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Linda Barker – Lovin’ La Vie & La Musique in Provence!

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From designing luxury lodges and cruise ships’ first-class cabins to starring in Celebrity Masterchef and the Celebrity Jungle, leading TV presenter and interior designer, Linda Barker, has her talented fingers in many projects, both on and off our screens. Ten years ago, she and her husband, Chris, jointly bought a Roman-style villa in the tiny village of La Môle, just west of the French Riviera’s fashionable hotspot, St. Tropez, with close friends, Vanessa and Mike Wilderink.

Linda talks to Angela Sara West about her longstanding love affair with the South of France and how she and Chris have transformed their €1.4m bolthole from a basic B&B into a barefoot luxury retreat, filled with friends, family and elegant French furniture from the markets of Belgium and France.

Linda Barker

Provence is a wonderful part of the world that Linda has always loved visiting. So much so, she purchased a Provençal property, which she has lovingly treated to a modern French makeover. “We used to rent a friend’s house near Grimaud, between le Plan-de-la-Tour and la Garde-Frenet, and it was always really nice going back to the same house,” she tells me. “But our friend decided to sell up, and we thought, ‘Well, maybe the four of us should invest in our own property… Let’s just do it!’ We started looking around and found the house we now own together quite quickly.”

Linda Barker

In the heart of the Var region, this particular area of Provence appealed because Linda and Chris knew it so well. “It was its proximity to where we were holidaying before… knowing where to eat, where to shop, the great food markets etc. It was just so lovely to keep coming back to all those places. So, 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 looked at properties in estate agents. We searched quite intensively and viewed 10-15 properties before we flew home. Mike and Vanessa stayed on and Mike then found Villa de la Verne. They sent photos and we thought, ‘Yes, that’s great!’.”

Linda Barker

Elegant & natural contemporary French design | As the ultimate “do-er up-er”, Linda has very successfully combined a typical Provençal/French feel with an elegant contemporary twist, transforming Villa de la Verne from its humble beginnings into an up-to-the-minute haven of luxury. “It was a very neat house with the lovely Provençal-tiled roof… it just needed decorating, really. It had been a B&B and was typically Provençal; heavily decorated with strong blues and yellows and lots of tiles. We took it from that to a much more modern French-style of living.”

The pair did a lot of painting to pare it down, to get to the bare bones of the house so that they would be happy here. With Linda’s on-trend eye for detail, the couple has created a contemporary-French-look way of living that feels very natural. “We didn’t do a lot structurally as it’s quite a new house (1980s build), although it looks older than it is. I’ve used a very easy palette of soft greys and natural materials… linen, pale stone and terracotta. It’s very clean and quite relaxed. It’s a gentle approach which reflects the very natural area that we are in, here on the hillside.”

They also introduced lots of timber decking. “That’s the business that Chris and Mike are in, supplying tiles and decking to interior designers and architects through their company, Alfresco Floors. So, we created lovely sun decks and tidied up the garden.”

With long, refectory-style tables for dining and gorgeous, big chandeliers from Belgium, the glamorous villa positively oozes the English designer’s impeccable style and taste. Linda loves scouring the antiques markets, vide-greniers (attic sales) and brocantes (flea markets) to furnish her stunning home and reveals a few of her other 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 – I love them! Often, I leave these pieces just as I find them as 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 out for good hardware.”

Her high-end hideaway here in Provence inspired Linda’s château-chic-inspired Villa Verne collection. “Although that’s not something I do anymore, it was very much about that look, that very French contemporary look… soft greys and natural materials.”

Linda Barker

Poolside glamour | Surrounded by beautiful, oversized lanterns, the colonnaded swimming pool is a striking feature and the villa also boasts a boules court and BBQ courtyard, plus a pond full of fish and turtles. “The arches around the pool were actually filled in, which was kind of strange, so we opened them all up and put timber decking down over the crazy paving floor. Our beautiful 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.”

In this part of the world, barbecuing outside in the summer months is banned due to the fire risks, especially here, in the middle of woodland. Linda’s dedicated BBQ area is, therefore, the perfect answer for alfresco dining. “With it all being contained in the courtyard, it makes a lovely place to sit around the fire and have dinner.”

Linda Barker

Off-the-beaten-track monasteries & mountain-top villages… | With fabulous views over the French countryside, the villa is fairly remote and very private, surrounded by vineyards and rivers. It’s home to numerous hidden gems, including delightful hilltop villages.  Linda’s favourite things to do? “We take long, long walks… there are some great ones around the hills above the house and a four-hour walk away up into the hills, there’s a beautiful Carthusian monastery, called La Chartreuse de la Verne. There are bikes here at the house, so I cycle quite a lot. We also have lovely decks for yoga… it’s a very healthy place. Another of the many wonderful things here are the clear night skies, which are perfect for stargazing and satellite spotting.”

Although it’s secluded, and hidden up in the hills, La Môle is a great gateway for visiting the more touristy areas of the Var and beyond and Linda and Chris enjoy exploring. “Last year, we went up to the Gorge du Verdon, which is incredible. All those 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 mountain-top villages, the little villages of Ramatuelle and La Croix-Valmer… all of those places are amazing; I love it around there. They’re off the beaten track and absolutely gorgeous. I also love Toulon and Port Grimaud.”

Linda Barker

St. Tropez… a French Riviera hotspot | Put on the map by Brigitte Bardot in the 50’s, the nearby village of St. Tropez has attracted the A-list for decades. “We’re just 20 km from St. Tropez, which is REALLY exciting… I love it! It’s a very beautiful place and is well-known for all that money and that lavish lifestyle, but I think it’s got a fabulous Bohemian edge to it as well, which is hugely appealing to me. That lovely kind of wafting around with your floaty dress and sandals, carrying your straw Provençal bag, wandering around the market… I love the St. Tropez market, every Saturday and Tuesday, and just enjoy people watching. I think it’s such a special place.”

Although it’s just a tiny fishing village, St. Tropez is a hotspot for celebs, who head here for the hedonistic lifestyle every summer. “It’s kind of trapped and can’t really expand, which is part of its charm,” says Linda. “So, you can dip into all that energy and lavishness, the boats over the summer, then a quick, half-hour drive brings you back into the countryside and hills, so we have the best of both worlds.”

The jaw-droppingly beautiful Côte d’Azur coastline boasts numerous world-famous beaches, including those of star-studded Cannes and the capital of the French Riviera, Nice, but Linda prefers the lesser-known stretches of sand. “What’s wonderful about where we are is that it’s an easy drive to all the beaches and bars. The beaches are beautiful. We don’t tend to go to the ones in St. Tropez… there’s Pampelonne beach if you want it, and we sometimes go there, but those beaches get very busy in the summer. We frequent beaches like Le Rayol (our nearest – literally up and over the hillside), Le Lavandou and Cavalaire…. It’s a very rugged coastline and we enjoy exploring it.”

Wining & dining… French style | As a keen cook, Linda loves French cuisine and enjoys shopping at the local markets for mouth-watering ingredients. “There are great food markets and the food is SO fresh. Local shops sell delicious tomatoes, melons… they probably have around 15 different types of tomato! It’s so nice.”

Linda Barker

She loves entertaining and often hosts at the villa. “I love the Provençal way of life and have a big family and it’s very much about shopping at the market and bringing food back and we’ll all cook at home, as it’s much easier when there is 16-18 of us in the house. We’re all cooks and we like it that way. I’d love to grow my own fruit and veg, but we’re not here often enough to look after them.”

Her favourite dishes include the tapenade and something that’s very typical of the area, the anchoïade. “It comes in a big pannier (basket) or on a piece of cork. It’s full of fresh vegetables, usually a whole cauliflower or whole pepper or boiled eggs, and arrives as a big kind of table piece with an anchoïade dip for all your fresh vegetables.”

She also loves the local soups. “Especially fish soup with rouille and Emmental cheese, and, of course, they do fish so well here, the sea bass… we love doing simple cooking on the barbecue and the chicken is just wonderful here, too. I enjoy going to the fish market in St. Tropez, but the local supermarkets all have their promotions on the catch-of-the-day. Géant Casino at La Foux in Gassin and E.Leclerc in Cogolin are the big ones. We also have the most fabulous, award-winning boulangerie in La Môle. Their bread is extraordinary and 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 saucissons (sausages).”

Linda Barker

When it comes to wine, it’s rosé territory here and Linda and Chris visit lots of local vineyards. “We found a lovely guy called Bruno, who has a vineyard on the way to Cogolin. He’s also bought a strip of land on the road up to our house from La Môle. His wine, Val d’Astier, is lovely. He’s a wonderful gentleman and we’ve got to know him quite well. They’re passionate about le terroir (the soil) in this region and Bruno harvests grapes during a full moon and carries out all that kind of agricultural practice that many people have forgotten about. It’s fabulous!” 

Presidents & princesses… in La Môle! | The couple has several local go-to eateries, one of which is a particularly special find. “There are some sweet little places to dine at in the village and it has one of the most beautiful restaurants, L’Auberge de La Môle, which is very successful and very famous. All the presidents eat there and Princess Diana ate one of her last meals in France there. It’s good home cooking, a set menu and all cash! The president has a residence at Brégançon beach, and the auberge is en route to his summer residence, so lots of people stop there. It’s really on the map for people who want to eat very well, in a very country kind of way.”

Learning the lingo…| Having studied French at school, Linda loves brushing up on the language whenever she’s here. “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. So, it’s nice to cycle down to the boulangerie and local veg markets for a chat with the guys who run them, because if there are 18 of us in-house, that’s 36 croissants!!”

She loves socializing with the locals and often gets involved in local fêtes. “It’s lovely because there’s a tiny 3km track road up to the neighbours’ house, so we walk up and down early in the morning and you pass people on the road. It’s not a touristy village, it’s very French and everyone here’s working, so you meet a lot of people and it’s nice to have a chat as you go. That sense of community is very strong.”

La Môle has a fête, Cogolin has vides greniers and Grimaud has regular antiques markets, which are all on Linda’s agenda. “They’re 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.”

Linda uses the villa as a vacation home and also rents it out. “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 beautiful and looking at its best, ready for guests.”

La Môle has a tiny airfield, which can be reached by private jet or helicopter transfer from Nice and Marseilles airports. “You can fly with CityJet from London’s City Airport direct to Toulon, or from 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!”

Partying in Provence… Woodstock style! | The highlights of her times here? “Oh, 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, very strong 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.”

Linda Barker

Linda particularly loves le jour le plus long on 21st June, when France celebrates La Fête de la Musique. “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 and my niece is a musician, so we have lots of live music. We have our own version of Woodstock, which we call “Molestock”! We even have t-shirts printed up for it! Our music festivals have seen friends from Grimaud and even our estate agent, who helped us purchase the house and is also a musician, come from Saint-Raphaël with his band, and a friend from Cogolin came once and played the mandolin… Really amazing times…” 

Linda Barker

It sounds totally idyllic… Are there any downsides to life here? “It’s wild boar territory, so we’re occasionally woken up by wild boar 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, what we call a ‘pig fence’, around the house to stop them coming in. We see their little footprints around occasionally.” 

Your very own slice of life on the French Riviera…| Linda has lots of advice 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 lots of things and travel together with friends. A lot of people are perhaps put off by that, and people did warn me against buying property with friends, saying, ‘It’s not your family and you’re not going to agree on everything and you might fall out…’, but it has actually been the most wonderful, positive experience. It has meant that we’ve been able to get a bigger property than we would have been able to afford, in a very glamorous location.”

She says the purchase was straightforward and they have never experienced any problems here. “It’s been a great house for us and it’s a very safe place to live. The house is really special and Vanessa and Mike have become a part of our family and a part of how Chris and I live our lives. So, it has created a different experience and has been amazing.”

As for the rental market for the villa, she says it’s a very short window for renting a place out in St. Tropez. “People essentially only want the season, to only be here in July and August, which is crazy, because it’s so beautiful out of high season, at Easter time and in September and October.”

She says they have six weeks of bookings this year, which is normal. “The villa 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 and make sure everything’s locked up and tidy.”

Linda Barker

Since it’s a large property, Linda says if it’s a Saturday turnaround all hands are needed on deck. Guests leave at 10am and the new party arrives at 4pm. “So, it’s quite a lot of work and we have local people who look after that side of things and let guests know about things like pool alarms, what to do if the power blows (which it often does in France), or if there’s a storm.”

So, what’s next for Villa de la Verne? “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 hugely inspiring and has made me want to plant some olive trees!!”

Dreamy days in St. Tropez…| Linda’s perfect day in Provence? “It would have to involve going to St. Tropez market, wearing my sandals and something light and ‘linen-y’ over a bikini, traipsing around the market, buying local tapenade dip and some fresh veg, then sitting on a beautiful, tiny, rugged beach like Le Rayol to eat it, followed by some 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, with everybody mucking in… My daughter, nieces and nephews, they’d all be cooking, while others would be preparing the apéritifs, setting the lovely thick, 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 finally time to hang up the paintbrush, does Linda think she 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!”

FACTBOX: Linda is the Creative Director for Wren Kitchens. Check out her recipe for anchoïade on her video blog for Wren: www.wrenkitchens.com/blog/linda-loves-spring-salad/
To rent Linda’s villa, visit: www.villadelaverne.com  | It can also be rented via Owners Direct: www.ownersdirect.co.uk/accommodation/p8059637 | A private chef and transfers can be arranged on request. Alfresco Floors Ltd: alfrescofloors.co.uk

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Having worked in various entertainment, music, news and language departments at the BBC in London, Angela Sara West went solo to realize her dream of luxury lifestyle and travel writing. From city guides and cultural tips, to high-end interiors and property pieces, her articles have been published in print and digital travel, lifestyle and business magazines around the world. She's also got her finger on the celebrity pulse, interviewing big names, including Ivana Trump, Suzi Quatro, Kelly Hoppen, Peter Stringfellow and Andrea Bocelli, and acquiring exclusive quotes from Michael Douglas, Claudia Schiffer, Enrique Iglesias and Sir Cliff Richard.
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Angela Sara West

Having worked in various entertainment, music, news and language departments at the BBC in London, Angela Sara West went solo to realize her dream of luxury lifestyle and travel writing. From city guides and cultural tips, to high-end interiors and property pieces, her articles have been published in print and digital travel, lifestyle and business magazines around the world. She's also got her finger on the celebrity pulse, interviewing big names, including Ivana Trump, Suzi Quatro, Kelly Hoppen, Peter Stringfellow and Andrea Bocelli, and acquiring exclusive quotes from Michael Douglas, Claudia Schiffer, Enrique Iglesias and Sir Cliff Richard.

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