Home ownership in France doesn’t have to start with a dream property, Nigel Howard and his wife Michelle found an apartment in Côte-d’Or as a foothold first
It started with a dream. It became a novel idea. Now, for me and my American wife, Michelle, it is our ultimate life goal. After copious amounts of in-depth research, soul searching and wine discussions with friends, we decided that we wanted to own a small slice of rural France.
Our requirement is simple. We desire a healthy work/life balance, where we can enjoy our cerebrally challenging consultancy projects, while living a relaxing, family-focused life in the countryside. I also wanted to give my three children a different perspective on life abroad and some new experiences as they grow older.
Michelle and I met seven years ago in the Middle East and were married at the beautiful Château Montestruc near Bergerac in 2017, with over 100 family and friends in attendance. Prior to that, we had both spent over 20 years working all over the world. Our work had taken us separately to Eastern Europe, Africa, Asia and the Middle East, before we returned to the UK in 2016 to be closer to my children.
Striving for a life in France
Today we continue to strive towards our vision for the future. It has been an eventful journey and while we are not yet at our destination, our aspiration is that within the next four years we will move to France full-time.
On the morning of 23 June 2016, we awoke to discover the result of the EU referendum. We were shell-shocked. Our plan faced significant hurdles. Undeterred, we reassessed our options and scoped out a new course of action that would lead us to our dream, while still keeping our spirits lifted.
After much discussion, planning and investigation, we purchased an apartment in the stunning medieval village of Semur-en-Auxois in northern Burgundy. We chose the Côte-d’Or department because I have strong family connections there and I have been visiting this area of France for as long as I can remember. My uncle, late auntie, several cousins and friends can all be found in this delightful area of the country.
While we thoroughly enjoy our life in a small village in Kent, nowhere feels more like home than the rolling countryside of northern Burgundy. The pace of life is slow – too slow for some – but we find it invigorating. The people are kind and exceptionally warm-hearted.
Michelle, a classically trained opera singer in her formative years, now sings jazz in a local band. Her parents emigrated from the United States to France to be closer to us, falling in love with Burgundy as we have. We are honoured they have chosen to share it with us, the children, my family, and our extended network of neighbours and friends.
Michelle and I were not in a position to purchase our future dream home, so our initial aim was to secure a foothold. We were sincerely grateful that my parents could assist us financially and we subsequently purchased a three-bedroom apartment in a 450-year-old converted convent, La Visitation, built on the historic ramparts in the old town of Semur-en-Auxois. Brasseries, cafés and amenities are just a short walk away.
The apartment is exceptionally light and airy. Inside, we required some minor structural work to make better use of the kitchen and we also took the opportunity to completely revamp the bathroom. Moreover, we livened up the walls with bold colours that represented our sense of adventure and we ripped up all the vinyl flooring to reveal the original wooden floor, which was subsequently sanded and polished.
With limited storage space we tried to utilise the height of the apartment by inserting shelving and hanging rails wherever we could. A trip to the local troc in Dijon resulted in a substantial amount of furniture that only required a clean and polish before it was put to good use. We now feel that we have a perfectly comfortable and cosy ‘lock-up-and-leave’ apartment, which we visit once a month.
Burgundy wine and history
Côte-d’Or (meaning golden hillside) is best known for its cuisine and world-famous vineyards. There is a famous Burgundian saying: ‘Claret pour les hommes, champagne pour les madames et Bourgogne pour les roi!’ (Claret for the men, champagne for the ladies and Burgundy for the kings!) As a pinot lover, I would concur.
Outside of the wine region, this particular area is relatively undiscovered by the average British Francophile. There are, however, a good number of British expats in Burgundy and they tend to be well integrated into their respective communities. The countryside has undulating hills, a patchwork quilt of green fields and forests, enchanting villages, and a heritage to rival any area of France.
The region is drenched in history and folklore. In the winter of 53-52BC Julius Caesar finally managed to trap and defeat the Gallic leader Vercingetorix at the village of Alesia. The battle is the French equivalent of 1066 for the English, and there is now an impressive museum to commemorate this momentous event. My cousin Katie lives in a rustic lockhouse on the Canal de Bourgogne that now meanders through the fields of where the battle took place. We often discuss how fortunate we are to be walking on such hallowed grounds.
A short drive away is the impressive UNESCO-listed town of Vézelay, which traces its roots back to the 11th century and was a key staging post for The Crusades.
Cheese and Chocolat
Also nearby is the wonderful village of Époisses, home to the pungent but delectable cheese of the same name that was declared le roi de fromages by philosopher and culinary expert, Brillat-Savarin. There’s a theme developing with Burgundians and their appreciation of food and wine!
Close to Alesia is the medieval village of Flavigny-sur-Ozerain, which served as the location for the film Chocolat starring Johnny Depp and Juliette Binoche, and is famed for aniseed. Monks from the St-Joseph Abbey still walk the streets, living and working in a monastery that was founded by Widerad in 717AD.
For the wine enthusiast, a visit to the charming Domaine Flavigny-Alesia is highly recommended. The small vineyard dates from the 8th century and produces excellent wines at reasonable prices. For those with children, the superb Parc de l’Auxois zoo is a must.
With our foothold established we are now searching for the dream farmhouse to refurbish so we can set down firm roots and enjoy la bonne vie!
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