Looking for French voisins rather than British neighbours? Catriona Burns discovers the five areas where the Brits don’t tend to buy
Don’t want to live among other Brits? If you’re looking for French neighbours, find out where you should be house-hunting
The British love affair with France is very much a long-term relationship, and with its excellent food and wine, rich culture and low house prices, the country has enticed some 150,000 Brits to relocate there.
In fact, the latest report from French bank BNP Paribas shows that of all foreign buyers, the Brits bought the most properties in France in 2016. The report also reveals the most popular areas they chose to live in (note that the report was published before France introduced its new regions in 2016). If you want to be close to your fellow expats from Blighty, you should consider living in the south-west of France – one of the most popular areas with Brits. But if you like the idea of having more French voisins than British neighbours, there are five regions which remain under the radar. Here’s where you should be looking…
A landscape of undulating hills dotted with time-forgotten villages, sunshine-yellow mustard fields and world-famous vineyards, Burgundy offers a quintessentially French way of life. But despite offering the dream that many Brits harbour, Burgundy is still overlooked by many British buyers.
As with most Burgundian towns, life in Beaune, in Côte-d’Or, centres around good food and wine. Cobbled streets are lined with from ageries, pâtisseries and restaurant tables dressed in red-chequered table cloths, while at the Saturday market on Place Carnot, tables groan under the weight of fresh fruit, home-grown vegetables, dried wild flowers, poulet de Bresse and local cheese such as Époisses and Morbier. Of course, there’s plenty of wine to go with all this food. Beaune is encircled by the Côte-d’Or vineyards and below its streets you’ll find one of the largest network of wine cellars in the world; an underground maze of dusty vintages being aged to perfection, while the town’s Hospices de Beaune hosts one of the world’s most famous wine auctions. Burgundy wine is a big reason why Scotsman Michael Pattison settled here almost 20 years ago. “I love that Burgundy has such spectacular food and wine,” Michael says. “We have access to smaller producers that make unknown but inexpensive and wonderful wine which is really great!”
Food is also big in the Burgundian capital of Dijon. Renowned for mustard and
pain d’épices (gingerbread), the city is also home to an excellent selection of restaurants where you can tuck into Burgundy specialities such as boeuf bourguignon, oeufs en meurette (poached eggs and meurette sauce) and cheese-filled gougères (baked savoury choux pastry).
If you want to burn off all that gastronomic indulgence, you’ll have no excuse living in this area where you can cycle through the centuriesold vineyards, hike around the Parc Régional du Morvan or glide along the River Yonne in a canoe. Many people come across Burgundy by passing through, and if they choose to make a stop, chances are they will be here to stay, just like Michael.
“Burgundy kind of chose me rather than the other way round!” he says. “Geographically it’s in a great position, as it’s close to Paris and Lyon. You don’t realise it’s happening but Burgundy kind of sneaks up on you and then you’re hooked!”
From the gently rolling farmland of the Saône valley to the high alpine peaks in the east, Franche-Comté is a rural paradise that is largely undiscovered by Brits. Life in this forested corner of France can be blissfully sweet and simple – think fishing for trout in alpine torrents, swimming in crystal-clear rivers and eating local Comté cheese while sipping the local vin jaune. The birthplace of Victor Hugo, Besançon is the capital of Franche-Comté and has a beautiful citadel designed by Vauban, where you can easily spend the day. Climb to the top for spine-tingling views over the city and stroll around the citadel walls (there is even a small zoo you can explore). Down in the city, locals shop for regional specialities such as sausages from Montbéliard and Morteau at the covered market, and the pathway along the River Doubs that is encircled by trees, is always a popular place for a morning run.
Franche-Comté is also home to the Jura mountain range which is France’s premier cross-country skiing area, and is a considerably less crowded alternative to the Alps, offering an idyllic life in the hills.
I think if I bought a home in France, one of the first things I would do is pop open a bottle of champagne, as many homebuyers would. But despite its fizz being the celebratory drink of choice the world over, Champagne-Ardenne is not a popular location for British property buyers.
In contrast to the glamour often associated with it, Champagne-Ardenne offers an idyllically rural lifestyle. Rolling plains lead on to peaceful lakes and meadows in the south, while the north of the region boasts oak forests and rolling green hills. If you want to get back to nature, the Ardennes area that rises from the north-east and stretches to the Belgian border is ideal. Marked footpaths along the Meuse valley offer blissful days out spent walking while the 150,000 hectares of woodland in the Ardennes forest is perfect for hiking and mountain biking.
While Ardennes’ hills and valleys call out to hikers, climbers, horse riders and kayakers, it also appeals to history buffs, and in most of the little towns and villages you won’t have to venture far from your own front door to discover a slice of the past as most have a church, castle or mill with a story to tell.
You’ll find a quirky scene in Charleville-Mézières, the centre of France’s puppetry industry, where an enchanting puppeteer clock is sure to provide sweet memories for children that grow up here. The creative theme continues in Châlonsen-Champagne, home to the national school for circus acts.
Of course, many people come to Champagne-Ardenne to follow the Route du Champagne; discovering champagne vineyards and exploring champagne houses in towns such as Reims and Épernay. New Zealander Glenis Foster welcomes many such tourists, along with many cyclists and historians to her B&B Auprès de l’Église in the village of Oyes where she has lived since 2005. As Glenis attests, the area might not be popular with expat residents, but it is ever-popular with tourists and so it could be a good option for those considering opening an accommodation business. “We love the region for its generous, welcoming and proud people,” Glenis explains. “We love its flat plains of spectacular, everchanging beauty, plus the wine, the gorgeous architecture, and the fun we have had exploring pretty villages along the smooth winding lanes through the vineyards. It is a region of seasons; each distinct and equally beautiful.”
Situated in the north-east of France, Alsace is a landscape of spectacular mountains, vine-covered hillsides and postcard-pretty villages. Even though the region has changed nationality four times since 1871, it has a strong identity; a place where centuries-old traditions are kept alive and well by the locals. One such custom that continues to thrive is winemaking – Alsace is known for its dry, sweet white wines such as riesling and gewürztraminer.
Many of Alsace’s charming villages could be straight from the pages of a Brothers Grimm fairy tale. Gingerbread-style houses festooned with pink geraniums sit side by side on crooked streets; locals bumble down the cobblestone alleyways by bike and walkers cross quaint stone bridges that slope over canals. It is little wonder one of its villages, Kaysersberg in Haut-Rhin, was voted France’s favourite village on the TV programme Le village préfére des Français.
Alsace’s cities also have lots to offer. Located halfway between Paris and Prague, Strasbourg is known as the ‘crossroads of Europe’ and is home to several EU institutions including the European Parliament. Though Strasbourg is a very cosmopolitan city; home to a melting pot of nationalities (with a buzzing expat scene), it has still kept hold of its Gallic charm with its
half-timbered houses, criss-crossing canals and twisting lanes providing a folksy feel.
Colmar in Haut-Rhin is also enchantingly quaint, and the town has some impressive churches and museums to its name, too. Its colourful canal quarter, known as ‘Little Venice’ is best explored by boat. There are also plenty of places to hop off for a mug of chocolat chaud and slice of kougelhopf fruit cake, including nearby Place des Dominicains. Come dinnertime, locals like to wind down in one of the cosy win stubs with a glass of Alsatian wine.
But perhaps most beguiling of all is Alsace’s countryside. Louis XIV once described Alsace as a “beautiful garden” and his description is best seen today in Alsace’s mix of vineyards, forests and farmers’ fields that appear untouched by time.
For many Brits, packing a slice of quiche Lorraine in their picnic basket is as close as they get to this department in north-eastern France. But with low property prices, storied towns and awe-inspiring landscapes, there are plenty more reasons why house-hunters should be considering Lorraine as a place to live.
Lovers of the great outdoors will find plenty to keep them occupied in the unspoilt countryside. Here you will find three large nature reserves, including the Ballons des Vosges, where spectacular mountain lakes provide a stunning backdrop for winter sports, and the Lorraine Regional Nature Park where salt marshes, lakes and rivers attract anglers and watersports enthusiasts all year round. Living in Lorraine would also mean having the Vosges mountains on your doorstep, with plenty of opportunities for walking, mountain biking and skiing.
If you would prefer to spend your time sitting and watching the world go by, you’d be hard pushed to find better than Place Stanislas in Lorraine’s historical capital of Nancy. An elegant square flanked by restaurants and hotels and enclosed by gold iron gates, it is a perfect place to people watch and appreciate the city’s 18th-century architectural attractions. Metz in the Moselle department also allures art aficionados, particularly for the stained-glass windows designed by Marc Chagall in the Cathédrale St-Étienne that watches over the town’s historic centre. There are some 20 bridges crossing the rivers and canals in Metz, with lots of lovely walks to be enjoyed along the riverbanks. During August you can join locals in the Fête de la Mirabelle, celebrating Lorraine’s favourite fruit, the plum – the region accounts for 70% of the world’s plum production. Perhaps the festivities will inspire you to master the speciality of tarte aux mirabelles, or, if you don’t fancy baking, order it in one of many cosy bistros, along with a glass of the traditional eau-de-vie, flavoured with – you guessed it – plums.
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Châteauneu f-en-Auxois in Côte-d’Or 3
The high life: Besançon and the River Doubs from above
Enjoying the café culture on Place du Marché-au-Pain in Troyes
Timeless: Alsace’s countryside is dotted with vineyards, quaint churches and chocolate-box cottages
Picture-perfect: canals in Metz