Cordes-sur-Ciel: on cloud nine

Carolyn Reynier explores the countryside around the picturesque village of Cordes-sur-Ciel and finds you don’t need your head in the clouds to buy there

The medieval town of Cordes-sur-Ciel in south-west France has inspired the imaginations of many over the centuries. In 1954, the writer Albert Camus was so captivated by the place that he observed that once a traveller has seen Cordes, he need never go anywhere else, so struck will he be by the beauty and solitude.

Set in the Pays Cathare, the town has a rich, tumultuous history. The 12th century saw the development of a new Christian religion – le catharisme – in these parts that was fiercely critical of Catholicism. Although largely associated with Aude in Languedoc-Roussillon, Catharism spread throughout this part of southern France, including Toulouse and Albi. Pope Innocent III launched a crusade against the Albigeois, which rapidly doubled up as a geopolitical war between the lords of the north and those of the Occitan, speakers of the langue d’Oc.

The tribunals of the Inquisition finished the job started by many sieges and burnings at the stake. Catharism was eradicated but remains one of the symbols of the tolerance, liberty and openness of spirit of the Occitan culture. It has left its mark on this land and its identity.

Cordes-sur-Ciel sits atop a rocky peak that rises 100 metres up into the sky and dominates the C�rou valley and its tributary, the Aurosse. Built by the Count of Toulouse, Raymond VII, the town was closely linked to the Albigensian crusade against the Cathars. Cordes was the first and most important bastide (new town) founded to shelter the population hard hit by the war. By the end of the century there were over 5,500 inhabitants.

Cordes owed its prosperity to industry, commerce and finance, and during the town’s golden age from 1280 to 1350, the sumptuous Gothic houses you can admire today were built by noble families and rich merchants. But Cordes was undone by a combination of plague epidemics and the construction, at the end of the 17th century, of the Canal du Midi, which completely overturned the former main commercial routes and brought about the town’s economic collapse. The town did experience a renaissance in the latter half of the 19th century with the arrival of mechanical embroidering brought to Cordes by local man, Albert Gorsse, from St-Gall in Switzerland. And there was an artistic renaissance around the painter Yves Brayer and a group of artists who withdrew to Cordes during World War Two.

In its foundation charter, the town is referred to as Cordoa, which may be a reference to Cordoba in Spain, famous at the time for its leather handicraft. The current name was coined by the writer and poet Jeanne Ramel Cals, one of the many artists who gathered here in the 20th century. Early in the morning, especially in autumn, a thick mist covers the C�rou valley. Only the summit of the town is visible above the sea of clouds. Splashed with early morning sunshine, the town’s silhouette is detached and seems to stretch heavenwards above the clouds: Cordes is said to be above the sky. The name was made official in 1993.

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The inside track

Long before then, Laurette Bailey, now one half of estate agency Bedford-Bailey, which works with Albi-based agency R�sidences 81, had settled with her two young children just outside Cordes where she lived for 29 years. She now lives in the village itself. The property market is split between the top and bottom sectors of the town, and there’s also the southern and northern sides. “The southern side is the more popular because it gets far more sunshine. The top I would say is more touristy. You get more people buying up the top as holiday homes. We get a lot of painters and potters and they’re based at the top of Cordes where their shops are. The bottom of Cordes, in general, is home to people living and working in Cordes and nearby.”

What types of property are available? “This is slightly problematic,” explains Bailey. “We get offered a fair number of large houses for sale with five floors and no gardens, which isn’t what people are looking for nowadays. I’m talking about the big houses right at the top; they are quite difficult to market.”

Some of these larger houses have already been split up into apartments but there are still a few for renovation; ideal for a prospective buyer looking for a shop with accommodation above plus further rental potential.

“The buildings are very often a minimum of three floors but they can go to five or six floors. We’ve got some lovely ones – they call them h�tels – and they are really quite special with all the original features.” The construction material is stone although there are also some half-timbered buildings in old Toulouse brick.

“We reckon prices around here have dropped about 20%,” says Bailey. “But we think the market was slightly overpriced to start with.”

The area had become quite expensive due to the easy access to Toulouse airport and the beautiful countryside. “It’s got a lot going for it and prices had risen quite steeply but the drop has brought prices back into line,” she says.

Charles Smallwood, of Agence l’Union, comments that: “Cordes-sur-Ciel is undoubtedly one of the most admired bastide towns in Tarn, with its beautiful Gothic houses and sculpted decoration of the fa�ades.

“The most popular properties, however, for British buyers are those sit on the edge of Cordes itself and which enjoy space (away from the tourists), elevated views and sunshine.”

Talking budget

So what can you get for your cash in Cordes? Difficult to talk in terms of price per square metre because there are too many variables but Bailey is currently marketing a “lovely little house” on the south side of Cordes for €290,000. The property, of about 90m�, has two bedrooms and has been completely renovated.

“I looked at a house the other day; very well placed at the top of Cordes in the little square next to the church. It used to be a salon de th�, and has the facilities to have one on the ground floor. There’s a flat above and also one below and it has a little garden,” she says. That’s up for sale for €390,000.

As for the surrounding villages, people ideally want to be within 6km of Cordes and don’t want to venture too far to the north of the village. Itzac is popular, as is Campagnac, both to the west of Cordes, in the direction of the airport. “Most of the people we sell to are buying second homes,” says Bailey, “so it’s handy for them to be somewhere between Cordes and Gaillac.”

Buyers looking for countryside properties are usually looking for the classic, already renovated, three- or four-bedroom, old stone house; with red canal tiles, pool and garden. There are still people looking for properties to renovate but most of the houses round here have already been done up, says Bailey. Expect to pay upwards of €350,000.

Owners often rent out countryside properties like these in the summer. During the high season they can get upwards of �1,200 a week. The agency doesn’t deal with property rental, but they know people who do and Bailey herself looks after a few houses.

Although there are fewer foreign buyers these days, they are still around. The agency deals with the French market too (their website is also in French), they also get enquiries from America and Bailey sold to Belgians last year, but their clientele tends to be mainly Brits purchasing second homes, some of which may become main residences in due course.

It is getting harder now to find nicely renovated houses, says Bailey who reckons around 90% of them have been renovated already, although not always sympathetically. And fewer properties are coming to market. “I’m hoping it will pick up this year but I think there’s very much a ‘wait and see’ feel about the whole thing at the moment. Everybody’s thinking, we’ll wait and see what happens before we put the house on the market – unless they have to go, of course, then that’s a different matter.”

Country rhythms

Corinne Rouquet, like many other local youngsters, didn’t want to live in the country and left the area to study and live elsewhere. She has now returned. “When I had my two children and saw how they were growing up in the city, I chose to live in the country. The quality of life here is special,” she says. “We live at a gentle rhythm with no stress.”

She works for estate agency Cabinet Bounes covering a 30km radius around Cordes. She confirms that the lower part of the medieval town is the most lively on a daily basis be it winter or summer. It’s more accessible, easier to park and all shops and services are here.

Rouquet sees a variety of buyers, including French people wanting to retire to this type of environment and those attracted by the artistic nature of the town. “Cordes has always been a refuge for painters. There is a particular light here,” she says. Then there are the ‘lovers of old stones’, of course, plus shopkeepers and artisans deciding to set up shop in the area.

It is hard to give a price per square metre for rural property, says Rouquet. Some properties are in good condition, others not; some are more biscornu than others. (What a delicious word! It means quirky.) It can also be hard to make prospective purchasers from outside the area understand that what’s on offer is either a smallish village house, often terraced with not much garden, or very large old farm complexes, restored completely, partially or, more rarely today, not at all.

This is a rich viticultural area, explains Rouquet, so rural buildings are large, be they the dwelling house or the outbuildings: “There are wine warehouses, hangars, barns, stables.”

The landscape towards Gaillac and Albi, dominated by the limestone plateau which reflects the white light so sought after by artists, is essentially one of vineyards. “Donc c’est des vignes � perte de vue,” explains Rouquet (vines as far as the eye can see).

In Gaillac, a 30-minute drive due south from Cordes, we find Annie Goral at Century 21 Actif Immobilier, The agency covers property within a 15km radius including the villages of Castelnau-de-Montmiral and Senouillac to the north-west and north-east respectively of Gaillac. Overall prices in her sector have fallen slightly since 2008, she reports, but not dramatically. Although there is some investment, with buy-to-rent purchases, today’s market is primarily made up of local purchasers buying main homes.

“Many foreign residents have bought in the Golden Triangle, which lies between Cordes, Albi and Gaillac,” comments Charles Smallwood. “It offers beautiful countryside, fine wine and historic experiences. The UNESCO World Heritage site of Albi is only 20 minutes from Cordes and attracts many visitors.

“Most of the properties in this immediate area were bought as permanent homes of great standing thus there is usually only a limited amount of such properties on sale – even in the present market.”

The slip road off the main Toulouse-Albi motorway makes all the villages around Gaillac easily accessible and popular. It’s country living that is close to both cities, says Goral. There’s the station, the motorway access and, if French isn’t your strong point, there’s also Karen O’Keeffe, Goral’s Irish colleague.

You can find old buildings built in the fine local white stone, small brick-built townhouses and modern villas. Goral gives an example of what you can expect for your euros: a 90-100m� single-storey villa in grounds of 2,000m� will cost around €180,000.

There is land available and it is not too difficult to build your own house provided you’re not in a classified area where you have to consult with the B�timents de France. A plot of land at Lagu�pie just north of Cordes-sur-Ciel is on the market for €40,000 (Cabinet Bounes). You can also still find some buildings in need of TLC. In Cordes itself, you can pick up a 180m� 10-room property de caract�re for €178,000. It comes with a commercial outlet at ground level and several apartments offering multiple possibilities (Century 21 Actif Immobilier).

So how do you get to heaven? The station of Cordes-Vindrac is 5km from Cordes-sur-Ciel, served daily by trains from Albi, Toulouse and Brive, with a bus connection from the station to Cordes. The nearest airport is Toulouse-Blagnac (90km); the airport of Rodez-Marcillac is one hour 15 minutes away.

Once you’ve arrived, you can reach the upper town on foot by taking the Grande Rue de l’Horloge from the tourist office, which passes various artistic ateliers. Be warned – the lanes leading up to the old town are steep and are laid with ancient cobblestones; it’ll take you a good 20 minutes. There’s also a little train (€2.50) which sets off from the Place de la Bouteillerie at the bottom of the town and deposits you at the Porte de la Jane at the top.

If you have any lingering doubts, last word to Corinne Rouquet. “There’s the truffle market, foie gras, good wine, c’est tout �a quoi,” she laughs. Fancy living with your head in the clouds? Cordes-sur-Ciel could be heaven sent. n