Agenais et Quercy is a mosaic of colours. Stone farmhouses stand dazzling white against green, ochre and sunflower-yellow fields, barely broken by the deep red of an occasional poppy. It is peaceful, tame countryside, the idyllic byproduct of centuries of rich farming. Even better, the region which encompasses the departéments of Lot-et-Garonne, Lot and Tarn-et-Garonne is la vraie province française, with its close-knit communities, myriad food markets and village shops that shut at twelve sharp.
‘This is really a soft and lovely place to live,’ says Kate Hill, the author of A Culinary Journey in Gascony, who runs a cookery school, The French Kitchen (www.thefrenchkitchen.com), in an 18th-century farmhouse in Camont, Lot-et-Garonne. ‘It is very domesticated. You have a farmhouse here, a village there and a patchwork of fields. It’s not anyone colour, but many plots of differently textured fields.’
It was this lush nature and the sheer abundance of the foodstuffs it produces that won over Miss Hill. ‘The soil is rich, the climate is mild, and the culinary culture grew along with that,’ she enthuses. The peak of local gastronomy is the trio of soft Agen prunes; Armagnac, a rich oak barrel-aged brandy; and, most of all, ducks, which takes the guise of confits, grilled magret or even the duck fat that enriches most of the local dishes. ‘If you don’t like eating, it is a pity to move down here,’ says Trui Seys of L’Oustal Immobilier, Knight Frank’s associate in the region. But Mrs Seys points out another, perhaps less obvious but equally attractive bequest of a thriving agriculture ‘lots of pretty farmhouses.’
‘It’s exceptionally beautiful here,’ she says. ‘There is such a variety of landscapes, a great mix of woodland and farmland, lovely farmhouses and beautiful bastide towns.’ So much so that places such as Monflanquin a succession of impossibly pretty timber-framed buildings dating from the 13th to 15th centuries or Pujols-le-Haut whose tranquil streets belie a blood-stained history stretching back to the crusade against the Cathar heretics have made it to the official list of Les Plus Beaux Villages de France.
‘Many villages [in the area south-west of Cahors] are built of Quercy blanc, the local white stone, which makes them so beautiful,’ says Paul Humphreys of Knight Frank, who adds: ‘People can find really any type of property here. There is a real variety, from classical châteaux to village houses and farmhouses.’
And because the Agenais et Quercy region has yet to achieve the dizzying height of popularity of neighbouring Dordogne, these properties are often available for sale at reasonable prices.
‘A very popular price range is ?250,000 to ?450,000,’ says Mrs Seys, adding that this budget buys a stone house with perhaps a barn and a small stretch of land.
Further up the ladder, ‘if you spent ?450,000 you’d get an entry-level five-bedroom house with a pool,’ says Mr Humphreys. ‘If you go up to ?750,000 or more you get a very substantial property. It is not cheap cheap, but it is very affordable.’
The reason for this, explains Charles Smallwood of Agence l’Union, is that there was a lull in demand over the last 15 months and, although the trend is now changing, there are a lot of properties available on the market.
“The net result is that prices have levelled off and now is quite a good time to buy,” he says.
Buyers many of whom are looking to move permanently to the region are a good mix of French and international families. Indeed, this is one of the major attractions of the Agenais et Quercy. ‘It is not flooded by tourists or overwhelmed with any particular nationality,’ says Mr Humphreys. ‘It is still very French. The international community is there but doesn’t dominate. It is a healthy mixture.’
And, despite prejudices about les frogs turning up their collective noses at foreigners, Agenais et Quercy residents are incredibly friendly.
‘People here are so kind,’ says Greg London, who owns a château near Villeneuve-sur-Lot. ‘They go out of their way to do something for you. I speak very limited French, but have lots of French friends.’
Enticing as this all sounds, hard-nosed investors will also want to know what sort of capital appreciation they can expect from property in the area. Although prices in South West France have been flat over the last year rising by just 1.1% according to France’s estate agents body, the Fédération Nationale de l’Immobilier Agenais et Quercy may experience some growth in the medium term. ‘This area is more affordable than the one to the north Dordogne and the one to the South Gers so one can imagine that the middle is going to rise,’ says Mr Humphreys. ‘Everything moves slowly in South West France, so you are not going to see prices sky-rocket, but I believe they will go gently up.’
Mr Smallwood is more conservative in his estimate. ‘I think that prices will remain constant for the foreseeable future. We have a lot of choice now, which will be taken up in the next 12-18 months, so we may see a small rise then.’
The catalyst for price increases could be the rumoured development of the regional airport in Agen. Local gossip has it that Ryanair may start flying directly to Agen from the UK. ‘This is potentially big news, and it is hard to tell exactly what impact it could have on the region,’ says Mr Humphreys. ‘It could make the area highly attractive.’
Even if Agen never takes off, however, the region is extremely well connected, with international airports in Bordeaux, Bergerac and Toulouse all between 30 minutes and one and a half hours’ drive.
Pretty homes at good prices in idyllic but easily accessible French countryside with great food will be attractive enough for most people. Even so, says Mrs Seys, the true draw of the Agenais et Quercy region, is that ‘life is good here.’
Ms Hill agrees. ‘When I first came here, people used to ask me what did I like, and I would go on about food, wine and weather. But when I asked, people told me: “we take time to take time”,’ she says. ‘I wondered: “what does it mean?” and then I understood: they really take time to enjoy their time, to enjoy life.’
? Knight Frank, 020-7629 8171, firstname.lastname@example.org, www.knightfrank.com
? L’Oustal Immobilier 0033 (0)5 63 39 94 90, email@example.com, www.loustalimmobilier.com (properties in the Lot, Lot-et-Garonne and Tarn-et-Garonne)
? Agence l’Union, 0033 (0)5 6330 6024, www.agencelunion.com (properties in Lot, Tarn-et-Garonne, Tarn and Aveyron)
? Bordeaux and Beyond: 0033 (0)5 5661 0774, firstname.lastname@example.org, www.bordeauxbeyond.co.uk (properties in the Gironde and beyond)