Tempted by truffles
Uzés in Languedoc is a magnet for British buyers.
I am sitting in a restaurant in the Place aux Herbes in Uzès, a historic town in the Gard département of Languedoc, watching a pig rooting for truffles in much the same way as a British househunter looks for old stone buildings. Today is the annual truffle fair and the whole town has gone truffle-mad. People are either eating them (every restaurant is serving a truffle menu), drinking them (truffle wine is surprisingly good) or buying them (at an average price of £650 a kilo). Some diehards are doing all three.
There is a carnival atmosphere in the air. My best French friend, Alexandra, normally rather restrained, orders champagne with lunch. Truffles have a reputation for inspiring unusual behaviour. Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, the 18th-century epicure, describes the truffle as “the diamond of the kitchen” and in his book, The Physiology of Taste, tells a story about a woman struggling to remain faithful after dining on truffles.
I am finding fidelity difficult, too. The minute we arrived, I started to look in estate agents’ windows, wondering if the time had come to ditch our place in Pézenas, 85 miles to the west, and cast a roving eye on Uzès.
As you would imagine in a beautiful medieval town situated between Avignon and Nîmes, I am not the first. Felicity and John Rae-Smith, both 49, from Wimbledon, south London, came here four years ago. The couple, who deal in antique cartoons and children’s illustrations, were looking for a property to buy as an investment.
“We started in Provence and then discovered Uzès,” says Felicity, enjoying a coffee in the mid-morning sunshine. “We just fell in love with it. The wonderful thing is that it’s as lovely in January as it is July.”
Nestling in the foothills of the Cévennes, Uzès has a population of just over 8,000, striking architecture, good shopping, excellent bars and restaurants and a proud history as France’s first duchy. It will also be familiar to cinema-goers: part of the 1990 version of Cyrano de Bergerac, starring Gérard Depardieu, was filmed there.
The Rae-Smiths were impressed, and put in an offer for a house in Collias, a village 10 minutes’ drive away from Uzès. When it fell through, the agent they were dealing with suggested they buy a plot of land instead. They paid £30,000 for a 1,100sq m plot on which they built a four-bedroom house and pool. They spend four or five months a year there.
“In total, we spent about £200,000,” says John. “But the plot we built on would cost three times that now.”
House prices in Uzès and its surrounding villages have risen by 50% over the past five years, according to estate agent Robert Dumas, who I sneak in to see when my husband is not looking. He tells me the rise in prices is in part due to all the foreign buyers, as well as the TGV, which runs from both Avignon and Nîmes, and what he calls “showbiz”. Apparently, lots of French stars have moved into the region. He reels off six or seven names, but I can’t say I recognise any of them.
I tell Dumas that I would be interested in a property in the centre of town and he shows me one near the main square, with a swimming pool. It has four bedrooms and a total of 215sq m of living space. It is a charming old stone house with pale pink rendered walls. The asking price is £560,000. He also has a three-bedroom flat two minutes’ walk from the Place aux Herbes on his books for about £310,000.
Dumas says both places are the kind that Brits come to buy. In fact, he sees so many visitors from across the Channel that the details are printed in both languages. Why is Uzès so popular with the British, I ask him? “They just love us,” he says.
Five years ago, Tim and Pippa Forster moved from Hampshire to Lussan, a 15-minute drive from Uzès, and now run Mas de la Bousquette, an upmarket gîte business, there.
“The area is wonderful,” says Pippa. “It is uncrowded and unspoilt, but with excellent communications. We can be in Paris in just over two and a half hours.”
Mark Butterworth, 31, has been living in France for seven years, ever since he met his girlfriend, Laurence Nugues, also 31, while trekking in Nepal. They lived in the Ardèche for three years before moving to St-Quentin-la-Poterie, a five-minute drive from Uzès, four years ago.
“It was wonderful in the Ardèche, but we were so isolated,” says Butterworth, who runs his own property management company. “We felt we wanted to be somewhere where we didn’t have to drive for 20 minutes to see another person.”
The couple, who have a son Alexandre, 6, and a daughter, Manon, 2, chose the region around Uzès because they wanted to be further south and near a small town. They paid about £120,000 for a four-bedroom village house with a large terrace and a cellar.
“The village has everything,” says Butterworth, “but having been so isolated, it’s nice to be so close to Uzès, as well as to Nîmes and Avignon.”
After our truffle lunch, we drive home. As we turn into Pézenas, the memory of the pink stone fades, the effect of the truffles wears off and I am longing to get back home. I decide to stay faithful after all. As is so often the case with infidelity, the fantasy is better than the reality.
Butterworth & Son Property Management, 00 33 466 036 196, email@example.com; Robert Dumas, 00 33 466 033 333, firstname.lastname@example.org; Mas de la Bousquette, 00 33 466 727 160, www.mas-bousquette.com
On the market
Right in the centre of Uzès, this apartment with one bedroom, a dining room and a living room with fireplace, large enough to be used as a guest room. Refurbished in a contemporary style, it is for sale for £138,000, 00 33 610 481 598, email@example.com. A restored 315sq m residence, which in parts dates back to the 11th century, is located in the countryside 10 miles from Uzès.
It is for sale for £372,000 with Agence Albert 1er Immobilier, 00 33 466 227 606, www.fnaim.fr/albert1er
Helena Frith Powell was born in Sweden to a Swedish mother and Italian father, but grew up mainly in England. She is the author of eleven books, translated into several languages including Chinese and Russian. She wrote the French Mistress column The Sunday Times about life in France for several years. She is a regular contributor to the Daily Mail, Mail on Sunday, The Times, Daily Telegraph, Tatler Magazine and Harper’s Bazaar.
Helena has been the editor of four magazines, including M Magazine, a supplement for the Abu Dhabi based National Newspaper and FIVE, a high-end fashion glossy, also published in Abu Dhabi. Helena was also editor in chief of 360 Life, a quarterly glossy magazine published with the Sports 360 Newspaper in Dubai, part of the Chalhoub Group. She writes a beauty blog wwwbeautyorbeast.uk.
Her third novel, The Arnolfini Marriage, based on a romance that evolves around a van Eyck masterpiece came out in 2016. As well as writing regularly for newspapers and magazines, Helena is also working on a thriller called Welcome to Sweden that will be published in spring 2018. Her latest non-fiction work Smart Women Don’t Get Wrinkles is out in hardback and will be out in paperback in January 2018.
Helena was educated at Durham University and lived in the Languedoc region of France for eight years, where the family still have a home. She lives in London with her husband Rupert and their three children.
More France Please, we’re British; Gibson Square 2004
Two Lipsticks and a Lover 2005; Gibson Square (hardback)
All You Need to be Impossibly French; (US version of above) Penguin 2006
Two Lipsticks and a Lover; Arrow Books (paperback) 2007
Ciao Bella Gibson Square; (hardback) 2006
Ciao Bella Gibson Square; (paperback) 2007
So Chic! (French version of Two Lipsticks) Leduc Editions 2008 (also translated into Chinese, Russian and Thai)
More, More France; Gibson Square 2009
To Hell in High Heels; Arrow Books 2009 (also translated into Polish)
The Viva Mayr Diet; Harper Collins 2009
Love in a Warm Climate; Gibson Square 2011
The Ex-Factor; Gibson Square 2013
Smart Women Don’t Get Wrinkles; Gibson Square 2016
The Arnolfini Marriage; Amazon Kindle December 2016
Smart Women Don’t Get Wrinkles (paperback); Gibson Square January 2018
Welcome to Sweden; Gibson Square spring 2018