Tuesday, 22 September 2015

Week 2. Search for the perfect holiday home continues

Thurs 17th Sept.
Further torrential rain in the night! 
Spent the am doing a service wash! After lunch walked in to the centre of Rochefort. 
Visited the Corderiere Royal - a massive rope museum on the site of the workshop built by Louis X1V to support the massive ship building yard nearby. In it's day it provided rope for the sails etc for warships built in the dockyard, the centre of naval shipbuilding in France in the X1V C. It was an interesting museum with demonstrations of how the rope was made and also had a section with how the sea is depicted in comic books and animated film in France. 

Moored nearby was the l'Hermione, a replica of the 14c warship La Fayette. L'Hermione has taken 17 years to build by 73 artisans and only just recently launched and crossed the Atlantic to celebrate the original's involvement in a famous battle.  The original La Fayette took 6 months to build by about 600 people. During the recreated voyage just about 20 crew were professionals the other 50 or so were volunteers. The crew in the 14c La Fayette numbered in the hundreds. Both voyages took  about 35 days.

Rochefort is an interesting town on the estuary of the River Charente. Would recommend a visit.

Friday 18th Sept.

A leisurely drive down to Saintes. 
Did a big shop at an enormous Hyper U supermarket and then lunch chez Rex waiting in the car park of the municipal campsite until 3pm to be allowed on to a pitch, - such excitement!
Cycled in to Saintes for a reccy - will return tomorrow for a sightseeing day.
Dinner chez Rex and watched the TV - Rugby World Cup - England v Fiji. The french TV people were going nutty with extensive pre match coverage - goodness knows what it will be like tomorrow for France's first game!!
Further rain in the night! This is NOT what it is supposed to be in this land of milk and honey!

Sat 19th Sept.

Walked in to Saintes . First port of call the Roman Amphitheatre. This weekend in Charente Maritime all museums are free - result! 
The Amphitheatre is probably the best of it's kind in Europe. Very impressive. The english speaking audioguide was excellent in informing how life would have been in the 1st C AD.

Walked back in to Saintes centre to the Archeological Museum for a further Roman fix - gratuit  merci.

Arrived at a nice bistro just as they stopped serving food so carried on looking for somewhere open and ended up in a cafe near the tourist info with great views of the ginormous L'arc de Germanicus (roman) and ate a nondescript cheese on toast thing.

Then on to the L'abbaye aux Dames  an old Cistercian abbey also free to visit today!
There was a marriage service just starting as we arrived and the sound of singing from within the abbey church was lovely. However as it was a Catholic service ( presume lengthy) didn't hang around to see the happy couple emerge from within.

Bought a couple of books from a street bookstall as we walked back to the site - hardback pictorial guides to Charente Martime - as a start to the info corner of La Maison Pierre - yes getting a little ahead of ourselves here!

Returned to the campsite - it has not rained so far today - hurrah!
Will dine Chez Rex and watch the Rugby in solidarity with our French amis!

Tomorrow there is a Brocante in Saintes (a street market with bric a brac and possibly antiquities) - so will call in there before heading off to Pons.On Monday  we will keep an appointment to view a property there to compare with La Maison Pierre. (just in case it is our very perfect house)

We have an appointment on Tues with the Notaire in Surgeres to start the official house buying process and will then have 10 days cooling off period before reaching the point of no return!

Here's a couple of internal shots of La Maison Pierre:

Rear half of the lounge overlooking the garden.

From dining room open to hall to lounge. Other pic of lounge was of the back, to the right.

Sun 20th Sept.
Called by the vide grenier/brocante before leaving Saintes. Unfortunately it was all Graham expected with mostly tat, old clothing, shoes and toys and not the undiscovered art deco gems that Carol hoped for!
Headed west towards Pons.
Stopped for lunch at the pretty riverside town of Jarnac- the celebrated birthplace of Francois Mitterand, and had a picnic in a park overlooking the river, canal locks and the Corvoisier cognac centre. Very peaceful and picturesque.
Weather sunny and all well with our world!
Then on to Pons via Bourge Charente, a picturesque riverside village with a Michelin starred rather swanky looking restaurant. There are properties for sale here but despite its beauty there appeared nothing to occupy yourself for a period of time - probably not the best place to achieve integration with the locals (probably all second homers!)
And then on to Pons ready for a viewing tomorrow. Settled on to the municipal site then walked in to town to check it out before dinner chez Rex. The area around the Donjon with it's Cafes and square is lovely but the town does not feel as nice as Surgeres - the house tomorrow needs to be pretty special!

Mon 21st Sept.
Met John the estate agent who will be showing us houses this am. We only booked to view 1 but apparently we will view another 2! 
The first propery was a lovely detached traditional house in Archiac, a large village near Jonzac. It faced a tabac and pharmacy with a glancing view of the church. It is the holiday home of a notaire who has retired to an appartment in Bordeaux. Very grand inside but the usual pokey kitchen. Upstairs 5 bedrooms and 2 bathrooms - 1 shower room, 1 bathroom neither with WC and 1 WC all along the same corridor - weird! The house had further rooms unused and also access to another attached small house needing renovation. A rather grand pool and enclosed walled garden outside. Again probably more suited to someone with a larger budget and more imagination than us. So we were "out".

The next house was a strong contender - walking distance from Pons centre. However, disappointment loomed over us again - another overpriced home needing almost total renovation. Again lovely outside space but inside - oh dear! Again all bathrooms had no WC - with only 1 seperate WC for the whole house of 4 beds. Again an air of slight decorative neglect. Sorry John we're "out"
The final property was in a suburb of Pons definitely not within easy walking or even hiking distance from the action! It has been empty 2 years since the owner returned back to the UK following the death of his wife. A large modern spanish style property - not to our taste - which had a rather sad air of abandonment. Again a lovely outdoor space with pool and summer kitchen. However - location,location,location - we were "out". It was well overpriced too!
After the resigned John dropped us back to pick up Rex we motored on to a lovely picturesque village on the Gironde estuary called Montagny sur Gironde. Had a picnic lunch overlooking the small marina.

Ducks have priority over cars in Mortagne.

Here also was an Aire for motorhomes - where you can park overnight for 8€, and outside for free. But you have to be quick or lucky - there is limited room. We were lucky. As we picnicked a stream of hopefuls having missed the boat as all pitches were already taken at 2 pm circled and drove on by.

We continued to drive up the coast admiring the views and enjoying warm sunshine. We overnighted in Marrennes - the oyster capital of France . However the weather did not hold so the splash in the pool at the site did not materialise. We also heard from Ingrid the agent - our appointment to sign the contract is now to be Weds am.

Tues 22nd Sept.
Another rainy day so headed to Rochefort for a day killing time of supermarket and furniture store mooching.
Unfortunately what we thought was a furniture store was the french equivalent of BM homestores or a cheaper Dunhelm mill! No design ideas to be had!
We decided not to stay in Surgères again, but headed onto Courçon on the edge of the Marais Poitevin - however rain stopped play so had a supermarket ready meal chez Rex and an early night ready for the big day tomorrow.

Weds 23rd Sept - the possible day of no return!

Met Ingrid at her office,then off to Rochefort to sign the contract. As she drove us Ingrid informed us 2 other buyers were wanting the property since we signed the pre contract- we are now so glad we turned back and signed so quickly and feel much better about offering the asking price- for once it appears luck was on our side! Ingrid says there is a lack of quality housing in Surgères.

Estate Agents can draw up the initial contract and this was Ingrid's 1st time with a house purchase. There was another estate agent colleague, a translator who worked for the same agency who was a  fluent french speaking english woman. Monsieur the vendor and ourselves. There followed over an hour of paper signing extraordinaire and talk of termite inspections, electricity inspections, asbestos and house eating mushroom inspections - all mandatory and funded by the vendor, then the job was done!  The translator informed us of some jobs needing to be done identified in various surveys - apparently there is woodworm in the loft and garden shed - " quite normal in old french houses", a possible problem with the electric trip-" an electrician will just fix it" and hopefully that's it! Eeek!

We shook hands all round and Ingrid treated us to lunch with a glass of wine at a brasserie, where we sat and ate al fresco in warm sunshine- how civilised! 
We then went back to Surgeres where Ingrid accompanied us to the Mairie to enquire how to commence the planning process for a swimming pool, and also to the Tourist Information Office to obtain their list of holiday rental properties available in Surgeres (to suss out the opposition and possible friends. One English couple appear to have a several gites in a hamlet just outside of Surgeres - may be worth contacting them for info re pool companies and other tips?
Went to the bank to pick up our new bank card and cheque book and on enquiring re home insurance got booked in to see Geraldine the manager for an interview in a few days time, - no handing over of info leaflet here - oh no a thorough interrogation will be required!

Decided to move further inland for a few days and so headed for Chef Boutonne - to La Moulin campsite - which has a restaurant in a former mill. Greeted in english by the caretaker and on talking to a fellow camper discovered this was an English owned site in an enclave of English expats! We had passed a white van with a catering box attached parked in a car park as we had approached the campsite. We were intrigued as it had lettering on it stating a Chatsworth address. Apparently this was the mobile fish and chips van!

Had dinner in the restaurant served by the owner - weird ordering french food in english - at least the chef was french! Stuart the owner advised us re pool buying almost trying to put us off - but we will not be deterred!

As we chatted to Denise and Ray at the table next to us - we ordered some wine - chosing a bottle rather than the cheaper carafe from a wine box. Ray had ordered this when they had dined here previously and asked Stuart what is was and where to get some. Stuart had described it as Chateau Plastique, and so on visiting the local cave a day or two later Ray asked for a bottle of Chateau Plastique, only realising he had been the receipt of a Stuart witticism when the shop owner handed him a wine box! Doh! Oh how we laughed -poor Ray!

After a typical  french very tasty 3 course meal at the cost of €17.50 pp (£13), and a couple of celebratory bottles of wine (keeping up with Denise and Ray just to be polite), we staggered back to Rex to watch the 2nd half of the french game in the rugby world cup. The champagne will have to wait until tomorrow!

Friday, 11 September 2015

In search of a holiday home in Charente Maritime. Sept-Oct 2015

Weds Sept 9th. 
After a 273 mile journey from Beverley we caught the overnight ferry from Portsmouth to St Malo, Brittany. We arrived in loads of time and took our place behind two suspect dudes in a clapped out van, watching as everyone else was called onto the ship. Last but 2 we were. By the time we boarded the restaurant was full and we had to eat in the buffet - to be fair, it did us a favour. The buffet was excellent and saved us a few quid. Disembarking the two dudes were pulled over by the gendarmerie and held us up again, but only for a minute. Their van consisted of compartments of surf boards, skateboards,wetsuits and almost nothing else.

Thurs Sept 10th. 
Arrived just after 8.30am and drove the 220 miles to our first port of call -  Surgères.
Selected a pitch at the local campsite and eyed up the pool. 27degrees C and sunny. Unfortunately Graham forgot his swimming trunks! He cycled off off in search of a suitable shop whilst Carol chilled some beer and enjoyed the sun.
Will have an early night after a van prepared dinner as we have an appointment with the bank manager to open a french bank account tomorrow am. ooo errr! 

Fri Sept 11th
Just managed to get up and out for our 10am appointment at the bank.
Geraldine our advisor welcomed us into her office and so began a hour and a half of banking french style. Graham was sure that she would be able to speak English but alas not and he valiantly managed to converse well enough for us to open an account - after agreeing the terms and conditions and multiple signing of several pieces of paper. In France you pay a nominal sum per month for the privilege of having a carte bancaire and an annual fee for insurance - obligatoire. Bienvenue à France! So yes, the banking is free but the mandatory insurance for loss and theft is not. However we did get a complimentary Michelin guide to Charente Maritime- in french of course!

After lunch we visit estate agents. Apparently of course what we want is rare indeed!
We did visit a lovely town house with Cristelle a local agent - however it had no parking, only 1 shower room for 5 bedrooms, no pool (but room to build), and on a busy through road so some traffic noise (and we know what Graham thinks about that!) On the plus side it had been beautifully restored with exposed stone walls and marble flooring downstairs - very chic!
Tomorrow we visit a modern house with a pool in the morning and the front runner so far "La Belle Cachette" in the afternoon (interestingly one of the estate agents let us know it has been for sale for a long time and is in his opinion overpriced - good information to know!)

Sat 12th Sept
Met Ingrid the estate agent 10 am start again which is early for us! Apparently the modern hous we were to view has been sold! 
So we viewed a large town house(too large) with 6 bedrooms - characterful - large garden with large trees, nice terrace and plenty room for a pool but would need a far more extensive budget than ours to refurbish.
We then viewed a stone house on a relatively quiet road just a few minutes pleasant walk from the town centre via the Chateau. Unassuming on the outside but surprisingly lovely inside, with a manageable garden with just room for a pool. A well loved home full of quirky features, 4 bedrooms all good sizes - 1 downstairs with a walk in wardrobe and ensuite. A small kitchen with room to knock through to make a good sized kitchen /diner. Also under the top end of our budget so affordable to build pool and rebuild kitchen. A definate contender! Hurrah! 

Rear view of what we have nicknamed "The Garden House"

Also good to compare with our next viewing (house name removed) and top favourite on paper.
Met with the caretakers who invited us to explore the property. Downstairs was lovely with characterful rooms full of light. Upstairs a disappointment - no landing to speak of - 3 rather sparse double rooms. A lovely outside sitting area overlooking the pool. However the place felt rather tatty and in need of a good redecoration and refurbishment. The reportedly newly fitted bathrooms appeared tired and the electric wall heaters decidedly ancient! At almost €50,000 more than "the Garden House" we felt we would have opportunity to create just as nice an outdoor space at "The Garden House" and stamp our own mark on that property. Ummm - food for thought...

So 2 properties to compare and contrast - spent time over dinner chez Rex discussing pros and cons - at the moment we to our surprise are leaning towards " The Garden House". And so to bed.

Craaack! What was that? Attempted to get out of the passenger door but blocked - as we scrambled out of the drivers door into the darkness of night we were met with concerned voices and saw the remnents of large branches of a tree completly covering Rex! The campsite owner was called and the Sapeurs Pompiers (Fire brigade). A crowd of interested on lookers had now developed and a lovely couple opposite us made coffee for us as we looked on to the scene. A few minutes later 2 young muscular pompiers were cutting branches and clearing the way for us to move Rex to a safer plot!
Une echappé belle - lucky escape - and could have been much worse! Apparently it had been extremely dry the last few months and the extremely heavy rain through last night must have contributed to the Tree's demise -- Ha Ha! We will inspect for any damage tomorrow but it appears we may have survived with minor scratches to Rex and possibly damage to the TV ariel.

Tomorrow we head off to St Jean D'Angely and a viewing booked for Monday at 9am-What? This means getting up at 7h!!

Sun 13th Sept.
A leisurely drive through possible contender villages - all appeared to have little commerce so crossed off the list. Arrived in St Jean D'Angely in sunshine but soon changed to rain and the usual heaviest and noisiest showers occured aprox 4 am! 

Mon 14th Sept. 
Up early to walk in to the town centre to meet Marc the estate agent in St Jean at 9am.
He showed us a very grand pavillon in the centre with a fantastic pool. Very grand, old school with a prestigious feel. However it was above budget which we prepared to stretch to if if was perfect. It wasn't. It needed a lot of work to update and repair. The elderly owner had just gone to a retirement home. The decor was very grand and floral but probably not changed since the 60s! There was a enormous underground garage with a lounge off it - an enormous man cave! And also a shower/wc and twin bedroom at the back of the garage as well as numerous workrooms - like a bunker. We'd already decided No when Marc dealt the killer blow: the terrace was leaking into the basement and needed repairing - that wasn't in the brochure! En parfait état it said. Someone with a much larger budget than ours will create a beautiful home we're sure - but as in Dragon's Den we had to tell Marc we were "out".

We arranged to view 2 more smaller and cheaper properties on Wednesday and then went on to our next estate agency to meet Carolyn, an English expat working as an agent. She showed us round a beautiful large modernised townhouse with a lovely large garden. It had a sluice in the basement with a canal of swiftly flowing water running through the basement (right through the middle of the house) and into a canal alongside the garden! Apparently this was the remnants of an old mill. You altered the level of the sluice dependent on how high the river was opposite. Although the house was lovely and just on budget we felt it was perhaps too large a garden and we would have to put in a pool. The thought of fast flowing water running through the basement in the winter months when it was not occupied was also a concern - so again we were " out".

Carolyn gave us some good advice re life in the area for expats . She agreed with us that the unamed house was currently overpriced by the owners and was to feedback to them - not sure if the owner would agree to sell it if not priced more sensibly. She also gave us her home telephone number if we should need any further help which was very kind.

We were by this point exhausted and couldn't face another round of estate agent visiting so wandered back to the campsite for a very late lunch. During the evening we pondered on "The Garden House". We prefer Surgères to St. Jean, it's in a good location, it's the right size and price, it has an ensuite (quite rare in France), and an opportunity for us to add value by improvements. What were we doing messing about searching out others? We decide that, as it's due to keep raining for the next few days, why not go back for a second look and then holiday when it's sunny. So that's what we plan. Graham will phone Marc tomorrow and cancel the two viewings and then ring Ingrid, the agent in Surgères to request another viewing.

Tues 15th Sept.
Had a lie in. Graham rings Marc and achieves a small milestone: a conversation on the phone tout en francais - albeit a small one, a personal first. We travel the long way back to Surgères, through Saint Prochaire and Pont L'Abbe d'Arnoult - larger villages with shops and restaurants with shortlisted properties situated within, and have a good walk round. However we are underwhelmed and feel that Surgères town is still our preferred location. Graham rings Ingrid to arrange another viewing of "the Garden House" as this appears to tick all the boxes for us.
So back to Surgères - requesting a tree free pitch at the campsite! We will re-view the house tomorrow am- we hope it will still feel as nice on a second viewing.

Weds 16th Sept.
Just managed to get to our appointment with Ingrid the estate agent at 10.30am!
The weather is horrid - torrential rain!
We revisited the house now named La Maison Pierre (the stone house - not quite, but near enough -ed.). It was even better than we first thought! We met the owners M and Mme Drapeau who were delightful. Spent lots of time measuring and taking photos, asking about insulation, electrics, etc., then back to the office to make an offer. Ingid advised us to make a lower offer than we thought we should. So we left Ingrid to negotiate on our behalf - and left to have a lovely lunch in a local Italian restaurant.
On not hearing from Ingrid we decided to visit the nearest seaside resort Chataleillon Plage - however as it was raining heavily we decided to move inland to Rochefort. As we arrived at the municipal campsite Ingrid rang - another couple viewed the house 2 weeks before with another agency and are seeking finance. The only way to definitely secure the sale is to offer the asking price and sign the sale document today! Be the first! If you offer the asking price in France the vendor HAS to accept and he is it bound by it. No gazumping - good system!

So we drove back to Surgères as quickly as Rex allowed and signed the document.
We returned to Rochefort and on arrival at the site recieved a call from Ingrid to say the owners have signed agreeing our purchase and it is ours! They are happy, we are happy. They will be leaving all the beds upstairs and some other items of furniture as they are downsizing to an apartment by the sea. We think they felt sorry for us paying the top price! Nothing wrong with emotional blackmail! And part of us felt we should pay a premium as we are foreigners, and the other interested party are local. A bit like a second home tax but it cuts out the middleman and goes straight to the owner.

No Champagne available so we celebrated with a strong beer! Let the adventure begin! Soit commencer l'aventure!