Small but perfectly formed
PUBLISHED: 12:00 30 May 2014 | UPDATED: 16:37 06 January 2016
Sometimes overlooked in favour of its larger neighbours Lot and Tarn, the département of Tarn-et-Garonne in south-west France has plenty to offer. It boasts varied landscapes and architecture, delightful towns and villages, and a rural environment without being isolated.
Tarn-et-Garonne is one of France’s youngest départements, created by imperial decree in 1808. During a visit, Napoleon declared Montauban worthy to become a préfecture. The legend goes that he traced the boundaries of the new département around his hand on the map. Chunks of territory were hived off from the neighbouring departments, the largest swathe coming from Lot.
Tarn-et-Garonne is also one of the smallest of the 96 départements in mainland France (including Corsica). Only 10 have a smaller surface area, yet despite this it offers surprisingly diverse scenery.
In the north-east, there are the foothills of the Massif Central and the dramatic gorges of the River Aveyron. In the north-west, around the hilltop town of Lauzerte, the landscape is reminiscent of Tuscany. Montauban lies in a fertile plain, watered by the Tarn and Garonne rivers and renowned for its fruit growing. The south-west sector has the rolling hills and bucolic ambiance of Gascony.
ON THE MAP
Agriculture and tourism are the main industries. Transport links are excellent following the completion of the A20 motorway, linking Montauban with Paris. Motorways also connect Montauban with the cities of Toulouse and Bordeaux. Nowhere in Tarn-et-Garonne are you more than about an hour and a quarter by road from an international airport: Toulouse to the south, Rodez to the north-east and Bergerac to the north-west.
British people have discovered the area in recent decades and prices rose quite steeply in the early 2000s, but have since reduced by up to 25%. Along with improved exchange rates and low interest rates, this makes property in Tarn-et-Garonne good value for money. According to Notaires de France figures, the average price of a house is €145,000, compared with the national average of €160,000.
Renovation projects such as farmhouses and barns are still available, although opportunities are fewer today and less sought after. Plenty of well-restored stone-built properties exist in rural locations, some with gîtes or B&B potential. Village and town houses are becoming increasingly popular among young families, offering schools, shops, cafés and a social life on the doorstep. New-build is also an option, providing low-maintenance and energy-efficient homes.
Let’s start our tour around the ancient town of St-Antonin-Noble-Val in the east. This atmospheric riverside town sits below the limestone cliffs of the Gorges de l’Aveyron. Noted for its bustling Sunday market and claiming the oldest civic building in France, its twisting medieval alleys are steeped in history. Its many charms have made it the perfect setting for two films: Charlotte Gray and the forthcoming The Hundred Foot Journey starring Helen Mirren.
Charles Smallwood of Agence l’Union has been based there for 24 years and has seen its popularity, and that of the surrounding area, soar. “St-Antonin is a big focal point,” he says. “It has all the facilities you need, good transport links, a pleasant riverside location and it’s a traditional French town.
“The area has become increasingly popular with a younger generation who want a change of lifestyle. You can set up in business here, or even commute to the UK on a weekly basis. Other popular villages are Caylus, Parisot, Bruniquel and Puylaroque.”
What sort of properties are people looking for? “Half want a holiday home with potential for retirement. The other half are looking to relocate permanently,” he says. “The typical property wish list is a traditional stone-built house on the edge of a village with a pool and views. These aren’t easy to find but there are some examples in the area.”
A restored three-bedroom, stone-built house in a traditional hamlet near Parisot is currently on the market for €175,000.
The houses here are built of locally quarried limestone. Farmhouses often have an external stone staircase leading to a covered bolet (balcony). Some have pigeonniers or barns, which can be converted to gîtes or additional accommodation. According to Charles Smallwood, €150,000 will buy you a well-restored village house with a garden.
A restored stone-built three-bedroom farmhouse with a swimming pool, depending on its location, costs around €250,000-350,000. Agence l’Union is selling a three-bedroom country house with pool and panoramic views near the riverside village of Laguépie for €294,000.
If you are looking in the higher price bracket, there is a fully restored four-bedroom house near St-Antonin for sale for €775,000, which also includes a three-bedroom guesthouse and heated swimming pool.
Moving westwards, Caussade sits at the crossroads between the hilly north and the fertile plain around Montauban. In keeping with its location, the architecture is a mixture of red brick and stone.
The town hosts one of the biggest markets in the region and is the straw hat manufacturing capital of the area –
a title it wrested from the nearby village of Septfonds. It offers all amenities, including a direct rail link to Paris and convenient access to the A20 motorway.
A four-bedroom, architect-restored farmhouse with a swimming pool and pigeonnier is for sale near Caussade for €530,000, while a five-bedroom house with a separate guest house near Septfonds is currently for sale for €365,000.
West of the A20, the landscape offers a mixture of rolling hills, wooded plateaux and farmland. The prevailing style is the white stone of the ancient province of Quercy. The pretty hilltop towns of Lauzerte (one of the Plus Beaux Villages de France) and Montaigu-de-Quercy are property hotspots.
Roquecor and Bourg-de-Visa are also popular for their proximity to the amenities of Moissac. This delightful town sits by the River Tarn on a pilgrimage route to St-Jacques de Compostelle and is celebrated both for its abbey with a wonderful tympanum (carved stone panel above the doorway) and for the local Chasselas grapes.
Carl Scholfield of Vialex International Immobilier is based just over the Lot-et-Garonne border in Beauville and covers this part of Tarn-et-Garonne. “After several years in the doldrums, activity was back to normal in 2013, especially in the €150,000-300,000 price bracket,” he says. “There’s greater confidence and a lot of choice of realistically priced properties. Around here, for €200,000-250,000 you can get a renovated three-bedroom farmhouse with one or two acres of land, views and a swimming pool. In the boom years, that would have been priced at €350,000.”
The agency currently has a four-bedroom farmhouse near the hilltop town of Montaigu-de-Quercy for sale for €289,000.
Carl Scholfield has also seen buyers switch from renovation properties to those that are already renovated to a high standard. He is selling a well-restored luxury home with pool, set on one and a half acres in the hills near Moissac with panoramic views, for €695,000.
He agrees there is now more call for village properties, particularly in communities that offer facilities for younger families. “But people want a garden or somewhere to sit out,” he says. “You can pick up a renovated village house for €80,000-160,000, although it might need upgrading at the lower price end, typically with two or three bedrooms and a decent garden.”
Vialex has a renovated three-bedroom stone house for sale in a lively village in northern Tarn-et-Garonne for €160,000. It has a roof terrace with country views and separate vegetable gardens.
A ROSY GLOW
Down the A63 motorway towards Toulouse we arrive at Montauban, birthplace of the painter Ingres and early feminist Olympe de Gouges. The town was founded on the banks of the Tarn by the Counts of Toulouse in 1144. Like other bastides, or medieval new towns, the streets were built on a grid pattern surrounding a handsome arcaded square. Brick is the favoured building material and Montauban is known as ‘the pinkest of the pink cities’.
Moving south-westwards towards Gascony, the Lomagne landscape takes on a rolling aspect again. The main town, the bastide of Beaumont-de-Lomagne, is the birthplace of mathematician Pierre de Fermat and is noted for its annual garlic fair.
The Lomagnole farmhouses are often foursquare under a Roman-tiled roof. Donjon Immobilier is selling a house near Beaumont for €199,000, with over three hectares of land which could be ideal for keeping horses. Latitudes has a restored five-bedroom, three-bathroom farmhouse with pool near St-Clar, noted for its leisure lake, for €287,000.
Tarn-et-Garonne has so many attractive villages and appealing locations that it’s impossible to do them justice. “You have to see for yourself to appreciate just how varied it is,” says Charles Smallwood. “Prices are stable, there’s a lot of choice, the pound is doing better and the UK market is picking up. What more could you want?”