Marloes der Kinderen, Artedu
June 7, 2009
With some of the most spectacular scenery in France—and some of the cheapest property—it's a surprise that the Auvergne region in central France is still largely undiscovered. But for those who have already fallen for its plentiful charms, the fact that most house hunters bypass the area for its more famous neighbors, such as the Dordogne to the south, is just one more reason to believe they have found their private heaven on earth.
The region, which is made up of four departments—Allier, Cantal, Haute-Loire and Puy-de-Dôme—encompasses much of France's mountainous Massif Central and offers some of the most magnificent and unspoiled countryside in France. Much of it is volcanic—the earliest volcanoes appeared more than 20 million years ago—and the fields of extinct craters spreading across the landscape, many of them now wooded and green-make it a strange but wondrously beautiful place.
The area includes the dramatic Parc Naturel Régional des Volcans d'Auvergne and its tamer neighbor the Parc Naturel Régional des Livradois-Forez, as well as many stunning gorges, geysers, lakes, streams, rivers and thick verdant forests. There are old-fashioned spa towns scattered throughout the region, and scores of magnificent medieval château-fortresses once manned by knights in shining armor. And until about a decade ago, many of the tiny villages that dot the countryside were linked only by sandy tracks, giving visitors the impression that they had somehow gotten lost in time.
It took Marloes der Kinderen a cursory glance at just th ree photos to decide that the Auvergne was the perfect place to set up her home away from home. The Dutch painter, who is from Amsterdam, was sent the photographs by a local mayor who wanted to entice her to the area to set up art workshops. One look at the wild scenery surrounding the village of Chanteuges, in Haute-Loire, and she was hooked. "I had been teaching in Brittany," she says, "and the mayor of a little town near here who was involved in cultural tourism asked me if I'd do some courses in this area. She sent me the photos and luckily it was as beautiful as it is, because I didn't have to think any more about it. My decision was made." That was ten years ago.
Not only did Marloes fall in love with the area. She also had a coup de foudre when she spotted a large old house in the middle of Chanteuges in need of a complete makeover. But the property—and renovations costs—were way over her price range. "When I saw that the big house was for sale I knew I just had to have it. I went to see the man who owned it—Dominique Roulet, who is a scriptwriter—and I showed him all my work. He liked the idea of the house being filled with art, so I was lucky. I asked if I could pay the sum in three years, and amazingly he said yes. I thought, 'If you don't ask you don't get,' and it paid off. He let me pay the asking price—which was around €65,000—over three years, without interest," she says.
Marloes, 51, now runs the nine-bedroom seven-bathroom La Grande Maison as a bed & breakfast (offering chambres d'hôtes) and restaurant, and she also offers educational and artistic workshops.
"I love it here," she says. "It's so unspoiled and isolated. When I came here the only roads between the villages were made of sand. It's developed very quickly over the last decade but it's still very quiet. The only tourists that come here are tourists who come for the nature, the culture and the quiet.
"There is the largest concentration of Romanesque art in the whole of Europe here, but few people know that. It's all being restored and in all the churches and abbeys you can see frescos and paintings. People that come here are astonished. It's like the rest of France was 200 years ago.
It's that lack of "progress" which brought Barbara and Ian Golding from London to Maurs, in the Cantal department, eight years ago. They had recently had a baby, and were searching for a safer and calmer environment in which to bring him up—and Barbara is French. "My parents had a holiday home nearby so we came over and decided it was just what we were looking for," says Ian. "The countryside is wild, yet there is easy access from Rodez or Aurillac airports.
"We now have two children, and it's perfect for them. They have a worry-free life. We don't have to think about the traffic, or about them being kidnapped, for example. They are just free, they live like children, and that's rare to find these days."
While Ian and Barbara discovered their idea of paradise in the Auvergne, many young French people find it too isolated and as a result, the local population is dwindling—Auvergne is already one of the least populated regions in Europe. The largest town in the Cantal department is Aurillac, which has a population of just over 30,000.
But while much of the rest of the Auvergne is covered with pastureland (where the delicious Puy lentils are grown) there are also several sizeable and well-known cities including Clermont-Ferrand (Puy-de-Dôme), where Michelin has its headquarters, and Vichy (Allier), which housed the French government during part of the Second World War and is otherwise most closely associated with its famous mineral water.
Given all its qualities, it's surprising that much of the property here is still far cheaper than elsewhere in France. Real estate agent Jon Robinson, whose company French Country Homes is based in Bellerive-sur-Allier, couldn't agree more. "The Allier is just not an area which is known by foreigners. The French know and love it, and most of my clients are now French. They love it for the 500 châteaux we have—that's the second largest number of châteaux in any department. We have 5,000 kilometers of rivers, and the area is famous for trout fishing, yet property prices are still among the lowest in France. We're untouched, and hidden. And very, very French."
According to Robinson, prices are not going to drop in the region much this year, but he believes 2009 is still the year for a bargain. "I can't imagine prices going down any further, since they are already so low. But I do believe this is a good time to buy. Buyers can negotiate—it's definitely a buyer's market."
Barns or old houses in need of complete renovation are currently being sold for around €50,000 while at the other end of the spectrum, an elegant 18th-century manor house set in attractive grounds is on the market for €543,000.
Apartments in Vichy are particularly wise investments, Robinson adds. During the German occupation of World War II, the French government chose to set up its capital in Vichy, mainly because of the town's relative proximity to Paris but also because, as a spa town, it was the city with the second largest hotel capacity at the time. "Those hotels are now being renovated and sold as apartments. There is one apartment currently on our books, right in the center of town next to a beautiful park for €79,000."
Another area for a second home, or a potential investment property to rent, is around the pretty village of Saint-Rémy-sur-Durolle, in the Puy-de-Dôme department not far from Thiers. Here, a 19th-century stone mill set in substantial grounds with five bedrooms is on the market for €239,000. "Saint-Rémy is a beautiful little town," says Robinson, "with a huge lake and a beach. It's a perfect place for a holiday home. The area is dotted with lots of little villages, and with no exceptions, they are all very friendly and welcoming."
Originally published in the May 2009 issue of France Today.
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