Just occasionally a region becomes fashionable and people flock there without spoiling its natural beauty. Such a place is the Massif des Maures – the area of heavily forested ridges and hills stretching from Hyères to Fréjus, inland from the Côte d’Azur. Up until the 1960s this was a largely peasant community, with an economy dependent on winemaking, cork manufacture and chestnut products. But then came the heyday of Saint-Tropez, when the international jet-set was drawn to Bardot and beaches for summer vacations.
Some, notably the artistic fraternity, wanted to be close to the Riviera but they also wanted a little peace. They sought substantial estates – more space, at least, than the villas or apartments on the crowded coast – in the hinterland, near the golden triangle of villages La Garde-Freinet, Grimaud and Plan-de-la-Tour. There, second-home buyers found what they were looking for. Actors Tony Richardson, Vanessa Redgrave and Jeanne Moreau, artists such as the sculptor Lynn Chadwick and designers such as Laura Ashley led the way for a host of people who bought and renovated run-down farmhouses and bastides, making the area something of a haven for wealthy bohemians.
The late William Rubin, the director of New York’s Museum of Modern Art’s department of painting and sculpture, was one of the newcomers to build a house in the region in 1968. “Bill loved the artistic community here,” says his widow, the art dealer Phyllis Hattis-Rubin. “My most precious memories are of listening to Mahler being played on speakers around the pool with house guests such as Sir Anthony Caro, Arman and Frank Stella. Picasso was only an hour away and Bill visited him about 20 times during the last three years of his life. Picasso himself seldom ventured out – he made the world come to him.”
The estate Rubin designed was not a renovation but was built from scratch. There are three separate stone properties in beautiful grounds. The main house has seven bedrooms, a stunning winter garden with bitter orange trees and bougainvillea; the guest house is a tower with its own outdoor pool and there is a two-bedroom caretaker’s cottage. The estate is currently for sale with Winkworth International for €5,950,000.
There is a plethora of similarly priced properties for sale in the Massif des Maures but you do not necessarily have to spend such a large sum to acquire a home there. A 140 sq m, four-bedroom, renovated villa with a swimming pool, close to La Garde-Freinet, standing in 7,000 metres of grounds, recently sold for €600,000. “Location is all important,” says Stuart Baldock of the home search company Property Vision. “Buyers like to live within cycling distance of a village. They also favour centuries-old properties, which is sensible because the original owners will have had the pick of the best locations and it’s likely to be a prime spot. As for the interiors, cutting edge designs are much sought after now. The days of shabby chic are over.”
Socially, the Massif des Maures has changed over the decades. Quite apart from artists, it used to be the sort of place where successful British or Parisian businessmen would buy for their retirement, their final years at work made more bearable by their dreams of sipping chilled rosé in a Provençal café. Now it is a favourite with younger families, often from South America, South Africa and eastern Europe.
It pays to study the market before buying, especially at the top end. Estate agents dine out on tales of silly money being spent on mediocre properties. The difficulty is that you will find very little statistical evidence of transactions completed in the area, so to gauge the market you need to trust advisers on the ground.
“Just before the recession the market was booming,” says Geoff Clark, the estate agent at Winkworth International. “Then things came to a virtual standstill and the phones stopped ringing. Transactions dropped by about 80 per cent. The curious thing was that although you would then find the odd one-off property which had been reduced in price, across the board prices remained the same.”
Stuart Baldock has an explanation for this apparent anomaly of reduced demand and stagnant prices. “The typical homeowner here is wealthy and he doesn’t ‘need’ to sell,” he says. “He is happy to sit and wait until someone turns up and offers the price he wants. As a result, it is quite common to find a property with a price 40 or 50 per cent above that which its virtually identical neighbour has sold for.”
Thankfully, most of the building work that has been carried out in the region has been tastefully done. The authorities take a strict line on granting planning permission – new legislation has reduced the size of extensions to 20 metres. There is a dearth of new homes, which makes the eight villas in a development called Le Clos de L’Avelan on the Golfe de St Tropez, being sold by Chesterton Humberts for between €2.4m and €4.95m, all the more rare.
Highlights of the region include the castle of Grimaud, the charming village markets and the view from St Clément in La Garde-Freinet across the wooded hillsides to the sea. Of course, the area has its drawbacks. Visitors who are attracted by the Provençal cafes and restaurants may be disappointed to find most of them close down in the off-season, when the whole region seems almost dead. There are the terrifying mountain roads with their hairpin bends and sheer drops unprotected by barriers, to say nothing of the forest fires, now less frequent thanks to better preventative measures but still a worry.
Yet to its devotees, like Hattis-Rubin, the Massif des Maures is still special. “Spending time there feels like a spa treatment if you spend your working life in New York,” she says. “You eat outdoors; there is no industry; there is little traffic. It is a very treasured corner of the world.”
● Close to Cannes and Saint-Tropez
● Gourmet restaurants and café life
● Natural beauty
● The mistral wind
● Log-jammed traffic going into Saint-Tropez
● Distance from Côte d’Azur nightlife
What you can buy for
● €199,000: A stone-built single-bedroom cottage with a small garden in a hamlet.
● €1.3m: Provençal home with three bedrooms, gym, terrace, heated pool and orchard in Saint Clement vineyard.
Chesterton Humberts, tel: +33 (0)4 94 43 16 70, www.chestertonhumberts.com
Knight Frank, tel: +33 (0)4 94 44 10 44, www.knightfrank.co.uk