Away from the crowds of Paris or 'Dordogneshire' there are some wonderful parts of unspoiled France where you can still get a property bargain
The main British complaint about the world’s number one tourist destination is that it’s ‘rammed with English people’. The Holy Grail for some looking to own a home in France is to feel like they’ve discovered a special spot. Remote villages where old men in berets speak Occitan over a terrain de pétanque do exist, but they’re often polluted with twangs of Franglais and a whiff of Marmite.
Despite France’s vast size, we seem to congregate in arguably its most attractive parts—Paris, Provence and the Riviera, the Alps and ‘Dordogneshire’. However, hidden gems abound if you’re prepared to put up with sunflower fields over lavender ones, a more precarious climate and spending more time on the road. For those who want to lose themselves in a France unsullied by Anglo- Saxon influence, here are some less well-trodden options.
The Cévennes, Lozère
If you’re seeking splendid isolation, the Lozère is both remote and spectacular.
It is the least populated département in France with 15 inhabitants per square kilometre. If you prefer horizons of rugged hills to dramatic Alpine peaks, these Massif Central mountains fit the bill. Mike and Gilly McHugo run Eagle’s Nest, a study centre providing field trips for English students in Parc National de Cévennes, home to the tiny Bleymard Mont Lozère ski resort at 1,702m (5,584ft). The first time Mike went to work on his new property in 1986, he had to ski there. ‘There was a blizzard, so I left my car in a snowdrift at the top of the hill. It’s spectacular on a winter’s day, but equally wonderful in summer—usually around 25°–29°.’
The downside for many is that they have an hour’s drive to their weekly shop, a hospital or the train station and 2ó to the airport. ‘You have to be happy driving if you live here, but we do get post and fresh bread delivered daily,’ says Gilly.
The McHugos have striven to integrate with the local farming community. Gilly ran the shuttle to the village school for 15 years and now sits on the council; their two daughters are bilingual. They paid £30,000 for derelict buildings and a five-acre site 30 years ago—last year, the average house price was €105,000 (£77,200), according to a report by Notaires de France.
A town sandwiched between La Rochelle and Bordeaux may seem an odd location for a hidden gem, but, according to France’s national statistics agency INSEE, nearly 10% of British expatriates live in the Poitou-Charentes region. France’s vast countryside allows for places off the beaten track even here, at a fraction of the price of France’s honeypot coastline, the Côte d’Azur, averaging €173,000 (£127,000) compared to €430,000 (£316,000).
Michael Amphlet bought a house in a former vineyard near Saintes, in pursuit of both culture and isolation. ‘Our house is half a mile down a country lane,’ he says. ‘We’re in the middle of nowhere, yet I can be in a restaurant in eight minutes.’
He continues: ‘You’d need more than £1 million to buy a place like this on the Côte d’Azur, yet the Côte Sauvage —35 minutes away—has the most amazing beaches I’ve seen.’ Alison Godfrey of Sotheby’s International Realty says Saintes appeals to British buyers. ‘Rather than being a tourist destination, it’s a thriving town, with a daily market specializing in oysters,’ she says. ‘And, crucially, it has the second sunniest climate in France.’
A ski pass in the Pyrénées is about 25% cheaper than in the Alps, as is property and eating out. The average property in the Hautes-Pyrénées costs €135,000 (£99,000) compared to €340,000 (£250,000) in the Haute- Savoie. And, provided you steer clear of the French February holiday, the slopes are quieter. James Dealtry set up his activity holiday business L’Ancienne Poste Avajan in the Louron valley. ‘There are far fewer tourists skiing off-piste, so we’re not fighting for fresh tracks, and it’s very rare to hear English being spoken,’ says James, a qualified French mountain guide and ski instructor.
‘Property is a fraction of the cost of somewhere in the Alps and usually in a village that has year-round life, as opposed to the lock-up-and-leave vibe of some Alpine resorts. It’s vibrant in winter and summer, without feeling overcrowded.’
The beaches on either side of the mountain range have to appeal, too. Joachim Wrang-Widén of Christie’s International Real Estate recommends Saint-Jean-de-Luz, on the Atlantic coast. ‘Real estate prices are moderate compared to the Côte d’Azur and provide good value for money,’ he says.
If you really want to avoid bumping into fellow Britons in a glorious location, try Corsica, home to only 200 expatriates. You can spend a week even in the busy tourist towns and not hear a word of English and, inland, it’s largely unspoilt. Mr Wrang-Widén says: ‘Although developed on the coastline, Corsica has many areas that are surprisingly free of mass tourism and combine Mediterranean climate and culture with rugged nature.’
In contrast, if emerald fields, waterfalls and cheese are your thing —and you don’t mind rain—the unfashionable Franche-Comté region is worth researching. It has world-class cross-country skiing in the Jura Mountains and 250 miles of hiking trails. We may have our own green and pleasant land, but we can’t compete with Franche Comté property prices: the average is €136,000 (£100,000).
The Lauragais, Haute Garonne
This rolling agricultural area is nicknamed ‘little French Tuscany’. Positioned roughly between the Mediterranean and the Dordogne, it’s largely bypassed by English buyers, who favour Provence’s violet panorama of lavender fields to the southwest’s gaudy sunflowers. The Lauragais runs on both sides of the Canal du Midi, from east of Toulouse to the Black Mountains and includes the cassoulet capital Castelnaudary. Artist Iain Vellacott emigrated to Revel a decade ago with his family, seeking warmth and light to inspire his work. ‘The town is like England was 20 years ago,’ he says. ‘Very friendly, a strong community and a fabulous market.’
The Vellacotts wanted a mix of authentic French life with links to the UK. ‘Carcassonne and Toulouse airports are within an hour, as is the Mediterranean, and the ski slopes are 90 minutes away,’ adds Iain.
‘We hardly ever bump into other English people as we’ve made friends through school and my painting local scenes.’ Average house prices here are high—€229,000 (£163,000)—due to Toulouse, the fourth-largest city in France; the countryside is considerably cheaper.
Gorgeous houses for sale in unspoiled France
This pretty 18th-century house lies in the heart of the Lauragais. It comes with six bedrooms, a garden of 2.7 acres and a swimming pool.
Leggett Immobilier (08700 115151; www.frenchestateagents.com)
This six-bedroom house in Bagnères de Luchon is set centrally within in its own large garden but is within walking distance of the centre of Luchon, with its shops, restaurants, spa and golf course. Leggett Immobilier (08700 115151;www.frenchestateagents.com)
This stone-built house, near Saintes, comes with a separate guest house and an outdoor swimming pool. Alison Godfrey Saint Louis/Sotheby’s (0033(0)5 46 93 7226; www.sothebysrealty.com)
This fully restored manoir in Saint Enemie, Lozère is set around inner courtyards and terraces. It has five bedrooms and there’s a guest house that requires modernising. Mayfair International Realty (020–7467 5330; www.mayfairinternationalrealty.com).