Like a long, grey mirage on the horizon, the low-lying hills of the Alpilles form the background to the sun-scorched fields and ripening vineyards round the ancient town of St-Rémy-de-Provence, near Arles, on the edge of the Camargue. This is the fiefdom of Emile Garcin, doyen of French estate agents who, in a career spanning more than 40 years, has built up a network of offices throughout metropolitan France, many of them run by his children. Patrician and charming, he controls his empire with quiet paternalism from his office in St Rémy, his native town.
The Provence of Emile Garcin is a far cry from the opéra comique world of Peter Mayle, and people here like to keep it that way. Yet access could not be easier. I flew to the tiny modern airport of Nîmes with Ryanair for £70 return, arrived spot on time, and was out of the airport in my hired car and heading onto the autoroute to Arles in less than half an hour. The area was new to me, but not to the many discerning expatriates from all over northern Europe who have owned homes here for many years.
Set amid the vineyards of the Côtes du Rhône, 15km from Avignon, the conversion of the ancient Moulin de Vaucroz, near the village of Bedarrides, has been a labour of love for its Belgian owners. Over a period of years, they have transformed the stone shell of a traditional provençal watermill into 6,600sq ft of luxury living space, to their own design and using only local craftsmen.
The main house has vast reception areas including a 935sq ft library/living room, plus a large kitchen, a dining room, four bedrooms, four bathrooms, an office, a games room, and a winter living room; outbuildings include a caretaker’s house, an outhouse and a pool house. Shaded by ancient trees, the grounds of 2.9 acres include a swimming pool, and a fresh-water well-a precious resource in thirsty Provence. The Luberon office of Emile Garcin (00 33 490 723293) quotes a guide price of ?1.38m.
The American owners of Le Mas André at Eygalières, one of the most popular villages within the Alpilles, have converted the ancient provençal stone farmhouse into three inter-linked living spaces, giving 5,400sq ft of accommodation in all. The character of the original building is retained in the rustic tiled floors, massive beams, stone walls and fireplaces. The main house consists of a vast entrance hall, large living and dining rooms with fine stone fireplaces, the master bedroom, a further bedroom and a bathroom. The second, guest wing, has five bedrooms and three bathrooms. The adjoining annexe has a separate entrance, as well as a large living room, a bathroom and a sleeping area on the mezzanine floor.
The surrounding 20 acres of land, framed by the hills in the distance, include a long drive lined with cypress trees and a walled garden scattered with ancient poplar trees, lavender and flowers, and a large swimming pool. The St Rémy office of Emile Garcin (00 33 490 920158) quotes a guide price of ?3.5m.
The same office quotes a guide price of ?3.9m for another ancient mas, this time at La Gardy, five minutes’ drive from St Rémy, which was restored over many years by its French owner, whose family has owned the property for decades. Surrounded by its 30 acres of land, the scene is one of verdant tranquillity, with the ancient farmhouse shaded from the sun by massive oaks, cypresses, olive and pine trees, against the background of the ever-present hills.
The house is essentially rustic in style with the entrance at garden level, a large sitting room/dining room, a kitchen, study, a guest suite and a garage with internal access to the house. Upstairs are four bedrooms and two bathrooms. There is also a separate, two-bedroom caretaker’s apartment.
Having trawled western Provence in the late 1990s for the perfect holiday retreat, English developer Peter Moore finally settled on the tiny village of St Restitut in the heart of the Côtes du Rhône wine region, not far from Orange. He bought the simply titled La Maison from its Swiss owners, who had meticulously restored the former farmhouse. Mr Moore carried on where they left off and the walled estate, surrounded by lavender fields, vineyards and olive groves, is now a substantial complex of two main houses, two guest annexes, a staff cottage, and two swimming pools, set amid superbly landscaped gardens.
The immaculate main house has summer and winter drawing rooms, a dining room with an open plan, split-level sitting room, a large Woodstock kitchen, two bedroom suites, two further bedrooms and a further bathroom; there is also a separate two-bedroom guest annexe.
The adjacent Rose House and Guest House provide lavish accommodation for an army of visitors. It is all rather more than Mr and Mrs Moore now need, and La Maison is on the market through Aylesford (020-7351 2383) at ?3.75m (about £2.5m). The contents are on offer separately for £250,000.