This is what our land looked like at the beginning.
Building A House In Provence, Part One
When I first met my husband, Maurice, he told me he had always dreamed of living in Provence. He is originally from Nice and even has some gypsy blood flowing through his veins, so I thought it was a genetic thingâ€”he had to have the sun shining on him to be happy. Once he retired, he brought up Provence again and wanted to start checking out property there. I was perfectly happy in Paris and while I thought Provence was beautiful, I wasn’t sure how long I could be content looking at a vineyard. It was Maurice’s dream, not mine. Well, marriage is made of compromises and I could tell it really meant a lot to Maurice, and so I decided, “Why not?” with a promise from Maurice that if I really hated living in Provence we could always sell and come back to Paris full-time. We wouldn’t sell our little place in Paris. I would be back here for short trips when I felt the need for the stimulation of a city. A friend said to me, “You have doubts about living in Provence? Do you know how many people would kill to be in your shoes?” I just know, having reached my ripe old age, that dreams and fantasies don’t always turn out to be what you thought they would be. But I was willing to give it a try.
We were given the name of an American man who sold real estate. He lived in Menerbes, the village made famous by Peter Mayle. I contacted him about helping us find a place to buy in Provence. He wrote back wanting to know our price range and when he found out (I’m sure he was laughing), he told us he couldn’t help us and that we would never find anything near Aix-en-Provence at that price, not even a fixer-upper. We would have to spend at least twice as much to find something small and ordinary at best. I could tell he didn’t want to waste his time with us, not with the commission he would get if we happened to find a place.
Luckily, we have French friends who moved from Paris to Provence. Although I had been a little discouraged about finding an affordable place after the Menerbes man, they gave us hope. They had a beautiful home and the price they had paid wasn’t far from what we could afford. We set out on a short tour with them and they took us to various little towns to have a look at the area. They lived outside a little village called Villelaure and we saw Lourmarin, Cucuron, Bonnieux, Ansouis and a few more. This whole area is covered with vineyards and rolling hills. Some of its villages are perched on top of a mountain. I rather liked the idea of actually living inside one of the villages behind a high wall with a little yard and a house that would be within walking distance of all of the shops and markets. Maurice didn’t. He wanted some land and a swimming pool, so it was time to find a real estate person again.
We made a couple of trips to Provence and looked around with various real estate agents. We found a lot of homes for sale in our price range, but I didn’t like any of them. Some were nice homes, but extremely isolated. Some were in a great location but the actual buildings were old and dark and would cost too much to renovate. A few looked as if various pieces had been added on by the owner in a do-it-yourself manner. One house had a device where wood had to be burned to heat the water. That was a little too country for me. We saw a brand new house in a crowded neighborhood that would have sold for half the price in the States. It was getting depressing because almost every house we saw was up for sale because of a divorce. It broke my heart to see the childrenâ€™s rooms. I was starting to think Mr. Menerbes was right. We weren’t going to find a place in our price range.
On the last day we were in a little village called Tour d’Aigues and hadn’t liked the house the real estate man had just shown us, when he said, “How about looking at some property?” We thought we might as well look. Maybe building what we wanted would be the best thing, if the property wasn’t too expensive. It turned out to be next to a tiny village of 250 people in a rather isolated area located in the Luberon National Park. It was covered with dense brush, a few oak trees, bushes called Mimosa that are covered in yellow flowers in the spring and some wild olive trees. When we walked, we could smell wild thyme getting crushed under our feet, an incredible odor. Some people were walking in the area, as well, looking for wild asparagus. Maurice’s eyes lit up. This was more like it.
We came back the next day and walked around and then went up to the little village. It had a tiny church with Mary standing on top and a city fountain next to it, the type with a little head with water coming out of the mouth. There was a charming narrow street lined with houses bearing shutters and doors in bright ProvenÃ§al colors. But that was it. There was not one restaurant or shop and that bothered me as I had to discard the dream of a short walk to a boulangerie to get a baguette. The nearest boulangerie was 4 kilometers away. Not too far, but not an easy walk either.It was Maurice’s dream and he really wanted this property, so we bought it.
It turned out that the property had been the inheritance of four family members, all aristocrats, who came from the nearby castle. They had divided it into four pieces and put it up for sale. Land is hard to find in Provence these days and we were lucky to find it before it sold. We met with two members of the family, a man with fluffy white hair and a pointed nose and his sister dressed in what looked like a Chanel suit with high heels, stockings and pearls. I was in jeans, a T-shirt and tennis shoes. A Notaire, who does all of the paper work and legal things needed to buy property in France, was in our meeting. The Notaire had brought his darling dog Pistache with him. I was surprised that the Notaire did all of the paperwork by hand, laboriously filling out the location of the property, the owners’ information, our information, etc. It took well over an hour. It was all done in French, of course, so I sat there totally clueless and made friends with Pistache. We signed the papers with the understanding that none of it would be legal and that the whole thing would be canceled if we didn’t get the permission needed to build our house.