Universal appeal

Neil Ranad� takes an in-depth look at why Provence remains so enduringly popular with international buyers

Provence covers a large area and includes the six departments of Bouches-du-Rh�ne, Vaucluse, Alpes-de-Haute-Provence, Alpes-Maritime, Hautes-Alpes and Var. Each have their own character and together they provide a richness and diversity to cater for almost any taste. From the glitz and glamour of the C�te d’Azur, and the cosmopolitan city life of Marseille, to the rolling hills of Les Alpilles and the Luberon and the rugged mountains of the Alpes-de-Haute-Provence, Alpes-Maritime and the Haute- Alpes, Provence really can claim to have it all.

Jewel in the crown

While the history of Provence stretches back to Ancient Greek times, it was the Romans who laid the foundations that created the Provence of today. As part of the Roman Empire, Provence was the jewel in the crown outside Italy. As a reward, Roman generals were often given land here for their loyal service as well as to continue the colonisation of the Roman Empire.

The landscape was very different but, thanks to Roman engineering, a series of aqueducts were built carrying water from the mountains down into the lowlands and creating the lush and fertile environment that we still see today.

Signature trademarks of the Roman Empire can be found across Provence, but perhaps some of the most impressive are the coliseum and amphitheatre in Arles, the triumphal arch and Roman theatre in Orange and the Pont du Gard, near Remoulins, just outside Provence in Gard.

Major towns include Marseille, Nice, Toulon, Avignon and Aix-en-Provence with the first three providing the economic muscle that drives the economy of the region. Aix-en-Provence and Avignon, although smaller, are no less important to the region’s cultural heritage.

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Provence has always been popular with tourists and those who want to get away from it all. The rugged landscape hides hundreds of small villages, each with their own charm and beauty – a major reason why tourists and housebuyers flock to the area. The list of celebrities who have chosen Provence as their second home reads like a Who’s Who from the world of art, film, TV and literature.

Property is always in demand and consequently prices are some of the highest in France. But for those with limited budgets, do not despair. Properties can still be found in fabulous locations, just outside the hotspots of the Luberon, Aix-en-Provence, St-R�my-de-Provence, the C�te d’Azur and Nice.

The Luberon is often cited as the place to be and it certainly has a cachet that is hard to match. Away from the coastal towns of the C�te d’Azur, it remains one of the most sought-after areas in France. The Luberon has very strict controls on new developments and renovations that have prevented over-development of the area from ruining the landscape. Even Pierre Cardin, who owns the village of Lacoste, has had to rethink plans for a new golf course. With these restrictions, properties fetch a premium price and usually sell quickly.

Aix-en-Provence offers a chic urban lifestyle, from wonderful old city apartments to imposing bastides that really can take your breath away. With its easy access to the motorway network, the TGV and airport in Marseille, it is extremely popular as a city break destination. However, just 15 minutes from the city centre, there are lots of lovely villages where you can own a farmhouse and several acres of land for the same price as a luxury apartment in Aix-en-Provence.

Coast and country

The Var can be divided into two areas. The first of these is the busy coastline, with towns such as St-Tropez, Frejus and Hy�res, where property prices can be disproportionately high. However, moving further inland towards Draguignan, Brignoles and St-Maximin-la-Ste-Baume, you’ll find that property prices are more down to earth. The area is renowned for its wine production and there are great opportunities to find a lovely property just off the beaten track.

If you are really looking for a place where you can get away from it all, and if you enjoy skiing, Alpes-de-Haute-Provence and Haute-Alpes provides fabulous scenery and beautiful market towns such as Digne-les-Bains, Forcalquier and Gap.

Nice remains one of the most sought-after destinations and property prices here are among some of the highest in France. A two-bed duplex just minutes away from the Place Mass�na and the beaches of the Promenade des Anglais costs €536,000. However, a little further along the coast towards Menton, a town famous for its lemon festival and a short distance from the Italian border, you’ll find that property prices are slightly cheaper, though not by much. A similar property here will cost around €423,000.

Provence is very well served by road, rail and air, with major airports in Marseille and Nice. The TGV train in Marseille and Avignon can also reach Paris in three hours. The road network is excellent with the aptly named l’autoroute du soleil (A7) stretching from Lyon to Marseille, or the A8 that links Marseille to Nice.

Properties in an area the size of Provence can range in price enormously, but generally the further north you travel the cheaper properties become.

Market movement

The Vaucluse has been popular for many years and includes the grand and petit Luberon. In villages such as Gordes, Menerbes, Lacoste and Bonnieux, which are favourites of the rich and famous, demand for property is high. A charming three-bed village house with a living space of 117m�, tastefully renovated and with a roof terrace, set in the heart of Bonnieux, is currently being marketed at €385,000.

However, in L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue, a beautiful south-facing Proven�al riverside house with four bedrooms, two bathrooms and a private garden and patio area and hardly any work to do is on the market for €325,000.

Talking to Claude Giunta, a friend of mine who runs an agency in Aix-en-Provence, I asked how the market was doing. He commented that after two somewhat slow years in 2008 and 2009, this last year has seen about a 15% improvement, which he expects to see continue in 2011.

Recently, he has seen two types of clients, those who want to move permanently to the region and start a new life, and those who are looking for a safe investment. He has noticed that some of his clients who had been looking to Spain and Portugal have chosen France as a safer investment thanks to the relative stability of the housing market. While Spain’s loss is France’s gain, many buyers still want a return on their investment and most are looking at maximising their property’s rental income to offset running costs.

From Paris to Provence

Most clients can find the right property and within their budget, thanks to a good supply at the moment. However, warns Claude, Paris has seen a 20% increase in property transactions recently, making good-quality properties harder to find. Where Paris leads, the rest of France and in particular Provence, usually follows within a few months.

His other tip is to think about buying in the winter months. During the summer, it is often difficult to view a property if it is rented out as a holiday let. Many owners are more willing to sell when the property may be empty and are ready to negotiate for fear of losing a sale and running the risk of having to keep the property for another year.

In the last few years, there has been a shift from larger properties with acres of land to smaller, more manageable and secure properties. The desire to own a property in Provence is still very strong, but perhaps the economic climate and tighter lending criteria have forced buyers to review their prospective purchase to suit a smaller budget. A townhouse with two or three bedrooms that is affordable, comfortable and cheap to run seems to be near the top of buyers’ requirements at the moment.

Mountain views

However, if you are measuring your budget in the millions there is no shortage of properties throughout Provence to tempt you. A seven-bed Aixoise bastide set in 10 hectares of parkland with a luxury pool and views over the mountains was recently on the market for €9.8 million.

Provence has properties to suit every taste and budget, and with over 300 days of sunshine annually, it also has the longest rental season in France, which allows owners to maximise the return on their investment.

Indeed, 2011 promises to be a better year in the French housing market and with prices starting to increase again, now is a good time to start looking for that dream home.

Neil Ranad� runs Provence Property Connections, a property search agency covering the Bouches-du-Rh�ne and the Luberon