Gently into Retirement – the search begins – January to April 2006

After discarding the Christmas lists, the wish lists for our French house (yes, it would most definitely be a house) took over in earnest. Steve’s list was straightforward, with only two criteria – the total spend, including all fees, to be no more than 200,000 Euros top whack and absolutely NO refurbishing, refreshing, updating – or whatever other word might be used to indicate work needing to be done. Other than that he was happy for me to go ahead and start getting property details; so, I had in my mind’s eye an appealing, completely renovated maison de village in the middle of a smallish town or village, with newly exposed stonework inside and out, window boxes full of geraniums, lovely Provencal blue painted shutters, minimum two bedrooms, nicely fitted kitchen, a wood-burning stove in the sitting room, a small outside space a garage and storage space and, oh yes, a roof terrace with a view of Mt Canigou – well fair do’s this last one; with our surname being Cannie we almost felt proprietorial over it!! (And to their lasting credit, none of the agents we were to meet rolled their eyes at all of this, although they must’ve heard it umpteen times from similarly starry-eyed menopausal women on a mission.) All of this to come in under budget – a tough call, but do-able we hoped after countless trawls through agents’ websites.

We’d decided very early on that we wanted to be in the thick of things relatively speaking, rather than on the outskirts of the town/village so we could walk rather than have to take the car for day-to-day shopping, the morning trip for the baguette and croissants and the paper (French of course!) and easy access to the local bars. The visit “two times a week by a local grocery van” which featured in lots of agents’ details I read sounded really quaint, but for me with mediocre language skills and even more mediocre cooking skills it would mean living closer to the culinary edge in our household than might be wise. We felt, too, that we needed to have access to public transport, especially with one of us (me! Yippee) approaching retirement and being able to nip backwards and forwards by myself. Also, with advancing years ahead we shouldn’t be contemplating somewhere with very steep streets. So with all of this in mind, it meant that, sadly, we would have to “pass” on some of the otherwise delightful sounding properties in remote hillside villages which had long since lost their local amenities.

But, I’ve jumped ahead……….as we were packing for our trip two very dear friends in the process of “downsizing” came to tell us that they had had an offer from cash buyers and that they would like to make us an offer on our Ely house! Swift negotiations followed and we just couldn’t believe our good fortune. Obviously nothing could be definite but we were delighted to be starting our search with our house more or less “under offer”.

We spent the first weekend re-visiting our “hot spots” and editing (furiously) our wish list. We were staying at the Arcades again in Céret in one of their nice comfy studios with self-catering facilities; the weather was sunny and warm and bearing in mind it was February, we felt very blessed. Our first meeting was with Mark Sayers of Med and Mountain Properties based in Perpignan. We’d first met him at an overseas property exhibition in London and in between times he’d been most helpful with information and advice, plus M & M’s website was easy to navigate and constantly being updated. Mark had details of several properties which most closely fitted our brief but they were mostly in the “other” valley (Tet) around Prades and Vinca, and we needed to be convinced that this was where we wanted to be. After our weekend’s trips we both felt more comfortable somehow along the Tech valley and the Albères villages. Mark spent a good part of the day with us and took us to see three excellent properties, in Amelie, Arles sur Tech and omigod, in Palalda. What a beauty – we were absolutely smitten with the place and out of the window went all we’d said about vehicle access, steep streets, shops and bars!! But practicalities eventually kicked in, although we felt very boring and middle aged.

The following day saw us with Olivier in the ImmoService office in Céret. Again, he was most helpful and informative and had already earmarked several properties for us to view, which we did over the next couple of days. By now we were well in the swing of being in the middle of Céret and were wondering if we might find something in the town itself but properties matching our brief were well over budget – BUT – here was a maison de village in the middle of Maureillas complete with roof terrace with a view of…….yes, the Canigou! This property definitely had the wow factor, beautifully renovated with all the style and colours we loved and we told Olivier that we were definitely interested. The vendor was in no hurry to sell and so the fact that we weren’t immediately in a position to proceed didn’t seem to be a problem.

The following day we had a day off and travelled around by ourselves again – had we been too hasty over the Tet valley? why were the coastal properties so much cheaper north of St Cyprien? It was as well we saw Leucate and Barcares out of season or we might have been very tempted, but it was all very deserted and we needed somewhere that would be reasonably lively all year round. We were back on the trail with Olivier again the next day, visiting the Maureillas house once more (still loved it) and other properties in St Jean, Oms and Llauro. That evening we met with two representatives of France Confort to consider the possibility of buying a new build, off-plan, but it all seemed that it would stretch out for months and months and we might well find ourselves on a building site while the rest of the development was completed, so we said a polite “no thank you”.

By our last day we were happy enough with the Maureillas house to tell Olivier that we would be going home to secure our house sale and then would like to proceed. But then, that very afternoon, despair; our friends in Ely telephoned to say that their buyers had pulled out and there was no-one else in the pipeline, so they needed to let us know that although they were still interested in buying our house, we would need to go ahead and put it on the market properly and they would take their chance. Such disappointment all round, the best laid plans and so on. Now we had to decide if we wanted Maureillas enough to use our savings and also arrange a bridging loan. A fitful night’s sleep ensued but by the time we’d checked out of the hotel and were on the way to the airport we knew it was too risky, so we telephoned Olivier with the news and said we’d just have to keep our fingers crossed that it was still for sale when our situation was strong again, although we weren’t hopeful as it was so special.

But disappointments aside, it had been a busy and very productive week; of necessity we’d been focussed on viewings but a highlight of the week had been to meet Kate from Anglophone-Direct/PO Life (Editor’s note: Polly has received no monetory encouragement to describe this as a highlight! Honest!) and a couple of other ex-pats now settled in the area, all of whom have gone on to become firm friends and a great source of support and advice.

Once home and back at our respective offices a period of gloom set in, especially when we heard from Olivier a week later that the Maureillas house had been sold to another British couple. Meanwhile viewings on our own property were coming thick and fast and within ten days of being on the market we were “sale agreed” – to cash buyers! Here we go again; we’re not holding our breath, we thought, but everything seemed to proceed as it should. Now we were looking forward to our Easter trip, bringing Mum and Dad with us for the first time so that they could, hopefully, be reassured about our project and see why we were so keen to live in such a beautiful area. Ryanair came up trumps and eased our passage through Stansted with wheelchairs and minders for them and we landed at Girona in warm sunshine. We had deliberately chosen to come this route so that they could appreciate fully the wonderful scenery as you come up to the French border and then that magnificent view of the Vallespir as you come off the motorway that had so knocked us out the first time – and we weren’t disappointed with their reaction! They were used to the relatively arid scenery of southern Spain and so this was something of a revelation – and yes, there was Canigou with its cloak of snow glistening in the spring sunshine. We stayed at the Arcades again, us in a studio and Mum and Dad in a huge triple room close to the lift, and both of us with accommodation overlooking the Place so we had a good view of everything that was going on.

Although our sale was going through, we hadn’t actually exchanged contracts before our trip, so although we were still in contact with both our immobiliers we felt it was unfair to ask them to show us any more properties when it could well be a waste of time, so on this visit, which was only a long weekend really, we just concentrated on showing Mum and Dad “the sights” – coastal, inland and mountain – and had a lovely trip on the Train Jaune from Villefranche to Font Romeu. Not having realised beforehand that it’s actually quite a trek from the station at Font Romeu into the town (! – do your homework Polly), we ended up having our picnic more or less on the train before we trundled back again, but it was a spectacular journey in the snow and we had a delicious supper in the walled village of Villefranche before heading back to the hotel. Equally helpful Ryanair staff at Girona and again at Stansted made the return journey easy-peasy for Mum and Dad and so some of their misgivings about their ability to come and visit us at such time as we were in France were overcome. They also met some of our new friends who were themselves faced with making arrangements for elderly parents to visit regularly, and were reassured by the care and attention to detail that went into the planning of their visits.

So we were now around six months down the line from our decision to move to the Céret area, with our resolve undimmed and with our next trip booked for the May half-term, with David in tow this time, when surely we would have our sale in the bag and be all set to make an offer if we saw a must have property? You would think so, wouldn’t you!!??…………

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