Leaving the good life in rural France

An historic property in the Armagnac region and a Napoleonic-era home in Luxé have been lovingly cherished – and enjoyed – by two Irish owners now returning home

Thu, May 1, 2014, 00:00

‘When I first saw the house I said, ‘Aw Jesus, this is fantastic’, and my father said, ‘For god’s sake, have you nothing else to do?’ It needed a lot of work and my father – who was so kind to come with me – was worried,” says Patricia Taylor, who promptly bought the house, in the Armagnac region of Gascony in France, and worked on it every day at the start, along with local builders.

“It is a historic property with stone walls that are just delicious but they had to be revealed: they were behind a render made from hay and clay.”

Trish was used to life in France, having moved there to work in the cheese industry in the 1980s, after studying food science in Cork and Massachusetts.

She later switched into the wine trade and ended up working on Clint Eastwood’s ranch in the US for a while, as a wine and champagne specialist, before returning home to Donegal. Dreaming of returning to France, she contacted a few agents.

“Then, in 2007, my brother died unexpectedly and it sent us all into a tailspin. He was the comedian of the family and had no health problems. When Jimmy died it just took everything; pulled out the foundation. I was really close to him.

“I was sitting here in Donegal behind closed curtains when an agent called me about this house. She said it needed a lot of work and the vendor wanted someone who would take it on, who was artistic and skilled. I decided to leave employment and do something for myself.”

Trish was captivated by the historic property and garden, dripping with fruit trees including pears, apples and walnuts, which had been tended by a local woman for 32 years with ne’r a spray of pesticide. When Trish dug over the garden, she found a pestle and mortar from Roman times.

Trish moved in to the house before the electricity had been connected and set to work, digging, building and catering. She and a Portuguese mason doubled up as cooks, providing food and wine to the construction team. Layers of decoration were stripped back in the house; blocked fireplaces were revealed, windows were custom-made for existing arched openings and roofs were renewed.

Once the work was complete – and neighbouring properties added to make a portfolio of three cottages – Trish turned it into a gites business, heading to brocante sales in various villages to furnish the holiday-lets.

“The brocante sales take place on Sunday when nothing else is happening – the shops aren’t open – so everybody runs out to them and sits outside with glasses of wine. I got the best of French linen and old furniture, including a beautiful antique chair for €5.”

Now Trish is returning to Donegal to be with her parents who are in their late-eighties. She is selling the gites business in France – complete with bookings – for a price that will just make her money back.

Many guests are referred from a nearby chateau that holds weddings while musicians taking part in a local opera have also been coming for the past five years and will stay again this summer.

The project was mainly funded, she says, by her time in the wine business in the US where she took the expertise she had gained in France. She would sell bottles of wine for up to $10,000 each, found languishing in cellars, often to sponsors at car races.

Another job entailed working on Clint Eastwood’s ranch, between San Francisco and LA, which catered for visitors. “I had never seen any of his films,” she laughs which made her more relaxed with him, she says. “He’s a wonderful person. One of the things I loved about him was when he would arrive, Clint would always come through the back door into the kitchen, and pick at the food. And he would always speak to the guys, the Mexicans, who worked there.

“He never asked anyone to do anything for him; he never wanted anyone to treat him in any way differently. He’d say: ‘Jesus, you don’t have to worry about me’.

“His private trainer was a guy from Donegal. One day we were out on the ranch and suddenly this man, who I didn’t know, said, ‘Doesn’t this remind you of Donegal?’”

Trish will be sad to leave her home in France, and will miss the markets, the thermal baths nearby, the butcher and baker within walking distance, but it is time to be with her parents, both artists whose flair she has inherited.

“I will try to find something in France at another time. Something smaller, easier to handle. I adore restoration but I didn’t expect to make this whole big development.”

Trish is leaving the property in a good state. “The whole town said, ‘Oh my god, it’s come back to life’.”

Gascony: cottage and gîte complex
The property comprises three cottages with six bedrooms and seven bathrooms. The main cottage has a livingroom, three bathrooms three bedrooms and a kitchen. The first gite is a duplex with two en suite bedrooms, country kitchen, livingroom and downstairs toilet. The second gite is smaller and sleeps two. Outside is a vegetable garden and orchard (with figs, plums, pears, peaches and damsons).
Price: €230,000
Agent: gitesforsalefrance.com

“I think we were caught by watching A Place in the Sun,” says Jane O’Hara who moved to France with her husband Rodney when they were in their late 50s.

“We saw couples our age setting off to France and we decided we could do it. We were relatively free of obligations,” says O’Hara who had run a B&B in Ireland while Rodney was self-employed.

The couple found their 1870s, Napoleonic-era house in Luxé in the Charente region through an agent. “It had lovely green shutters and a beautiful old stone barn.” And they set off. “Our friends were stunned. Many Irish people go to Costa Brava but we were not remotely interested in Spain. ” Later they bought the field beside the house: “Because we didn’t want anyone else to build there.”

When they moved in a neighbour arrived at their front door. She handed over a flower with the words: “La vie en rose.”

“The neighbours made it for us,” says Jane. “My adorable neighbour would come in each year on May 1st with lily of the valley which is a sign of friendship; a custom in France. You could hear her laughing in her garden. I didn’t think the French actually said ‘ooh la la’ but she did: she had a way of saying it to suit the occasion.”

To make a successful move to France, says O’Hara, it is best if you speak French, are computer proficient, get involved with local life and are happy to drive on French roads. Otherwise you can easily feel isolated, especially if you are single.

The house needed no work, so the couple spent their time immersing themselves in local life. Jane’s task was to look after the village well.

“I planted it with flowers. We went on walks – randonnees – with the locals and had a stall at the annual brocante sale. Every village has a bric a brac – or brocante – sale and I once got a beautiful Art Nouveau lamp.”

As well as helping the locals tend plants in the village, O’Hara also created a vegetable garden – her potager – planting pumpkins, peas, beans and potatoes. “I just did the Good Life thing.”

Communal activities included collecting walnuts with the locals in the autumn. “We went down in the morning with hammers and cracked open shells. The nuts were then taken away and pressed. It was a great opportunity to meet, chat and gossip: I would struggle along with my French. We would have a simple country lunch of pumpkin soup, pate and cheese.

Now the couple are moving back to Ireland to be closer to family. They will miss France – its wildlife, including buzzards and a golden oriole, five-course lunches in the village for €21, the mild winters, the standard of healthcare (a GP costs €23, a consultant neurologist is €38 and a nurse will come to the house to do a health check for under €8; and you claim 65 per cent back on it all, she says).

“It was a lovely life although I think eight years is the optimum length of time people should stay. We both enjoyed it immensely. I’d recommend it to anyone who wants a bit of an adventure before they settle down.”

Le Bourg, Route Fontenille, Luxé, 16230, Charente
The 170sq m (1,830sq ft) house has three bedrooms and two bathrooms. It was built in the 1870s and retains original features. A courtyard to the rear is bound by the house and barns. There is also a garden with fruit trees. A neighbouring field is for sale at €16,000.
Price: €120,000
Details: daft.ie