It’s 23 years since Peter Mayle’s rustic memoir, A Year in Provence, lifted the lid on country life in the Lubéron, and brought bankers, stockbrokers and international celebrities flocking to buy sunshine retreats around the picturesque stone villages of the slow-beating heart of Provence. Now, boom-and-bust has left Europe’s second-home market in tatters, yet Provence still sees discerning buyers from Britain, Belgium, France, Switzerland, South Africa, the USA and elsewhere acquiring village houses, farmhouses, castles and estates within the Gordes-Menerbes-Bonnieux ‘golden triangle’ in the Lubéron, or around Saint-Rémy, Les Baux, Maussane and Eygalières in Les Alpilles, that enchanting mini-Alpine region of vineyards and olive groves between Avignon and Arles.
According to John Stephenson of Knight Frank, Provence is also proving popular with British expatriates living in Asia who are looking for a European base outside the UK, and the current strength of the dollar and the pound against the Euro suggests that overseas demand for luxury homes in the region is likely to continue. In fact, unlike other parts of France, Provence’s global appeal appears to be growing, with an increasingly diverse mix of nationalities showing an interest in the region. In 2010, clients looking to buy in Provence through Knight Frank came from seven different countries; by the end of 2011, that number had risen to 18.
High-net-worth individuals from Britain and the USA, who are less than impressed by the razzmatazz of the Côte d’Azur, can happily disappear among the rolling hills and valleys of Provence, immersing themselves in 2,000 years of history and the local, more relaxed way of life. Invisibility is part of the package at the immaculate Mas des Plaines, near the ancient village of Gordes, 17 miles from the TGV station at Avignon and 37 miles from Marseille airport.
Knight Frank (020-7629 8171) quote a guide price of €5.9 million for the charming, 37-acre estate set in beautifully landscaped grounds, with spectacular views over the surrounding countryside. Its high-profile American owner has improved and extended the traditional Provençal farmhouse, which now has 10 bedrooms, four reception rooms and eight bathrooms, with a vast pool, stables and a tennis court to provide distraction for even the most demanding celebrity guests.
A few miles south of Gordes, at the heart of the golden triangle, the village of Goult is one of the least known of the Lubéron’s hilltop villages, perhaps because, unlike its more famously photogenic cousins, it isn’t really visible from afar. But if you want to lose yourself in Provence, Goult is a great place to start, suggests Antoine Reguis of estate agents Your Provence (00 33 490 72 40 64), which is based in the village. His current portfolio includes two charming restored farmhouses in discreet locations: the German-owned La Jasso at an asking price of €1.735m and the British-owned La Fontaine de Buis at €2.35m.
Described as ‘a secret place, with magic views of the entire Lubéron range’, La Jasso (the name is Provençal for bergerie or sheepfold) dates from the late 1700s. Set in 15 acres of typical Provençal landscape, the authentically renovated, five/six bedroom farmhouse stands on high ground in a wonderfully quiet spot a few minutes from Goult. The ground floor is laid out as a large rustic kitchen and a 430sq ft dining room/lounge with an impressive stone fireplace. Bookworms will appreciate the 485sq ft library on the first floor of the east wing, and visitors the spectacular views from the second-floor studio. A former barn has been converted to a two-bedroom guest house, and amenities include air-conditioning, underfloor heating and a swimming pool.
La Fontaine des Buis is another traditional Provençal farmstead, completely restored in 2000 to create one of the finest properties in the valley, yet still only a few minutes drive from the village. Set in 21⁄2 acres of rustic planting with a 14m (45ft) infinity pool, the main building, entered through a delightful enclosed courtyard, is laid out as a large lobby, a semi-professional kitchen, a vaulted sitting room, a 410sq ft dining room and a living room with a massive stone fireplace. There are four bedroom suites in this building, with a further three suites in the converted former stables.
The region of Les Alpilles is still the destination of choice for the international elite who come in search of sunshine, tranquillity and anonymity. But they are no longer prepared to pay over the odds, say Knight Frank. These days, buyers who would previously have considered properties priced at about €5m are now restricting themselves to those priced between €2m and €3.5m, which is about the going rate for a smart country villa near the flagship village of Eygalières, near Saint-Rémy, or at Maussane-les-Alpilles, six miles north-east of the historic city of Arles.
Knight Frank quote a guide price of €2.6m for a traditional farmhouse, stylishly modernised in contemporary style, with four reception rooms, four bedrooms, guest accommodation, a pool and landscaped gardens, five miles from Eygalières. Françoise Dessoy of Campagnes du Soleil in Montelimar (00 33 475 016633) is asking €3m for the handsome Mas des Rosieres, a restored Camarguais family house set in 20 acres of gardens, farmland, woods and olive groves, a few minutes’ drive from Maussane.
British buyers in particular are often drawn to the département of Drôme, to the north of Vaucluse, which, although not officially part of the Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur region, is widely regarded as the gateway to Provence. For this is where the weather changes, where clouds give way to a clear blue sky and lavender and cicadas start to appear. This is also an area where property prices are roughly half those of Les Alpilles.
Campagnes du Soleil is asking €1.8m for the idyllic Ferme des Terres (pictured), which stands in 121⁄2 acres of gardens, woods, olive trees and lavender fields at the foot of the stone village of Mirmande, a 15-minute drive from Montelimar. The house has accommodation on three floors, including winter and summer salons, a large kitchen/dining room, a vaulted wine cellar, four main bedroom suites and various family rooms.
French vendors and estate agents are notoriously reticent about revealing the name or precise location of the properties they’re selling. But prospective purchasers of a house in the quintessential Provençal village of Lourmarin, on the south side of the Lubéron, should have no problem recognising one of its oldest and most distinctive houses, currently for sale through Sheeran Serre in Aix-en-Provence (00 33 680 64 03 75), Savills‘ associate in the region, at a guide price of €3.18m.
From the 11th century onwards, Lourmarin was an important staging post on the road from Marseille to Apt, and this building, which dates from the 12th century, is thought to have been a toll station for many years, before being rebuilt and extended in the 15th and early 20th centuries. The historic, 4,220sq ft house stands on the northern edge of the village (next to Mr Mayle’s former home, which was recently sold) and was completely restored in 1996-97 by its former owner, the architect Jacques Peronne, on behalf of its present French owner, who bought it in 1996.
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