Twelve miles south of Avignon, the jagged ridges of Les Alpilles rise sheer from the plain of the Rhône valley. Immortalised in the paintings of van Gogh (it was here, following the breakdown that led to his severed ear, that he spent most of his final year, being treated for what might have been a combination of schizophrenia and bipolar disorder), the slopes are haphazardly strewn with olive and almond trees with occasional clusters of pine. Much of the rock is naked scrub, making up hues of pale browns and chalky grey that provide a daily drama for those lucky enough to live within the vicinity as the evening sun sets and the landscape blushes in the pink light.
Lying within the folds of the foothills of Les Alpilles is a scattering of stone-built villages. It’s said that, within these small farming communities, the French resistance to German occupation during the Second World War began. St Rémy, a town built on a round and which has been likened to a mini Aix-en-Provence for its artistic links, is the area’s focal point. The Wednesday market stalls are piled high with local produce- including some of the most expensive olive oil in the world on account of the limited harvest produced each year-and the cobbled streetscape of pastel-painted boutiques and pâtisseries are classic examples of understated French chic. It’s a far cry from the glitz and showiness of the Côte d’Azur-it’s not de rigueur here to swing the latest Hermès Kelly bag-but, nevertheless, the area has its fair share of well-known residents, who keep low profiles, including Princess Caroline of Monaco (whose Grimaldi family once owned the town) and actors Johnny Depp and John Malkovich, who have all been spotted in local restaurants.
As discreet as it might be for a holiday home destination, Les Alpilles has been well and truly discovered, and prices for properties are correspondingly high. It’s not impossible to find the odd farm building that requires renovation, but anyone after a serious Grand Designs-style project might want to look elsewhere. This is especially true after the French government recently declared the area a Parc Régional, constraining future developments to fulfil strict guidelines (including having shutters painted in one of four acceptable shades and banning Hockney-esque turquoise swimming pools in favour of more subdued concrete).
The result is, nevertheless, striking. One can still be stopped in one’s tracks waiting for the local berger to manoeuvre his flock down a lane, flashy modern security gates are left in the Riviera and, apart from the occasional maison de maître, any house that one does spot on the horizon is rarely anything grander than a well-kept mas (farmhouse).
‘We think it’s the quality of life that people find here in Les Alpilles which is the biggest draw,’ explains Philippe Boulet of agents Emile Garcin, who have just launched an attractive, south-facing mas with fabulous views of the mountains. ‘It’s certainly far better than on the Côte d’Azur and, because the area stays active even out of season, it’s better than neighbouring Luberon. It never gets too busy as there’s no mass tourism- you don’t get stuck in traffic jams, even at the height of the summer, and yet the coast is only 45 minutes away.’
The other considerable attraction is the access: both Marseilles and Nîmes airports are within an hour and Avignon’s TGV station, from which Paris is just two hours 40 minutes, is an easy drive from any of villages in Les Alpilles (and, in the summer, Eurostar operates a direct service from London).
Such is the popularity of the area among international buyers that Claude Segalin of Michael Zingraf, Knight Frank’s new representative in the area, says 85% of his clients are foreign and 70% of them are British. ‘For them, it’s the clout of owning a house in St Rémy-de-Provence. It’s not about joining the jet-set on the coast and nor is it about rubbing shoulders with the romantic artistic crowd in the Luberon- here, there’s a mix of everyone.’ Time and again, locals cite the fact that there is year round activity as a reason why the area pitches prices about 10% to 20% higher than those of the Luberon. ‘There’s no feeling of tumbleweed growing,’ says Trisha Harris, a British agent who works for Agence des Alpilles in the much-coveted village of Maussane.
And this was certainly a key factor in the decision made by Tony and Pam Shearer, who scoured southern France for a suitable second-home location until finally landing on St Rémy. The couple, who are based in Holland Park, eventually employed the services of Home Hunts (020-8144 5501; www.home-hunts.com), which specialises in tracking down properties in France on behalf of clients. ‘We plan to spend half the year here and half back in London,’ explains Mr Shearer, a businessman. ‘Getting set up so that I can work remotely from here has had its challenges, but one of the reasons why we chose the area is because there’s so much to do throughout the year.’
But you have to choose your area carefully, warns Stuart Baldock of buying agent Property Vision, who has years of experience tracking down the finest properties in the South of France based out of his office in Nice (www.propertyvision.com; 00 33 4 93 92 79 35). ‘Les Alpilles are the curate’s egg of Provence. Unlike the Luberon-uniformly green, rolling and unchallenging-here, we have Provence with attitude. It’s a case of the good, the very good, the bad and the ugly.’ Because the area is still predominantly given over to farming, Mr Baldock warns that although buying acreage to protect your house and your views can be a good idea, it’s also fraught with potential disappointment. ‘All land outside built-up areas is subject to a possible compulsory purchase by the SAFER, a government body created to assist young farmers set up in business.’
He also says that the D99, the road that bypasses St Rémy to the north, can be heard for miles, especially at night, when lorries still throb by. ‘Sainte Etienne du Grès isn’t the prettiest village, but it has all the vital shops. If you’re happy to put 15 or 20 minutes between your home and St Rémy, go south for the very good. Maussane-les-Alpilles, Paradou, Mouriès, Fontvieille and Eygalières are exquisite Provençal villages.’ Corinne Joutel of Valancogne & Partners specialises in selling some of the finest stone-built houses in the area. ‘Often, our clients begin by renting something through us and then they come to buying. This can make good income for the owners-with 12 weeks’ rent easily earning €60,000, depending on the house, of course.’ Like much of the best of Provence, with the exception of over-enthusiastic pricing on the Côte d’Azur, prices of properties in Les Alpilles have resisted pressure to fall dramatically. ‘Certainly, you won’t lose money here,’ asserts Mr Segalin. ‘Having a house in Les Alpilles is like having a good business card-it proves that you’ve arrived.’
** This article appears in the Spring number of COUNTRY LIFE INTERNATIONAL available with COUNTRY LIFE out March 2