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French presidents' holiday retreat on a Riviera island opens to the public for the first time

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PARIS - It's an old fortress on a tiny island, surrounded by pine trees and the turquoise waters of the Mediterranean Sea: The Fort de Bregancon has been the very private holiday retreat of French leaders for decades. And now it's open to the public.

Socialist President Francois Hollande has decided to break with tradition and to show it to the masses for the first time instead of vacationing there, as a symbol of a toned-down presidential lifestyle in tough economic times.

The stylish villa is located on one of the most beautiful and unspoiled parts of the French Riviera.

Visitors can walk in the salons, the dining room and the president's office, but shouldn't expect the marble, gilding and elegant parquet floors you find in many French palaces. Instead, white walls and simple tiles on the floor, in the local Mediterranean style, make it look like a family house.

"It is also the charm of the place: The president can live like ordinary people do, in a simple environment," said Bernard Le Magoarou, administrator of the fort.

Built in the Middle Ages, it became state property during the French Revolution. Gen. Charles de Gaulle made it the official residence of the Republic after spending a memorable — if not very pleasant — night in it in 1964.

"He had a terrible night, because of the mosquitoes and a bed too small. He decided to renovate it," said Le Magoarou.

Since then, every French president has come to take some time off from the demands of the Elysee Palace in Paris, to rest under the sound of the cicadas, and to enjoy the private beach and the spectacular view from the patio.

Jacques Chirac and his wife Bernadette visited often during his presidency from 1995 to 2007, regularly meeting residents of the neighbouring village.

Nicolas Sarkozy, president from 2007 to 2012, used to go jogging or biking. After he married model-singer Carla Bruni while in office, he preferred vacationing in her more luxurious villa at Cap Negre, but continued visiting the fort.

The fort has no swimming pool, forcing bathers out to the beach — giving the paparazzi better opportunities to take pictures of presidential couples in swimwear.

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If You Go...

FORT DE BREGANCON: French presidential retreat open to the public through Sept. 28. A visit costs 10 euros and must be pre-booked on the website of the tourist department : http://www.bormeslesmimosas.com/fr/decouvrir/fort-bregancon.php . Bormes-les-Mimosas, the town that hosts the fort, is about an hour and a half drive east from Marseille or two hours southwest from Nice. The nearest train station is Toulon, and from there you can take a bus or taxi. From Bormes-les-Mimosas, the local tourist department runs boats to the fort.

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Claude Paris in Bormes-les-Mimosas, France contributed to this report.

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Follow Sylvie Corbet on Twitter http://twitter.com/sylviecorbet

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