La Belle France (Your New Life Here Could Be More Affordable Than You Think)
In rural France, businesses and shops close for two hours at lunchtime. It’s not possible to have lunch in a restaurant in much less time than that anyway, so you don’t really mind that there’s nothing else to do at lunchtime but to eat lunch.
Shops close again by 6 in the evening, and nothing is open on Sundays. You must be fully provisioned by Saturday afternoon or do without until Monday morning.
Village pubs serve two or three set menus for lunch and dinner, and you’ll sometimes see the leftovers from one day’s dinner on the next day’s lunch board. Chicken, venison, duck, steak, mutton—even in the most modest establishments, without exception in my experience in this part of France, it’s all perfectly prepared, tasty, and nicely presented.
In what might be described on first impression as a hole-in-the-wall restaurant in the sleepy French country market town of Vatan one afternoon recently, my husband and I had the best garlic roast beef we could remember eating anywhere served by a 70-year-old man with no teeth but a warm and welcoming disposition. Our French host for the meal was tall and lean and bent way over when addressing us, almost as though he were bowing.
“You’re Americans?” he asked, in French, as he led my husband, myself, and our son to one of the half-dozen tables in his little place. “And you’re visiting?” he continued after we’d confirmed his first impression.
“You must see the zoo,” he went on, still in French. “Our zoo is the largest in France and very worth the trip.”
He seated us then walked quickly behind the counter of the kitchen area, which was open to the rest of the restaurant, to retrieve a brochure on the zoo with a map showing us where to find it.
“It’s a 45-minute drive from here,” the French gentleman told us when he returned and handed me the zoo information. “You should see it if you can. Your son would enjoy it,” he added looking over at young Jackson.
“Now, for lunch?” he asked
Lief and I ordered the plat du jour (the roast beef), and Jackson asked for a plate of charcuterie to start, followed by a margarita pizza.
“All for you?” our new friend wondered with a mischievous grin in Jackson’s direction. “Well, you have a good appetite. That is good at your age. At your age, you must eat and sleep a lot.”
Throughout the meal, our host passed by often, to check on Jackson’s progress finishing his big lunch and to ask how long we’d been in the country…where had we been…where were we going next. He was like a character out of an animated Disney film set in rural France, a caricature of a French country restaurateur bustling about his small establishment, serving and tidying and chatting, performing all duties himself with care and enjoying every minute of it.
Such is life in rural France, where food, wine, and hospitality are taken seriously. One of the country’s most traditional regions, Limousin, is also one of its least discovered. This is the heart of la belle France, but few tourists seek it out because few have ever heard of it. As a result, Limousin is also one of the most affordable parts of France and an ideal retirement choice for anyone dreaming of the quintessential French country experience.
A drive through Limousin takes you past fairy-tale forests and expansive fields where farmers cultivate corn, wheat, sunflowers, and lavender and breed the muscled cattle that share the region’s name. Limoges is Limousin’s capital and biggest city but not where I suggest the retiree consider basing himself. You come to this part of France for country life, and the many hamlets and medieval villages offer great opportunity to embrace French country living at what can be a very affordable cost.
Old farmhouses and townhouses, to renovate or not, can be bought for as little as US$100,000 or less. Even chateaux for sale can be a bargain in this region compared with any other in the country. And you could rent a small apartment in one of these little picture-perfect French country towns for as little as US$400 a month.
Today’s essay from Kathleen, who continues her travels in France, was first published by U.S. News & World Report. Kathleen writes weekly for U.S. News. More here.