The Dream of France
September 09, 2008
The Dream of France
Now that the prospect of the long held dream of a Chambre d’Hote in France is approaching reality and I can talk freely about the prospects of opening within the next year I find myself constantly fielding questions from people about how we managed to get the dream this far.
Some of these people are, I know, fellow dreamers who hope to follow us out to a warmer climate far from the grey Irish skies, some, like those addicted to “Place in the Sun” style television, would never dream of leaving their comfort zone but are happy to enjoy the vicarious pleasure of watching someone else leave theirs.
Ours is a dream that goes a way way back, in fact this is our second shot at it.
Just after we were first married, in the early seventies, we headed off to France and a new life.
We didn’t last long, about two months of working in a Country House Hotel in Anjou.
The place had a rough winter, France went into one of its strike bound phases and so, tails just a little between the legs, we returned home.
Strangely this never demolished the dream.
For the next thirty years we fed the dream with holidays in France, always creeping just a little further south, from Brittany, to the Vendee, to the Lot, the Auvergne, Provence and then Languedoc.
I used to survive the long Irish winter by ticking off the days in my diary until we would arrive again in Cherbourg, or St Malo or Roscoff and start the long drive through the changing landscapes south.
For many years we shared these holidays with Sile’s sister Una and her family, ten of us, four adults and six children, often augmented by an extra in law or two.
In later years, when our children deserted us we often went with a party of friends, again often eight or ten.
This was when I discovered that it was my delight to cook for these people on holiday.
The food in the markets, butchers and supermarkets were so good and fresh that, even though I had spent my year cooking in our restaurant in Waterford I revelled in the busman’s holiday atmosphere of cooking for my friends.
Thus was the dream nurtured and kept alive.
It was never just a pipe dream, every year on our holidays we never passed an estate agents window without gathering up the For Sale brochures and looking for properties which we could afford.
I decided that it was vital that my overconfident but inaccurate French achieved some schooling so have been attending classes for the last ten years, Sile having been exchanged to France during her teens was fluent.
It was sometime in the autumn of 2004 when I had my Eureka moment.
We were eating together in the restaurant having just come back from a week in Wales during which I had not had a moments peace as there was a problem in the restaurant with blocked sewage which was not resolving.
I was quite sure that at this stage Sile was just about fed up with the restaurant which she compared to a child which would not grow up and leave home but rather become more troublesome as it got older.
It was then that I asked my self the question ;
“What would you like to do most with your life ?”
The simple answer was go on holiday to France.
Then , finally , the penny dropped.
If we opened a B & B, in France life could be always like the holidays.
Sometimes fate is kind to one, amazingly kind, and very soon afterwards , before we had even put the Restaurant on the market, someone came and made us an offer which we could not refuse.
The dream was for the first time in strong danger of becoming a reality.
It was however September of 2005 before the last paperwork for the restaurant was sorted and we had bought ourselves a little house here in Waterford that we started to get practical about how we were going to make the dream a reality.
Despite our numerous holidays in France over the years we were at that stage still undecided where we would settle.
The following July, after our daughter’s wedding, we set off on a holiday in which our route was not planned, instead we were going to wander through all of our favourite parts France and thus decide which of these many regions was going to be the home of the B&B.
Brittany and Normandy were the first discarded because of their unreliable climate, we reckoned we could get much the same at home in Ireland.
The Loire, where we had first worked, was a contender. We knew its castles and rivers, its beautiful affluent villages, terrific wines and it was only a few hours from the Atlantic ports- buy was it too a bit far north?
Burgundy, again terrific wines and the scene of many a great night in gourmet hotels on the way back from the South, was a great and undiscovered area but again we thought a little too far north.
The Auvergne, the poorest and most like Ireland of the French areas, was full of interest but in the end discarded as it was not adequately served by airlines.
Provence, which we loved, had , thanks to Peter Mayle, just become too dear.
This left us with the South West, the provinces of Aquitaine, Midi Pyrenees and Languedoc Roussillon.
The Atlantic coast of Aquitaine was never really a contender, we were looking for a Mediterranean rather than an Atlantic climate and anyway we didn’t really know the area.
By the end of that holiday the field was narrow, but yet not decided.
I think the make your mind up decider was a Ryanair moment the following February.
We decided to go to the coast of Languedoc, to stay in Marseillan and to talk to estate agents while there.
The handiest way out was Ryanair to Montpellier via London.
On the way out Sile lost her passport on the plane, we ended spending an undesired week end in London and having a firm conviction that a direct flight from Ireland would be a must if we hoped to persuade Irish customers to come.
Carcassonne had flights from Shannon and Dublin direct, so that was the decision.
The Dwyer’s new venture must be within 100 klms, or one hour from Carcassonne.
The first places we looked on that holiday were by the sea or close to it.
These helped us enormously to decide on the Must Haves of our new venture.
So here was the essential list;
1) Within 100klms of Carcassonne
2) In a town or village (we had seen how country dwellers had to wrap their houses in security on departure, in the towns and villages neighbours watched out for neighbours.)
3) Said village must have at least its own Baker, and preferably a butcher and a weekly market.
4) The house must have at least three lettable rooms which could be made into “en Suites” and another in which we could sleep.
5) A Good Terrace for eating out during the summer (and the autumn and spring)
6) (And this was a sticky one) A garden big enough to put a swimming pool-the French word for this was Piscinable . This was not because we intended to immediately put one in but wanted the chance of doing so in the future
7) It must be within budget, or if needing lots of work, be considerably below.
8) We must both fall in love with it, this effectively meant it must be of some age, quirkiness and beauty.
This was, we soon began to realise an extremely tall order.
Our first houses which we looked at in February of 2006 were failures, principally on numbers 6 and 7, or in other words they had no gardens, little or no terraces and were too dear for us.
We soon realised that proximity to the coast came with a price, the nearer the dearer so we decided to move our search further inland and it was this in mind that we organised ourselves for intense house hunting during the following July and August.
This time we came prepared.
We contacted the agents well in advance and had lined up hosts of eager estate agents to show us around properties during the month of August.
One of the lessons we did learn early on was not to mention Chambre d’Hotes as most of the agents then only brought you to established ones which were for sale.
We were very sure we wanted to do our own thing and not pay for anyone else’s goodwill.
And so we spent a fortnight of seeing some totally unsuitable properties.
Some were in a shocking state of disrepair, often with unfinished renovations.
One was infested with fleas which we discovered in the agents car on the way home and spent a hilarious ten minutes half stripped by the roadside vigorously grooming each other.
Lots had gardens alright but at some distance from the house, lots were too small,
one had its terrace accessible only through the bathroom, some were hideously modern (and too dear) some were just too near pounding traffic.
Some in were in villages which had died years ago (often having a weekly visit from a butcher or a baker) some were in towns which were too big.
We saw one in the village of Azille which ticked a lot of boxes but, at the end of the garden there was a huge remis, a sort of barn, in stone which was obviously just about to fall down, too scary but the best to date.
We had we knew kept the best wine to the last.
Freddy Rueda in St. Genies de Fontadet had the reputation for being a good man to sell.
We arrived to St Genies in the middle of August and met his agent, Charles, in the local café.
He had a large bundle of properties in a file .
We had seen so many unsuitable properties at this stage that I decided to level with him, Charles had been to university in England so communications were easy.
I basically gave him our essentials list and also told him we wanted to end up with a B&B.
Charles immediately put down the file, extracted two properties and said “Fine, now I know what to do, I will show you two properties, one just for comparison purposes and the other you will buy”
He then brought us to a house in Autignac, big enough but with the garden down the road from the house, then he brought us to the Presbytere in Thezan les Beziers.
As we were going in he stopped at the door;
“This house has something you didn’t ask for but I’m sure you actually want when you see it; A View.”
It had, also it ticked all the other boxes.
That night Sile and I argued up and down for hours on end, in agonies of indecision, could this possibly be the one?
The following day we went back to the property in Azille, I think that was the clincher, there was no doubt the Presbytere was head and shoulders over that house.
The following day we made an offer, by December all the red tape had been satisfied and it was ours.
Now nearly two years later the project is on the last long stretch. We now have our four bedrooms with their four bathrooms, our space in the attic for ourselves just lacks a bathroom and all we have to do now is decorate and furnish the entire house.
I will keep you informed.