Why I love Languedoc
It is easy enough to get to the Languedoc. All you have to do is follow the Rhône river south and once you reach the Mediterranean, turn right. The mystery is that for generations people have been turning left, towards the Riviera and Italy. But over the past five years, foreign housebuyers have suddenly started discovering the Languedoc.
Some say it started when the region began to produce interesting wines and the world wanted to know where they came from. Others say that it was the opening up of new cheap air routes to places such as Carcassonne, Nîmes and Perpignan, and the fact that Provence had become just too expensive.
I first heard about it when Rupert, my husband, came back from a press trip to Thailand. Before he had unpacked the suitcases he told me we were moving to the south of France. Of course, I ignored him.
“I met a couple on a boat,” he said. “I want to go there and write a book.”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” I said. “Things aren’t that bad.”
“They live in the Languedoc.”
“Never heard of it.”
To me the south of France was Cap d’Antibes, Juan-les-Pins, Monte Carlo. Beautiful people, vast yachts and rocky beaches. Good for a holiday, but not a place to live and bring up children.
Nothing more was said until a letter arrived. It contained a hand-drawn card showing a lovely house on a hill, surrounded by olive trees and vineyards. I read the contents of the card and looked at the photograph the couple had taken of my husband lying in a hammock on a cruise ship. Obviously it had been another tough assignment.
“It was such fun meeting you on the Star Clipper,” read the card. “Do come and stay if you’re ever in the region, we would love to introduce you to the Languedoc.”
I looked at the drawing of the house again, and compared it with the view from our Fulham flat. The French house had palm trees, sunshine and a swimming pool. We looked out over a leisure centre, a car park and constant drizzle.
“That idea of yours about moving to France,” I said. “Let’s go and have a look.”
Within a week we were planning a trip to Pézenas, a Renaissance town 20 minutes from the Mediterranean. We left a gloomy Stansted in the rain, arriving an hour and a half later in brilliant sunshine at Carcassonne airport. On the way, our driver told us a bit about Languedoc-Roussillon.
“This is a wine-growing area, the biggest vineyard in the world,” he said. “There are a couple of great cities — Montpellier and Nîmes — and we are close to Spain. We often pop down there for lunch. There are large sandy beaches, flamingos and oyster beds, and mountains to the north that funnel the wind in another direction. They say we get more than 300 days of sunshine a year, but when it rains, it really rains. I have lived all over the world, but I like it best here.”
The best news for househunters was that the house prices were three to four times cheaper than in England, helped by the strong pound.
The market as we found it back then, in 1999, was not as developed as it is now. There were agents, but they seemed reluctant to give us any information about houses for sale. A Buddhist monk-turned-estate agent drove us long distances to look at totally unsuitable properties. He was deaf in one ear and overtook cars on corners. He may have had a strong belief in the afterlife, but we found it unsettling. Another agent, an Englishwoman, was reluctant to sell us anything. Rupert explained to her that this was her job.
“Oh no,” she said. “I don’t want the place overrun with foreigners. I liked it best a few years ago, when it was quieter.”
We wanted an old property in the middle of nowhere, ideally with five bedrooms and a swimming pool. We looked within a 20-mile radius of Pézenas for more than a year, eventually ending up near Clermont-Hérault, a small town to the west of Montpellier.
Another English person showed us a couple of properties. He had been a plasterer and came to the south of France 10 years previously on holiday. After a week in the sun, he decided not to go back to Bolton. The most impressive thing about him was the amount he drank. “I start off with beer,” he explained, “and move on to a bottle of wine and half a bottle of Ricard every night.” His shape and colour confirmed this.
We told him we were visiting one more place before we returned to England, and were about to give up on the whole thing or try to find somewhere to rent.
“Well, you’ll buy it,” he said.
“How do you know that?” we asked.
“I just do,” he grinned, tapping his red nose.
We drove away resolving never to drink as much as he did. But the strange thing was, the minute we turned off the main road to follow the small track to the final property, we knew he was right. The tiny country road ran through vineyards and garrigue, or scrubland, made up of stunted oak trees, broom, rosemary and thyme. Two miles later and we saw the house on top of the hill. Old stones, blue shutters, swimming pool, roses and olive trees in the garden, and not another house in sight. As we turned up the drive my nipples stood on end. Historically this has always been a good sign.
I found it hard not to smile as we were shown round. The lady who owned the house insisted on showing me every cupboard in it. I felt like jumping up and down, shrieking: “I don’t care if there isn’t a single bloody cupboard within a 10-mile radius.” We walked up to the vineyard behind the house.
“Will you stop grinning,” hissed Rupert.
“I can’t,” I replied, almost in tears.
We said goodbye to the old couple who owned it and went back to plan our strategy. There was no question we wanted the house. We could afford it. How easy would it be to close the deal? At the estate agent’s the next morning we resolved to play it cool. We were instantly shown into the boss’s office. When I started telling him that there were cracks in the walls, he said that we could arrange a survey if we wished, but the property was sound. Besides, a Swiss couple had already made an offer. Just then, his phone rang. I caught my husband’s eye. I thought it was important that he realised how crucial his next move would be.
“If we don’t get this house I will never recover,” I whispered.
When the agent came off the phone, Rupert asked him how much the Swiss had offered. What about if we offer a sum £10,000 higher? I will ask them, he replied. We were made to sign a formal offer, then the agent drove off to see them in person. We were told to go for a walk and a cup of coffee.
We walked around in the sunshine for an hour, worried to go into any shops in case we lost the signal on our mobile phones. I kept telling my husband to call back and offer the asking price immediately. After an age, the phone rang.
“Please come back to my office,” said a voice.
They had accepted our offer of £250,000. We all drove to the house, were taken on another tour and shown all the cupboards again. Then we were offered a glass of champagne and some canapés. It all seemed terribly civilised.
“It’s a bit less than we wanted,” said the lady owner, patting my pregnant tummy. “But I wanted the house to go to a young family.”
Our timing was good. House prices have shot up since we moved there. Roughly speaking, a two- to three-bedroom village or town house will cost about £100,000, an isolated farmhouse that needs renovating will be £350,000, and a chateau starts at £1m. Places are more expensive the closer you get to the sea.
“House prices have more than doubled in the past five years,” according to one estate agent in Saint Chinian, a pretty wine-making village near Béziers. “One out of every two of the buyers are foreign, which is good for the properties — because they renovate them beautifully — but terrible for the prices, which are being pushed up all the time.”
It is not just the Brits who are arriving, but also Germans, Dutch and Scandinavians. A lot of French from the north are also moving south, fleeing the wet winters and hoping to work with computers in cities such as Montpellier. The foreigners come via Ryanair to Carcassonne, Montpellier and Perpignan. There is also talk of a Ryanair flight to Béziers. British Airways had several flights a week to Montpellier but is reducing them from this month. A TGV from Paris to Montpellier takes three hours and 15 minutes.
Living here for the past three years has more than met our expectations. We love the house, the people and the area. Although the choice of properties available has narrowed considerably, the region is still attracting some interesting expats and we have made good friends. The weather is generally great — although it is a land of extremes. July and August can be unbearably hot. It rarely freezes or snows, but the winters can be miserable. It doesn’t tend to rain in the summer but can bucket it down for days on end in December.
Are there any downsides to the French idyll? Very few, but I should mention the drivers, who are mad, bad and dangerous. The Hérault boasts the highest fatal-accident rate in the whole of France. But it is a small price to pay for living in paradise.
What’s on the market
In Hérault, near St Pons de Thomières and an hour from the Med, this maison bourgeoise has original fireplaces and parquet floors. Run as a five-bedroom hotel with two gîtes, it costs £595,000, fully furnished, through Francophiles (01622 688 165, www.francophiles.co.uk)
With four bedrooms, this villa is on the coast near Argelès, 20 minutes from Perpignan airport. It comes with a pool, a guest studio, garaging for five cars and a cellar built into the rocks. It costs £405,000 through Latitudes (020 8951 5155, www.latitudes.co.uk)
This villa, built in 1980, has three bedrooms, a large living space and patio, and an S-shaped pool. It is 45 minutes from Montpellier airport and five minutes from the coast. For sale through Francophiles (01622 688 165, www.francophiles.co.uk) for £290,000
Next month Helena Frith Powell will begin a regular series in Home on how to buy and live in France, using the expertise she has gained from her own experience of living in the Languedoc, and those of her friends and neighbours. If you have a subject that you would like her to tackle, please e-mail her at email@example.com
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