Country houses for sale

Buying property in south-west France

For two weeks every August, the small Medieval town of Marciac in Gascony is transformed into a focal point of one of France’s musical love affairs: jazz. The underground African-American music that first touched French hearts in the years immediately after the First World War has never left.

The Festival du Jazz draws large number of foreigners to Gascony for those two weeks. Stephen and Kate Silverman, who own a buttermilk-coloured château just outside Marciac, which they run as a chambre d’hôtes during the summer, had to convert more rooms into bedrooms this summer to meet the demand. ‘We’ve been flat out,’ says Stephen, a designer.

Although the festival is by no means France’s answer to Glastonbury, for those who know Gascony, it’s a must in the summer calendar. ‘It’s true, you can’t talk about Gascony for long before Marciac is mentioned,’ smiles Ian Purslow, who, for the past 19 years, has been selling manoirs and châteaux to overseas buyers. ‘But first, you have to have heard of the area.’

For those who haven’t, Gascony is the region west of Toulouse, whose main town is Auch (pronounced to sound like ‘gosh’). The birthplace of d’Artagnan-whose life provided a sketch for Dumas’ character in The Three Musketeers-its pretty, undulating countryside is scattered with Tuscan-esque stone-built villages crowned with bell towers. The Gersois are successful farmers and the fertile region enjoys a strong economy that hasn’t surrendered to tourism. To the south are resplendent views of the Pyrenees, to the north lie the trendier regions of the Dordogne and the Lot.

‘People find out about Gascony through family connections and friends, in the main,’ adds Mr Purslow, who discovered the area after working in Andorra in the 1970s. ‘It attracts the more adventurous types who don’t want Dordogne, which they consider to be too invaded with foreigners. It’s not a closely guarded secret, but you have to know your France a bit to get here.’

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Apart from Auch, there are no large towns and certainly no ‘honeypot attractions’-the charm is rather more understated; cream- coloured houses, lively markets, hearty meals washed down with Armagnac (700 years old in 2010) dominate the picture. ‘It’s extremely low-key and quite unflashy, but it means that there hasn’t been a Bourton-on-the-Water effect,’ says Mr Purslow. ‘And the professionals who have found their way here hope that it will remain a bit of a backwater.’

This is, if we are to believe all that’s written in Le Figaro, quite a different situation to that in the Dordogne. The newspaper has taken to referring to it as ‘Dordogneshire’, at the same time lamenting the fact that there are cricket schools, conker championships and even a primary school where the minority language is French. ‘The Dordogne is certainly more touristy than Gascony. It’s also more seasonal and has many more second-home owners rather than families living there full-time,’ comments Jonathan Pugh of agents Jonathan Charles, who is based in Toulouse and has been selling houses across south-west France for 19 years.

Passing through the sunflower-carpeted fields of the Lot-et-Garonne over into the Dordogne, the roads wind past wide, somnolent rivers surrounded by vineyards to a countryside which, it’s said, reminds expatriates of England. Business editor of The Spectator Martin Vander Weyer was thus enthralled when he bought a watermill in the region. ‘We chose to buy in the Dordogne because, on a first visit, I loved the landscape, the colour of the stone, and the food-but, to be honest, I didn’t know much about the area. I didn’t realise how much it rains, for example. But it doesn’t matter: it’s soft rain, and I’ve never regretted the choice. This is the real “France profonde”, with a timeless, gentle, idyllic quality of life.’

Evidence of homesick buyers is certainly stronger in the Dordogne than further south: the country-house paintmaker of choice, Farrow & Ball, has a shop in Eymet, one of the Dordogne’s buzziest towns, and it’s not infrequent to find four-door Agas in the kitchens of the châteaux. ‘This area has an unusual blend of rural France and sophistication,’ says Stewart Cook of Classic French Homes, a representative of Knight Frank in the area.

The cheerful white limestone houses complemented by blue shutters strike a chord with buyers from all over the world. ‘Aside from the British, there are Dutch, Scandinavian, American and Australian homeowners in the Dordogne.’

Mr Cook, who is based just a few miles outside of Eymet with his wife and young family, is among a newer breed of overseas buyer in the area. ‘Once it used to attract retirees who could drive down from the UK, but now, more and more young families coming out looking for The Good Life.’ An article which appeared in the online magazine The First Post recently stated-as an antidote to many reports in the British press that Britons are packing up and leaving France-that there are three tribes of British living in France: those who left in the 1970s when Jim Callaghan was in power, those who left in the 1980s under Margaret Thatcher, and those who left in the 1990s when New Labour came in. ‘It’s true,’ says Mr Cook. ‘People will always come here citing disillusionment with life in the UK, overcrowding, crime and the state of education.’

‘Although we’ve seen fewer buyers from England on account of the economy and the weakened pound, we’re still seeing plenty of expatriates coming through,’ says Carl Schol-field of Lafite Scholfield Belles Demeures. ‘The main reason why people are buying is because they’re preparing to leave their country of work but don’t want to return entirely to the UK.’ Jonathan Pugh agrees: ‘Those attracted to the south-west tend to be expatriates returning from the Middle and Far East. Buyers tend to be quite discerning-they’re Francophiles looking for something more authentically French than is often found in the south-east.’

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The market

Overall, the market in the south-west has softened in the last 18 months, but Matthew Hodder-Williams at Knight Frank notes they’re seeing buyers return, ‘especially in the established areas.’ Whereas Gascony was always the cheaper alternative to the Dor-dogne, Mr Pugh says that, today, prices are only a fraction lower: ‘They’re catching up.’

But, much like in the rest of France, the market never boomed to the extent that it did in the UK. Values are down between 10% and 15%, and you’ve got to have a realistic price to sell. Although the bottom end of the market is very quiet, interest starts to kick in around the €1 million-€1.5
million mark. ‘It’s a good time to look around,’ says Mr Purslow.

In Gascony, €500,000 will buy a five-bedroom farmhouse and €1 million will buy a good-sized château. Meanwhile, in the heart of the Dordogne, €700,000 will buy a large five-bedroom house; €2 million will buy a nice big château. ‘It’s still significantly cheaper than Tuscany, Provence and the Côte d’Azur, but more expensive than neighbouring areas. And there’s still a lot of cachet that comes with the Dordogne,’ says Mr Cook.


Jonathan Charles (00 33 609 72 37 04;

Knight Frank (020-7629 8171;

Purslow’s Gascony (00 33 5 62 67 61 50;

Classic French Homes (00 33 553 23 32 13;

Lafite Scholfield (00 33 553 95 97 28; on expensive ski holidays