Bag a bargain: Affordable alternatives to France’s most desirable property locations

PUBLISHED: 14:54 27 May 2021 | UPDATED: 14:54 27 May 2021

Annecy and Coulon (c)  Rolf St and PeteGar Getty Images

Annecy and Coulon (c) Rolf St and PeteGar Getty Images

RolfSt

If Provence, the Alps and the Côte d’Azur are out of your budget, try these more affordable but equally lovely places to find your dream French home

TURQUOISE BEACHES

Bust the budget: Var

When it comes to finding the perfect French beach destination, many flock to the dazzling shores of Var on the Côte d’Azur. The fine white sand, turquoise waters and tropical climate, not to mention the luxurious Mediterranean coastal resorts, make the department a firm favourite among holidaymakers and second-home owners.

For proximity to mouthwatering seafood restaurants and family-friendly facilities, the beaches at Ste-Maxime, Port Grimaud, Cavalaire and Le Lavandou, to name just a few, are highly popular during the long summer season. If you favour a quieter, more unspoilt setting, however, there are plenty of stunning beaches and coves to explore.

Ramatuelle, a pretty commune close to St-Tropez, is surrounded by some of Var’s most beautiful and unspoilt beaches including Cap Taillat, an untouched isthmus that protrudes into the Mediterranean. Accessible only by a 30-minute walk, it’s an idyllic location that you might recognise as the beach from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Further west along the coastline, near Cap Bénat, there are a number of blissfully quiet coves that are accessible from the coastal path (which can be a challenging walk).

L'Escalet Beach on the Cote d'Azur (c) AtanasBozhikovNasko Getty ImagesL'Escalet Beach on the Cote d'Azur (c) AtanasBozhikovNasko Getty Images

If you’re looking for a property here, however, you’ll need a hefty sum in the bank, which is why the beaches of Var fall firmly into the ‘dream location’ category. In one of the smaller resorts, you might find a two-bedroom apartment for as little as €200,000. However, a villa with a pool in northern Var will cost upwards of €500,000, rising significantly the closer you get to the coast.

Bag a bargain: Finistère

So, where in France could possibly offer beaches to rival the crystal clear waters of Var’s coastal resorts? Finistère in Brittany comes up trumps. Already a favourite among expats for its pretty towns, welcoming people and charming culture, Finistère is also home to some truly stunning beaches. Roll off the ferry at Roscoff and turn right to explore the white sands of the north coast, or drive a little further south and check out the Crozon peninsula on the west coast. Here you’ll find the Plage de Morgat, a picturesque sandy beach which backs onto a charming seaside town, and Plage de l’ile Vierge, an exquisite cove once voted the seventh most beautiful beach in Europe. It is currently closed as the path has become unsafe, but keep an eye out for updates.

Further south still, there are more enticing beaches and inlets. Plage de Pors Péron, hidden away behind rugged cliffs and leafy ferns near the Baie de Douarnenez, is a lovely spot, with fine sand and turquoise waters. Close to the Morbihan border on the southern coast of Finistère, near Névez, Plage de Tahiti is fairly self-explanatory — the white sand and jewel-toned tides are of the sort you’d expect to find on an island in the Pacific rather than in the north of France.

Though summers here are hot, the Atlantic winds can be bracing depending on how exposed your location is. The plus side of this, though, is that Finistère is fantastic for water sports. Search for a beach with a ‘Spot nautique’ club, where you can practive windsurfing, kitesurfing, paddleboarding and much more.

Ile Vierge beach on the Crozon Peninsula (c) saintho Getty ImagesIle Vierge beach on the Crozon Peninsula (c) saintho Getty Images

Not only is Finistère highly accessible from the UK, property is reasonable too — the average house price is just €1,510/m2 (compared to €3,090/m2 in Var), and in this coastal department you are never far from a beautiful beach.

MOUNTAIN VISTAS

Bust the budget: The Alps

For anyone dreaming of a life in the mountains, the French Alps set the bar high. They are renowned for having some of the best ski areas in the world, but one of the most appealing elements of buying property there is how much you can tailor a search to your individual requirements.

For skiers, there is no shortage of resorts with ski-in, ski-out properties minutes from the slopes. An apartment in a top resort such as Tignes or Val d’Isère will guarantee you a sublime ski experience and high rental demand. Family-friendly Les Gets and purpose-built Avoriaz also offer great rental investments, while high-altitude Les Arcs enjoys a long season from mid-December to late April, meaning plenty of time for you and any guests to enjoy the snow. If it is mountain culture that you crave, there are dozens of traditional Alpine villages with bags of charm and properties that would make wonderful holiday homes or even permanent bases.

Mont Blanc from Les Houches in the Alps (c) elisalocci Getty ImagesMont Blanc from Les Houches in the Alps (c) elisalocci Getty Images

Overlooked by Mont Blanc, Megève is an attractive village with a good selection of shops and restaurants and a jazz festival in spring; Châtel, near the Swiss border, is a friendly hub all year round, while Chamonix has a lovely centre, plenty of shopping and 490 pistes, making it a great all-rounder (as 10,000 permanent residents can attest.) In summer, the landscape of the Alps transforms into undulating swathes of luscious green waiting to be explored, while the towns host weekly markets full of delicious Savoyard specialities. Unsurprisingly, this all comes at a cost, both literally (the average house price in Savoie is €2,600 rising to €3,360/m2 in Haute-Savoie while prices in prestigious Courchevel can reach the dizzying heights of €34,200/m2) and figuratively, as the region becomes overrun with tourists each ski season.

Bag a bargain: The Pyrénées

But, of course, the Alps are not the only place in France with fabulous skiing, pretty towns and beautiful summers — the Pyrénées offer all of this and arguably some more, at a significantly lower cost.

In terms of skiing, there may by a smaller variety of pistes in the Pyrénées, particularly those that will challenge expert skiers. However, there are fantastic off-piste opportunities with beautiful tree-lined routes, and plenty of excellent runs for beginner and intermediate skiers. Although the pistes are not as prestigious, the Pyrénées actually get more snow than the Alps (due to the Atlantic-maritime climate), and the seasons are more reliable.

Cauteret, La Mongie and St-Lary-Soulan are a few of the best resorts, offering great skiing as well as being lovely active towns year-round. From St-Lary you can hike the breathtaking Néouvielle national reserve, or take the cable car from La Mongie to the Pic du Midi Observatory for an unbeatable panorama.

Gaube lake in the Pyrenees mountains (c) vencavolrab Getty ImagesGaube lake in the Pyrenees mountains (c) vencavolrab Getty Images

Many of those who’ve experienced both mountain ranges agree that since the Alps largely cater to the thousands of holidaymakers who flock there, the Pyrénées are quieter and hence retain more of the local culture. In some villages the ancient language of Occitan is still spoken, and close to the border you’ll find elements of Spanish culture. Towns such as Loures-Barousse and Montréjeau have festivals celebrating local heritage, and in June the region comes alive with summer solstice fire festivals. The absence of large crowds means much of the area remains blissfully quiet and unspoilt. Another huge bonus is the proximity to the sea — in areas of Pyrénées-Orientales you can ski in the morning and spend the evening at the beach! Finally, Pyrenean property is much more affordable — in Hautes-Pyrénées, the average house price is just €1,260/m2.

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FAIRYTALE VILLAGES

Bust the budget: The Luberon

I defy you to find anyone who isn’t utterly enchanted by the hilltop villages of the Luberon in Provence. This is the France we see on brochures and splashed across Instagram feeds — where medieval architecture lines bustling narrow streets that wind out into sun-soaked fields of lavender. The combination of a hot Provençal climate, glorious countryside and quintessentially French culture makes the Provence massif a dream location for many.

There are dozens of charming villages scattered around the Luberon, several of them recognised among the Plus Beaux Villages de France. One of the best-known, situated in the north-west of the massif, is Gordes. The village typifies the beautiful region, with a maze of calades (the rough cobblestone streets found in Provence) surrounding pretty squares, tempting eateries and ancient architecture including the imposing château. It’s easy to see why Gordes was favoured by artists such as Marc Chagall and André Lhote, and why the Luberon captured the heart of Peter Mayle in A Year in Provence — inspiration can be found around every sun-kissed corner.

Gordes  in Provence (c) romrodinka Getty ImagesGordes in Provence (c) romrodinka Getty Images

Such a magical location does, however, come at a price. This is Provence after all, and desirable Avignon and Aix-en-Provence are nearby while the golden beaches of Var can be reached within two hours. Houses in a Luberon village such as Gordes cost a whopping average of €4,440/m2, although lower prices can be found further north. It’s also worth noting that while seriously tempting, the hot climate isn’t for everyone; nor are the steep climbs and uneven surfaces in the hilltop villages.

Bag a bargain: Côtes-D’Amor

If you are among those who dream of strolling the winding streets of a medieval French town, soaking up centuries of history and culture, but find that the Luberon is not quite right for you, have you considered Dinan? It may be over 600 miles north, in the decidedly less sultry region of Brittany, but the Côtes-d’Armor town holds a similar kind of magic to the hilltop villages of Vaucluse, with a distinctly Breton fairytale feel of its own. One of the most beautiful towns in the region, Dinan is a delight, from the port with its viaduct and pretty waterside restaurants, through to the old town where exquisite half-timbered houses cluster together within the impressive medieval ramparts.

Lovers of art and culture will be very happy here — the town is a designated Ville d’Art et d’Histoire, thanks to the artisans who sell their wares from the numerous arts and crafts shops. The medieval heritage of the town is also celebrated each summer in the Fête des Remparts, a popular event for all ages.

To learn more about Dinan’s history you can visit the town’s museum, located within the 13th-century château — and while there may not be views of lavender fields, the ramparts offer spectacular views of the Breton countryside. There is also the benefit of convenience. Dinan is just over half an hour from the port of St-Malo (you could even take a boat down to the town), making it the ideal base for a holiday home. As for prices, the average house in Dinan itself costs €2,220/m2. Widen your search ever so slightly though, and you could find a lovely stone house just minutes from Dinan for under €100,000.

Dinan in Brittany (c) bluejayphoto Getty ImagesDinan in Brittany (c) bluejayphoto Getty Images

IDYLLIC WATERWAYS

Bust the budget: Annecy

A list of dream French locations wouldn’t be complete without a mention of Annecy. Located in Haute-Savoie, between Geneva and the scenic Massif des Bauges, the medieval town has a particular beauty and charm that few places possess.

One of the major draws of Annecy is of course its lake, a picturesque expanse of blue on the shores of which you’ll find dreamy villas, watersport clubs and sandy beaches. Head into Annecy’s centre, though, and you’ll find the old town, where pastel-coloured houses brimming with flowers line meandering canals — it’s this area which has earned Annecy the title of ‘Venice of the Alps’.

Activities are not in short supply. Peruse the farmers’ markets that take place most days of the week, enjoy a charcuterie picnic in the Jardins de l’Europe, or learn about Annecy’s history in the Palais de l’Île, a 12th-century building with an interesting history of its own. When you finally feel like venturing out of Annecy, the lake is a wonderful place to enjoy outdoor pursuits or just chill; or drive less than an hour to reach traditional ski resort La Clusaz. Life in Annecy is all about enjoying the great outdoors at your own pace.

Annecy (c)  SabaNayagam Veerasekaran Getty ImagesAnnecy (c) SabaNayagam Veerasekaran Getty Images

All these things considered, it may come as no surprise that in 2020 Annecy was named the best place to live in France, following a two-year study by L’association des villes et villages où il fait bon vivre.

As with our other dream locations, however, there is one major drawback: Annecy is notoriously expensive. The average price of a house there is an eyewatering €4,770/m2, and that’s assuming you can actually find property — it’s increasingly hard to come by, save for smaller apartments and new developments.

Bag a bargain: Coulon

Unique and desirable as Annecy may be, it isn’t France’s only answer to Venice. If it’s the outdoors lifestyle and proximity to scenic waterways that you seek, the Marais Poitevin, or the Venise Verte as it’s sometimes known, is a lesser-known alternative. Here in France’s second largest wetland, which lies in the south of Deux-Sèvres, 112,000 hectares of canals criss-cross the verdant landscape. The Marais Poitevin was made a regional park in 1979, and is committed to preserving native flora and fauna. The marshland is home to a wide variety of wildlife including five species of heron, the green tree frog and the rare European otter.

At the gateway to the Marais Poitevin sits the town of Coulon. The historic town, known as Colunus in 896, was formerly a Roman settlement and the site of several archeological finds. Now a pretty and popular centre for tourism, it hosts several lovely restaurants as well as the Maison du Marais Poitevin, a museum and information centre. To experience the best of the area, however, you need to take to the water.

Coulon in Deux-Sevres (c) Petegar  Getty ImagesCoulon in Deux-Sevres (c) Petegar Getty Images

On the banks of the Sèvre Niortaise, which flows through the town, you can hire canoes, kayaks or traditional flat-bottomed boats (barques) with or without a guide, and set off to explore the extensive network of waterways. Back in Coulon there are several jetties that double up as sunbathing and picnic spots. And for a wider selection of services and transport links, Niort is 18 minutes away.

Fortunately, it won’t cost you the earth to enjoy this unique landscape and gentle pace of life whenever you want. The average property price in Coulon is just €1,340/m2, meaning you could find a lovely home and/or holiday let for less than €200,000.

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