Designer Linda Barker with family and friends
Interior designer and TV presenter Linda Barker tells Angela Sara West why she’s lovin’ la vie et la musique in La Môle, south of France
From Changing Rooms and Celebrity Masterchef to Splash! and Celebrity Jungle, leading TV presenter and interior designer Linda Barker has her fingers in many projects, both on and off our screens. Some 10 years ago, she and her husband, Chris Short, bought a Roman-style villa in the tiny village of La Môle just west of St-tropez, with close friends, Vanessa and Mike Wilderink.
Linda told me about her longstanding love affair with the south of France and about how they have transformed their €1.4m bolthole from a basic B&B into a luxury holiday haven, filled with friends, family and elegant French furniture from the second-hand markets of Belgium and France.
What was it about Provence that prompted you to buy a property here? We used to rent a friend’s house near Grimaud, between le Plan-de-la-tour and la GardeFrenet. When our friend decided to sell up, we thought, “Maybe the four of us should invest in our own property!”.
What attracted you to this area of Provence in particular? Its proximity to where we were holidaying before – knowing where to eat, where to shop, the great food markets etc. It was lovely to keep coming back to all those places. We looked at a map and drew a circle with a 15-mile radius around the area that we knew, took a drive around and viewed about 15 properties before we flew home. Mike and Vanessa stayed on and Mike found Villa de la Verne. They sent photos and we thought, “Yes, that’s great!”.
You have combined a typical Provençal/french feel with a contemporary twist. What was the villa like when you bought it and how did you go about decorating it? It was a very neat house with a lovely tiled roof… it just needed decorating. It had been a B&B and was typically Provençal, heavily decorated with strong blues and yellows. We took it from that to a more modern, contemporary French style – a lot of painting to pare it down, to get to the bare bones of the house. We didn’t do a lot structurally as it’s quite new (1980s build), although it looks older. I’ve used a palette of soft greys with natural materials… linen, pale stone and terracotta. It’s a gentle approach which reflects the natural area here on the hillside. We introduced timber decking, because that’s the business Chris and Mike are in, supplying tiles and decking to interior designers and architects ( alfrescofloors.co.uk), created lovely sun decks and tidied up the garden. We’ve got refectorystyle tables for dining and the villa’s quite glamorous, with big chandeliers from Belgium.
You love scouring vide-greniers and brocantes to furnish your home. What have been your favourite finds? Candelabras, tables and chairs, plus a few other bits and pieces. I love going to the Maison&objet trade show in Paris and I’m a great one for looking around all the attic sales in France and the antiques markets are great. Often, I leave these pieces just as I find them; I love the combination of old and new, and a genuine bit of rust or chipped enamel is hard to resist. Other times, I might paint and wax a plain piece of brown furniture to bring it up to date. I’m always looking for good hardware.
Surrounded by oversized lanterns, your colonnaded swimming pool is a striking feature and the villa also boasts a boules court, BBQ courtyard and a pond… The arches around the pool were actually filled in, which was kind of strange, so we opened them up and put timber decking over the crazy paving. In this part of the world, you can’t barbecue outside in summer as it’s quite dangerous due to the fire risks especially as we’re in the middle of woodland (indeed, a forest fire wreaked havoc in neighbouring La Croix-valmer in July). But with it all being contained in the courtyard, it makes a lovely place to sit around the fire and have dinner. Our pond is home to carp, or large goldfish, I think, which are huge now, so they’ve kind of grown up with us, and the turtles make an appearance every summer.
You use the villa as a holiday home and you also rent it out. How often are you here? We come out of season and early in the season, Easter time, to open it up, clear away the cobwebs and steam clean from top to bottom to make sure it’s at its best, ready for guests.
La Môle has a tiny airfield, which you can reach by private jet or helicopter transfer from Nice and Marseilles airports. How do you usually travel here? We used to be able to fly from Stansted airport into Toulon, only half an hour away, but Ryanair no longer flies that route, sadly. You can fly with Cityjet from City Airport or Southampton direct to Toulon, but going out of London now, we fly to Nice or Marseilles. We’ve never ‘helicoptered’ in, but that would be an absolute joy! With fabulous views over the French countryside, the villa is fairly remote and very private, surrounded by vineyards and rivers. What are your favourite things to do here? We take long, long walks; there are great ones around the hills above the house and a four-hour walk up into the hills leads you to a beautiful Carthusian monastery, La Chartreuse de la Verne. There are bikes at the house, so I cycle quite a lot. We also have lovely decks for yoga practice… it’s a very healthy place. The clear night skies are perfect for stargazing and satellite spotting.
Although you’re up in the hills, La Môle is a great gateway for visiting the more touristy areas of the Var and beyond. Where do you like to head for days out? We love to explore; last year we went up to the stunning Verdon Gorge, which is incredible. All the little villages around there, such as Cotignac, are really beautiful. We’re less driven to visit the big cities; it’s more about exploring the little places like Ramatuelle and La Croix-valmer. They’re off the beaten track and absolutely gorgeous.
I love Toulon and we also go into Port Grimaud. We’re just 20km from St-tropez, which is really exciting! It’s known for that lavish lifestyle, but it has a fabulous bohemian edge as well. That lovely kind of wafting around the market with your floaty dress and sandals, carrying your straw Provençal bag… I love the market, every Saturday and Tuesday, and just enjoy people watching. It’s such a special place. Because St-tropez is only a tiny fishing village, it’s kind of trapped and can’t really expand, which is part of its charm. You can dip into all that energy and lavishness then a half-hour drive brings you back into the countryside and hills, so we have the best of both worlds.
Any favourite beaches? It’s an easy drive to all the beautiful beaches and bars. We don’t tend to go to the ones in St-tropez like Pampelonne; they get very busy in the summer. We frequent beaches like Le Rayol (our nearest – literally over the hillside), Le Lavandou and Cavalaire. It’s a very rugged coastline and we enjoy exploring it. Have you ever filmed in France? We once filmed Changing Rooms in central France. It had the most beautiful vegetable market there, and I remember my co-presenter Andy going to a bricolage (DIY store) and finding it hilarious!
As a keen cook, what do you love most about French gastronomy? There are great food markets and the food is so fresh. The local shops probably have around 15 different types of tomato! We love entertaining and often have guests. I love the Provençal way of life and have a big family so it’s very much about shopping at the market, bringing food back and all cooking at home – much easier when there are 16-18 of us in the house. I’d love to grow my own fruit and veg – I remember arriving with packets of seeds when we first bought the house – but we’re not here often enough to look after them.
Any favourite dishes? I love tapenade and something that’s very typical of the area is anchoïade, which you get in a big panier (basket) or on a piece of cork. It’s a dish of fresh vegetables, usually a whole cauliflower or pepper or boiled eggs, and arrives as a kind of table piece with an anchovy dip in the centre.
I love the soups, especially fish soup with rouille and Emmental cheese, and, of course, they do fish so well here. I enjoy going to the fish market in St-tropez, but it’s quite expensive and the local supermarkets all have promotions on the catch-of-the-day.
We also have the most fabulous, awardwinning boulangerie in La Môle. Their bread is extraordinary; people travel from miles around to buy it. We have a tiny market with farmers selling local home-grown produce, too. It’s usually just three stalls on a Thursday, with vegetables, salamis and saucisson. The chicken is just wonderful here, too. We love simple cooking on the barbecue.
How about the wines? It’s rosé territory and we visit lots of local vineyards. We found a lovely guy called Bruno, who has a vineyard on the way to Cogolin; his wine, Val d’astier, is lovely. He’s also bought a strip of land on the road up to our house.
They’re passionate about ‘ terroir’ in this region; Bruno harvests grapes during the full moon and carries out the kind of agricultural practice that many people have forgotten about. It’s fabulous.
Which are your go-to restaurants? There are some sweet little places to eat in the village and it has one of the most beautiful restaurants, L’auberge de la Môle, which is very famous. All the presidents eat there and
People warned me against buying property with friends, saying we might fall out, but it has been the most positive experience
Princess Diana had one of her last meals in France there. It’s good home cooking, a set menu and all cash! The nearby Fort de Brégançon was once the official presidential retreat and the auberge is en route so lots of people stop there.
So, how’s your French? I gather you studied it at O-level and have brushed up since? I get by on that kind of ‘restaurant’ French. I try to hone a bit of new vocabulary every time I come here. I’m always a bit rusty before I arrive, but the more you use it, the better it gets, and everyone loves it when you have a go. It’s nice to cycle down to the boulangerie and local veg markets for a chat with the guys who run them; if there are 18 of us in the house, that’s 36 croissants!
Do you socialise with the locals and get involved in local events? Yes, it’s lovely because there’s a tiny 3km track road up to the neighbours’ house; we walk up and down early in the morning and pass people on the road. It’s not a touristy village, it’s very French, so you meet a lot of people and have a chat as you go. The sense of community is strong. La Môle has a fête, Cogolin has vide-greniers and Grimaud has regular antiques markets, which are all really good fun. La Môle also has a newsletter, so if we’re around when there’s something going on, whether it’s music or art, we’ll go.
What have been the highlights for you here? The big parties: my husband’s 50th, my niece’s 18th – the house does parties very well. I’m from a big family and, along with my daughter Jessica, my brother and my sister come and my nieces and nephews. They all love it here. It’s a very robust, six-double-bedroom house that can look after a lot of people; it’s not precious at all. We’ll be dancing at midnight… it’s so private you can pretty much put the speakers outside and blast your music out. We love 21 June, when France celebrates La Fête de la Musique, and you’re allowed to play music as loud as you want, all night long, and let rip… and we do!
My family is very musical so we have lots of live music. We have our own version of Woodstock, which we call Molestock – we even have T-shirts printed for it! Our music festivals have seen friends from Grimaud and even our estate agent, who is also a musician, come from St-raphaël with his band. Really amazing times.
It sounds idyllic. Are there any downsides? It’s wild boar territory, so we’re occasionally woken up by them coming across the property with their piglets, which is lovely but they dig up the lawn for roots and wreak havoc! We’ve put a ring, a ‘pig fence’, around the house to stop them coming in.
Any tips for readers thinking about purchasing a property in Provence? It’s wonderful! It doesn’t necessarily suit everyone but buying with our mates has been a fantastic experience. It’s lovely to be able to share things and travel together. People did warn me against buying property with friends, saying we might fall out, but it has been the most positive experience. We’ve been able to get a bigger property than we would have been able to afford, in a glamorous location. The house is really special and it’s a very safe place, we’ve never experienced any problems, and the purchase was straightforward.
How have you found the rental market for Villa de la Verne? It’s such a short window for renting out a place in St-tropez. People only want to be here in July and August, which is crazy because it’s so beautiful out of high season, at Easter and in September and October. We have six weeks of bookings this year, and that’s normal. It sleeps 12 and we usually rent it out as self-catering, but it can be booked fully staffed. We have someone to do the housekeeping and turn around the property if we’ve had people in, making sure it’s ship shape, and then we put it to bed at the end of the season.
What’s next for the villa? I find Carol Drinkwater’s books about life on her olive farm in Provence hugely inspiring. I adore them and just fell in love with her writing! I can almost feel her house, the lemons and the olives. She’s made me want to plant some olive trees!
Your perfect day in Provence? It would have to involve going to St-tropez market, wearing sandals and something light over a bikini, traipsing around the market, buying local tapenade and fresh veg, and then sitting on a beautiful, tiny, rugged beach like Le Rayol to eat it, followed by swimming then back to the house. We’d have lots of people round, so there’d be the sound of everyone getting ready for dinner. My daughter, nieces and nephews would all be cooking, while others would be preparing the apéritif, setting the wooden tables and putting candles everywhere, and someone would be picking flowers from the garden to display… all very simple. Then, we’d have a wonderful dinner, with music and dancing.
When it’s time to hang up the paintbrush, do you think you might retire here? I’d like to spend more time here, but I’ve definitely got my feet in the UK. To share time here and there is what really resonates with me. A couple of months here would be magical. That would be an amazing thing to do!
I love wandering around St-tropez market and just enjoy people watching – it’s such a special place
Linda wanted a more contemporary design Al fresco dining in the courtyard
The arches were opened up and decking was added The pond in the tidied-up garden... ...is home to turtles The gorgeous kitchen is the heart of Linda’s home The pond is a serene area
Linda with family and friends at Villa de la Verne
Aerial view of Linda’s villa in Provence Wandering around St-tropez market Music at the villa Yoga on the decks Mike practicing boules
The beautiful coast near the villa Linda cools off in the pool The vineyards at the bottom of the drive