Magazine article The Spectator

Fast Bargains in the South

Magazine article The Spectator

Fast Bargains in the South

Article excerpt

I have always believed that there are some things in life, like five-bar gates and mothers' races, that are better taken at the gallop. And buying a house in France is another. France is so stuffed with beauteous houses in lovely places served by cheeky airlines that it would be easy to spend months looking for just the right one. Indeed I am sure that there are people still driving around France discussing the virtues of the Charente over Burgundy several years after they set out on a property search. But I earmarked a week last October to find a house. I knew where I wanted to live -- in the South of France, naturellement -- but I've wasted enough of my summers stuck in traffic jams on the coast to know I would go inland -- north of the Luberon (too bijou, too clichéd) but still with all that Provençal stuff going on -- restaurants under plane trees in village squares, hot sleepy vineyards and lots of local farmers and old ladies with impenetrable accents and a predilection for passing the time of day in the queue at the bakery.

The Vaucluse is to Aix en Provence what Somerset is to Dorset -- down the right end of things, if slightly further away from the coast. Indeed two of my oldest friends have lived in the area for nearly 30 years.

So, armed with their local knowledge, and my reasonable if rusty French, I drew circles around all the high ground near Carpentras, a fine provincial town once host to a French pope and bursting with civic pride and no fewer than 17 pharmacies. I wanted a view and a breeze, a pool and neighbours. Being a single woman, I have no desire to live out in the country miles from anywhere. When I scream 'au secours' I want people to come running.

And the idea of turning a wreck into a dream is a nightmare to me. I wanted to move right in.

My optimism was well placed: once I found the right estate agent, I found the house. Thanks to a charming picture of a donkey in their window, I wandered into an immobilier's office in Caromb and within minutes I was drooling over pictures of some truly gorgeous houses -- most of them more suited to Brangelina than my more modest requirements. But Gilles Auquier understands exactly what the English, and indeed the Dutch and the Danes, are after -- those seductive pale yellow houses, barns and mas with blue shutters and terracotta-tiled roofs that sit so well in the landscape, the vieilles pierres that the local French so despise but the rest of us are happy to take off their hands.

Auquier has taste and he also has nerves of steel -- he suddenly found himself careering around the Vaucluse with an Englishwoman he'd never met before who wanted to find a house by the weekend. I think I convinced him of my utter seriousness when I tried to buy the first house he showed me; although utterly idyllic, it was in the middle of nowhere, halfway up a mountain where no one would hear me scream. Auquier delivered later that week when he showed me a charming 16th-century house in Cairanne, a village on top of a hill right in the middle of Le Plan de Dieu -- the rich wine-growing plains of the Côtes du Rhone. Previous owners had lovingly turned three tiny houses into one and bought some parcels of land around them so, unlike most village houses, this one had several terraces as well as a lovely big pool.

I knew it had my name on it as I passed through the mediaeval archway into the old village and drove past a sleeping St Bernard and an imposing church to the pale grey steel gates of the property. …

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