Life across the Channel

Despite the current economic gloom, our love affair with property in France persists.
France - Burgandy-BeauneFrance - Burgandy-Beaune

It probably began with William the Conqueror, who was known even to his friends as William the Bastard. Not a good start. Was it that ineffable Gallic charm or did the conquered get used to having to conduct all legal and social matters in French? Or perhaps those rough Anglo-Saxons were tamed into enjoying wine from goblets instead of plunging their hairy chins into a trough of mead.

Whatever it was, 50,000 of us every year are buying French holiday homes – quite apart from the 100,000 British citizens who live permanently in the country that the natives refer to as the 'Hexagone'.

Despite that pushy little chap Napoleon, our love affair with France grows more passionate, as we continue to recognise the country's great property values as well as lifestyle advantages.

You will find a house to suit your budget somewhere in France, but finding the right somewhere is the important factor. If you like hot sun go south of Lyon, if not stay north. Starting just across the Channel, here are six regions of France to consider.

Normandy and Brittany

A traditional favourite with British buyers; the area has a climate only slightly warmer than southwest England. It is the closest region geographically to the UK, but depending on where you are it could take longer and cost more driving back than a flight from further south. If you like walking, swimming, surfing, seafood, magnificent beaches, the elegance of Deauville’s fading Edwardian grandeur, plus an annual film festival, this is a region well worth researching.

It has excellent golf courses, while Trouville, Deauville and Honfleur form the Norman Riviera.

For Celtic folklore lovers nothing beats Breton music and poetry festivals, although the convivial bonhomie of Lorient, host to the largest annual inter-Celtic festival in Europe, regularly leaves many a spectator the worse for wear.

Breton dolmens and megaliths predate the Pyramids – apparently King Arthur’s horses can be heard in the forest of Paimpon. Look at Rennes, St Malo, Deauville, Dieppe, Trouville and Etretat.

Would suit types who:

  • Love France but still want to shop in M&S.
  • Loathe hot sun.
  • Are prone to homesickness.
  • Visit only for a couple of weeks at a time.

Property: Reasonable, except on the smart coast. Examples: Deauville apartment, three rooms, €222,600; Côtes-d’Armor (St Laurent), two beds, 95sq m, €87,000.

The Dordogne

The Dordogne is the large river that bisects the old province of the same name. To immigrant Brits, and there are plenty of them, it is an area encompassing the Perigord, Limousin and the Lot. It's green, leafy and wooded, warm and wet. During the Hundred Years War and the Wars of Religion, it yo-yoed between the French and British. Possibly still does.

The Périgord has four sectors. Noir, capital Sarlat, beautiful, but property is expensive; Vert, capital Brantôme, is home to plenty of Brits, many of whom came to retire then started B&Bs; Blanc, because of the limestone rock, capital Périgueux, a market town; and Pourpre, stunning landscapes, capital Bergerac, a lovely medieval town surrounded by vineyards.

The Dordogne is England abroad for many Britons, with cricket teams, C of E church choirs, and clubs for everything. It may not be your idea of living in France but having a moan on an English shoulder in an English tearoom is undoubtedly comfortable.

Would suit types who:

  • Really want England but warmer.
  • Wear wellies and anoraks.
  • Like to join clubs and social organisations that comprise fellow Brits.
  • Want to open a B&B, where there's a plentiful supply of British labour.

Property: Good value. Examples: Bergerac, house, 125sq m, eight rooms, garden, two offices, new kitchen €183,500. Périgueux (25 minutes from town), house, 140sq m, seven rooms, sauna, pool, 4,500sq m land, €382,000.

Burgundy and Franche-Comté

The mairie in Auxerre says more and more Brits live in Burgundy en permanence. The climate warms as you approach the Lyon divide. Red roofs and vineyards abound and the road signs read like a wine list: Maçon, Nuit-St-Georges and Beaune.

On through the wheatfields of Champagne are three places to check out: Lac du Der – 10km long and with 77km of coastline, a nature reserve and a beach – Montier-en-Der – home of the national stud – and Langres, with its five lakes. Few Britons live here.

Would suit types who:

  • Consider themselves bon viveurs.
  • Will visit more than once a year.
  • Would like to own and be buried in a vineyard.
  • Like inland water sports.

East of Burgundy is Franche-Comté, a less-visited area that specialises in water sports in summer and snow sports in the Jura in winter. It is a paradise for cyclists, hikers ramblers and all those who love the outdoor life. The mild climate here is wetter than in Burgundy. The main centres include Belfort, Besançon, Malsoucy and Lons-le-Saunier.

Would suit types who:

  • Are independent cyclists.
  • Like to pop into Switzerland.
  • Have political friends in Strasbourg.

Property: Reasonably priced. Example: Vesoul area, house,

nine rooms, 2,500sq m land, plus large barn to convert, €96,300.

Atlantique-Pyrenees

In this southwest corner you have it all, and although it is southern, temperatures are cooled by the Atlantic. There are mountains for skiing, the ocean for swimming and surfing; traditional culinary delights, ham and sauce Bearnaise from Bayonne. Pau, the capital of the region, has been called the English city, probably dating from the time of the Duke of Wellington’s brief occupation in 1814.

The curative powers of the climate brought the English in droves, along with horse racing, hunting, cricket, croquet, several world-class golf courses, and the English tearoom.

Biarritz, once rivalling Nice as the playground for louche European royals, is a beautiful town with belle époque architecture, a casino and a spectacular shoreline.

Would suit types who:

  • Love golf, riding, skiing and surfing.
  • Are vintage car enthusiasts.
  • Think about running a gite.
  • Enjoy trips into duty-free Andorra, and mountain walks into Spain.

Property: Pricey on the coast, but plenty of bargains inland. Examples: Biarritz, one-bed apartment, nr beach, €240,000. Pays Basque, character house, 400sq m, 12 rooms, 307sq m of land, €330,500.

Languedoc

This is the most Hispanic region of France, running down to the Spanish border and to the eastern edge of Provence. The course camarguaise bull culture is strong, and on festive nights paella is served up on tables cluttering blocked-off streets. The Languedoc is rich in colour and dotted with vineyards. Rivers come down from the Ardeche, perfect for kayaks and canoes, and there are fine golf courses outside Nîmes.

Nîmes was the capital of Roman Provincia, with some well-preserved ancient monuments in the city. Nearby is the Pont du Gard, the magnificent Roman aqueduct, and at Orange the amphitheatre stages summer operas. Montpellier is a medieval university town on a coastline of sweeping sandy beaches. To the east is the Camargue.

Would suit types who:

  • Want an easy lifestyle, good wine, unusual local customs.
  • Love rocks, crags, rivers and beaches.
  • Enjoy shopping in markets.
  • Like baking summers.
  • Don't mind being far from an airport.

Property: Coastal property prices higher but heating costs less, except in remote, wintry Cevennes. Examples: Beziers area, villa. 166sq m, six beds, 13,000sq m land with pine forest. Pool, caretaker’s house, tennis court, €670,000; Uzès area, house, 185sq m, big courtyard, €472,000.

Provence-Alpes-Cote D'Azur

Provence starts at Avignon and the Côte d’Azur extends to the Italian border – a region where you can ski in the morning and swim an hour away on the coast. The Riviera has a micro-climate, which is why property is more expensive. Here belle époque Romanov palaces and mansion blocks rub shoulders.

This is the France of Cannes and its film stars, Nice with its opera, Antibes with its harbour and yachts, cobbles and fabulous markets, and innumerable jazz and music festivals. In summer the coast road is solid with cars, so search in the hinterland for tranquillity: you needn't go far.

There are dozens of old Provençal market towns with pavement cafés and restaurants open in winter, unlike so many tourist villages that die hors saison.

Note that partial heating is needed, usually from about November-March, and you could live here without a car – something to consider when house-hunting anywhere in France. Public bus transport costs only €1 to go anywhere in this Department, and there is an excellent train service.

Would suit types who:

  • Dream of sashaying on the Croisette or Promenade des Anglais.
  • Love baking sun and excellent seafood.
  • Want a convenient base for Monte Carlo's glitz (but without the prices) and la dolce vita of Italy's Ligurian coast.

Property: Most expensive region of France after Paris. Lower prices inland. Examples: Castellane, house to renovate, five rooms 120sq m, garden, €97,000. Golfe Juan, house, five rooms, 175sq m, 15 min beaches. €1,280,000.

Further information

Getting there: All the regions mentioned are well-served by local airports flown to by Ryanair (www.ryanair.com), easyJet (www.easyJet.com) and Flybe (www.flybe.com). French senior railcards cost €45, and give 50% off rail travel within France. You do not have to be a French resident to get one.

Do your homework: To find out more about any region in France, see www.angloinfo.com, or for French property go to www.google.fr (search for town or Department and 'immobiliers').

* This article first appeared in the September 2008 edition of Saga Magazine - details correct at time of publication. Based on Elizabeth Morgan's book 'Life Style French Style' (How to Books).


The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated.

The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.

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