French leave

By Carroll du Chateau

For years my friend Maureen and I had talked about renting a house in France and settling into the rhythm of village life. We could polish our French conversation, meander through the countryside, drink wine and cook great food. But how to find the right place at the right price? The internet, of course.

For months Maureen sifted through the websites, with me making sporadic assaults most weekends. Soon we started to whittle it down: The Mediterranean coast, near Nice, was too expensive and hideous to drive around. Provence was also expensive, smothered with tourists and English home owners, even in the autumn when we wanted to go. The Atlantic coast, we decided, would be too chilly in autumn, and the interior Massif Central too far from the sea.

Eventually we decided on the southwest coast. It is still on the Med, but nearer the Spanish border than the Italian. There are several airports, plus a marvellous French rail service, meaning our British-based offspring could visit for weekends or longer.

That settled, we moved on to the minutiae. I wanted a garden, she needed some action. Wine tasting was a must. We both wanted to live in a working French village (as distinct from one where the boulangerie and boucherie vans visited twice a week) with a local cafe and restaurant.

Above all, Maureen wanted WiFi: a place where she and her cool new wireless laptop could suck electronic signals out of the ether and hook us to the outside world. This device is small enough to fit in her handbag, powerful as any desktop I've used - and a brilliant potential boyfriend lure (not that we were in the market). Truly, every time I settled down, flipped the lid and even before a sip of cafe creme, some gentleman would sidle over, "Excuse moi madame...?". Oh the power.

But back to our search.

We started combing the websites for houses in southwest France in the Languedoc. This is Cathar country where aficionados of Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code will be in their element.

Inland lies the Cathar Trail which winds through stunningly beautiful crags, gorges and hilltop villages, taking in the ruins of old Cathar strongholds, including the amazing Montsegur and Rennes le Chateau.

The coast, though not as glamorous as the Riviera, is dotted with resorts and villages and, at Cap d'Agde, the biggest colonie naturelle - compulsory nude beach - in Europe.

We discovered a vast array of websites offering homes at places like these but those we found most useful were Southern France, Holidaylets.net and Holidaylets.com.

The best websites list houses from the baronial to modest, give you asking prices, show availability, offer several pictures of the property and give contact details for the owners.

We soon found you need to be quick. Two potential favourite houses were booked solid by early June, despite showing as available on the website.

And so, after much discussion and a phone call to Roz, the arty-sounding owner in France, we settled on the Old Bakery, "a character property" in Agde, which slept nine at a pinch.

The old city of Agde (not to be confused with the seaside resort of Cap d'Agde) lies about three kilometres back from the Mediterranean coast, between Sete and Narbonne Plage. Price: € 504 ($890) a week.

The second house, which we wanted for the last two weeks of October and much of November, was called Maison de la Coin or "Corner House". It was in the small village of Columbiers, which straddled the Canal du Midi, further inland than Agde.

Though less authentically French, it looked attractive and spacious, and was advertised as having two double bedrooms plus a single, a phone, broadband, central heating, dishwasher, washing machine, a garage and two bikes. Price: £200 ($512) a week.

Both owners wanted the entire fee paid upfront, one to an English bank account, the other to an account in France, which meant we had to organise a bank draft.

We also had to pay a refundable security deposit of £400 ($1000) for Maison de la Coin.

By mid-June Maureen had it sorted, and I settled back. The whole process had taken about 40 hours over six weeks, involved hours on the net, dozens of emails, several phone calls and many bottles of Merlot. And apart from the houses we missed out on, it was terrific fun.

Fast forward to September 23. The long flight to Europe was over and now we were about to start the exciting part of our adventure. As we approached our new home things were a little tense. What would the first house be like? More important, would Agde be our kind of town?

Our landlady's instructions suggested we might miss "the parking" that led to the house, and miss it we did, hurtling around the roundabout, under the bridge, through the tube-narrow alleys of the old town and, miraculously ending up near the town Promenade, with our trusty Renault Scenic unscratched.

A ding on the bell of 9 Rue de la Placette and Roz opened the door. Her previous tenants had gone that morning, but thankfully left the place "clean as a whistle". She'd made up the beds we might want. Why didn't we just take a look around?

As we wound our through the first and second storeys of the Old Bakery, I went into shock. I've never seen so much stuff in one house in my life. There were chandeliers, gilt cupids, dozens of paintings (most by Roz) and dried-flower arrangements draped in dust.

The stair tiles were worn by centuries of bakers tramping up to bed at nights, the roof terrace smaller than we imagined, any view obstructed by a nailed-shut window, and shade provided by a grubby shower curtain.

There were also flashes of brilliance. The walls in my bedroom were painted a wonderful shade of French blue that matched the curtains, which matched the ancient, battered, shutters. Some of the bed linen was fabulous (shame about the log of wood holding the bed up). The shower was strong and hot, the coffee cups in the kitchen were beautiful, the TV got BBC news plus the odd decent movie.

On the other hand the downstairs, especially, was dark. "Can we leave the front door open?" "I don't, because I don't want the neighbourhood kids inside."

We got the message. A cluster of children and adolescents in the alley opposite glanced, dark-eyed, our way. Later that night, and through until 2am, they revved their motor scooters every 10 minutes and sped round the town. From then on we wrenched our shutters tight.

And so, after a thorough clean to remove the last traces of the people and dogs before us, and a couple of lavender bags under our pillows, we settled in Agde for three weeks.

Like anywhere it was a mix of good and bad. We learned to sleep through the street sweepers (6am), the street washers (7am), dodge the mounds of poo deposited by countless wandering dogs, and to reverse our car - with wing mirrors snapped in - into the impossibly tight parking space before our neighbours beat us to it.

The Old Bakery began to grow on us. Sure, the plumbing was erratic, but the dishwasher, stove and microwave were first class. The house was in the middle of the old city, jammed into a mix of neighbours that moved from the middle class to gypsies in less than a block, and we became glad of Roz and her two large dogs next door, especially at night.

Around dusk an old "clochard" [street person] would position himself on the park bench opposite our front door, take his bedroll out of a battered white car, his bottle out of a plastic bag, and settle down for the night.

It was a couple of minutes' walk to the covered market and streets crammed with poisonniers, boucheries, boulangeries and alimentations. A minute in the other direction was the weekly clothes, shoes and makeup market which yielded such treasures as a lime green jacket for € 7 ($12.45), Orlane makeup costing € 10 ($17) for three, and fake leopard slippers for € 9 ($15).

Then there was the brocante market where Maureen deliberated over a 12-place gold-plated cutlery set, a bargain at € 380 ($675), while I nearly bought a cross stitched sampler of the Last Supper and did buy some painstakingly embroidered linen sheets.

Best of all for Maureen was Melrose Square with its shady trees and collection of cafes. It was a 60-second trot down the hill, the coffee was delicious, and the laptop hooked into the WiFi floating invisibly from the neighbouring hotel in an instant, keeping us in touch with the world.

Alas, our time was passing too quickly. The owners of the Columbiers house solved a logistical problem by letting us come a week early.

Our trip to Columbiers was a doddle compared to Agde. So was the trip through the house which had much less character but was also clean as a whistle. And although the roof terrace was tiny, the Renault scraped into the garage with only millimetres to spare and the two upstairs bedrooms leaked right through to the kitchen, the place was a delight.

This time the caretakers, Germain (in charge of renovations) and Rose (who doubled as maid) lived just across the road. Cheerfully they helped to squeeze us into the garage, deflected my grumbles about the dead phone, found the iron. And then, in the French way, left us to it.

Best for Maureen was the washing machine and a drier that actually dried our clothes rather than just tossing them around for hours. Best for me was the epicerie opposite my bedroom.

All my life I had wanted to be this close to a never-ending supply of fantastic food and wine. This shop, with its boxes of fat tomatoes and aubergines, pate de fois, dozens of cheeses, fragrant baguettes and cheerful vendeuse, was a dream come true.

Meanwhile down at the Canal du Midi, the plane trees were yellowing but still leafy enough to keep us dry as we pedalled furiously towards the cafes of Capstang.

By the quai where the canal boats moored en route to Beziers, the WiFi signal was just strong enough for the laptop so I could book my flight back to London, because all too soon my time was up.

The two-hour trip to Carcassone airport was dark and poignant. As Maureen said dryly, "I never thought a 10.30 morning flight would entail an hour and a half of night driving."

What had seemed an eternity back in New Zealand had been far too short. Too many adventures were missed for lack of time, money and energy.

What we had achieved was a real taste of village life: where you walk out of the door and down to the cafe for coffee before breakfast, buy bread, vegetables and meat every morning, dodge the dog poo and dirt, learn to love the smell of chevre, and begin to relax and enjoy peeling paint, cracked tiles and dirt.

Next time we hope we'll recognise signs of trouble on the net, before they become reality. We'll know that "character" and "arty" mean twice as much of either than you'd expect here in New Zealand.

Promises of phones and broadband are just that - promises - and that when you've paid upfront, there's little you can do. Next time we'd probably be prepared to pay more for the house itself.

But would we do it again? Mais oui. There's nothing quite like the excitement of driving into a village you've only imagined in your dreams and walking up to a house you've only seen on a doctored internet photo and thinking, "This is home, like it or not, for the next three weeks."

Checklist

* Getting there

Cathay Pacific flies daily from New Zealand to Paris and London, via Hong Kong. Return economy fares start from $2291 (plus government and airport charges).

Allow more time for getting to towns, and airports especially, than owners recommend.

* Weather

You can check the weather and rainfall statistics on the internet. We discovered, too late, that in southwest France October has double the rainfall of most other months.

* Charging

While most websites describe the "high" season as July and August, "medium" as May, June, September and October, and "low" all other times, various owners have different definitions. Check, and debate the rates offered if necessary.

* Ask about long-stay rates

If you don't want a linen or maid service - and most Kiwis don't - you can probably negotiate a reduction in the basic rate.

* Extras

Think carefully about extras. If you choose the right village, you may be able to get away without hiring a car. A landline phone that you can use with a French phonecard, can save you thousands of dollars on cellphone charges.

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