So as summer drew to a balmy end we considered our next move. We were now sure that we wanted to buy (and eventually live) in France and were starting to realise that the reason why we weren’t really seeing anything that came anywhere near our exacting requirements was because we had set our budget too low. Many of the properties we had seen had been “renovated” by the owners themselves rather than by professionals and it showed – think of the “feature” staircase with the newels made from small tree branches in the Dordogne – a step too far on the rustic scale! Also we were rethinking which areas to look at. The Limousin is beautiful but the winters can be quite severe with temperatures going down as low as -14°C – a fact often overlooked by French property magazines and television programmes which like to paint France as a generally warmer and drier country than the UK. Of course they are trying to sell the “dream” and not necessarily the reality!
In recent years I think that my family, friends and colleagues – and Andy of course! - would agree that one of my defining characteristics has been my love for MX-5’s. I’ve been lucky enough to own two of these little fun machines and I helped to start a very successful local MX-5 “meet” – Planet MX-5 . I hope that this will give you some idea as to the momentousness (yes it’s a real word – I looked it up!) of my next decision. My lovely blue MX-5, Storm, was about to go out of warranty, needed re-shoeing, the road tax was due, and to cut a long story short was about to cost me a lot of moolah! I had achieved my ambition of touring around the curvy D roads of France topless and the cold days of winter were fast approaching (not that ever stopped me getting my top down on a crisp blue skied winter's day – much to the amusement of some of my fellow commuters – I remember a conversation that took place in a traffic jam with a bemused crew of a white van – “Ain't you cold?!” they amusingly though not imaginatively exclaimed – “No” I answered, cosy with my heated seat and very efficient heater, not to mention my hat, gloves and scarf!
So one day when I said to Andy that I was thinking about getting a 4X4 he was stopped in his tracks for a few moments. It seemed the logical thing to do to me, he had a soft-top Saab and when we finally bought a place in France we would need a car with enough room for all of the stuff we would need to take over (we’ve found that it’s generally much cheaper to buy goods here than in France, especially at boot fairs – also we don’t want to waste too much of our actual time in France trawling around shops!) and we needed something comfortable that was comfortable for longer journeys. Of course it still had to be a car that I enjoyed driving and a “reasonable” price. Of course, reasonable it relative for us all, I know many people who avoid buying new cars because of the massive depreciation that happens as you drive off the forecourt but nowadays with the internet you can shop around. I got my first new car from “op north” over 10 years ago – it was pre-registered and had 15 miles on the dial and was £3,000 cheaper than its nearest rival. I’ve never looked back since then, trading up each time I bought a new car but I guess it’s horses for courses, neither Andy or myself could be vaguely considered mechanics and we need reliable cars. So, I did my research, as usual, and decided that a Hyundai Santa Fe was the best candidate for my needs, both in terms of size and my budget! We went for a test drive and I loved it as soon as I drove it off the forecourt, it an was engaging drive and had loads of torque – it was interesting (for interesting read “pulse raising”) when I tried to drive it like an MX-5 around a roundabout – the steering wheel was nearly ripped out of my hands! I then tried an i30 which I nearly didn’t get off the forecourt – it had a gear box that felt like I was stirring porridge, was noisy and no guts – anyway I wasn’t quite ready for a people carrier! So, I was sold on the Santa Fe but the only problem was there was a waiting list for them – not much room for negotiation you would think but when I rang another dealer he “found” me one that was in the country and for less than the other dealer wanted – deal done! La Bête duly arrived a few weeks later.
So with the new car in place it was time to decide which part of France to visit next. I admit that I had been resistant to looking in the North West of France as it seemed like the climate would be too similar to that of the South of England. Having said that, I had been in love with the idea of moving to South West England ever since I first visited the area in 1988. I love the lush green countryside and quaint villages of Dorset, Devon and Cornwall but the prices in that part of the world have risen considerably in the last 20 years as holiday home owners have moved in. So would Brittany have the same sort of appeal? It was time to find out! The prices are considerably cheaper than South West England (well inland anyway), the winters were milder than the Limousin and the summers not so hot as in the South of France, though slightly warmer that the South of England. Interestingly we have since found that a lot of people are selling up in the South of France and moving further north as the recent hot summers have become unbearable for many expats (as well as locals I am told!).
After lots of research we decided to base ourselves in the beautiful half-timbered medieval town of Vannes which is the capital of Morbihan in Southern Brittany. The area is famous for its warm and sunny micro climate, though the local property prices reflect this. We arranged viewings of a number of properties, mainly inland, some that we found privately and booked our trip with Brittany Ferries. This time we were visiting in November – they do say you should visit the areas that you are interested in different seasons to get a real feel for it. Something that looks lovely in the summer sunshine may not have the same appeal during a long dreary winter – sensible advice really! Next post I will tell you about our property viewing adventures in beautiful Brittany!
The rolling hills of the Haute-Vienne
I have recently been turned onto Pinterest by a friend. “What is Pinterest?” I hear you cry! Well, it is best explained on the Pinterest website here but briefly, it is a pinboard-style social photo sharing website. Once you get your head around it, the site is easy to use and also very addictive. I’ve just started posting on it but you can take a look at my Pinterest page by using this link: http://pinterest.com/katzrichardson/ if you want to get an idea what I talking about. Sorry in advance if you don’t share my tastes!
Having not been put off the idea of purchasing a property in France by our first house hunting experience, we promptly set about organising our next trip when we returned home.
We thought we’d find out what it was like to fly to France to see how feasible regular trips were. Remember, we were looking for somewhere that we could use as a holiday home but eventually live in at some point in the future - we weren’t looking for a business to run from the UK!
We really loved the area of the Parc naturel régional Périgord Limousin which we had passed through on our first trip so we thought we would concentrate there. It is filled with rolling wooded hills, numerous lakes and rivers lakes and it in the southern part of the Limousin. The park borders on the Dordogne but is much cheaper than the so called Brit stronghold of “Dordogneshire”. The idea of living in a protected area was also appealing.
Ryanair fly to Limoges, the capital of Limousin just to the north of the Parc. We found some cheap flights and organised a hire car. We took only hand luggage as it was just a long weekend break and being August we expected the weather to be warm – fortunately we were right! I concentrated on finding properties to view in the area and by the time we set off we had four houses to see. I also started getting in touch with French property law specialists so we had things in place if we did put in an offer.
The ruins of Le château des Cars in the Haute-Vienne
The early morning trip to Limoges, which is famous for its porcelain, went smoothly and we were soon in our little hire car heading south through the undulating green countryside for our first viewing.
We stopped en-route to pick up some supplies for a picnic and in doing so accidentally discovered the ruined chateau of Les Cars. The chateau dates from the 16th century and was almost totally destroyed during the French Revolution. We continued on our way passing contented herds of golden-red Limousine cattle which originate from this area.
A lakeside picnic in the Haute-Vienne
The property was tucked away in a small hamlet and there were a few wrong turns before we actually arrived at the correct doorstep. This was a private sale and the English owner greeted us with a cup of tea. The view from the front door looked directly down into a wooded valley – simply stunning! The back plot was a good size with lots of fruit trees and not overlooked though access was via a shared driveway. From the outside it seemed a picture postcard idyll.
The problem was the kitchen / diner / lounge was spread over a large cellar. This large room had a wooden floor which was bowed in the middle we found that there were no proper supports beneath it when we looked in the cellar. There was distinctive movement when you walked on the floor. There was no real kitchen to speak of either, just a sink, a couple of cupboards and an oven stuck out on its own. It all really needed to be ripped out and replaced but at the price they were asking it just wasn’t worth it. We thanked our host and set off for a rendezvous with an immobilier in St Jean de Cole just over the border in the Dordogne. On the way we stopped for a picnic lunch by one of the numerous lakes in the area - we had the perfect weather for it!
16th century church of St Jean Baptist, St Jean de Cole
St Jean de Cole has been officially classified as one of the most beautiful villages in France, one of " Les Plus Beaux Villages de France ". We had already been there on an impromptu property visit with this agent during our last trip when we had really just stopped to admire the village. We were naturally drawn to the immobilière's shop front conveniently located in the central square.
We saw the property with the huge barn pictured in my last post below. Andy was quite overwhelmed by the size of the barn and what on earth we would do with it so we didn't pursue it.
This time we were seeing two properties, one that I only just discovered on the agent’s website just before we left the UK. The vendor had dropped the price so it had now fell within our budget (not that the immobilière had mentioned this to us...I'm not always sure what they do to earn their sometimes large fees...). The details on the website were sparse so we weren’t really sure what to expect except that it was on what looked to be a main road. This was slightly off putting as you can imagine. It was the first house we went to and we were busy chatting with our charming Irish agent and so were not paying much attention as we pulled into the drive. That soon changed!
The beautiful village of St Jean de Cole in the Dordogne
As we got out of the car we both went quiet. It was a large house set in its own grounds surrounded by beautiful countryside. The road was a small country lane, not the main road that we had suspected! The closest neighbour was half restored ruin next door and the hamlet proper which was a short walk away down another lane. So far so good!
We followed the agent inside to explore the living accommodation. On the ground floor were three reception rooms and a kitchen. All were in reasonable condition and looked as if they just needed a bit of TLC. There was also a shower-room that had been installed by the current owner. Upstairs we found 4 large well lit bedrooms and a lovely family bathroom. Up another flight of stairs there was an unconverted loft-space as big as the floor below.
It had plenty of headroom and proper windows (not veluxs!) were already installed – it was light, bright and perfect for conversion with a solid wood floor. All of the windows on each floor gave views of the garden and surrounding countryside. Next we went outside to explore the large garden which was filled with fruit trees and a small neglected potager. At the end of the garden was a small flat field – perfect for that pool we were dreaming of lounging by one day. Underneath the building was a large cellar, the same size as the floors above which you could access directly from the terrace at the back – not that I stuck around long as the place was covered in spider webs (I left Oz to avoid the damn things!).
We spent a good hour exploring the property and its grounds and then set off for the next house which we quickly dismissed. It was a dank holiday home with no back garden with a very strange layout – including a loft accessed via a very dodgy staircase. We didn’t stick around there too long and soon returned with the agent to pick up our car. When then headed off to the B&B that we had booked for the weekend. We had a lot to discuss that evening over a nice bottle of red (or two)!
Ruins of Chateau de Chalus Chabrol where Richard Couer de Lion was wounded
Before we get to the 16th century Logis, I must mention our little side trip around the beautiful countryside of the Haute-Vienne. I don’t know how I forgot about this when I was writing the other day – it had all the trappings of a French farce – though this one starred a Dutchman!
As our visit to the cottage with the nosy neighbour came to a conclusion, our kind host, the caretaker, who had correctly surmised that we were not going to be putting in an offer, asked what it was we were looking for. He mentioned that he knew an estate agent in a nearby town who might be able to help. As we had some time to kill before our next viewing we thought “why not?”. We followed him to the town of Châlus which is where Richard the Lionheart was wounded by a crossbow bolt. He eventually died from the wound and his entrails are said to be buried in Châlus in defiance of the people of the Poitou region (think of what entrails contain…). Anyway, I digress…
We had some lunch in the town, which had obviously fallen from grace in recent times (maybe it was the smell of those entrails!) and then went to meet the ditzy Dutch estate agent. He, of course, had just the property for us, maybe a little over our budget but we would regret it if we didn’t see it (naturally…). We agreed to follow him in Storm (my MX-5) so we could go onto our next appointment after we had seen the house.
The lush Haute-Vienne countryside
If you haven’t been to this part of the Limousin, it is indeed beautiful. It reminded us of Devon with its lush green rolling hills and cow filled fields. The roads became smaller and narrower until we eventually ended upon a track at one point. A couple of times we had to reverse out of a property that obviously not the one we were supposed to see. Our concern grew as our own “Flying Dutchman” stopped a number of times and knocked on doors, obviously asking for directions…a geographically challenged immobilier who obviously hadn't been to the property before – just what we needed! Eventually, with time starting to run short, we found the house. An elderly couple were selling it so they could move back to the UK (a story that we were to encounter often during our property search). It was well situated at the top of a small hill in the middle of a hamlet but not over looked. The view was lovely and the garden immaculate. Unfortunately, the layout of the house was, well, a mess! Bedrooms crammed into the roof-space, accessed off each other (which is another common thing in France) and rooms too small to be of any real use. So we thanked them for their time and wished them well and were thankful for the SatNav that guided us successfully along the maze of little lanes to our next property – the 16th century Logis.
The fishing lake at the 16th century Logis didn't swing the deal
This property was a bit of a gamble. It was basically the gatehouses of the Logis which had been partially restored by the owner. A logis is usually a classical mansion type building on a large estate with numerous outbuildings. This one had its own lake and fishing rights came with the gatehouse. This was naturally of great interest to Andy who is a keen fisherman. The problem was, compared to the Logis the gatehouse was a bit of a letdown. It felt a bit like servants quarters (which I suppose it was really…) with the master in the “big house”. The only garden was at the back of the property which faced on to a fairly busy road and there was a stream which fed into the lake, which was actually more of a swamp, at the end of the building – a bit of a worry. So, no, this was not “the one”.
Barn we saw in the Dordogne, tempting but potentially expensive to maintain!
We found ourselves not far from a property that we had considered viewing before our trip but ended up dismissing once we had all of the details. Again this was a private sale, so we decided to put in a call and ask if they minded us dropping by as we were “just passing”. They were home and happy to accommodate us – this would be our fourth viewing in one day (well they do say that you need to maximise your viewings on a property viewing trip…). This one had been advertised as a hunting lodge in a forest. What they neglected to mention was that a dirty great big fast road had been put through the middle of the forest since the lodge was built. This highway was virtually on their doorstep. The British couple who owned it had “rescued “ the lodge which had been sitting neglected for years. Their interpretation of the word rescue and ours turned out to be quite different. To us, they had destroyed any character that may have remained buy using cheap materials (cupboards made of chipboard), garish colours throughout and cheap and nasty flooring. The bathrooms were interesting too without going into detail. They wre a delightfully mad couple who generously gave us tea and cake. They were planning to invest the money from the sale in another abomination further south. “Bonne chance!” was all I could think.
So it was we concluded our first property viewing trip to France, stopping at some roadside services for our dinner then slipping into another Etap hotel room, identical to the last, not far too from the ferry port from which we were to depart the next day. We hadn’t found “the one” but we had learnt an awful lot about what we wanted and more importantly what we didn’t want and we had met some real characters along the way, mostly ex-pats of one kind or another.
We started planning our next property viewing trip on the ferry back home, after the obligatory stop at the Cité de l’Europe in Calais to pick up some booze of course - it's amazing how much you can fit in an MX-5 when you want to!
This blog is about our holiday cottages near Huelgoat in Brittany and places we have visited in Finistere, with a little bit of everyday life thrown in. We hope that you will find it useful and interesting. Comments always welcome!
A House in Brittany Blogspot
Half Term Dates Holiday Blog
Renovation of a Derelict House in Brittany
The French Village Diaries Blog
A Trifle Rushed
Life in France
John's N Gauge