Since 1981, Port Vauban has been the undisputed heart of yachting in the Mediterranean. While it’s perhaps not the most popular destination for yacht owners or charterers, a stop at The Blue Lady Pub is all that’s needed to realize the volume of yacht crew that have come to populate the town.
The port was visionary for its day – the brainchild of a former French resistance fighter who understood the growth potential for yachting in the Riviera. Camille Rayon’s vision has lasted almost 30 years, as the Port of Antibes easily retained the title of ‘Largest in Southern Europe for Yachts.’
But for those who work in and around the port, there is concern that all that will change – that Antibes will lose out to one of the many port projects dotting the rugged coastline of the Western Mediterranean.
The mayor of Antibes, Jean Leonetti, has tasked his deputy mayor, Jean-Pierre Gonzalez, with overseeing a vast redevelopment project for the port. The local council sees the project as a means of revitalizing Port Vauban and ensuring that it remains the No. 1 hub for yachting in the Med. However, some who work in the industry feel it is already too late for that – though it is not too late to turn things around.
“Not remains,” says Ulf Sydbeck, the managing director of Riviera Yacht Support. “Take back. They’ve already lost that title.” New marinas in Mallorca, Barcelona and Italy have all begun to challenge Antibes’ once-untouchable prominence. “France has to be more reactive,” he says. “They live on the old times that this was – this port was – the top of the line. But not now.”
Sydbeck is also vice president of ASAP Antibes, a group of yachting professionals and companies based around the port which was founded in November 2011 to help provide support and guidance to Leonetti’s government.
The group is largely pleased with most of the proposals put forward by the municipality. Its message now: “We would very much like to press the urgency to make decisions. The fact that there are ports popping up and we’re being left behind. This is hampering the economic growth of the area,” Sydbeck says. “It has been one of the biggest ports in all of Europe, but it’s falling apart.”
The question now is whether Antibes could lose out due to delayed action.
A port unlike any other
Antibes has always been a haven for ships. Its natural protection has been expanded and improved upon since at least as far back as the 5th Century B.C., when Phocaeans founded the Greek trading city of Antipolis. This was the same group that a century earlier founded Marseille, widely considered the oldest city in France. The Romans took control of Antibes by 43 B.C. and retained power there for the next five centuries.
Even today, stories abound of divers in Port Vauban discovering ancient Greek and Roman artefacts from below the glassy surface of the water.
By the 15th Century, Antibes was under the protection of the French crown. The ramparts of the old town, intricate and mystic with hidden alleyways draped in colourful blossoms and pocketed by patches of sunshine, were largely completed by the 17th Century, although the town itself was going through a period of stagnation.
That stagnation ended briefly around 1900 as Antibes and the surrounding area grew as a popular destination for Europe’s elite. Juan-les-Pins developed as a popular resort and the city bustled with activity once again. The natural beauty of the Côte d’Azur drew artists like Pablo Picasso and Raymond Peynet, writers like Graham Green and F. Scott Fitzgerald.
With the wars, however, things in Europe changed. And it wasn’t until Camille Rayon, a man whose reputation was built upon his role as a French resistance fighter in World War II, proposed the expansion and renovation of Port Vauban that prosperity returned to the region. (Notably, Rayon is responsible for marinas all along the French Riviera, including the aptly named Port Camille Rayon at Golfe-Juan, built in 1989.)
Rayon’s vision was ambitious. A port covering 32 hectares of surface water between Fort Carré and the old town ramparts – two golden beacons set alight by the setting sun. It is now home to more than 1,500 berths. Try to look across the harbour from ground level and a forest of masts will obstruct even the towering walls of the old town from view.
Rayon recognized early the British affinity for sailing, warm weather and holidays. Port Vauban – along with the other marinas he developed – was meant to cash in on this. And it did.
Gonzalez summed it up while speaking with The Riviera Times: “Antibes was dying 30 years ago. It’s thanks to the harbour, and the great seafaring nation of the British who flocked here, that the town came back to life. They opened businesses, started to buy property and created an English colony that attracted people from all over the world. Of the 150 shops in old Antibes connected with the port, half are owned by Anglophones.”
The port’s operations were set up as a 50-50 partnership between the municipality and a management company, with a 40-year lease ending in 2021.
Reviving a revival
To this day, the port is in many ways separate and apart from the town. The businesses and employees based in the port are often foreigners, rarely Antiboise.
“We have an industry around the port,” says Patrick Gilliot, a Frenchman from Alsace, who is general manager of Dolphin Wear and president of ASAP Antibes. “It’s mainly run by English people or foreigners. The city is not really connected to this industry. They know the importance of the port for the local economy, but they are not connected. You have nobody inside the city in the yachting industry.”
But in no way does that mean that the fate of both the city and the port are not intertwined, says Sydbeck, who is Swedish. The economies are inexorably linked – though it won’t be yachting professionals who ultimately lose out. They will go where the work is. They’re transient by nature. But the Antibiose – whose restaurants and shops are frequented by those who work in the port, whose hotels and real estate are filled by the very same people – they stand to lose more than anyone.
“The mayor is being a little cautious,” says Sydbeck. Leonetti, who was elected into office in 2008, is up for re-election soon and is wary of the political ramifications of how such an ambitious project could be misrepresented. “All the Antiboise, the people here, will not realize that it’s beneficial for them to do this,” says Sydbeck. “They’ll say, ‘Why are you helping the rich?’ But in reality it is helping the city. It’s bringing in a lot of revenue.”
The municipality tried to do a study that would show just that, though they left it in the hands of interns, according to Sydbeck, and it did not turn out very well. The government has approached ASAP Antibes about assisting in a more comprehensive study, the group says.
And while it may be harder to quantify the growth Antibes has seen as a result of the port, given that it’s already 30 years along, there are other places in France that have experienced significant revivals based around similar developments. La Ciotat, a small town about 30 minutes east of Marseille, has experienced a period of major growth since the re-development of its shipyard for superyachts, says Chantal Lemeteyer, the secretary general of Monaco Marine, one of a number of companies to invest in the project.
“They have made some studies just to have an idea about the impact on the local economy. And it shows we are brining clients during the low season for tourism. Because we have captains, owners, subcontractors in hotels and restaurants. So for them it’s very good,” says Lemeteyer, who is also the secretary of ASAP Antibes. “We showed this impact in La Ciotat, because we started the project in 2002 and opened it in 2007. And at first the city, they had a lot of problems. The economy was very sad after the end of the shipyards there 20 years ago. And now the city is very active with new restaurants and new hotels. There’s really a boom in the local economy.”
From the start the municipality has taken a unilateral approach to the Port Vauban redevelopment project. Few people who worked in the port had any idea that such an idea was even being floated around. So when Gilliot heard about it, he was dumbstruck that no one had sought the industry’s opinion.
“There was no link between the port, the city and the yachting professionals. No link. No communication,” says Gilliot. “So I went to them and said, ‘How can you do that without them? Without us? It’s our future, we are depending on that.’”
By November 2011, Gilliot had formed ASAP Antibes, and the group has been working ever since to help direct the project. The mayor’s office has been welcoming to the group and to the feedback it has received, according to ASAP Antibes’ members. Much to their relief, the project is every bit as ambitious as the group was hoping.
In many ways, the project would unite the city, say its proponents. Many of the carparks around the port would be replaced by a 2.5km-long promenade connecting the old town with Fort Carré, full of shops and gardens and parks. A part of the promenade would rise up on an artificial hill so that pedestrians could gain an elevated view of the port. A semi-underground carpark would be built nearby, along with a 200-boat dry dock. A retracting footbridge would connect the Quai Pierre Merli with the Môle Nord, allowing pedestrians to cross between the two quays and easily traverse the port.
The infrastructure of the port will also be heavily upgraded and maintained, which is much-needed and long-overdue, says Sydbeck. Leftover scrap and junk lining the port will be discarded and the areas beautified.
Most ambitious, however, is the extension of the port itself – technically a 250m (820 ft) extension of the Billionaires’ Quay. Currently, the quay stretches out 650m (2,100 ft) and also serves as the main breakwater for the port. It offers 17 berths for yachts up to 90m (295 ft) and two berths for yachts up to 150m (490 ft) and 165m (541 ft). The proposal would extend the quay to 1,250m (4,100 ft) and create an additional 25 berths, as well as a proposed cruise ship berth.
The quay is actually called Quai Camille Rayon, but it’s more often called IYCA or the Billionaires’ Quay. And it did not receive the latter designation for nothing. A berth on the quay was recently reported to have an asking price of 9.5 million euros (£8.2 million or $12.6 million). This offers a glimpse of how the project could be financed, says Sydbeck.
“When they do decide to make this, only this section here would finance the whole port twice,” he says, referring to the extension. “You could build that and sell the leases for 25 or 30 years and that will bring in revenue to do everything you want.”
A race against time
However, that argument hasn’t been enough to fully sway the municipality to grant full authorization. While the total cost of the project has not been made official, it will certainly be in the hundreds of millions of euros. And while the financing has yet to be finalized, politicians are telling media outlets that it won’t cost the local citizenry a cent in higher taxes. Gonzalez told The Riviera Times that all funding would consist of private investors and rents from users.
But despite all of the projected benefits, French bureaucracy has a unique ability to create delays where none would seem possible. Most worrying to Sydbeck and Gilliot are the new and lavish marinas popping up all over the Western Med – marinas like Port Adriano in Mallorca, Marina Porto di Imperia and Marina di Loano along the Italian Riviera, the major improvements to the Port de Barcelona. And that’s not even considering the many ports being developed in places like Croatia.
“There are several different projects all around the Mediterranean that are already finished or underway or in planning stages,” says Sydbeck. “And there are so many ports popping up, especially in Italy and in Spain. And they are state-of-the-art ports, and big ports that hold big units.”
When we met, Gilliot had just returned from a trip to Mallorca – a scouting mission of sorts. “Port Adriano is a really nice port with big berths for big yachts, a really nice building by Philippe Starck and it’s a really marvellous place for yachts,” he says. This is where business is expanding; no longer in France. When he arrived with Dolphin Wear five years ago, they had 10 employees in France. Now, they have 18 employees in France, but the three newest employees are in Spain.
“Why are these people in Spain? Because I will not increase business here,” Gilliot says. “Antibes is not aware that the activity is going down due to the service, due to the atmosphere, due to the price, due to the taxes, etc. And one day you will see less and less yachts here and people will look around and say, ‘Why are there no more yachts?’”
The project is already well behind its competitors. It will take about three years to do the studies that are required and receive authorization. And only once that is done can it be built, which will likely take several more years.
“We are already five or 10 years late, compared to other marinas in Europe,” Gilliot says. “And it will take five, six, seven years to do all of that. So we have to start now.”
***UPDATE:There will be a BBQ meeting for ASAP members and all interested parties on the IYCA Friday 6th of September at 5:30pm.***
Photos and images provided courtesy of Daniel Shea, ASAP Antibes and GoogleMaps.