House buying in France

Bob French tells the story of his property purchase in southern France

Finding one’s piece of Gallic paradise can often be quite unconventional, and even a matter of chance. Such was my experience back in the 1980s, with a study full of maps, lists and photos. Our house had been on the market and sold to the first applicant, whose own house was called ‘Mistral’. It seemed like a good sign. It was time to put flesh on bones.

We found ourselves in the hill village of Lussan, not far from Uzès (Gard). From the ramparts we could see an odd-looking structure which looked like a ruin with bright red scaffolding protruding from the top. In the cool interior of a restaurant at lunchtime, a trio of architects were perusing plans for a competition in Oman; one, François, was the owner of the ‘ruin’. It was his atelier and house, which we were invited to visit. We finished lunch, and our stone of destiny rolled just a bit.

François asked what we were doing in France. I explained about our house search and, taking my map in hand, he said he knew an artist who had part of a hameau for sale, and circled it in red. I still have the sacred map! It seemed the stone needed to be followed, so we shot off onto the small D-roads towards the west.

We passed a farm, then followed a narrow, stony track around a cliff-flanked hill, into a deep and secret country. Trees closed over the car roof, dizzy limestone cliffs soared opposite and a promontory yielded a huge amphitheatre with soaring ravens and buzzards. All around were stony terraces with skeletal olive trees, and a purple sign saying “Hameau”. We exchanged glances, unsure if we had arrived and if people even lived there.

Among the haphazard clatter of rocks were signs of some buildings and we felt an immediate sense of genius loci. The rudimentary stone vaults and raggedy walls were magical, with wild clematis in light and shade from slanting sun. Move a stone and a scorpion scuttled away, and dust motes made the shadows primeval. We were enchanted, and hardly dared speak lest we break the spell.

“Il y a quelqu’un?” I called. A short, stocky, bearded man, very bronzed and possibly a satyr, emerged from a stone archway, a lavender towel around his waist. M. le proprietaire, no doubt. I explained our reason for visiting, and we were invited back to his house for a vin d’orange and a long discussion. He introduced his wife, a Virginia Woolf lookalike, and we did a tour. On the front an arched door competed with a ragged fig tree and led to a cool vaulted cave filled with hay, while up more steps was a large courtyard, shaded by a large bay tree, and another rambling fig. All around were honey-brown stone walls, covered with ivy and lichen, but providing essential shelter from the intrusive mistral and tramontane. Through a doorway marked 1817 there was a large living room, and other rooms vaulted and thick-walled here and there. Summing up all we saw, we felt that it was big enough for our needs. We said au revoir and drove slowly back along the track, with its backdrop of wild country and distant views. We had both experienced a form of enchantment, and perhaps a glimpse of joint destiny.

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We had found a place, totally unasked, which had reached into our subconscious. I was reminded of a book by Ted Simon called Jupiter’s Travels in which Jupiter, having no intention of buying a house in south-west France, ended up by purchasing one at first sight. He said he felt that the house had been looking for him, a phenomenon that we very much shared, together with a strong sense of ‘belonging’ from the first moment. The site had been occupied since 3000 BC; St Peile means ‘holy hill’. There was also a good water source and even a Roman water tank not far away.

It may have had a sense of safety about it. Some harmonic caused by the contours, the level spaces, the quality of air; a physical rather than mystical effect. Later on when we had visitors, they felt at ease, spontaneously saying so with a sort of timelessness and detachment. Perhaps seek no further, just accept, as now we had to actually buy it!

Back in Britain, in reality again, things were pulled together: finances sorted, house sold, business changed, as well as all the turmoil of tearful farewells, fatigue from packing the goods of a lifetime, and a nagging fear of the unknown. We had no security blanket of old or new money, just what we had worked for. I went to Montpellier to buy a new Citroën 2CV – the blessed deux chevaux to which could be coupled a trailer – and we called her Modestine, after Stevenson’s donkey! D-Day came soon: two friends were to drive a large van, overloaded for sure, and the dog had to be ‘exported’ with the right papers.

Here we were then, scrambling along an anonymous stretch of the M25, in lashing rain and a full gale. What had happened to that memory of blue sky, a quiet hill and a glass of pastis? We met up with Bob and Roy very late to find that two tyres had burst on the van, and when they jacked it up, the jack collapsed with the weight. Eventually we were onto the ferry at 1.30am – after the chief officer had radioed the words “dog on board” – and then around the madness of the Paris péripherique. On southwards, with some snow near Lyon, until desperation drove us to the same restaurant where it had all started months ago, for some food and several cognacs. The owners had been expecting us to eat with them, so on we went, round the rough track on the hill, where we guided the van stone by stone, until it made a lopsided stop just by the house.

We had arrived.

After some refreshments, we all tumbled into various beds and snored the night away. The morning was so different: brilliant blue sky and bright sunshine, and we all bundled into Modestine to see the notaire in Uzès, to sign the final contract and pay up. In the office, we read all that was necessary and all was well, except for a few things that had been promised to be done but remained incomplete. The shape of things to come! If ever there was a cleft stick, we were in it. Our trust had not been honoured and the notaire wanted to retain a sum of money, but the vendors would not agree. We were homeless and committed – which they well knew – so we had to swallow hard and present the bank draft, which was declared in order, much to the vendors’ surprise.

At last. We were Monsieur et Madame les proprietaires.

Bob French