Alan Duguid and his wife have long dreamed of retiring to the shores of the Mediterranean. But when the couple from the UK started looking for a home that suited their needs – four bedrooms, enough land not to be overlooked and a decent-sized swimming pool – they soon realized they were going to struggle. find among the popular seaside resorts of the Côte d’Azur.
“We had visited Cannes, Antibes, St Tropez, all the way to Grasse – but the houses were just too close together,” he says. The influx of tourists during the summer months meant little peace and the sprawl of these once confined towns meant no chance of finding a home in a morning’s walk down the local high street for a coffee and breakfast. “You had to get in your car to reach an identifiable store or center.”
Then there was the price. Even if he found one of the few houses with a good-sized garden and some privacy, Duguid says it would cost more than double their €900,000 budget. So earlier this year the couple changed course by buying a detached house with a swimming pool in Saint-Paul-en-Forêt, an unassuming hilltop village about 20km inland. Duguid says he loves a sense of isolation he would never have found on the coast. “And it’s half an hour by car from Cannes.”
After years of rising prices in southern European holiday destinations, many property buyers, like Duguid, are turning to lesser-known and more affordable alternatives. And it’s not just the cheapest prices on offer – many say that outside the area’s congested tourist resorts, they can find a more authentic Mediterranean lifestyle.
A 15-minute drive from the glitz of St Tropez, La Croix-Valmer – with a healthy crop of restaurants, secluded beaches and houses much cheaper than its neighbor – is growing in popularity.
Inland from Cannes, other hill towns and villages, including Claviers, Seillans, Montauroux and Fayence, are attracting growing interest. “Parisians and Lyonnais have been heading to the Fayence region for a few years, as have many German, Dutch, Scandinavian and British customers,” explains Tim Swannie of local agent Home Hunts.
“It’s never too crowded and you feel like you’re in a more authentic place [than Cannes]. And the temperature never goes above mid-30; on the coast it’s a sweat box,” says David, a British tax adviser, of the Fayence house he bought shortly before the pandemic. He was ready to spend more money on a house on the outskirts of Cannes, but did not see the added value: for €840,000 in Fayence, he owns a detached house with five bedrooms, a 12-metre swimming pool and vast gardens.
In Portugal’s Algarve, where prices have risen 29% since 2019, according to Savills, growing numbers of people are heading beyond prestigious and expensive locations such as Vale do Lobo and Vilamoura to Monchique, the mountain town with a good supply of 1980s and 1990s villas ready for renovation, located just 20 minutes from the coast.
In Spain, those looking for alternatives to Barcelona look up the coast towards Mataró, Premià de Mar and Alella.
In Italy, Fabio Cenci is preparing to move permanently from Rome, where he has lived most of his life, to Lanzo d’Intelvi, a hillside village about 15 km from the shores of Lake Como. A year ago, he bought a house there with three bedrooms, mountain views and a good-sized garden. Sara Zanotta of Lakeside Real Estate, a local agent, says an equivalent house above Lake Como would cost double what Cenci paid.
Thanks to rising prices around Lake Como, average house prices in the prestigious lake district of Tremezzina are now €3,542 per m², according to Italian property site Immobiliare.it. Those of Lanzo d’Intelvi are at €1,154 per m². Further south, in the hills above the eastern shores of Como, the towns of Molina and Lemna are also proving popular.
Serena Emanuelli, who runs La Locanda del Notaio, a hotel-restaurant in the village, says Italians have rediscovered the Intelvi Valley following the pandemic: today two-thirds of her customers are Italian, compared to a quarter in 2019.
“They keep on [visit]thanks to the connection with nature and the passion for the mountains that many have developed during the pandemic,” she says.
Besides being cheaper than Como, Cenci’s new home offers better hiking and the hillside location saves it the worst of the summer heat, he says. “I could never have afforded Côme. And it’s the house I’ve always dreamed of. It’s in a wooded area near the mountains – which means it’s cooler during the summer – but also near the cities of Lugano and Como.
Prices in Lisbon, on Portugal’s Atlantic coast, have doubled since 2015, with continued shopping during the pandemic, according to Savills. According to Charles Roberts of agent Fine and Country in Lisbon, last year’s spike in cryptocurrency prices – which has been declining in recent weeks – has led to competition between newly created traders for the biggest houses. This group represented only a handful of its buyers before the pandemic, he says.
“Today, they are more than a third. We had 32-year-old crypto millionaires with budgets of 10 million. So people lower down the scale are looking for cheaper places they can work remotely from.
Many on a budget choose Tomar, a 90-minute drive northeast of the city, popular among outdoor Portuguese thanks to the nearby lake to the east.
Paul Dredge moved to Tomar from the UK in 2009. Before the pandemic, he bought a detached house, which he is currently renovating. He prefers the authentic city experience to more established destinations in Portugal, such as the Algarve, long popular with the British.
“We used to holiday in Portugal but never liked all day English breakfasts or Irish bars. When we moved here, we wanted to be in the real Portugal rather than an English enclave,” he says.
Paulo Carvalho has seen the impact of Tomar’s growing popularity in a healthy boost for his business. Sales at his watersports equipment store have grown more than 50% since 2019, faster than at any time since its launch in 2002. In November, he moved the warehouse and store to a more large, which allowed him to expand his stock. and develop its online business throughout Portugal.
“The lake is busier all year round now; many local landlords that you only saw in the summer have moved out permanently. The wake surf and wake board schools are now always full; they keep asking us for more boards, vests, gloves, etc. he says.
Rising property prices in many of the Mediterranean’s most popular cities have caused a backlash in recent years as many residents struggle to afford a home.
There may yet be such a reaction from the residents of Bellac, a small village with a medieval church and center about an hour’s drive north of France’s Dordogne. For now, however, his traders, like Carvalho, are welcoming the boost.
For several years, new shops have been opening along the main street at a steady pace. They now include a butcher’s shop, two antique shops, a bicycle repair and rental shop, a jewelry design shop and an insurance shop. A few days ago, a new bar with chic industrial-style interiors opened its doors.
“The main street has definitely gotten busier,” says Natalie Fletcher, who moved to Bellac from Australia. She runs the jewelry store and has focused on contemporary designs to appeal to the city’s increasingly young population. There are more professional types in their 30s to mid-40s, she says: “Many are from Bordeaux, some are now teleworkers.”
Sarah Engel is a recent arrival who has been both a contributor to and a beneficiary of the city’s economic growth. Unable to afford a home in Paris, where she and her husband lived, the couple bought a vacation home in Bellac in 2019, where she had vacationed for eight years. When she lost her job in tourism last year, they moved to Bellac full time.
“Within a few weeks, I felt that I knew a lot of people. It was like home: you could say hello to anyone. People are really looking to help each other: there’s a real sense of community,” she says.
Today, she works as a freelance graphic designer and enjoys subsidized rent on her office in a coworking space set up to help grow local businesses and community groups. “Eight years ago it was a bit of a ghost town. Shops were closing, there were a lot of old people. No one was out after 7 p.m. Now I can even do my nails!”
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