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Languedoc-Roussillon Property - an insider's guide

A guide to the Languedoc-Roussillon including potential property hotspots

Castles and Cassoulet… (the other south of France!)

When I first bought my home in France, everyone wanted to know where it was I would be living. 'The south of France,' whilst a true enough answer, was misleading. People would instantly assume the Côtes D'Azur, Nice, perhaps, or inland into the Luberon made so famous by Peter Mayle in his book 'A Year in Provence'. 'The other south of France,' I learned to say. So where is this 'other 'south of France, and what, exactly, is it like to live there?

The Languedoc-Roussillon region

Firstly, we will qualify exactly where we are talking about. The region in question is the Languedoc-Roussillon region, technically south-west France, but not as far west as Biarritz and Pau on the Atlantic coast. If you take a map of France, look down at the Pyrénées where they border Spain, along the Med a little, and upwards a little way towards Toulouse… well, roughly there! Take a pinch of the sparkling Mediterranean Sea, a sprinkling of the snow-capped Pyrenean Mountains, a scent of Catalan culture, mix it all up in a Cassoulet pot and you will have a fairly accurate recipe for the area. Not as ritzy glitzy as the Côtes D'Azur, nor as popular (yet) with the tourists as rustic Provence, Languedoc Rousillon is a land of contrasts and mystery. Here a dark history has left its mark on the landscapes with the tragic ruins of the Cathar castles, where unemployment is high, yet the quality of living is excellent and the weather some of the sunniest in France.

Ancient meets modern

At first sight there may not seem to be much that is modern about the towns and countryside of the Languedoc, but despite the unspoiled appearance there is a new life bubbling up beneath the surface. The region is slowly accepting the fact that change is a necessary evil, and is gradually coming to terms with life in the 21st century. Traditionally one of the largest wine producing regions in France, the wines from the Languedoc used to be of the cheap and cheerful table wine variety, rough and ready and of little appeal to the discerning palate. As financial ruin loomed however, the wine producers have replanted, repackaged and improved their wines to produce the quality wines demanded by today's market. The vineyards look much as they always have done, green, glossy and tidy in their neatly groomed rows, but the product is infinitely superior.

Areas are smartening up

Many of the towns are sharpening up their appearance, largely due to the demands of the holiday industry. People here are coming to realise that the region has a lot to offer the tourists, and that there is money to be made by attracting them. The lakes in the hills are offering water sports where there was originally nothing but water, and restaurants and cafés are springing up along the shores.

Mediterranean ambience

Should you choose to seek a property in this alternative south of France you have some wonderful choices of location to make. Parts of the region are deeply Mediterranean in feel, with calm blue seas, palm trees and the tall parasol pines so reminiscent of the Côtes D'Azur. If this appeals to you, you could base your search in the villages of the Roussillon, perhaps, such as Collioure or Céret. Béziers and the towns of the Hérault are also popular with aficionados of the Mediterranean ambience, and although you will pay a higher price for seaside properties, houses in these towns still offer better value for money than those across to the east on the Côtes D'Azur.

History, mystery and modern convenience

The glorious mediaeval city of Carcassonne represents another location possibility. Combining the convenience of a modern city with the historical mystery of its ancient walled stronghold, 'La Cité', Carcassonne is popular with natives of England and Ireland due to the ease of travel to and from Stansted, Liverpool and Dublin offered by Ryanair who have several flights per day into the city. Prices of property close to Carcassonne are high, but it is still possible to pick up some bargains around places such as Limoux and Mirepoix, all within an hour's drive of the airport. Carcassonne has recently come to even greater prominence due to the Grail Myths, so popular at the moment, which proliferate in the area. There are links to Dan Brown's blockbuster 'The Da Vinci Code' and also Kate Moss's bestseller 'Labyrinth'.

The Pyrénées on your doorstep

The majestic Pyrénées, which seem to appear and disappear like magic according to the weather, provide yet another option for the location of your French property. There is nothing quite as uplifting as starting each day with a view of these snow topped peaks, sometimes so clear you feel as though you could reach out and touch them! Views of the mountains can put a premium on the price of property in popular areas, but there are still many more isolated or lesser known villages where you can find a village house with amazing views (try villages like Pêch Luna, or Plaigne, just outside Mirepoix) or perhaps a farmhouse for renovation in the foothills. In the winter the skiing is excellent, and much less hectic than in the Alps, where the queues for the lifts can seem to take all day!

A gourmet peasant cuisine!

This may sound to be a contradiction in terms, but it is an accurate description of the distinctive cuisine of the Languedoc. The most important dish is, of course, cassoulet, that wonderfully rich mix of white beans, garlic sausage and duck, goose or pork confits (meats preserved in fat, which makes them very tasty). There are some who would argue that the original and best cassoulets came for Toulouse or Carcassonne, but it is generally accepted that the town of Castelnaudary, in the Aude, is the cassoulet capital of the world.

Castelnaudary's cassoulet

The story behind the dish is different every time it is told, but hinges on the fact that when the town was besieged by the English, the townsfolk put together the dish from the only ingredients available to them… locally grown beans, confits of pork, duck or goose (depending on who is telling the story and their preferred recipe!) and garlic sausage. This awesome mix, cooked in the traditional earthenware cassole pot, gave them to the strength to repel the invaders! Thus is the cassoulet celebrated in the town; it is on the menu in every restaurant (even Italian and other non French restaurants serve it!) and even elevated to the high status of being the subject of a major festival, the four-day Fêtes du Cassoulet which takes over the town in August. Other popular dishes include the internationally renowned Foie Gras, Salade Paysanne (duck gizzard salad…better than it sounds!) and Crème Catalane, the delicious desert which reflects the Catalan history and traditions of the region.

The home of the French Foreign Legion

Castelnaudary is also famous for being the home of the French Foreign Legion. This crack fighting force has moved on considerably since the days of Beau Geste, and is now highly respected. The legionnaires provide sporting tuition and facilities for young people in the region, and are a familiar and popular sight around town in their distinctive and immaculate uniforms.

Canal du Midi

Castelnaudary itself is an attractive old town built on the lovely Canal du Midi, which links the Atlantic Ocean to the Mediterranean Sea. In the summer the canal comes to life with holiday makers, and the town buzzes around the Grand Bassin, where the canal opens out into a seven hectare lake which is a starting/finishing point for the Crown Blue Line boating holidays.

A property hotspot

House prices here are amongst the fastest rising in the country, as more and more foreign buyers take up their last chance of purchasing an affordable piece of the Mediterranean. Transport links to the area are excellent, with TGV lines to Toulouse and Carcassonne, and airports at Carcassonne, Toulouse, Béziers, Perpignan, Montpellier, Girona and Nîmes. The Ryanair effect has made its mark here, as cheap flights from the UK and Ireland into Carcassonne and Perpignan have opened up the area not just to property buyers, but also to holiday makers.

Great potential for the leisure market

This has had a predictable knock on effect on the property market too, as it increases the rental potential of property, and also creates a whole new leisure market waiting to be tapped. Enterprising locals and ex-pats have opened all sorts of businesses in answer to this new demand, such as campsites, chambre d'hotes(B&Bs), gîtes, leisure lakes for fishing, water sports etc., adventure holidays (skiing and other mountain pursuits), even llama trekking! The area is ripe for development, and although potential businesses have to endure the paperwork assault course that is the French bureaucratic system, the region offers a wonderful chance to combine business with pleasure and finance your new life in France.

About the author

Joanna Simm moved to the Languedoc area of south-west France in October 2004 having found her property through French Property Links.

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