When does sport become leisure? When it makes its way onto your wishlist for your new home in France! Fishing, swimming, riding, walking and more can all play a part in everyday life, says Julie Savill
Perfect homes and locations for fans of fishing, golf, skiing, swimming and more
As a national passion, this is less established in France than, say, the UK or USA, but it is accelerating and well supported at grass-roots level. In practice, this currently means affordability and accessibility.
Fewer courses require membership, handicap certificates, or booking ages in advance than in the UK or USA. Really good quality courses, even championship grade, are often available to ‘pay-and-play’ and they are quiet and reasonably priced, certainly when compared to the Spanish Costas. Across France, there are English-speaking golf pros to assist and encourage.
Château des Vigiers in the Dordogne ( vigiers.com) is set up for families, individuals and corporate events, and offers Michelin-starred food and 27 holes of golf. Get into the swing in the covered driving range bays, on the pitching greens or in the training bunkers.
For the joiners among you, we have stories to tell of friendly welcomes and invitations to play competitions at some clubs – a great way to integrate! And ask us nicely and we’ll tell you about a pretty nine-hole golf course we have for sale.
Much of what is available is world class and found on the borders of Switzerland, Italy and Spain. Hands up who hasn’t heard of Chamonix or Val d’isère? For our money, the clever destinations are in the Pyrénées where, if you choose wisely, you can ski the winter (there are half a dozen or more ski stations in the Pyrénées Catalanes Regional Natural Park) and spend the summer on the equally local Mediterranean beaches. Indeed, many avid skiers hop over the border to quieter, cheaper and (they might say better) facilities in the Spanish Pyrénées.
Debate rages about whether this is a sport or religion… The Tour de France has just whistled through once again. In Eymet, one of this year’s chosen staging posts, the resident population of about 2,500 briefly became 40,000, such is the draw of this most French of events.
If you join a local cycling club (look out for them stopping en route in a local bar for a coffee and get chatting), you’ll note that riders are often sponsored by national and international brands: great coverage for a business. Go Team Intermarché!
And what an amazing way to stay (or get) fit. The age range is incredible, with many people continuing for decades beyond retirement. They are super-fit. I find it humbling to observe a group of wiry guys warming up in what looks like a scene from the waiting room of the film Cocoon, to then be left breathless in their wake as they roar off uphill.
Even fairly small towns have outdoor public pools. Larger towns have indoor facilities, and elaborate waterparks are growing in popularity. Of course, many private homeowners also feel it worthwhile to buy a property with a pool or the potential to install one. The weather helps! There is a whole industry set up to clean and maintain pools and to support those of us who, frankly, left school thinking we’d never see the need to test another Ph level. Wild swimming in the sea, lakes and rivers is popular and favoured by the climate for at least part of the year in the south of the country.
This is a divisive subject. Should it be even listed as a sport? In France, it is an unavoidable characteristic of rural living (and it is highly regulated). We’ll say simply that there is a broadly mutual respect between proponents and protesters. And a strong connection between ‘the chase’ and the dinner table. What cannot be eaten is left alone. What can be is served up at lazy, boozy chasse lunches to which local residents are cordially invited. Cultural integration à table.
If you allow the chasse to hunt on your land, you will be gifted choice cuts of venison or wild boar at some point in the year as a thank you.
If you don’t want hunters on your land, it is usually enough to buy ‘ chasse interdite’ signs at the local ironmongery ( quincaillerie), and fix them to your fence. The signs are well respected by the hunting community.
We’ve had clients buy enough land/woodland to immunise themselves from contact with the
local hunt, or for all we know, to own a private hunt with little contact with the outside world. As France has the same size population as the UK with about three times the land area, land is often much less expensive.
Travel through the countryside and you’ll invariably see a sign proclaiming ‘Balltrap!’ So, is it: a)a commentary on the tweets of a certain foreign president? b)the slightly-too-tight chinos favoured by some male expats of a certain age? c)clay pigeon shooting If you answered c you are on the ball. Clay pigeon shooting ( tir aux pigeons) is a popular village sport and local competitions are hotly contested. Ask at your mairie for details of the nearest club.
To shoot you will need either a permis de chasse (for hunting) or a license sportive de tir (for target shooting). Both require an exam, and details for the hunting license can be obtained from the National Hunting and Wildlife Agency, ONCFS (Office National de Chasse et de la Faune Sauvage: oncfs.gouv. fr). For the target shooting licence, consult the French Shooting Federation (Fédération Française de Tir: fftir.org/fr).
Licences for game or coarse fishing are easy to come by, and sea fishing is plentiful. Fishing lakes are available to buy too. Go to cartedepeche.fr to check out where to get a permit in your chosen area. These allow you to fish for seven consecutive days in first or second category waters. Salmon run in rivers in France – the Gave d’oloron in the PyrénéesAtlantiques, for instance, has salmon from 4-10kg. Otters are making a comeback and are protected, so you might get lucky and spot one!
Walking and hiking
The Grande Randonnée (roughly translated as ‘big walk’ or ‘great hiking’) network, often indicated by signs abbreviated to GR, populate many rural areas and link towns and villages too. A local dog walk or a serious outing is catered for here on waymarked and colour-coded routes. Accommodation and victuals punctuate the longer journeys.
Be aware of other signs indicating VTT ( vélo tout terrain) as the track may be shared with mountain bikes but also quads or motorbikes and, of course, horses.
Almost every town will have a club randonnée. Walkers gather at pre-arranged places and times to do walks of varying lengths. The schedule usually gives a helpful ‘kilometres per hour’ guide so you can pick a length and pace of walk to suit your abilities. Choose one where you will be able to walk and talk and improve your French by chatting as you go!
Many of us have bought property with more land than we might have easily found or afforded in our country of origin. Long-held dreams of pony or donkey ownership become a happy reality. It is less than rare to be able to ride out or trek directly from one’s own property. Serious equestrian properties also come onto the open market.
A couple of pieces of advice if you are thinking of buying a property and keeping horses: the further south you go, the more land you will need per pony as the long hot summers mean less grass; shade from field shelters, hedges or woodland is essential.
If dinghies are your thing then head for one of the many lakes of southern France. Forget dropping into the chilly Solent on capsize practice and look forward to a swim in warmer waters during a long, hot day of sailing.
On many lakes, such as Lac Ste-croix in the Alpes-de-haute-Provence département, dinghies, catamarans, kayaks and canoes, windsurfers and paddleboards are available to hire if you don’t have your own. And, of course, coastal properties make sea sailing an everyday possibility.
Take to the pretty well-kept canals and discover a blissful pastime. Delete memories of childhood trauma on the River Avon in flood. Instead, follow in the gentle wake of Prunella Scales and Timothy West in Channel 4’s Great Canal Journeys on the World Heritage site of the Canal du Midi. Or retrace the adventurous paw prints of ‘whippet’ Jim in Narrow Dog to Carcassonne ( narrowdog. com). To hire your own cruiser, try leboat.com.
We are blessed with numerous facilities for light aircraft across France. Flying lessons cost from around €120 to €150 an hour and you need 30 hours to get your Light Aircraft Pilot Licence. Check out the Ecole Nationale de l’aviation Civile ( enac.fr/en) in Toulouse for further details. Or try a helicopter lesson near Perpignan in the Languedoc-roussillon, Occitanie, ( helittoral.fr/en/services/ flying-lesson/). ULM (ultralight aircraft) aficionados can still buy a property with enough land to create a private landing strip, or just join in with an established club such as this one in Cabrerets, Lot ( bapteme-lot-ulm.fr/).
The bigger picture
Sport is part of the curriculum and the psyche in France. Tiny communities of unlikely scale have well-maintained public tennis courts, swimming pools and walking clubs. Watch a passionate boules or pétanque encounter on any scrap of vaguely level (but often floodlit) gravel… maybe even join in, if you don’t mind being humiliated!
The south-west and south-east are mad about rugby. If you want to support rather than take part, anywhere within striking distance of Toulouse, Montpellier, Brive or Bordeaux gives you access to teams in the Rugby League Top 14 competition. Football is truly national and you can barely be in a town without a professional or amateur team and pitch.
Many sports, on a practical and financial level, suit the more passive spectators among us. Motor racing on two, three or four wheels is widespread beyond the famous Monaco Grand Prix or Le Mans 24 hours endurance race. Angoulême in Charente, for instance, hosts an annual vintage car rally around the city ramparts where you can see classic Bugattis and Ferraris hurtle around terrifying bends and through narrow streets (this year, the Circuit des Remparts is on 15-17 September). A fine and gentle start to your sporting life in France? I’ll see you in the apéro tent for a glass of rosé!
Sport is part of the psyche in France – even tiny communities have wellmaintained public tennis courts, swimming pools and walking clubs