why people love the Riviera – a strong community with the bonus of over 300 days of sunshine!’
As if her day job wasn’t enough, Anna is also a wedding celebrant. ‘The Riviera is a perfect location for holidays and weddings too,’ she says. ‘As a Wedding Celebrant it is such a pleasure to play a role in a couple’s special day inn one of the most beautiful areas in the world.’
With work opportunities, good schools, a vibrant community atmosphere and wonderful weather, it seems there’s plenty on the Riviera for everyone, and not just the mega-rich.
‘The main reason I live in Nice,’ concludes Ruby Soames, ‘is that whenever I visit anywhere else, I miss the vivid colours, the warmth and the ease with which one can take advantage of all there is around, or simply do nothing. And – of course – the palm trees!’
‘We live in a beautiful area, and the landscape, weather and food are elements that attract us on many levels,’ says Anna Fill. ‘Once you get the Riviera bug it is impossible to shake off!’