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The first belle époque, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, brought some 150,000 wealthy English, Russians and Germans to winter in the sunny Alpes-Maritimes, in the south-east corner of France.
This ever-popular department is vast, stretching from Theoule sur Mer in the West to Menton and the Italian border in the East. Today, its famous coastline, the Côte d’Azur, is still the place where the world’s rich come to strut their stuff.
The wealth on show is mind-boggling, particularly on the luxurious peninsulas of Cap d’Antibes, Cap Ferrat and Cap Martin. The towns along the busy coast road merge together in one long procession of buildings, as, each year, more hotels and apartment blocks are built to cater for the millions of tourists who flock to the area. And Air France’s recent launch of daily flights from London’s City airport to Nice suggests that even this most conservative of French institutions is keen to promote a new Anglo-French entente cordiale. So if a ‘buzz’ and a sophisticated, hedonistic lifestyle is what you’re after, the Côte d’Azur is where you’ll find it?at a price.
Savills International (020-7016 3740) and their associate Riviera Estates (00 33 493 874 115) quote a guide price of ?18 million (£12m) for the recently restored Villa du Golfe on the favoured West side of Cap d’Antibes. Built in classic belle époque style, the sumptuous 6,600 sq ft villa has panoramic views over its own gardens, swimming pool and tennis court to the sea?from the Îles du Lerins to Cannes. Accommodation on three levels includes open plan dining and sitting areas, a huge lounge, six bedrooms, six bathrooms and a caretaker’s cottage.
Provenance in Provence
Inland from the coast, life is simpler, the pace less frenetic. Here, despite the recent wave of development, small medieval villages such as Mougins, St Paul de Vence, Valbonne and Biot have not changed all that much in recent years.
‘Demand for upmarket property is still strong, but buyers will no longer pay high prices for n’importe quoi: authenticity, character, a good location and ease of access are the prime criteria,’ says local agent Antoine Garcin, who heads up the Mougins office of Emile Garcin (00 33 497 973 210).
‘As a result, discerning buyers are looking in the hinterland, which is more protected, more authentic and quieter, and where prices are more sensible than on the Côte d’Azur,’ adds Mr Garcin. Emile Garcin are selling a charming seven-bedroom, seven-bathroom rustic stone house set in half a hectare (about 1.2 acres) of wooded gardens and grounds, with views of the bay of Cannes and the Esterel mountains, for ?5.8 million (£3.87m).
In the arrière-pays behind Cannes, the ancient water mills no longer produce flour or olive oil, as most have been converted into chic country retreats for wealthy Parisians or foreigners. A hundred years ago, the romantic Moulin de L’Ange?on the River Brague between Valbonne and Biot?was one of 11 mills in the area grinding either olives or grain. Named after Lou-Lou L’Ange?the last owner to mill flour there? the mill has been extensively renovated by its previous two owners and its mill wheel is fully operational. The house has some 2,750 sq ft of accommodation, including a large reception room and master suite, four/five further bedrooms and a separate guest cabanon. The lively village of Valbonne is a 20-minute walk along the riverbank. Knight Frank (020-7629 8171) and their associate Riviera Realty (00 33 493 123 400) quote a guide price of ?2.7 million (£1.8m) for the idyllic moulin, set in more than a hectare (about 2.4 acres) of terraced gardens and grounds.
Some 300-400 metres above sea level, and 15km inland from Cannes, the historic hill town of Grasse slumbers among woods, deep gorges and wild rivers. From the 16th century onwards, Grasse was the centre of the French perfume industry, which brought prosperity and fame to the town. This notoriety is reflected in its beautiful Romanesque buildings, fine 18th-century houses and exquisite gardens. In the 1950s, the remarkable Helena Rubinstein?who first took Paris by storm with her range of ‘Valaze’ beauty products in 1912?bought La Maison Blanche in the chic residential enclave of St Francois de Grasse. This grand bastide, which has olive groves and a park that overlooks the sea and the Esterel mountains, has been painstakingly restored by inspirational Dutch designer and antique dealer Bert Quadvlieg. The property is for sale at ?6.5 million (£4.3m) through the Bureau Côte d’Azur (00 33 493 392 106), a licensee of international agents Engel & Völkers.
Var to go
West of Grasse, the Var claims to be the second ‘greenest’ department in France. And, despite being incredibly popular with tourists, it certainly has not been developed to anything like the extent of the neighbouring Alpes-Maritimes.
The coast of the Var stretches for 300km from Bandol to St Raphael, against a backdrop of dramatic mountains, lakes and huge forests. During the summer, the pretty fishing port of St Tropez?at the foot of the Massif des Maures?is a Mecca for the Hello brigade of celebrities and paparazzi. So, once again, serious property hunters tend to head inland to the pretty
medieval villages around Draguignan, Lorgues, and Brignoles.
Grimaud-based Hugo Skillington (00 33 494 441 044) is Knight Frank’s laid-back ‘man in the Var,’ and can be relied on to have the entrée to the best houses for sale in the area. He is asking ?1.13 million (£753,000) for a dreamy six-bedroom stone country house with a hectare (about 2.4 acres) of grounds near La Garde Freinet. The property is just 10km inland from the sea and one hour and 15 minutes from Cannes-Nice airport.
Regardez le Gard
Until quite recently, for most Britons, the South of France meant Provence and the Côte d’Azur?from Menton in the East to Marseille in the West. However, the expansion of budget airline networks to include provincial destinations such as Carcassonne, Montpellier, Nîmes, Pau and Perpignan has opened up a whole swathe of gloriously undiscovered southern French countryside to UK property buyers.
Courtesy of Ryanair, Nîmes airport is now the gateway to the up-and-coming region of Languedoc-Roussillon, the department of the Gard, and the jewel in its crown, the ducal city of Uzès. The first settlements in Uzès were located near the River Alzon where the Romans built a fortified hilltop camp known in the 5th century as Ucetia. In the year 50AD, they decided to harness the water from the source of the Eure to provide water for the city of Nemausus (Nîmes), which meant building a 50km-long aqueduct, the main part of which was the Pont-du-Gard across the River Gardon.
In 1229, when Languedoc became part of the kingdom of France, the lords of Uzès became Viscounts, then Dukes, and, later, First Dukes of France, whose duty was to assist the king at war. Consequently, 21 Dukes d’Uzès were killed or injured in battle. The d’Uzès family still owns its castle?called the Duché?in the middle of the old city centre. Uzès was also the fifth biggest Protestant stronghold in France in the 16th century, as well as a holiday destination for 1947 Nobel Prize winner André Gide, who came from a local family.
It is an ancient city steeped in history, art, culture and beautiful stone buildings, protected to the North by the mountains and forests of the Cévennes. The Uzès office of Emile Garcin (00 33 466 032 410) quotes a price of ?3.18 million (£2.12m) for an imposing medieval château near Uzès, called the Château du Castellas, at St Bonnet de Salindrenque. The core of this incredible building is a 9th-century keep, which was substantially extended and re-modelled in the early 17th century. It comprises a main ground floor medieval courtyard, four Renaissance-style reception rooms on the first floor, and five bedrooms, two salons, a kitchen and three bathrooms on the second floor. A terrace at the top of the keep enjoys views of the Cévennes and the surrounding countryside.
On a less monumental scale, London-based David King & Associates (020-8671 1111) are asking ?795,000 (£530,000) plus legal fees for the 18th-century Mas de la Clastre, near Sanilhac, 8km South of Uzès. Set at the edge of the village, this traditional five-bedroom former farmhouse is one of a hamlet of four properties surrounded by vineyards, and has been beautifully renovated in a pleasantly neutral Provençal style by its British owners. It has three reception rooms, five bedrooms, a one-bedroomannexe, a swimming pool and a pretty, shaded garden. The celebrated Hostellerie Le Castellas at Colliac is 4km down the road.
Escape to Ariège
To the West and South of the Gard, the departments of the Midi-Pyrénées are among the least populated, most unspoilt regions of France, home only to a handful of Britons, most of whom know how to keep a secret.
The department of Ariège nestles in the Pyrénées next to Andorra, its highest peaks visible from Toulouse. Far from the centres of power, Ariège has always been a refuge: for prehistoric man who sheltered in its many caves, for the Cathar heretics who defied the Church, and for resistance fighters, refugees and downed Second World War pilots, who eluded the Nazis to escape over the peaks into Spain. Nowadays, it is a haven for those in search of a more natural way of living.
The area South of the 13th-century village of Mirepoix is strewn with craggy mountains capped with romantic, ruined medieval castles. Montségur?one of the last strongholds of the persecuted Cathar sect?is visible from the remarkable Domaine de Bize, which is for sale for ?1.7 million (£1.13m) through Egerton International (020-7581 6543). Built in the 1960s by a wealthy surgeon from Troyes, Dr Jean Gauthier, it was bought in 2002 by its present English owner, George Chilcott, who describes it as: ‘unique in style, size and interior finish compared to anything we have seen in this region.’ The massive oak roof structure, for example, was built by the Compagnons, descendants of the traditional itinerant builders of many of France’s cathedrals. A 200-year-old firm of specialists from Albi restored intricate plasterwork and a firm from Castres supplied the property’s five marble fireplaces.
Talk of the Tarn
West of Mirepoix, in Tarn-et-Garonne, Charles Smallwood, an agent with Agence l’Union at Saint Antonin Noble Val for 16 years, has seen a sea change in the number and type of British buyers seeking to buy in this part of the Midi-Pyrénées. ‘Years ago, most buyers wanted “perfect isolation”?total peace and quiet, high up in the mountains with wonderful views. Today’s purchaser wants to be close to a lively village and within walking distance of the boulangerie, yet still have privacy and views?a virtually impossible combination.
‘It can take some time for this to sink in, so the market has slowed somewhat in recent years. As a result, owners who need to sell are prepared to drop their prices. We have seen prices reduced by as much as ?200,000,’ says Mr Smallwood.
Certainly, the asking price of £387,000 quoted by Agence l’Union (00 33 563 306 024)?Savills’ associate in the area?for the pretty Manoir de Bonnefont, on the edge of a village 10km from the market town of Castelsarrasin, does not seem excessive. Toulouse airport is a 45-minute drive, Bordeaux and Carcassonne both 90 minutes. Built in the Parisian style of Napoleon III, the manor house was home to the same French family from 1820 to 2001. Since then, its present British owners have renovated and modernised the property.
All-for-one in Gascony
‘Ask any of the several hundred Britons living in Gascony why they chose to settle in this gloriously untouched part of south-west France, and be prepared to listen to a long list of reasons,’ says Ian Purslow of Purslow’s Gascony (00 33 562 676 150), who has lived there with his family for 16 years.
Now Knight Frank’s associate in Gascony, Mr Purslow specialises in selling properties in the Gers?in the heart of the region?to British and other European nationals. ‘For many, it is the wonderful, gentle countryside with easy roads and little traffic. For others, it’s the regional food and wines that make living here a pleasure. Regular flights from Britain to Pau and Toulouse are certainly a plus, and the relatively low price of property is an obvious attraction?a good family house can be bought for £400-700,000; a cottage from around £200,000,’ he says. ‘But what nearly everyone agrees on is that the Gascons are the most welcoming, courteous and hospitable people to have as neighbours?the majority of our buyers are overwhelmed by their welcome here.’
Jointly with Knight Frank, Mr Purslow is selling Château Las Tapies with its 26-hectare (64-acre) estate near Condom, for ?1.68 million (£1.12m). A 13th-century bishop’s hunting lodge, the château was re-modelled with a classical façade in about 1800, and has been restored by its Dutch owners. It has three reception rooms, six bedrooms and three bathrooms.