I have just found a gem of an area in France and, if it is fabulous in February — with a remorselessly icy wind blowing from the Pyrenees — then it’s going to be amazing in spring. I refer to the Alpes-de-Haute-Provence in south-eastern France, and specifically to the pretty medieval town of Uzès in La Gard. It’s on the other side of the Rhône from the Côte d’Azur and what a difference a river makes.
This area does not include an over-priced, haughty coastline colonised by rich Britons and even richer Russians. Property prices seem more than manageable for a holiday home and the location is a joy, especially if you are a train-loving Londoner.
Uzès is 45 minutes from Avignon, served weekly direct by Eurostar from £99 return from St Pancras. For £124 return, I boarded a Eurostar at 2.30pm and was embarking on a glass of fruity white Rhône Valley Lirac and a baguette with creamy local goats cheese by 10.30pm.
I love the high-speed journey that dropped me at Avignon, a new sleek steel station outside the town, so no hassle with traffic as I made the simple journey to Uzès, west of Avignon.
Oysters, olive oil and truffles
Famous for its olive oil, silk mills and stockings, at this time of year black truffles are the star of the Uzès marketplace, where this pungent fungus will set you back £865 a kilo. It grows all over southern France but the focus from November till March is on Uzès. At the peak of the season the annual Sunday market is devoted to the black stuff.
In place of pigs, hunters now use dogs to throw up the soil and uncover these fragrant tubers, in all sizes, that lurk beneath tree roots in truffle plantations.
Jack — a white, fluffy, twitchy-nosed large poodle cross — found the truffle I bought for £10.50. I brought it home to the UK in a sealed jar and shaved it, earthy and pungent, into buttery, creamy scrambled eggs — a uniquely delicious combination.
Food, is of course, part of La Gard, an area dripping in history. If you like small towns and big villages stuffed with Romanesque architecture, milky limestone buildings, polished-cobble streets, marble squares and local shops, Uzès is your oyster — literally. Find mountains of them in the market.
I stayed at the Hotel Entraigues, a friendly, four-star, quiet and gentle hostelry, albeit with an unpronounceable name, in the historic heart of Uzès. Run by kind people who are keen on their food and local wines, the hotel includes an unpretentious restaurant in a building cut from ancient stone.
Townhouses in local stone
In the centre of this small town stands the towering glory of a handsome church with a very fine 11th-century Tour Fenestrelle, or “Window Tower”. You can walk to the celebrated market, full of fine, fresh food, local linen and pottery, and to restaurants and small shops. There’s no winding hilltop agony for motorists, and wide country lanes around here offer local life in abundance without driving miles.
The area’s variety doesn’t disappoint, and it is a dream for house hunters. You can buy bigger and pay about £520,000 and live in Avignon or Arles, or enjoy gracious, less expensive Nîmes, at £300,000 for a decent townhouse. It’s a city that has really pulled up its socks as it goes for World Heritage status, with its peerless Roman amphitheatre.
For sea views, head for the medieval fortress town of Aigues-Mortes on the far western edge of the petite Camargue, with its black bulls, pink flamingos and white horses. Stop for a plate of anchovies, little olives and creamy cod purée, then browse a local estate agent’s window. I met a London woman who last year bought a four-bedroom village house here for £130,000. She is perfectly placed near the airport in Nîmes.
I could be out of London on a Friday morning, on a straight-through train to Avignon, then make the short journey to my weekend home in Uzès.
I fell for a four-bedroom townhouse there, thoughtfully modernised in local stone, with a pool, for £330,000. If you could cope without a pool, there was a really nice, move-in ready stone townhouse with three spacious bedrooms for £345,000.
For my weekend I might visit the pottery village of Saint Quentin-la-Potèrie, stroll through the springtime flora and fauna of the Rhône riverbank or plunder the Uzès Saturday market in the Place aux Herbes, where I’d be sure to bump into a friend for a Kir in one of the market square cafés.
Avignon is served weekly by direct Eurostar from £99 return from London St Pancras (voyages-sncf.com)