Living In France

Living In France: How I Moved From Australia To France

In 2010 we bought a house in France and moved from Australia to France and began our life in a rural medieval town in the Dordogne region of South West France. Our French house is built from honey coloured stone and sits high on a hill over the town of Sarlat. We named the property Villa la Peyriere after the area it sits in and embarked on the adventure of restoring the house and creating beautiful gardens.

The Beginning

For many people the Global Financial Crisis was a time of pulling in the belt and anxiously watching the news. For us the economic downturn enabled us to fulfil a dream and buy a stone house in the town of Sarlat — la – Caneda in SW France.

I set off to France in September of 2010 on a discovery mission, my job was to do some ground work, get a handle on the market, make a short list for Alex and I to view together when he arrived in France a couple of weeks later. Our chosen area was a small part of the Dordogne as close to the medieval town of Sarlat as possible.

To find out more visit the website here Sarlat | Villa with Private Pool in Sarlat, the Dordogne SW France

I fell in love with the first house I saw. Oh my goodness I thought to myself I can’t phone Alex and tell him I’ve bought the first (and only) house I have seen so I pushed on touring around the French countryside with various agents and looking at house after house. BUT I still kept coming back to the stone house sitting high on the hill above Sarlat.

After numerous long distance conversations and photos winging  through cyber space we made an offer on the house and to our delight it was accepted. We never thought we would be able to afford a house so close to such a popular town as Sarlat, however all the planets aligned as they sometimes do and we found ourselves the proud owners of an old stone house sitting on 2000 sq metres of land 600 metres from the medieval town square.

No-one really knows the history of the house other than it started its life as a shepherds hut and sheep shed and over time has grown to the eclectic mix of rooms it currently is. We do know we have an arrow slit in the cave (basement) and as the house sits on top of a hill and the area is where the 100 years war was fought we wonder if the cave at one time was a defensive building.

We flew back to Sydney with a thousand plans in our heads and set about packing up our lives to move to our new French home. The paperwork to move to France was quite staggering and unbeknown to us at the time was just a small introduction into the bureaucratic nightmare that is France.

At Last We Arrive..And So Does Our Furniture.

We arrived at the house in March 2011 at the tail end of a cold winter, as we walked up the hill from the town very early in the morning we encountered a pair of deer trotting along the road. Our worldly goods were due to arrive later that morning and we were keen to get to the house and get started on our new French life.

The outgoing owners had left the house in pretty good condition and the gardens were tidy, however they had taken every light fitting in the place leaving bare wires hanging from the ceiling and all the toilet roll holders from the bathrooms. Now none of these things were of any value and they were all pretty ugly which we would have replaced, but a) we found it bizarre anyone could want to take a $2 plastic stick on toilet paper holder, and b) it was a damn inconvenience having not 1 light fitting in the place when it got dark at 4pm.

As we were wandering around the property (still scratching our heads at the missing loo holders and lights) the truck driver arrived at the door to tell us he was parked at the bottom of the hill. Our new property has difficult access and the removalists had organised a smaller van to ferry our belongings up the hill…but where were they? An hour or so passes with no sign of them, the truck driverwas getting cranky and we were getting worried, calls to our removal agent in France go unanswered and we were starting to think we were going to have to unload the truck on the side of the road and somehow ferry it up the hill ourselves.

Finally they arrive at 100 miles an hour up the hill, the head guy leaps out of the van and starts yelling at us that we had given them the wrong address. Our address is La Peyriere and they had gone to an area up the road called Les Perieres, similar pronunciation but definitely a different place. They insisted they were right and we had got it wrong and my French was not good enough to say “Um I think we know the address of our property..” so I ignored them and just got on with it.

For the next few days we pretty much lived in the kitchen with the single bedside lamp as our only light source.

Over the next week or so we unpacked our belongings, bought a car and started to settle into French life.

Getting a visa for AP was next on our list, I am a British citizen and AP is my legal partner so the French cannot refuse him entry under EU law so how hard can it be..yep its hard and saw us having to leave the country before it was sorted..

Here is that story

The Inside

The inside of the house was in pretty good nick, a bit old and tired but structurally sound.

As previously mentioned the house consists of what was once two barns or animal shelters and has been added to as time has gone on and then joined in the middle by a single storey entrance. When the joining structure was built the bright sparks that did the work didn’t level off the ground just built straight on the flag stones so we have an entrance that is on a slope, not sure we’ll ever change that as it doesn’t impact us that much and it is part of the quirk of the house.

As you stand at the front of the house looking toward it the building on the right houses the kitchen and what was a downstairs bathroom, above was two bedrooms one with an external door and both internal and external staircases leading up to it.

The Kitchen | Villa La Peyriere

The kitchen, while functional was not much else and had the most horrible blue vynal flooring.  At some point a previous owner had tiled over some of the beautiful stonework using concrete as a backing, another owner had come along and put timber over the ugly tiles so what you ended up with is a bit of a hodge podge. However it was clean and functional so we did some minor works which included moving the bathroom that was off the kitchen and turning that space into a pantry.  As the kitchen stood it was ok and redoing it how we want it is a massive job we decided to wait and complete more pressing works.

The Studio | VIlla La Peyriere

The two upstairs bedrooms on the other hand was a completely different story. With an external entrance we saw it as an ideal opportunity to create a studio apartment that we could rent to travellers. The plan was to turn the two bedrooms into one large space with an en suite and a small kitchenette. We would remove the low ceilings and create a vaulted ceiling using the magnificence the beams we had discovered in an expedition into the roof space as a highlight. This was our first major foray into a largish project in France and saw us spending hours and hours in various hardware stores, or Brico’s, in and around Sarlat and frequently travelling to Brive and Perigueux over an hour away to haunt the Brico’s there.

At first it seemed everything was different, the paint was different, the glue, the way they do plastering and so it went on. Different stores sold different product so it was trial and error if we actually found what we were looking for in the places we visited. We spent hours trying to translate the back of packages and we at times came home with things we thought did one thing and did something totally different. One day we set off to the timber yard to buy ply for the back of cupboards, and yes we came home with ply but whatever it was we bought cost an absolute bomb and I reckon we now have the most expensive cupboard backs in SW France. We asked the people in the Brico’s and struggled, with our limited French to understand what they were saying. We did just fine with our poor French in the cafes, at the boulangerie and in the supermarket but trying to understand the technicalities of a type of paint or a plumbing part is an entirely different ball game.

We soldiered on, we read labels, talked to other ex-pats and we slowly learned and our studio developed into a beautiful light filled space with soaring ceilings that is now a popular rental.

Living Rooms And Bedrooms | Villa La Peyriere

On the other side of the house downstairs is a large living dining space with a large fireplace. It is clean and comfortable and is a nice place to spend time. In the future we will relay the floor, plaster over the walls which is a rough concrete type finish which guarantees to remove skin when you try to clean it and put in a stove rather than a fire place which will give better heating.

Above the lounge are two bedrooms and the family bathroom. The bedrooms were very old and tired with very worn dirty carpet that had been clawed by cats. In the master bedroom there was a huge built in wardrobe that took up half the space of what is not a huge space.

In the winter of 2013 we renovated these rooms, pulling up the carpet and laying floorboards. I still have memories of mixing floor levelling compound in the snow. The walls got a fresh coat of paint, the ceilings were repaired and the ugly wardrobe was demolished.

The inside of the house is still a work in progress, each year we do a little bit more during the non rental season. By now we are pretty confident in where to buy our goods and what things do but those first few years were pretty jolly tough.

The Outside

The house sits in 2000 sq metres of land which is broken in the different areas or what are now garden ‘rooms’.

The Herb Garden

One area to the side of the house is fully surrounded by walls and was once a dog enclosure and the dilapidated dog pens were still there when we moved it, there was also bamboo growing out of control and the entire space was a bit of a mess. On the plus side there is the remnants of a well that just needs restoring and the garden gets good sun all day making it the perfect herb / veggie garden.

This garden was the first thing we tackled demolishing the dog sheds and creating raised garden beds where we planted masses of thyme, rosemary, sage and oregano. One entire bed was planted with strawberries and raspberries which now give us and our guests and abundance of fruit.

AP embarked on a battle to get rid of the bamboo which aided by the coldest winter on record he won about 2 years later, when we eliminated the bamboo jungle we discovered in the rear of the garden an entrance to an underground waterway which I am told runs for kilometres under ground through the hills surrounding Sarlat.

In 2014 we build planter boxes inspired by those we saw at my younger brothers place in which we planted more herbs and grasses. The herb garden is still a work in progress, we plan to restore the well and build a pergola creating a peaceful space to sit and read or take breakfast.

The Home Garden

The home garden site immediately in front of the house and boasts a beautiful stone BBQ, unfortunately it was also on a slope so it was pretty hard to put a table out there and the space was not used as it should be. In 2015 AP built a stunning terrace which overlooks the lower garden and pool and has created a beautiful place to spend time. It has been surround by box hedge and in the garden we have planted Australian Grevillea. Strange you may say to be planting Australian natives in France however we have discovered that the Australian desert plants do quite well in the SW France climate.

The Lower Garden

The pool takes pride of place in the lower garden  originally just a vast expanse of lawn it is now planted with masses of lavender, native Australian grasses with the pool surrounded by hedges fro privacy.

The Walnut Grove

The property also boasts a walnut grove with 4 mature walnut trees.

The Pool

We have the most beautiful swimming pool set in a private garden surrounded by lavender and grasses. Hedges provide privacy and an old walnut tree shade on hot summer days.

Arriving at this was a very tough road…

When we decided to put in a pool we did our research. It appeared the majority of pools in France have vynal liners and the few fibre glass available are cheap and plagued with problems. We were put off vynal liners as surely they are fairly easy to damage and they were also expensive.

Unhappy with the European options we imported a pool….

We discovered an Australian company who had just started importing into Europe. Their pools are designed for harsh Australian conditions, made from amoung other things Kevlar and look just beautiful.

We often joke our pool has more frequent flyer miles than most people. Our pool set out from Brisbane, Australia at the end of 2011. It then headed across the top of Australia into the Indian Ocean, through the Suez Canal across the Med. It then travelled past Gibralter, Portugal and France before finally docking in Belgium during the worst winter European has seen for many years. The pools were all frozen together and had to go into a warehouse to defrost before they could be shipped.

After defrosting in the warehouse our pool set out on it’s overland joinery from Belgium to Sarlat in SW France – some 860 KM.

We waited impatiently onsite with the team we had contracted to get the pool off the truck, up the hill and into the ground. We have a difficult access property, the house sits at the top of a small private lane that we share with 4 other houses.

Finally the pool arrives at the bottom of the hill and our contractor moves into place with his digger ready to take the pool off the truck when everything grinds to a halt.

Our neighbour, who owns the first 10 metres of the lane had stepped in to stop the digger going on the lane. The digger had metal treads and he was concerned that the metal would tear up the surface of the road. While we were trying to negotiation a solution with him i.e we will fix the road if there is damage the digger hire company, sensing a neighbour dispute loaded the digger back on the truck and took off up the road before anyone could blink.

So there we were, with our pool still on the truck with no way to get it off, a cranky neighbour, the truck driver on a time limit and best of all in was now midday so all of France had closed for lunch so no hope of finding a crane until at least 2pm. It was a tense two hours.

At 2 our contractor tried to negotiate with the hire company with no luck. He then contacted a local quarry who have cranes to see if we could store the pool there for a while until we sorted a crane. So our pool was off to a quarry where it spent the next month.

If I had known then what I know now we would have been able to contact an alternate hire company and hired a crane that day. However as we were still new to France we had to go with what we were told.

The problem now became how to get the pool back from the quarry, it was now March and we had bookings commencing in June…the clock was ticking.

The real difficulty was twofold. The type of trucks that carry shell pools are not available in our part of France so finding a truck big enough to carry a pool was tough. Also Sarlat is a difficult access town so most trucking companies refused point blank to do the job.

The Pool At Villa La Peyriere Is Installed

Finally at the beginning of April we found a company who could bring the pool back and a contractor who could finish the job. In the second week in April our pool arrived at the bottom of the lane. It was then craned off the truck and carried up the hill by a machine with rubber treads. Finally our pool was in our garden.

The next day the hole was dug and it started to rain. It rained for days as we laboured in the mud and the rain to get the pool in the ground. At last success the pool was in the ground, the sun had come out, the paving could begin and the garden planted.

We got there in the end with our first guest moving in just days (hours!) after we had finished the gardens and tidy up. It was a lesson in how things happen if France and that if you do something that is outside the norm in France be prepared for a challenge.