'Perfect Provence' within sight of the Med

The picture-perfect villages in Provence are temptingly close to the Mediterranean coast but far enough away to provide respite from the crowds, discovers Cathy Hawker
The medieval hilltop villages of the Arrière Pays — France's "back country" above the Cote d'Azur — are divine. Close enough to the bright lights of the Mediterranean for an easy excursion to St Tropez or Cannes, they have much of what is perfect about traditional Provençal life.

Le Tilleul Menthe restaurant
© Alamy
Le Tilleul Menthe restaurant sits in the centre of St Paul de Vence, a picture-perfect village only 15 minutes from Nice airport

"Villages like Mougins and La Garde-Freinet are near to St Tropez and the Mediterranean coast but far enough away to provide respite from high summer crowds," says Fred Schiff of Knight Frank. "They have their own communities, regular markets and retain much of the authentic character and charm that overseas owners search for in this part of the world."

The arty choice


Saint Paul de Vence
Saint Paul de Vence is a picture-perfect village of mellow stone and narrow cobbled streets just 15 minutes from Nice airport. It has a colourful artistic history, thanks to the kind heart of Paul Roux. He was a local innkeeper and keen amateur painter who in the Twenties encouraged struggling artists by taking their paintings in exchange for meals, with no idea what a fortune he was storing up on his walls. Today his restaurant with rooms, Colombe d'Or at the entrance to St Paul, is one of the best-loved in France, now run by his son and still decorated with works by Picasso and Modigliani.

A second home in St Paul is out of the range of an improverished bohemian resident today, as prices have increased steadily though not spectacularly over the years, says Tim Sanders of John Taylor France.

Three-bedroom house in St Paul de Vence
£792,440: three-bedroom house comes with a separate guest apartment in a quiet area of St Paul de Vence
"There are places in the world of intrinsic beauty, for example London's Belgravia, where people want to live, and St Paul de Vence is one of them," says Sanders.

"It is protected from the Mistral by the Estoril mountains which block out the wind and cold, there are no traffic jams — even in summer — and it has great culture without being showy."

You can still buy a five-bedroom house with south-east facing gardens and views over St Paul for £796,450 and a three-bedroom apartment overlooking St Paul for £545,000 through Chesterton Humberts. But if you want to buy land, a four-bedroom stone bergerie in exclusive La Colle sur Loup, with separate guesthouse and two acres of grounds, will set you back £3.6 million, through John Taylor.

St Paul de Vence is certainly a tourist trap, thronged with visitors on sunny weekends in season, but it still beats to the rhythm of southern France: men play boules under parasol pines and everything stops at midday for le déjeuner.

The premier choice


Mougins
Mougins is probably the most famous of all the medieval villages. It hangs on the hilltop surrounded by forests of cypress and olive trees, a semi-fortified village of cobbled streets and pretty cottages tumbling with late summer flowers. There are more than 40 restaurants, two golf courses and substantial restored stone homes. Like St Paul de Vence, Mougins has close links with artists — Picasso spent the last 15 years of his life there.

A three-bedroom terrace stone house in the centre of the village is £792,440 and a four-bedroom detached house with garden and pool is £1.6 million, both through Knight Frank. Top-of-the-range villas in substantial plots reach well over £3.2 million.

The value choices


Tourrettes-sur-Loup and Châteauneuf-Grasse
Tourrettes-sur-Loup and Châteauneuf-Grasse, both 13 miles from Cannes, are less developed villages further from the sea where buyers can find good value, says Knight Frank's Mark Harvey.

Five-bedroom house with shutters
£959,780: five-bedroom 1830's stone bastide, near the centre of La Garde Freinet
"Tourrettes is becoming better known, but it still remains reasonably priced. A five-bedroom villa that would command £3.2 million in Mougins costs from £1.4 million," he says. "It is a quintessential French village with dramatic views."

Châteauneuf-Grasse, with its narrow cobbled streets, is another one to watch. Prices here, too, are half of those in Mougins, five miles away.

The sporty choice


La Garde-Freinet
Country trails, mountain biking and horse riding make La Garde-Freinet, 12 miles north of St Tropez and overlooking the Massif des Maures, popular with outdoor types.

The smartest homes are in St Clement at the bottom of the village, offering privacy and shelter from the Mistral. Expect to pay around £2.3 million for a substantial four-bedroom bastide with land.

Prices have fallen about 20 per cent from their 2007 highs, and buyers, deterred for a while by the French general election, are back for realistically priced homes.

In countryside four miles from the village, a two-bedroom house in a six-acre plot is £680,380, while a five-bedroom house with shutters and a one-acre plot a mile from the centre is £959,780, both Knight Frank.

Contacts


* John Taylor (France): 00 33 (0) 493 328340; john-taylor.com
* Knight Frank: 020 7629 8171; knightfrank.com
* Chesterton Humberts: 020 3040 8210; chestertonhumberts.com,

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