I was sure that Cessenon was the one.
Picturing lush hills of grapevines, a shady square with friendly locals taking in the Sunday pétanque match, I dreamed about Cessenon-sur-Orb from the LIOS publications I’d read and couldn’t wait to scout property there.
Sure, I had done my due diligence in Morbihan, Brittany, a recommended northwest region, coveting the quaint if damp villages of exposed-stone homes that I could ponder for hours.
And the prices! Hard to believe they start at 28,750 euros for a 3-bedroom fixer-upper, just 80,940 euros for a renovated 4-bedroom house of character house, and only 220,000 euros for a stately 5-bedroom home… all just a 3-hour train ride from Paris.
Excited, I visited the Atlantic beaches of Saint-Nazaire and Quiberon.
I wanted to love it. I really tried. But I couldn’t shake the lonely, gray seascape.
See, I grew up near the Great Lakes of Michigan. It should have been glorious, but 55% cloudy days left their mark.
Reluctantly, I headed south for the Dordogne river valley.
Ahhh! The honey-stone villages spilling over cliffs to the green river banks in Beynac-et-Cazenac and La Roque-Gageac were almost beyond belief. A damp mist seeps through the green valley here, creating a timelessness long embraced by British pensioners.
And homes can still be found in the Dordogne north of Périgueux within my budget of US$75,000. I found a 1,300-square-foot fixer-upper near Mareuil for 51,000 euros.
But Périgueux felt too remote to me… too removed from the popular, well-serviced market town of Sarlat, where I imagined spending days scouring the impossibly quaint medieval squares for walnuts, truffles, and foie gras.
In the end, the gray skies and landlocked location were too much like the Michigan environs that I grew up hoping to escape.
A little frustrated, I made the three-hour drive past the ancient towers of Carcassonne and the sparkling Mediterranean, turning north into the hills of Occitanie (then Languedoc-Roussillon).
The road rose as the hills grew drier, olive trees replacing leafy ones. Twisting and turning into the arid hills, my hopes dropped with every turn. This wasn’t what I expected.
Yes, it was beautiful, and Cessenon was charming with a quiet square of large trees, a few shops, and a quiet church… but I knew right away that it wasn’t for me.
I lived in arid Northern California for 17 years and know from experience that my European DNA doesn’t cope well with high heat.
That and my granddaughter’s loss of her home to a California wildfire left me longing for green.
Still, I couldn’t resist looking in the window of the local immobilier office, where I saw a 3-bedroom, 730-square-foot, partially restored village house with fireplace, terrace, and cellar listed for 83,600 euros and a 4-bedroom, 1,300-square-foot, restored townhouse with attic and garage for 150,000 euros.
Afraid that my great paradise-search was coming up empty, I turned around and headed south.
If all three areas I’d been dreaming about didn’t fit the bill, maybe nothing would. Maybe my mother was right and this living-overseas idea was just craziness.
And did I forget to mention I hadn’t told my husband that I wanted to buy a house in France?
As I headed west toward Pau, I rehearsed my pitch to him:
“So, I know you don’t like to travel, and your health is not great, but I want to retire in France!”
As a psychotherapist, I should know how to word this, I thought…
How about: “Remember that tiff we had in the Portuguese mountains two years ago about your fear of heights?
“I have a great way to cure it! It’s called desensitization—we drive over the mountains again and again until you’re not afraid anymore! And France has lots of mountains!”
Keep working on it, I mumbled to myself.
Just before Carcassonne, I remembered an area in the Pyrenees foothills that I’d wanted to check out if I had the time.
I turned south and began looking for signs to Limoux as I traveled a two-lane road winding through unpretentious villages and allées of tall, slender trees shaping a cathedral above the road.
The air was gentle, somehow welcoming. The higher elevation helped the earth to hold on to a bit more moisture and the green landscape showed it.
How Did They Manage To Keep This Place A Secret?
I wondered why I’d never heard of this place…
I’d found this Aude river department combing through Occitanie real estate and expat forums as part of my search for what I imagined to be my perfect locale—sunny days in the 80s and green hills. The foothills of a mountain range, I realized, could fit the bill nicely.
I found frequent references to the market town of Limoux and its smaller neighbor up the hill, Quillan.
Limoux is best known for the world’s longest Carnival, a three-month event that dates to the 14th century and that is capped by a roaring party featuring the original champagne, méthode ancestrale, fermented by yeast.
I’d learned that Limoux is hotter and windier than farther up the valley, so I pushed on the 30 minutes to Quillan, interested to see the walkable town of 3,000 with shelter from the wind.
I almost missed it.
If I hadn’t turned left at the centre-ville sign, I don’t think I would’ve stopped, as the main road is pleasant but not compelling.
But as destiny would have it, I took the left turn and came upon a small bridge over a white-water river, with the soaring green Pyrenees as a backdrop.
Stunned, I pulled over beside the bridge and began clicking off photos of the sweetest French square I’d ever seen.
A few diners were gathered in the simple riverside café, ironically named Le Palace. A church tower stood proud, leading the eye to more green hills beyond.
A tabac and newspaper shop with an ancient sign were the obvious hub of the square…
And I couldn’t stop taking pictures.
That’s when my heart stopped, and my brain kicked in.
Wow, that’s beautiful, I thought. I can’t wait to find a square just like that in the area I was on my way to—the Béarn. Well, here we go… one last picture…
As is my habit, I checked the real estate listings on the way out.
Fixer-uppers in the village started at 39,000 euros. Among renovated properties listed were a 3-bedroom, 1,000-square-foot house for 69,000 euros; a 2- to 3-bedroom, 900-square-foot stone house of character with garden for 108,000 euros; and a 3-bedroom country home with pool for 190,800 euros.
And I was off, strangely comforted by the encounter.
Pau is known as the Garden City, but I found it flat and hot like the other established cities on the plain.
The villages scattered in the green foothills just south extending into the Pyrenees Basque country were enticingly beautiful, especially the spa town of Bagnères-de-Bigorre. But Bigorre lacked a charming central square and is a little too distant from the sea for me.
Barb, my British Airbnb hostess, however, expounded on the rental potential for Bigorre, declaring that her regular spa guests translated to strong occupancy during even the cooler off-season.
I found the affluent, buttoned-up Basque houses, always white plaster with red or green shutters, quaint in a Swiss sort of way, but I missed the romantic allure of exposed stone.
Barb also warned me that the Basque culture is closed to outsiders and that she, even with a French husband, was left culturally out in the cold.
Warned that I was priced out of the Atlantic coast, I drove onto the fun and stylish Atlantic resort town of Saint-Jean-de-Luz, just to see if the west coast was as captivating as the Mediterranean.
Arriving in the off season, Saint-Jean was lovely but mostly empty. Its gorgeous bay is fronted by stark, modern resorts mixed with elegant squares blocks from the beach.
Lovely as the Basque country was, strangely, I couldn’t stop missing that little square in Quillan.
I had spent just 15 minutes there, but I felt like I was jilting an old friend by leaving it behind.
And so began my French adventure that became a house renovation in the Pyrenees.
If I could only break it to my husband.
Kim Baughan Young