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A letter from France
Vanessa Howard
July 9, 2020

Vanessa

 

A letter from France; Tales of a Geordie turned Essex Girl – now . . .    

Vanessa Howard

Owner of a Holiday Accommodation Business and Fashion Museum in South West France

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Hi, I am Vanessa. Pleased to meet you! I am a Geordie turned Essex girl, who first discovered France and its magic after a school French exchange, some 30 or so years ago. I stayed with a lovely girl called Cosette, in Fontenay le Comte a quaint, sleepy village in the Vendee region. I can still recall the soft scent of wood-burning smoke, drifting from the chimneys as we scurried down the lane to make it home in time for tea. 
Cosette’s mum, Mme. Chabirand, had collected snails from the garden which I later realised were gathered following a deluge of rain. We found her preparing them out of a huge bucket, taking great pride in her haul! But I do not recall staying for a meal on that evening!

Fontenay le Comte

During my trip, my school pals and I discovered greater delights including smoking Gitaines, chewing peach flavoured Hollywood gum, and boogying and smooching with the local French boys to Sultans of Swing and Angie by the Stones. It is odd how I cannot now recall who I met yesterday, but can remember each of their names, after all these years.
I am not sure what happened to me during that trip, but something struck a chord and I went home dreaming of a life in France. It seemed so much nicer than life in the seaside of Whitley Bay. Or, maybe it was the French boys and their accents that swayed me!

Fast forward a few decades or more during which more holidays were enjoyed across many amazing parts of France and I finally find myself living here.  Not on my own.  I persuaded my Glaswegian other half that it was time for a new adventure before we got too old. Fortunately, he agreed and so we started to mull-over the ‘where, how and what’ in preparation for our new life!

Met a man who said you most certainly can!
At this point thought might just add, our retirement is 67, and as having no luck with the lottery giving up work is sadly not an option. So, I have a background of marketing and William has experience in being able to turn his hand to most aspects of building work. These skills added to our stock from our vintage fashion boutique in Suffolk (a small passion of mine!) combines to make an interesting mix of options for our next career!
So, we are thinking house renovation, bed and breakfast or gite and the continuation of the vintage fashion business.
France of course is huge, and for those who like numbers its 2.3 times bigger than the UK but the population is only a few million more so obviously it’s a lot more rural and spread out. So where exactly do you start when deciding where to live?

Well, have actually visited over the years quite a few places across France and my dream place  is the Cotes Azure, but to be quite frank outside planning to rob a bank our budget would only purchase a rabbit hutch, well small one bed flat actually so maybe not at this stage. Lurking at the back of my mind was the mantra that for warmer weather you need to be at least two thirds of the way down France so at least that was a start.  

Some properties we viewed in our search

At this point it just so happened that The France Show was on in London and so off we went. I don’t know if you have ever been to one, but they are rather massive and consequently mind boggling, with so much to take it. Was also very surprised how many other people also had the same aspirations of waking up to croissants and egg cup sized coffee for breakfast or er petit déjeuner! Arms heavy with brochures and brain cells flipping, we then meet Calum, a fellow Glaswegian on the Currencies Direct stand. At least language with him and William was no barrier! So, to cut a long conversation short he knew a woman who was selling a bed and breakfast between Bordeaux and Bergerac in the Dordogne. Well we are now focussed; it was an old farmhouse with an established business which the owner was selling due to ill health. So, having made contact, we decided to go and see it, and booked the ferry. Neither of us had been to the Dordogne before and therefore were none the wiser its huge with some 2 ½ hours top to bottom and is considered by some we soon learned as Little England due to high proportion of Brits living there!

From Joan of Arc to a Café Gourmand!
In early September 2016, we set off armed with a month to comb the region in search of our perfect Place. Taking the car, we stayed overnight at Dover in a Travelodge which promoted a quiet night’s sleep or your money back. That was easy in the middle of the night firemen bust though our door asking who had fallen! Both of us was still in bed so obviously not us and voila a free stay!

Sarlat

From Calais we decided to break the nine-hour journey down to the far south of the Dordogne by staying overnight in the centre of Orleans which was a very pleasant stop. Not a place to miss the story of the Maid of Orleans of course, old Joan of Arc was featured  everywhere! Next day we made our way down to the stunning medieval village of Sarlat, to be our home for the next ten days. The weather was glorious and somehow, we didn’t get much house-hunting done as there was too much to do and see. We did manage half a day only to discover that prices were quite high, and we needed a much bigger budget if we were looking to include a holiday let too. One of the places we saw was an old watermill, with basically just a few walls left, thought this was maybe taking renovation a bit too far.  There were quite a lot of Brits here and many had accommodation to rent too, so competition was very high.  But on the plus side the market in Sarlat was to die for, especially on the Saturday, with the narrow streets brimming with stalls full of foie gras, walnut oil, duck and local bread and cakes. I took time out on my own to browse as food isn’t Williams thing, and watched the world go by savouring my first (of many!) café gourmand, a small plate of desserts and cakes served with the proverbial egg-cup coffee. 

Would you Typhoo it!
Our next stop was the far left side of the Dordogne in a village called Eymet, in the vineyard region. Our house hunting needed to get serious here, as time was ticking but with the bed and breakfast to see so it was an academic exercise in case of plan b.
We had rented a place just outside the village on booking.com, looked nice and had great reviews and cheap. It turned out to be located in the owner’s garage, they had built a room with adjoining bathroom in the garage and happily rolled up the garage door each day and took out the car for work! Well they say you do get what you pay for!
Eymet was quaint but so full of Brits it was spot the French time. Even the food shop was ran by a Brit for the Brits, the woman who owned it was lamenting she had run out of Typhoo tea and her customers would be having her guts for garters. Plenty of estate agents here though and no surprise all were English speaking.  We picked two and set up visits to many types of houses. We looked at long houses with just one level loads of space but not us, especially as this ones barn was housing a huge bat mob, who weren’t too happy at having their slumber disturbed! Old farmhouses in hamlets which were very beautiful but the water was not on the mains and the fosse was often not even accessible! We looked at town houses with great high ceilings and would be superb to decorate but we had now set our heart on having a pool and town houses don’t usually have one, and to have one built costs in the region of £28k.! Pools actually are more a necessity in this part of France not only due to the heat but also as a huge draw for a gite business. One of these town house we saw looked quite interesting until we went into the garden and saw at the back a rather unattractive factory for fois gras, now that wasn’t on the property’s paperwork!

Our Eymet accommodation

We looked at possibly buying separate buildings one for a gite and in another village a house for ourselves, but then thought we might be spreading ourselves a bit thin and more liking being onsite with our guests. We even looked at a Chateau which had last been an old people’s home. It was really good value for money at about £250k but so much work,  as we walked around there was so many beautiful features including a tower that would make a wonderful keepfit studio, hmm tempting. Then I found myself on my own and felt drawn into a sideroom, where my heart went ten to the dozen, so stepped outside and felt normal, back inside I saw a light on the wall, but there was no window or electricity and I felt really odd and the hairs on the back of my neck stood up. Am not into ghosts and that sort of stuff, but something was spooking me and I wasn’t going to hang about to find out why! So the chateau was out. 

The area around Eymet was basically vineyard land for miles for both Bergerac and the famous sweet wine, Monbazilliac. Have to say, we weren’t really in love with the area and wanted something a little more French and a little less expat. So next stop was our Bed and Breakfast option near the village of Montcaret, standing on its own on a busy road between Bordeaux and Bergerac. Great location of course for business, we had been speaking to the owners by phone and had got on very well, and on the first inspection it looked perfect. A quaint old stone building, with a garden and pool with a view up the hillside ending with a chateau on the horizon. There was a conservatory on the back of the house, and I could see myself with a glass of wine and William with his beer in hand watching the sun go down, pure bliss. There were four bedrooms to rent out and a huge barn which would be great for the vintage clothing. Wow we thought, the sellers were moving on to pastures new as she has progressive MS, and wanted someone to continue what she had grown to a much respected business on Booking,com.  She was even prepared to sell us all the contents and help us set up and take over her bookings for the following year. We were basically sorted and over a glass of wine in the heat of the moment we shook hands… yes this was going to be our next venture!
Should we, could we, will we? To be continued…

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