Gascony, Southwest France
Sunday Times Overseas Property
Gascony is the old French name for the southwest corner of France with the Atlantic ocean to the west and the Pyrenees to the south. The area is attracting an increasing number of British and foreign buyers, seduced by its somnolent rural atmosphere and a wide range of property from bijou stone chateaux to rustic farms with terracotta roofs. It is an agricultural region of rolling hills and wooded valleys, a bit like the Cotswolds with chateaux. It is well watered by the rivers which flow down from the distant romantic peaks of the Pyrenees.
In quiet arcaded villages, traditional markets still feature local produce like foie gras, ducks, geese and Armagnac. Major towns are few. Auch is a sleepy little place with a fine Renaissance cathedral famed for its stained glass, Tarbes, a busy, military town with fine gardens. Pau to the south, is the nicest, with its charming medieval streets, chic shopping, and a stunning view of snow capped peaks from the Boulevard des Pyrenees.
“We call it the new Dordogne,” says estate agent Edward Landau, who has been selling properties in the region for five years. “The difference is that the Dordogne is now very touristy. Out of season it is dead, since all the restaurants and attractions are aimed at tourists. Gascony is really pretty, but it is less spectacular and doesn’t have the major tourist sites of the Dordogne. It is still the kind place where the shops close for their own holidays at the height of the tourist season.”
Prices here can range from less than £100,000 for an unrestored farmhouse, to £300,000 for a substantial manor house and at least that for a small chateau, rising to well over £600,000 for a fully restored large property.
Mu and Jim Donald retired to Baliracq, in the north of the region, from Scotland two years ago, restoring a 17 th century stone chateau, so balanced and neat it looks like a Christmas card, “It’s a cosy chateau,” says Mu, “Not too big for two.” A superb carved wooden staircase leads to four bedrooms, and a huge formal drawing room with French windows looks south to the Pyrenees. The floors have lovely old terracotta tiles and all the woodwork has been made of oak by local craftsmen. 45 acres allows plenty of land for the horses. “We love it,” beams Jim, “No regrets whatever. Couldn’t stand any more of those Scottish winters.” Mu, who did a French course when she arrived, adds a note of caution, “You do need to speak French, it is important to be able to integrate with the local people.”
Increasingly foreigners are moving to live full time in the region. Rory and Mini Constant have been there for six years, and now own a fine little chateau north-west of Pau. Parts of it are 14 th century, and they have found original limewash on the walls, and even 14 th century tiles on the floor. “ The house was neither a ruin nor badly restored, still ‘dans son jus’ as the French say, so it was ideal,” according to Rory. They have 5 bedrooms, a kitchen with a huge fireplace and a dining room hung with family portraits that Napoleon might be proud of. Mini Constant is a Master of Wine and they plan to start offering wine courses in the chateau.
English furniture maker Edward Rich, and Angelika, his German wife, a marquetry specialist, have set up shop in a huge 18 th century chateau just outside Oloron-Saint-Marie, a sweet little town close to the mountains. They bought the chateau in 1998 for £130,000 from the local council, who had tried to rescue it, fixed the roof and run out of money. “It was in ruins,” says Edward, “a shepherd lived in the barn and kept his sheep in the dining room.” Edward’s woodwork skills have restored wooden panelling, added magnificent wooden doors and created workshops and modern bedrooms and bathrooms as settings for his original modern furniture. Some of their restoration decisions have been radical, such as installing plain glass in original stone window frames, “There are over a hundred windows,” says Edward, “Count’em. And they were all broken.” They have landscaped the garden, planted trees and made a vast sandpit for son Samson, who has just started at the village school.
“It is a growing trend,” says Landau, “we are seeing a broader clientele. People are not just looking for retirement or holiday homes. They are looking to restart their lives, wanting good hospitals, education, schools, roads, good infrastructure.”
He recently sold a small chateau with the potential for 12 bedrooms for about £300,000; it needed complete restoration though still had original tiled floors and fireplaces, and a fine wooden stairway. Still available is a 14 th century chateau with stone vaulted ceilings, kitchen with open fireplace and tiled floors, seven bedrooms, three reception rooms with marble fireplaces and chestnut panelling, and two further buildings, priced at 427,000 Euros.
Ian Purslow, a well known English agent in Gascony, specialises in restored properties and especially foreign resales. “The foreign market is definitely leading the way in this region,” he says, “English buyers will pay top dollar for a classic country house. I think they go for this region because although they want quality and style they don’t necessarily want to be ostentatious.” Examples currently available include a fine manor house west of Auch, surrounded by vineyards with views to the distant Pyrenees, four bedrooms, an attic, extensive barns and swimming pool, for 640,000E. Or there is a 17 th century water mill with 3 bedrooms, a pool and further outbuildings, and land, bordered by poplars and a river, also 640,000E
Lower down the scale are the farmhouses, often built of galets, river stones, or colombage, timber construction, with stone floors and fine woodwork of oak or chestnut. They are typically constructed with two rooms each side of a wide staircase, two bedrooms and an attic above. Adjacent barns form an L-shaped building around a courtyard that can be extended into substantial further accommodation, turning what Landau calls, “a small cottage” into a large spread. Landau recently sold one such property for about £100,000; the two bedroom farmhouse was already restored but adjacent barns promised the possibility of substantial further accommodation and studios, maybe a gite for summer rental.
A similar farmhouse is currently on the market at £280,000, already fully restored by local craftsman, with three bedrooms, large downstairs rooms, a charming outside dining room on a tiled terrace, big garage and workroom, all round a pretty tree shaded courtyard.
The locals still use it, and estate agents love its evocation of venal pleasure, but Gascony is not a name you will find any longer on an official map of France. (It corresponds loosely with the Gers department, and the Béarn, now part of the Pyrenees Atlantiques along with the Basque Country, and the Landes.) For centuries it was an independent duchy, only becoming part of France when the English relinquished their claim over Aquitaine after the Hundred Years War in the mid 15 th century.
The British have never been able to keep away, and returned in the 19 th century, attracted by the balmy climate of Pau and the romance of the Pyrenees. For over a century this was one of the tourist hotspots of Europe, attracting royalty and poets, from Napoleon III and Queen Victoria to Victor Hugo and Tennyson. Pau still calls itself proudly, “ville anglaise” and there remain poignant reminders of the British presence; the fox hunt (Prince Charles take note) the golf club (the first in Europe to be laid out by the British) the Anglican church, fading grand villas in streets with names like rue Buckingham and the crumbling neglected tombs in the cemeteries.
Now instead of several days in a horse drawn carriage you can fly to Biarritz, Bordeaux, Toulouse, or Lourdes, or take the TGV to Bordeaux. Spain is an hour or so away and the Atlantic beaches, with Europe’s best surfing, are within a days outing. The Pyrenees offer splendid summer walking and skiing in winter, as well as more idiosyncratic excursions such as the holy waters of Lourdes or the cable car to the summit of the Pic du Midi, a 3000 metre high view of the range of the Pyrenees. There are also Roman sites, Cistercian abbeys and Romanesque churches, many of which host music festivals during the summer months. The jazz festival at Marciac is now a major annual event.
And the disadvantages? Well, apart from the fact that the French already like it well enough themselves, it rains a lot, which makes the English gardens grow. But like everything else in this sweet region, it is gentle rain. I recall in Pau one day following an elderly man with beret, baguette and umbrella trudging up a steep street of the old town in the pouring rain. Singing.
The French seeking property often consult their notaire, the notary responsible for property transactions. If you know the area you want approaching the local notaire is one way to fast track. Now the notaires themselves are getting in on the act, and have a property website with links to most French regions.
Edward Landau. Quartier Cutorte, Larreule, 65700 Maubourgeut, France. Tel (33) 05 62 96 94 27 Fax 33 05 62 96 94 33
Purslow’s Gascony. Chateau de St Maur, 32300 Mirande Tel (33) 05 62 67 61 50 Fax 33 05 62 67 59 35