Carolyn Reynier heads for the sandy beaches along the west coast of France and discovers that your own place by the sea is hard to beat
he French are no slouches when it comes to naming their extensive coastlines and the C�te de Lumi�re is no exception. Covering 105km� of wild and rocky coastline bordering the Atlantic, this area offers maritime living par excellence where nautical activities abound.
The canton of Les Sables-d’Olonne in Vend�e takes in six communes – Les Sables, Le Ch�teau-d’Olonne, Olonne-sur-Mer, L’Ile-d’Olonne, Ste-Foy and Vair�. An overall population of approximately 50,000 makes it the second largest urban area in the Vend�e.
The colourful traditional costumes with their impressive 43cm wimples worn by the Sablaise women traditionally are still worn today by the Reines des Sables-d’Olonne and Le Nouch, a folklore group. You can admire a selection of local wimples in various local museums including the Mus�e des Traditions Populaires at Olonne-sur-Mer.
The fishing port of Les Sables, with its 65 boats that bring in sole, tuna, cuttlefish, squid and sea bass, is ranked fifth among French ports. The commercial port copes with the produce from one of France’s main cereal regions and the Port Olona and Quai Garnier marinas cope with French and foreign sailors. Les Sables is also the departure and arrival port for the round-the-world sailing race – no stopping, no assistance – the Vend�e Globe.
If you’d like to stop and get some assistance, pop into Lafor�t Immobilier in Les Sables-d’Olonne run by Michel Vrignon and his wife Christine Padioleau. The property market slowed up considerably following the good years from 2005 to 2008, reports Vrignon. Last year was reasonable with the number of transactions on the increase but with prices, compared with 2007, around 10% down for seafront properties rising to 15% or 20% as you move away from the sea to areas like Ch�teau-d’Olonne or Olonne-sur-Mer. “Prices are down as much as 25% when you move 10-15km inland, particularly from Les Sables-d’Olonne,” Vrignon observes.
In Les Sables, the most sought-after sector is along Le Remblai. Here prices for apartment buildings directly facing the sea are between €6,000 and €7,000 per square metre depending on the quality of the fixtures and fittings.
The area known as Les Pr�sidents around the Avenue Aristide Briand is very popular with a clientele plut�t hupp�e – upmarket – because part of it faces the sea and the buildings are attractive houses with gardens going for around €500,000 to €600,000, says Vrignon. “Price per square metre here is around €4,500 to €5,500.”
Another chic area is Arago; all narrow streets and townhouses with tiny gardens and possibly a garage. Prices here are between €4,000 and €5,000 per square metre. An old two-bedroom house is on the market here for €195,000 (Ph.Buchy Immobilier). It is in perfect repair’, 100m from the beach, and would make a perfect pied-�-terre. You can also find small studios and apartments around Port Olona although, explains Vrignon, this is really a different non-residential market.
South of Les Sables-d’Olonne you’ll find the seaside village of La Pironni�re, which is part of neighbouring Ch�teau-d’Olonne, described as “un secteur tr�s reposant” in a wooded area where prices are in the €4,500 to €5,500 bracket.
La Chaume, explains Mireille Peuaud at Ph.Buchy Immobilier, is the area of Les Sables-d’Olonne lying to the west and separated from Les Sables by a narrow channel – worth looking here, too. Apart from Le Remblai, where you can expect to pay between €6,500 and €8,500 per square metre, check out the St-Pierre quartier around the eponymous street. You can also find houses and apartments for renovation, says Peuaud.
Castelnau Immobilier was created in Les Sables-d’Olonne in 1997 by the father of Steve and Bruno Bonhomme, who both work in it now. They cover an area from Talmont-St-Hilaire in the south to Brem-sur-Mer to the north. A second agency opened three years later in La Mothe-Achard, 20km inland, north-east of Les Sables.
Most buyers come from outside the region, says Bruno Bonhomme, although he doesn’t see many foreigners. Purchases are evenly split between main residences and second homes; Les Sables is a popular destination for retirees. “Second homebuyers usually want to be within walking distance of the beach. For main homes, people look in areas away from the seafront either for properties ready to move into or for renovation depending on the budget.”
If you’re looking for something architecturally typical of the area, you can find small, low, stone fishermen’s cottages with courtyards or small gardens. Expect to pay around €140,000 for a 100m� renovation project. There’s a partially renovated small one-bed bungalow with a garden of 400m� on the market in the Ile-d’Olonne for €137,800 (Ph.Buchy Immobilier).
A 25m� seafront studio will set you back on average €110,000, says Bonhomme, rising to around €260,000 if you want a couple of bedrooms. Villas lie on the outskirts of Les Sables and range in price from €300,000 to €600,000 and, rarely, even higher.
There is an investment market, says Bonhomme, for annual and seasonal lets although the former may not always make economic sense given the high prices. In high season the rental for a seafront property sleeping four will be around €500 per week, he says.
Les points forts? There’s always something going on in Les Sables-d’Olonne, says Bonhomme, with just over 16,000 inhabitants, it’s an active place all year round.
If you’re not particularly fussed about being on the coast, English speaker Christine Padioleau at Lafor�t Immobilier specialises in inland properties and the Anglo-Saxon market. Following the marriage of Eleanor of Aquitaine and Henri II, future king of England, the region spent 50 years under English domination. They travelled by boat. You can fly into Nantes to the north or La Rochelle to the south.
The agency covers all the Pays d’Olonne – not just Les Sables, but also the Ch�teau-d’Olonne, Olonne-sur-Mer and the Ile-d’Olonne – and a 15/20km radius including Talmont-St-Hilaire, Ste-Foy and La Mothe-Achard.
Sale prices are negotiable if the vendors have pitched too high. “Today our job is to persuade sellers to put realistic prices on their properties,” says Padioleau. Foreigners are returning, she reports, following the economic crisis in Ireland and the UK. She used to work in the Talmont-St-Hilaire sector and sold a lot of property to foreign buyers bewitched by the appeal of old stones’ and countryside.
Over the past couple of years, the Anglo-Saxons have been selling up their French properties rather than buying. “The crisis is still tough in Ireland, and in England too, but we get the feeling that there are a few more foreigners about. On the beach you hear a lot more people speaking foreign languages.”
Country properties in places like Talmont-St-Hilaire, Ste-Foy, Grosbreuil and La Mothe-Achard are much in demand; yes, you have to get in the car to get to the beach but prices are considerably lower than Les Sables, and you get some land with your house.
Of course, if you want to do it the other way round, building land is available. You can buy a 1,500m� plot at Talmont-St-Hilaire for €212,000 (Ph. Buchy Immobilier), the price reflecting the cachet of this particularly popular area. At Grosbreuil, a 659m� plot is on the market at €77,360 (Agence Lafor�t).
This is a landscape of never-ending expanses of beaches – la grande plage des Sables-d’Olonne, la plage de Sauveterre and la plage des Granges at Olonne-sur-Mer (plus a naturist beach if you have forgotten to pack your bikini). Then there’s la plage de Tanchet at Ch�teau-d’Olonne, at La Chaume la plage de la Paracou and at the Bassin d’Ombret, a natural seawater swimming pool tucked into the creeks of the wild rocky coastline.
It is a region of sand dunes, forests and marshlands – a paradise for walkers, cyclists and lovers of nature. There are festivals aplenty, and more markets than you can manage in a month. If you’ve been dithering about taking the plunge, or if you sense that the sands of time are running out then head for Les Sables d’Olonne. You might just find what you’ve been looking for.