My France - Quentin Willson

Motoring expert Quentin Willson fulfilled a lifelong dream when he bought a country retreat in the Gironde. As he tells Eleanor Fullalove, all he needs now is the 2CV to go with it

Motoring expert Quentin Willson fulfilled a lifelong dream when he bought a country retreat in the Gironde. As he tells Eleanor Fullalove, all he needs now is the 2CV to go with itWhat drew you to France and Saint-�milion in particular? We’d always nursed an ambition to have a little place in France and I fell in love with the medieval, stone coloured town when I went there for a job. My wife flew out and we saw this fairytale ch�teau – not a big one, but with towers and turrets. You couldn’t buy a one bed flat in Fulham for the price. That was four years ago. We have brought Ch�teau Gourgues back to its grandeur, putting in the ceiling roses and all the cornices that had been taken out. We bought lots of gilded mirrors and put in the old fireplaces and had a great time going around the brocantes. It has a lovely garden and some vines as well.

You have described Ch�teau Gourgues as one of the best things you and your family have ever done – is there any particular reason?Simply because it opens up another world. The only way I can describe it is Britain circa 1957 – empty roads, wonderful wide space, genteel children, standards, culture, beautiful respect for Napoleonic buildings, and a set of values which sadly we’ve lost in this country. We’ve got three children and I think exposure to that and the beautifully lyrical language is an enormously precious gift. Where we are, it’s terribly rural and the people are charming, the local mayor’s my best friend because he loves cars! Touch wood, or touchons du bois’ it’s all gone wonderfully well.

How often do you visit?Not every other weekend, but if we can steal a Friday to Monday, my wife and I will jump on a plane. In the summer, we’re there for eight weeks. If you’re going to choose a house in France, you’ve got to be near an airport and make sure you’ve got at least two or three regular routes. We can go on the Eurostar too, or on the ferry and drive. It’s about an hour and a half on a plane, but it’s a big old drive, we tried it once in a Bentley.

Would you buy a French car? The problem with French cars is that they’re so expensive over there, particularly at the moment – the euro is so strong and the pound’s so weak. I did try and tell my wife that what we need darling is a lovely old grey 1960s Citro�n 2CV’ but she’s not having any of it.

How do you spend your time in Saint-�milion?We trundle down to the shops, go to some brocantes, go to our nearest big city, Bordeaux – just enjoy it! We’ve got this lovely farmer next door who looks after the wine for us. He will come round and we will sit and talk about Sarkozy and the strikes in Paris. He gives me my real authentic French experience. I speak to him in French, both of us with dictionaries on the table! That’s a huge bounty for me, to really start to speak French properly.

You’re on especially good terms with the local mayor… We met at the town’s f�te. I told him I was a motoring journalist and he invited me to see his car collection. This was a huge honour because nobody had ever seen it, so I gave him a copy of a book I had translated into French to say thank you. He treats me as an absolute equal. It turns out he’s got 12 ch�teaux and sells three million bottles of wine a year, but I’ve learned from him that there will never be any money in making wine in France. My ros� won the Highly Commended award at the International Wine Challenge 2008. A few local restaurants have it.

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You’ve written plenty about cars, but are you tempted to join the likes of Peter Mayle, in writing about your experience? It’s funny you should say that, it’s like an itch in my head. There are all these surreal things happening to you all the time, so many funny stories that I really ought to get down. It would flow. I think before I’m much older, pen will be put to paper!

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