Just back from a little sojourn in France, where I was helping my mum look for a little pied á terre – nothing too fancy, just somewhere we can all go and have a nice time without having to break the bank.
We were looking in the Médoc area, just to the north-west of Bordeaux on either side of the Gironde (the confluence of the Dordogne and the Garonne – its estuary hits the Atlantic just below the Charentes Maritimes. You can see it on even quite big maps of France as a kind of cut-out triangle a little over halfway down on the left hand side).
House hunting is exciting at the best of times, but even better when done in a foreign country. Especially one where they have grands crus wines of international repute and restaurants that cook food so sublime you remember the meals for years after. It is not as reliably thus everywhere in France as it once was: which is why it was so lovely to find a little corner that was still untainted (mostly) by the worst bits of modern life.
They’re keen gardeners in these parts, too. Garden centres a go-go (unusual for France, where they tend to be a bit sparse and mostly confined to a corner of the monster DIY sheds), and lots of beautifully tended gardens too. The magnolias were out everywhere: they can grow olives outdoors here, though not to such spectacularly gnarly effect as further South, and they clearly do get frosts as the bananas and palms were carefully wrapped in several layers of fleece. But you can obviously be a little more daring than you can in the UK.
The local housing style is very charming, though a bit tricky for the combination of three-bed house and small-but-useable garden we were after. Lots of old sandstone maisons à deux étages in the towns, but with barely any outdoor space; and out in the country there were maisons médocains, on the face of it a bungalow, but that is to do them a disservice. These little single-storey dwellings sit on their own small plots and are made of the same sandstone as the larger houses, under a little ruffle of old clay tiles.
I think it may be one of these we end up with, much to our surprise as we’d never really considered a single-storey. But a town house with no garden is out of the question: you can’t have a house in the heart of the Médoc without somewhere to sit outside on sunny days and sip the wine.
Most of the really up-together houses are way out of our budget, so I’m thinking we may have some serious DIY ahead of us… but then I can’t help feeling we’d be letting the British side down a bit if we didn’t go for something à rénover. After all, we have a reputation to maintain: the Brits are famous in France for buying the kind of ruins any sensible Frenchman (or woman) wouldn’t touch with a bargepole and then breaking their backs and bank accounts doing them up again.
It was a wonderful four or five days in which we got to explore a whole new bit of France. We’ve hit on the exact area – around the town of Macau on the west bank of the Gironde – and now Mum just has to pick a house when she goes back (without me, sadly) in a few weeks’ time. Watch this space!