“What the [expletive] did you go and do that for?”, “How will you look after it?”, “Why corner yourself into always returning to the same place on holiday?”, “It’s so far away!”.
A convergence of circumstances had brought me to the point of taking a deep breath and diving head first into making an offer on the little stone terrace house in the centre of an enchanting and tranquil little village on the gentle Charente river. The complex motivations ranged from the enjoyment and challenge of using a smattering of school boy french (albeit Québec french) garnered from my exchange student experience north of Montréal over three decades ago; the thrill of immersion in another culture and language - an opportunity completely foreign to the vast majority of Australians; the serendipity of being just a little familiar with the local area due to two previous visits to the local Charente region thanks to my aunt and uncle owning a little house in a local hamlet close-by to Verteuil; the seduction of the tremendous sense of history of that part of the world; the future possibilities of spending periods of time in this beautiful, and very contrasted environment when compared to the Australian context; and an interesting, slightly exotic legacy to pass down the line.
The offer on the house was made by me through Joan of the immobilier in the local village of Villefagnon, from the northern Spanish city of Logrono after our first week of walking the camino de Santiago de Compostela. It was accepted the following day. Properties in rural France can stay on the market for years and I guess once an offer is made, they are seriously considered - the next offer may not be for another 12 months! This is the reason I would always counsel people that buying a house in rural France shouldn’t be considered an investment option - you just can’t turn them over quickly and the average appreciation rate isn’t exactly hurtling upward.
After approximately five years of scanning french property real estate web sites, one came across my radar in Verteuil-sur-Charente, a little village of about 680 persons (across the commune) that I had previously visited and with which I was somewhat familiar. It was difficult to form a mental image of the property from the photos posted on the site, but as we were due to take some time over there from May 2014, I placed it on our list of two to check out if we found the time.
The little house ticked most boxes on our wish list. As a terrace house, it is not grand, but will be low maintenance as there are no huge grounds to keep in check. It is simple and charming. It provides some outdoor living in a back courtyard that needs
work, but has potential. It had recently been renovated inside. The owner was an elderly retired artisan who used the house as a family holiday place. His wife had died and his two grown children, around my age, had no interest in it. The house has
the infrastructure for internal heating installed (hmmm…, but that’s another story …).
The house is close to the centre of the village. The village has some commerce including one or two restaurants, a gift shop, tea salon, antique store, pharmacy and such, and is close to the local town of Ruffec and the regional cities of Angoulême and Poitiers. The house is steps away from a beautiful little river and you can see the local château down the street from the living room windows.
The history is rich - the chateau has been built on since the year 1080 and has six fairytale, “Rapunzel, let down your hair” turrets. It played a role in the Hundred Years War across the 14th and 15th centuries when at various times both the English and the French were in control of it. It has been damaged, demolished, restored a number of times across its history. In the religious wars of the 16th and 17th centuries the château was a base for Huguenot forces. It suffered extensive fire damage during the French Revolution. During World War II the château housed French troops and refugees from Alsace-Lorraine in 1940 and for several months it was partially occupied by some German units. The demarcation line that separated Free France from Occupied France ran through the Charente département and Angoulême in the early years of WWII. There is a 12th century church behind our house, just up a long set of crumbling external stone stairs and to the left of the property. The terrace row we are situated in was constructed around 1775 (if you can believe the date etched into the stone plaque embedded above the door of one of the dwellings in the terrace row) - pre-French revolution.
So, the first offer on the little house in Verteuil was accepted. It was a surprise, not entirely expected. But this set in motion a roller coaster ride of dealing with the French bureaucracy during the purchasing period, that after many months, resulted in a ridiculously cheap and small mortgage (compared to Australian standards) from a french bank.
I know people who have higher value car loans.
The house is now furnished and ready to welcome friends and others to share the beautiful region. The title of this blog entry is sustaining a little house that is so far away. To date, it hasn’t proven so difficult. Once contacts are made with key local people who can assist with minor works and accessing tradespersons when necessary, most arrangements can occur relatively simply by email. There is a log of works still to occur at the house. Some of these will occur in the lead up to our first guests in mid May, such as:
1. Repainting some of the ground floor ceiling, stained as a result of a flooding event in October 2015 - just after the ceiling was painted for the first time. The flooding was due to a blocked and overwhelmed drain in the back courtyard after storms. Water couldn’t escape from the courtyard and overflowed into the kitchen and through the floor to the level below.
2. Draining the existing oil from the oil tank in the cave, or cellar, and then removing the existing oversized oil tank ready for replacement with a smaller tank later in the year. Hopefully the heating will be ready for the next winter.
3. Finishing the garden on the rear terrace. The back part of the property is made up of three or four terraces connected by rough stone steps that rise up to the church grounds. The terraces were overgrown and strewn with centuries old rubble at purchase. Now they have been largely cleared. Concerted effort is being directed to the first terrace level that has already been cleared and levelled, and now is ready is to be planted out. Perhaps some rose bushes and potted olive trees?
4. A minor roof repair to fix a minor leak into the third floor bathroom. Hey, one has to forgive a 250 year old (plus) house for one or two leaks!
5. A new oven and stove top. At the moment two portable, electric hot plates and a microwave are the go. More than suitable, but no good if one is into baking or roast dinners!
6. The Charente region is terrific for cycling - there are many published cycle trips available in the local area. Also, during summer, the river can be quite busy with people enjoying canoeing on its gentle waters. We’ll be on the look out for second hand cycles and canoes to keep in our cave for enjoyment in future years.
France and Australia seem a long distance from each other - actually, Verteuil is 16 881km from Brisbane, Australia. However, it only takes a day, or 24 hours, to get to Paris, France from Brisbane, and then another 3 hours by train to Verteuil. Easy!
Scenes around Verteuil-sur-Charente
Jim lives in Brisbane, Australia, works at The University of Queensland, and enjoys visiting, reading and learning about France.