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Regional Focus: Basse Normandy

August 23, 2011

Far enough from Paris to retain its regional idiosyncrasies, but close enough to the capital to keep up with the trends, the northern French province of Normandy is a gastronome’s, arts and natures lovers paradise. The historical ties between England and Normandy run deep (Bayeux Tapestry, D-Day landings), but it’s the living culture that keeps people coming.back.

The dairy herds graze on rolling green pastures that are interspersed with mature beech forests – excellent walking country – as is the 600km of coastline, whose highlight is surely the dramatically-sited town of Mont-St-Michel. The Normandy beach landings are now of course what the coastline is most remembered for and a trip to Normandy is incomplete without visiting the beaches and the numerous moving memorials that dot the countryside. On a lighter note, Normandy also offers concerts in chateaux, jazz under apple trees, recitals inside soaring Romanesque cathedrals, antique fairs, tranquil gardens (including Monet’s beloved Giverny), film festivals and medieval pageants.

While many people will head for the lively Normandy coast, there is also the Norman countryside, with its golden prairies, its cool, wooded valleys and its beech and pine forests, remains a haven of peace and tranquility.

Its little villages, leafy fanes and clear streams are the ideal setting in which to relax and rediscover the joys of nature.

Basse-Normandie was created in 1956, when the Normandy region was divided into Basse-Normandie and Haute-Normandy. The region includes three departments, Calvados, Manche and Orne. It covers 10,857 square miles, 3.2 percent of the surface area of France (Northcutt, 1996, p. 181).

The region’s economy is heavily agricultural, with livestock and dairy farming, textiles and fruit production among its major industries. Iron ore is mined near Caen. Tourism is also a major industry. The region has direct ferry links to England (via the port of Cherbourg) and the beaches of Calvados were the site of the D-Day landings in June 1944. Basse-Normandie suffered badly during World War II, with many of the region’s towns and villages being destroyed during the Battle of Normandy.
Regions of Lower Normandy include the Cotentin Peninsula and La Hague, Pays d’Auge, and the Bessin.

Normandy has its own regional language, the Norman language. This language is still in use today in Basse-Normandie, with the dialects of the Cotentin more in evidence than others. Lower Normandy has also been the home of many well-known French authors, including Guy de Maupassant, Marcel Proust, Jules Barbey d’Aurevilly, and Gustave Flaubert. Notable Norman language authors connected especially with Lower Normandy include Alfred Rossel, Louis Beuve, and Côtis-Capel.

The region of Basse-Normandy is represented by picturesque valleys with granite ground. It is also a region of agriculture especially for wheat, milk and other dairy products. There is also the notorious Mont-Saint Michel, a mixed of gothic and roman architecture, and a major point of interest for travelers.


Regional Focus: Auvergne

August 19, 2011

The Auvergne is one of the most beautiful regions in France, yet it is probably one of the least well known. It is certainly one of the poorest, with the majority of the region being made up of beautiful yet rural small farmer’s villagers, or larger more industrialized towns. It is the countryside however, which makes the Auvergne so special, Volcanoes; high, wind-swept plateaus; deep gorges, dug by wild water; crater lakes; exceptional flora… In the Auvergne, nature is on show in all her beauty and diversity.

Lakes, rivers, rapids, thermal springs – water is ever present in Auvergne creating some natural phenomena. Chaudes-Aigues, in Cantal, is the southernmost thermal spring in Auvergne with the hottest waters of any thermal spring in all Europe.

Here, thirty springs gush forth, one of which is the Par spring that can reach a temperature of 82°C. All year round, some of the water from the Par is used to supply public fountains throughout the town. The townspeople use it to wash dishes and clothes as well as for cleaning and cooking. The magnificent forests dominate the landscape, reminiscent of the Scottish highlands, with endless horizons filled by proud fir trees and waterfalls.

Auvergne’s history: At the very center of France lies the mountainous region of the Massif Central (central mountain mass). At its core lies Auvergne, an historic region and former province of central France, which today makes up of the departments of Allier (03), Cantal (15), Haute-Loire (43), and Puy-de-Dôme (63). Its name is derived from the Arverni, a Celtic people whose leader VERCINGETORIX defied and was defeated by Julius Caesar. In fact, this region has been settled by humans probably longer than anywhere else in France.

Since the reign of the Bourbons, Auvergnats have not been strangers to positions of power in France: politicians such as Valéry Giscard-d’Estaing, Georges Pompidou, and Jacques Chirac all hail from this region. With a reputation for being tough and thrifty, the Auvergnats — who like to describe France as “the Auvergne with a bit of land around it” — have often traveled far in search of work. It is little known that the majority of the traditional cafes in Paris are run by Auvergnats.

In the northern part of Auvergne one finds the fertile tertiary basin of the Limagne, where dairying and beef cattle diversify the traditional wheat economy. For the most part, however, the region is known for its breathtaking mountain ranges and volcanic peaks, offering views of a lunar landscape pitted with huge craters and outcroppings. The Puy de Dôme (1,463 m/4,800 ft) is the highest of a chain of recent volcanic peaks (the Monts Dôme, which became extinct some 4000 years ago) overlooking Clermont-Ferrand from the west. The Celts considered it a royal mountain, on which they worshiped their god of war.

The area is a paradise of outdoor activities, including skiing, rafting, biking, golfing, hiking, and hang-gliding. Lakes Guéry, Aydat, Pavin, and Chambon provide excellent opportunities for water sports such as canoeing, fishing, swimming, and sailing.

Regional Focus: Aquitaine

August 15, 2011

Aquitaine, in the south-west, is the largest region of France. It has a long, straight west coast, which stretches 200km from the mouth of the Gironde estuary down to Spanish border. Along this border there are two main resorts, Biarritz in the south which, once fashionable with the glamour set of the 1930s has recently been revived by trendy Parisians, and Arcachon to the north with its grand villas, which is popular with Bordelais weekenders.

Apart from these resorts the beautiful endless white beaches of this coastline are half-empty during the summer months compared to France’s over-packed Mediterranean coast. This is one of the reasons why buying property along this coastline is such an interesting proposition, the prices have not yet been artificially hiked and the weather is as good as its rival coast whilst the sea, with its crashing waves is far more interesting than the flat Mediterranean.

Bordeaux, the capital of Aquitaine, is situated 350 miles southwest of Paris. One of the best known cities in France, its fine wines are appreciated the world over by millions of connoisseurs. A major center of communications and commerce, Bordeaux is the western terminus of an excellent road and rail network between the Atlantic and the Mediterranean. The torso of Aquitaine’s coastline is flanked by a large expanse of pine forests that make up most of the Landes département. These forests were planted in the 19th century to stabilise drifting sands.. The number and quality of its golf courses has made it France’s leading region for golfers.
Above Landes, the Gironde département around Bordeaux is home to some of the world’s most celebrated vineyards, such as those in the fairly flat Medoc, west of the river Gironde, and around towards the increasingly hilly area about pretty St-Emilion.

A visit to the Aquitaine region inevitably inspires interest in its past. With an abundance of prehistoric sites and a fascinating variety of artifacts, it is no wonder that the region is referred to as the “Cradle of the Arts.” The outstanding finds at Lascaux, La Madeleine, and Rouffignac, the abbeys, fortresses, and châteaux, and the Gallo-Roman remains will delight those interested in architecture and archaeology

Romantics will be fascinated by the social history of the region, the duchy ruled over by Eleanor of Aquitaine in the 12th century. Married first to Louis VII of France, and later to Henry II of England, Eleanor bore ten children, including Richard the Lion-Hearted. One of the earliest feminists, Eleanor’s court encouraged the flowering of the troubadour tradition and the development of the concept of romantic love.

The Pyrenees mountain range steadily begins to rise in the Pyrénées Atlantiques, the southern most département of Aquitaine. The mountain foothills are a lush green land where the houses gradually become chalet in style. Many compare the weather here to Wales – although it is warmer, it rains a lot. Part of the Pyrénées-Atlantiques is Basque country (Pays Basque) where some 80,000 Basques live. The remaining 600,000 reside across the border in Spain.

The northern, inland area of Aquitaine contains one of the most popular départements with the British – the Dordogne, named after what many argue as France’s most beautiful river. The British call the area Dordogne, but to the French it is known as Périgord. Each area of Périgord has been assigned a descriptive colour. The south-east around Sarlat is called Perigord Noir because of its dense oak forests; the limestone area around the River Isle and Périgueux, capital of the région, is called Perigord Blanc after the light colour of its rock; Périgord Poupre refers to the wine-growing area around Bergerac; and the very green wooded area and pasturelands to the north is Perigord Vert. Apart from the lucrative tourist trade, this is an economically fragile and depopulated région. The two largest towns, each with populations just over 50,000, are Périgueux known for its domed cathedral, and Bergerac an important wine centre. Brantôme, on a bend of the water-lilly covered River Dronne, is much loved by British tourists.

Regional Focus: Alsace

August 5, 2011

With its characteristic distinctiveness and its time-old traditions, Alsace is a region sure to be mentioned whenever the French talk about their gastronomy, art, history and culture. Alsace is a frontier land that is both open to the world and attached to its own traditions.

Region and former province of France; area 8,280 sq km/3,197 sq mi; population (1999 est) 1,734,100. It consists of the départements of Bas-Rhin and Haut-Rhin; its administrative centre is Strasbourg, which is the seat of the European Parliament and the Council of Europe. Alsace has much rich agricultural land, particularly between the River Rhine and the Vosges mountains. Vineyards dot the low-lying areas that rise up from the Rhine, and Alsace is noted for its white wines. The region also produces about half the beer consumed in France.

Of Celtic origin, Alsace became part of the Roman province of Upper Germany, then fell to the Alemanni in the 5th century and to the Franks in 496. Following a period during which the region’s principal cities enjoyed virtual independence (from the 13th century), Alsace became part of France through the Treaty of Westphalia (1648), which ended the Thirty Years’ War. In 1871 Alsace and the northern part of the province of Lorraine were annexed to Germany, at the end of the Franco-Prussian War. Alsace remained in German hands until 1919 when it returned to French sovereignty. During World War II Alsace was again under German control, but in 1945 it was returned to France.

At the crossroads in the centre of Europe, Alsace has, for better or worse, been at the heart of events since the beginning of time. While still bearing some of the wounds left by history, it is also the site of some of the European civilisation’s finest achievements.

Although the Rhine now separates Alsace (and thereby France) from Germany, the border has moved many times: the region has changed hands 17 times in 20 centuries – but has never lost its soul! Today, its strength of character makes it stand proud as the central region of Europe. Alsace is a land of traditions (a large number of its inhabitants still speak Alsatian), and one notably renowned for its cuisine. Its proud list of culinary excellence includes choucroute, foie gras en croûte and kougelhopf – all best enjoyed with a glass of Alsace wine. Strongly influenced by its industrial activity, it’s a dynamic region which has managed to preserve its architectural heritage, both in its villages and its larger cities – and notably in Strasbourg or Colmar, departure points along the wines route where the famous vineyards climb up slopes towards the Vosges, wrapping around fortified châteaux and villages with their colourful houses.

Regional Focus: Rhone Alps

August 1, 2011

A region flagged by the peaks of its mountains where hiking and winter sports are king.

Chamonix, Megève, Avoriaz, La Clusaz, Courchevel… the Rhône-Alpes region has both the largest skiing area in the world and the most famous resorts, set above discreet little villages nestling in the valleys. In summer, the white slopes metamorphose into vast green space – ideal for hikers – and the gorges roar with the torrents, which lend themselves so well to white water sports. Take a deep breath of fresh air in the heart of the unspoilt natural surroundings of the Vanoise, Ecrins and Bauges nature reserves; near the Léman, Annecy or Bourget lakes; in the many vineyards or extensive historic countryside; and deep in the Ardèche or Drôme gorges.

Rhone Alps is a region full of contrasts, boarded with the Alps in the east and the Massif Central in the West. This Region has a huge diversity of landscapes, natural parks and climates. The two main characteristics of Rhone Alps are water and mountain. The mountains are more than just a part of the region: more than half the territory is situated at an altitude of more than 500m. According to some experts, there are about 24 specific climates in Rhone Alpes. Within a few miles, the climate changes from a wet climate to a dry one.

If you are looking for the bright lights of the city, and a cultural buzz then look no further, as in this region you have Lyon, Grenoble, and St Etienne. Grenoble, the major city in the French Alps, hosted the 1968 Winter Olympics and attracts students from around the world. It has a rich cultural heritage but also enjoys a very high-tech profile in the computer and micro-chip industries.

Lyon, a 2000 years old city is second only to Paris. Its excellent facilities include splendid museums, a first class university, delightful old buildings and elegant shopping quarter. There is much to enjoy in Lyon, including sampling some of is gastronomic delights. St. Etienne is an industrial city, but has a very lively cultural life. Amongst its many museums is the superb Museum of Modern Art, whilst younger visitors will enjoy a trip to the Planetarium. With its large open spaces and plenty of sunshine, St. Etienne is a modern city which has not forgotten its past.

New La Poste prices – from July 1st 2011

July 28, 2011

If you’re like me and buy lots of different priced stamps so to avoid endless trips to La Poste, be aware that the pricing has changed as of July 1st this year.

You can download the new La Poste prices here:

Could you save money on your new heating system or wood burning stove for your French property?

July 26, 2011

Putting in a new heating system or wood burning stove in your French property ? You may qualify for a tax credit.

If you’re looking at putting in a new heating system, wood burning stove or replacing an existing boiler in your French property, it’s worth knowing that you could qualify for a tax credit. The tax credit can be obtained in form of a deducution on your French tax bill if you pay tax, or a cheque from the tax office (Tresor Public) if you don’t. Either way, a French tax return must be submitted.

The tax credit is a financial aid from the French government to encouraging consumers to purchase certain types of equipment which are more ecological than others. It’s only available for the equipment purchase, not the fitting, even if the equipment is fitted by a professional which it must be in order to qualify. No DIY jobs qualify unfortunately.

Conditions and what to do
The tax credit is available to property owners and renters alike, so long as the property where the work has been undertaken is the main place of residence, regardless the age of the property. To obtain the credit you must mention the details of the work carried out on your tax return and include the corresponding receipts when you send in your return.

Tax credit : from 13 % to 36 %
• Low temperature boilers are no longer eligible for tax credit since 1st January 2009
• Condensation boilers: 13 % tax credit
• Boilers & woodburners: 22 % tax credit for a new installation, 36% if you replace an old installation (proof of destruction by a professional for the old material must be provided).
• The maximum amount you can put in for is 8 000 € if you’re single, 16 000 € for a couple (plus 500 € approximately for each child).

The maximum amount is valid for 5 consecutive years, between 1st January 2005 and 31st December 2012. If you carry out work with more than five years in between you can benefit from the maximum amount twice.

Certain conditions have to be met in terms of performance of the new installation so do check with a professional exactly what these are and whether the material you are considering purchasing would enable you to qualify for a Credit Impot first. Their advice is also essential in that laws can change and they will be able to offer you up to date information on what you will qualify for at the time of purchase.