Showing posts with label France. Show all posts
Showing posts with label France. 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



Wednesday, April 9, 2014

A Wine Festival; your correspondent starts licking his lips ...

I realise that I have a lifestyle that borders on the unusual, and for that I am grateful. I am able to wander, see odd and disparate places, meet fascinating people and gather a treasure trove of useless facts with which I can pepper conversation for months.

March 2014, however, has been exceptional.

It has been a month of flying, North Korea, a stamp auction in Hong Kong and a day in Macau, selling a flat in London, a wine conference and speed tasting in Tbilisi and now a few days of rest in the South of France before the annual onslaught of the local Toques et Clochers festival.

Firstly, a word about the festival; imagine if you will, a small village of (perhaps) 450 souls playing host to a crowd of up to 30,000 for a day of celebration, duck sandwiches and wine. Copious amounts of wine, I might add, not just a child’s portion; enough to make some of the hill-folk loose all inhibitions about playing instruments that look suspiciously like Scooped Out Sheep in public.



The celebration is an annual event, and villages throughout the region that supplies the major winery Sieur d'Arques. Villages bid for the right to host the annual festival in a manner not unlike the competitions to host the World Cup or the Olympics, however with significantly smaller budgets. The winner will then have a couple of years to raise funds, establish numerous committees, create special weather prayers and wait for the event.

On the day itself, thousands of visitors, almost all of whom are local, will purchase a glass (€5), some tokens for wine (€2/glass and €10/bottle), and then head off into the madding crowd. Wine stalls selling their wares are everywhere, as are musicians, folks selling duck sandwiches and oysters, jugglers, drummers and thousands of folk. Knee-deep in wine, with laughter rising perceptibly in volume as the afternoon progresses but rarely a smashing glass and never a fight the event continues until the early hours of the morning.




 



It is impossible to imagine rivers-full of alcohol, glasses and thousands of people in the UK, for example, without conjuring up images of horror, but here in the Languedoc, the festival is charming, well organised, exceptionally amusing and held on the weekend before Easter each year. Make a note in your diaries.

It is, my friend Hubert says, the largest tourist event that isn't a tourist event that he has ever seen. And as a former CEO of a provincial tourist department for decades, he should know.

But then again, if Peter Mayle had written a book called A Year in the Languedoc, the economy of the south of France would be completely different. The region, known but unknown, is delightful. The centre of the Cathar religion in the 10th to 12th centuries, it still harbours mysteries and intrigue among devotees of mystery and intrigue! The Cathars, the Holy Grail, Mary’s escape from the Holy Land, The da Vinci Code, all mixed up with wine, fine food, delightful scenery and not a little story telling.

And so the festival, as far from Pyongyang as I can imagine, starts in four days. It is said in these parts that Don Perignon discovered his wine-making secrets here before moving to Champagne where they figured out how to bottle the stuff without it blowing up. Fanciful, I imagine, and probably as truthful as the DPRK’s Concrete Wall, but there you go, it is a good story. Nostradamus himself was supposed to have dwelt in a nearby village, but a little prodding of the museum’s curator, and a rather wistful comment of “Well, he might have stayed the night in the village once” comes a touch closer to the truth.

Sometimes it can all become overwhelming

However, it is true that the production of wine is no stranger to these parts.

Livy was recorded as trading non-sparkling wines with the Romans, and the first references to “Blanquette”, or “Small White”, came from the Benedictine Monks who made the first sparkling wines here in 1531. The other white grape of some substantial use here is Mauzac, which along with Chardonnay and Pinot are the grapes from which the delicious local Crement de Limoux is made.

All grist to the mill, and worthy of examination.

It is, perhaps, worth relating a little story about wine sales, and one that perhaps illuminates a great fiction of the world of mega-wine.

For several years, the Limoux winery Sieur d’Arques exported tankers-full of Pinot Noir to Gallo in the US, who sold this far and wide under the Red Bicyclette label. So popular was this concoction that new warehouses were built, and for all I know, special docking facilities for the ever-larger tankers racing this popular brew from the south of France to the US of A.

All was well until a sharp-eyed accountant pointed out that they were in fact selling to Gallo alone, approximately 200% of the annual output of Pinot Noir grapes. Now interestingly, during this period, not a single customer, nor a single Gallo executive or wine taster, questioned the adulteration of their potion by the addition of the cheaper Merlot grape. A small fine was levied discreetly, one would not want this sort of scandal to hit the front pages, Red Bicyclette was relabelled and presumably launched to new heights.


Curious things, palates.


Thursday, June 17, 2010

Somewhere in France

It is a strange feeling, but I don’t actually know where I am.

I am in France, that much is for sure, but exactly where eludes me. It was dark and raining last night when we stopped; the first hotel was full, and the second, apparently called the Hotel Ageris Orleans, had two rooms left. So I must obviously be in Orleans. Nominally it is a hotel on the banks of the Loire, but that sounds a lot more romantic than it is.

We checked in by poking Clive’s credit card into a machine outside the front door, and finding that a room would cost €39 for the night, with an additional €5 for breakfast. And what fine value for money it is. A clean, comfortable room, if a touch on the Spartan side, BBC on television and a jumbo bag of peanuts in the vending machine that substituted for dinner; all in all, we are doing well.

The journey is to take some furniture that my father left to me when he died to my house in the south of France. A house in France sounds glamorous, perhaps conjuring images of whitewash, a distant, azure sea and buckets of wine. The wine is accurate, but the house itself, the Maison de Bouef, is an old butcher’s shop in a small unprepossessing town in the Languedoc called Esperaza. It lies, 1085 kilometres (according to Google maps) from Calais, and Orleans is on the way.

We left London at about noon, headed to the Channel Tunnel, stopping briefly at John Lewis to pick up some duvets, and off to The Continent. Eurotunnel is brilliant; we were booked on the 1750 crossing, but arriving considerably earlier were put onto the 1630 train with neither fuss nor penalty. Airlines take note.

The actual journey takes only about thirty minutes, and then we were in France; launching confidently into their wonderful highway system, I was immediately ensnared in a detour; the road to Paris tauntingly heading away from our highway inaccessible across a sea of road-mending equipment. The incorrect highway surged north, and after about ten kilometres I spied a minute sign that said (in small black letters on a bright orange background) “Deviation A 16”. Vaguely recalling that this was the road to Paris, I swerved across two lanes of traffic and whizzed through a small roundabout to now head east. A further ten kliks, another minute sign had us hurtling back the way we came, although now west and south, until we once again intersected the highway and tacking appropriately pointed our car toward the French capital.

We were anxious to pass it in the evening, and not get stuck in traffic in the morning; the Parisian rush-hour can last the bulk of the day, and we have many miles to cover. We got there in good time, and keeping our eyes peeled out for signs for “Bordeaux” and “Nantes”, which were, in the way of things, intermittent and set up apparently at random, sailed around the city and away to the south.

Then it got a touch peculiar. France is a very large country indeed. Not like Canada, of course, but there are seriously large swathes of farmland, and the highway sped through them; seeking the solace of an hotel room, and finding none to hand, we were some 120 kilometres from Paris when Orleans came into sight. The area by the highway, indistinguishable from any other mess of big-box stores, motels, chain restaurants and road-works, was deeply confusing. The car took on a life of its own as it sung around barricades and roundabouts before screeching to a halt at the Hotel Ageris where I now sit.

But not for long; it is time to head south (through Limoges and Toulouse) and off to the Languedoc.

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.