The south-east corner of the Midi-Pyr�n�es is a well-kept secret. Nadia Jordan spills the beans on what for her is a hidden paradise
One of the online newspapers has been running a series of articles entitled, Could this be the best place to live in the world?’ This got me thinking because I have a sneaking suspicion that I know the answer and, by lucky circumstance, have found myself living here. I often open the shutters in the morning, look out on the lush green, snow-capped Pyrenean mountains under a perfect blue sky and think that I live in paradise.
Unlikely though it may sound, this is a part of France that really is, as yet, undiscovered. A long way south and slightly hidden, it has a secret, almost magical charm where geography, climate and nature have somehow combined to create something very special and then tucked it away out of sight of everyone except the really curious or most determined.
This is, as my neighbours like to call it, the real south of France’; almost as south as you can go before hitting the mountains and the border with Spain. With fabulous mountain views everywhere you turn, the historical centres of St-Lizier and St- Girons at its heart, lots of pretty market towns such as Aspet and Aurignac and the ski resorts of Guzet and Superbagn�res not far away, it is one of the most enticing and enchanting regions of France.
The gently rolling hills of the Haute-Garonne and Ari�ge really do have it all: rich culture, history, natural wonders, stunning landscapes, mountains, lakes, rivers and wooded valleys, plus gastronomic excellence as well as a superb climate. With 2,000 hours of sunshine on average per year, this is also one of France’s sunniest regions. Spring comes early with the rains ensuring a lush, green landscape followed by the intense sunshine of July and August, which are often very hot. Then there’s a beautiful autumn season that continues until the first mountain snow, which remains on the highest peaks until the end of June.
In my opinion, the unspoilt natural valleys and pastures bordered by spectacular mountains conspire to make this one of the most beautiful regions in the whole of Europe.
What is more, you do not only have to content yourself with the riches of France because, in addition, all the colourful local history and culture of Spain are right next door. From this region, almost anything you could be looking for is within reach, whether you want mountains, wild Atlantic beaches, or a gloriously sunny Mediterranean coastline.
You really can sit on a beach, ski in the mountains, eat tapas in Spain and explore the markets and historic towns and cities of rural France, all in a weekend.
For sports enthusiasts, this region is a paradise. Whether your passion is walking, skiing, fishing, paragliding, golf, horse riding or cycling, you will be able to indulge it here. Walkers can enjoy clearly marked trails along rivers up to waterfalls and mountain lakes right up to 3,000m peaks. Cyclists can take in a stage of the Tour de France, mountain bike down tracks or gently pedal along the valleys, while horse-riding is a popular pastime with many riding centres offering half- or full-day excursions.
For fishermen, top-grade trout streams rush down forested mountainsides into crystal-clear rivers and lakes and, for the more adventurous, there are opportunities for paragliding and hot air ballooning. And, in winter, of course, skiers can enjoy the uncrowded pistes or strap on raquettes (snow shoes) to hike the snow-covered mountain trails.
If all that sounds too exhausting for you, there are always the famous hot mineral spas, which can be found dotted around the department, complete with treatments and luxurious pampering. Or you can simply soak up the atmosphere in the many interesting local villages and towns with their colourful markets, beautiful architecture and ancient Romanesque churches.
This might be a hidden region but it is not difficult to access. Toulouse International Airport is set just outside the city and receives many direct flights from all across the UK, making it the easiest entry point for both Haute-Garonne and the Ari�ge. British Airways flies to Toulouse from Heathrow, easyJet runs services from London Gatwick and Bristol as does Flybe. For Ryanair, Pau airport is about 60-90 minutes from the region. There is a weekly service to Tarbes and also regular flights to Carcassonne, both of which are within two hours.
If you would prefer not to fly, the TGV train stops in Toulouse and there are train services from there to many of the major towns in the region.
The Ari�ge and southern Haute-Garonne still have some of the best-value property in France and the huge range and varied styles of houses mean that there really is something for everyone, whether that be a town or village house with access to work and culture in Toulouse or a peaceful retreat in the unspoilt natural valleys and pastures of the Pyr�n�es.
Everything is available here from ch�teaux – there is a stunning example on the market right now with views to die for and already running as a successful bed and breakfast – to village houses and ruined barns, which means that everyone who wants to can afford to have a place in France.
The closer you get to Toulouse, the more expensive the property. Many Toulousains own smart weekend houses 30-40 minutes south of Toulouse and there is also an increasing demand for houses within commutable distance of the international companies around this vibrant city.
That said, it is still possible to find a large stone house with a big garden within an hour of the city for less than €300,000. As you come further into the countryside, the range of properties increases in almost direct proportion to the decrease in prices and there are still plenty of farmhouses and village houses available here for under €200,000. Some are in need of complete restoration but for others a bit of updating would make them into the perfect home.
It is still possible, and this will undoubtedly change here as it has done in the Alps, to find a wooden shepherd’s hut in the mountains, minutes away from the ski slopes with stunning views and a sizeable plot for around €50,000. Many of these are now being snapped up and turned into luxury ski chalets but that dream of owning a chalet or mountain retreat is still highly achievable here at the moment.
There is also no shortage of land in this region and lots of opportunities for living the good life or setting up a new business. We really do have a gap in the market here as, interestingly, this must be one of the last few remaining areas of France where there is actually a shortage of holiday letting accommodation, particularly in the Ari�ge close to St-Girons and the mountains.
There is a real need for good-quality holiday rentals here, particularly if you can offer family accommodation and a pool. Moreover, this region is the perfect place to have a holiday property as there is just so much to do and yet the pace of life is slower and more peaceful, which makes for a relaxing break. There is time and space to unwind, get fit, breathe pure mountain air, get back to nature and recharge those batteries.
If we are honest, most of us know that, when we move to France, we are not just buying a house; we are buying into a lifestyle. We are looking for a simpler, slower and more pleasurable way of life.
We want to escape the rush, the traffic and the noise. We want to jump off the conveyer belt and start living again; have time to take pleasure in a cup of coffee in the garden, a chat with the neighbour, and the walk to school.
We want to live in the minute, not always waiting for weekends, holidays and retirement, and to spend time buying local produce at colourful markets, time preparing it and time eating it en famille. We want it to be about the journey not the destination.
It is a lot to ask from bricks and mortar and this is why the perfect house can be so difficult to find and why I have set up Foothills of France so that I can work as a property finder and help others fulfil this dream. When my clients ask me for a five-bedroom farmhouse with views of the Pyr�n�es and room for a pool, what they are also asking me for is a shot at a different way of life.
We all know about the excellent schools, healthcare, local produce, better weather and good food and wine, all of which are available here. But there is something else in the equation that is much harder to put a finger on. Luckily I was looking for exactly the same thing and found it, so I know that the dream is achievable.
I also know that I can’t keep this beautiful region a secret forever. I have found our little piece of paradise and now I hope that I will be able to help others find theirs too.
Nadia Jordan runs Foothills of France as part of the FrenchEntr�e network of property finders.
Tel: 0033 (0)5 61 66 70 11