Sunday, September 23, 2018

Buying a second home: issues and benefits!


Buying a second property is always a difficult decision; home, after all, is home, and duplicating the issues, responsibilities and care required to maintain a house can be both distracting and daunting.
However, as many have asked me both why and how I did it, here are some answers.

I come from Europe, and although I have lived in Canada for forty years and more, I have never “left”, and wanted a foothold here as I grew older and had more time on my hands. France seemed to be a logical place, as I still had a smattering of French grammar pounded into me at my Dickensian boarding school five decades earlier, and in the south, the climate is clement. I had no idea where, but my father, ever a wise man, indicated that I should look at the Languedoc. “It is a fine place”, he said, “very beautiful, good weather, interesting history and they make a nice drop of wine.” 

8, rue Victor Hugo Before ..

... and after 
And he was right. Within thirty-six hours of my first visit to Esperaza in 2007, I had bought an old butcher’s shop, on an old street in an old town. No glistening whitewash overlooking a glittering seascape; this was working France, and I fell in love immediately. With the town, but not the bureaucracy.

French bureaucracy is unimaginably tedious and wearying. It is designed for activity rather than purpose or outcome, and cannot be beaten. Documents, in a precise order with a precise number of initials in precisely the correct place, are required by the kilo, and are many and repetitive. Documents sent by registered mail that failed to secure a signature upon receipt (even though the questions within were addressed) cause havoc, and notarised documents noting the lack of signature, although a poor replacement, are needed to complete the package. Taxes are levied, fees are charged, more photographs of elderly relatives and each pet’s birth certificate (unless born in Guadeloupe or Guyane (after January 2003)) are demanded.

The wait is worth is ... "The Neighbourhood"
But this is France, and secure in the knowledge that the country’s legal system is not actually stacked against an innocuous purchase in an innocuous village, one eventually smiles and lets the system grind along. And, after a couple of months or so, one is summoned to the Notaire, money is paid and the keys are exchanged.

And then the fun starts.

Having a new home reverts one to a quivering teenager purchasing the first bean bags for the first bedsit. How does one get electricity? Water? Heating? Insurance …. The list of endless requirements, completed at home in a blink of an eye, loom like demons of frustration. There is always help, however, and somehow, all of these issues fall into place. Do you buy a bed before a table, a beer fridge before a lamp? Where do you find cutlery and bath grout?

After sourcing the furniture (IKEA is good), life emerges

And then the real fun starts.

Culturally interesting, especially the hats
The true beauty of having a second home is the opportunity to immerse oneself in another culture in a way that travellers and tourists simply cannot. One returns frequently, each time to discover a new road, a new village, new people, new music and a new thread to the fabric that holds the community together. It is an exciting process and one that draws newcomers into the fold of the village. It is, as is so often said, about “the people”, and this is true. Different communities have different characters, and it is these subtle differences, perhaps, that subconsciously attract different people to different places.

It was Espéraza, the town of 2,500 in the Aude Valley that chose us, and it is fascinating. In its industrial heyday it was the global centre for hat production; it is said that not an actress from Moscow to Los Angeles was without a hat from Espéraza. The industry also served military contracts and the population had swelled to over 20,000 in the 1930s. But alas, a change in fashion, and the invention of other material that armies favoured for their headwear changed the industry, and it has been in decline since the 1950s. It is a town that has been coloured by refugees: over 250,000 fled Spain during Franco’s regime, and many settled in this town on the far side of the Pyrenees.

Today incomers from many other places, from Africa and from Yorkshire, from Amsterdam and even Winnipeg are moving here and adding their own threads to the fabric of the Aude Valley.


I do believe that if Peter Mayle had written a book called “A Year in the Languedoc” instead of Provence, the social geography of France would be quite different. This is a quiet, contemplative region, and the Aude Valley, a succession of small towns and villages that rise with the land from Carcassonne until one is in the foothills of the Pyrenees, is a gem. It is an indescribably beautiful region, and one that will, I am sure, quietly and steadily grow over the next ten years as more people steer away from the “brands” and seek the soul of the destination that they are visiting.

And, over the ten years that I have had the house here, I have come to love the region so much that two weeks ago I bought a new, and bigger property, and moved. I spend my life travelling, as so many readers have pointed out to me, but of all of the places that I have travelled, for reasons that are impossible to explain, Espéraza and the Aude Valley draw me back.

And it is only three hours from Tossa de Mar!


The new house, and the view over the Pyrenees



Saturday, September 15, 2018

Tossa de Mar: a Mediterranean gem

Toss de Mar, Costa Brava

Tossa de Mar rekindled my faith in the Mediterranean. For many years I had been despairing as the towns and villages around this tremendous sea were gradually being consumed by blandness. That gradual but powerful neutering that overwhelms individuality and turns each beach resort into an identikit duplication of each other.

Towns that had character now morphed indistinguishably into one another; travel brochures highlight the same attractions of sandy beaches, vibrant nightlife and endless sunshine. One resort becomes another.

There are, of course, exceptions, after all, the Mediterranean is a large sea. However, they become harder to find, and more difficult to reach. And then there is Tossa. I don’t usually try to write “puff pieces”, but having spent a little time in the town, I can’t really resist.

Tossa de Mar is a small Catalan community lying in the middle of the Costa Brava some 100 kms to the north of Barcelona. It is, in short, accessible and lying within one of the most popular tourist regions in Europe. It has, however, retained its soul. Its growth has been obstructed by geography, tradition and the strength of the local community to direct the town’s future.

Tossa's 12th century castle
Tossa is old. There are Roman ruins, and ample evidence of an active community here some 2,000 years ago, but the dominant and irresistible historical authority comes from the picturesque and poised castle that overlooks the town. Built in the 12th century, this magnificent castle grew to encompass a medieval town, now sympathetically restored to its 14th century appearance. As the local population grew in the 15th and 16th century, houses popped up outside the castle, and the community of Tossa emerged into the pattern it shows today. Small winding streets creep around the bay and offer tourists a glimpse into the soul of the past.

The front street has, of course, restaurants, but the buildings, including the hotels date back to the 1950s and beyond; the temptation to knock them down and replace them with a shiny new hotel or “tourist complex” has been resisted, and Tossa is all the better off for it.

Tossa de Mar - Street scenes

There are many places to stay; mostly small, family hotels, and the Hotel Tarull is a fabulous example. The property, built in the 1950s is run by Lluis Soler Capdevila and his delightful wife Meri. Lluis is a third-generation hotelier, and it shows. His attention to detail and to the whims, needs and interests of his guests is remarkable. New guests are presented with a map of the town with his restaurant suggestions already hand written, along with notes of supermarkets and other interesting spots. His choices of places to eat were formidable, and the variety and quality of food available in this small community is surprising.

Too often beach-resort restaurants offset a fine view with mediocre food; menus that offer identical choice, often frozen and served with little enthusiasm but great expense. To be sure, these types of mountebanks exist in Tossa as well, but there are gems. Casa Igor, run by a Michelin star chef, Simó Tomàs Vallvé who retired from the pressure of Barcelona to run a small, twenty cover restaurant here, is simply fabulous. The combination of local ingredients, a small menu and an enormous imagination is an extraordinary find.

Another Tossa institution is the Restaurant Bahia; located on the front, and at first indistinguishable from it less memorable neighbours, this third-generation family restaurant is quite simply a wonderful place to eat. Their food is well cooked, well presented, most agreeably served and quite imaginative. The stream of regulars is a testament to their place in Tossa, and any visitor eating there finds a sense of what Tossa means to its people.

And there are about 6,000 of them; fewer in the winter months and more in the summer, but about 6,000 overall. Proud Catalans with the sense of confidence and dignity that a millennia of history will cultivate. It is a community of ancient traditions like the annual forty-kilometer pilgrimage el Vot del Poble undertaken each year since the 1400s to give thanks for delivering Tossa from the scourges of the Bubonic Plague.

Tossa de Mar is a town that knows its history and can see its future. It is a town that seems to have managed to find the elusive balance of tourism today, that point between the needs and interests of the local community and the desires and expectations of their visitors. It is a community that has earned the respect of its tourists, and one that will certainly delight new visitors for many years to come.

I love Tossa!