Showing posts with label Esperaza. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Esperaza. Show all posts

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



Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Buying and selling Travel on the internet

I have been extremely remiss in failing to add to my blog for the past month.

Consider it a month’s vacation, or even a month’s block, but here I am again. It has been a very interesting period; I have been based at our rather peculiar house in Esperaza in the South of France,  first warding off the excesses of the local wine festival, then brief trips to London for family and philatelic reasons and then to Georgia to finalise our new company “Are Mare” .

It is the Yellow shop with the blue shutters!

 I have been working here, compiling a substantial proposal for a consultancy to work on tourism product development in the three northern Territories, designing some new tour programs for The Great Canadian Travel Company, (curiously) putting together a “supply chain” to deliver 5,000 metric tons of chicken-feed every month to Azerbaijan (some really odd opportunities come my way), and simply enjoying the burst of spring in the Pyrenean foothills.

The view from the office 

However, I have had time to get riled, and it is for you, my dear readers, that I am annoyed.

I have written much about the double-edged nature of the internet; it is an environment that has made so many completely suspend credulity and hurl themselves into this unregulated market with the most surprising gusto. It is a fine place; “things” of all manner are available, and because the common credo of “cut out the middle man and save money” is so simple, folks buy stuff by the ton.

It is also interesting to note how many folks hit the “buy” button at nine o’ clock in the evening, quite conceivably with a bottle of wine inside them, and at a time when their protective middlemen are presumably hitting their own “buy” buttons.

And now we find that the principals who have spent hundreds of millions of dollars/lari/euros or whatever designing their websites have done so for self-serving reasons. Shock! Horror! Their sole interests in designing their sites, and it is likened to a web for a very good reason, is to maximise their revenues, and lure you in.

It is not designed to minimise your expenditures.

Have you noticed how, during the purchasing process, the price or “availability” of the items, seats, beds or cabins that you are trying to buy changes? Sometimes discreetly with “Only two left at this price” appearing from nowhere, subtly telling you that you are on the right track, and should finalise, or more forcefully with a $10 increase in price?

Yesterday, a hotel I was looking at that initially offered four options only showed two (highest/lowest) ten minutes later; by resubmitting on a different search engine, I got the middle two quotes back and booked.

Well, "they" follow you; each key-stroke is measured, and with the new generation of phones, "they" listen to your calls, and will translate your level of excitement for an upcoming trip into another few dollars onto the room. It is quite extraordinary how much privacy we all give up by ticking the “I accept” boxes; a paradox considering how those self-same companies will give up no informations at all, citing “privacy issues”.

There is a weapon.

Each browser offers an “incognito” or “private browsing” option. These covers, usually used by folks trying to cover the tracks of their various fetishes that are so diligently pursued at work, are your friends. By going “underground” as you search the web for prices, these windows will (to a great extent) muddy your tracks and make you less likely to be followed.

And remember too that Google reads all G Mail, and then promptly sells the information thus gleaned of your upcoming trips, ideas or whatever else you may unwisely communicate in this electronic fashion to a wide range of suppliers who are eager to pay for such “qualified” customers.


And finally, should you wonder why it makes a difference to an airline or hotel where you live before you get a quote, it is simple. Certain markets are perceived to be more lucrative and North Americans seem to be the cherries on the cake.

If I were you, I would fib; tell them you live in Cameroon, and see what happens then.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

The Travellers' Curse

This was not meant to be a miserable post, and I hope that it isn’t, but I was minded to ponder my wanderings after rereading an aphorism in a blog that I follow. It is wildly known as the Travellers' Curse, and appears in many variants, and this is but one.

“The more places you see, the more things you see that appeal to you, but no one place has them all. In fact, each place has a smaller and smaller percentage of the things you love; it drives you, even subconsciously, to keep looking, for a place not that’s perfect (we all know there’s no Shangri-La), but just for a place that’s “just right for you.” But the curse is that the more you experience, the odds of finding “just right” get smaller, not larger. So you keep looking even more, but the more that you see, the harder it gets”. 

This is Part A

I love to travel, and have noticed that as an addiction, travel follows the traditional paths of most compulsions, requiring ever more adventure, ever more frequency and ever more “interesting” places to be.


It is the yellow one 

The case in point is the rather tranquil, if not traditionally beautiful, village of Esperaza in the Languedoc region of the south of France. It is not the most glamorous place that I have visited, but it is a destination that captivates me.

Now, the dining room 


In 2007, I bought an old butcher’s shop in the main street of this unprepossessing town on a complete and utter whim. In fact, it was seen at 11.00am, purchased by 1.00pm and by 4.00pm that afternoon we were flying back to Canada; why we did this most reckless thing I have absolutely no idea, but I am delighted that we did.

For some reason, Esperaza ticks more of my boxes than most places; it is lovely, quiet (apart from the periodic concerts in the main square), and nestled in the foothills of the Pyrenees ninety minutes from the sea. It is in an area steeped in mythology, Rennes le Chateau is visible from my “office” as I type this, and the belief system of the Cathars still holds many adherents, as do a multitude of unorthodox spiritual beliefs.

It is an area of spectacular walks, remote castles, a river that is ideal for rafting and kayaking, opportunities for horseback riding, medieval markets and beyond all, some quite delightful and fascinating people.

And, because people and relationships are the most important facet of any destination and any journey they form Part B of the Travellers' Curse.

The more you travel, the more numerous and profoundly varied the relationships you will have. However, the more people you meet, the more diffused your time is with any of them, and as you cannot travel with them all all of the time, it becomes harder to develop deep relationships. Yet as one keeps traveling and meeting amazing people, it feels fulfilling; eventually, of course, you miss them all, although many have all but forgotten who you are!
Then you make up for it by staying put somewhere long enough to develop roots and cultivate stronger relationships, but these people will never know what you know or see what you’ve seen, and you will always feel a tinge of separation, and you will want to tell your stories just a little bit more often than they will want to hear them.
Another road trip seems to be the only answer”

Now, I don’t want this to sound melancholy, and I am not sitting here wringing my hands, but it is an interesting phenomenon, and one that frequent travellers know well. It has to be said, however, that few get to the point of permanent vagabonding, and most of us have real roots to which to return.


 


 But I digress; the spectrum of people in Esperaza is astonishing, and offers a warm and varied posse to join. Part of the reason is the simple variety; as we make friends at home there is more often a common denominator of education, work or children. None of these criteria come to play as you meet other wanderers in later life, and the spectrum of friends can be quite delightful.

And, as one can see from the images of folks trying to seek solace in passing companionship, travelling can be a lonely affair.

Above all, this curious confluence of people, beauty, access (Barcelona is only three hours away, and the redoubtable Ryanair can whisk one to London from the airport forty-five minutes away on a daily basis), activity and the important fact that they make a very nice drop of wine in these parts, combine to have made us stop and buy a toe-hold without a second thought.

I do look forward to returning to Winnipeg, but am grateful for the friends that I have in Esperaza, London, Tbilisi and so many others scattered around this fascinating world of ours.


Xinalic, Azerbaijan - hospitality and friendship are everywhere


And certainly, without Facebook, keeping in touch would be very difficult indeed!

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Toques et Clochers

Well, it is pretty well impossible to describe the local wine festival, but I shall give it a try.

Firstly, some history. The Sieur d’Arques winery in Limoux has been making a lot of wine for a very, very long time; sparkling wine has been around the region since 1531. Much of it wonderful, some exceptional; they also make a rather palatable blend sold by Gallo in the US and Canada called Red Bicyclette, although this has been subject to a recent scandal regarding a Grape Deception.

Enough of the sour grapes, though, the winery is a superb corporate citizen, and among their other community works, is the annual (this was the twenty-first, so for a region steeped in history, it is a rather modern event) Toques et Clochers.

One village is picked each year from the region that the winery sources their grapes, and a festival is held to celebrate wine, food and the general joie de vivre on the day before the annual professional wine auction. And this year, the festival was held in Coiza, the village next to ours.

Ours, of course, is Esperaza; a town of about 3,000 folks in the High Aude Valley, where a couple of years ago we bought an old butcher’s shop in a moment of rose wine induced lunacy, and has become a second home. It is a marvellous place, but more of the Languedoc another time.

The festival is a masterpiece of organisation; 30 - 35,000 people are drawn into the town which is completely sealed off to traffic. One parks in large areas in nearby towns and shuttled to and fro by bus from 2.00pm until midnight. Throughout the town there are wine cellars, food stalls, bands, wandering musicians, clowns and thousands and thousands of visitors laughing, drinking and thoroughly enjoying themselves.

And here’s the thing; when you arrive, you buy a glass for €3 which you carry with you all afternoon and evening, filling it up for €2 per glass of €10 per bottle, decanted into a rather (it has to be said) medical looking jug. Imaging if you will, 35,000 folks with more than a glass or two warming their senses of humour, wandering, eating, dancing and carrying actual glass! I only heard two break all evening, each to a rousing cheer. People from eight to eighty, every shape and size, laughing chatting and carrying glass; I loved it. How could one not?

And the food! Duck sandwiches, oysters, giant shrimp, moules frites, pastries and much else for only a few euro; plentiful and delicious.

“What of the proceeds of the festival”, I hear you ask? Well, the purpose is to raise money to mend and restore the local church; community wins, people have fun, the weather was brilliant and we all decided to come again next year when the festival is to be held in Limoux itself.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

The Languedoc: Of Cathars and Wine Festivals

For reasons that I am still unable to quite explain, I bought an old butcher’s shop in Esperaza, a small market-town in the upper Aude Valley a couple of years ago, and try to get back here as often as possible; it is not exactly simple, living as I do in Winnipeg, but I do manage to spend a few weeks each year here.


The view from my "office"

It is a fascinating place; stunningly beautiful, earthy, accommodating and generally absorbing. I am not quite sure why, and to be honest, I had never heard of the place until my father suggested that I seek a bolt-hole in the Languedoc; I had wanted to think about perhaps buying a place in Europe in the future. Well, one fateful and wet Sunday afternoon a couple of years ago found us here in the Haute Vallée and within an hour the proud owners of this old shop. Tough to explain, but there you are.




So after my father’s funeral last Friday in London, it seemed natural to head here to recharge the batteries.

We went driving yesterday; one of the many attractions of the region is the time-warp that an afternoon’s drive will lead one through. Not, perhaps, a warp of Dr. Who dimensions, but nevertheless there is an immediate feeling of the 1970s, then the 1930s and finally, as one turns a corner to spy an ancient village, little changed since the time of the Cathars of the 12th century, the landscape, but physical and cultural plays rather pleasant tricks with the mind.

There are a squillion gorgeous places to visit, but yesterday it was Laroque de Fa that grabbed our attention. Turning a corner, the village lay clinging to the side of the hill, almost tumbling down to the river; higgledy-piggledy, I observed, must be a Cathar term meaning town planning.





And what a little village; its DNA stretching back millennia, houses piled upon foundations of ancient houses, secrets almost visible as they contoured the tiny streets winding their way perilously through the tiny community. Although miles from any apparent economic activity, Laroque seemed peaceful and assured in a way that contemporary settlements never quite do.

The Cathars are a fascinating group, and while I would not profess to have more than a glancing knowledge of their history, I do have an unending fascination with them. In the tenth and eleventh centuries, their brand of Christianity, essentially a dualist philosophy that embraced an aesthetic approach that contrasted dramatically with Rome’s authoritarian and grasping ministry of the time, and eventually led to the only Christian on Christian crusade being called by the rather ironically named Pope Innocent III that killed, over a period of seventy years or so, over 250,000 people in this small region of France.




There are still lingering reminders of this inglorious past, with villages like Laroque and Montaillou, remnants of their castles at Montsegur, Queribus and Peyepertuse, and linguistically through the persistence of languages like Oc that still resonate through the region’s markets and cafes. Oddly, a chap died last year in a village two away from Esperaza; aged 92, he had remained unilingual in Oc throughout his life. Astonishing that it is possible to live in the twenty-first century, still only speaking the language of the troubadours, but that is the Aude Valley.

The ruins at Montaillou
I love it here. I have spent the bulk of the past fifty years wandering around, looking and thinking about life all over the globe, but still love to be here; I find it cathartic, relaxing, invigorating and its endless and remarkable beauty a salve for the eyes.

And this weekend is the Big One. Toques et Clochers is a new tradition (if one can have such a concept), that this weekend comes to Coiza, our neighbouring village.

In a nutshell, each year, the local mega-winery, Sieur d’Arques, arrange for their annual wine-auction to be held a day following a festival; the festival, drawing an eye-popping 35,000 folks into a small village, offers the proceeds from the sale of a lot of wine to restore the local village church.

Kicking off with a parade of the (now) twenty-one villages whose churches have been restored thus, the wine tents, food stalls and roaming musicians start in earnest at 4.00pm, and continue until midnight. Now, one can simply not imagine 35,000 folks drinking for hours in a village designed to accommodate 1,000 in England; there will be no “incidents”, ambulances, disturbances or other such social irritants; simply a huge festival drawing people from throughout the region to sample the 2009 crop, meet friends, laugh and dance until late.





Traffic management and parking are themselves an interesting exercise, and more of that on Sunday after the event. Suffice it to say, however, that I am looking forward immensely to the day, and even more as friends from Chicago, Winnipeg and Vancouver will be joining in the frivolities.

It is only a pity that my Dad can’t be here.