Househunting across France

North, south, east or west - Karen Tait explores departments from the four corners of France and finds out why they are so popular

NORTH: CALVADOS

WHERE IS IT?

Calvados is one of the five departments of Normandy, the others being Seine-Maritime (home to the Norman capital, Rouen), Eure to the east, Orne to the south and Manche to the west. To the north it is bordered by the English Channel.

WHY WOULD I LIKE IT?

For a relatively small department, Calvados has much to offer, including sandy beaches and verdant countryside. Some of Normandy’s finest seaside resorts are to be found on its C�te Fleurie (flower coast), including Honfleur, Deauville, Trouville, Houlgate and Cabourg. It was the number one seaside destination in France (Napoleon III favoured Deauville in the 18th century) before the Riviera flourished as a tourist hotspot, and it remains popular with both British and French holidaymakers (especially Parisians due to its relative proximity). To the west, the C�te de Nacre (pearl coast) has long sandy beaches but is best known as the location of the Normandy landings. Also on the coast, the capital Caen was built on a series of hills, with wide streets and squares. Although it suffered badly during World War II, many historic buildings survived.

Calvados is composed of various ‘pays’, including the Bessin area around Bayeux in the west of the department; the Pays d’Auge in the east, characterised by its half-timbered houses and also encompassing the coast; Suisse Normande in the south-west, so called because of its hills and rivers; and the plains of Caen at the centre.

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Inland there are pretty towns such as Lisieux, Vire, Pont l’Eveque, Falaise and Bayeux, known for its 11th-century tapestry depicting the events leading up to the Norman Conquest. Its narrow streets lined with half-timbered buildings are worth a visit in their own right. Born in Falaise, William the Conqueror left his mark on the area in more ways than the tapestry; as Duke of Normandy he made Caen the seat of the Duchy, and many castles, abbeys and churches were built during his reign. The department has one Plus Beaux Village: Beuvron-en-Auge.

An agricultural area, Calvados is famed for its butter, cheese (including camembert, livarot and pont-l’�v�que), cider and, of course, its eponymous liqueur, calvados.

WHAT KIND OF PROPERTY CAN I EXPECT?

There are plenty of old farmhouses, usually stone-built, perhaps from Caen stone (used in famous buildings on both sides of the Channel, including the Tower of London), while manor houses reflect the wealth created by the fertile land over the years. Half-timbered or colombage houses are also typical, sometimes with thatched roofs – ironically, the very features that make them sought-after now, and hence more expensive, were chosen because they were plentiful and cheap (i.e. timber and thatch).

Along the coast there are older villas as well as new-build properties, and it’s also possible to find modern houses built in the traditional half-timbered style. Normandy is one of the foremost horse-breeding areas of France, so there are equestrian properties too. Although less plentiful than in the past, reasonably priced renovation projects can still be picked up.

The Notaires de France list the average house price in Calvados as €177,000, making it the most expensive department in Basse-Normandie, where the regional average is €140,000. This reflects higher values along the coast – prices in the Caen sector rise to €199,000, while the cheapest area is around Vire (€110,000). Deauville has the most expensive property and homes with a sea view carry a premium, as do those close to the A13 to Paris. You’ll get more for your money in the heart of Calvados, among the orchards and pastureland.

Since 2009, prices have risen in the department by 10%, but this slowed to 1.9% in 2010/11. It followed a fall in prices of 8.5% from 2007-9, so prices are only a little higher now than they were in 2006/7.

WHAT’S THE WEATHER LIKE?

Normandy has a similar climate to the south of the UK, with no real extremes in temperature. It has both oceanic and continental influences; the Atlantic creates a fairly mild and humid microclimate across the north-west corner of France.

Rainfall is spread quite evenly throughout the year, so the countryside remains green in the summer; Caen’s annual 740mm ranges from 50mm in April to 78mm in December, and there are 126 days with less than 1mm rainfall. Temperatures in Caen vary from a minimum average of 2.4oC in February to a maximum average of 22.8oC in August. Inland it can be colder in winter and hotter in summer. Caen gets 1,691 hours of sunshine a year, with 44 days of strong sunshine and 143 days of weak sunshine.

HOW DO I GET THERE?

Normandy’s proximity to the UK has long made it popular with British holidaymakers and househunters. Ferries are the obvious choice, from Poole, Portsmouth and Newhaven to Cherbourg, Caen, Le Havre and Dieppe, or you could drive from St Malo or Calais. If you’d rather fly, there are UK flights to Deauville, or to Dinard and Rennes in neighbouring Brittany. The high-speed TGV train stops off at Le Havre.

SOUTH: AUDE

WHERE IS IT?

Aude is one of the five departments that make up the Languedoc-Roussillon region, the others being Loz�re, Gard, H�rault (home to the regional capital Montpellier) and Pyr�n�es-Orientales. The Midi-Pyr�n�es region is its western neighbour, while to the east there’s nothing except the Mediterranean sea.

WHY WOULD I LIKE IT?

Another department that benefits from both seaside and countryside, Aude offers a particularly wide choice of scenery. On the Mediterranean coast there are long sandy beaches, backed by saltwater lagoons (home to flamingos), while inland the landscape ranges from scrubland or ‘garrigue’ to wheatfields, rolling vineyards in the Corbieres or Minervois areas, and the Pyrenean peaks to the south and Montagne Noir to the north. Aude is named its river, which flows from the Pyr�n�es to the Mediterranean.

The main town is Carcassonne, famed for its stunning medieval citadel – rebuilt in the 19th-century, it features a castle, two outer ramparts and more than 50 towers. On the coast, Narbonne is actually the larger city, with architectural gems such as its cathedral and archbishop’s palace, a section of the Via Domitia Roman road in its main square, and the Canal de la Robine which runs through the centre. Limoux is another charming town – don’t visit without sampling its delicious Blanquette de Limoux sparkling wine. Seaside resorts include Gruissan Plage, Narbonne Plage, Port la Nouvelle, Port Leucate and Port Barcar�s.

Aude is also known as Cathar Country due to its density of Cathar castles, including Qu�ribus, Peyrepertuse and Puivert, and it also has several abbeys of note such as Fontfroide. The Canal du Midi flows through the centre of the department and has many picturesque villages on its banks. On the River Orbieu, Lagrasse is a Plus Beaux Village. As with every part of France, Aude has fabulous regional dishes from the famous cassoulet, a stew of duck, sausages and beans, to seafood on the coast, including Gruissan oysters, with more than its fair share of local wines to wash it all down with.

WHAT KIND OF PROPERTY CAN I EXPECT?

On the coast there are the usual seaside apartments and villas; much of the Languedoc-Roussillon coast was developed in the 1970s, so there are plenty of properties from this era up to the present day, as well as some older houses in fishing villages. Of note are the stilted beach houses at Gruissan, which featured in the film ‘Betty Blue’. Inland, village houses are plentiful, with some mountain-style properties in the Pyr�n�es. In the countryside there are stone farmhouses and ‘mas’. The average house price in Aude is €140,000, less than the regional average of €186,000 and national average of €165,600. Prices have risen by 16.2% since 2009 (5% in 2010-11), following a fall of 7.9% in 2008-9. The most expensive sector is Narbonne, with an average price of €155,000, followed by the Carcassonne (€128,600) and Limoux (€98,000).

WHAT’S THE WEATHER LIKE?

The Mediterranean climate brings hot and dry summers, and mild humid winters. Annual rainfall in Carcassonne is 648mm, ranging from 29mm in July to 73mm in April, and there are 88 days with less than 1mm of rain. Minimum average temperatures fall to 3.1oC in January, while in summer maximum average temperatures are 28.6oC in July. There are 2,119 hours sunshine per year, with 112 days of weak sunshine, and 89 days of strong sun.

HOW DO I GET THERE?

You’re spoilt for choice as Languedoc-Roussillon has five airports within its borders – at Carcassonne, Montpellier, B�ziers, N�mes and Perpignan – with Toulouse airport close by in the Midi-Pyr�n�es. It’s a long drive from the Channel ports, but if you decide to let the train take the strain, the high-speed TGV stops at Carcassonne, Narbonne, B�ziers, Agde, S�te, Montpellier, N�mes and Perpignan. The area has a good road network, with autoroutes linking it to Toulouse, Spain and northern France.

EAST: HAUTE-SAVOIE

WHERE IS IT?

Bordering Switzerland, Haute-Savoie is part of the Rhone-Alpes region along with the departments of Savoie, Is�re, Ain, Rh�ne (home to the regional capital Lyon), Loire, Dr�me and Ard�che.

WHY WOULD I LIKE IT?

Anyone who loves wintersports will fall for Haute-Savoie, with its world-renowned ski resorts such as Chamonix, Meg�ve, Morzine, La Clusaz, St-Gervais, Flaine and Avoriaz – it’s equally popular in summer with ramblers and mountain bikers, especially Chamonix. The main town Annecy is one of the most beautiful in France, with a picturesque old town, a stunning lake and a breathtaking mountain backdrop. Talking of mountains, Haute-Savoie is home to Europe’s highest mountain, Mont Blanc. It also has part of Europe’s largest lake, Lac Leman, so watersports enthusiasts are fully catered for.

If you like your aquatic exploits to be of the relaxing or medicinal kind, you’ll be pleased to hear there are three spa towns – Evian-les-Bains, St-Gervais-les-Bains and Thonon-les-Bains – while golfers will find some of the best courses in France, such as the Evian Masters Golf Club. Other outdoor activities include horse-riding, mountain-biking, paragliding and mountaineering, to name but a few. Plus Beaux Villages include Sixt-Fer-�-Cheval and Yvoire.

Those who enjoy hearty food, in particular cheese, will relish the fondue, tartiflette and raclette on offer in the department’s many charming restaurants, while the apr�s-ski social life is famed the world over.

WHAT KIND OF PROPERTY CAN I EXPECT?

Chalets rule the roost here, whether as large homes or divided into apartments; in winter cloaked in snow, in summer bedecked with colourful floral displays. In recent years all new development has reflected the local mountain vernacular, featuring natural materials such as wood and stone, and gradually replacing the less than attractive developments of the 1960s-1980s. There are few old chalets or farmhouses left to renovate nowadays, while at the other end of the scale there is a good choice of new developments, despite limited building land (many of the aforementioned architectural nasties have been knocked down to make way for charming new residences) and there are also refurbished buildings.

Being a tourist hotspot, many of the properties in the resorts are second homes or investments, including leaseback residences (sold under the government-backed scheme whereby owners have limited personal use and receive a guaranteed rental income in return for ‘leasing back’ the property to a management company). Around half of all properties are apartments. The Alpine resorts are home to some of the most expensive property in France; the average house price in Haute-Savoie of €337,500 is more than double the national average (€165,600) and considerably more than the regional average (€217,500). Prices have risen by 11.3% since 2009 (5.9% in 2010-11), having fallen by between 10.1% between 2007 and 2009.

WHAT’S THE WEATHER LIKE?

The French weather website (www.meteo.fr) doesn’t give statistics for a station in Haute-Savoie, however those for Bourg-St-Maurice in neighbouring Savoie are fairly typical of the French Alps, although it is at a lower altitude than the ski resorts and the weather can, of course, vary from one side of a mountain to the other. Annual rainfall, falling as snow in winter months, is 986mm in Bourg-St-Maurice, varying from 61mm in April to 106mm in December; there are 110 days per year with less than 1mm rainfall. Temperatures fall to a minimum average of –3.8oC in January, and rise to a maximum average of 26.4oC in July. Basically, Haute-Savoie is cold and snowy in winter, with pleasantly warm summers.

HOW DO I GET THERE?

At the crossroads of France, Italy and Switzerland, the main airport for the French Alps is Geneva, but you can also fly to Grenoble and Chambery. The Eurostar ski train goes to Bourg St Maurice, Aime-la-Plage and Moutiers, and the TGV stops at Annecy, Annemasse and Thonon. The relatively new autoroute from Geneva to Annecy has made access by road a lot quicker in recent years.

WEST: CHARENTE-MARITIME

WHERE IS IT?

Part of the Poitou-Charentes region, Charente-Maritime is on the Atlantic coast, and its fellow departments are Charente, Deux-S�vres and Vienne (home to the regional capital Poitiers).

WHY WOULD I LIKE IT?

Charente-Maritime is known for is beaches and sunny weather. The main town is La Rochelle, a particularly charming and historic harbour more than its fair share of tempting restaurants and shops. A university town, it is lively all year round. Dating from the 17th century, Rochefort was designed by Colbert, Louis XIII’s naval minister, as a fortified town to protect the coast; built in a grid pattern, its streets are lined by elegant houses. At the mouth of the Gironde river, Royan was bombed heavily during World War II and is known for its modernist architecture, wide boulevards, sandy beaches and Palmyre Zoo.

Along the coast, from La Palmyre to Ronce les Bains, sandy beaches are fringed by fragrant pine forests, dotted with small resorts. Off the coast, the islands of Oleron, R� and Aix combine pretty whitewashed houses and sandy beaches. The whole of the coast is perfect for holidays, and the beaches combined with the sunny weather give the area a relaxed vacances vibe, even for those who live there year round.

Inland popular towns include Saintes, with its medieval houses and Roman amphitheatre, Pons, a medieval town with a castle keep, and the spa town of Jonzac. The wooded Saintonge area is known for its Romanesque architecture. Plus Beaux Villages include Ars-en-R�, La Flotte, Mornac-sur-Seudre and Talmont-sur-Gironde.

Charente-Maritime also contains part of the Marais Poitevin, known as Venise Vert (green Venice); this network of waterways and marshland manages to be both a tourist hotspot and a haven for birds. As you would imagine, Charente-Maritime is known for its fish and seafood, in particular oysters. The local salt – fleur de sel – is definitely a step above the rest. And don’t forget to start your meal with the local pineau as an aperitif and finish it with a cognac!

WHAT KIND OF PROPERTY CAN I EXPECT?

Houses are typically built from pale limestone and include ‘charentaises’, an attractive style of house with two-storeys and a symmetrical fa�ade, often with blue shutters. There are also farmhouses, fishermen’s cottages on the coast and islands, and maisons de ma�tre as well as modern villas. You can also find former wine stores and agricultural barns converted into living space. On Oleron and R� houses are painted white, with blue or green shutters. The islands are a wonderful location for a holiday home, but property tends to be expensive, especially on Ile de R�, which has been favoured by celebrity buyers.

As a tourist destination, there’s an active rental market. Charente-Maritime’s average house price is €177,000, higher than the regional average of €145,000. Prices vary considerably across the department, with the most expensive sector being La Rochelle at €246,500, and the cheapest being St-Jean-d’Angely at €100,000. Prices have risen by 10.7% since 2009, following a fall of 7.5% in 2008-9.

WHAT’S THE WEATHER LIKE?

This stretch of the Atlantic coast is the second sunniest part of France after the Riviera. Summers are dry and sunny, winters mild and humid. La Rochelle has 767mm annual rainfall, with less than 1mm rain falling on 114 days. Temperatures range from a minimum average of 4oC in January to a maximum average of 24.5oC in August. There are 2,106 hours of sunshine per year, with 111 days of weak sunshine and 83 days of strong sunshine.

HOW DO I GET THERE?

At 420 miles from Calais to La Rochelle, Charente-Maritime is within a day’s drive of the Channel ferry ports, but if you’d rather fly from the UK, you have a choice of Tours, La Rochelle, Nantes and Poitiers airports. The TGV stops at La Rochelle and Surg�res.