AQUITAINE is the same size as Holland but its landscapes could not be more dissimilar – the 250km of Atlantic coastline, 145,000 hectares of vineyards, 400,000 years of history in the Vézère Valley, 200km of pine forest striding down the coast, or the 110km of Pyrenées mountains from the Basque country to Pau.
The departments of Dordogne, Gironde, Landes, Lot-et-Garonne and Pyrénées-Atlantiques make up the region and it is a favourite with expats, who enjoy the relaxed life and the open countryside.
It has three million inhabitants and the last census showed 6,300 Britons living in Aquitaine, with just more than half in the Dordogne where Bergerac Airport ensures flights, along with Bordeaux, Limoges and the newly opened Brive.
Agen, Arcachon, Bayonne and Bergerac have been found to be the most beautiful cities in the south-west in a study by Crédit Foncier and Paris Dauphine university; however, the study also warned that attractiveness should not be confused with dynamism, a point that will upset Alain Rousset, president of the Conseil Régional de l’Aquitaine.
He said they wanted more innovative work methods and wanted to get away from the institutional deadweight of the rest of France.
Rail access is one of the major changes he wants – to bring more people to the region and take freight off the roads.
It has called for €10 billion to be invested by 2020 to increase rail freight tenfold along the Atlantic route to Spain and Portugal, and cut Bordeaux-Paris to 2hr or 1hr 45min from Bordeaux to Bilbao.
That is for the future, but Aquitaine’s history stretches far back beyond the Hundred Years’ War and Eleanor of Aquitaine.
This month marks the 70th anniversary of the discovery of the Grotte de Lascaux, with its 17,000-year-old cave paintings.
This is only a small part of the Vézère Valley’s past and its place names have taken on a life of their own: Le Moustier gave birth to the Mousterian culture with its flint tools of 100,000-45,000 years ago; the nearby village of Cro-Magnon saw the first remains of modern day man, dating back 40,000 years; and La Madeleine gave us the Magdalenian era and the painters of Lascaux itself.
The Atlantic coast runs from the Basque country in Pyrenées-Atlantiques, along Les Landes and up to the Gironde (where new land has been born as a sand island has sprung up at the mouth of the river near the Cordouan lighthouse); inland there are 500km of shores on lakes and estuaries.
It is a magnificent waterfront exposure, giving world-class surfing at Biarritz and the Unesco World Heritage site in the riverside medieval architecture of Bordeaux.
It is water, too, that, with the 2,200 hours of sunshine a year, makes Aquitaine one big vineyard.
Viticulture is 39% of farm production and is significant in the tourist economy: vines and wines bring in visitors and buyers, who bring in custom for gites and hotels, which brings in work for artisans and household staff in the nearby villages in the classic tourist business equation.
Even Europe’s biggest forest, in the Landes, has room for vines and the sand wines of Chalosse and Adour vie for space with kiwi fruit and asparagus.
Food is at the heart of Aquitaine and whether you opt for Arcachon oysters (try with local crepinettes flat sausage) or foie gras for the first course, you can make an endless menu from the foods here.
What brings people to Aquitaine is the peaceful life and, although there is crime like everywhere else, many foreign residents say it is less than they would have expected in the UK – although they also admit they do not read French papers very much.
WHY WE LIVE HERE
Christine and Ian Couper
HAVING lived for more than 20 years near Reading, Christine and Ian Couper had a specific idea of their ideal new home: in the country but near a main city, close to the sea and far enough south to enjoy sunny weather.
They fell in love with Bordeaux and Tabanac, 25km to the south, and in 2002 moved to the village of little more than a thousand souls.
Mrs Couper, originally from Derbyshire, said: “We spent two months in Bordeaux looking for a property and loved it from the minute we got here.
“Bordeaux is a jewel and there is so much going on and it is so safe.
“Just to go and be in Bordeaux is such a pleasure. It is the most glorious place.”
It has a lot to offer: a Unesco World Heritage site since 2007, it has undergone a massive redevelopment and, aside from architecture, it has a vast range of cultural events.
The couple go there several times a week for shopping, version originale cinema and Mrs Couper’s passion: the choir, where she has joined the Ensemble Vocal d’Aquitaine: finding a good choir was one of her priorities.
Mr Couper was quite easily pleased: he just wanted the sea. Brought up in Bournemouth, he wanted to sail and joined a club in Arcachon.
“We’ve been very welcome. We absolutely did not want an English community; we wanted to live in a French area, and this place is not hostile to foreigners,” Mrs Couper said.
“It is the most beautiful countryside, with the most fabulous views, it’s really peaceful, there is lots of wildlife, and the migratory birds fly over.
“It’s just fabulous and yet we are only within 25 minutes of Bordeaux. Where we live is perfect.”
The transition has been helped by their good relationship with respected characters in the village and their efforts to be involved in local life.
Mrs Couper was elected as a conseillère municipal and has now got to know “virtually everyone”. She said: “After a couple of years of being here, it was my husband’s birthday and the mayor at the time came with six bottles of champagne. Everyone has been like that: very friendly!”
They said the cultural differences were hard to start with: “Culturally, English and French are miles apart, oceans apart. English people are very attracted by the French lifestyle, but do not know how to live it.”
Their favourite places are Cap Ferret, the countryside and markets such as the bastide towns of Cadillac and Créon. “There’s also an ancient boatyard on the Garonne, Les Chantiers Tramasset; it’s the only one left.”
Retired from marketing and IT, Christine and Ian Couper now run a gîte: “It is nice to have somewhere for friends to stay, but we also get people from all over the world: Can-ada, Australia, South Africa.”
Mrs Couper is vice-president of Tabanac Association Sportive et Culturelle and says club life has helped them settle in. “Rather than go to an event and be there, I like to do something.
“I prefer to be behind the counter serving drinks, because that way I can meet everybody. It’s my way of getting over my shyness.”
WE moved to the south of France 22 years ago, because our son had asthma and life in London was making it worse. So we chose the area that was said to have the cleanest water and air in France; Pau was brilliant because my son, James, is now 21 and has no illness.
The move was a big decision, because my husband and I had flower shops in London and we had to sell up, but we fully intended to start in business again in France. It was just a question of what we would do.
There were fewer Britons than there are now and I had very little French, but I found work with an estate agent and did exhibitions and such like and then set up a chambre d’hôtes and gites with a pool. We were determined to work.
However, my husband and I split in 1992 and I had to keep myself going. I got a series of jobs that left me with a large group of new French friends.
First there was a stage organised through my social worker, then I got a job in a boulangerie, which lasted for about three years. The strangest and funniest job was working in a latex factory, where I found myself making latex canoes for the likes of the SAS.
That was in the Pays Basques and I made a lot of very good friends there.
At the moment, I am working in a garden centre and, looking back, one of the hardest things was learning French, but it has completely changed my life. I think it’s disrespectful to come and live here and not bother to learn the language. You can’t just bring the UK to France; it’s not England with sunshine.
I love that I can speak to French people and get invited to their houses. This is a new life and I like the way of life, especially in this area, although it was very difficult at first.
My biggest achievement has been getting my independence fiscally and work-wise, but also being integrated. Now I am bilingual I have never been offered so many jobs as in the past couple of years.
Some people talk about liking the long lunch hours, but the other side is the sheer hell of bureaucracy; even the French find it difficult.
This is a wonderful area: France has the same population as the UK, but it has five times more room. One of my favourite days out is to go to the Pyrenées, where it is so clear and fresh.
My children are settled: daughter Katy is managing a brasserie in Bordeaux and James has just finished his diploma and I am so proud they are bilingual; James is also fluent in Spanish.
I can’t see me ever going back to the UK. In fact, I’m looking to move next to a bigger place with a bit of land. Land is cheap just now.
John and Diana Coulson
John and Diana Coulson moved to the Dordogne in 1999, 10 years after buying a second home with a group of business partners.
The group of three solicitors from Devon each had their own ideas on where was the best area to be; with choices ranging from Brittany to Provence, they went for the Dordogne as the middle option.
But their first efforts at property hunting in the late 1980s turned to nothing as they realised that all the property details they had been sent were out of date.
“The properties we visited were either already sold or did not exist.
“One lesson learnt – do not ask for details to be sent to you in England; it does not work,” Mr Coulson said.
In 1989, after this early failure, Mr Coulson's partners began their own research and came across the couple’s current home, a house in a tiny village next to the Lot border.
Mr and Mrs Coulson bought it without even having seen it, taking a risk that they have not regretted.
Four years later, the couple decided they wanted the house for themselves and bought out their partners. They continued living in the UK while letting it out as a holiday home.
When they finally moved to the Dordogne, in 1999, the couple started on renovation work, but what should have been a happy time turned into a nightmare.
“We had a kitchen that was put in very badly; tiling which a child could have done better; radiators and a boiler stolen; the list goes on.”
However, they kept focused on the life they wanted and did not give up on their project at the first hurdle: “It did not put us off France, but came close.”
Today, their advice for prospective buyers is to choose your artisans carefully and, where possible, go for French workers with a good local knowledge.
They also advise to check that workers have a Siret number before hiring.
Mr Coulson worked as an estate agent dealing with British customers in France, but left in 2002 and the couple took over a small holiday letting agency.
Managing 20 properties in Cahors, Sarlat, Domme, Bergerac and Gourdon, the couple are as busy as ever, but they insist they enjoy the challenge.
“It is a 24/7 job with no fixed hours. Business comes with us wherever we go, but it keeps us out of mischief and means we meet lots of interesting people, both French and English.”
Today, Mr Coulston is happy with the change. “For me, the quality of life in France is better than in England. There is far less traffic, which makes driving much more pleasurable, while eating out, especially at lunchtime, can be achieved without having to take out a mortgage – a four-course menu du jour for around €11 vin compris can’t be bad; and the food is good,” he said.
“We make an effort to join in village life and enjoy the village social events, especially the chasse lunch – hilarious!”
WHAT'S THE PROPERTY MARKET LIKE?
Ken Seaton speaks to Charles Gilooley, vice-president of the estate agents’ federation FNAIM in Aquitaine
What is the market in Aquitaine like?
AQUITAINE is such an enormous area – the third largest area in France – so there are large differences between the departments, between the cities and towns and even between the cities themselves.
It has two main areas: Bordeaux and what is known as the BAB megapolis of Bayonne, Anglet and Biarritz.
Bordeaux is the centre of Aquitaine and its capital, and its enormous housing market means that any statistics for Aquitaine are statistics for the market in Bordeaux. This is a problem when a client comes to me and says, “But house prices in Aquitaine are up”, and I have to explain that prices may be up in Bordeaux but not where they are.
After Bordeaux comes BAB, which is also very busy, and then the departmental capitals of Périgueux for the Dordogne, Mont-de-Marsan for the Landes and Agen for Lot-et-Garonne.
The Bordeaux market is doing well, but the poorer relations are not. Pau, on the other hand is pulling its socks up and doing reasonably OK.
Mont-de-Marsan has always been the poor relation in housing terms: the Landes has the coast, with its expensive seaside resorts, but inland the department is pretty dull, like much of Lot-et-Garonne.
It is not one of the “in” places to be, unlike Pau.
Arcachon, Biarritz and Hossegor are all the chic places that are doing very well, but they are still performing below what they would have done years ago.
Inland areas, such as rural Dordogne, rural Landes, rural Lot-et-Garonne and to a certain extent the area north of Pau are not doing anything at all, and are slipping back even further.
Pyrenées is not too bad, although the Basque country is always expensive, but the foothills are good.
Rural estate agents are not happy; the only things that are selling are houses at the bottom end of the market.
Three or four years ago, we had a good trade in prices in the €200,000-250,000 range and we had some nice ones at €400,000-500,000, but nowadays most of the demand is under e150,000.
We don’t have properties at that, but more to the point we don’t have nice properties at that price.
The holiday home market on the coast is happy and holiday rentals are picking up, but they are still selling cheaper.
So the top of the market is good, as is the bottom, but the middle market is where we do most business and it is missing.
How have the past two years been?
Dordogne has dropped about 20% in two years (30% in three years), but that applies to the country areas: the towns are down about 10%. Bordeaux has some quarters that are not very nice, but some areas are very chic and their prices have gone up. Over the past year, prices may have gone up 10%, but that may still be a drop over three years.
The market types are all very different, and the housing needs and people’s abilities to pay are completely different.
We did see a bit of an improvement last winter, which was unexpected, but there was no increased take-up at Easter, which would have shown if the market was getting better. It is very difficult.
What are your predictions?
Property is not going down any more, so it will eventually go up, but, as we sell one property, another one or two come on the market – so we are not managing to diminish the stock of houses. There is still too much supply for the small demand, so that will not push prices up.
Arcachon, Agen, Bayonne and Bergerac are said to be the most sought-after places for homes in a recent study – why is that?
Arcachon is one of France’s most sought-after towns, as is Bayonne, but, as for Agen and Bergerac, there is no obvious reason. Bergerac is a nice area to live, providing you do not have to work, and it has its airport and rail links, but there’s nothing to draw people.
How important are foreign buyers to the area?
Dordogne has the most foreign buyers, followed by BAB and the Landes coast, but on the Gironde coast, apart from Arcachon, there are few British.
However, there are a lot in Bordeaux. There are few British people in Lot-et-Garonne or the Landes, but there are quite a few in the Pau area because of the Ryanair effect.
There is a noticeable north-south movement as people head south for their own quality of life reasons.
What tips would you give to people looking to buy?
They must decide if they are coming to live and work, or live and retire. If they are coming without the need to work – for the lifestyle – the Pyrenées foothills and Pau are very attractive.
Dordogne is a bit of a backwater and you have to be self-sufficient intellectually, as there is not very much to do in the long winters.
If you are a town person, you would need to go to Bordeaux or one of the other big towns for cultural life. However, Bordeaux is extremely expensive, as are its suburbs.
If you are looking for work, you need to look to the major cities as there is none anywhere else.
Bordeaux is the biggest employer, with new technology jobs such as aerospace.
If you are a worker and highly qualified, you will probably succeed in Bordeaux, but you will have to live there.
As for sellers, they have to get the house tidy and clean, and also give it an edge on price. It doesn’t need to be much but it can make a difference. Just look at what is on agents’ websites and see how your property compares – then improve it so it is that little bit better than the competition.
DON'T MISS THESE
Enjoy the product of 140,000 hectares of vines: The Gironde alone has 117,300 hectares of vines, with the 57 appellations in Bordeaux and 20 in other areas. It is the world’s largest fine-wine production region, with names like St Emilion, Chateau Yquem, Lafite-Rothschild and Margaux. Try vinotherapy at Caudalie, Chateau Smith-Haut-Lafitte, with the Sauvignon massage and vine-tendril draining.
See man’s earliest artworks: The Grotte de Lascaux II replica at Montignac has been built 200m from the original site to showcase the works from the Discovered in 1940, Lascaux has 200 paintings and 1,500 engravings, but has been closed since 1963 as the artworks were being damaged.
Check out today’s Bordeaux herd
Artists have created 60 different designs of cows which go on display throughout the city and will be auctioned off for the Banque Alimentaire de Bordeaux et de Gironde at the end of this month
Take a train to the heights of the Pyrenées: La Rhune is the lowest Pyrenéean peak at 905m, but is the easiest to climb on the Train de La Rhune. The 4.2km rack and pinion railway hauls 350,000 visitors a year and gives spectacular views over the mountains, the ocean and the Basque coastal plain. Take the train up and try the walking trails at the top – or stroll back to St Jean-de-Luz. Tickets are €14 return or €11 one-way.
DID YOU KNOW?
Pau is oldest golf club: Two Scottish officers did not let the Napoleonic wars get in the way of their golf practice when they served with the Duke of Wellington’s army. They set up a practice area at Pau and, years later, returned with friends and founded Pau Golf Club in 1856, making it the oldest club in continental Europe. By this time, Pau had a growing British community and the site, with its backdrop of the Pyrenées, was perfect for a golf course. The second club to be started in France is also in Aquitaine: Biarritz Le Phare was founded in 1888
Cordouan lighthouse: This is the oldest lighthouse in France, being started in 1584. Cordouan is 7km out to sea at the mouth of the Gironde and has been called the Versailles of the Sea because of its lavish interior decoration. It stands 68m high and has 311 steps leading to a chapel on the first floor and, further up, the so-called King’s Bedroom for Louis XIV. It is the last lighthouse in France to have a keeper.
Dune of Pyla/Pilat: Taller than the Cordouan lighthouse is the Dune du Pyla or Pilat, which stands in the middle of 250km of Atlantic coastline – and arrow-straight beaches. It is 104m high and you can climb to the top to get a view over the Atlantic, Arcachon Bay and the Landes forest. The dune is 2.5km long and 500m wide.
Traditional pelota: Fast reactions are needed to play pelota, the traditional Basque game, as the ball can reach 300kph. Played bare-handed or with bats called chistera or cesta punta, it is a descendant of real tennis. It is thought the word “tennis” comes from the French word “tenez”, said to an opponent when the ball was served. The pelota pitch, with its fronton wall, is the centre of many villages in southern Aquitaine.