Sunday 23 September 2018

Cote d'Azur: Spoilt Rotten Scoundrels

 

Villa Ephrussi de Rothschild on the Fench Riviera
Villa Ephrussi de Rothschild on the Fench Riviera
Sophie on the balcony of their villa
Villa Giselle at Saint Aygulf
Michael Caine and Steve Martin in a scene from the film 'Dirty Rotten Scoundrels'

Sophie White

The Cote d'Azur is a place that crystallised in my psyche at an early age. It is the setting of a film I was devoted to as a child, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, a tale of two confidence men who attempt to steal from the wealthy holiday-makers who frequent this stunning area. I could probably recite this film from first scene to last and yet I'd never actually visited this glamorous stretch also known as the French Riviera.

Until last month.

A private villa in the seaside town of Saint-Aygulf would be our base for one glorious, glamour-drenched week. Though there was of course one key element I was forgetting, a spanner (or two in fact) in the works - my children. They'd be there, presumably ready to sabotage any potential hope of glamour or even just basic relaxation.

Packing for the trip, my misguided optimism was at an all-time high - I packed six books and two dry-clean only dresses - as if I'd never been on holiday with my children before. In my head, I was aiming for vintage Glenn Headly and even my husband openly laughing at me could not deter me. We were going glam and that was that. Cut to four hours later and I was tipping child-vom out of a car seat by the side of a French motorway, carefully avoiding any back splash on my suede espadrilles - my older one is nearly five, I really should know better by now.

Michael Caine and Steve Martin in a scene from the film 'Dirty Rotten Scoundrels'
Michael Caine and Steve Martin in a scene from the film 'Dirty Rotten Scoundrels'

Travel with kids is a lovely thing but unfortunately every trip is bookended by the mild hell of being in a confined space with your spawn for an extended period. It's like a form of hazing, a penance to endure in exchange for trying to have a holiday.

With the two hour flight to Nice, I think we've finally identified the comfortable amount of airtime for parents. We also opted to hire a car with which to explore the coast and to subdue the frenetic spawn with soporific car journeys each day. Sometimes it's just your best hope of relaxing as a parent. The children are safely restrained just out of arm's reach in the back seat while you enjoy the view and play music to drown out any low grade whining.

The drive from Nice to our villa was a neat 50-minute spin and we arrived as the sun was beginning to drop behind the hills that overlooked the azure ocean just beyond the bustling town of Saint-Aygulf.

On the first night we ate crisp and delicious takeaway pizzas on the second floor terrace and marvelled at our luxurious hideaway.

Our neighbourhood, we decided was basically the Beverly Hills of Saint-Aygulf, all around us were beautifully appointed summer homes. Like ours, every one was surrounded by beautiful gardens, jewel-like swimming pools and commanded panoramic views of the ocean and surrounding resorts.

Our villa - Villa Giselle, which is available through interhome.ie had four large double bedrooms, two kitchens, two living rooms and two sunny terraces overlooking the pool area with its loungers and shady palm trees and beyond to the sea. The set up proved ideal for our family of four, though the husband and I kept wistfully remarking on how incredible it would be for a gang of friends or four couples.

One of the stand-out advantages of the house was the number of hiding places for me and my book. By day two, I'd identified several, including the perfect spot by the pool just out of view from the upstairs terrace and snatched many a happy 15 minutes - it's best to aim low with familial hiding - reading and resolutely ignoring all three family members calling my name.

As with all holidays a routine of sorts emerged. In the mornings on the terrace, we breakfasted (yes, I'm slipping in to the parlance of Michael Caine in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, what of it?) on fresh fruit, granola and divine almond croissants from the local boulangerie. Then, after much basting in factor 50, we hit the pool for the morning.

For people used to the military operation required to nab a decent spot poolside in campsites, simply strolling out to our own private pool was unbelievable luxury. After bribing the baby to take a nap, we'd head beachward for the afternoon.

Saint-Aygulf itself has loads of beaches to explore and we often stayed close to home for convenience. The words 'beach' and 'convenience' don't usually go together for parents of small children, but we found, on the Cote d'Azur, the set-up is so easy.

Parking's a breeze, beachside restaurants welcome your sticky, grit-coated, angry children with an impressive show (pretence?) of warmth, there are showers on hand for hosing them down after feedings and the surf is gentle enough for them to play in the shallows without too much helicopter parenting required on your part. Ice cream and cold beer are never too far away and there are watersports like jet ski hire or stand up paddle boarding on offer for energetic types. We, on the other hand, saved our energy for the people-watching which is verging on an extreme sport in this dripping-in-Gucci, my-dog-has-his-own-chef, where's-my-Lamborghini part of the world.

In the first half of the 20th Century, the Cote d'Azur was the stomping ground of artists like Picasso and Matisse, and writers like Edith Wharton and Somerset Maugham who undoubtedly gave the region cred in the eyes of the wealthy Americans who set up bohemian outposts there in the 1920s and 1930s, think the Fitzgeralds and the Murphys - essentially the eccentric royalty of the Jazz Age.

Royalty of a considerably less literary but infinitely wealthier kind occupies the splendid yachts and villas of the Cote d'Azur these days. Russian oligarchs do the neighbourly chin-wag with their English club footballer neighbours and Egyptian business magnates presumably bemoan neighbourhood nuisances with ageing French film stars.

We drove an hour down the coast to Saint Tropez to soak up the glamour. I put on my best dress, my battered Prada shades and was intent on fitting in. Naturally, my family badly let me down on this front. My husband being both Irish and a red-head does not do well in the heat, and his propensity for sweating has been passed down to the children. My youngest was clad only in a nappy and a chocolate-stained T-shirt by the time we arrived. I kept my distance as best I could.

As to be expected of a town practically purpose-built for the wealthy elite, the shopping in Saint Tropez is mega. There's a Chanel boutique, Hermes shop, galleries and antique stores, alongside high end concept stores. I started to feel a sort of contact high from the mere proximity to such bonkers amounts of money.

The port is filled with gleaming yachts the size of upended skyscrapers and everywhere there is money. I started to feel a little more sympathy for the grifters in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels - sure with this much cash being flashed how could they help themselves.

We took an hour-long boat tour from the port and I braced myself for something dreary and educational. Maybe a bit of Napoleon and his gang but lo, it seems our guide knew his audience, the tour was not some fact-leaden bore-fest but a tour of all the rich people's bajillion-dollar mansions in the area. I was in my element.

We saw Dodi and Di's final holiday destination, Brigitte Bardot's TWO gaffs, that are side-by-side, and an enormous luxury liner with a pool in the boot.

We were out there so long, I'd forgotten what my own life was like. It was a major come down to return to dry land and immediately start corralling our own little scoundrels back to the car. On the road back to Villa Giselle, it was with sadness I realised we had more in common with the dirty rotten scoundrels than the billionaires. We too were borrowing this glam life - but even if it was just for a week, it was glorious.

TAKE Two: Top attractions

Visit Saint-Raphael

The seafront of this nearby resort town boasts an enormous ferris wheel, antique carousel and all the ice cream and crepes required to subdue the kids, and  plenty of people-watching for the grown ups.

Coco-loco at Chanel

The Chanel store in Saint-Tropez is like a micro museum showcasing the latest from this iconic brand. The swimwear is arranged in the Chanel poolhouse in the garden beside the Chanel swimming pool. Seriously.

Getting  there

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Villa Giselle at Saint Aygulf
 

The Villa Giselle is a four-bedroom 175sqm holiday home, with pool and balcony and suitable for up to 10 people. It is 1.5km from the sea, 3km from the beach and can be rented for €3,384 a week through www.interhome.ie or by calling Interhome 24/7 on +353 1 431 1086 (property reference number FR8541.128.1)

Aer Lingus, Ireland's only four-star airline, operates a daily service from Dublin to Nice with fares starting from €54.99 one way, including taxes and charges. Visit aerlingus.com

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