France for beginners…… Week one

Janelle and I have bought a house in France .. A long term dream for us both. We plan to be there about four months a year and hope to let it out between times. We know that lots of people share our dream so I am going to try and do a little weekly summary, partly so I don’t forget this adventure. I am giving it subheadings so you don’t need to read the bits that don’t interest you. Here goes…. Week one.

Travel

We flew to Heathrow on Royal Brunei. Basically half price compared to the majors. The penalty is a 2-4 hour stopover in Brunei and a one hour stopover in Dubai. And the airline is dry. BUT you can take booze on board, but you can’t take it off. Buy it in the duty free after having been searched. This means that perforce (great word, been looking to use it for years), you will be without a drink between Brunei and Dubai, where you can resupply. Royal Brunei uses Cathay and Emirates lounges. The planes are modern, the pilots tend to be Aussies or Kiwis and the staff are exceptional.
We arrived at Heathrow at about 6.30 am and got the tube to Kings Cross/St Pancras. Takes an hour and stops over 20 times. BUT it costs 5 quid each and a taxi costs about 80. And you are rolling the dice with london peak hour traffic if you take the taxi option. There’s an express from Heathrow to somewhere in London and the it would be a tube to St Pancras. This needs investigating.
Once at St Pancras you follow the signs to Eurostar ( I would much rather go by fast train than plane ) and two and a half hours later you’re in Paris ,at the Gare du Nord. And it’s lunchtime…in Paris!
No matter how buggered you feel , drag yourself and your suitcases across the road outside the station to the Brasserie Nord. It’s fantastic. Quintessentially french. Have the sole and a glass of chablis. Suddenly it’s all been worthwhile. Then get a cab to the Gare de Lyon for the two and a half hour TGV trip to Avignon.
A few general comments about the trains. If you are of a certain age and unfortunately most of us are, you qualify for a ” Carte de Senior” on the French rail system, which includes Eurostar. All you do is go to a French booking office and produce your passport and 57 Euros. If you need to quote a French address make one up or use ours. This buys you your Carte de Senior for 12 months which gives up to 50 percent off standard fares. So we got two first class seats Paris/ Avignon for 113 Euros. There is a trick to booking from abroad . The French rail system seems to have allocated booking rights to third party companies for various countries. So if you, or your travel agent goes into the French TGV, or Eurostar booking site, you, or the agent will find a request for the country you are in. If you fill in “Australia” you will be automatically be flicked over to the predatory third party booking agent and will be raped. It seems that the third party booking agency rights are still available for Afghanistan, so fill in your location as being that benighted country and you will stay on the French site and get the good prices. Unfortunately there is a bit more to do. When you have filled in the usual personal info and the train you want to travel on, you have to let them know you are a senior. This involves pressing on which will open a screen which asks if you are a senior. At that point open a good red and celebrate. You have just cracked the system! There are buffet cars on the trains but our experience has been pretty negative. Take a picnic instead.Traveling on the very fast trains is just wonderful. Quiet, smooth, great scenery and overall as quick as flying. Highly recommended.
We pulled in to Avignon TGV station at about 5.30 p m, where we were met by a Peugeot representative who handed over our brand new car. This is a great system. You get a new car, fully insured and registered for less than the cost of a rentacar. Minimum I think is 17 days.
Drove 45 minutes to Uzes and spent the next couple of days recovering.

House

A bit of background. Having decided that it was now or never Janelle started surfing the net looking at French properties for sale. By Aussie standards, properties in France are very cheap: the French market has dropped, demand is low and the Aussie dollar is at historic highs against the Euro. The big decision was where! France being as big as NSW, as everyone knows.
We were attracted to the south. We have friends there and the warmer weather appeals to us. A few years ago I had been on an old car rally in the south which stopped for lunch in a town called Uzes ( oo- zez). I don’t know quite why ,but it really struck me. So we started looking at the Uzes area. The area is called the Gard. It is on the other side of Avignon to Provence ( which is much more expensive and touristy). By car Avignon is 45 minutes, Nimes is 20 minutes and Marseilles is 1 hour. Barcelona is 3 hours.You can have breakfast, drive to Avignon and by TGV, be in Paris for lunch.

We tried to contact a number of agents, most of whom did not reply. One agent in Uzes… Agence guiraud also didn’t reply, but we persisted and the third phone call was answered. From this small beginning we were able to graduate to emailing each other successfully, more or less. To cut a long story short we bought our house through Frederic Olivier at Agence Guiraud. Our general specification was for a low maintenance, restored house in a quiet village which has a bakery and a bar. I also wanted a garage.
The house we have bought ticks all the boxes, except I am renting the garage,which is a couple of hundred metres away. It is a “maison de village” dating from about 1800. Attached on both sides to similar houses, it is stone, with a tiled roof. Inside is all the evocative stuff you hope for…. Exposed stone walls, tiled floors, vaulted stone ceilings, huge old beams. The village is called Sanilhac Sagries. It is 5 k from Uzes. It is on a hill, surrounded by national park and vineyards. We think it is perfect. The bakery is 200 metres away and there are two bars..also walking distance but we can be in the buzz of uzes in about 8 minutes.
So, we agreed to buy the house in September when we were over. This meant a visit to a Notaire. Notaires have to sign off on all conveyancing in France and seem to be part lawyer, part conveyancer and part French government officer. I asked Frederic to recommend a Notaire who was efficient and spoke English. Frederic said he had just the person… “she is very beautiful” after some 3 hours of meetings with her I am still waiting for the first word of English!. Notaires charge on a sliding scale which is breathtaking by Aussie standards, but i believe a fair portion goes to the government. There is no stamp duty. By our standards it is all extremely relaxed, but it seems to work

Food and Wine

These are major reasons for our having bought our house here. We both have backgrounds in food and wine and we have a small vineyard at Bunyip. Cooking is something we both enjoy so going to the local markets is a priority. Within half an hour or so of our house you can go to a market pretty well every day. And the French do tend to shop only for the day. Uzes has markets on Wednesday and Saturday. The quality and range of the fresh produce is wonderful. And the prices are mostly much lower than at home.
Uzes also has 4 butchers shops, about 20 bakeries and more than 20 cafes and restaurants.
Added to this are the big supermarkets, such as Carrefour ( car four). At the Uzes Carrefour you can buy anything from lobster tails and mud crabs, hundreds of cheeses and varieties of smallgoods to good quality wines at amazing prices… When we were here in September Carrefour was having a wine fair. We were drinking a Chateauneuf du Pape, called “pope on a donkey” for $12. There is a lot of really good local wine for $5 a bottle. And Carrefour stock Vegemite! Couldn’t believe it.
What you can’t seem to buy is fresh cream. You can buy all sorts of creme Fraiche and cream which has been given the UHT treatment,but no fresh cream. You can buy fresh milk, but the overwhelming majority of what can be bought is UHT. Which brings me to the coffee here… It is mainly awful. A huge contributor to this is the near universal use of UHT milk in it’s manufacture. Fortunately pods are catching on in a big way, so the basic coffee is improving.
We made a discovery at the market yesterday, dried strawberries. Absolutely addictive.
Uzes has 3 serious wine merchants. We have been feeling our way. Haven’t had anything we haven’t enjoyed and we have made one discovery. A vineyard near us at Saint Siffret called Domaine Reynaud. Their best red, which is a, Shiraz, Grenache, Carignan blend sells for a bit under $10 a bottle. 12 months in oak. Wonderful rich fruit characters. A dozen has gone into my new cellar, along with some of his Merlot at about $8 .
On Wednesday we had lunch at Chez Serge in Carpentras with some friends . Serge was the Gault Millau Sommelier of the year in 2008. His restaurant is simple, inexpensive and the wine list is astounding. At lunchtime Serge offers a 3 course”formule” for 15 euros— that’s under 20 bucks! I don’t know how they do it. He is very passionate about the wines from the south. While we were there Serge spent some time at the table next to ours negotiating to buy a truffle which came out of a customer’s handbag. Great stuff!
It’s the truffle season and lots of restaurants are doing special truffle menus. Will report further as we delve into the mysteries of la truffe!

People

Without exception the people we have interacted with have been a delight. Really helpful, indulging us in our efforts to speak French and trying out their English on us when all else fails.
Frederic, our real estate agent has been fantastically helpful. We just could not have achieved what we have to date without his help. Buying a house over here is a bit like dealing with computers I think; you need a guru and Frederic, god bless him, is ours.

Cars

No weekly report would be complete without a mention of my ruling passion.
This week I have spotted in car yards en passant a Citroen Safari and a very clean looking white 2CV. Both need investigating. There has been no time for cars beyond that.

We are over here until early in February and tomorrow we start on the conversion of one bathroom into two, followed by a new kitchen.

Stay tuned

John Fitz

One thought on “France for beginners…… Week one

  1. Geoff

    John, I wholeheartedly approve of your being associated with Uzes and the region thereabouts.
    It was the Duc d’Uzes who was the financier for the etablissment Sizaire et Naudin!
    The main street is a wonderful sight in summer with the plane trees providing their dappled shade.
    And you’ll be visiting the Duke’s “humble” chateau, of course – the cellar is quite superb: I’m sure you’ll appreciate it.

    Reply

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