Peter Mayle focused the attention of the world on his home patch of the Lubéron in his best-selling memoirs A Year in Provence. Yet there is another, equally beautiful, but less well-known part of Provence, further to the south-west, between Avignon and Arles. It is Les Alpilles, or the “little Alps”, a dramatic landscape of olive groves and vineyards, scented with pine and rosemary.
At the centre of Les Alpilles is Saint-Rémy, a 14th-century town with medieval side streets full of art galleries, bars, restaurants and patisseries. Outside the town’s walls you will find sunflower fields and limestone hills looking much the same as when Van Gogh painted them in the late 19th century. From there, some of the most sought after towns and villages, such as Le Mas Blanc, Le Paradou, Eygalières and Maussane, are just a short drive away.
The fact that the best properties in Les Alpilles are clustered in a compact area partly accounts for the region’s extremely high property prices. Estate agents estimate that homes are 10 per cent more expensive here than even those in the Lubéron just 60km away. “This is also one of the most liquid markets in France,” says Mark Harvey of Knight Frank. “People know they’ll be able to sell if they need to in a reasonable period of time, so they are prepared to buy here, even in a recession.”
The climate is another factor that makes the region desirable: winters in Les Alpilles are mild compared with the rest of France and restaurants, bars and shops stay open out of season.
According to figures from Knight Frank about 10 per cent of buyers in Les Alpilles come from Paris. Thierry Mantoux, a consultant in wines and spirits who was attracted to the area by its arts scene, is typical.
“The TGV gets to Paris in about two hours and 40 minutes, which means I can be there for lunch if I have an appointment,” he says. “Yet there is a real sense of living a separate existence here, with the opera festival at Aix-en-Provence and wonderful theatre at Avignon.”
Mantoux is selling his 18th-century five-bedroom bastide near Saint-Rémy – Le Mas d’Anez, set in a beautiful park with its own olive grove – for €2.8m with Winkworth. The house is too big now that the Mantoux children have left home.
Most buyers in Les Alpilles prefer a home to be “dans son jus” – as it was originally – and not altered by designers. A view of the Alpilles adds value to a property, as does having either olive groves or vineyards. Winkworth and Knight Frank are jointly selling Domaine de la Colombe d’Or, a country estate with 30 acres of olive groves and one of the biggest properties in the region, for €5.9m.
When you pass through Saint-Rémy or Eygalières, where the balconies of the cottages are covered with geraniums, town life looks good. Knight Frank has for sale a three-bedroom townhouse in the heart of Saint-Rémy, with a courtyard and a roof terrace, for €750,000. However, those with a budget below €500,000 should not dismiss the area. There are homes for sale with Green Acres for as little as €250,000.
Mayle’s stories, with their cast of lazy, incompetent Provençal tradesmen, may fill prospective buyers with dread. However, artist Jenny Bleasdale disagrees with such depictions.
“If you simply talk to people and go by reputation, you’ll find a good architect and good workers easily enough,” says Bleasdale, who bought a battered two-up, two-down house with her husband, Martin, 11 years ago. “Ours put in a big kitchen with underfloor heating, built a new studio at the back and literally raised the roof to build a new dressing room, all for €300,000.” The property, which dates from 1783 and has a 3,500 sq m garden, is for sale with Knight Frank for €1.67m.
Two factors suggest demand will continue to outstrip the supply of homes in Les Alpilles. Nobody will be able to overdevelop, as it is a Parc Regional – the equivalent of a national park. Yet the area is becoming increasingly accessible. Both Marseilles and Nîmes airports are nearby, as is the TGV station at Avignon, which in summer operates a Eurostar service to London.
However, Les Alpilles should carry a warning, according to search agent Stuart Baldock of Hindle and Baldock, who has known the area for 20 years. “Unlike the Lubéron, which is uniformly expensive, in Les Alpilles minor blemishes can reduce the value of a property,” he says. “Buyers should research house prices before making an offer. It is not uncommon here to find a property overvalued by as much as 50 per cent.”
● Strong housing market
● Restrictions on building protect your views
● Landscape and scenery
● Quiet in the low season
● Restrictions on building on your own land – sometimes if only a pool
● Seasonal over abundance of Van Gogh enthusiasts
What you can buy for …
€100,000 An old, 40 sq m house in Maussane with some land
€1m A large contemporary villa near Paradou with olive trees and a pool