New transport links should turn this quiet corner of the French Alps into a property hub – so get in while you can
Most of the places in France discovered by the British in the 19th century have long since been overrun by their modern-day compatriots — just look at the Riviera. But the Savoie, once a favourite of Queen Victoria’s, has remained largely undiscovered. This is set to change, however, because of new transport links that will mean easy access to the region from all over Europe.
Chambéry, the area’s capital, has historically been the crossroads of Alpine traffic between France, Italy and Switzerland. The town has good high-speed rail services, which will improve in the next few years, as it will be the mid-point of the Lyons-Turin rail link, due to be completed by 2015 and cutting journey times from four hours to 90 minutes. In December, Annecy, the capital of Haute-Savoie, the neighbouring département, will be linked to Geneva by the new A41 motorway, cutting the drive between the two cities from 45 to 30 minutes. The low-cost carriers Flybe and Jet2 fly to Chambéry, and many more airlines fly to Geneva.
Savoie and Haute-Savoie are in the Rhône-Alpes region of eastern France, between Burgundy and Provence. They are a relatively recent French acquisition: the country absorbed the territory of Savoy in 1860 as part of the European political manoeuvring that led to the unification of Italy.
Living in the area is a little like living in Switzerland, but with none of the problems Swiss property purchases present to foreign buyers. It is clean, with mountains, more clear lakes than you can shake a stick at, and an incredibly civilised air. Unlike much of France, cars actually stop at zebra crossings.
All this comes at a price, however. Annecy, on the shores of the lake of the same name, has property prices on a par with Paris. The advantages of life there are obvious. Known as the Venice of France, it is a bit like Geneva, but smaller, prettier and more romantic — swans glide around on the canals.
A 100-square-metre flat in the centre will cost about £365,000; by the lake, that figure rises to £580,000. Not cheap, then, but it is one of the most beautiful cities in France, and only a short drive from Geneva.
Geraint Davies, an estate agent with Stephan de Meyer Immobilier in Annecy, says property there will always be a “solid investment”, partly because of its international community. “I would say 80% of our Anglo-Saxon clients work in Geneva and come to Annecy for the quality of life,” he says. “Prices are stable after a period of overvaluing, and it is always going to be a good long-term investment.”
To live out your lakeside dream in a house, you will need even deeper pockets: Agence Clerc, another estate agent, has a beautiful, contemporary 300-square-metre house with 2,200 square metres of gardens on the east side of the lake, with superb mountain and lake views, for sale for £1.5m.
Drive six miles along the shore and you arrive in Talloires, described in several guidebooks as “the most romantic village in France”. Prices here are on a par with, if not higher than, Annecy, and lakeside properties rarely come up for sale. One local agent, Hubert Nemoz, owner of the local agency Nemoz Immobilier, talks wistfully of a villa that came up three years ago and went for almost £2.2m. On his books at the moment is a modest 200-square-metre house on the village outskirts, for sale for £550,000.
A couple of miles further along the east side of the lake, near the village of Doussard, is Chalet Rosier, owned by Adrian Salmon, 57, and his fiancée, Linda Reddie, 49, who are based in Godalming, Surrey. Salmon, an entrepreneur who dabbles in property, bought it 12 years ago.
“Originally, I was looking for a holiday cottage in Kent,” he says. “But, after a trip to Geneva, I realised this region has everything: skiing, easy access, water, golf, walking. There was no point in looking any further. It’s absolutely magnificent.”
Salmon had wanted a flat, but saw the chalet, then a basic four-bedder, for sale for about £100,000. “The location just took my breath away. “I thought, ‘I want a bit of this paradise.’ I signed the contract the following week. It was too good a deal to miss.”
He renovated the property just after moving in, and gave it another make-over two years ago — in total, he has spent about £150,0000. “The place was getting past its sell-by date,” he explains. “I got the message when friends started to say no to invitations. Now, of course, they’re all desperate to come.”
The 300-square-metre villa, which Salmon rents out for holiday lets, is about an hour’s drive from great skiing at Courchevel, Chamonix and Megève, and a short walk from Lake Annecy. Salmon estimates that its value is about £550,000. “The great thing about it as a holiday home is that it works for all seasons,” he says. “In summer, you have the lake; in winter, the mountains.”
One of Queen Victoria’s favourite spa towns was Aix-les-Bains, on Lac du Bourget, the largest natural lake in France. Aix has been revitalised by a dynamic mayor who is keen to make the town a tourist attraction. “It is 20% cheaper than Annecy,” Davies says. “There are some interesting new developments around the port area, with about 600 new apartments.”
Tom Robson, 42, and his wife, Anita, 40, bought a holiday flat there in August, after discovering the region during a holiday two years ago. “We live in Sussex and had been looking to invest in a second home for some time,” Anita says. “This was ideal in terms of location, price and accessibility. And it was beautifully decorated.” They paid £85,000 for their two-bedroom, 85- square-metre flat in the city centre. “We love the lake and the surrounding mountains,” Anita says. “We can come out for the weekend and go skiing in the winter or boating in summer. Access is easy and cheap, with flights to Chambéry and Geneva.”
Most of the Savoie is less cosmopolitan — and cheaper. It is possible to find villages with no expats at all; indeed, there are many with more cows than people. It looks a little like Devon, with Mont Blanc in the background. Norrie and Mary Hearn discovered Sainte-Marie-d’Alvey, a half-hour drive from Chambéry, 16 years ago, when their then teenage daughter Roisin had an exchange with a local family.
“I had a chance of early retirement from Birmingham University,” says Norrie, 75.
“We thought about going back to Ireland, where we’re originally from, but decided that when you go back somewhere, things just aren’t the same. Also, we relished the idea of a new language and a new culture. I spoke about 15 words of French when we first came.”
They saw 12 houses in two days, in four départements, but eventually decided on the first place they’d seen — a partially converted barn.
In 1991, they sold their house in Somerset. They paid £55,000 for their French home and sought planning permission from the mayor. “We stuck photostats on the original drawing of the barn and showed him how we wanted to convert it,” Norrie recalls. “He asked us if we were going to be permanent residents. I said yes. He said, ‘You two and the three children?’ Again, I said yes. ‘The population of Sainte-Marie has just gone up by 5%,’ he said. He was delighted.”
Planning approval followed, and by 1993 the Hearns had created a four- bedroom family house. It sits on a hectare of land, where they keep livestock and grow vegetables. “The climate and amount of land mean we are practically self-sufficient,” Norrie says. “It’s a lovely life, and the locals have been smashing. Six years ago, we had proof of our integration when the mayor asked Mary to stand for election to the local council. She was duly elected.”
Norrie estimates that the house would fetch about £145,000, but they have no intention of selling. “This is such a lovely part of the world,” says Mary, 62. “You’ve got the mountains, the lakes and the lovely towns. I can’t recommend it highly enough.”
– Agence Clerc, 00 33 4 50 64 88 88, www.agence-clerc.com; Nemoz Immobilier, 00 33 4 50 60 79 57, www.nemoz-immobilier.com; Stephan de Meyer Immobilier, 00 33 4 50 23 02 30, www.demeyer-immobilier.com; Adrian Salmon, 01483 424327, www.french-charm.com
A four-bedroom old stone house in Menthon St Bernard has panoramic views, private access to Lake Annecy, a pool, a caretaker’s house and 4,500 square metres of gardens. The 400-square-metre house needs total renovation.
For sale for £1.9m, with Vallat Premium; 00 33 4 50 66 82 00, www.vallat-premium.com
A three-storey house in Ravoire is 10 minutes’ drive from Les Arcs ski resort and about an hour from Grenoble and Chambéry airport. It has five bedrooms, and there is a two-bedroom flat.
For sale for £690,000, with Alpestates; www.alpestates.com
A renovated five-bedroom farmhouse on the outskirts of Annecy has original features and 1,000 square metres of land. It is 25 minutes’ drive to the lake, and 45 to Geneva airport and the nearest skiing.
For sale for £383,000, with Ascendant; www.ascendant-property.com
This three-bedroom, 150-square-metre home in Aigueblanche is about 90 mintues’ drive from Geneva and an hour from Grenoble. It has a new kitchen, a balcony with mountain views and a terraced garden.
For sale for £184,471, with Immobilier Plus; 00 33 4 79 24 53 92
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. Helena is working on a thriller called Thin Ice that will be published in 2021 as well as a novel about the relationship between Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield called Sense of an Echo.
Her latest non-fiction work Smart Women Don’t Get Wrinkles came out in hardback in 2016 and in paperback in April 2018.
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