In 2005, after a visit to a home and property fair we bought a one-bedroom apartment in Nice, close to the Promenade des Anglais. This was successful, both in earning letting income and as a holiday home. However, we were still undecided whether to make a permanent move to France.
Our parents were dead and we did not have any children so we didn’t have strong family ties to England but Hilary enjoyed her life riding at weekends, and walking dogs at a local rescue centre. Would life in France compensate and would she find enough to do?
Why did we want to move? Climate was certainly near the top of our list of reasons. Before we bought the Nice property, I had finished a long and very difficult project at work – I’m an electronic engineer working in a partnership that designs TV stations all over the world – and I just wanted to relax at home, but found week after week of grey skies truly depressing. Other things, such as an incompetent Government and crime out of control are probably more or less the same everywhere, but it is easier to ignore when it is not your home country.
We did consider America and Australia, but finally we decided neither had a soul. When we arrived back in Nice after our last trip to Australia, we walked down the street and it was full of people – out for a stroll, or enjoying a drink or a meal. If you go out on the Cote d’Azur, even in the middle of winter, if it is sunny there are always people out enjoying themselves. We felt at home here.
We wanted a house and garden
Still, we were undecided where to move to. We had spent a couple of holidays in Nice and liked the city, as well as finding it a good base for exploring the coast and nearby hill villages. It has the Opera house, English language cinema, a large expat community, bars, restaurants – everything you could want near your home. People enjoy a drink, but it does not suffer from the drunken, thuggish behaviour that you often see in many English towns each evening.
But we knew we wanted a house with a garden and in Nice while you can buy a house, you have to make major compromises. If you live anywhere near the centre, you are likely to be over-shadowed by apartment blocks so you do not get the sun for most of the day.
You can go further out into the surrounding hills, but then you are no longer close to the centre, so either have a long bus journey or have to take the car every time you want to go out – for shopping, to the beach, to the theatre.
To see how things worked out, we decided to rent for the winter. On the web we found two affordable villas at around €1000 per month. One was in Juan les Pins, nears Antibes, and one on the outskirts of Nice. We decided to rent the Juan villa and were able to let our house in England while we were in France, so the cost was minimal.
Most holiday homes are empty over the winter, so we found long term renting in France easy, provided you only wanted to do it for the winter period. It also has the advantage that you do not become resident for tax purposes in France, as you have spent less than 6 months in France in one calendar year
Our temporary home in Antibes
So in September 2006 we moved to our temporary home in Juan les Pins, our car packed with the things we needed to make the villa home from home – bedding and towels as many French villas do not supply these, Hilary’s pressure cooker and our clothes. Broadband internet connection was vital to keep in touch with home and colleagues in England so my portable computer came with us. As well, I bought a satellite dish and used the caravanner’s trick of installing it on the pole of an upside down rotary clothes drier. That gave us English TV and radio, using the Sky box we brought from home. Music is vital to me, so I bought most of my hi-fi equipment
Most important of all was our cat – Possum. It would not be home without her. We drove down to Juan les Pins, then flew back to collect her. That was a lot of hassle. It is incredibly expensive to ship your pet and it costs almost nothing if she flies with you. However, trying to find out which airlines would take her from a regional airport (Birmingham); would she be in the hold or under the seat; making sure we had all her rabies jabs and certificates up to date, etc was difficult. The airlines simply do not have their act together, although at the end of the day we used KLM and they were really helpful
We found the twin towns of Antibes and Juan les Pins to be a great location. The climate is superb. Last winter we only had a dozen rainy days. When it does rain it is often torrential, but you never get those sad, grey days that are so common in England. Midday temperature in winter always exceeded 12C, with some days as warm as 18C. The sun makes it feel much warmer and most days we were able to lunch on the terrace, even in the middle of winter.
We both enjoy walking and this part of France is excellent. Our favourite walks include the Valmasque forest with its mixed pine and cork oaks, the Cap d’Antibes with its rocky coastline, the beautiful walk along the Brague river between Biot and Valbonne, or a stroll along the sandy beaches from Juan to Cannes.
Discovering the area
The French are very keen on their Patrimoine, which loosely translates as ‘heritage’ which means that there are cultural events at a village close-by most weekends. For example, at Golfe Juan there is a festival celebrating Napoleon landing after he returned from exile. People dress up in costumes, canons fire and there is a ceremonial landing on the beach. It is nothing grand, but a good excuse for everyone to go to the beach for the afternoon.
There is also the Nice carnival and smaller events in many of the villages. The naval flower battle at Villefranche is always superb, as is the Lemon festival at Menton. In October, many of the villages have a fête to celebrate bringing the livestock down from the high mountains. In Antibes in November there is a sucre and chocolat fête, with truffles to die for! The list is endless. You just need to look on the web or visit the tourist offices to find out what is on.
This means there is always plenty going on and you never feel isolated.
Hilary found an excellent animal rescue centre in Antibes and joined this to walk dogs in the nearby woods.
Horse riding was less successful. The terrain is steep and stony and the stables often mix beginners and advanced riders, so neither get the best from the ride.
We both enjoy ballet and dance and found good professional works at Nice Opera and at Monaco. Cannes has the fantastic Rosella Hightower school of dance, which puts on excellent ballet and dance performances both by students and by graduates.
Social life is also good. We joined Networks that Work and are members of Walking/Talking for Fun and their Curry group. For two years we have organised a visit to the race course at Cagnes sur Mer between Christmas and the New Year. None of us are serious race-goers, but it is a fun day out where we take a picnic, drink a glass or two of wine and enjoy the company.
So far, we have been lucky with the weather – enjoying the races in shirtsleeves is pretty good for the end of December.
Taking the plunge
We found that we enjoyed our life in the south of France so a year later we took the plunge and bought our villa (see left) moving permanently to Antibes.
One of the things we had learned whilst renting was that even in the middle of winter it is usually really warm provided that you can get directly in the sun, whereas it often feels quite chilly in the shade. Therefore, a garden with a southerly aspect, which was not overshadowed by trees, or by other houses or apartments was important when we were choosing our permanent home.
The house we eventually bought has all this and more. It has a plot of 1000 sq.m and is south facing, on a hill facing looking down towards the sea in Juan les Pins. We checked with the mairie and, although there are apartment blocks either side of us, no one can build higher than nine metres (three storeys) in front of us, so our view of the sea is safe and nothing can take our light. We can walk to the beach, or into the centre of Antibes in 20 minutes and there are bus routes a few minutes walk from our home.
The villa was owned by an elderly couple and their daughter and is divided into two apartments, each with living room, kitchen, 2 bedrooms, shower room and separate toilet. We live on the upper floor, with a great view of the sea and we will let the downstairs apartment to give us some income.
It is in good condition, apart from tweaking the décor to suit our taste and has a mature garden and a pool.
Of course, this all came at a cost and we spent quite a lot more than we had budgeted, with the cost further increased by the falling pound. However, we have a fantastic property and we think it will be worth struggling for the next couple of years, as none of the other houses we saw came near in quality.
Because of this, when we saw the house we felt we had to move quickly and we signed the compromis de vente three days after seeing the villa.
Inevitably, though, the move was somewhat traumatic. As is usual here, the previous owners ripped out everything – from light fittings to toilet roll holders. Despite items being listed in the compromis de vente at the end of the day it was ‘tant-pis’.
Then there is the inevitable bureaucracy. We spent three hours in Nice trying to get the carte-grise for our car, only to be shouted at because we were missing one piece of paper. By comparison, in Grasse the following Monday, the lady could not have been more helpful and within an hour we had our carte grise and our new number plates.
We’ve definitely made the right decision
Together we have both joined AVF (Accueil des Villes Françaises), which has a weekly coffee morning, where we spend an hour talking French and an hour talking in English. AVF also organises painting classes, walks, visits, etc.
Antibes has all the facilities we need. In addition to its supermarkets and small local shops, there are the essential DIY shops. The mediatheque(library) in Antibes has a good English section.
The climate is the best in France. We have been told that it can be very hot and sticky in July and August, but the rest of the year it is marvellous. Many English people do not realise that winter in many parts of France can be colder than in the UK and it is important to choose your region carefully if this is important to you.
Neither of us were attracted to rural life in a small village. Here we can walk to the beach, or go to the library, or the shops and there is always something to do – on our own, or with friends.
Some things are awful here – the dog poo on the pavements, the appalling traffic and the endless bureaucracy, but overall life here is much better than in England.
We still retain what we want of England. We can watch English TV and listen to English radio. Phone calls to England are free as part of our internet package. The main difference is that we are both healthier with our outdoors lifestyle. You have to be really dedicated to want to go out for walks in England in the middle of winter. Here it is a pleasure.
If you are undecided whether to move, why not do we did and rent for a few months. See what the region is like out of season before you commit to an expensive purchase. It has worked well for us.