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Buying into Burgundy

The idea of traipsing eight hours in the car from the sunny south of France to the depths of Burgundy in midwinter was hardly thrilling, and the prospect of spending four days cramped in a barge with three young children, two grandparents, a weary husband and a dog was even less appealing.

But how wrong I was. Although its winters can be harsh, its spirit is quite rightly known as warm and welcoming, and that is certainly what we felt as we pulled into the pretty town of Auxerre late one Friday night. The barge we were renting was moored on the river Yonne, which runs through the town, and from its central location we could see the whole of Auxerre lit up like a holiday postcard.

Over the next few days we explored one of the many canals that lace the landscape, blown away by Burgundy’s beauty, its sense of space and its superb architecture. One of the largest regions in France, with a total surface area of more than 12,000 square miles, it’s bigger than Belgium, but populated by just 1.6 million people—and that’s at least one reason why the roads are so uncluttered and the countryside so unspoiled.

The region is divided into four départements—Yonne, Nièvre, Côte-d’Or and Saône-et-Loire—with the incredibly beautiful Morvan forest right in the center, straddling three of the four. The forest is a natural park covering 618,000 acres, a nature lovers’ paradise with a wonderful assortment of fauna and flora and a plethora of lovely valleys, waterfalls and lakes.

The mighty dukes

The region is also renowned for its rich history, evident in every direction. The medieval villages scattered across the four départements are among the oldest and most beautiful in France, and fortified towns such as Semur-en-Auxois and Vézelay harbored some of the most important churches and monasteries in Europe—all well worth a detour. There is also an abundance of majestic châteaux, seemingly on every hilltop and in every valley, testament to the illustrious past of this regal region, the power base for the mighty dukes of Burgundy and eventually for the rise of the Hapsburgs.

And of course there is also the wine. The most famous come from the Côte-d’Or, but broadly speaking the Burgundy wine region includes Beaujolais, Chablis, the Côte Chalonnaise and Mâcon. And while the name has come to mean a color that’s wine-dark red, the region’s vineyards also produce magnificent white wines, including the princely Puligny-Montrachet, as well as the renowned reds of Corton, Gevrey-Chambertin and the legendary Romanée-Conti of Vosne-Romanée.

Just a bit more than a two-hour drive southeast of Paris, Burgundy’s proximity to the capital is a huge draw to foreign residents, says real estate agent Christophe Cabane, including Americans, who have been turning up more frequently in recent years. “We are seeing more and more Americans looking for property in Burgundy, as well as Canadians and Australians. I can’t explain why, really. Maybe it’s the French way of life. And the wine, of course. We have lots of very good wine,” adds the smiling Cabane, who runs the Cabinet Bourgogne Immobilier agency in Châtillon-sur-Seine and also an Internet property search business at www.bourgognehomes.com [1].

“The most popular places with our foreign clients are in the Côte-d’Or and the Yonne. The landscape is stunning, there is lots of space, there are forests and rivers, and the history is fascinating. We also have an enviable continental climate. The summers are hot, but not too hot, and the winters are cold and dry. We have the most wonderful colors, especially in autumn, when everything really does look very beautiful.”

A two-bedroom church

Many Americans prospecting in Burgundy, says Cabane, “are perhaps people looking for a little corner of paradise in France, where they plan to come four or five times a year. Or where they hope to retire. And more and more frequently now, we see people who want to buy a house here from which they can work.”

Many of the pretty medieval villages in the Yonne and the Côte-d’Or are within easy reach of Paris, where there are a large number of daily flights leaving for the United States, he notes. “You can find lots of little villages with rapid access to the TGV or the autoroute. You can easily drive to Paris in less than two and a half hours, and it’s only a little more than one hour on the train.”

Many foreign buyers also like to be within a 15- or 20-minute drive of a big town where they can find all the amenities they need. Bigger towns such as Avallon, at the edge of the Morvan forest, and Châtillon-sur-Seine are particularly popular, as is the fortified pilgrimage town of Vézelay, dominated by its magnificent basilica.

The good news is that there are still some very good properties available for relatively modest budgets. Town houses are rare in Vézelay itself, but a village house in the surrounding area can be found for under €100,000 (approximately $134,000). One notable example is a two-bedroom converted church dating to the 11th century, currently on the market for an incredible  €75,000. The bargain property is in a village near Vézelay and has its own small courtyard.

Larger detached properties in the area can be snapped up for between €300,000 and €400,000, says Cabane. Farther afield, out of wine territory in the northern Côte-d’Or, an impressive five-bedroom 18th-century manor house with a beautiful walled garden in the charming town of Châtillon-sur-Seine is priced at €360,000.

A larger budget of €630,000 will buy a superb 17th-century mansion with a nearly 5,000-square-foot living area, seven bedrooms, a gated courtyard and two offices in a separate wing. Set in spacious grounds, the grand property is only 30 minutes from a main railway station with a daily TGV to Paris.

Upscale Beaune

Perhaps the most exclusive areas of Burgundy are the towns and villages near Beaune, a beautiful historic city still surrounded by its nearly intact medieval walls, in the center of the Côte-d’Or wine route. Demand for property in the popular town is constant, since it’s a favorite with Parisians, many of whom have second homes here. At this upper end of the scale, an 18th-century house with five bedrooms and 1.2 acres of land is currently on the market for €950,000.

Prices are higher in and around Beaune than in other parts of Burgundy, agrees Carolyn Carrington, of the Burgundy4U agency. A two-bedroom property in a wine village, in need of some modernization, might cost around €135,000, while a three-bedroom house could command more than €300,000. A more imposing maison bourgeoise, or town house, in an important wine village such as Meursault would probably come with a price tag of €350,000 to €450,000.

For Carrington, the rolling countryside in the north, around Châtillon-sur-Seine, is the place to watch. The area, at the northern tip of the Côte-d’Or département, is particularly beautiful and far enough off the beaten track to allow residents a very relaxed and peaceful lifestyle. Prices are 10% lower than in other parts of Burgundy. A house needing renovation, with 2,000 square feet of living space, is on the market for €60,000, less than 15 minutes from the autoroute, notes Carrington, and a recently renovated 18th-century maison de maître near Châtillon has an asking price of €380,000.

Originally published in the March 2012 issue is France Today

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