On the Côte d’Azur, the big-hitters from Moscow, Dublin and the City of London have been slugging it out behind closed doors, reputedly paying up to ?100 million for some of the most prestigious properties. As a result, says Andrew de Moleyns of Savills-Riviera Estates (00 33 4 93 77 11 19), averagely rich British buyers have taken to the hills behind Cannes, where eight of 11 major properties sold by his agency this year have been bought by City bankers or commodity traders.

A British banker has bid more than ?4m for a charming 18th-century mas set in five hectares of olive-groves near Grasse, with a guest house, a studio, and all the usual ‘extras’ automatic irrigation, garden lighting, two driveways, electric gates and state- of-the-art surveillance and security systems. But the owner is holding out for the ?4.95m asking price for the roomy, six-bedroom house previously owned by Sir Norman Foster, and totally renovated by him. Elsewhere, the burgeoning network of provincial towns and cities served by Ryanair is drawing British buyers back to many areas they first thought of years ago.

According to Paul Humphreys, head of Knight Frank’s operations in France, daily flights by Ryanair to Bergerac (with the option of British Airways to Bordeaux) have revived the Dordogne, where an earlier gene-ration of British, Canadian and American buyers is now ready to sell and move on. Knight Frank (020?7629 8171) and Agence Immobilière du Perigord (00 33 5 53 57 11 03) have good family properties for sale in and around the pretty, 13th-century walled market town of Ste Foy La Grande on the Dordogne River. They include a delightful 18th-century townhouse with private walled gardens which is on the market at ?830,000.

According to Mr Humphreys, the ‘smart money’ is beginning to find its way to Lot-et-Garonne where the market has been quiet for the past few years possibly on the back of rumours that Ryanair is about to start flying into Agen. Meanwhile, the département is served by FlyBe through Toulouse. You can still buy a village house in the Lot for ?100,000. At the other end of the scale, Savills-Agence de L’Union (00 33 5 63 30 60 24) have a splendid manor house with 12.5 acres of land and spectacular views at Luzech, near the university town of Cahors, for ?1.39m.

‘For connoisseurs of south-west France, Gascony is no longer a new area; it is now a mature market with buyers taking advantage of low-cost flights to Toulouse and Pau,’ says Ian Purslow of Purslow’s Gascony (00 33 5 62 67 61 50), adding ‘prices have drifted somewhat since they peaked in 2003, but a busy spring market this year suggests that they are poised to move upwards again’. Mr Purslow has a number of typical Gascon stone houses set in their own land for sale from ?500,000 to ?1m, among them a historic stone-built country house set in 7.5 acres of land with panoramic views south to the Pyrenees, located 45km north-west of Auch, 90 minutes from Toulouse airport. It is on the market at ?655,000.

Pau has been a favourite watering-hole for discerning Britons since the Duke of Wellington received a rapturous welcome from the townsfolk in 1814 on his triumphant return from the Pensinular Wars in Spain. The town is still known locally as ‘La Ville Anglaise’ and has the first golf club to be built outside the UK, founded in 1856, and full of English paraphernalia and portraits. There is a flavour of Bath in the architecture of its elegant townhouses, which are priced accordingly.

Mr Purslow is selling a handsome early-18th-century manor house with seven acres of land, 45km south-west of Auch and 55 minutes from Pau. The house has been beautifully restored in the past five years, and has wonderful views, north over rolling countryside, and south across woodland to the distant Pyrenees. The asking price is ?995,000.

Biarritz is another town with long-standing British links which has profited from the arrival of Ryanair and the revival of the property market in south-west France. Consistently popular with the French themselves, prices here have never been low. The Biarritz office of Emile Garcin (00 33 5 59 01 59 59) has a selection of Basque-style properties ranging from a six-bedroom townhouse built in 1925 at ?1.56m, to a swish new five-bedroom house with a swimming pool and an acre of garden five minutes from the golf courses and Biarritz town centre at ?2.15m.

The gracious university city of Bordeaux is the elegant hub of life in south-west France, where improvements in road, rail and air communications have helped to boost an already thriving residential property market. Knight Frank point to Cap Ferret, on the Arcachon basin (not to be confused with Cap Ferrat on the Côte d’Azur) as another area ‘on the up’. Their Bordeaux associates Maxwell Properties (00 33 5 57 84 07 44) are selling a rare seven-bedroom property on the water at Cap Ferret, with private access to the beach, for ?2,875,500.

Last stop in the south, Nîmes airport (another of Ryanair’s 17 French destinations) is the entry point for Britons heading for the wooded hills and valleys of the Uzès. Emile Garcin, doyen of French estate agents, has seen a growing number of discerning British buyers (‘des gens qui savant ce qu’ils veulent’) heading for the Uzès in recent years. His firm’s branch in Uzès (00 33 4 66 03 24 10) is selling a grand seven-bedroom country house, built in 1841 as the summer residence of the bishops of Uzès. Recently renovated throughout, it stands in about two acres of landscaped gardens, and is on the market at ?2.9m.

For sheer value for money, there is nowhere better than the area around Dijon in the heart of Burgundy, says French specialist David King of David King & Associates (020?8673 6800). He is sole agent for 16 apartments and cottages currently being converted within the walls of the 19th-century Moulin Beaunotte near Aignay-le-Duc, 60km from Dijon. Prices for the properties, scheduled for completion in late 2007, range from ?85,000 to ?350,000.

Finally, one of France’s best-kept secrets: the gloriously rural Cotentin peninsula south of Cherbourg, easily accessible from the south of England via the high-speed ferry from Portsmouth, or by no-frills FlyBe from Southampton. David King is selling a restored 17th-century manor house with 82 acres of land near Valognes, in the heart of the Cotentin, on behalf of its British owners who have lived in France for 25 years. On the market at ?1.3m, the estate includes four gîtes well patronised by Americans and Canadians visiting the Normandy beaches a large lake and various buildings suitable for conversion. Given the French inheritance laws, whereby all property has to be divided equally among the beneficiaries, it is rare indeed to find a house surrounded by so much

of its own land.

It is also something which British expatriates much appreciate as well as Country Life, the Archers and real English sausages.

Glossary of french Legal terms

(source: Purslow’s Gascony)

  • Compromis de vente: Drawn up by the buyer’s notary. It sets out in full all aspects of the transaction. Once signed by both parties, the buyer has a seven-day cooling-off period.

  • Acte de vente: For completion, the 90% balance of the purchase price, together with the notary’s fees, must be in the notary’s possession in advance of the signature of the Acte de Vente.

  • Taxes locales: Two local taxes are levied on all properties: the annual Taxe d’habitation paid by the owner (or tenant) in occupation on January 1 and the Taxes foncières which relate to buildings and land, and is split pro-rata between buyer and seller.

  • Frais de notaire: At the time of completion, the notary collects purchase taxes on behalf of the French state, on a sliding scale based on the property’s value. The notary’s own legal fee for the conveyance is added. Together, these amount to about 6.5% of the bricks-and-mortar price, excluding the value of movable contents. A mortgage can add a further 1% to the overall fees.