Provence: village life and second homes in the south of France

Made famous by Matisse and Cézanne, the gems of southern France to find holiday homes are Avignon, Aix and St Rémy.
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With Marseille as this year's European Capital of Culture, the spotlight has fallen firmly on Provence, the much-hyped, yet rarely oversold pleasure zone of southern France.

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Enjoy life at a slower pace - a street café on the Cours Mirabeau in the historic and popular centre of Aix-en-Provence

There's much more to the region than the siren call of the Cote d'Azur. The vines, the lavender, the extraordinary light that mesmerised Matisse and Cézanne: travel inland from the coast to the Alpilles and the Luberon and there they all are in small market towns and mellowstone villages.

The golden triangle around Avignon, Aix-en-Provence and St Rémy is where demand for inland property is highest. Marseille, France's second city, is the gateway for flights but with direct high-speed trains in summer from London to Avignon, getting there is easy.

Life in Les Alpilles
South of Avignon and east of Arles, the Alpilles has no cities but still provides vibrant, year-round life. This was home to Vincent van Gogh for many years. He painted Starry Night, argued with Gauguin and sliced off his ear all in St Rémy, the region's main town.

The landscape is one of tall plane trees marshalled into symmetrical lines beside country roads, distant mountains — including Cézanne's often-painted Mont St Victoire — and field on field of silver-green olive groves.

Most holiday home property hunts focus on Maussane, Eygalières and St Rémy, pretty villages with weekly markets and summer festivals where locals gather in central squares to play boules.

A two-bedroom, ivy-wrapped house in Eygalières with a courtyard garden is £758,300, while a fourbedroom mas (farmhouse) renovated in Provençal style with stone walls and floors and wooden beams is £763,220, both through Knight Frank.

£898,000: a 1780 Fontvielle townhouse with a courtyard garden. Through Winkworth (020 8576 5582)
Inland beauty: Alpilles
Londoner Nick Morris and his partner, Andrea, have lived in the Alpilles for seven years and run a five-bedroom hotel in the centre of Le Paradou near Maussane. "The Riviera is overpriced and overbuilt and the infrastructure struggles to cope, while the Luberon is seasonal," says Nick. "Inland this is the most beautiful part and an easy place to live. Our village has a butcher, baker and even two British doctors who qualified at Barts."

Nick is selling his beautiful hotel, rated one of the top 10 per cent worldwide on TripAdvisor, for £2.3 million. The former coaching inn dates from 1699, has a well-laid out garden with pool, and could easily become a family house.

Enjoy traditional Luberon
The Luberon is north of Aix and east of Avignon. It is green and hilly, even more seasonal than the Alpilles, certainly more traditional and less glitzy with property prices 15 to 20 per cent lower. The names to know include the villages of Gordes, Bonnieux and Lourmarin.

"Most buyers want three- or four-bedroom character homes close to a village where they can see and smell Provençal life," says Rudi Janssens of agent Janssens Immobilier. "These older farmhouses with land start from £1 million, quickly rising to £1.3 million."

Newer, compact and simply finished Provençal-style homes of 1,292sq ft with garden and pool cost from £424,000 and are selling well in villages including Lacoste and Minerve, says Janssens. In Gordes, where most of the properties are built from the pale natural stone, prices are about 20 to 30 per cent higher.

£843,000: a three-bedroom farmhouse, two miles from Avignon with lovely gardens and a pool. Through Winkworth (020 8576 5582)
Aix marks the spot
Aix is a fountain-filled town of festivals and museums with standout markets most days of the week. It's also a student town — known as the brainiest in France — with a safe, historical centre.

"A real mix of nationalities buys in Aix," says Roddy Aris of Winkworth France. "Many live there for part of the year, enrolling their children in the international school. Connections are very practical. The TGV goes direct to Paris in less than three hours and Marseille airport is 20 minutes away."

Small apartments in the old centre start from £424,000 for 645 square feet and are popular for long-term lets, in a town where parking remains a problem.

For the past five years, new developments around La Rotunde, the main fountain, have successfully lured residents back to the centre. Two- and three-bedroom apartments there start from £583,600, says Janssens.

Bright light lifestyle outshines tax uncertainty
Provence's refined pleasures shine so brightly that even French president François Hollande's oscillations on tax reform struggle to dim them. It's at the top of the market — £2.5 million plus — where property agent Rudi Janssens has seen most problems, due to a poor exchange rate and tax uncertainty.

"Wealthy buyers organise their tax affairs carefully but the climate created by Hollande's government means that it isn't impossible that new taxes will be imposed next year," says Janssens.

Yet it's the lifestyle that makes the south of France so appealing. Knight Frank says viewings of French property doubled from the final quarter of last year in the first three months this year. Further good news last month, that capital gains tax for second homes will taper down to zero after 22 years instead of the current 30 years, could also encourage more buyers.

* Janssens Immobilier and Knight Frank: 020 7629 8171;
* Winkworth France: 020 8576 5582;

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