Sunshine, Sea & Ski

Sunshine, Sea & Ski

A profound dislike of the cold and a yearning for long, sun-drenched days brought Louise Sayers to the Pyrénées-Orientales region of France five years ago.

With their car packed to the roof with belongings, Louise and her husband Mark arrived in France’s southernmost département in April 2003 after a grueling journey the length and breadth of the country. They weren’t disappointed. The sun shone brightly overhead as they unloaded the remnants of their old life into the start of something new.

Sayers freely admits that it wasn’t the most well-thought-out plan. “There was one reason and one reason alone why I came to the area, and that was my hatred of the cold. I wanted to live somewhere in France where I could enjoy maximum sun and the shortest winters possible. I knew very little about the place except that it was as far south as you can go in France.”

Fortunately, her instincts were right on. The Pyrénées-Orientales, the Eastern Pyrenees, is said to be the warmest and driest area of France, with more than 300 days of sunshine every year. Its proximity to Spain means that the area not only benefits from fine weather, but also from the warmth of the Catalan heritage that permeates all aspects of life, notably the architecture and the cuisine.

The département numbered 66 is part of the larger Roussillon region, which covers just over 4,000 square kilometers (1,544 sq mi) and is home to some 400,000 people, making it one of the smallest departments in France.

There is much more to this corner of France, tucked snugly in between the Pyrenees and the Mediterranean Sea, than its wonderful weather-as Sayers, a former London TV researcher, discovered to her delight when she moved there lock, stock and barrel. “It has so much more to offer than just good weather. In fact, I’d say that there is very little that the area hasn’t got,” says Sayers, who with her husband now runs a real estate business from Perpignan, the department’s administrative center.

Undoubtedly one of the area’s winning features is its long stretch of Mediterranean coastline, which has remained largely undeveloped in comparison to its more glamorous neighbor, the Côte d’Azur. Prices are a lot more accessible too. Studios in the resort town of Argelès-sur-Mer, on the stunning Côte Vermeille where picturesque beaches are interspersed with idyllic seaside towns, currently go for about €70,000 ($109,000), while a villa with a swimming pool in the hugely popular port of Collioure could reach in excess of €400,000 ($624,000).

Collioure-famous for captivating Picasso and Matisse as well as for producing some of the world’s finest anchovies-is quite rightly known as the jewel in the crown of the Pyrénées- Orientales and is already a firm favorite with both Europeans and Americans.

“The property hot spot in this area is without doubt Collioure,” says Neil Hitchen, of Agence Paradise. “That and about four or five other towns such as Port Vendres and Banyuls-sur-Mer. It’s quite rare to have an old town on the coast in this part of France. Most seaside towns tend to be more modern, but Collioure, for example, was a port in the Middle Ages. That’s reflected in its prices in comparison to other resorts in the area,” he adds. “I have had a few American clients, but they tend to want to keep Collioure a secret from the rest of America.”

Another major attraction of the area is the mountains, which dominate the skyline as you look south towards Spain. “Flying in to Perpignan airport you can’t miss snow-capped Mount Canigou as you disembark,” says Sayers. “I have always been a beach babe myself, so I was really surprised to find that the mountains have surreptitiously wormed their way into my affections.”

At 2,784 meters (9,133 ft) the majestic Pic du Canigou, the sacred mountain peak of Catalonia, is a stunning backdrop to the foothills and their picturesque towns and villages, which are starting points for some of Europe’s best outdoor activities including hiking, cycling and horseback riding. The nearest ski resorts in the Pyrenees, at Font Romeu and Les Angles, are within a 90-minute drive from Perpignan.

Perhaps the most sought-after inland town in this area is Céret, a picturesque place that effortlessly marries all the charms of a rural idyll with the hustle and bustle of a thriving community. The town, surrounded on all sides by cherry orchards and rolling hills enjoys almost year-round sunshine and there can be few better places to while away the hours drinking a glass of wine than the cafés that line Céret’s cobbled squares.

The largest town in the valley of the river Tech, Céret has a distinctly Catalan flavor and a bohemian atmosphere, partly due to its modern art museum that celebrates the town’s artistic heritage, in which Picasso and Dalí both played their parts.

House prices, of course, are rising with its popularity. “They are not cheap,” says Sayers. “Prices have rocketed over the last few years, fuelled largely by foreign buyers. That said, the market has leveled off in the last year or so, after the folly of previous years.” For example, a recently renovated two-bedroom apartment in the center of town is currently on the market for €231,000 ($356,000).

Another magical town in the Tech Valley is the spa resort of Amélie-les-Bains, where prices are slightly less inflated. Here a one-bedroom apartment with a terrace or a two-bedroom village house in need of renovation would run somewhere around  €100,000 ($156,000).

Patrick Vila, of Rev’immo, has been selling houses in Amélie-les-Bains for more than 15 years, and has seen an explosion in demand. “Amélie-les-Bains is a thermal town, and we do work with a lot of people from the north of France, who come here for the climate. But we also deal with queries from a number of foreigners looking to buy in the area.”

Slightly north of the Tech Valley lies the parallel Têt Valley, an area which has also become increasingly popular with overseas buyers in recent years for its equidistance between the Pyrenean ski resorts and the Mediterranean coast. One of the major hotspots here is Prades, an attractive town not unlike Céret, with a slightly rawer edge, best known for its Pablo Casals music festival with dozens of concerts in town and at the stunning mountaintop abbey of St. Michel de Cuxa nearby (July 26-Aug 13 this year). Prices in the Têt Valley tend to be slightly lower than the neighboring Tech, with a three-bedroom stone village house with stunning views of Mount Canigou currently on the market for €220,500 ($345,000).

Back down south of the Tech, just inland from the coast is the Albères range, the last of the Pyrenees before they roll into the sea. “Towns and villages in this area, which is just a 15 minute drive from Collioure, are now very popular,” Hitchen says. “Villages like  Laroque des Albères, St-Genis and Sorède offer a wonderful Catalan way of life while still being very close to the coast.” Here terraced stone houses in the village centers are selling for around €150,000 ($234,000), and detached villas reach around €250,000 ($390,000).

But if country living isn’t your thing, then head toward Perpignan, the region’s largest town (population circa 100,000), which is becoming increasingly à la mode. The city has recently undergone a massive facelift, and a new TGV high-speed train line scheduled to open in 2012, linking Perpignan to Barcelona in 50 minutes, has done wonders to boost the city’s appeal. Prices for a one-bedroom apartment in the old city center currently start at around €100,000 ($156,000).

It was in Perpignan that the Sayers and their France-born children eventually found their new home, and it appears that the haphazard plan paid off. “More by luck than judgment I find myself enjoying not just long, hot summers and mild winters but sun, sea, sand, mountains, Spain on my doorstep, skiing and cheap flights to see family and friends in the UK when I want to. What more could a girl ask for?


Originally published in the June 2008 issue of France Today.

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