After owning a house in France for ten years, a prolonged stay in England eventually leaves you longing for an escape plan again. My friend Polly says ‘run away and you run to seed’, and I see her point; the French Riviera, the Spanish coast, the Greek islands and Italy’s ‘Chiantishire’ Tuscan hills are overrun with middle class English families who have upped sticks and fled their grey homeland, only to turn into suburban versions of Graham Greene characters.
The problem for many in the UK is the dim level of light, which gives the landscape and towns those muted colours so many artists seem to admire. The problem is exacerbated by the Victorians’ penchant for building terraces of houses with thick brick walls and tiny windows, which reduces precious light still further. Most of us were raised in such houses and still live in them. A more recent move to build properties with increased light has largely failed after EEC rulings insisted on triple-glazed glass and stringent new building guidelines.
This retirement-invasion toward sunnier climes has been going on for nearly 150 years, so that it has reached epidemic proportions on the Riviera, where it’s not uncommon for a shoebox with a sea view to sell for over a million. Sir Arthur Sullivan gambled and played in Nice, where he was lured by the light, the casinos and a more lax moral attitude that allowed him to take a lover.
The new Riviera is so stuffed with Russians that many shop signs now use the Cyrillic alphabet, and Cannes, home of the world’s oldest film festival, has been a polyglot town for most of the 20th century. And the fact remains that, no matter how built up these areas get, out of season the resorts are still warmer, lighter and more beautiful than their UK equivalents.
Yesterday I took the train along the main Marseilles-Ventimiglia line, hopping off at various towns to re-evaluate my half-formed ideas of living there again, and even the railway carriage reminded me of the problems; the line runs beside the beach most of the way, so that from one side you see nothing but sparkling ocean, and from the other, dirty, run-down apartment housing that’s not far from turning into slums.
Real estate is turned at an astonishing pace, with properties changing hands every 3 or 4 years as the dream is resold to the next wave of upmarket economic migrants. One agent told me that the Riviera was now on its ‘second wave Russians’, and the first Chinese have started to arrive. It’s strange that in the rush to live in palm-filled climes, the most important elements; society, friends, family, responsibility, engagement and connection are set aside for a place in the sun.