It boasts breathtaking countryside, low property prices and some of the most beautiful villages in France. What’s more, the Massif Central is not overrun with hordes of Brits – yet. Helena Frith Powell reports.
Finding a British person living in the Auvergne is not easy. They are rare and want to keep it that way. The region is possibly one of the only ones in France that has yet to be invaded by les Rosbifs looking for a new life in la France profonde. And part of the reason is its inaccessibility.
The Auvergne is part of the Massif Central, the vast plateau in the middle of France encompassing the Auvergne, Limousin, the northern part of the Midi-Pyrénées, some north-eastern parts of the Languedoc-Roussillon, the eastern fringe of the Rhône-Alpes and a small part of the Bourgogne region. The Massif Central is the size of Scotland and covers one-seventh of France. But it has more in common with Scotland than size: it is sparsely populated, parts of it are almost 6,500ft above sea level, and in winter it is covered in snow. It is a dramatic landscape, with green (once the snow melts) hills, volcanic peaks, valleys, lakes and gorges.
Where to buy
Aurillac in the Auvergne has the dubious honour of being the prefecture in France furthest from a motorway. Even now, following the completion of the Millau Viaduct in December 2004, it seems a long way away. Yet it is the most lovely town. Other regional gems are Puy-en-Velay, a volcanic town on the pilgrims’ route to Santiago da Compostela, and the medieval Conques in the Aveyron, which is on the pilgrims’ route but near Rodez, which Ryanair serves. Also among the most beautiful villages in France are Montpeyroux in the Puy-de-Dôme department (12 miles south of Clermont-Ferrand and therefore more accessible ); Collonge-la-Rouge, where all the houses are red, in the Corrèze; and Salers, home to the cheese, in the Cantal, a department convenient for the airports at Rodez and Aurillac, and with trains to Paris and Figeac.
What to buy
Property prices in the region are still relatively low compared with the rest of France. Now that the A75 and the Millau Viaduct has opened there is a toll-free (bar the viaduct) and fast route from Clermont-Ferrand to the south. Clermont-Ferrand is also linked to the A72 east towards Lyons and the A71 north towards Paris, with the A89 west to Bordeaux coming soon.
“There is no doubt the region has been opened up with the viaduct and since Ryanair started flying to Rodez a year ago,” says Myriam de Mahe, who moved to the Auvergne seven years ago and has helped friends to buy properties in the area.
“I think we will start seeing a filter-through effect on the house prices.”
At the moment you can find a four-bedroom farmhouse with some land for about €200,000 (£136,000). A small town house in Aurillac will set you back about €150,000 (£102,000). Unlike the more popular regions of France, there aren’t new-builds round every corner and housing estates springing up. There are plenty of old stone houses and lots of space – the two things Brits are predominantly looking for.
Henry and Eve Platt moved to a small hamlet outside the town of Jussac, just north of Aurillac, four years ago. “We had been living in Amiens,” says Henry, a translator. “We knew the region from holidays and just fell in love with it. Like many city rats, we were craving the country life.”
The couple bought a 19th-century, five-bedroom farmhouse with three acres of land for £180,000. They have not done much work to the house but Eve is a keen gardener. “I have introduced the concept of hanging baskets to our neighbours,” she says. “They’re all very friendly.” Henry agrees: “The other good thing is they’re all French. I couldn’t bear to be in a British enclave.”
To find another British couple you need to travel about 22 miles from Jussac to the ski resort of Le Lioran in Saint-Jacques-des-Blats. Since the opening of the Millau Viaduct, the ski resort has become the closest in terms of driving time to the city of Montpellier. This means new business for hotels at the foot of the resort, such as the 14-room Hotel des Sources bought by Janine and Neill Murray in September last year.
“We wanted a change of life and to live somewhere we could have two seasons for the hotel,” says Janine, who left her job as a technical manager for Marks & Spencer to move to France. “Here we can do the skiing season, as well as mountain-biking and walking in the summer.”
They bought the hotel for €190,000 (£129,000) and have so far spent about £20,000 doing it up. “We plan to close later in the year for four months to reduce the number of bedrooms so we can add bathrooms and get a classification,” says Neill, a former postman. “We expect to spend about £100,000.”
They have both been impressed with the welcome they received. “All the firewood we have, we’ve been given. One chap kept coming up every week with a basket of vegetables and would take no money for them.”
Agent Heima Immobilier, 00 33 473 359 346; www.heima.fr
Tax When buying in France bear in mind that even non-residents have to pay wealth tax on assets over £488,000; properties owned for 15 years or more are exempt from capital gains tax; and under French law the beneficiary of a will is liable for inheritance tax, even if they live in the UK.
£10,000 A farm with a quarter-acre of land in Haute-Loire
£240,000 This 17th-century presbytery in Limousin has 19 acres of land
£38,000 A farm to renovate in a hamlet near Sancy ski slopes
- Helena Frith Powell’s More France Please, We’re British is available for £9·99 plus £2·25p&p from Telegraph Books Direct on 0870 155 7222