English not spoken here
If it’s expat-free France you want, Helena Frith Powell has some unspoilt gems
One of the complaints I hear most from British people living in France is that they didn’t cross the Channel to socialise with compatriots. It annoys me. I know that most of us who moved here did so for the lifestyle, but does this have to mean running 100 yards (or rather metres) in the opposite direction if you hear an English accent? Most of my friends are English or Irish – it’s only natural to gravitate towards people you can relate to and understand.
Suppose, however, that you are an Anglophobe. The problem is that there are undoubtedly lots of Britons here – as many as 500,000 are believed to be resident or to have second homes – and they congregate in the some of the best parts, such as Provence, the Dordogne and the coast around La Rochelle.
Well, France is much bigger and more sparsely populated than the UK, and plenty of lovely areas are still Brit-free, especially if you can bear to live away from the coast and cope with proper winters. In addition, new high-speed rail links mean that once inaccessible spots will soon be easier to reach – which will push up prices.
So, for those who want to lose themselves in a flurry of French-ness, here are some places virtually unsullied by Anglo-Saxon influence.
This region in the middle of France is empty partly because it is so hard to get to: the pretty market town of Aurillac, in the Cantal département, for example, is the French préfecture furthest away from a motorway. In the heart of old Aurillac is a three-bedroom stone townhouse for sale for £89,000 (www.frenchpropertysearch.com; ref number 15-3941).
The Auvergne landscape is varied and stunning; some parts are more than 6,500ft metres above sea level. Once the winter snow melts, you have green rolling hills, volcanic peaks, valleys, lakes and gorges. The prettiest département is the Allier, which is full of small towns, winding rivers and unspoilt views. Near Moulins, an old miner’s house set in 2½ acres, with three bedrooms, two kitchens, attics and cellars, is on sale for £163,000 (www.green-acres.com).
The Auvergne offers plenty of old stone houses and lots of space – top of many British buyers’ wish lists. It might not be long before we see carloads of Britons lining up along the Millau viaduct in search of their dream homes. The locals will be grateful – theirs is one of the least populated regions in Europe, let alone France.
Given our passion for bubbly, it is surprising that more Britons don’t buy here. The region is near Paris and has lovely villages and countryside, 400 miles of waterways and 10 golf courses. Granted, the climate is not mar-vellous, but it is warmer than Normandy and Brittany – and, should it rain, you are never short of a champagne-grower to visit or a bottle to sample.
I have seen derelict farmhouses for sale for under £70,000 – less than the price of a hectare of champagne-yielding vines. Prices rise the closer you get to Paris, but they are still a bargain compared to the south of France. You can find beautiful old houses in good condition for about £115,000.
Offering sun, sea and the Mediterranean lifestyle – the island has more than 200 beaches – Corsica is as different from Champagne-Ardenne as you can get while staying in the same country.
Brits are thin on the ground. My friend Rachel’s father has a house there, but visits only every couple of years – so you’re unlikely to bump into him. I spent a week there last summer and didn’t hear another English voice.
This is the playground of the French, and I expected a tourist trap, but instead I found unspoilt countryside (with a few rusting cars thrown in, but where else do you dump them?), great bars and lots of old stone farmhouses crying out to be restored.
Janet Rankin, of Directcorsica. com, says that prices for decent properties range from £130,000 to £800,000, depending on where you go. “The advantage, though, is that you can command a higher rate for holiday rentals than in most other French regions,” she says.
If you’re looking for a renovation project, the agency has an old stone house in the south of the island for £60,000 (www. directcorsica.com).
Besançon, the local capital, is famous as the birthplace of Victor Hugo. The writer moved to Paris, but don’t let that give you the wrong impression. Reputed to be the greenest city in France, it has a TGV connection, so access is easy, and the old town is one of the most stunning in France.
The countryside has lots going for it, there are ski resorts in the Jura mountains and you can skip over the border to Lake Geneva if you feel like a change. Despite all this, property prices are low: you can find a large, basic house with land for about £135,000. Ile-de-France Also known as the Région Parisienne, this is France’s most populated region, with more residents than Belgium, Greece, Austria or Sweden. Outside Paris, however, itself, few are British. Maffliers, for example, is an idyllic village 35 minutes north of the capital by train. It has just one British resident, according to a French friend who lives there – and she married him.
“It is not sun, sea, cheap wine or housing that attract the buyers here, but rather proximity to Paris, together with rolling countryside,” says Françoise Ellery, of the Ellery Ludlow Agency. “The prices are in a different bracket to a lot of other regions in France, but still much cheaper than southern UK prices.” A really substantial renovated property in the old part of Maffliers will cost about £670,000.
This region used to be very industrialised. But the steel-works and mines that were once prominent are now in decline, and the countryside is taking over; the region is blossoming, if not booming.
Lorraine also has one of the most beautiful villages in France: Beaulieu-en-Argonne, in the Meuse département. Although 30 minutes from Reims and 2½ hours from Paris, it has just 30 inhabitants – not one of them British.
Properties are cheap, as this is not one of France’s most popular regions.
Want to large it up? For about £300,000, you could buya 17-bedroom mountain property in Vosges, 20 minutes from the slopes (www.primelocation.com). The site also has a fine-looking manor house in Meuse for £362,000.
More More France Please by Helena Frith Powell is published on May 1 (£7.99). To buy for the Sunday Times Books First price of £7.59 (inc p&p), call 0870 165 8585 or visit timesonline.co.uk/booksfirstbuy
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.
Helena contributes regularly to UK-based newspapers and magazines and holds a Masters in Creative Writing from the University of Cambridge. She is working on a thriller set in Sweden as well as a novel about the relationship between Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield called Sense of an Echo.
In 2022 her short story The Japanese Gardener came second in the Fish Publishing Short Story Prize. One of her stories was also shortlisted for the Bridport Short Story Prize. When she’s not writing, she works as a headhunter for the media and entertainment industry for the Sucherman Group.
Helena, who was educated at Durham University, lives in the Languedoc region of France 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 spring 2018
The Longest Night; Gibson Square spring 2019