Well, no surprise that my pronunciation of his town is wrong. Although I’m here to see real estate, what I really want to do is eat.
Wednesday is market day in Piégut-Pluviers, a town in the north of Aquitaine’s Dordogne département. A French country market is a gastronomic Garden of Eden, so leaving these stalls of foie gras, saucissons and cheeses feels like being cast into the wilderness. To compensate, I buy some apricots bursting with the taste of summer.
For the Dordogne’s inhabitants, good food and wine are normal pleasures—they aren’t compelled to gluttonize an entire market’s worth of produce in a few days. Such luxury could be yours, too. Many homes in this tranquil corner of southwest France are downright cheap. Habitable village houses with small gardens start at around $92,000.
The Dordogne has a distinct fairy-tale quality, stoked with old tales of alchemists and man-eating wolves. Set in a landscape of vineyards and sunflower fields, many of its castles have those weird witch’s hat turrets that always remind me of Rapunzel. Its villages are of the Goose Girl variety, and there are even stalactite caves made for Snow White and her dwarves.
Drowsing behind pale blue shutters, traditional village houses usually have beamed wooden ceilings. Farmhouses of honey-colored limestone come with steeply-pitched roofs of tawny tiles or lauze stone slabs.
One property I viewed was a 16th-century fermette (“small farm”) with an ivy-covered tower. It’s $198,000, but Daniel Benoit, the owner of Piégut Immobilier, says an offer of $169,000 would probably be accepted.
The house still requires some work—it currently only has three rooms—but it’s habitable and should satisfy any romantic’s dream.
Land amounts to almost two acres. An artist currently owns it and, seeing the garden, you can tell. Creative dolmens, homes for sprites...even a woodland space awaiting the arrival of Brigitte Bardot. The floweriness of the Dordogne’s villages is astounding.
Sometimes it’s a giant splash of blue and pink hydrangea bushes that catches your eye. Cottages that aren’t draped in wisteria or climbing rambler roses usually have at least a pot of geraniums. And avender doesn’t only grow in Provence.
Near the town of Thiviers, St Jean de Côle village blooms all the way from its hump-backed stone bridge to its 15th-century chateau. The venue for flower festivals and classical concerts on summer evenings, it’s officially one of France’s most beautiful villages. Quite a few houses here are half-timbered. The Herman de Graaf agency has a well-maintained, three-bedroom townhouse with a small garden on the village square for $241,500.
But St Jean de Côle is something special—an anomaly. In less high-profile villages and rural areas, similar properties with gardens go for between $125,000 and $213,000.
For decades, the Dordogne and its edge-of-a-dream landscapes was a hot location for British buyers. It still is for holidaymakers—I heard plenty of English accents. But times have changed. In some areas, prices have fallen by around 25% since their 2005 to 2008 heyday.
Here’s part of the reason why. For some Britons, mortgage payments for a second home in France are proving too hard a stretch in the current financial climate. And for those on fixed retirement pensions, sterling’s weakness against the euro means their spending power doesn’t go as far as it used to. They’re willing to bargain.
Now the market may be reviving from its recent doldrums. Cate Carnduff of the Hermann de Graaf agency says they’ve seen an increased interest from Belgian and Dutch buyers over the past year. They’re buying up both inexpensive village houses with gardens and luxury properties with substantial tracts of land.
The Lay of the Land
The Dordogne is still known locally by its pre-Revolution name of Périgord. The province neatly divides into four quarters. They’re color-coded black, white, purple, and green.
From Bergerac’s vineyards to the prehistoric sites around Les Eyzies and Montignac, few places aren’t attractive. Almost every loop and bend of its web of rivers reveals a perched village, a medieval town, or the turrets of a chateau.
The French and the English once battled over Aquitaine. The entire region is full of tales of the Hundred Years’ War of the 14th and 15th centuries. Many towns are bastide towns—the “new” fortified settlements of the Middle Ages.
Laid out in a grid pattern, they usually have an arcaded square with a market at the center. Périgord Noir (“Black”) is linked to oak woods and truffles. It takes in important prehistoric sites including the Lascaux Caves and some incredibly photogenic stretches of the Dordogne River.
Then there’s the “art city” of Sarlatla-Canéda with its massive Saturday market and more heritage buildings than anywhere else in France.
The number of castles open to visitors is overwhelming, and villages like Beynac and Domme (the Acropolis of Périgord) are so architecturally perfect they don’t seem quite real. However, Black Périgord is quite pricey for buyers seeking country cottages with gardens, especially around Sarlat-la-Canéda. That said, scout around and you may find some village cheapies.
Many real estate agencies have offices on and around Sarlat’sAvénue Thiers. Immobilier du Futur has a bijou one-bedroom stone house in Domme for $155,500—but there’s no garden.
One-bedroom apartments in Sarlat start at around $86,500, but price depends on living space. $115,000 is more realistic for one of 580 square feet. Long-term rentals start at $450 per month. Look under louer (“rentals”) on the agency’s website: Immobilierdufutur.com.
Périgord Blanc (“White”) centers around Périgueux and the limestone plain. Périgueux is a historic city with Roman remains, but traffic is frustrating. Plus it’s ringed by some ugly agglomerations of mega-shopping centers and light industry.
Obviously people have to work somewhere, but it wouldn’t be my choice as a place to relocate or buy a second home. Named for the purple of the grapes, Périgord Pourpre (“Purple”) is far more tranquil. I started off my trip in Bergerac—both a charming medieval town and a wine classification. Its western neighbor is the better-known vineyard country of Bordeaux, but wines here can be just as good.
Purple Périgord has numerous bastide towns and villages. One is Eymet, a charmer of stone cottages, half-timbered houses, the remains of a feudal castle and a traditional Thursday market. In this part of Périgord, few restored village houses with gardens go for much less than $184,000. Eymet is only 16 miles from Bergerac airport, served by budget carriers from northern Europe. Local English-speaking agencies include Agence-eleonor.com and Eymetimmobilier.com.
Green Périgord has the best bargains. A land of hills, oak woods and rivers wrapped around the main town of Nontron, it’s as verdant as its name. It doesn’t receive the same weight of visitors as the other three “colors,” but it isn’t lacking in attractions.
I mentioned Piégut-Pluviers, Saint Jean de Côle and Thiviers, Périgord’s foie gras capital. But there’s also Brantôme, a stunner of a small riverbank town. Jumilhacle-Grand has a castle steeped in tales of alchemy and gold-panning in its rivers. Excideuil is another market town with a castle and links to the Knights Templar. Piegutimmobilier.fr and Herman de Graaf at Immobilier-dordogne.com are my recommended contacts here.
My initial contact with the Piégut-Pluviers agency was through Sextantproperties.com. This U.K. agency links buyers with a network of registered English-speaking estate agents in the Dordogne, the rest of Aquitaine, and other French regions.
September 2011, Written by Steenie Harvey for International Living Magazine (www.internationalliving.com)