Chercher la maison

Our weeklong class for artists in September went off well. After this, our fourth trip, we were even more seduced by the Périgord’s grey-green valleys; softly eroded yellow limestone cliffs; wide sinuous rivers; gently rolling farmland; and its slow pace of life.

The following year, in the late fall, we returned for six weeks to test this love affair – and tentatively, to look for property. We stayed at the gite that we had discovered on our second trip, in a bright yellow-painted, light-filled pigeonnier, one of the houses at the Domaine de Beaucour, owned and operated by our friends, Claire and Francois. They had moved to the Périgord from Holland ten years ago when they bought and renovated their elegant maison de mâitre, and converted a grange/barn and a pigeonnier into gites.

Beautiful, blonde, Dutch Claire had plenty of expertise to share about buying and renovating French property.

Working with two real estate agents, we saw two to three properties a day for three weeks in a steady rain. We fell passionately in love a number of times, backed off, alarmed by our fearlessness, and went on to look at more hopelessly beautiful ruins.

We had long conversations with Claire.

The most serious interest was an ancient farm on a hillside on the outskirts of a small village. The house was built on bedrock and stood high above the other buildings: it had an outside kitchen with a window-fitted stone sink and a freestanding beehive bread oven. It was surrounded by small pigsties and goat sheds built into the house walls. Below, there was an enormous barn, minus half its roof, a woodworking shop with a lathe; and under the house, a large cave with wine barrels big enough for adults to hide in. Long vertical arrow slots in the foundation dated the house to the 11th or 12th century. Oh how we loved it. The house had three elegant rooms, fireplaces with crests on the chimneys, high ceilings, but no water or plumbing, no bathroom, no central heat, no glazed windows. As we walked around the buildings, we stepped on fragrant mint. I imagined the women who planted it, of course, centuries ago.

Very long conversation with Claire.

We continued on – a house on a hill with a breath-taking view, no amenities not even a passable road. We considered buying a barn with a wine press for 65,000, but by the time we calculated the 1,000-euro per square meter rehab costs, we were way out of our budget. We did relish that possibility because the owners were book-lovers, intelligent and articulate and lived next door in a sustainable renovated barn. They told us that a herd of sheep passed by each morning and returned at sundown. I loved the idea of waking to their bleating.

Claire said “no.”

Finally we found a small farm in our price range, 200,000 euros or $250,000 at the then-exchange rate. The house was workable and all the systems functioned. If we tore down some walls, we could make a big open kitchen, dining and living space with a walk-in fireplace. The barn was even better. It was big enough for two studios for John – one for summer with a 20-foot ceiling, and a calf shed that could be converted into a heated winter studio. There was ample space for guest rooms for our daughters and friends.

The farm was owned by the mayor of the nearby town of Cadouin and his family had lived there for eight generations. We made an offer within four hours and it was accepted.

Claire saw it and said, “ah, yes.”