Mountain majesty

Heading for mountain country above Nice could be the perfect place to find a bargain in the south of France, says Carolyn Reynier

 Last autumn I boarded the 360 bus in Nice to travel the 25km up to Luc�ram. The scenery was stunning; hillside trees and bushes decked out in their autumn livery of reds and russets, yellows and gold. The medieval village came into view, looking, I imagine, pretty much as it did in days gone by when mules travelled the Route du Sel from Villefranche-sur-Mer laden with their precious burden of salt. They were on their way to Piedmont and Savoy and would return with rice and other merchandise. I was on my way to meet Andr� Gal, a Luc�ramois born and bred and mayor of the commune of Luc�ram/Pe�ra-Cava, and would return enchanted by this unspoiled village and its inhabitants. The commune, which covers 6,500 hectares, is one of the 10 most spread-out communes in Alpes-Maritimes, explains Gal, with a population – albeit on the increase – of only 1,250. Pe�ra-Cava, higher up, was the first winter resort to be created in the department. In the early 20th century it was the place to go. Ni�ois and Monegasque high society, together with wealthy foreign visitors, left the coast and headed up to Pe�ra-Cava. Travelling time was six hours by horse-drawn carriage, reducing to only four with the advent of motorised transport. The commune owns the barracks there, which was built in the late 19th century from local sandstone with timber for beams and floorboards coming from the local Ma�ris forest. It housed 300 soldiers in winter and up to two/three times as many in the summer. When the border with Italy was moved a few kilometres north at the end of the Second World War, thus removing any danger, the barracks were abandoned. Today, the mayor would like to see the building converted into residential accommodation "in keeping with the surroundings". Now that would be an interesting development opportunity for a Francophile mountain-loving investor. Luc�ram is famous for its Circuit des Cr�ches held over several weeks during December and January. Villagers make their own nativity scenes, which you'll find dotted all over the village in obvious and less obvious places. If you include the fabulous collection in the Mus�e des Cr�ches, you can admire 400 in all. The Circuit des Cr�ches attracts 60,000 visitors a year in just over a month, says Gal. "We stop around 10 January because we have the Monte-Carlo Rally. One year, we found ourselves with a complete traffic jam – cars coming up from Nice to visit the cr�ches and the rally coming down from the Col de Turini," he laughs. The village also has a primary school with 200 pupils, and around 30 associations, says Gal. Regular visitors to France will be familiar with that very French institution – the association (Loi 1901). The 1901 law, which reverts to the principles of the French Revolution and repealed an earlier 19th-century ruling, made it legal for two or more people sharing a common interest and not wishing to make a profit to meet and enjoy their hobby. Thus associations grew like mushrooms. You can't move in France without falling over one and there are now over a million across the country. I discovered the back country of Nice through Association Nice Randonn�e and learned to play the accordion with Association Nissaccord�on. Name me a subject and I bet you an association exists to celebrate it. I mention the olive mill at nearby Val del Prat. "I'll drive you there," says the mayor. In the farmhouse there, Gaby Tihy answers a constantly ringing telephone; a run of people making appointments to bring up olives for pressing. At the mill itself, I meet her husband Emile. A customer watches patiently as his green-gold olive oil pours into his container. The Italian machinery operates best with a minimum of 150kg of olives so if you want your own oil, you need to have at least that weight; a point worth bearing in mind if you buy a property in these parts with an olive grove and want to produce your own extra virgin olive oil. Smaller quantities of olives are put in for pressing together. Gaby brings in a dish of chicken and vegetables; we all sit down for lunch. Luc�ram is that kind of a place. Up in the clouds There's a difference in altitude of around 900m between the two villages. Luc�ram lies at 650m and rarely has snow while Pe�ra-Cava is around 1,500m and does. The climate is not the same, says Nicolas Camous at estate agency Agence Escar�noise. "You're really in a mountainous region at Pe�ra-Cava whereas Luc�ram is more countryside." The Luc�ram property market is small and tends to operate by word of mouth while prices, says Camous, are around €2,000 to €2,500 per square metre for village houses and apartments. He tells me about a useful website, www.vivastreet.fr, where private individuals advertise properties for sale all over France. The majority of properties on the market are village apartments. Villas are rare although there is a rather splendid-looking one for sale south of Luc�ram: 106m�, three bedrooms, large terrace and swimming pool (it's on the market for €400,000; www.vivastreet.fr). Meanwhile, if you don't expect much change from €1.5 million you can be the proud owner of a 430m�, six-bed, 16th-century bastide complete with authentically restored tower, pool, tennis court and seven hectares of olive trees that should certainly ensure your own pressing chez Tihy (Agence Immobili�re Nice Vall�es). But the commune really comes into its own for those with a somewhat more limited budget. It's usually people looking for main residences because prices here are more affordable, says Camous. "We're a little bit set back from Nice, about 30 minutes away, so prices are plus int�ressant for those on a small budget." So it's easy for folk to work in Nice but live in a tranquil hillside setting. Houses are narrow and tall with several floors; if you're lucky you may get a bit of garden attached. Some buildings have been converted into apartments for long-term rent, which provides an interesting investment opportunity. Those on a small budget get more for their money. "You'll pay €500 a month for a studio in Nice whereas in Luc�ram you can get a two or three-room apartment for the same money," says Camous. However, there isn't much seasonal renting, he adds. There is new building going on but not by property developers. New construction is dictated by the legal requirements for the commune to provide a certain amount of what is referred to as du social – affordable council housing. Building plots do exist but "because we're not far from Nice, these plots are quite rare, so that automatically puts up the prices," says Camous. However, there are some that are marketed at reasonable prices. For one plot between 1,000 and 1,500m� the price can vary between €100,000 and €200,000 depending on the location and other factors. As you climb up from Luc�ram to Pe�ra-Cava, the landscape becomes more mountainous and the area is largely protected from construction. And as you go up, prices come down. "You're 45 minutes to an hour from Nice depending on how fast you drive. You're in the mountains now," says Camous. However, there are those who commute to Nice. Given the prices on the C�te d'Azur, people with small budgets who aren't put off by the driving (there are railway stations at L'Escar�ne and Tou�t de L'Escar�ne) can become the proud owners of quite sizeable properties here. As the scenery changes, so does the architecture. The ancient stone houses of Luc�ram give way to the timber chalets of Pe�ra-Cava. Prices vary according to size, style and features, but Camous says you could find a 150m� chalet for around €200,000. Although life is more lively during the winter months the village has a vibrant community all year round. There's a small centre with restaurants and a little supermarket so you're not isolated. Camous has a friend who lives at Pe�ra-Cava. "So obviously one can manage to survive up there," he says, not sounding as if he has any intention of doing so himself. Pe�ra-Cava, fine for cross-country skiing and snowshoeing, has only one ski lift so is a micro-station compared with Valberg, Isola and Auron. But it is closer to Nice and so is very popular with those wanting to get up, up and away from it all into the mountains. And above all, says Camous, it is not far from the magnificent Mercantour National Park, with its fascinating protected flora and fauna. Perfect place You can gather myrtles or pick mushrooms, if you know where to look, says Camous: "You're in the mountains, directly in touch with all the natural produce they have to offer." So Pe�ra-Cava may prove the perfect place for a pied-�-terre: snuggling up in your chalet in the winter snow, invigorating mountain walks in the springtime, and a bit of hunter-gathering in late summer and autumn. There's a 100m�, two-bed stone house in grounds of circa 1,500m� nearby that would fit the bill nicely (€199,000; Sud Contact Haut Pays). In an ideal world, the best way to see if you really like an area enough to move there is to rent for 12 months or so. You experience the place during each season, and when you're considering moving to the mountains that becomes more important given the pronounced changes in climate. Sonia Damele, who deals with lettings at the Agence Escar�noise, is interested in collaborating with a UK estate agency. Whether you're working or retired and whether you lean towards the ancient stones of Luc�ram or prefer the chalets of Pe�ra-Cava, in the Haut Paillon valley you'll discover one of the loveliest communes in the Alpes-Maritimes department. www.agence-escarenoise.com www.vivastreet.fr www.luceram.com