My romanticised France is happily returned in French notions about Ireland

Everyone I met on my trip had been to Ireland for rugby, music or fishing

The Circus of Navacelles in Herault, a famous meander dug by erosion.

The Circus of Navacelles in Herault, a famous meander dug by erosion.

 

My trip into the Herault valley covered a radius of about 30km. It included travel by tram and bus and cost a full €4.60. Return. Services were frequent, and arrived on time. It was a source of wonder.

I abandoned the bus in the first town I came to – population 6,000-plus and nameless to protect the innocent. People in these parts appear to have regard for the power and influence of The Irish Times – as well as an awareness of how Peter Mayle’s book A Year in Provence ruined forever the peaceful anonymity of the region he wrote about. I have thus paid attention to warnings not to name towns and villages.

At this point too, in the interests of transparency, I should admit to a long-time affection for France and her people – a love affair really, an incurable belief that there is an answer to life in the way la belle France prioritises bodily needs.

The body, in my France, is fed only the best of food and wine, clothed in the finest attire, pleasured with good sex, treated with first-rate medical care and given all the time in the world to appreciate life’s wonders. In the event that Flaubert was right and la mort n’a peut-être pas plus de secrets a nous révelér que la vie (death may not have more secrets to reveal than life) the French are intent on making the most of things.

My romanticised France is happily reciprocated in French notions about Ireland. Everyone I met in the Herault, or someone belonging to them, had been to Ireland for rugby, music or fishing. They were patient with my French and welcoming, and I tried to keep up with the allure of the Ireland they knew.

Shaded streets

Claudette, quick and smiling in an agent immobilier next to the bus stop, arranged a viewing in a nearby village. Every French village lays claim to being la plus belle but this one, with shaded streets of 400-year-old houses and vineyards reaching into a valley where sheep bells jingled, had a better claim than most. Claudette’s brother had once been the baker in the boulangerie; this is a world as small as rural Ireland’s.

The house, old and in need of TLC, had three floors, four bedrooms, a terrace off the top bedroom, three toilets (one usable), a shower (unusable) and kitchen/living room with blinding orange walls. It had quirks and a negotiable price tag of €157,000. Mine was the only demand on those orange walls so we engaged in half-hearted negotiations. Claudette’s persuasive powers failed to convince me, however, that the house merely needed a paint job and some repairs. 

I signed a document agreeing, in the event of buying, to deal with Claudette’s agency. People often buy directly from the vendor, thus eliminating agents’ fees – high at 8 per cent or more. Also confusing was the way sellers placed properties with several agents simultaneously. Less confusing was news that the market was now shaky, banks reluctant to lend and the area I’d chosen both desirable and costly. Now on my second notebook of advice and warnings, I decided to ignore the lot and go with my gut.

A dauntless friend knew of another house, one with location, location, location on the village square. It was large and sadly grey on the outside, and the ceilings inside were low, but the original features were fascinating. Floors were fabulously tiled and there were cast-iron balconies to the side and front. The owner, a gentle, elderly man from another village, was asking €140,00. But the mayor had first refusal, because the house had been earmarked for social housing, and I didn’t compete.

Another friend, patient and clued in, drove me to other villages, put hard questions to immobiliers, saw possibilities where I didn’t, saw too that a house I fell for had no natural light, that the outer wall on another bulged alarmingly, and that a village had no shop.

Quiet market

Immobiliers everywhere took my details but weren’t encouraging: it was too soon after Christmas, they’d be in touch when things livened up in the spring. They were right, of course. I was expecting too much of a January market. To comfort ourselves we ate hand-made chocolates in a bar with horse racing on television.

Back in the first village, a fast-talking immobilier, his 18-year old son just back from playing schools’ rugby in Dublin, showed me a tall house with three floors and a 40sq m vaulted stone garage. The garage appealed as a living space but the price (plus work needed), was a negotiable €169,000. I’d fallen for the village, said I would think about it, said no to a deposit-to-secure and signed another form.

The weather deteriorated. On a grey Sunday near the end of the month my Dublin neighbour sent a phone picture of “sale agreed” across the “for sale” sign outside my house. Deirdre confirmed and my feet chilled; a buyer had indeed committed to buying.

I doubled my search efforts to little effect. In a French version of Dalkey the options were a 10,000sq m refurbished lodge in the grounds of a wine estate for €1.79 million, or an eight-roomed, 250sq m new build with pool for €797,000. 

With my house sale agreed everyone assured me that a springtime return with hot cash in hand would give me supreme buying power. I took their word for it and came home, my future in the lap of the gods of France.

Rose Doyle is a writer and journalist

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