Steeped in history, but also at the cutting edge of the 21st century, there is a lot to love about the Midi-Pyr�n�es, says Andy Duncan
In the interests of journalistic integrity, I must be open and up-front with you from the beginning, dear reader. I love the Midi-Pyr�n�es. My dad has lived here for several years (after a previous decade spent in Aquitaine). Since 2003, he has been industriously transforming a crumbling cow barn into a beautiful home.
I love the space, the big skies, the tumbling landscapes and the ancient towns that cling to vertiginous craggy peaks with a tenacity that seems to defy basic rules of physics. I love driving up winding, bumpy tracks to find unlikely restaurants with bowing beams supporting cracked walls that threaten to collapse at any moment and being served incongruously sumptuous dishes like confit du canard or gesiers.
I love the way the region’s nature can surprise you, like the time we saw an exotic hoopoe hopping about in the garden, or watching the elegant black kites wheeling above the fields on the drive to Toulouse airport. And, wherever I am, the night-time symphony of cicadas, or the indignant buzzing of bees against windows, will instantly transport me to the region, with all its tantalising glimpses of a lost or imagined past, swirling, star-sprayed skies, and impossibly long days shimmering in a heat haze.
Still, to prove my objectivity, I feel duty-bound to point out that I did have a bad Chinese meal there once.
The Midi-Pyr�n�es is vast. At 45,348km2, it is the largest region in mainland France and dwarfs Belgium and Switzerland. Situated in the south, it is bordered by Spain and Andorra, with Aquitaine to the west, Languedoc-Roussillon to the east, and Limousin and Auvergne abutting its northern border.
It comprises the departments of Ari�ge, Aveyron, Gers, Haute-Garonne, Hautes-Pyr�n�es, Lot, Tarn and Tarn-et-Garonne. From the urban sophistication of Toulouse to the rugged drama of the Pyr�n�es, via the verdant Aveyron, there is such diversity in the region that it is impossible to generalise.
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I am always struck how, on landing at Toulouse, and leaving the pink-hued hustle and bustle of the region’s vibrant capital, just a few minutes down the road you are into gentle, rolling landscapes that are dotted with ancient farmhouses and steeped in historical intrigue.
While the Midi-Pyr�n�es is not an historical province, but a 20th-century product of regionalisation’, the region encompasses all or some of several different ancient areas including Guyenne, Gascony and Languedoc. As such, there is an extraordinary and eclectic richness to the history of the Midi-Pyr�n�es.
You could spend a lifetime in this region and still discover ancient towns and villages to explore. There is Albi, in Tarn, with its distinctive orange bricks. Overlooking Albi is St-Cecile cathedral, a fine example of southern Gothic art that houses a huge depiction of the Last Judgement. With origins that stretch back to the Middle Ages, the town has atmospheric, narrow streets, timber-framed houses and h�tels particuliers (urban houses that were built during the Renaissance). The 13th-century Palais de la Berbie, meanwhile, is now home to the Toulouse-Lautrec museum, which is dedicated to the painter, who was born in Albi in 1864.
Over in Lot, Cahors, which dates back to Roman times, boasts the spectacular Pont Valentre. A stunning feat of construction, this 14th-century bridge, with six arches and three fortified towers, is an emblem of the city and a World Heritage site. Another World Heritage site is St-Etienne cathedral and, as well as small medieval streets, there are 30 secret gardens. Travel across to Auch, in Gers, and you can make the exhausting but worthwhile climb up the great stairway, which offers beautiful views and is adorned with a statue of musketeer d’Artagnan. For a tantalising glimpse of life gone by, there are the pousterles, the narrow, and very steep, alleyways that snake their way to the river and that were used by residents for fetching water. Just outside Auch, there are an abundance of typical Gascon villages to discover.
And for another vivid journey back in time, Foix, the capital of Ari�ge, is in the heart of Cathar country and dominated by a castle. Indeed, there are many castles to enjoy throughout the region, including fine examples at Roquefixade and Montsegur, which looks out over a stunning view and was one of the last bastions of Catharism. There is also the imposing castle at Estaing that is now owned by former French president, Mr Valery d’Estaing.
Rocamadour, in Lot, is a spectacular ancient town with its fortified towers and turrets that seem to cling insect-like to a steep cliff face. A similar impression is created at the beautiful medieval village of St-Cirq-Lapopie, which hangs from a rock face, 100 metres above a river. Boasting 13 historical monuments and a magnetic allure to artists and gallery owners, the village has narrow cobbled streets, Gothic fa�ades and fortified doors.
Just as the region is peppered with fortified and bastide towns (such as Cordes in Tarn), so too does it feature a gorgeous array of les plus beaux villages de France. The stunning and compact fairytale village of Larressingle in Gers is a particularly striking example, as is the timeless hilltop town of Conques in Aveyron. Its church features a fascinating and ornately carved tympanum. Indeed, Aveyron has 10 plus beaux villages, which is more than in any other department in France.
Over in Haute-Garonne, the walled town of Revel was home to Pierre-Paul Riquet, the mastermind behind the World Heritage-registered Canal du Midi. The town is also home to the Mus�e et Jardins du Canal du Midi, France’s only museum dedicated to this remarkable triumph of human ingenuity and endeavour.
Going even further back in time, there are many ancient cave paintings in sites across the region, such as at Niaux, Gargas and Pech Merle. Niaux is one of the world’s few caves with cave paintings that is still open to the public.
Much of the region’s rich history is inextricably linked to, and inspired by, the strong Catholic tradition, and today the Midi-Pyr�n�es still attracts many people looking for spiritual fulfilment. No less than three of the Santiago de Compostella pilgrimage routes pass through the Midi-Pyr�n�es. Keep an eye out for the carved stone shells above doorways that mark the routes.
Rocamadour is a significant point on the pilgrimage. It has an epic 233-step stairway that leads to the parvis of the sanctuaries with its seven squares and chapels, while the St-Saveur church and St-Amadour crypt are listed World Heritage sites along the pilgrimage routes. Figeac and Auch are also key resting points for pilgrims, with the latter’s cathedral enjoying World Heritage status. Moissac, another important resting point has the St-Pierre abbey, a further World Heritage site with a stunning tympanum that depicts the Last Judgement. It is rightly considered to be a masterpiece of Roman sculpture, and the abbey also has a fascinating cloister.
Nestled on top of a hill in Aveyron, Conques is a key point on the pilgrimage. Two of its monuments, Ste-Foy abbey church and the Pont des Pelerins (which traverses the Dourdou river) are World Heritage sites. The town exudes a peace that itself seems to be a relic from another age (at least to this rat-race-competing England-based writer) and wandering the hushed, venerated streets in the evening, with a silence that is broken only by respectful murmurs and the tolling of the bell is a beautiful experience.
Of course, the Midi-Pyr�n�es is also home to its own pilgrimage destination. The story of how the sleepy town of Lourdes, in Hautes-Pyr�n�es, became such a powerful pull for pilgrims goes thus. In 1858, in the Maissabielle caves on the banks of the Gave, the Virgin Mary appeared to Bernadette Soubirous, forever changing the identity and future of this town. Today, it is one of the world’s greatest spiritual centres, with more than five million people of many nationalities visiting the town for the waters, which are believed to have healing powers. It is worth visiting for the awe-inspiring and poignant illuminated processions alone.
For those who seek water-based therapy of a different kind, there are the thermal springs of Cauterets in Hautes-Pyr�n�es, while thermal baths are found in the Haute-Garonne towns of Bagn�res-du-Luchon, Barbazan and Salies-du-Salat.
And the hugely diverse landscapes of this epic region have a soul-soothing quality too. On describing his first trip to Najac early one October, Steven Weller, of Action Habitat, recalls: “The hilltop village of Najac and the adjacent hills looked like islands in a sea of valley mist. I felt as though I had stumbled into a fairytale. I still have that impression with me now, five years on.”
Steven’s assessment is confirmed throughout the region. There is Aveyron, with its forested hills, verdant valleys and the granite-strewn Aubrac moors that are so reminiscent of Scotland and Ireland (it is telling that you see a lot of cars with Irish number plates here). The Lot is characterised by plunging gorges, wide, sleepy rivers and expanses of Cahors vineyards, while Gers has rolling unspoiled countryside with vast sweeps of gently nodding sunflowers. The largely forested Haute-Garonne is very diverse; hilly in the north and crowned in Pyrenean majesty as you head towards Spain. Among the mountains, the Hautes-Pyr�n�es is wildly dramatic, as is the Ari�ge, which boasts abundant wildlife, including bears and, in the Orlu valley, marmots.
There are stunning landscapes to explore at several nature parks, including the Regional Natural Park of the Haut-Languedoc and Causses du Quercy Regional Natural Park. There is also the Pyr�n�es National Park, home to the imposing World Heritage site, Mont Perdu, as well as the Cirque du Gavarnie.
The Pic du Midi de Bigorre is another stunning mountain well worth visiting in the Pyr�n�es, and is embellished with an astronomical observatory.
For a breathtaking manmade view, the 2,460m-long Millau Viaduct in south Aveyron carries the A75 highway across the Tarn valley, significantly improving access between Paris and the Mediterranean.
The Midi-Pyr�n�es is a largely rural area, and has the largest number of farms in all of France, with 60,000 in active use. There is a wide variety of agricultural production in the region, with maize, sunflowers and wheat produced in the lower-lying Haute-Garonne, Gers and Tarn, while, heading up into the Causses, the dry, limestone plateaux are used to graze sheep that produce, for example, the famous blue cheese of roquefort.
With such agricultural and natural riches and diversity, it is no wonder that the region is also famed for its food and drink. There are the large vineyards, such as in Gaillac and Armagnac (this revered tipple celebrated its 700th anniversary this year) and many other famous wines, such as Madiran, Fronton and Cahors.
A lot of produce is protected by AOC labels. Indeed, roquefort was France’s first product to be awarded this distinction. As well, as roquefort, there is also the AOC-protected cheese rocamadour plus bleu des Causses and laguiole cheese. There is farm-raised lamb from Quercy, pink garlic and saffron from Lautrec, Gascon beef, Aveyron veal and Gers poultry.
Meanwhile, the departments of Lot and Gers have also established big reputations for their foie gras. As Virginia Paschall, of Arfmann Immo, succinctly puts it: “This is an excellent area with vineyards galore and the food is fabulous – you don’t come here to diet!”
A modern vibrancy
While the Midi-Pyr�n�es is rightly famous for its transcendental rustic peace and history, do not be fooled into thinking that this is the whole story. Toulouse, the capital of the region, has 437,000 inhabitants and is France’s fourth-largest city. Its position in the region is fascinating when you consider that Toulouse has a population density that reaches 3,500 per square kilometre in places, compared with an average density of 54 elsewhere in the Midi-Pyr�n�es.
While steeped in history itself, with its famous pink bricks that emanate a spectacular glow at sunset, many narrow pedestrian streets and pretty, fountain-festooned squares, Toulouse is firmly entrenched in the 21st century, with a thriving economy due to its operations in the specialised niche industries of aeronautics, astronautics, state-of-the-art technologies and research. The majority of the region’s wealth lies in and around Toulouse and has played a major role in keeping young people in the area, instead of losing them to Paris. The birthplace of Concord and Airbus, it is arguably Europe’s main aeronautical centre, with its massive Airbus site. There is a guided tour of the Airbus A380 assembly line at the Lagardere facility and you can also step aboard a life-size model of the A380 and learn all about this unique double-decker aircraft.
Meanwhile, Toulouse’s importance to France’s space industry is highlighted at the Cit� de l’Espace, a popular attraction based on the theme of space travel.
It is also France’s third largest university city and its 110,000 students generate a vibrant party spirit in the city, while the many markets, restaurants and caf�s contribute to its hip and vivacious atmosphere. There is also a forward-thinking approach to transport, with a second metro line launched a few years ago, underground parking introduced to solve the parking shortage, and a tramway due to open this year.
And it’s not just Toulouse. As Sue Parr, of Midi-Pyr�n�es Properties says of the Ari�ge: “It is very beautiful, very diverse, has a super, temperate climate, mountains and sea are so close, the locals are extremely friendly and it is an area that is alive all year round.” This vivacity spreads across the region. Cahors and Figeac are both very lively towns, while Auch has several festivals throughout the year, including CIRCA and Festival Cine. Marciac, in Gers, meanwhile, is famous for its jazz festival.
Given the diversity of the region, it is also a great place for those who seek the thrills of the outdoor life. There are many ski stations in the Pyr�n�es, including
Le Mourtis, Luchon-Superbagn�res and Peyragudes, Cauterets and Tourmalet. And, there’s more to the Pyr�n�es National Park than the stunning views. In the winter you can enjoy skiing, snow-shoe hiking and tobogganing and it also offers walking and hiking.
In Aveyron, there is a seven-day cycle route that takes in all 10 of its plus beaux villages on a 700km route, while the spectacular caves at Gouffre de Padirac near Rocamadour can be explored by gondola for a breathtaking adventure.
You can go rock climbing, hang-gliding, micro-lighting, hot-air ballooning, canoeing, windsurfing and white-water rafting. Or you can take it down a notch and relax in the swimming lakes, or go angling or golfing.
Though tucked firmly in the south of France, access to the Midi-Pyr�n�es is very easy and has become more so in recent years.
By air, you can travel from London Gatwick, Bristol, Edinburgh, Leeds/Bradford, Manchester or Birmingham to Toulouse. Pau Tarbes-Lourdes aiport is serviced with flights to Stansted by Ryanair. Recent developments have also made flying into the Midi-Pyr�n�es easier, with the compact airport at Rodez now receiving flights by Ryanair from Stansted. Also, the much-vaunted and anticipated opening of the Brive Dordogne Valley airport creates a new option. CityJet flights started a service between this airport and London City in June this year, and Jet2 will be operating a service from this airport to Manchester airport from May next year.
You can also travel by rail, with TGV stations at Tarbes and Toulouse, or you
can drive along the A62, which links Bordeaux and Toulouse, the A20 (Paris to Toulouse via Limoges) or the A61 (Carcassonne to Toulouse).
There is a variety of property for sale in the Midi-Pyr�n�es, including many traditional properties. Maisons de village tend to be substantially built in stone, with either exposed stone walls or, often, with limestone-rendered exterior walls. There are also what Veronica Prentice, an estate agent working with Century 21 Immo Sud, describes as character properties. These are again stone-built, are detached and set in their own grounds, which can be anything up to several acres, with or without outbuildings. They have distinctive burnt-orange roof tiles. Properties are often adorned with characteristic features such as exterior stone staircases leading to the first floor, with the ground floor being used as a cellar, a garage or for storage. Another frequent embellishment is the pigeonnier, which, as Viginia Paschall points out, you will often see on more modern houses too, as it is a very popular style locally. As an alternative to stone houses, Virginia points out that there are also newly built houses with double-glazing, underfloor heating and pools, while Virginia Prentice says there are a range of brick-built villas in the region, “from the 1980s bungalow to the more modern, stylish villas with all mod-cons, which can be very efficient to heat. They sometimes come in groups of several villas or on small housing estates.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the Toulouse factor’, properties tend to be most expensive in the Haute-Garonne department. To give an indication of the strength of the Toulouse factor, the average price of a resale house in Haute-Garonne is €257,200, with second-placed Tarn-et-Garonne trailing in far behind at €168,000.
Garry Crisp, of Leggett Immobilier, observes: “Properties within commuting distance of Toulouse and near the motorways do command a premium.” Steven Weller backs this up, saying: “Toulouse is, of course, an international centre, with many Brits based there. The majority of Brits employed in the avionics industry in and around Toulouse rent property, as they are on short-term contracts. For those who decide to stay on or negotiate a full-time contract, there is a wealth of properties available, but at a price. Proximity is also a consideration, with properties within commuting distance being considerably more expensive than properties for example up in Aveyron, where I’m based.” However, Steven goes on to say: “With major improvements to the rail line between Aveyron and Toulouse this year, we are anticipating a slow increase in prices through 2011.”
Haute-Garonne’s regional dominance of property prices does not extend to new apartments, for which the Hautes-Pyr�n�es and the Ari�ge are the priciest at €3,770/m2 and €3,480/m2 respectively. This anomaly is explained by Sue Parr, who observes that: “It is because so many of the apartments for sale are actually in ski resorts (or very near – or in tourist hot spots) and therefore at a premium, whereas apartments in town are very cheap.”As Charles Smallwood, of Agence l’Union, says: “House prices in the region vary in relationship to their proximity to the coast or ski resorts.”
And, looking at the broader picture, while Midi-Pyr�n�es property is (perhaps unsurprisingly) more expensive than that in its arguably lesser-known neighbours Auvergne and Limousin, it is less expensive than that on offer in the other two regions that share its border – Aquitaine and Languedoc-Roussillon. According to the Notaires de France, the regional average for a resale house in Midi-Pyr�n�es is €199,700, compared with €223,200 in Aquitaine and €218,700 in Languedoc-Roussillon.
The downturn did impact upon the region. Steven Weller points out that prices have dropped across the board by between 10% and 20%. “We are still seeing some prices dropping,” he adds, “but nothing too major. What we are finding is that properties coming on that are priced right are achieving their asking price (or almost) and are moving quite quickly.”
While stating that prices in Quercy have remained high, Jenny Small, of Bacchus French Property, supports this need for a realistic approach to selling, saying: “The properties that seem to be selling are those where the vendors are realistic about the price and are open to offers.”
Charles Smallwood, who saw prices drop by 20% says: “Prices have now stabilised and the demand has increased
to the extent that we have had an excellent five-month period, during which we have agreed sales on properties ranging from a low-cost apartment to a majestic ch�teau. Buyers from the UK have been the most prominent as the drop in prices and the increase in the pound against the euro has encouraged many more purchasers.”
Veronica Prentice, who puts the drop in price at 15-20% is slightly more cautious, stressing that prices have not started to increase, but goes on to say of the drop in prices: “Prices are now at more affordable levels for both the local French market and the British buyers, and so this year has seen a healthy upturn in sales.”
Joanna Leggett, of Leggett Immobilier, finds that prices haven’t started recovering yet, but they are pretty static, having dropped by around 20%, while Virginia Paschall interestingly points out that: “House prices went down a little here last year, although stone property less so. French buyers look to place their investment money in land and property, having lost out on the world markets, so stone is seen as a good investment.” She goes on to add that, with the drop in prices, now is a good time to buy in the region, especially given the exchange rate.
The general consensus is that the majority of properties being bought by Brits in the region are holiday homes that will eventually be retired to full-time. Indeed, Anthony Pearce, of Allez South West France, says that 90% of those purchasing in the area follow such a plan, buying a holiday home then relocating to France for their retirement around five years later. However, Joanna Leggett says: “We are also seeing a demand for g�te complexes or properties that offer an opportunity to provide an income” while Steven Weller says: “Pre-2007, I would have said it was primarily to realise the dream of a second home in France... We are now seeing the emergence of a new Brit market. They are beginning to return but almost all are now talking of escape to a new life, whether it be now or in preparation for retirement a few years down the line.”
Those who do buy a holiday home could potentially earn a good income from renting it out when they’re not using it. As Anthony Pearce says: “There is a high demand for holiday rental properties with swimming pools and this is increasing year after year.” Steven Weller says that the rental market has generally remained buoyant, adding: “Properties maintaining a good level of rental are those in a good location, with excellent facilities and the all-important pool.” While Steven saw a slight reduction in 2010, Charles Smallwood observes that the rental season this year has been good. Veronica Prentice meanwhile gives a tantalising glimpse of the kind of income one might be able to generate: “A pretty and comfortable house will always attract holiday rentals. Many of my clients are already well booked for summer 2011, charging high-season rentals in the region of �1,000 to �1,500.”
These are clearly interesting times for the Midi-Pyr�n�es. Steeped in history yet also at the cutting edge of the 21st-century the future is bright for anyone who thinks that they too are Midi compatible.