Heading off in search of adventure, Genine and Colin James went on a road trip around France, before falling in love with the market towns of historic Gascony
Like many parents, when our two daughters left home and headed off to new and exciting lives at university we were left wondering if we should wind down and enjoy the peace and quiet of an empty nest in England, or head off in search of a new adventure ourselves.
At this point we decided it might be fun to tour France for three months on a motoring holiday and to enjoy the freedom of the open road rather than the constraints of a package holiday. So in 2004 we packed up and set off on what would become the biggest adventure of our lives.
The freedom of travelling around the whole country enabled us to see so many different areas of France, from Brittany and Normandy down to the south-west and Gascony. We were stunned by the beauty of this last part of France, which seemed to have lain untouched for centuries.
Driving around Gascony, we discovered the joys of quiet roads and passing through endless valleys of sunflowers and corn unspoilt by the modern industrial zones we were so used to in the UK. We were travelling during the summer months and for the first time in years we began to grow accustomed to the idea that the sun can shine every day.
The valleys around the Gers department were dotted with stone houses and farms with sometimes only one house per hilltop, and we later found out that Gascony is actually one of the least populated regions of France.
The peace which comes with less traffic and a slow pace of life was just what we needed. We decided to stop touring and spent some time in an area of rural France about an hour from Toulouse.
Despite being so close to la ville rose (so named because of the pale pink colour of its brickwork in the sunlight) we realised that we were in the heart of rural France. We discovered a handful of vibrant market towns and villages scattered over the hilltops, such as Mauvezin, Lectoure, St-Clar.
Each town has its own market once a week where we found a feast of fruit and vegetables, cheeses, meats and in some cases even live ducks and geese. As we discovered, le paradoxe gascon is the art of living to a ripe old age while eating and drinking extremely well. Every day at lunchtime, the world grinds to a halt as the restaurants fill for a good two hours with everyone enjoying this moment to relax and socialise with friends over a carafe of house red or white.
The duck fat is reputed to be good for the heart and judging by the number of octogenarians we met on our travels, sitting watching the world go by on the village benches, this is a part of the world which is not in a hurry to rush a good confit de canard.
Drive to buy
Once we began to relax into the local pace of life an idea began to form. What if we bought a holiday home here? We knew from all the places we had visited it would have to be Gascony, so tentatively we began our search.
We discovered a vast array of properties on the market, some of which had not been touched for what seemed like generations. Time stood still in some of the old farmhouses we visited, where the kitchens and bathrooms looked like museum displays from the 1930s.
On the last day of our search, a local agent showed us an old farmhouse which had been empty for 50 years. The local farmer still worked the fields around the area but preferred to live in a new-build house. As soon as we walked into the lovely old farmhouse we fell in love with the building.
We realised the barns and hay lofts, the 200-year-old beams and stonework were exactly what we were looking for. The property had no near neighbours but was within a 10-minute drive of shops and facilities; plus, it was set with lovely views on over three acres of land.
We bought the property on sight. Located on the outskirts of Faudoas, just three kilometres from the medieval town of Maubec and within easy reach of a number of market towns we loved, we were also near to Toulouse airport.
Living the life
For over four years we came down here on holiday and began renovations; work progressed slowly and for the first few years we lived in a converted outbuilding which had housed chickens and which made a cosy bolthole while we worked on the main house.
After four years we realised more and more that we needed to be on site to oversee works and to finish the project, so we announced to our family and friends that we would be moving permanently to France.
This was the start of the real adventure! Although our daughters spoke French fluently, we now needed to learn how to speak to our neighbours on a daily basis and we discovered how much faster it is to learn when having to speak French in our daily lives. The local farmer who had known the house since he was a child has popped in regularly to watch the transformation of the farm into a lovely home.
As well as throwing ourselves into the house renovation we also led busy social lives. We found the locals to be very friendly and during the summer months there are many festivals and soirées held in the local villages, such as the garlic festival in St-Clar and the melon festival in Lectoure.
We have made many good friends of all nationalities in the area and for the last couple of years have also been running our own business managing other holiday homes and offering building services, not to mention dealing with French bureaucracy.
After 10 years, we have reluctantly decided that at our time of life the property would be better suited to a large family or to someone wishing to run a chambres d’hôtes, so have decided to sell. With the conversion of the barns and hay lofts above the farmhouse we now have over 380m² of living space, which is much more than we need.
With four reception rooms, six bedrooms, five bathrooms and a separate guest house, it is a lot to manage for two people. However, if there are any families looking to relocate to sunny Gascony, we would be happy to welcome you to our home.
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