Undiscovered joys of the Savoie
Known to skiers but largely unexplored by British buyers, this part of France has plenty to offer all year round
Call it love at first sight — or, as the French would say, un coup de foudre. From the first time I clapped eyes on the old stone farmhouse with blue shutters and a red roof, set among olive trees and vineyards, silent except for the wind in the trees and the chirping of the cicadas, I longed to own it. We were lucky. Our offer was accepted. There we lived happily for 10 years, accompanying our children on bicycles to the village school and taking part in the annual wine harvest. I never thought we would even contemplate selling.
Maybe it’s a midlife crisis, but the truth is, I hanker for another. Fortunately, my husband agrees, and our children are willing to play along. So Sainte Cécile, our beautiful farmhouse near Pézenas, half an hour from the Mediterranean, is now on the market and we are buying somewhere else.
The Savoie is a bit like Switzerland. It certainly has the landscape and the lakes. The weather is nice enough for tennis most of the year You may have heard of the Savoie and its neighbouring département, the Haute-Savoie. You may even have gone there on a skiing holiday: it boasts resorts such as Val d’Isère, Méribel and Courchevel. Annecy is up there with Paris in terms of property prices. But I bet not a lot of you have discovered the area’s true potential. Of course, the French, in the rather irritating way that they always discover the best in life, have known about it for a long time.
Tourism in this part of the Rhône-Alpes region was developed towards the end of the 19th century, predominantly during the summer. And today, according to the Chambéry chamber of commerce, almost half of its income is generated by the annual 30m visitor nights it attracts.
I discovered it by chance. I was invited to stay, through a column I used to write for the Home section, and found a landscape rather like Devon, but on steroids. The trees (the name Savoie comes from the Latin sapaudia, meaning land covered with fir trees), the hills and even the grass were greener.
My hosts turned out to be ridiculously charming, and, on a morning walk with them and their dogs, I saw a house that I liked the look of. Best of all, it had a beautiful tennis court perched on a hill, overlooking the rolling landscape and a church. I stalked it for two years, then wrote a letter to the owners. If you ever want to sell, I suggested, I would buy. They humoured me for another couple of years or so, and even let us use the tennis court once or twice. Our son lost his front tooth on it, which I took as a sign that we belonged there. Then, just before Christmas last year, I received a message. If you are serious, we are now in a position to sell. Make us an offer and it could be yours.
We did; they accepted. (I won’t say how much for.) But what are we letting ourselves in for? They say of the Savoie that it is a little like living in Switzerland. It certainly has the landscape and the lakes. Lac de Bourget is the largest natural lake in France. Annecy is like a mini Venice. You can play tennis outside for at least seven months of the year, then ski when the tennis season comes to an end. Walking, of course, goes on all year round, as does cycling, though personally I don’t fancy those hills.
Some other British families have sought out holiday homes in the Savoie. Clive Simmonds, 65, and his wife, Claire, originally from Rye, in East Sussex, bought a five-bedroom house on the outskirts of a small village called Pont-de-Beauvoisin for £75,000 in 1995. “My wife and I were both teachers at the time, and had long holidays, so we decided what we wanted was somewhere that was accessible and with a good climate,” he says.
“When I say accessible, I mean no more than an eight-hour drive from Calais. We worked out that we needed to be south of Lyons to get the guaranteed good weather in the summer. Added to which, we felt it would be nice to be within striking distance of the Trois Vallées, for skiing.”
The house they bought was 15 years old at the time of purchase and has a quarter of an acre of land. “We didn’t want a ruin, we just wanted a place we could enjoy.” One of its main selling points was the views. “We look north up to the Chartreuse and south down to the Rhône,” Simmonds says. “We spend about four months a year there, and the big surprise has been that we like it almost more in winter than in summer.
“You get those bright, clear winter days when it is warm enough to sit and eat on the terrace in a T-shirt. England feels a lot colder. Also, there are long periods with no wind at all. I think it is the calmest place I’ve ever been to in my life.”
Simmonds, who is now retired, has no idea why the Savoie has not caught on in the same way as other parts of France. “France is a big place, and areas such as the Dordogne have taken off —the British have all gone there, which suits me very well. But we are exceedingly enamoured of the region and its people. We love it and now know a lot of French people who are far more than acquaintances.”
Geraint Davies, a sales executive for De Meyer Immobilier in Annecy, says most British property hunters in the area are now looking for primary homes, not secondary ones, as they were a few years ago. “There is a lot of house-hunting in the region based on the economic development of the area, especially Geneva,” he says — Geneva, Lyons and Chambéry are an hour’s drive from Annecy.
“There are still those looking for secondary residences, but they are mainly in the mountainous regions. Prices for both kinds of property are relatively stable, although, over the past two years, we have seen an increase of 2% to 3%.”
Benoît Clerc, who works for Agence Clerc, also based in Annecy, says the region is popular with English-speaking people from all over the world, including Australia, Canada and America. “Some are just looking for a holiday home, but a lot of them want to live here,” he says. “They mainly want to be on the lake, of course. We have seen an increase in interest over the past two years.” Ease of access to Geneva airport, with its many long- as well as short-haul connections, is an important factor (and a particular attraction to me at the moment, as I am working in Abu Dhabi).
Property prices in the region vary considerably, with Annecy and other areas within commuting distance of Geneva commanding the highest values. In Annecy, you can expect to pay about €350,000 (£290,000) for a modest flat in town, and it will be tough to find a villa on the shores of the lake for less than €1m.
Move further into the region, towards Chambéry, and prices drop dramatically, with a two-bedroom flat in the centre of the city going for about €170,000 and large houses in the surrounding countryside starting at €350,000. In terms of holiday homes, chalets always command a premium, with prices in even the less familiar resorts starting at €500,000.
In 2007, Chris Cole and his wife, Miranda, joined 11 other investors to buy Chalet La Giettaz, in the Alpine village of La Giettaz, near Megève. Cole, who is originally from Glasgow, now lives in the chalet for 10 months of the year and in London for the rest of the time. “It was a property development originally, then it turned into a holiday business,” says Cole, who prefers not to reveal the price they paid for it. “Everyone knows about the skiing here, but the summer opportunities are not so well publicised.”
During the summer, the couple run a writer’s retreat as well as catering for cyclists, hikers and general holidaymakers at the chalet, which is divided into 12 flats. They opted to buy in La Giettaz, about 40 miles from Geneva, because it is an authentic Alpine village. “It is not just a ski resort — they tend to be quite ugly,” says Chris, who used to work for a tour operator in London. “People live here all year round, and the local farmer grazes his sheep on our land.
“It really is a charming place. The more time we spend here, the more settled we feel, and the harder we would find it to go back to that standard Monday-to-Friday office existence.”
As for us? Our Languedoc farmhouse will always be a special place for my family. It is where the children learnt to swim and where we discovered the joys of living in France. But I am really excited about our move, and I’m looking forward to many more happy memories in the Savoie. Especially on the tennis court.
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