As we know well from having read Peter Mayle’s tale of life and construction in Provence, nothing (apart from buying baguettes and Rosé) is ever easy in this neck of the woods. We do forget that construction is mostly a nightmare, wherever you are in Europe, and is responsible for all sorts of marital trouble and strife and post traumatic stress disorders. Yet doing it in the south of France, fraught with administrative challenges and often in a language you don’t speak well or understand is adding an extra dimension to the basic stress of building.
Having managed two extensive builds in the UK the idea of mess and living in rental didn’t put us off, we like the benefits of having a space designed to one’s needs. Having found nothing we liked after a year in the market eased our decision to go and look for a field to build our own. We thought we found a nice location surrounded by vineyards in 2011 and signed excitedly on the dotted line for just under 2 hectares of shrub-land and began to draw up plans. Trouble started almost immediately in the form of an existing neighbour who was unhappy to see a family with spotty dog in tow take up residence. The retired English couple informed us that they would be opposing our building permit.
No-one, surely, would stop a young family, with 3 kids at school, paying French taxes and running a business from employing local labour to build a house because of issues that seemed totally negligible.
As it happened a small flaw in our building permit (unbeknown to us and not spotted by any of our small army of specialists and consultants) contributed to our defeat a whopping 3 years later at the Court of Toulon. Having made a total fool of myself running my own defence in French that disappeared at the crucial moment, I walked out a devastated and grumpy woman. I had nothing to show but years of expenses and stress that had led only to an enforced unofficial degree in French property law. Worse still, no other plot of land was on the horizon and my kids were growing up fast.
But Karma has a funny way of working out sometimes and only a few months later, totally unexpectedly our dream plot on a hill overlooking Cotignac came on the market. We snapped it up and shivered through the next few months applying for a building permit; all went through without a hitch. I selected a team and started to build a Bastide (a manor house in a classic rectangular form) in September 2014. A few weeks ago, Christmas 2015, we moved in, with still a chunk of work to conclude on the outside-by English standards this is an eternity to build a house, by local standards quite good going.
I selected a mix of high quality modern materials where invisible and old style materials for the what’s on show- the lime render, the roof tiles, the real stone window sills and a solid stone surround of the entrance door. We have kept the interiors simple with some interesting touches that show off local workmanship, like the beautifully wacky Carocim unglazed tiles, sinks enamelled in the neighbouring town of Salernes, big wrought iron pocket doors separating the downstairs space (I used them inside, as thermal regulations forbid them on the outside) and old beams taken from a local farmhouse. We have built a beautiful covered terrace which will be the hub of summer eating and entertaining where I plan to put a a small kitchen made from units out of reclaimed wood and hang some of the ceramic platters that we can get in little towns all around us.
I am so happy to finally have a kitchen I can really cook in and realise all those dishes and funky food combinations that are regularly popping into my head and we have set the room up so we can spend maximum time together as a family and invite lots of friends. Once the terrace is finished two old platanes and an olive will be planted to give the house some much needed greenery and shade and we hope that many happy moments will be spent eating, drinking and talking.
Which leaves me to come up with a name for our new home. Our friend and gardener from next door Damien joined a conversation on the subject and said, easy, it should be called Mirabelle. We’ve used it a bit and think it may be the one, but are open to ideas if you have any! In the meantime I just love opening up my own front door every night, and appreciate a space that is really ours.