The good old pays

Be­fore the mod­ern-day re­gions and de­part­ments, France was or­gan­ised in a mul­ti­tude of prov­inces which still have an in­flu­ence to­day, ex­plains So­phie Gard­ner-roberts

French Property News - - Contents - Now

A look at the his­toric prov­inces that live on in the imag­i­na­tion and tourist guides

Can you name all of France’s 13 re­gions? And do you play the game of guess­ing which depart­ment French cars are from ac­cord­ing to the num­ber – 01 to 95 – at the end of their num­ber plates?

If you’ve been house­hunt­ing in France, your knowl­edge of cur­rent French geog­ra­phy might well be ex­cel­lent. How­ever, did you know that France was not al­ways di­vided up this way (ad­min­is­tra­tively I mean)? Less than five years ago, it was com­posed of 22 re­gions. And long be­fore that, pre-1789 Revo­lu­tion, it was sliced up into 40 or so dif­fer­ent prov­inces which all had their own gov­ern­ing bod­ies. In 1790, the Rev­o­lu­tion­ary gov­ern­ment chose to aban­don the old prov­inces to cre­ate new de­part­ments, most of which are still around to­day.

The old province names, how­ever, still linger in our col­lec­tive mem­ory; Provence, Al­sace, Li­mousin, Poitou… you’ve no doubt heard them all. These days how­ever, they don’t al­ways re­fer to pre­cise coun­ties with bor­ders but their her­itage is still very present and alive to­day. Let’s take a closer look at three of these his­toric prov­inces.

Périg­ord Then

This province was named af­ter a Gal­lic tribe called les Pétro­cores – mean­ing ‘the peo­ple of the four armies’ – who lived be­tween the Vézère and Dor­dogne rivers. But the re­gion was in­hab­ited in pre­his­toric times too, which ex­plains the large num­bers of pre­his­toric paint­ings found in lo­cal caves such as Las­caux.

Af­ter the de­feat of the Gal­lic chief Verc­ingé­torix, Périg­ord pros­pered un­der the pax ro­mana but then suf­fered nu­mer­ous in­va­sions and was caught up in var­i­ous power strug­gles. From the 10th cen­tury, a pe­riod of great pros­per­ity saw the con­struc­tion of hun­dreds of beau­ti­ful churches, monas­ter­ies and abbeys, all in the Ro­man Catholic style. Pow­er­ful fam­i­lies came to set­tle as the county was ruled by the Tal­leyrand no­ble line from the 12th cen­tury and com­munes such as Périgueux and Sar­lat grew.

Over the next few cen­turies, the province was bat­tered by con­flict and vi­o­lence: the Hun­dred Years’ War, the wars of reli­gion in France and sev­eral re­bel­lions and their bru­tal re­pres­sion, some­times lean­ing to­wards civil war un­til the French Revo­lu­tion.

Roughly equiv­a­lent to to­day’s Dor­dogne depart­ment, it has al­ways been a ru­ral area with a rich and di­verse land­scape of rolling hills and trick­ling streams. The old province name lingers to­day in many ways.

In the 1990s, the lo­cal tourism board di­vided the Dor­dogne depart­ment into four ‘colours’ to fol­low up on the suc­cess­ful pro­mo­tion of a ‘Périg­ord Noir’.

The Périg­ord Vert (green) is lo­cated in the north and is so called be­cause of the beau­ti­ful green coun­try­side ir­ri­gated by the Dronne, Ban­diat, Au­vézère and Isle rivers and the chest­nut and oak forests that pep­per the land. It cen­tres around the town of Non­tron, a quiet but charm­ing town whose old houses boast pretty colom­bage (half­tim­bered) fa­cades.

In the cen­tre is Périg­ord Blanc (white), around Ribérac and Périgueux, Dor­dogne’s pré­fec­ture. It’s named that way for the lime­stone cliffs and chalky soil found there. South-east is the Périg­ord Noir (black); the dark green tree­tops of hollyoaks and a rich soil gave the area its name as well as the coal mer­chants who used to run busi­nesses in the area. Fi­nally, the Périg­ord Pour­pre (pur­ple), refers to the deep red colours of the vine­yards in au­tumn around the town of Berg­erac.

Périg­ord has also lent its name to lo­cal land­marks such as the Parc Na­turel Ré­gional Périg­ord-li­mousin, a beau­ti­ful pro­tected nat­u­ral area where the di­verse and pic­turesque coun­try­side gives an idea of an au­then­tic ru­ral France where time seems to move at a gen­tler pace. An­other of the area’s claims to fame is the elu­sive black truf­fle, the cov­eted fun­gus that grows at the roots of cer­tain oak trees; the no­ble va­ri­ety is called truffe noire du Périg­ord.

It’s pre­cisely this gen­tler life­style in an un­spoilt coun­try­side that at­tracts many Brits to mod­ern-day Périg­ord. A re­cent anal­y­sis of our prop­erty portal re­vealed that vis­i­tors to Fran­ce­prop­er­ are more than twice as likely to search for Dor­dogne than any other French depart­ment and the portal has close to 2,400 prop­er­ties for sale in the depart­ment.

De­spite its huge pop­u­lar­ity with buy­ers, the av­er­age price for a house re­mains re­mark­ably af­ford­able at €120,000 ac­cord­ing to No­taires de France fig­ures.

An­jou Then

The Andé­cave peo­ple gave their name to this province of the Loire Val­ley and also to the town of Angers, pre­vi­ously named An­de­cavi. Af­ter Ro­man oc­cu­pa­tion, the province was the sub­ject of ri­valry and con­flict be­tween the Francs and the Bre­tons in the Mid­dle Ages.

More no­tably, it was the heart of the Plan­ta­genet em­pire, also called ‘em­pire Angevin’, which was formed by Henry II Plan­ta­genet and stretched from Ire­land to the Pyrénées moun­tains. The em­pire was bro­ken up by Phillip II and An­jou at­tached to the royal do­main in the early 13th cen­tury.

Though it was ceded to France by the Paris treaty in 1259, An­jou passed through three Angevin dy­nas­ties and var­i­ous states of rul­ing be­fore fi­nally be­ing at­tached to the French king­dom in 1480.


Such a past has, of course, left its mark on the land­scape of An­jou which now mainly cor­re­spods to the depart­ment of Maine-etLoire, al­though the old province used to en­com­pass parts of what are now known as the Mayenne, Sarthe, In­dre, Vi­enne and DeuxSèvres de­part­ments.

Lo­cated in the cen­tre of Pays-de-la-loire, the area is home to the Unesco-pro­tected Loire Val­ley and dot­ted with stun­ning châteaux and re­li­gious mon­u­ments from the time of the Plan­ta­genet dy­nas­ties. The cas­tles of Angers and Sau­mur are par­tic­u­larly fa­mous as is the in­cred­i­ble Fon­tevraud Abbey, where Eleanor of Aquitaine, who mar­ried Henry II, is buried.

The An­jou name is still used cul­tur­ally to­day and mostly ap­pears on the la­bels of bot­tles of wine pro­duced here – Maine-et-loire is home to the largest share of Loire Val­ley vine­yards. The land­scape is made up of gen­tly rolling hills with the mighty Loire ir­ri­gat­ing a lush, agri­cul­tural land.

Prop­er­ties in this area are of­ten built with the typ­i­cal white tuffeau stone and An­jou slate roofs mak­ing for very el­e­gant homes, even in the small vil­lages such as Montsoreau, a par­tic­u­larly pic­turesque town near Sau­mur. Some prop­er­ties are even built straight into the rock face: troglodyte homes are lo­cal cu­riosi­ties that at­tract many vis­i­tors and there are some on the mar­ket too. The av­er­age price for prop­er­ties in Maine-et-loire is €148,000.

Béarn Then

The ori­gins of this province can be traced back to the town of Bene­har­num (cur­rently Lescar in Pyrénées-at­lan­tiques) which was oc­cu­pied by a peo­ple called the Ver­nani, the an­ces­tors of the Basques.

It went through var­i­ous states of in­de­pen­dence, from a vis­countcy within the duchy of Gas­cony to a sep­a­rate state, be­fore fi­nally be­ing at­tached to the French crown in the 17th cen­tury when Louis XIII an­nexed the ter­ri­tory.

As a sep­a­rate state, it had its own lan­guage, le­gal frame­work ( fors de Béarn) and cur­rency and was led by Gas­ton Fébus who, among other things, de­clared Béarn’s neu­tral­ity in the Hun­dred Years War – the re­gion pros­pered un­der his rule.

Af­ter the Revo­lu­tion, it was added to about 20 com­munes to form what is now known as the Pyrénées-at­lan­tiques, the Béarn be­ing a small sec­tion in the east of this depart­ment.


Blessed with a stun­ning and di­verse nat­u­ral en­vi­ron­ment, Béarn is a mag­net for green and moun­tain tourism. Oloron-ste-marie serves as a gate­way to the Pyre­nean moun­tains while the val­leys of Os­sau and Aspe of­fer breath­tak­ing scenery and fan­tas­tic walks. The many rivers – known as ‘ gaves’ in the lo­cal di­alect – and springs also make it an im­por­tant

bal­neother­apy and fish­ing des­ti­na­tion. You can go moun­tain bik­ing, walk­ing, horse-rid­ing, fish­ing and hunt­ing in the sum­mer and ski­ing in the win­ter.

The term Pays de Béarn is still used to­day and refers to a group of com­munes that gath­ered to­gether in 2015 in or­der to pro­mote tourism, eco­nomic ac­tiv­ity and ed­u­ca­tion among other things. You’ll also hear it in town names such as the pretty me­dieval vil­lage of Sau­vet­erre-de-béarn.

Its prox­im­ity to Spain, the Basque coun­try and the At­lantic makes it an at­trac­tive lo­ca­tion for a hol­i­day or a for­ever home; the price for a house in the depart­ment of PyrénéesAt­lan­tiques is on av­er­age €213,800.

So­phie Fol­ley has been liv­ing in the area for 13 years and now sells prop­er­ties through her agency So­phie Fol­ley Im­mo­bilier. “The Béarn is a very spe­cial part of France,” she says. “It’s rich in history with some of the most beau­ti­ful ar­chi­tec­ture, stun­ning coun­try­side set against a back­drop of the Pyrénées, and fast-flow­ing rivers with a plen­ti­ful stock of salmon and trout.

“Ide­ally sit­u­ated be­tween the At­lantic Ocean and the moun­tains, it is the per­fect spot for both na­ture lovers and sports fa­nat­ics. With a very pleas­ant cli­mate, mild in the win­ter and not too hot in the sum­mer (thanks to the At­lantic coastal breeze), it re­ally is a great place to live.”

A dra­matic view of the Dor­dogne val­ley from the old vil­lage of Domme

Agri­cul­tural land and old vil­lages are a re­minder of the old Périg­ord province

The me­dieval vil­lage of Castel­naud-la-chapelle, one of France’s Plus Beaux Vil­lages

The old streets of Sar­lat in Dor­dogne

Coteaux du Layon is a fa­mous An­jou wine ap­pel­la­tion

The cas­tle dom­i­nates the town of Sau­mur in the Loire Val­ley

The Pic du Midi d’os­sau dom­i­nates the Gen­tau lake in the Béarn Pyre­nees

The Gave d’oloron and Pont de la Lé­gende in the me­dieval vil­lage of Sau­vet­erre-de-béarn

The start of the Aspe Val­ley from Col du Som­port in Béarn

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