The unsung department with just as many Plus Beaux Villages as Dordogne
Deep in rural France, the department of Aveyron is not the most obvious choice for those buying property in the south of France, but that is an essential part of its appeal. While many househunters in the south flock to the shores of the French Riviera and pretty Provençal villages, few venture off the well-beaten property path and into the great unknown of this little-known corner of northern Occitanie. But those failing to do so, as I discovered, are missing a trick.
Aveyron is one of France’s largest and least inhabited departments – its population is under 300,000 – and so there is plenty of space for everyone to enjoy its unspoilt landscape of low-lying mountains, sweeping plateaux and dramatic gorges to the full. It means that you don’t have to be bothered by neighbours, unless you want to be. The department is also home to hidden-away villages that seemingly haven’t changed in years, plus small yet vibrant towns and cities that offer easy access to all that the department offers.
Village life If you’re looking to buy a property in a breathtakingly pretty French village, you’ll have plenty of choice. Aveyron is home to 10 Plus Beaux Villages – more than any other department in France except Dordogne, which also has 10. There’s a chance you would never find some of these bucolic gems if you didn’t know where to look, but that’s all part of their charm. Getting to Conques, in the north of the department for example, requires an earpopping drive up twisting narrow roads, but it’s well worth it for the forest views that stretch as far as the eye can see, and for the feeling of being blissfully lost in the middle of nowhere.
It may feel like it has only just been discovered but, of course, Conques has been known for years, mainly as a popular stop along the Camino de Compostela, welcoming
With enchanting villages, cool compact cities and stunning countryside to its name, it’s only a matter of time before property buyers go mad for Aveyron, says Catriona Burns
some 30,000 rucksack-clad pilgrims every year. The pilgrimage’s emblem of the scallop can be spotted everywhere in the village, from the scallop-shaped necklaces sold in the souvenir shops to those adorning the pillars in the Abbatiale Ste-foy de Conques. Built in the 12th century, the abbey church holds the relics of Saint Foy and is decorated with stunning stained-glass windows by the Rodez-born artist Pierre Soulages.
Conques was the inspiration for Disney’s new adaptation of Beauty and the Beast and from looking at the houses alone, it’s easy to see why. Steep cobblestone streets are lined with properties that look straight out of a storybook. Half-timbered houses are fronted by small doors – some of which might require tall people to duck – and wooden shutters sprouting flowers that drift off through the streets. Rickety fences border chocolate-box cottages where firewood is piled up outside, and handcrafted shale slates ( lauzes) on rooftops give the look of fish scales.
Unsurprisingly, Aveyron’s picture-perfect villages have attracted many creative minds, inspired by the lovely way of life in places like Ste-eulalie-d’olt. Nestling on the left bank of the River Lot, the medieval village is home to many artists and artisans including one, Marcel Boudou, to whom there is a museum dedicated in the village. Artistic creations can also be seen outside the museum walls with quirky pieces of pop-up art enlivening the streets of this medieval village.
In the village of Estaing the 13th-century château is the main attraction, and other properties have taken on a similarly grandiose feel. Lots of Art Deco-style homes and properties from the Belle Epoque era line the riverside. Many of the properties in Estaing are summertime residences as lots of locals go to Paris for work only to return in the summer or holiday periods. As such, Estaing could be an ideal location for a holiday home, a place to come back to in the summer when festivals such as the sound and light show that is a weekly event from June to September, make the whole village come alive.
If you’re looking for a property in a breathtaking village, you’ll have plenty of choice
Property manager, Greg Perks ( homeaway.fr) helps lots of second-home owners maintain their property while they are away and says Aveyron’s ancient villages are what attract many overseas buyers. “My Australian clients love the old world charm of these villages – they can’t find anything like it back home,” he says. “Aveyron ticks a lot of boxes for us Brits too.”
Greg is confident that no matter what type of property you have in mind, you can find it in Aveyron. “Property here tends to consist of very old stone houses, lots of farms, barns and a good selection of character property to suit all budgets. There are renovation projects and fully completed dream houses alike. Nearly all of them have much more land than you get back in the UK and even with the exchange rate, you get a lot more bang for your buck.”
Charles Smallwood of Agence l’union says properties on the market in Aveyron fit with what most people want from a property in the French countryside, citing many buyers’ wishlists of “a restored house with character and external garden space and great views and within walking distance of the bar and boulangerie”. Urban buys Although many househunters are attracted to Aveyron for its village properties, the department also offers options for those who want to be closer to bigger towns and cities.
Aveyron’s capital Rodez is a good base to explore the rest of the department and is now firmly on the cultural map thanks to the opening of Musée Soulages in 2014. Housing the life’s work of Pierre Soulages, the city’s most famous son and one of France’s most celebrated contemporary artists, the museum also hosts an exciting calendar of temporary exhibitions by other artists. The cherry on the cake is the museum brasserie, Café Bras, where you can enjoy the culinary creations from the award-winning chef Michel Bras.
Musée Soulages may be the big draw, but once you’re there you’ll discover plenty of reasons to stick around in Rodez including the Gothic Notre-dame cathedral that was built between the 13th and 16th centuries. Near the cathedral you’ll find the Embergues area, where medieval residences stand alongside 18th-century townhouses.
At €143,900, the average price of a house in Rodez is higher than the departmental average of €96,700 but, in the grand scale of things, it is still very affordable for a city location, and with Rodez’s star on the up, buying a property here could prove a sound investment. The average price for apartments in Rodez is €1,390/m2.
To the north of Rodez is Aveyron’s second city Millau, perhaps best known for the gravity-defying Viaduc de Millau that leads into it. Designed by the British architect Norman Foster, the bridge is the highest of its kind, soaring 270m above the Tarn Valley. Foster said crossing the bridge should be like “flying by car”, but Millau offers plenty more activities to set your soul soaring. The city is a renowned destination for adventure sport, with paragliding and hang-gliding being some of its most popular adrenaline-filled pastimes.
For those who want to keep their feet on the ground, take a look at Millau’s glovemaking past at the Causse Gantier. Making gloves has been Millau’s first industry for centuries and this stylish museum shows how the company make gloves for some of fashion’s biggest names including Chanel, Kenzo and Yves Saint Laurent.
According to figures from Notaires de France, the average house price in Millau is €160,000. Many family-sized homes are located on the outskirts, with a view of the viaduct and the River Tarn flowing past, offering a little mix of both city and country life.
Into the wild With natural wonders such as the Gorges du Tarn and the Tarn valley on Aveyron’s doorstep, the department is ideal for adrenaline junkies wanting to scale rocky outcrops and take on fast-flowing or calm waters in a kayak. It’s also suited to those who simply like to enjoy the great outdoors by hiking or horse riding along the many picturesque bridleways. The Aubrac is one of Aveyron’s most untamed corners where you can find traditional farmhouses and stone-built properties that blend into the romantic wildness of the surroundings. Home to hundreds of different plant species and wild animals, it’s an ideal place to buy a property if you want to get back to nature.
The low-key lifestyle that is celebrated in Aveyron is reflected in its property prices. The average house price across the department is €96,700, while the average for an apartment is €1,290/m2. While these prices increase slightly in Aveyron’s more populated locations, they remain consistently low elsewhere. In a department so loved for its peace and quiet, it’s reassuring to know that its house prices provide peace of mind too.
Conques: straight out of a fairytale
Estaing village on the River Lot
Medieval village and abbey of Conques
The spectacular Gorges du Tarn
Rodez is the capital of Aveyron