De­signer Linda Barker with fam­ily and friends

French Property News - - Contents -

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

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