Crazy Stories Behind Famous Villas
A true paradise, the Côte d’Azur is widely renowned as one of Earth’s most luxurious destinations. For decades the world’s elite has descended on the French Riviera, drawing inspiration from its mesmerizing Mediterranean views as much as they do from the royalty, diplomats, actors, artists and entrepreneurs that rub shoulders there.
The South of France has been home to a revolving door of the superrich for the past century. As their fates rose, industrialists, princes, and bankers built palaces along the Mediterranean, and as they fell—first the Russian aristocracy, Americans after the 1929 stock market crash, then much of the European upper class after World War II—they sold them to the world’s next crop of newly wealthy.
Here are the Riviera’s most striking villas and their stories:
King Leopold’s Villas in Villefranche & Cap Ferrat
King Leopold II owned two of the most extravagant –and expensive– villas in the world, one in Villefranche and one on Cap Ferrat. The villas are now owned by a woman suspected of killing two of her four wealthy husbands, and by a Ukranian mafia boss.
There’s so much to say about these villas that we made a separate post all about the sordid stories behind them. Here’s the full, crazy story about the villas, Leopold, the teenage prostitute-mistress he gifted them to, and the people who own them now.
Sean Connery’s Villa Le Roc Fleuri in Nice
It is perhaps the most perfect place in the world to enjoy a martini — ‘shaken, not stirred’, of course.
The longtime French Riveria home of actor Sean Connery has come to market: a six-story Belle Epoque villa dating from 1928 and set in exquisite surroundings with views of the city of Nice and the Mediterranean Sea. Connery purchased the house, known as Le Roc Fleuri, after his 1970 marriage to painter Micheline Roquebrune. The newlywed couple lived there for “a dozen or so years,” and it is still referred to as “Sean Connery’s house” by neighbors.
A native of Scotland, Connery was the first actor to portray James Bond, starring in the first five Bond films in the ‘60s including “Dr. No,” “Goldfinger” and “You Only Live Twice.” Over the years, the 89-year-old also appeared in “Marnie,” “The Hunt for Red October” and “The Untouchables,” for which he won an Oscar.
While the €30 million price tag is substantial even by the ultra-exclusive location’s standards, the property comes with undeniable bragging rights, having actually played a role in the actor’s final turn as James Bond, 1983’s Never Say Never Again. The 1983 film shot all around Nice and neighboring Villefranche and Monaco — even at the villa itself.
Check out our post about Sean Connery’s famous villa for more details, video and many more photos.
Bono’s Villa Les Rose in Èze-sur-Mer
Bono, U2’s lead singer, with the band’s lead guitarist, conjointly acquired the luxury property in Èze way back 1993. The rumored cost at the time was about €3.8 million, as it needed a lot of renovations. Nowadays it would be worth about €20 million. The pink, four-story seaside deluxe mansion is called Villa Les Rose. The architectural design is a mixture of an overall Art Déco and southern French architecture.
Bono’s French villa has more than twenty rooms to accommodate his famous friends. Guests can enjoy their stay with pool and spa amenities. There is also a lush exotic garden. Looking over the large terraces is the breathtaking view of the Mediterranean. It is also the site of U2’s song Electrical Storm music video (see below).
Bono is also neighbors with Adam Clayton (U2’s bass player) and Larry Mullen Jr. (U2’s drummer). They join him in the mansion to practice in his white-walled recording studio in the basement. It is also where they rest and rehearse in between concerts and philanthropic works. Fans were reportedly leaking some of their unreleased tracks when they get a chance to record them when they get a little too loud.
Check out our guide to Bono’s life and villa in and around Eze.
The Rolling Stones and Villa Nelcote in Villefranche sur Mer
The honorable banker Eugène Thomas did not imagine, when he built in 1899 the château Amicitia, in Villefranche-sur-Mer, that his palace would go down in history as a temple of rock’n’roll. The villa was renamed Nellcote after being purchased in 1919 by the Bordes family, shipowners specialized in the transport of nitrates between France and Chile. The 16-room mansion of the Belle Epoque then became occupied by the local Gestapo during the Nazi occupation of France in the 1940s.
In 1971, Villa Nellcôte , in Villefranche-sur-Mer, was the temporary residence of the Rolling Stones band members, rented by guitarist Keith Richards, his partner Anita Pallenberg and their son, Marlon.
Upstairs, a beautiful entourage socialized, often illicitly. In Nellcôte’s many-roomed basement, the Rolling Stones recorded material for what became their most storied album. Here’s the full story of the debauchery that ensued while the Rolling Stones were recording in the villa.
Today, one of the most famous villas in Villfranche-sur-Mer remains cloaked in mystery. In 2006, Villa Nellcôte was bought by a wealthy Russian for €100 million. The new owner is not particularly welcoming to Rolling Stones fans, and the house is heavily guarded. While he was making Stones In Exile, director Stephen Kijak asked to visit Nellcôte, but the current owners declined to let their property be filmed. In a way, it’s a fitting end to this chapter in the Exile On Main St story. Everyone has their own take on what might be going on inside. The truth, though, is behind closed doors.
Picasso spend over 30 years in the area. Always restless, he passed through Menerbes, where he had bought a home for his former lover Dora Maar, and Golfe-Juan, where he bunked at a friend’s villa. He spent time in Arles, Aix-en-Provence, Cannes, Vallauris, and Antibes, the latter two of which have dedicated Picasso museums, as of course, does Paris.
Pablo Picasso bought Villa La Californie in Cannes in 1955 and lived there with his last wife and muse, Jacqueline Roque until 1961, when they abandoned it because another building was built that blocked his sea view. It was here that the Spanish artist created his masterpiece ‘The Bay of Cannes’.
After Villa La Californie, Pablo Picasso and his wife Jacqueline bought another villa, this time in Mougins, where Picasso lived for 12 years, until his death in 1973 at age 91. During that time, the painter, more closed in on himself, worked tirelessly, turning the house of Notre-Dame-de-Vie into a gigantic artistic workshop.
Here’s the full story of Picasso’s villas, the time on the Riviera, and the legend –and mess– he left behind.
The Only Private Villa on the Lerins Islands
Le Grande Jardin is the only private residence on the Lerins Islands. The place is known to be exceptional in several ways. Firstly because the site is one of the last jewels of the Côte d’Azur, protected from urbanization. The existing property is made up of a vast green space called the King’s Garden where the Governor’s House, the House of Métayers and La Tour stand. The palatial island home boasts 17 bedrooms, a cinema, private helipad and even its own nightclub. It also has several villas, a large swimming pool, gardens, and a small castle on the property. The whole is protected by a surrounding wall built on the orders of Cardinal Richelieu.
The various buildings were built between the 12th and the 17th century and, until recently, had only historical owners, from the monks of Lérins to the King of France, Louis the 14th, through the Duke of Guise or the Governor of Provence but also the mayor of Marseille, after the Revolution. More recently, it was the property of the boss of Presses de la Cité, then, in 1983, it became an asset of the real estate company of Claude Muller, who had not stayed there since 1991.
In 2008 it was purchased, via a bank loan which he defaulted on, by the Indian business magnate who made his fortune in spirits (United Breweries) and air transport (Kingfisher company), and who is now a cricket and Formula 1 team owner, Vijay Mallya, for around €40 million euros. Since then, he has become a fugitive and is the subject of an extradition effort by the Indian Government to return him from the UK to face charges of financial crimes in India.
Mallya, who was known as the “King of Good Times” in India, was arrested in London in April 2017 for defrauding at least 17 Indian banks of billions of dollars, drawing loans that he intended to default on, using his now defunct airline as collateral. He allegedly routed this money into personal assets and to gain full or partial stake in about 40 companies abroad. He is set to face trial for offences of cheating, criminal conspiracy, money laundering, and abuse of official position by public servants, wherein Mallya faced allegations of conspiring with public servants and dishonestly defrauding banks.
By September 2015, the 1.3 hectare property on the French island Ile Sainte Marguerite “had fallen into disrepair,” the bank’s lawyer Gideon Shirazi said in court documents. Unsuitable interior designers and builders engaged to carry out repairs at the property left it in a worse state, he said. On Mallya’s request to extend the loan, the bank instructed Knight Frank to inspect the property, and the real estate agents found that the value had fallen by €10 million to €30 million. By January 2018, the work on the property was still incomplete, according to the bank.
Ten years later after the fraudster bought it, in 2018, the property was once again put on the market, asking €45 million euros. The sale to Ultima Collection (a 5-star hotelier) was finalized on July 1, 2020, in a sweetheart deal that promised to bring jobs and high-end tourism to the area. Major renovations will be carried out and they will add a boat, an open-air cinema and a treatment clinic to complete the range of services offered by this new 5-star hotel, which will open in 2021.
La Fleur Du Cap / Place David Niven in Cap Ferrat
This villa has had many famous occupants. First of all, the Duchess of Marlborough, the cousin by marriage of Winston Churchill, who himself will become a regular at the Hotel Royal Riviera. Then King Leopold III, king of the Belgians, successor and nephew of Léopold II, who also had numerous residences in Saint Jean Cap Ferrat. Charlie Chaplin also stayed there for a week, as well as at the nearby Royal Riviera. It was then occupied by David Niven, the famous actor of the Pink Panther, and the villa was used in the filming of the 1982 movie, Trail of the Pink Panther. The American actress Grace Kelly, friend of David Niven is said to have dined on numerous occasions, with her husband, the Prince of Monaco.
Since at least 1999, it has been home to Ana Tzarev and Robert Chandler, the parents of New Zealand-born, billionaires Christopher Chandler and Richard Chandler who bought the house. But few people know the fairy-tale story of its current owner Ana Tzarev. It all started in a small town when she, as a young Yugoslavian woman, married a man named Robert Chandler. The entrepreneur couple succeeded in developing a chain of 10 stores. She kept a photo of David Niven’s villa in the family bathroom and commented told children that it was the house of her dreams. After selling their chain of stores, the couple moved to Monaco. Of their three children, two became very wealthy financiers. They then decide to offer their mother the villa she had always dreamed of.
Here she is, interviewed in the villa:
Superbly restored and expanded over the years, the property is now much larger than its original size, and features a plethora of elegant lower terraces leading directly into the sea.
Pierre Cardin’s Bubble Palace in Théoule-sur-Mer
The Palais Bulles (“Bubble Palace”) is located in the town of Théoule-sur-Mer on the French Riviera. In 1989, Pierre Cardin, the famous Italian-born French fashion designer, became the second owner of the house, which is located on a rocky cliff within Massif de L’Esterel, a volcanic mountain range overlooking the Mediterranean Sea in the South of France.
Bubble Palace was designed by the Hungarian architect Antti Lovag, who wanted to build a home that mimicked humanity’s earliest dwellings in caves. The mansion was built between 1975 and 1989.
The villa features approximately 12,916 square feet of living space with 10 bedrooms, 10+ bathrooms, multiple staircases, living & dining rooms, gourmet kitchen and much more. The outdoor area features patios, three swimming pools, fountains, and ponds. Trees native to the region form a circular boundary, while a 500-seat amphitheater hosts a fashion runway worthy of the Romans.
On the market for a cool €350 million, what’s not to love about Pierre Cardin’s villa? Crescent-shaped pools meet juggernaut-style windows for views that make the most of the sky and sea. A location allowing Cannes’ coastline to play with both exterior and interior, each bubble dome reflects, refracts and offers a glimpse inside one of Europe’s most notorious mansions.
Over the years, Bubble Palace has hosted many swanky parties and events; MTV hosted James Bond’s 40th birthday party there in 2002, Dior held an indoor/outdoor fashion show in 2016, and Assouline published a book replete with beautiful pictures from the mansion and estate in 2012. Until Bubble Palace is sold, the entire estate can be rented for a paltry €30,000 per night.
Villa Rothschild in Cap Ferrat
If you love architecture, you’ll need to pay a visit to the Villa Ephrussi de Rothschild in Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat. The villa was built in 1905 to accommodate Beatrice Ephrussi de Rothschild’s ever-growing art collection. It became a hub for art of all kinds: literary parties, music, gatherings of art collectors, and riveting conversation.
This mansion is decorated with the treasures of the baroness Beatrice Ephrussi de Rothschild. More than 5000 works of art are displayed, together with an impressive collection of furniture, lamps and carpets.
The villa is most famous for its French, Japanese and tropical gardens, as well as the rose and plant festival that takes place each May. The Baronness was inspired by her travels to create seven gardens designed around several themes. Spanish, Florentine or Japanese… garden of the Muses, garden of the Lapidary, the rose garden… impeccable walk-ways, palm-trees and rare fragrances surround this paradise.
It’s open to visitors, and you can find the details here.
La Mauresque in Cap Ferrat
Around 1900, the former missionary and chaplain to King Leopold II, Félix Charmettant, purchased a parcel of land (4 hectares / 10 acres) on the newly subdivided peninsula of Cap Ferrat. Here he had a villa constructed in the Moorish style by an unknown architect. Villa La Mauresque occupies two addresses – 52 Charles DeGaulle Boulevard and 48 Bellevue Avenue.
In 1927, British novelist Somerset Maugham (who famously called the French Riviera a “sunny place for shady people”) purchased the property and commissioned the young American architect Barry Dierks to eliminate the villa’s original neo-oriental elements, to classicize the façades and patio, and to modernize the layout by creating a staircase. Villa La Mauresque became Maugham’s main residence until his death in 1965.
Surrounded by gardens and terraces, this villa has received numerous writers and celebrities. Becoming a near-obligatory stop for the literary and Riviera society, La Mauresque, from the point of Maugham’s acquisition, received most of the celebrities who visited the Riviera: Winston Churchill, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Lord Beaverbrook and the Aga Khan mingled with such literary figures as T. S. Eliot, H. G. Wells, Rudyard Kipling, Ian Fleming, Noël Coward and even Virginia Woolf. The story of this time in the villa’s history has been turned into a live-theater play.
Maugham and his partner Gerald Haxton lived together at the Villa. Haxton was followed by other partners after Haxton’s death in 1944. Maugham’s last partner, Allan Searle, inherited Maugham’s estate and the villa.
In 1967, the villa was purchased by an American, Lynn Wyatt, a prominent figure in international society. The façades and the interior layout were modified – while retaining the classic style – at this time by the French architect Marcel Guilgot.
The interior, on the ground floor, which was modified during the renovation of 1967, included a larger semi-circular foyer (formerly the dining room), living room, kitchen, and service rooms and staff quarters. The tower housed the library. On the first floor, which is served by an elevator, are seven bedrooms and four bathrooms as well as service rooms, laundry and linen room. A staircase leads to the terrace and there is a tennis court on the property.
In 2005, co-owners David Brown and Robert Shelter-Jones purchased the Villa La Mauresque became the owner of Villa La Mauresque for 50 million euros.
Since then, a Ukranian with close ties to Vladamir Putin, Dmytro Firtash, has purchased the villa. Locals say that they never see Firtash out on the street and the residents of the house are secretive, not friendly.
Despite it often being confused with a boutique hotel in Saint-Raphael that bears the same name in photos, the villa is not visible from the road, and no public photos (aside from the ones published here) of it exist.
Villa Les Camélias in Cap d’Ail
Want to learn more about the people and villas that created the French Riviera? Here’s the villa to visit.
The Villa Les Camélias is located in the maze of little roads and paths that wind around the slopes of Cap d’Ail. No longer a stately Belle Époque residential home, this villa is an impressive property that’s been turned into a local-history museum by the family that founded this seaside resort, so that they could tell the fascinating story of the town.
It gives the public the opportunity to explore the Cap d’Ail archives – from the time of its creation in 1908 and throughout the 20th Century when it became a municipality known for its stunning views as much as the famous people that frequented it.
The villa reveals all about the social mix that has been the hallmark of the town’s short history. Cap d’Ail became a commune in 1908 following the construction of a railway station, a post office and a number of roads providing access for the new arrivals.
Just a quick jaunt from Monaco and mere spitting distance from the Cap d’Ail train station, Les Camélias’ mesmerising garden level is dedicated entirely to the history of Cap d’Ail, speckled with black and white photographs of its many prestigious hosts and inhabitants.
Photos and other exhibits immortalize the lives of the people who lived in Cap d’Ail: their leisure time, parties etc. Most of the locals were Italian émigrés, but the international gentry wintered here too, followed by many personalities from the world of arts and literature, such as André Malraux (who stayed at the Villa Les Camélias), Colette, Sacha Guitry, Greta Garbo, Winston Churchill, and many others.
The museum tells us about the town’s “hôtels de passe” (short-stay brothels), the main one being the “Loup Blanc” (Known to Everybody), which says a lot about how discrete this place was! Sexual services were paid for using tokens stamped “bon pour le paradis”, meaning “ticket to paradise”.