Var: from sea to perched villages

The Var is a large and attractive department with plenty of stunning natural features

25 October 2010

The Var in the Provence-Alpes-Côtes d’Azur (PACA) region in the south-east is a large and attractive department with plenty of stunning natural features.

It is France’s first department for tourism and second most wooded department after the Landes, with more than 340,000 hectares of forests.

On top of that, the department’s beautiful coastline stretches across 432km, with 92km of beaches ranging from the coves of Le Lavandou to the 5km Pampelonne in Saint-Tropez.

The unspoiled countryside is an appealing factor for many residents and the possibility to live close to nature and also embrace urban life is a real bonus.

Apart from the chic resort of Saint-Tropez, there are many other towns worth a visit. Port Grimaud, the city built on a lagoon, Gassin or Cogolin in the Saint-Tropez gulf.

In the north-east of the department, the perched town of Fayence is beautiful and Tourtour, Seillans and Bargème (at 1,097m the highest village of the Var) are some of the plus beaux villages de France.

As well as the massifs of the Sainte-Baume, the Maures and the Esterel with its amazing calanques, there are several rivers flowing through the area (the Argens, the Issole and the Gapeau). Oddly, the most important river of all, the Var, is missing.

In fact, when the French departments were created, the Var river flowed along the east of the department, creating a natural border with Italy. After the region of Nice and surrounds was passed twice between Italian princes and France, and the arrondissement of Grasse was swallowed into the Alpes-Maritime, the Var changed sides. It is now located in the Alpes-Maritimes.

Since 1974, the city of Toulon is the Var’s prefecture, but that changed several times with Brignoles, Draguignan and Grasse all being former prefecture towns.

Geographically, the land is made up by eight different territories: the Aire Dracénoise, the Coeur du Var, the Golfe de Saint-Tropez, the Haut Var Verdon, the Fayence, the Provence Méditerranée, the Provence Verte and the Var Estérel.

The Var is France’s premier producer of rosé wine and has a generous gastronomy to match: figs, truffles, chestnuts, olive oils and lots of fish. It has three AOC appellations: Bandol, Côtes de Provence et Coteaux varois.

It is also a place for traditions, as shown by the folkloric fêtes of les bravades, which are celebrated in late spring and early summer throughout the department, and santons, small characters made of terracotta and colourfully painted with acrylic often used to decorate the miniature Christmas crib scenes.

"We enjoy the double benefits of the coast and Provence"

Sue and John Broadbent
Nationality: British
Location: Guerrevieille

TAKING advantage of the good exchange rate helped John and Sue, from Sheffield, buy a two-bedroom house near Saint-Tropez. They got married in 2007, just after buying their house for e260,000.

“It has been a new start for us as a couple,” said Mr Broadbent.

A retired plumber, he has osteoporosis and arthritis, so the couple were looking for a warmer place in order to help his condition.

“We have a stunning view from our roof terrace of the Gulf of Saint-Tropez with its yachts and the open sea. We can sit in the summer listening to the chirping of the cigales.

The coast is much more unspoilt than the adjacent Riviera. There are still many vineyards and within a few minutes you can be in the countryside with its mountain forests virtually unchanged since the time of the troubadours.”

Their house is thought to be more than 300 years old and is easily accessible from Nice or Hyères airports, which allows regular visits to family and friends in the UK.

“Saint-Tropez is small despite the summer facade of wealth, but it is a conveniently close centre for administration, taxes etc.

“There are plenty of good concerts and exhibitions: we recently saw Rodin sculptures, Modigliani paintings and the life and work of Brigitte Bardot.

“We enjoy the double benefits of the coast and of Provence. This is reflected in the local cuisine: lovely fish such as loup, dorade, fresh sardines, lobsters, gambas, fish soup with rouille toasts and grated cheese, as well as pissaladière, savoury loaf, tapenade, aioli (in this area, this means a platter of steamed veg and fish with strong garlic mayonnaise). We are learning to cook Provençal dishes.”

As for integration, the couple joined the AVF (Accueil des Villes Françaises) in Sainte-Maxime and have been on trips to the Camargue and the Venice Carnival. They are happy with the way it has helped them to meet new people and improve their French.

Sue, who is a retired professor, has also started giving English conversation classes on a voluntary basis. Their relationship with their neighbours has also greatly improved since they first moved in.
“Our neighbours are friendly, the more so as we are willing to speak French and be open and friendly, without being over-familiar or nosy.”

Living near Saint-Tropez does have downsides. The couple have to be careful about spending, especially in the coastal towns, where prices can be high.

The popularity of the region among tourists also means the roads often become crowded and it is best to organise your day around this fact.

"You can live the high life one day in Saint-Tropez and a picnic in the woods the next"

Michael and Evelyn Aalders
Nationality: British
Location: La Garde-Freinet

ART dealer Michael and wife Evelyn have lived and worked in La Garde -Freinet, a town between Saint-Tropez and Le Cannet des Maures, for more than 10 years.

The attraction was the gentle climate, wild landscape and the proximity to the sea, as Mr Aalders is a keen sailor.

“We had friends who lived in and around Saint-Tropez and it is good to move to where you know people. I liked the Var because, unlike the Alpes-Maritimes, it is still quite wild and it is not full of housing estates.”

“Saint-Paul-de-Vence 40 years ago was surrounded by a green valley; now it is surrounding by housing estates.

“The Var did not have that intrusion and it did not look like it was going to be over exploited, because there was a lot of national parks and wild and interesting landscapes.”

One big factor was to find an affordable and suitable art gallery for Mr Aalders to work in. He also has a gallery in London’s Notting Hill Gate.

“In Saint-Tropez, the space I needed was too expensive; Grimaud did not have any spaces that were big enough; Gassin only lives for six-seven months a year and then it is closed; and the same for Ramatuelle: it tends to be a maison secondaire place. Cogolin was not quite the right atmosphere.”

“La Garde-Freinet was perfect. It is a living village, people live here all year round and it is not yet spoilt; it is still a normal, natural village. And I found the space I wanted.

“I had friends here, so it was easy to know the area and to check it out and we had been coming to this part of France for 40 years.”

Finding and buying a house on the second day of their search made the process of moving easy and the gallery opened in 2000.

Dealing in modern art (1900-1950), Mr Aalders puts on four contemporary shows a year. His gallery was one of the first in France to exhibit the works of Prince Charles and Nelson Mandela. Mr Aalders said: “I also exhibit English artists quite often and I have an arrangement with the Royal Academy. For a little gallery in a small village, it has quite a high profile.”

Mr Aalders writes a monthly food column for a local English newsletter and is the author of Out to lunch in Provence, but is not convinced there are many excellent restaurants: “It is a good place to buy produce. There are some good restaurants, but they are not as common as one would like them to be.”

Luckily, the Var is also great for visiting other areas of France or its neighbours: “We’re close to Italy, we’re close to the sea and we’re not far from Spain. It’s a very nice place to be based. To drive to Italy takes two hours. I can be in Barcelona for lunch if I want to. There are still more wild boars than there are people. It is still full of greenery and is very close to major airports and resorts, so you can be having the high life one day in Saint-Tropez and a picnic in the woods the next.”

"I just love the red rock, the silver-green of the olives, the landscape. We have a lot to be grateful for living here"

Gabrielle Wellesley
Nationality: British
Location: Flayosc, near Draguignan

Londoner Gabrielle Wellesley has loved the Var since her first visit aged 14. She had holidays in Fayence, worked in Ampus in her twenties and even settled for 18 months in 1995. However, it was not until 2004 that she bought her house in Flayosc. She left her home near Bournemouth in September, 2009, and settled here, waking decades-old memories. “I could never live in a similar place in the UK. I love the red rock, the silver-green of the olives, the landscape.”

“My first impressions of the Var were the smells. They brought back childhood memories: fresh coffee, Gitanes and Gauloises, the boulangerie, also of men wearing eau de cologne, but all mixed together,” she said.

“Down here, it is the smell of heat in the summer and the garrigue, the wild herbs, thyme, rosemary, sarriette and the marjolaine: les herbes de Provence.”
Mrs Wellesley, 54, said: “It has changed tremendously. I have seen the Var in all weathers and I have to say there are a lot of people who say, ‘Oh my God, I wish I could live here’ without knowing the implications.”

Her first surprise was finding a bare house after the owners had removed every possible bit of furniture. It continued with septic tank problems and some overpriced works by local artisans. “They ripped us off. They think anyone moving here is well off.”

After joining a French gardening group in Draguignan, she said: “I already had some good idea about Mediterranean planting. But up in this area we go down to -15C sometimes, so it is different. They are a great bunch and it tests my French to the limit.”

Formerly in marketing and tourism, Mrs Wellesley has recently started working on Guide2theworld, a franchise that has websites for English-speakers throughout the world.

Her favourite places include Tourtour, Ampus, Châteaudouble for the perched villages; the Gorges du Verdon and the St Croix lake, Salernes for its pottery and tiles and Lorgues for its market.

“There are a lot of under-rated vineyards here and people do not always realise just how good some of the wines are. People come here for the wine, the olive oil, the landscape, the Mediter-ranean and the food like aioli, soupe au pistou or méchoui roast lamb.”

“In summer, you have a lot of free entertainment in the villages. People just turn up. You would think that they were busking, but in fact it is all laid on by the village. We have a lot to be grateful for, living in this area.”

What jobs are available?

Jacques Verdino, elected member of the Var Chamber of Commerce

What are the main industries in the Var?

Tourism is very important. The other main industries are defence and safety, health and well-being, the environment, sea and the naval industry. This concerns everything with a link to the coast from submarine technologies to pleasure boating. Toulon has a historical connection with the naval sector and defence and safety; we are the top military department in France, we have the best military port in Europe and the most military staff in France.

As for health and well-being, there is a strong proportion of jobs linked to surgery and physiotherapy.

As far as the environment is concerned, in the Var, because of its geographic features, there is a real potential for new renewable energies.

There is also the agro-alimentary sector – the Var is the world’s top producer of rosé wine and first national producer of cut flowers. For PACA, there are 55,000 businesses and 8,000 new business created every year, which is higher than the national average.

How has the Var handled the financial downturn?

When the auto-entrepreneur began, we launched the service espace entreprendre to accompany the business creator, the head of the business and the person who takes up someone’s business. The CCI also has a strong communication campaign encouraging struggling companies to ask us for advice. Finally, the economic fabric of the department, predominantly smaller businesses, also prevented it from being hit too badly by the financial crisis.

Are there many opportunities for English-speakers?

The hotel and tourism industry are sectors where language is important. There are also jobs related to selling and services, and any business with an export side.

What advice would you give to people looking to launch their business in the Var?

Follow the training courses, some are free, available at the espace entreprendre, which are very well prepared and structured. The chamber has run these for many years and it is one of their principal functions to help set up and develop businesses. According to your needs, you can follow a training course, which will last either a day or several days.

The cheapest and the dearest properties are still the Var’s best sellers

Gérard Mezou is president of the Var branch of Fnaim, the French federation of estate agents

After the drop in transactions and property prices in 2009, where is the market at today?

The volume has globally come down between 25-30 per cent in the department, but today there is a marked revival, we must have recovered 10 per cent.

Compared to the good years of 2006-07, we are still down 15 per cent in terms of the number sold. The increase is progressive; it is not violent.

On average, the category of property between e300,000 and e800,000 is selling very badly. Above that price, it is selling; under it, it sells well. It is the average range that has not really come back.

In general, and this is something we observe in the whole department, it is not because buyers had disappeared that prices have collapsed; the supply has diminished.

A lot of people who wanted to sell just to make a profit have decided not to. So there has not been an exaggerated growth in housing stock. This is also why prices have not especially come down.

They have dropped 10-15 per cent depending on areas, but now it is coming up again very slightly. Ultimately there was no price collapse. The market contracted, but supply and demand contracted, too, so there was no imbalance.

What signs of market are your agents reporting to you?

According to my colleagues, in the east foreign buyers had almost disappeared after the economic and financial crisis, but they are re-appearing. They are starting to become interested again in purchasing in our department. Italians are coming back on the littoral eastern side of the department. The British are back in the Var, but near Nice on the east side. It is coming back to normal or like it was in the years 2006-07. But there is no buying frenzy.

What are your predictions for the rest of 2010 and into 2011?

I do not see any signs of a speculative bubble forming; I do not see a market boom. I see the market picking up very slowly and sluggishly, without a real price increase, but rather a regular and slow volume increase.

How important are foreign buyers to the area?

The Var is a very varied department in terms of panorama and geography. We have the sea and the arrière pays and the foothills of the Alps. It is a department divided into two parts: the western part is under the influence of Marseille and the Rhone valley; the eastern part is under the influence of the Côte d’Azur and the Alpes-Maritimes.

Today, the foreign population is more based in the east. In the west, we have between two and 10 per cent of foreign buyers, which is relatively small, but to the east, there are zones with 20-30 per cent of foreign buyers, including the British. They also tend to be in the Var arrière pays near Draguignan.

There is not the phenomenon here of Britons looking for a very specific type of house, as in the Luberon or Dordogne.

What tips would you giving people looking to buy in the Var now?

It is always a good time to be buying or selling; it all comes down to the project. The proof is that for a transaction to happen, you need both a seller and a buyer. So for the seller, it is a good time and for the buyer, too.

How many estate agents do you have under the Fnaim banner in the Var?

We have 380 agencies and 500 selling agencies.

What makes the Var a great place to live?

The Var is the best area in France for its variety and for the well-being. You can find anything in the Var through the variety of climates and areas. Potential buyers are always going to find a sector that suits them. The Var is a mosaic; it is not a monolithic department. We find anything. It is really its best asset.

Don't miss these

Enjoy the Riviera’s most glamorous resort
Propelled to fame by Brigitte Bardot when And God Created Woman was filmed there, Saint-Tropez is at its best off-season to explore the streets or wander round the port.

Canoe on the Gorges du Verdon
The gorge runs from Castellane to Moustiers Sainte Marie and you can hire canoes or pedalos at Lac St Croix, France’s second largest reservoir. Enter the all-but-hidden gorge and marvel at the massive cliffs on either side. You can drive round the rim and see vultures overhead.

Visit the perched villages of Fayence
Explore the winding streets, climbing to the top of the village for magnificent views. Spend the afternoon in one, or do a day-long circuit to see all eight: Callian, above, Fayence, Mons, Montauroux, Saint-Paul-en-Forêt, Tanneron, Tourrettes and especially Seillans, which is one the “plus beaux villages de France”.

See the calanques of Estérel
Follow the Corniche d’Or, a beautiful stretch between Saint-Raphaël and Mandelieu under the red cliffs of the Estérel massif, which plunge into the Mediterranean. At the peak of Cap Roux, the cliffs fall 452m into the blue water.

Discover Port-Cros above and below water
The national park covers 700 hectares on land and 1300ha of signposted underwater nature trails round the island’s coastline: take fins and a mask. The trail starts at La Palud.

France’s first 100 per cent organic village
The village of Correns, located in the heart of the Provence Verte, it known for its olives and honey. Since 1995, local producers have all converted to bio. It also has 200 hectares of organic vineyards in the AOC Côtes de Provence and Vins de Pays du Var. Correns is where Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie chose to stay – in a chateau called Miraval – in 2008-09.

Did you know?

Bregançon
The official retreat of French presidents since 1968, the fort on the island was once the hideout of pirates. It has been used by presidents Pompidou, Giscard D'Estaing, Mitterand, Chirac and Sarkozy.

Liberation
A major amphibious and airborne assault was launched on August 15, 1944 to liberate Toulon, Saint-Tropez, Aix en Provence and Marseilles as part of the allied invasion on the south coast. The first places to be liberated were Cavalaire-sur-Mer, Saint-Tropez and Saint-Raphaël.

Var no more
Although named for the river, the Var no longer runs through the department: it was annexed to Nice and the Alpes-Maritimes after Nice became French.

Prefecture switch
Toulon is the current prefecture but it has changed several times. It first became prefecture after the Revolution then, in 1793, the city’s Royalist leaders gave it to the British until Napoleon Bonaparte threw them out. To punish Toulon, the prefectoral role was given to Draguignan. Brignoles and Grasse have also served as prefecture.

Fact file

Population: 995,929 (2007)
Surface area: 5,972 km²
Number of second homes: 167,761
Number of British home owners: 958
Number of British residents: 2,335
Sources: Regional tourist office / Insee

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