So near so spa

From the north of England to the south of France – Karen Tait explores twin towns Harrogate and Bagn�res de Luchon

With the forthcoming French Property Exhibition at the Yorkshire Showground almost upon us, I started wondering about the link between the town that’s hosting this most French of events, Harrogate, and its French twin town, Bagn�res de Luchon (also known as Luchon).

How do they compare, I wondered, do they have similarities or are they a world (or country) apart? And what about their respective property markets? A quick Google search revealed one travel blog entitled Harrogate en Pyr�n�es’. “It’s a fair twinning,” writes blogger MargaretL, who had been visiting the town one weekend for a change of air’.

“Both towns match each other in living up to the clich� – plenty of genteel elderly ladies in straitened, or not so straitened, circumstances. Both towns also don’t live up to the clich� – there are lots of perfectly regular people-next-door types. Both towns too have housing stock and council tax levels that prevent the young and less well-off climbing onto the housing ladder.”

As you approach Luchon, its town signs proudly display the twinning, naming the two towns Reine de Pyr�n�es and Reine de Yorkshire – a right royal association that also links to Spain via a third twin town, Sitges, namely Reine des Plages Catalanes.

Harrogate and Luchon were twinned in 1953, the link being that both were spa towns. Luchon offers a variety of medicinal cures, bathing and a water bottling plant. Harrogate no longer offers the range of treatments available at the turn of the 20th century, but there are still Turkish baths and you can buy bottled spring water.

As spa towns, both Luchon’s and Harrogate’s real glory days are behind them, but they still have plenty to offer.

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Bagn�res

Situated at the foot of the Pyr�n�es in a valley at the confluence of the One and the Pique rivers, Luchon has 48 thermal springs, ranging in temperature from 62 to 150 degrees Fahrenheit. The baths date from Roman times but the height of their popularity was in the latter half of the 18th century. Today a more modern entrance to the baths sits alongside the older buildings. Bathers alternate spells within a hot sulphurous atmosphere in caves running some 100 metres inside the mountain and in a cool swimming pool within the spa building.

Although much smaller than Harrogate, Luchon is a lively town that retains the air of a fashionable resort. The thermes are located at the southern end of All�es d'�tigny, the town’s finest promenade, lined with lime trees, bars and restaurants.

To the south-west, the ski resort of Superbagn�res was originally connected to the town by rail and was the second resort in France to install a lift. Today a gondola takes about 10 minutes to reach the summit, operating in summer and winter.

In summer, cycling and mountain-biking are popular; the Tour de France route often passes through Luchon, which is situated between two passes. The town also has a nine-hole golf course, tennis courts and an airfield.

Harrogate

Surrounded by the dramatic countryside of the Yorkshire Dales national park and located in the Nidd valley, Harrogate is an upmarket town renowned for its designer shops, hotels and restaurants – nowadays Bettys Caf� Tea Rooms are better known than the spa facilities!

Containing iron, sulphur and salt, the spa waters became a popular health treatment in the 17th and 18th centuries, attracting wealthy, ailing visitors. The town prospered and in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was patronised by the English �lite and European nobility. Although less popular after World War I, during World War II its large hotels housed government offices that had been evacuated from London. The town now has a reputation as a commercial, conference and exhibition centre.

Harrogate has its fair share of fine architecture, including the Grade II-listed Royal Hall theatre, the only surviving kursaal (cure hall’) in Britain. Spa facilities can still be enjoyed in the Turkish baths, which offers a range of beauty and relaxation treatments. The town is also known for its lovely parks and gardens.

On the market

According to Home.co.uk, at the time of writing (mid-March), there were 898 properties for sale in Harrogate and the average sale price was �257,630. The majority of properties were two-bedroom (266), followed by three-bedroom (243) with only 35 five-bedrooms; and 304 flats.

In a 2005 Channel 4 programme, which listed Harrogate as the UK’s third best place to live, property pundit Phil Spencer said the town was his favourite. Five years on, with a recession in between, the town still seems to be thriving. An article in The Times (19 February 2010) reports: “Two things typify the Harrogate market: high prices and a swift turnaround time thanks to a ready supply of buyers with cash to spend. In sought-after areas, such as Fulwith Mill Lane, the average selling price is more than �1 million, and the best houses sell for upwards of �2.5 million.” The newspaper described recession-busting Harrogate as a Teflon town’.

Across the Channel and around 1,100km south of Calais, Luchon appeals to British househunters largely because of its year-round usability’. In summer its pavement caf�s typify the French lifestyle, while in winter the nearby ski resort is a big draw, especially as property prices are considerably lower than in popular Alpine and Pyrenean resorts. There’s also a good choice of properties from elegant townhouses to rustic farmhouses and renovation projects in the surrounding countryside or a ski apartment in the nearby resort.

“While house prices in Luchon have, of course, been dramatically affected by the financial crisis over the past year or so, they are also strongly affected by supply and demand,” comments Chantal Culver of Mountain Pyr�n�es Immobilier.

“There was a tail-off in enquiries and, correspondingly, in sales during 2009 but these started to pick up again in September/October and really don’t seem to have decreased over the traditional quiet period during the winter. In fact, we’ve seen a large increase in the number of enquiries from potential buyers in both the French national and also the international markets for properties in the €100,000–€250,000 price range. There has also been a marked increase in serious enquiries from not only the UK, but also from as far as the USA and New Zealand.

“With its antique shops, restaurants, caf�s, hotels, nightclub, casino, market and spa, Luchon is one of those towns that exudes old money’ and is very stylish in some ways, but still very affordable. Being a popular holiday destination, properties here have good rental potential,” she adds.

“Prices in Luchon are around €2,000/m2 for flats and €1,900/m2 for houses including agency fees. There’s a good stock of attractive properties now available and if you’re looking for a bargain, there are plenty to be found, and owners who are keen to sell are now open to offers. Our advice – don’t wait too long before making up your mind!”

Properties currently on MPI’s books in Luchon include a five-bed maison bourgeoise on the outskirts of the town with mountain views for €689,000; a one-bed apartment for €124,750 and a four-bed house for €283,500.

For a year-round French retreat, Luchon is hard to beat – and when you compare low-cost flights with British Rail train tickets, it may well be cheaper to get to than a holiday home in Harrogate!

Visit the French Property Exhibition at Harrogate on 14-16 May. See www.fpeharrogate.com