Yet just 45 minutes’ drive from Cannes in the hills where we are, utilitarian white vans and battered Citroen 2CVs are a common sight.
Cost of living
We may not be backpackers like younger gap year travellers, but we still have a strict budget. We ate out frequently in South Africa, but here we limit ourselves to once or twice a week as even away from the ritzy Riviera a standard formule dinner is €28 or more. Stray away from the menu du jouronto the à la carte and you could be paying €50 or more without wine.
Mind you, enjoying a sundowner in any of the picturesque village squares is reasonable with a glass of wine or a small beer costing just over €2. Along the azure coast or in a popular touristy town, you’ll pay at least double.
Humbler bistros and cafés offer lunch typically for €13.
Delicious bread and buttery, belt-busting croissants baked twice a day are reasonable, costing less than a euro. It’s a great help that the euro is weak against the pound at the moment.
Liz on a walk down to the Siagne gorge
After the hassle of opening a local bank account in South Africa, we decided to keep it simple and use cards this time. With the Greek debt debacle hampering the euro, I decided to take out a prepaid card to lock into the current rate. I chose the Moneycorp Explorer card which can be loaded with a range of currencies. Although the rate on offer is not as good as it is with some prepaid cards – and certainly not as favourable as it is when using the foreign currency specialist to exchange larger sums – it is unusual in not charging ATM fees when withdrawing cash. It also has no fees for taking it out, loading cash onto it or paying with it, which makes up for the lower exchange rate.
Obviously, you can pay with debit and credit cards which have keen rates (better than on our prepaid card) though the foreign exchange fee of 2.75pc on our HSBC debit cards means we’re better off with the prepaid card. There’s no contest when withdrawing cash, as the debit card also has a 2pc transaction charge. Credit cards generally have similar fees and you pay interest from the date of withdrawal on cash making them even worse.
However, the Halifax Clarity credit card is ideal for travellers as it has no fees for usage anywhere in the world. Of course, you don’t pay the 18.95pc interest if you pay your bill in full on time.
While Visa or Mastercard cards should be accepted anywhere the symbol is displayed we found that wasn’t always the case in France. Our Explorer card is badged Mastercard but several toll machines on the péages(autoroutes) refused to accept it, though it did accept bank cards.
The petrol stations on the peages are expensive – often around €1.55 a litre for petrol, diesel is up to 20pc cheaper. Filling up elsewhere in France can be tricky. The best prices are usually at unmanned stations (as low as €1.40 for petrol) which generally don’t accept international cards, favouring the French banks’ carte bleue system (major debit card payment system). You have to hunt for a good price at the few manned stations.
Train and bus fares are often far cheaper than in the UK for local journeys but it’s easy to be caught out by strikes.
Once you’re away from the tourist spots, you’ll often find the shop assistants, waitresses and bar tenders only speak French. My husband has been caught out several times in our village when I haven’t been with him as he only speaks English. If you don’t speak French, it’s best to smile, point and take your money out. The people are enormously accommodating and will try to understand you.
I love sitting in a café watching a new arrival greeting several seated customers with a handshake and a kiss on both cheeks. That applies equally to men greeting other men as well as women.
The internet, which is essential for us to continue working, appears to be more robust than in South Africa. So far it’s only broken down following violent thunderstorms (as did the satellite TV with British programmes). But unlike many other developed countries, the local cafés and restaurants generally don’t have free Wi-Fi on offer away from the coast.
Liz and Rod in the market in their local village square
Being so much closer to the UK, we’ve had several friends and family pop over for a visit with more on the way. We haven’t found many expats in the village but once the summer holidays start no doubt there will be more.
Interestingly, we spent a day viewing properties with friends interested in buying a holiday home in Provence. Every British seller we came across was elderly and said that their adult children had given up visiting them, so they were going home.
Most French villages have excellent sports facilities – pétanque pitches, tennis courts, floodlit playing fields and often a swimming pool and golf course nearby. I’d love to join in the local boules matches but suspect the almost exclusively old men playing it wouldn’t welcome me. They seem to take it very seriously.
A round of golf is for the rich only – Rod found it could be between €80 and €130 a round. I haven’t been brave enough to try to join in at the local tennis club.
During the warmer months, every village and town holds festivals. So far we’ve had an evening music event, a celebration of all things Provencal and an arts and music festival.
Naturally, there are regular open-air markets taking place on different days in the towns and villages. Our village has two a week – one selling only fresh, locally-grown produce and the other selling food, cheese, wine, clothes, jewellery and household goods.
It’s certainly the good life in France – at least it is in summer.