In love with the Loire

A famous river runs through it and stunning ch�teaux stud its rolling landscapes. There is a lot to love about Pays de la Loire, as Andy Duncan discovers

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying Pays de la Loire is one of France’s best-kept secrets. After all, the famous River Loire runs its sinuous way through the region and it is home to some of France’s most recognisable, not to mention picturesque, ch�teaux.

However, it is framed by the hugely popular Brittany to the north, and the sun-kissed Poitou-Charentes to the south, so it is little wonder that, when Brits are looking for property along the north-eastern marches of France, their attention is not unreasonably drawn towards Pays de la Loire’s neighbours.

To be fair, Pays de la Loire does borrow more than just a cup of sugar from these neighbours. A relatively recent creation, it incorporates a large chunk of what used to be Brittany and parts of Poitou-Charentes. Occupied by William the Conqueror in 1064, it also includes Norman elements, and is a fascinatingly diverse and disparate region that is pulled together by the Loire river running through it.

Today, the region comprises 32,082km� that are divided between the departments of Loire-Atlantique, Maine-et-Loire, Mayenne, Sarthe and Vend�e. And across these five departments are a spectacular array of delights and attractions. Here are some of my personal highlights.

Nantes

Generally speaking, I am a country boy at heart, but there are a few cities in which I’ll happily get lost. Nantes is most certainly one of these. Situated in Loire-Atlantique, nestling on the bank of the River Loire, it is the capital of the region today. However, it used to be part of Brittany and, culturally speaking, still feels very Breton, with its bilingual plaques, featuring Breton, on the city’s tourist attractions and the Ch�teau des Ducs de Bretagne, which lies at the heart of the city. This spectacular building was constructed between the 14th and 18th centuries and, as a result, incorporates a variety of different architectural styles, and boasts myriad attractive elements, such as the Grand Logis and the keep.

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The city was the birthplace of Jules Verne and a museum dedicated to him can be found in the very house where he was born.

But it is not a place that is hopelessly locked in the past. With 550,000 inhabitants, it is the sixth largest city in France and a vibrant place that pulses with an exciting, forward-looking dynamism. Time magazine described it as “the most liveable city of Europe” in 2004 while, in 2010, innovation agency, 2thinknow, named it a hub city for innovation in the Innovation Cities Index. The large island in the Loire itself, the �le de Nantes, has been subject to extensive modernisation in recent times, with many state-of-the-art contemporary buildings, including the law courts.

In 2013, meanwhile, it will be the European Green Capital, having spent the past 10 years developing a sustainable transport policy. Indeed, it was the first French city to successfully reintroduce electric tramways.

As such, a visit here always makes you feel like you are watching something nascent and special. It is a frontier town on the edge of the future, a sensation that is certainly heightened by the large, loud student population, who also named the city’s largest street (Rue de la Soif – ‘Street of Thirst’). Conversely, the rich history of the city also serves to embellish this impression – with the new living alongside the old (such as the delightful labyrinth of cobbled streets that comprise the old town) in compelling harmony.

This old/new fusion is captured in the ‘Great Elephant’. One of Les Machines de l’�le, this spectacular 12-metre high mechanical elephant resembles a vision of Jules Verne mobilised by modern technology. The motorised pachyderm, which can carry 49 passengers on a 45-minute walk, was created by Fran�ois Delarozi�re and Pierre Orefic, and offers a unique way of exploring the city (and certainly a drier one – pedestrians who stray too close to the striding elephant can be sprayed from the trunk by the riders).

The Valley of the Kings

With its source in the Ard�che, the River Loire spans 1,012km (630 miles) and is France’s longest river, flowing through 12 departments. However, it is a relatively short expanse, between Orl�ans in Centre, and Angers in the Pays de la Loire department of Maine-et-Loire, that dominates the plaudits.

This stretch of the river was once home to the Royal Court, and is known as the Valley of the Kings due to the preponderance of breathtaking ch�teaux that were built during the Renaissance by the aristocracy. The river brought prosperity to the historical province of Anjou, and this is a quality the river still possesses as today it is a huge draw for tourism. A boat trip along its tranquil waters is a great way to enjoy the verdant surroundings and see some of the stunning castles. There are so many extraordinary buildings here that it is hard to single any out. Angers castle is well worth a visit for several reasons, including the beautiful gardens and, inside, the remarkable Apocalypse Tapestry, which portrays scenes from the Book of Revelations, as depicted through the medium of needlecraft.

The imposing ch�teau at Saumur, meanwhile, glowers from under its witch-hat towers over the surrounding countryside. Starting life in the 10th century, it has seen many fortifications and much rebuilding over the intervening centuries, not to mention many big-name owners, including Louis IX. Today, it houses several museums, including the utterly spellbinding Museum of Toys. While in Saumur, the epic labyrinth of troglodyte caves is well worth a visit. Some are now restaurants and bars, while some are even used as homes. A far cry from castle splendour maybe, but an intriguing option for a home nonetheless.

The Loire Valley is also known as the Garden of France and the landscapes provide a beautiful backdrop to the mighty ch�teaux. There are forests and woodlands to explore to the north, brightly coloured fields of flowers in the Authion valley and, of course, celebrated vineyards. Such is the variety of the Loire’s terroir (that peculiarly Gallic concept of a combination of factors including soils and climate) that many of the world’s most renowned grapes are grown here, including Sauvignon Blanc, Chenin Blanc and Cabernet Franc. Cointreau was also created in the area, and has been produced at St-Barthelemy-d’Anjou since 1849.

Fish from the river is used in many dishes, as are the many vegetables – I particularly love the asparagus and the turnips here – that are grown in the verdant countryside. Eating clafoutis, a cake made with the locally grown cherries, is a moment I still pine for, while there are also many cheeses produced in the area. Game and charcuterie are also rich and diverse here.

Back to nature

The Loire Valley itself supports a rich ecosystem of flora and fauna, and this is a trait that expands across the whole region. Indeed, there is a great choice of nature parks in Pays de la Loire.

Bri�re Regional Nature Park, just over 30 miles from Nantes, is the second largest marsh in France. It is an eerie, Tolkeinesque landscape of reed beds, canals, wetland bogs and islands. There are 3,000 thatched cottages in the area (cycling through the park is a great way to see them and is, for me, a must). The marshes also support a diverse array of wildlife, including muskrat, otter, polecat and salamanders.

The Normandy-Maine Regional Nature Park encompasses 235,000 hectares that span two departments of Normandy as well as Mayenne and Sarthe in the Loire Valley. There is a huge array of landscapes here, such as hills, moorland and forests, and it can all be explored via a large network of marked paths and bridleways. There is a great diversity of wildlife too but again, as in Bri�re, there is a fascinating human history to soak up. As well as the headline-grabbing ch�teaux and manors, there are the quieter, but no less compelling stories, such as the many examples of ancestral traditions that are practised here, including hemp and flax growing, and weaving.

Then there’s the Loire-Anjou-Touraine Regional Nature Park, which is, quite possibly, my favourite. The Puys du Chinonais, which are to be found here, rise some 30 metres above the ground and are home to many examples of flora and fauna usually found in the Mediterranean, due to the fact that they absorb a huge amount of sunshine. For an avowed twitcher such as myself, the prospect of seeing birds such as hoopoes and Bonelli’s warblers, which you’d usually have to travel much further south to view, is profoundly exciting. Ospreys can also be found here, as can many rare flowers, such as the psychedelic bee orchid.

The department of Vend�e, meanwhile, shares the Marais-Poitevin with the neighbouring region of Poitou-Charentes. Known as La Venice Verte (or the Green Venice), this is a verdant latticework of canals, fens and marshland. Taking a boat trip down this surreal aquatic maze is (I’ve said it before, I know) a thoroughly magical experience. You get completely lost in the moment as you paddle these ancient waterways, where the overhanging trees create the impression of travelling through emerald tunnels that take you back to another time... and, indeed, to another world.

Property

Given the patchwork nature of Pays de la Loire’s conception, it is unsurprising that there is an eclectic array of property styles. Sharon Evans, of Cl� France, points out that: “This is such a varied region in terms of its geography and climate that it comes as no surprise that there is a variety of architectural styles and materials. The area to the north of the region in the department of Mayenne is where you will see a profusion of stone and slate farmhouses, but as you come further south towards the Sarthe and Maine-et-Loire departments this gives way somewhat to tuffau, the pale stone seen on anything from a little bijou retreat to the grandest of the ch�teaux of the Loire. Move over towards the coast and you will find modern villas and apartments in the smartest of seaside resorts, and just inland, stone farmhouses with terracotta.”

According to the Notaires de France, the average house price in the region is €160,000, which is just below the national average of €165,500. As the coast-hugging home of �ber-slick regional capital Nantes, it is unsurprising that Loire-Atlantique has the highest average resale house price of all of the Pays de la Loire departments – €205,000. Next up is Maine-et-Loire, through which Pays de la Loire’s stretch of the Valley of the Kings flows; here the average is €155,000. Vend�e, which borders popular sunny neighbour Poitou-Charentes has an average of €149,000, Sarthe has an average of €130,000, while Mayenne, which borders Normandy, brings up the rear with a departmental average of €115,000.

In the region as a whole, there were house-price drops of 0.1% and 8.6% in 2007/8 and 2008/9 respectively, followed by climbs of 7.1% and 4.8% in 2009/10 and 2010/11. Rupert Seager, of Agence Bourbon, is optimistic about the state of the market in Pays de la Loire, saying: “At the moment, prices in the region are fairly stable, although they are lower now than in 2009. There has been slowly increasing demand from France and from the UK so we are anticipating that they will remain stable in 2012 and that we may see some slow growth in prices from spring 2013.”

On the effects of the economic downturn, Sharon Evans adds: “In rural areas there has been a significant step back in prices, and while it seems that they have stabilised, there are still some good bargains to be had. Given that the majority of UK buyers favour these rural locations, that is good news.”

Speaking of which, what exactly are British buyers looking for? Rupert Seager is noticing a change in habits over recent times, saying: “Ten years ago I would have replied ‘holiday homes’. Now it is more often for a project to live here – with income or for retirement, even if moving out to live here is a plan for a few years in the future.” When it comes to the kinds of budget that British buyers are armed with, Rupert says: “For properties that are being bought to generate an income, it very much depends upon the kind of income that is generated! For example, a property with a couple of g�tes and a pool would be about €250,000 to €300,000.” Rupert points out that there is a high demand in the area for holiday rentals from UK holidaymakers due to the proximity to the UK coupled with the great climate.

He goes on to point out that the French also like to holiday here, as the Loire Valley is high on their list of French destinations. Back to the subject of British buyers’ budgets, Rupert says: “Meanwhile, second-homebuyers tend to be looking in the €100,000 to €150,000 range, which would buy a modernised three-bed hamlet/rural property with large garden or a two/three-bed village property with a small garden, and €120,000 to €180,000 would buy a recent three-bed non-estate bungalow. The retirement buyers tend to be looking at €150,000 to €300,000 and could then look for larger three/four-bed properties with outbuildings etc or maison de ma�tre-style village houses.”

For Sharon, location is everything: “We have people looking with a modest budget of €50,000 to €80,000 for a holiday home, either in the countryside with a good-sized garden or in a village. In the €100,000 to €150,000 category, people are usually looking for a permanent home, again in a village or country location, but with more in the way of land and accommodation. However, there is no such thing as a ‘French’ property market, let alone a ‘Pays de la Loire’ market! As you move further south towards the Loire Valley and out towards the coast you will find yourself in the one of the most favoured locations in France. Expect to pay around €300,000 for a village house with garden and three bedrooms around the key towns along the river, such as Angers. And the university town of Nantes is a property hotspot with apartments regularly commanding asking prices not dissimilar to the UK.”

Sharon adds that Brits are drawn to Pays de la Loire by: “The quieter lifestyle, stunning countryside, an abundance of nature, leisure pursuits such as golf, fishing, cycling and walking, wonderful local produce and some of the best wines in the country to name but a few!” Wherever you choose to buy in Pays de la Loire, you will find a place that more than measures up to the illustrious regions that it borders. n