A home in the hills
For a natural high, head to the Haut-languedoc Natural Regional park, where outdoor activities and property opportunities abound, reports Carolyn Reynier
Head to the Haut-languedoc regional park for a natural high
If you’re hankering for a home in the hills, surrounded by lakes, rivers and streams, where the air is pure and fresh, yet not a million miles from the Mediterranean, this is the place for you. The Parc Naturel Régional du Haut-languedoc – 306,000 hectares rising from 56m to 1,267m altitude – is in the Occitanie region, to the west of Montpellier.
Lovers of nature and the Great Outdoors need look no further. We’re off to find your perfect property or beautiful bolthole around the two mountain ranges of the Monts de Lacaune in the Tarn department, and the Monts de l’espinouse in Hérault.
Situated on a watershed, with water draining into the Atlantic on one side and the Mediterranean on the other, the park has many waterfalls and gorges, offering canyoning and kayaking for the more adventurous. There are beaches and nautical bases offering all manner of water-based activities, including sailing and water-skiing on the blue lakes of Raviège and Laouzas. Roam through green forests, across heather-mauve moorland, bocage (hedged fields), and wooded countryside, on foot, horseback or mountain bike.
This is a land of ancient villages and standing stones, of Protestant temples, chapels and churches. The diverse flora and fauna includes the Mediterranean mouflon (a wild sheep) in the Réserve Nationale de Chasse, and close by, at the eastern end of the Monts de l’espinouse, you have the Mont Caroux and the Héric gorges.
I have chosen to focus on two centres: Lacaune in the south-east corner of Tarn and La Salvetat-sur-agout to the south, in Hérault.
A warm welcome
Lacaune is a former spa town renowned for its hams and charcuterie, which have obtained an IGP, Indication Géographique Protégée. The oceanic and Mediterranean influences of this mountain territory’s climate are perfect for the drying and maturing of Lacaune’s hams, saucisses and saucissons. The Peyro Levado nearby is one of largest menhirs in Europe.
The main township in the Monts de Lacaune, Lacaune lies at an altitude of 850m. Although its thermal heydays of the late 19th/early 20th centuries are long gone, the warm spring waters remain and the creation of the communauté de communes brought with it the Espaces des Sources Chaudes, a magnificent ensemble of inside and outside pools, hot tubs, sauna and water slide.
There are lots of associations in this little Tarn town which is surrounded by forests, woods and lakes, and not far from Aveyron, says Francoise Desclais-boudal of 3G Immo Consultant. Snow can fall in winter which allows you to make use of ski slopes and snow shoe paths on the Col Piquotalen, at an altitude of 1,100m on the road to La Salvetat-sur-agout.
The middle mountain cow-scattered terrain of the Monts de Lacaune offers good walking for the more energetic. You may also come face to face with the Lacaune breed of ewes whose milk makes that tangy king of blue cheeses, Roquefort, in Aveyron. Forest forays will fill your frying pan with fabulous fungi. To the south-east, bordering Hérault, is the 323ha Lac du Laouzas.
“The area is popular with folk living elsewhere in the region – Marseille, Montpellier, Albi and Castres – who buy second homes here in search of the tranquillity and freshness of our mountains,” Françoise tells me. The local economy is fuelled by the salaison, salting and curing of pork to produce charcuterie, and the nearby Sidobre granite quarry. Employees of both industries are clients for main homes in the sector. There is a Sunday morning market and a monthly fair on the third Saturday.
Françoise receives requests for four main types of property. Terraced and slate-roofed village houses, with or without a terrace or garden, restored or for renovation, sell for €30,000-€50,000. People working at the curers or quarries with a budget of €140,000€200,000 are clients for detached three/ four-bedroom properties with some land.
For €40,000-€80,000 you can also find rustic stone houses – not necessarily large – with a fireplace, land and no neighbours, which may require renovation. If you are looking for something larger in a similar rural location, a budget of €150,000-€250,000 could buy you a stone agricultural property with a minimum of 10 hectares of woodland or meadows.
Journey’s end We head south now into Hérault to La Salvetat-sur-agout, which is traversed by the long-distance GR653 hiking path, one of the Santiago de Compostela pilgrimage routes. It hosts a variety of musical, poetry and country dancing festivals. The main economic activities are La Salvetat lightly sparkling mineral water, forest and woodland management, and, happily, there are still two remaining mountain charcuterie producers.
Two watersports centres – Les Bouldouïres and the Gua des Brasses – on the banks of the Raviège lake, the largest on the Plateau des Lacs, offer a variety of watersports (only jet skis are prohibited). If you prefer to be on land, you can ramble, ride or mountain bike through deep forests or alongside lakes and rivers where you can catch trout, perch and pike.
There are relatively gentle walks on the Somail massif to the south and the Plateau des Lacs, with more demanding hikes to the east on the massifs of Mont Caroux and the Espinouse summit (1,124m). The useful mushroom page on the La Salvetat website will help you identify your ceps from your chanterelles, and your morels from your pied-de-mouton.
La Salvetat-sur-agout is a large medieval village of 1,200 inhabitants, says Isabelle Barthez of the Cabinet Immobilier Peltier Barthez. During the religious wars, the original 11th-century upper part of the village, lying at 800m, was a place of refuge for the local population. Here you have small stone
slate-roofed terraced houses at least three storeys high, with one small room circa 15m2 per floor. Generally, these old houses have no gardens although there are little squares nearby almost everywhere.
Owners are elderly and many houses are in a poor state of repair, adds Isabelle. When properties come onto the market, prices can start as low as €20,000, rising to an average of €60,000 once renovated.
Of the 50 or so houses here, there are around 10 or so larger properties (100-150m2), still without a garden but with one or two larger rooms and corridor per floor. These sell for around €100,000.
Around 150m lower down, large functional houses with three or four bedrooms and garden were built in the 1950s-60s and are priced around €140,000. Both upper and lower town have shops. “We have two different lives – the upper quarter and the lower quarter. And the inhabitants are lazy, everything is accessible by car,” laughs Isabelle. “Even in the upper village; the roads are very narrow but you can drive through them.”
Happiness is a hamlet Leave La Salvetat and you find a different way of life in the many surrounding hamlets. In times gone by there were lots of farmers, now less numerous, and so these hamlets, some with up to 50 houses, were very active, she explains. There are no shops but you will usually find an area for playing pétanque; it is “a very, very distinctive way of life.”
You can find small houses with a bit of garden and larger properties with land. If you are looking for a renovation project, you could pick up a property requiring work for around €50,000. Attractive well-renovated stone houses can sell for €200,000-€250,000.
Want a lake view? Then head for Lac de la Raviège. Its construction was terminated in 1957, Isabelle explains, and since the 1985 Loi Montagne, building around the lake has been prohibited. This means these private lakeside properties, mainly built just after the dam, attract a premium. Each year there may be a couple of houses on the market – with direct access to the lake and pontoon for your boat – selling on average for €200,000-€250,000.
Old farm buildings for conversion are rare. The prevailing spirit in the Parc is to preserve nature, explains Isabelle: “We don’t want indiscriminate construction.” Most vacant farms are in natural or agricultural zones so the PLU (Plan Local d’urbanisme), the local urban master plan, does not authorise renovation if they have been uninhabited for a long time so they fall into ruin. Isabelle did recently sell a large old farmhouse with outbuildings and 25 hectares for about €250,000.
Viva la différence Head east and you arrive at fragrantly flower-filled Fraisse-sur-agout, a completely different village from La Salvetat, says Isabelle, even if it’s only 10km away. There are just a couple of shops; it’s smaller and quiet. In the centre, there are perhaps a maximum of 30 old village houses; modern housing developments were built in the 1970s-80s. In general, prices are higher than in La Salvetat.
There are various villages and hamlets which are particularly popular with prospective purchasers. Have a look at Moulières by the lake, heading west towards the Tarn and, just over the border, Le Rouquié in the commune of Lamontélarié. Larger Condax is lively and popular. Also worth checking out is Le Rieu, between La Salvetat and the Lac du Laouzas.
The regional park offers an excellent array of outdoor activities, with each area offering something different, says Isabelle. Places like Le Saut de Vésoles are very wild, for example. “You can walk round the little lake; it’s superb,” she says. Nearby the 75km Passapaïs walking and cycling path runs from Mazamet in the west to Bédarieux at the eastern edge of the park.
Most of Isabelle’s clients are holiday home buyers – the population increases three or four-fold during the summer. They all come in search of a quality of life which is completely different from home. So for lovers of nature and the Great Outdoors, it has to be the Parc Naturel Régional du Haut-languedoc – the natural choice.
Walking in Haut-languedoc, overlooking Lac du Laouzas