Vacationing by the sea is a relatively modern phenomenon. Before the nineteenth century the seashore wasn’t much of a destination. In fact, the whole concept of taking time to relax somewhere only began to be relevant after the industrial revolution when work became routine, grueling and boring. Since England was the the real cradle of factory work, they could be said to have invented the idea of the modern vacation. The word itself comes from vacate, which originally described the end of the children’s school year when they vacated the classroom to go work on the family farm. The association with leisure, relaxation and getting away, came later.
For holiday-making, Dinard was one of the first locations the British focused upon outside their own country. The upper class, who perhaps wanted to avoid the masses at Brighton and Blackpool, had easy access to the French shore from Portsmouth and eventually other English ports. Of course the British have always considered that France, or at least parts of it, should be their own country… for centuries that was so. It was quite natural for the British to set up their summer mansions on the French coast. And the houses were certainly grand and the architecture decidedly Victorian in style.
When they began to arrive in the mid 1800s, they built their fantasy homes overlooking the water. Each seemed designed to out do the next. There is so much kitsch that Proust described Dinard as “A luxury of cheapness.” By the early 20th century the British had abandoned Dinard for warmer climes. The houses have mostly passed into French hands by now. There are 400 listed buildings in the town and there has been a concerted effort to keep them up. These homes, almost exclusively vacation properties rather than primary residences, are not meant for the faint of heart or thin wallet. Keeping them sound is no small commitment.
From our place one recent day, we took a lovely walk along the bluffs to enjoy the extravagant houses that have been perching there for about 150 years.
Even since the mid nineteenth century when most of these structures were built, the houses lay empty for ten months out of the year.
It seems remarkable that these huge structures would be built for a single family and yet lived in so occasionally.
Between the wars, when many of the houses were abandoned, the larger ones were converted into apartments, making it possible for families of more modest means to own their place on the sand.
Some are a little run down.
Some are like castles.
Some are like gingerbread houses.
The variety of style is impressive. We have hardly cracked the surface of mansion house sightseeing opportunities. They line the coast in levels of extravagance.
Towards the end of our walk we came upon this fortress-like property. The large stone pinecone, reminiscent of Roman grandeur piqued our curiosity. Most of these homes have names. This one, inscribed on the wall, is called Greystones. We noticed people peeking in through the front gate, so we took our turn. The house is not visible from the road, but the walls protect a very grand and immaculately maintained garden, with bronze statues of dancing nymphs. Upon our return home we searched online to see if we could find out more about the property. It turns out it is owned by François Pinault, a French multi-billionaire, owner, to name just a few, of Gucci, Yves Saint Laurent and Alexander McQueen fashion house.
So I guess Dinard’s swank is not entirely a thing of the past.