BASKING IN THE GLOIRE OF LOIRE
Gorgeous châteaux, pretty riverside towns, and a climate that’s never too hot and never too cold – it’s no wonder Brits have been beating a path to the Loire Valley since medieval times, says Dominic Bliss
Dick Strawbridge’s big, bushy moustache is well-known in the Loire Valley. The size of a small sofa, you can see it coming round the corner long before the rest of him. It’s so enormous, it really ought to have its own code postal.
And his famous facial hair is partly responsible for a recent British mini-invasion of the Loire Valley. Strawbridge and his moustache, you see, are presenters of a very popular reality TV series you might have seen on Channel 4 called Escape to the Château. It follows the fortunes – and misfortunes – of Dick, his moustache, his wife Angel and their two kids as they buy a dilapidated château in the Pays de la Loire (Château-de-la-Motte Husson) and attempt to do it up. With no electricity, heating, or running water, 45 rooms over five storeys, 12 acres of land, nine outbuildings, an orangery and a moat, it proved to be a mammoth task.
But it has encouraged many other Brits to think about following suit. Hopefully they won’t choose renovation projects quite so demanding. Either way, there is a vast range of properties available for sale across the Loire Valley, ranging from rambling châteaux like Dick’s to charming period village homes, the rectangular rural houses known as longères, or even properties with equestrian facilities.
To warm yourself up for property-hunting, why not visit some of the region’s finest châteaux? There are more than 100 open to the public. Yes, of course, none of the touristy ones are for sale, and they’d be in the extraterrestrial price range if they were, but they’ll certainly whet your architectural appetite.
Château de Blois is the big one; Azay-le-Rideau is the fairy-tale one with turrets, moat and an air of mystery; Cheverny has its famous dog-feeding ritual; Brissac will make you feel like royalty if you stay the night; Chambord has a double-helix staircase; and Villandry has formal gardens to die for.
LOIRE VALLEY’S PLACE IN FRANCE
Although the River Loire (one of western Europe’s longest water courses) stretches 629 miles from the Massif Central to the Atlantic coast, it’s the 300-mile mid-section between the towns of Sully-sur-Loire and Chalonnes-sur-Loire that most people are referring to when they use the phrase “the Loire Valley”. This section of the river – with its gorgeous vineyards (don’t miss the Muscadet, Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé), orchards, riverside towns and châteaux – crosses two regions (Centre-Val de Loire and Pays de la Loire) and four départements (Loiret, Loir-et-Cher, Indreet-Loire and Maine-et-Loire). In 2000, it was added to UNESCO’s list of world heritage sites – and justifiably so.
Transport links to the region are excellent. The TGV runs from Saumur and Angers. Autoroutes connect Saumur with Paris and the northern coast. The nearest ferry port, at Caen, is only two and a half hours away by car. There are regional airports at Tours, Nantes, Angers and Poitiers.
The Loire Valley’s top attractions
The Loire Valley isn’t just about châteaux, it’s also famous for another type of dwelling – troglodytes, homes built into the slopes and rockfaces of this landscape. The troglodyte village of Rochemenier with its museum is definitely worth a visit. Along with its rich haul of galleries and museums (try the Musée de Beaux-Arts in Tours and the Musée de la Marine de Loire in Châteauneuf-sur-Loire), there are some more unusual attractions. Don’t miss Angers’ s Terra Botanica, France’s first botanical theme park; and the Parc des Mini-Châteaux in Amboise, where you can see 41 of the region’s castles in one go – albeit in miniature. Marvel at the world’s biggest collection of medieval stained-glass windows at Chartres Cathedral – or enjoy one of the many themed excursions on offer allowing you to explore France’s longest river and most iconic vineyards.
LOIRE VALLEY FOOD, CHOICE CHEESES, ICONIC TARTES AND FRESH AND FRUITY WINES
Like the huge, languorous river that runs through its valley, Loire meals can be long, lazy, drawn-out affairs. All the better for sampling the great food and wine on offer.
One of the most famous Loire dishes is rillette (pictured above), a textured pâté made from pork, duck or salmon. It’s often served with a local bread called fouace.
Main courses will consist of your staple meat dishes. But why not be more adventurous and try one of the many freshwater fish served in imaginative sauces? You’ll see perch, eel, shad, bream and pike on the menu.
The cheeses are wonderful. On the goat front, Selles-sur-Cher is round and dusted with ashes; Crottin de Chavignol ranges from the creamy to the hard and go very well with Sancerre wine; Sainte-Maure is cylindrical and also coated with ashes; Pyramide de Valençay, as you’d expect, is pyramid-shaped, with an ash dusting too.
For dessert you can’t avoid the ubiquitous Tarte Tatin. Cooked upside down, it features fruit (normally apples), caramelized in butter and sugar before baking. Legend has it that it originates from the 1800s when the two Tatin sisters, owners of Hôtel Tatin in Lamotte-Beuvron, accidentally created the tarte after burning a normal apple pie.
Now for the wine: traditionally, the Loire Valley can be split into three wine areas. The Upper Loire, dominated by the sauvignon blanc grape, features Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé ; the Middle Loire, with chenin blanc and cabernet franc grapes, has its Touraine, Saumur, Chinon and Vouvray; and the Lower Loire is famous for its Muscadets.
THE PROPERTY MARKET
The Loire Valley includes several départements but Maineet-Loire provides a good indicator of the health of the region’s overall market. According to property website MeilleursAgents.com, house and apartment prices across the département have remained around the same level since 2013. The average apartment price is €1,733 per square metre, while the average house price is €1,551 per square metre.
The town of Bouchemaine has the most expensive homes (€2,282 per square metre for houses and €2,024 per square metre for apartments), followed by Avrillé (€2,113 for houses and €2,093 for apartments) and Angers (€2,022 for houses and €1,876 for apartments). Among the cheapest towns in the département are Segré (€1,318 per square metre for houses) and Doué-la-Fontaine (€893 per square metre for apartments).
WHAT THE AGENTS SAY
Angers and Saumur are the property hotspots of the central Loire Valley area, says FrenchEntrée property services manager Fleur Buckley. “Pricing is competitive as buyers looking for second homes and permanent residences are also competing with local commuters for property in these top locations,” she says. “Both offer TGV connections into Paris. People are attracted to the dynamism of the companies established in the area, as well as the diversity of activities offered. All the facilities of a big city are there.”
Angers has the added bonus of being a student city, with up to 30,000 students a year living there. This means that the cheaper end of the rental market is very healthy indeed at the moment.
“Angers is definitely a profitable town to invest in,” she adds. “The sustained demand for properties should offer a good return. Buying a studio flat may be the best thing to do when investing there.”
Then there’s the pretty town of Saumur. “Watched over by its famous château, on the banks of the River Loire, this is an ideal area in which to buy a first or second home,” she continues. “It’s a wonderful place to enjoy the more relaxed French way of life: sit outside a café in one of the squares and watch the world go by, browse the stalls at the weekly market, and do a little wine tasting at the local vineyards. Or you could be energetic and explore the countryside on the quiet roads and kilometres of dedicated cycle paths. Perhaps you want to be more cultural and discover the joint history of France and the UK with a visit to Fontevraud Abbey where Richard the Lionheart is buried. Then, there’s the tank museum, the national riding school, the gardens of Villandry…”
Some braver property investors are tempted to buy châteaux in the Loire Valley, with a view to renting them out as upmarket holiday accommodation. “Châteaux can make commercially successful businesses,” she explains. “Typically, with their size and scale, they lend themselves to a number of enterprises alongside rentals including equestrian, fishing and sporting businesses. They are also sought-after as wedding venues and for hosting events.”
But, Buckley warns, investors would be wise to think carefully about the demographic of the customers they hope to attract.
“Spend time researching the market. You might find a château with an existing rental business. If not, it’s important to factor in renovation costs. We typically recommend you allow €1,000 per square metre for this. Remember, these are listed properties, often with historical monument classification, and planning permissions will need to be sought for any modifications.”
Along with its châteaux and pretty towns, the Loire Valley is renowned for its mild climate: la douceur angevine, as the French call it. Perhaps this is one of the factors that have made the influx of Brits – moustachioed or not – feel right at home here…
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