The Dordogne has long been a favourite of the English Francophile. The southwest of the country was under English rule for 300 years as a result of Eleanor of Aquitaine’s marriage to Henry II before the French regained control in 1453, and British property buyers have been staging a return for more than 50 years, snapping up rural properties both as first and second homes.
It is not hard to see the attraction – of the 152 villages listed as Les Plus Beaux Villages de France, ten are in the Dordogne.
“The region is still a favourite for international buyers,” says Trevor Leggett, of Leggett Immobilier, an estate agency.
British enthusiasm for the Dordogne has increased, while other nationalities have been holding off from purchasing. Leggett quotes research from BNP Paribas showing that the number of UK buyers in Aquitaine rose in 2012 from 35 per cent of all international buyers to 47 per cent.
“There were 448 sales to foreign non-residents at an average price of €219,000,” he says. This is, however, against a background of falling numbers of property transactions across the whole of France. According to figures from Insee (the National Institute of Statistics and Economic Studies), sales are down 6.2 per cent to an estimated 663,000 over the 12 months from April 2012 to March 2013.
It is a buyer’s market. Leggett Immobilier is advertising 1,200 properties for sale across the Dordogne, from a village house in need of restoration priced at €22,000 to a listed 17th-century château on sale for €4.5m.
The department, the third largest in France, is divided into four areas: Périgord Vert, in the north, is centred on Nontron, and is an area that includes woodland and the pretty town of Brantôme; Périgord Blanc with its white limestone plateaux contains the region’s capital, Périgueux; Bergerac and its surrounding vineyards are at the heart of Périgord Pourpre; and Périgord Noir occupies the eastern Dordogne around the tourist mecca, Sarlat.
The Périgord region has been occupied since Upper Paleolithic times, 10,000 to 50,000 years ago. Along one celebrated stretch of the river Vézère, listed as a Unesco world heritage site, there are 147 prehistoric sites including 25 decorated caves. Among these is the celebrated Lascaux cave. The original cave, discovered in 1940, was closed to prevent damage to the paintings from the increasing numbers of tourists, but the replica site celebrates its 30th birthday this year and welcomes 270,000 visitors a year.
Nearby, an elegant 18th-century chartreuse house is for sale through Leggett Immobilier for €1.65m. The four-bedroom property comes with a swimming pool, sauna tennis court and productive hazelnut woods.
Tourism is vital for the Dordogne. More than 3m visitors a year account for 22 per cent of the department’s economy, generating €850m annually. Many owners gain income from renting or hiring out their properties.
Grégoire de Commarque can trace his family connections to the Dordogne back to the Crusades. His family has owned Château de la Bourlie for more than 600 years. It sits in the quieter, less touristy hills near the ancient abbey of Cadouin – another of the region’s architectural splendours. The château hosts more than 20 weddings each year and also pays for its upkeep with gîtes rental.
Commarque, who runs agency Commarque & Associés, has just completed the sale of an 18th-century house built on earlier castle foundations with stunning views over the vineyards of Montbazillac for less than the asking price of €1.2m.
“The market has been difficult since 2008, but owners are now beginning to accept realistic offers,” he says. “Buyers had become fed up with overcrowding in Provence and fell for the architecture and the peace.”
Together with Paris-based agency, Philip Hawkes, he is also selling a historic château in the town of Montignac for €680,000, which would need considerable investment to become, as he suggests, an upmarket hotel.
Roland De Jong, of L’immobilier International Agency in Monpazier, says there is plenty of choice. “For €200,000, you can buy a habitable house – less if there’s some renovation to do,” he says. “Starting from €400,000 are farms with two or three hectares of land. €800,000 upwards is the price for larger farmhouses with a guest house which could be rented.”
A 348 sq metre farmhouse with gîtes attached near Les Eyzies is advertised through L’immobilier at €835,000, while a five-bedroom house, with guest rooms, separate guest house, and a six-acre garden near the small tourist town of Le Bugue is on sale through Leggett Immobilier for €1.19m.
“We have 665 holiday homes in the region,” says Emilie Lien from Holidaylettings.co.uk. “The peak season for this area is mid-May to the end of September, with typical occupancy levels between 12 and 20 weeks per year depending on location, accommodation quality and proximity to transport links and local attractions.”
For many, however, the name Dordogne evokes images of fairytale castles complete with turrets. Château de Rouffillac is one such house, overlooking the river Dordogne, and for sale with Philip Hawkes for €4.5m.
The agency is also selling a listed 17th-century château at Saint Croix de Beaumont for €3.7m. “It’s very rare to have an estate with 450 acres of surrounding land on the market,” says Patricia Hawkes. The château has been recently re-roofed, but the interior and grounds are in need of substantial redecoration. The château also includes a vaulted orangery and stables, two farms, and a derelict 12th-century priory in the adjacent village.
During recent years, prices have been rising more rapidly in other areas, such as the Charente and the Lot, achieving near parity with the Dordogne. With buyers in control, the quality of life, landscape and architecture available across this historic region starts to look like the better purchase.
● Dordogne has more than 400,000 inhabitants, giving it a population density of 43 inhabitants per sq km
● The department is made up of 557 communes, of which 498 are rural
● There are 878 classified historic monuments in Dordogne
● The region enjoys an average of 2,100 hours of sunshine per year. Average temperatures range from 14C to 28C in August and from 2C to 10C in January
What you can buy for . . .
€500,000 A seven-bedroom house with pool and its own woods
€1m A fortified medieval manor house with plenty of outbuildings
€5m A fortified Renaissance château with several acres of land