Close to the UK, with a rich heritage and cider to boot, both Normandy and Brittany have heaps to offer, writes Matthieu Cany
Most people are partial to a glass of cider while eating cr�pes or pancakes, but cider is also used in recipes to make delicious sauces for savoury meals. The beverage is famous everywhere but it is France that holds
the honour of being the largest producer of cider in the world. Every year, 1.6 hectolitres is produced in the country with only 10% designated for export. Cider is in fact the traditional drink of western France since 90% of the cider apples come from the orchards of Normandy and Brittany.
If you enjoy drinking cider or eau-de-vie, Normandy and Brittany are the perfect areas to visit or buy a property. Many cider producers open their cider works, allowing visitors to discover how cider is produced. You can also buy local products, for example, in La Maison du Cidre in Le Hezo (Brittany) or The Regional Museum of Cider (Normandy).
Property in Normandy
Normandy is, in fact, divided into two regions, with lower Normandy encompassing the Calvados, Manche and Orne departments, and Upper Normandy consisting of the Eure and Seine-Maritime. Both areas are easy to reach from the UK either via the various ferry ports (Caen-Ouistreham, Cherbourg and Le Havre) or via the improved motorways from the Channel Tunnel. Normandy today is still very agricultural and is synonymous with rolling pastures, contented cows, excellent produce, castles, and several important heritage sites.
The gem of Mont St-Michel is one of France’s most popular tourist attractions and a classified UNESCO site, and the Bayeux Tapestry is exhibited in the eponymous town, while the D-Day beaches, cemeteries and museums are an immaculately maintained tribute to the fallen.
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Around Trouville, Honfleur and Barfleur, delightful stone fishing villages remain relatively unspoilt. To the north, the land is surprisingly rocky up to the Cap de la Hague, with crags and rivers ideal for outdoor adventures near Thury Harcourt.
Architecture in Normandy spans thousands of years and in Upper Normandy, late medieval half-timbered farmhouses are the norm and hugely popular. A barn was generally attached to the living quarters and grain or silage stored in a central tower with a cone-shaped roof. Some half-timbered properties have a corbelled structure (a piece of wood that juts out of a wall carrying the weight of the floor above) which gives more room on the upper floors.
However in the Pays de Caux to the north of the region, a different sort of farmstead developed due to the severe climate and exposure to sea winds – plain, unadorned farmhouses typically enclosed by high earth banks, walls and a sheltering square of trees.
Thatched cottages are another charming option, built with locally sourced materials such as flint, clay, stones and wood. Long�res are also popular throughout rural Normandy, and are a long, rectangular shaped stone house, generally on one floor with an attic above.
In Lower Normandy and especially on the Cotentin peninsula, granite was mainly used in construction. Around Bagnoles de l’Orne you will spot stunning bourgeois villas with colourful fa�ades, bow windows and unusual roofing, dating back to before the First World War. Sadly, most of the beautiful urban architecture of cities like Caen or Rouen was destroyed in the Second World War, paving the way for a modernist reconstruction.
Overall, house prices in Lower Normandy peaked in 2008 with a 5% rise before decreasing, although that has now plateaued. The average overall price of a property is €155,100, with a three-bedroom stone house costing roughly €133,200 and four-bedroom properties €166,100.
Similarly in Upper Normandy, prices reached a high in 2008 with a 7.1% increase from 2007. Prices then decreased by 6.7% and have now stabilised. The average house costs €182,100, making the area more expensive than Lower Normandy – a normal price for a three-bedroom stone house is around €159,500 and for a four-bedroom, it’s €191,900.
During 2009, lower budgets were frequent in Normandy, among mainly French buyers. However, in the last quarter of 2009 there was a noticeable return of buyers with larger budgets (even up to €1,000,000).
With prices having dropped quite sharply, now is the time for buying a property in the region as even in desirable areas, property prices remain relatively low.
Coast and country
Calvados is a very popular department, especially along the coast and near the historic towns of Bayeux and Falaise. It is also well-liked by the French who escape here from Paris or surrounding cities for some peace and quiet.
There are still plenty of character cottages to be found, with many renovation projects starting from an affordable €45,000 and pretty houses from around €80,000 upwards that are partially or fully renovated, though perhaps a bit on the small side. €250,000 would get you a nice-sized character property, often with a generous amount of land. For €529,947 a striking 350-year-old half-timbered property with a g�te and views near St-Pierre-sur-Dives could be yours.
Manche also has stone houses to renovate for €50,000 upwards, with a good amount of land if you look carefully, such as a mill set in four acres of land with a large outbuilding for €86,100, and perfectly formed cottages at around €85,000. There are renovated half-timbered houses in the region of €160,000 and if you want to push the boat out, how about a remarkable Napoleon III ch�teau run as a B&B and set in 1.8 acres of mature parkland close to the popular town of Coutances, on the market for €795,000?
Orne is the cheapest department in Normandy, where you can bag yourself a habitable or renovated village house for €70,000. Plenty of long�res are available as are traditional stone farmhouses, with €139,100 enough for a gorgeous two-bedroom blue-shuttered house near Ceauce with its half-timbered outbuilding.
If you have more than €300,000 to spend, you’ll no doubt find a character manor house, half-timbered house or imposing village property. For nature lovers, a stunning renovated mill near Argentan for €595,000 with 3.7 acres of prairies, a river and a lake would be ideal.
The Eure department is abundant in spectacular properties, ch�teaux and abbeys, such as a beautiful 19th-century half-timbered manor house in 2.2 acres with outbuilding near Bernay. The department doesn’t have any coastline but is full of woods, protected areas like the Parc Naturel Regional de Brotone and unspoilt countryside. The Eure is sandwiched between the ferry ports of Caen and Le Havre and also fairly close to Paris via the motorway, making it a convenient department.
Finally, Seine-Maritime is currently the most expensive place to buy. It is a vibrant department with lovely coastlines and a rich and diverse history, having been invaded by Celts, Romans, Vikings and Norwegians among others. It was also the centre of the Hundred Years’ War and the heartland of the Second World War.
The tranquillity and lush green scenery now make it hugely popular with property buyers, with thatched cottages around the €200,000-plus mark and manor houses and ch�teaux from €800,000.
Properties in Brittany
Brittany is made up of four departments – Finist�re, C�tes d’Armor, Ille-et-Vilaine and Morbihan. This large region boasts huge expanses of rugged coastline and fascinating marine environments as well as bona fide medieval villages and Celtic legends. It remains very agricultural (and is actually the premier agricultural region of France) with fishing still going strong and various commercial harbours in operation.
Brittany has a dynamic economy with the lowest unemployment rate in the country. It is home to six airports that connect passengers with the UK, Ireland and the rest of France. It also boasts two ferry ports (St-Malo and Roscoff) and has good road links.
Breton culture also exerts a strong pull. Whether it be the legends of King Arthur and his round table, the traditional dances, games and music or the dramatic landscapes of dunes and dolmens, there is no denying that its Celtic roots make for a stunning region.
Beautiful traditional houses are widely available in Brittany – stone fishing cottages with slate roofs and granite walls dotting the coast, long one-storey long�res comprising several buildings in a row with attics above – ideal for converting into spacious living accommodation – and thatched dwellings with sloping roofs constructed with local materials (clay, stone and wood) which are highly sought after. Near St-Malo, you will find a different sort of property, known as une malouini�re. These houses are an imposing type of manor house made with slate and granite.
Coast to coast
Brittany’s house prices peaked in 2008 followed by an average decrease of 9.3%. The typical price is €173,500 with three-bedroom stone houses at €148,100 and four-bedrooms at €174,000. Ille-et-Vilaine and Morbihan remain the most expensive departments, without forgetting that sea view properties or those closest to the sea sell quickly and at a much higher price. Thus houses in the centre of Brittany offer far better value for money and choice, and more tranquillity. The coast still remains the best option if you’re thinking of letting out your property though.
The C�tes d’Armor remains the second cheapest department in Brittany and has lots going for it. Importantly, its 350km of shoreline faces out onto the Channel, making for easy access to England. It offers a plethora of landscapes, with hedged farmland, unspoilt countryside, hidden beaches and coves and 17?harbours. The area around Guingamp is the cheapest, while towns like Lannion and St-Brieux command higher prices – a penthouse ocean-front apartment in the latter could set you back €650,000.
Typical stone houses to renovate can be acquired from €45,000; although they are mainly in villages so may not come with much land. Quaint renovated cottages are on the market from €80,000 and a charming two-bedroom renovated long�re with a garden near Morlaix will only set you back €115,500.
A budget of €150,000 would be enough for a restored farmhouse with outbuildings and several acres, perfect for a g�te business. If you fancy something grander, a 17th-century nine-bedroom manor house near St-Brieuc with a mill, a pool and 3.4 acres is on the market for €1,850,000.
Ille-et-Vilaine is the most expensive department and is home to numerous forests, nature reserves and lakes as well as good transport links. Still, sheep outnumber people here, lending it added tranquillity and calm. The economy is dynamic partly due to the city of Rennes where many companies choose to settle. Ille-et-Vilaine is also home to several picturesque and popular towns and villages like Dinard, St-Malo, Combourg and Foug�res; the latter two boasting their own ch�teaux.
Small properties are available around the €70,000 mark, while €175,400 would be enough to secure you a beautifully restored three-bedroom water mill close to the border with Normandy. To purchase an imposing manor house with plenty of land, €400,000 plus would be ample.
Finist�re is the westernmost department of Brittany and the whole of France. Its name translates literally as land’s end’. Like its neighbours, Finist�re offers beautiful landscapes, sandy beaches and quaint villages. Islands (Ile d’Ouessant for instance), lighthouses and nature parks add to the picture postcard scenery.
The main town, Quimper, is very pretty, with medieval streets and monuments and half-timbered houses. If you are seeking a renovation project, €45,000 would be enough for a little country or village house, maybe with a quarter to half an acre of land, and €70,000 to €100,000 is adequate for a small renovated or habitable property; for example a pretty two-bedroom cottage with period beams for €95,400 close to Pleyben.
There are some great bargains to be had, including a delightful stone house with two g�tes and panoramic views, near Carhaix, on the market for €117,500, and numerous character renovations well under €200,000. However if you’re hankering to be close to the sea, you’ll have to increase your budget – a charming four-bedroom, red-shuttered stone house with small enclosed garden boasts sea views from every room for €378,000.
Equally, near the seaport of Brest lies an outstanding property with four stone houses and two swimming pools. The main house offers 280m� of living space and has been beautifully decorated, all for €1,260,000.
Morbihan is the second most expensive department in Brittany. Home to the large cities of Lorient and Vannes and close to Rennes and Nantes, there’s no doubting its privileged position. The south coast, especially, commands high prices for properties overlooking the gulf and on the Quiberon peninsula.
Renovation projects start at around €50,000 for typical long�res with lots of potential. If you’d like to move straight in, there are plenty of tastefully restored cottages and farmhouses under €170,000. For those looking to start a B&B or chambres d’h�tes business, a recently renovated presbytery near Malestroit with two g�tes could be just the ticket at €419,600.
On a more luxurious scale, a ch�teau near Auray set in 37 acres comes with two g�tes, a self-contained flat and numerous other outbuildings for the sum of €1,480,000.
So if you are dreaming of a move to France but you don’t want to stray too far, Normandy or Brittany might have what it takes to capture your heart.
Matthieu Cany is the managing director of Sextant Properties
Tel: 0207 428 4910