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
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.
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 Francepropertyshop.com 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.
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.
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