Cap Ferrat is a drop-shaped cape as if attached by its narrow part to the coastline between Nice and Monaco. The world’s most villas expensive drowned in greenery can be found on the cape side by side with the village of Saint-Jean, formerly a fisherman’s settlement near the bay, which has been turned into a yacht port.
Owing to its unique location, Cap Ferrat has over the last century attracted crowned heads from all Europe, celebrities from the world of politics, art and sports, and ordinary billionaires, including, but not limited to, the King of Belgium Leopold II, writer Somerset Maugham, philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, the Rothschild family, actor Gregory Peck, Microsoft co-owner Paul Allen and composer Andrew Lloyd Webber.
As a result, real estate prices on Cap Ferrat have risen sky-high. Thus, Chemin de Saint-Hospice, a Cap Ferrat street, ranks second in the world in terms of the cost of a square meter (USD 100,000), trailing only Princess Grace Avenue in Monaco and outranking the legendary Fifth Avenue in New York and Avenue Montaigne in Paris. There are no railways that would disturb Cap Ferrat’s residents. For this reason the best way to go sightseeing in the peninsula is a car ride or a walk on the footpath that stretches along the water’s edge for ten kilometers.
These places were “discovered” for holiday-makers by King of Belgium Leopold II, who in 1902 built a fashionable villa just a little east of Villefranche for his mistress Caroline Lacroix. Today it is the most expensive villa in the world. In the mid-20th century it was owned by Italian industrialist Giovanni Agnelli. The Leopold villa famous for its royal proportions is protected by the French state as a monument of history and culture. Moviegoers know it for postwar glamor films like The Red Shoes (1948) and To Catch a Thief (1955). In 2008, there were reports that the Leopold villa was acquired by Mikhail Prokhorov for half a billion euros, but later the deal was cancelled.
The Belgian crown remained the largest landowner in Cap Ferrat in the beginning of the 20th century.
Another local landmark apart from the Leopold villa is Villa Ephrussi de Rothschild, a monument of history and culture protected by the state.
Villa Ephrussi de Rothschild located at Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat on the French Riviera was constructed in 1905-1912 by Baroness Beatrice de Rothschild.
There was an ironclad rule in the family of the owner of the Rothschild banking family: the family business was a prerogative of men only. This is why women applied themselves to other areas such as charity, collecting artifacts of art, arts patronage, etc. Baroness Beatrice Ephrussi de Rothschild left a mark in history by building a villa on the French Riviera and amassing there a unique collection of paintings, sculptures, furniture and porcelain dated the 15th-18th centuries.
Beatrice was born in one of Europe’s wealthiest families. She was a daughter of Alphonse Rothschild, a representative of the French branch of the famous dynasty. Following her father’s example, Beatrice was an enthusiastic collector of works of art and luxury items. In 1883, she married Maurice Ephrussi, a banker and an oil tycoon descending from a wealthy family that had emigrated from Odessa to Paris. Beatrice was not happy in her family life: following a disease she was unable to have children. Moreover, Maurice went bankrupt and ran into debt due to his addiction to gambling. After 21 years of life together the Ephrussi spouses were divorced.
Baroness Ephrussi de Rothschild found a true consolation and a lifelong love in the project of creating an “earthy heaven” on the French Riviera. After the death of her father in 1905 Baroness inherited 700 million and acquired seven hectares of land on Cap-Ferrat between Nice and Monaco. The Belgian King was also after that land, but Baroness outpaced him. The choice was for a reason: due to mild winters the French Riviera was a gathering spot for the international elite. The picturesque landscape in the sea strait area as well as the proximity to Nice and Monte Carlo attracted members of the high society.
It took seven years and 20 architects following one after another to build the villa. This is why the villa combines Spanish, Venetian, Lombardic and Tuscan elements. The face of the building is styled after Renaissance Italian palaces with a surrounding two-level landscape park divided into ten stylized zones: French, Japanese, Spanish, Provencal, Florentine, and Sevres gardens, a stone sculptures garden, an exotic plants garden and a rose garden. Madam Ephrussi de Rothschild travelled a lot, and her experience as well as her historic traditions were reflected in the design of these gardens focused on the themes of “Culture” and “Collection of Works of Art” ".
All seven hectares of the territory on the cliff were levelled and covered with fertile soil. An irrigation system was also arranged. This is how a “garden ship” came into being with its terraces as if forming a deck of an elegant holiday cruiser and the villa towering above it like a captain's bridge.
In 1912, Villa Ephrussi de Rothschild named Ile de France (French island) by Beatrice received its first guests. The choice of the villa’s name and the style of the building was determined both by the travel of Madam Ephrussi on the same-name steamship and her favorite rose color.
In the south part, visitors to the villa are treated with a view of a formal Creole-styled French garden with palms and agaves completed with the Love Temple. The next three gardens are laid out in the spirit of the time. The Lapidary (a garden with samples of lapidary writings on stone slabs) contains architectural fragments and statues scattered around in a well-though-out disorder. The Japanese Garden is adorned with a ceramic pagoda, while the Exotic garden is remarkable for steep paths sweeping round impressive cactuses.
The “Old” Rose Garden is decorated with rose beds located in fan-shaped terraces around a hexagonal pavilion. The columns are covered with rambling roses. Olives and aloes proliferate at the end of the garden. The Provencal Garden goes down to the east seacoast, while intertwining paths stretch through tangled stone pines of the English Garden. This natural zone with a small temple is filled with the spirit of a landscape garden.
A water staircase leads to a waterway and a pool with the rose-colored house inspired by the “confectionary” Italian style reflected in its water. The wide white gravel paths emphasize the symmetry of the parterre flowerbeds. This is how the flower ballroom for the first class passengers on the Ile-de-France steamer designed by Le Nôtre’s successor Achille Duchêne (1866-1947) looked like. The Baroness had once travelled on that steamer and named her house after it.
The Baroness was passionate about collecting unique works of Medieval and Renaissance art that were classified in her house by date. Beatrice set up a Louis XV salon with armchairs dated that period, “Phaeton”, a canvass by Pellegrini, and tapestries depicting Don Quixote; a Louis XVI salon with carpets from the Versailles Royal Chapel and the Louvre Grand Gallery; a porcelain salon with a large collection of products by Sevres and Vincennes manufactories and a vase owned by Marquise de Pompadour; and a salon with watercolors by Fragonard. She also amassed in her apartments numerous costumes of the 17th century, a writing desk of Marie-Antoinette and other rarities.
Following Beatrice’s death in 1934 the villa and all works of art collected by her and kept in her various French properties were transferred under her will to the French Academy of Fine Arts. The villa is a museum now open to the public.