The small Côte d’Azur fishing port of Villefranche-sur-Mer, near Nice, is an unassuming enclave of period and modern villas that has, after more than a century of patronage by the rich and famous, become one of the world’s most expensive real estate markets.
In the late 1800s, when Villefranche harbour, six miles southwest of Monaco, served as a base for the Russian navy, the town hosted vacationing royal families from across Europe. After occupation during the second world war the port enjoyed a quiet but affluent existence until the 1970s, when one of its largest houses was rented by the Rolling Stones – attracting rock star visitors and attendant paparazzi – for the recording of tracks for the album Exile On Main Street.
Forty years on and international involvement in this community, which has a permanent population of just 6,000, is less high profile than before but regarded as much wealthier.
Most purchasers are eastern European, say local agents, although Americans, Britons, Germans, Italians and a few French buy here too. Most choose villas built into the wooded hillsides looking down on the Old Town and the Mediterranean, although buyers with the largest budgets vie for properties with their own sea frontage.
“These are extremely expensive – one can expect to pay up to €100m for a true waterfront property,” says Richard “Cubby” Wolf of Riviera Realty, a sales and buying agency that has operated in the Côte d’Azur for more than 20 years.
Such a sum, which Wolf says is not unusual among the richest Russian buyers, secures a quintessential Villefranche home: an 18th- or 19th-century house with five storeys and at least 10,000 sq ft of internal space, plus outside terraces and probably a roof garden to capitalise on the annual 300 days of Côte d’Azur sunshine. There will be garaging for several cars, landscaped gardens and an uninterrupted view of one of the Mediterranean’s deepest natural harbours, dropping more than 300ft about a mile offshore.
“Villefranche-sur-Mer benefits from the proximity of Monaco, where you have only apartments for sale. For the Monaco resident it is useful to have a villa nearby,” says Mathias Debois-Frogé of John Taylor estate agency. He, too, says that east Europeans are among his wealthiest clients.
One attraction is the proximity of other glamorous Côte d’Azur locations. As well as Monaco to the east, Cap Ferrat and Beaulieu-sur-Mer are almost next door, while the international airport at Nice – a still-expanding city, of which Villefranche has become almost a suburb in recent years – is six miles to the west.
Along the hillsides above Villefranche run frequent, inexpensive train and bus services linking Nice and Monaco. These are popular, even with the wealthy, as parking along this strip of southern France is difficult and road travel often painfully slow in summer.
Agents advise buyers in Villefranche to choose carefully. “Land tends to be steep so precludes potential purchasers with children who need space to run around. An exception is the Domaine du Castellet [a hilltop gated estate] where some villas have large flat gardens,” says Wolf.
“You also need to be careful where you are positioned on the hills,” says Rebecca Russell, a former journalist from New Zealand who now runs Côte Abode, a Côte d’Azur buying agency. “On the east side overlooking Villefranche Bay, properties lose the sun in the late afternoon. The quality of architecture is also important: there’s a building frenzy of new villas in a pseudo-modernist style at the moment.”
Many of the best older homes, with well-preserved original facades but extensively modernised interiors, are a short walk from the restaurant-lined harbour and are sold off-market without public advertising. Local sellers have lists of potential buyers so properties closest to the water are often transacted via buying agents while modern edge-of-town villas are marketed more publicly.
On sale now – at a price disclosed only to those viewing the property – is Villa La Loggia, a four-bedroom, 5,000 sq ft Belle Epoque-style house built in 1900 and overlooking the town and the bay (through John Taylor). By contrast, a modern house in the Domaine du Castellet is on the market with six bedrooms plus staff accommodation and 15,000 sq ft of outdoor space and leisure amenities. The asking price is €25m (through Magrey & Sons and Pieter van Naeltwijck Real Estate, a Knight Frank associate).
Another contemporary villa with views over Villefranche Bay and Cap Ferrat is on sale through Home Hunts. It has three bedrooms within its 2,600 sq ft of internal space, plus a separate one-bedroom apartment and 17,500 sq ft of gardens with terraces and a pool: it is being marketed for €9.5m. Home Hunts is also selling a modern five-bedroom, 5,000 sq ft villa nearby for €12.72m.
However, even this top-end sector is showing signs of being affected by the global downturn and concern about possible future French tax rises for owners of second homes.
“Buyers are choosy and price-conscious. Many sellers are struggling and I’m seeing properties on the market that were there a year ago, sometimes longer. Many have come down in price considerably from this time last year,” says Russell. Even so, she believes the dip is unlikely to cause long-term damage to the safe-haven reputation of the south of France in general and hotspots such as Villefranche-sur-Mer in particular.
“Buyers are beginning to come back after hesitating following President Hollande’s election in 2012. They’re seeing this as a chance to buy into an expensive area that will be even more expensive in a few years,” she says.
If this analysis is correct, Villefranche’s appeal to the wealthy has some time to run yet.
● In 2011 the Provence Alpes Côte d’Azur region had 11 assaults and 49.6 thefts per 1,000 people. Most incidents were in Marseille or Nice
● Villefranche hosts more than 150 cruise ship visits per year; most passengers remain in the Old Town or visit Monaco or central Nice
● The town is crowded in summer, especially during the Monaco Grand Prix week and Cannes Film Festival
● With registration, notary and estate agents’ fees, a buyer’s transaction costs are 6.6 per cent of purchase price for a second-hand property or up to 23 per cent on new-build homes
What you can buy for ...
£500,000: A large apartment west of the town, towards Nice
£1m: A three-bedroom hillside apartment within Villefranche with views over the town
£5m: A five-bedroom hillside villa, probably requiring some updating, with grounds and limited views over the harbour