Our Story

#7 – Ready

Funnily enough – although it was a fraction of the spend on the building, electrics and plumbing – investing money in beds, mattresses, duvets, pillows, bed linen and towels, buying for all these projected guests we may never have, felt to both of us like a real leap of faith! But invest we did, and it all arrived on a huge pallet from Hotel Mega Store (beautiful 100% cotton bed linen – you should come and test it out!!). We felt very professional when it was all unpacked.

Of course, the night before all Andy’s family arrived for our first full house, we realised that we’d overlooked single duvet covers (all the beds can be configured as doubles or twins, so we had to buy double and single duvets for each room) and had to hare down to the nearest hypermarché, which was luckily open at 8pm at night…

In the days before their visit – three months after we moved in – we managed to clear the end of the building and painting materials, garden tools, lengths of wood and other miscellanea out of the main reception room, clean the floor and windows and, finally, move the dining table in. We bought a bag of logs and triumphantly had our first dinner in the dining room, with the fire blazing 🙂

Dining table and open fireplace
The reception room finally cleared after 3 months – first dinner!

Although the bedrooms weren’t fully furnished yet, we managed to take some photos good enough to allow us to get the website up and to list ourselves on booking.com and airbnb. It’s only the start of the marketing work to come over the winter and spring, but it feels good to have a start made.

And I finally sat down and sorted through and re-sized the before, during and after photos of each room, which you can see in each of the slideshows below!

We’ve named our four guest bedrooms after the four stunning limestones plateaux which overlook the town of Vence (and protect it from the elements) – les Baous.

Four mountains overlooking a town
Les Baous – the four limestone plateaux looking over Vence

Bedroom 1 – La Gaude – before, during and after

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Bedroom 2 – St Jeannet – before, during and after

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Bedroom 3 – Le Blanc – before, during and after

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Bedroom 4 – Le Noir – before, during and after

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You can also have a peek at the development of main reception room, our sitting room, kitchen, bedroom and bathroom!

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It’s been a hot and tiring summer. We’ve still got lots of little jobs left to do in the villa and the garden has so much potential it will keep us going for years. The list on the fridge only seems to longer every day. But what’s done looks great and we’re open for business.

Now, I’ve got a marathon to run.

#6 – On the home stretch now

The builders finished up mid-September and suddenly we were alone in our house. It felt both good to have the place to ourselves and scary, that everything that remained to be done had to be done by us.

Just before they left, the builders put the radiators went back on the walls. We tested out the ancient boiler, and it shuddered to life, filling the cave with smoke and fumes. We crossed our fingers while we got a boiler specialist in to tell us whether it would last the winter. He reckoned it will hobble, in a smoky and smelly way, through to next year. (Another few grand we’ll have to find next year.) We grouped together with the neighbours to get a better price on a mass order of oil. Now we have the oil, next is to try out the radiators….

We ploughed on with the painting, finishing the walls of the bedrooms and hallway upstairs and starting on the woodwork – skirting boards, doors and door frames. The beds arrived, giving us a better idea of the space in each bedroom. We were pleasantly surprised by how spacious they all seemed 🙂 We started thinking about the kind of furniture that would be best in each one.

We continued trying to clear and tame the jungle, making some bizarre discoveries, such as 150 large picture frames buried up the garden under years of leaves, ivy and other overgrowth, which we duly hauled down and brought to the dump. Why were they buried up the garden and not dumped ten or twenty years ago??

We took down one of the huge cypress trees in front of the house – the one which had broken the garden wall and the waste pipe. It opened up a stunning forest view from the other side of the house and gave the house more light. Pruning some of the other trees and planting some of the flower beds tidied and brightened up around the house.

We had our first trial guests at the start of October, and realised that we had no pillows or duvet, a slight inconvenience for them! Luckily enough, they were able to bring their own and we ordered all the bed linen, duvets, pillows and towels online, so we’re ready for the next guests from a bed linen front anyway! No doubt they’ll catch us out with some other minor oversight!

I visited Fondation Maeght – a fantastic, world-renowned private modern art collection in a villa only a 40 minute walk through the forest from us, in Saint Paul. It gave me a taste for visiting some more of the museums and galleries in the area. There’s no shortage, due to the fondness that so many 20th century artists had for the area. What Matisse himself declared as his finest work, la Chapelle du Rosaire, is only 15 minutes’ walk from the house. Of course we haven’t been there yet, shame on us!

We visited some more of the mountain top villages nearby, such as Tourettes-sur-Loup, which is a beautiful little walled town full of lovely restaurants, shops and art galleries, breath-takingly set on the edge of a deep gorge. There we saw the reason that the railway that historically connected all the mountain villages no longer runs – part of the stunningly high Roman aqueduct on which it ran has collapsed into the valley. But the Irish highlight of the visit was a great little wine bar perched on the edge of the gorge. It might be somewhere we’ll recommend…  but we’ll need to test it out a few more times to be sure (to be sure).

Tourrettes sur LoupBetween testing out bars, we finally figured out how to register our businesses and got tax and social security numbers, so we now officially exist in France. We finished cleaning and painting the bedrooms and started on the bathrooms – painting, cleaning windows and tiles, painstakingly applying grout protector. All we need now to be able to build our website and be able to take bookings is some furniture in the rooms, to be able to take pictures…

Meanwhile, we put together a flyer to start raising awareness, which the organisers of  The Lost Sheep triathlon in Kerry – Andy’s favourite race – were nice enough to put in their goodie bags. Home stretch now!

Opening flyer

#5 – Light in the bedrooms and at the end of the tunnel

With the unplanned addition of new water supply and waste pipes, the plumbing of the bathrooms and radiators was delayed, but the main wiring, plastering and tiling was finished and the new wooden floors could go in by the end of August.

Skirting boards and lighting in the bedrooms followed. The new white walls, light wood and good lighting made a huge difference – the whole place seemed so much brighter! We started to see light at the end of the tunnel.

The last appliances arrived and were installed in the kitchen and we were able to cook and eat meals on our new patio. We started appreciating the peace, calm and amazing views over the forest from the villa.

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We took the old radiators off the walls and spray-painted them, then started painting the lounge areas and bedrooms. We started clearing the jungle and saw some garden appear from under decades worth of fallen leaves, ivy and undergrowth.

We experienced rain for the first time since we arrived – three or four days and nights of it – a distant memory now, but it reminded us not to stay squirrelled away indoors painting walls every day and to get down to the coast and up to the mountains. We got to know the sandy beaches around the Cap d’Antibes (also home to a super 7km loop run around the cape) and Juan les Pins. We also caught the tail-end of the summer festival and events programme (there are outdoor music and arts events almost every night from June to September here), going to the Friday night outdoor jazz concerts at the castle in the hilltop village of Haut-Cagnes, 5kms from Vence.

Giving us a new injection of energy, our ten-week-old feline receptionist and security officer arrived, full of bounce and positivity. Even if we sometimes wish we weren’t here, in this dirty building site, he always seems to think his new home is the best place ever! Bienvenue, Rocky!

We took a trip over to the west coast to do the Marathon du Médoc. Easyjet operates cheap internal flights within France and the Nice-Bordeaux flight was only €25. The marathon was brilliant craic – we tasted the wines of 20 chateaux while running 42km through the beautiful Médoc vineyards. Afterwards we took a couple of days to discover the Atlantic coast and Bordeaux. The coast was stunning and the city was great fun, but we were freezing the whole time – we must be acclimatised to living on the Mediterranean now!!

Perhaps due to the excellent hydration strategy during the marathon, we didn’t feel too bad on our return! I decided to try to keep up the training runs with a view to maybe doing our ‘local’ marathon in November: Nice-Cannes. It’s a beautiful alternative to the Dublin Marathon and maybe we could promote packages next year, including transfer to and from the race…

Meanwhile, Andy started French classes at the centre culturel and his français is flying along, he’s practically native at this stage 😉

#4 Working in August is for mugs

Now we know why nobody works in August, in the South of France.

Everything shuts down here for the month, or most of it. People told us we were lucky that our builders would work in August. But, looking back, it might be a case of “be careful what you wish for”… ! Hauling tiles and wood flooring up steps in the August sun, changing clothes three times a day because they’re soaked through after 15 minutes, and not sleeping at night, all make a naive Irish person realise why taking a few weeks off makes much more sense. Ah yeah, we should have known they had it sussed, the French.

Then, after two weeks of us and the builders using the toilet, the waste pipe – which had not been used in almost three years – backed up. Just before the August bank holiday weekend. Pas question of getting anyone out to look at it until the following week, bien sûr.

We were hovering on the edge of sanity already and that pushed us over. We had to get out of there.

We lashed our togs and our Italian phrasebook into the car and headed over the border to check out the Italian Riviera. (The Italian section was the original Riviera – from the Italian for ‘seashore’ – the term then expanded into France, from the Italian border as far as Cannes.)

After a four hour drive, we were at Cinque Terre, a series of five colourful villages perched on steep hillside above the sea, accessed by cliff-top walking paths, ferries and a train running through tunnels cut into the cliff. Even packed with tourists, it was spectacular and the food was amazing.

Cinque Terre.JPGAfter three great days, we took the scenic coastal route back through San Remo, Menton, Monaco, Villefranche-sur-Mer and along the Nice Promenade. Next time we take that stunning coast road towards the border, we decided, it will be on bikes. A little spin across the border to have a cappuccino in Italy, perchè no?!

Back at home, the waste specialists finally arrived, with their high pressure hoses and their cameras. The diagnosis was that roots of one of the huge pines around the houses had broken into the waste pipe and were growing inside it, blocking it. The pipe had to be replaced. The garden wall and pillar had to be knocked down and reconstructed. The budget, already under strain, was going to take another knock.

But, meanwhile, the neighbours took us under their wings and invited us round for lots of apéritifs, which seemed to turn into dinners. We cleaned up and painted an outdoor terrace area, installed our fancy new barbecue, and had our first dinner in our new home. Andy discovered the Gorge du Loup on his bike. I discovered the excellent outdoor town swimming pool. The mysterious scaffolding came down from the square in the middle of the old walled town and we saw the pretty town hall, Hôtel de Ville, for the first time. We went in and registered our chambre d’hôtes. It’s really happening now!

Hotel de Ville Vence.JPG

#3 The move in

Seeing bathroom walls rise and doors appear each day in week three of the building has been a buzz.  We’ve been able to put en-suite bathrooms into all four bedrooms, which we weren’t sure we would be able to do – that was a bonus.

We’ve chosen our “local” beach – an important milestone! It’s a little sandy cove near the bridge marking the border between Villeneuve Loubet and Cagnes-sur-Mer. It’s unusual in that all the way along the coast – from Menton as far as Antibes – the beaches are stony. It’s also a good starting spot for long, flat runs in the evening, with options to run along the sea and footpath towards Nice Airport, around the Marina des Anges in the opposite direction, or inland on a wooded path along the river Loup.

We’ve started training for the Marathon du Médoc in September – a 42km tour of 20 of the best vineyards in Bordeaux with tastings along the route…. an important induction to French culture! The wine-drinking element of the training is going well, but we’re struggling with running in the intense heat, even in the evenings.

A day trip down to IKEA in Toulon (two hours’ drive down the A8 motorway down the coast) saw us drive back with a whole new kitchen packed into the car, the sunroof open so that the sink could fit in.

We got oak worktop nearer to home and decided to use it in the bathrooms as well, on top of the sink units, under the sinks themselves. It gave us a good excuse to take a stalk down to Super-Yacht Street in Antibes and pose as yacht owners, buying marine varnish. After detailed instructions from dad (a minimum of nine coats), a two-day varnishing workshop opened up in our kitchen. (We got to six coats.)

Then, all too soon, it was time to move out of our nice clean rental accommodation and into the building site.

When we made our plan, our schedule was to move over in March and do the renovations in April, May and June, to allow us to open up for the high season – July and August. This would also allow us to rent somewhere to live before the prices spiralled for the season. Months of administrative delays however, meant that we didn’t get to France until the start of June and the works only started mid-June. It would have pushed our budget out massively to rent in August, so we decided to bite the bullet and asked the builder to prioritise one room which we could sleep in and one bathroom, so we could move in to the house at the end of July, while the building work was on-going.

So the downstairs bathroom went in mid-July. A functioning toilet and shower on-site meant we could move in.

Except, only the toilet was actually functioning when we moved. The shower came three dirty days later, followed not-too-closely by the sink (all shared with the builders). Our bedroom was plastered and undercoated and, while there was no main light yet, two of the sockets were live, so we could use a standard lamp for lighting. We bought a lit coffre – bed with storage underneath – and everything we had with us was inside it, except the standard lamp and a cardboard box for a bedside locker. Two days in, in the middle of a heat-wave, we splashed out on a table fan to complete our sparse furnishings.

After a week of living in dirt and dust, with nowhere to put our clothes, we were wondering about the wisdom of our decision.

But not having any way to prepare food or anywhere to eat it gave us the opportunity to explore our new hometown and we’re pleased to report that our knowledge of the lanes, views and culinary establishments of Vence is now tip-top!

 

#2 Demolition, DIY shops and discovery

Probably the most rewarding part of the clear-out was demolishing the kitchen. Lifting tiles and breaking out cupboards with a crowbar on our own, then, with the help of the builders, smashing out a poured (and reinforced!) concrete worktop (why would anyone build a kitchen out of concrete??) and a huge chimney which took up a disproportionate share of the small room and blocked the light from the door. The builder suggested stealing a metre from our bathroom next door to extend the kitchen a bit and it made a huge difference to the light and space in the room.

All that was done in the first week and we had a real sense of achievement.

At the end of that week, our first set-back. Andy opened the door to the strongbox cupboard and was faced by what was clearly a better established resident than us, furry and fist-sized, eye-balling him in a cool and collected manner. Subsequent openings of the door over the next few days revealed the same scene – it seemed that the fella was a bachelor who had lived in the house alone until our arrival and was not familiar enough with humans to exhibit anything but nonchalant curiosity. To test this theory, we bought and placed €100 worth of bait boxes in different places around house and garden and two weeks later, the good news is, he indeed seems to be a loner, who may have got into the cupboard from outside when he was smaller and then got stuck there. He was a greedy loner, which was helpful. Gone to greedy loner heaven now. And we’ll be getting a cat in August.

In week two, more unwelcome intruders into our lives – unplanned expenses. These little critters started to sneak in and stamp all over the budget we’ve been keeping so tightly and proudly. Air conditioning units that need to be moved to accommodate the en-suite bedrooms; the main soil pipe under the house uncovered and found to be broken – so waste needs to be re-routed into new pipes. We’ll have to save by scrapping the wooden floors downstairs, or maybe putting them in ourselves at a later date. Any volunteers??

Our life has turned into marathon days in huge hardware and DIY shops, tile and furniture warehouses, electrical stores, comparing dimensions, prices, guarantees and styles of the entire contents of a house. Both of our brains are so full of detail we are completely addled and can’t remember where we have written anything down.

Things seem to take much longer in France. But that may just be down to us not having a proper schedule. We, sort of, have all day to do things, so they sometimes take all day.  And most places close for a long lunch here so it helps to get started early in the day.  Which we haven’t really got back into yet!

And while we’re feeling sorry for ourselves, I’ll just mention that the heat, humidity and mosquitoes are unrelenting. We’ve both been having tantrums and threatening to go back to the cool, refreshing Irish drizzle. Is it human nature or are we just cantankerous? We’ve had to remind each other how lucky we are lots of times. And, luckily, friends have been over and re-opened our eyes to the warmth of the water, the beauty of the mountains, the deliciousness of the food, the laid-back buzz of our pretty town and the pleasure of being outdoors.

We’ve been discovering Nice (who would have thought of building a beautiful park six stories above the Promenade des Anglais?) and the many picturesque hilltop villages near us – La Gaude, St Jeannet, Tourrettes-sur-Loup, St Paul. We’ve conquered one of the four mountains overlooking our town – les baous – and we’ve discovered lots of shady forest running trails and stunning mountain-side cycling routes. We’re getting excited about showing them to others, helping people to plan a great outdoor getaway in this beautiful area.

#1 We’ve gone and done it

After two years of tentative chat and exploration of the possibility of selling up and shipping out, we established 1) that it was possible; and 2) that we were both game. We handed in our notice at the start of May and were the ferry from Rosslare at the end of the month.

Now, a fortnight of al fresco dinners in, we’ve no regrets.

An hour in to a run along the seaside in 30 degrees at 5pm yesterday, we had a pang of longing for a soft Irish day. But apart from that, no regrets.

We arrived in France for good a year, to the day, from our first reconnaissance flight into Nice. When we agreed on the idea of a move, we chose the area around Nice for its climate, accessibility, economy and cycling, then booked three visits to see houses between May and October 2016. We hoped to be able to buy a house big enough to run a chambre d’hôte (guesthouse), with a yoga space where I could teach. Between the two things, we could keep ourselves going while we looked for other sources of income, was the plan. But we weren’t sure if we could afford a house big enough.

In October, we discovered we could. For what we would have spent on a house around Dublin had we not moved, we could buy a five bedroom house in Vence, a lively town a twenty minute drive from the coast and the airport. Oh yes, and it was surrounded by iconic hills climbs. Andy was sold.

There was a lot of work to be done on the house. Of course, that’s why we could afford it. The land couldn’t even rightfully call itself a garden: 900sqm of steep, forested mountainside, with hunks of limestone projecting from it in inconvenient spots. We couldn’t even access 400sqm of it without climbing gear, we’d have to take the seller’s word that it existed. Was there a space for yoga and sun loungers somewhere up there? We still don’t know. But we were prepared to take the chance.

So we bought it. The house in Wicklow sold in five days and we emptied our savings accounts, booked a ferry before the summer prices kicked in and spent a week feverishly packing boxes (always more than you think).

Two weeks ago, we arrived. The ‘99 Honda CRV filled with shovels, yoga mats, bikes, kettle, toaster and other essentials. We hadn’t a clue what was essential to be honest (except for the bikes, obviously). But we took it all on a trip through France. We spent a couple of nights on Ile de Ré to give the bikes a spin (thumbs up – a perfect spot for family cycling) and drove through the vineyards of Médoc, stopping in St Emilion for some exploring and wine tasting (well worth the stop). The Canal du Midi was next (we’ll have to go back to suss that out properly) and Aix-en-Provence (just another big city) was our last stop before Vence.

Ten days here, we’ve managed to open bank accounts. We’ve got local phone numbers. We’ve found and tackled the Col de Vence – a 10km climb to look down on our home town from a height. We’ve got a dump card – yes, you have to register for the dump here – and, due to the frequency of our visits emptying thirty years of hoarded rubbish out of our new house, we feel that we can count the employees there among our closest friends here in town. We’ve got other friends though! There was a fete des voisins last night, where we sat out on the road below our new house at trestle tables, drinking wine and eating rillettes with our new neighbours in the balminess until midnight. I think we’re going to like it here.

But the hard work starts next week!