Thursday, 16 June 2016

'Escape To The Chateau'. My Top 10 Tips on Finding Your Dream Home in France. 

The Old Presbytery
I think it is safe to say that all who have dared to dream, have been captivated by Channel 4's current series, 'Escape To The Chateau', as Dick Strawbridge and his partner Angel Adoree purchase and renovate a fairy tale chateau, bought for the cost of a rather basic two bedroom flat in London. 

Dreams come in all shapes and sizes. Some dream of fairy tale chateaux, others a houseboat on the river; for me it was an old presbytery at the heart of  French village life. Whatever your French dream, it will come at a price. Like Dick and Angel, this is generally a lot less than we would pay in England, allowing us to make that dream a reality. Today, using my own personal experience of purchasing and living in France, I want to share with you my top ten tips, to make sure you don't pay 'too great a price'. 
  1. Choose a property within an easy drive of a local airport.
  2. Don't let your heart rule your head. A 'Coup de Coeur', as the French would say, could blind you to the fact that you are miles from anywhere!
  3. Check if you are on mains drainage or a 'fosse septique' (septic tank). In 'Escape To The Chateau' their waste water went straight into the moat. It is not uncommon in some rural parts of France to find waste water simply piped to a river, in which case you would be liable for the cost of a septic tank.
  4. Be realistic about your budget and cost of works to be done! We had £20,000 left over and thought we would be fine, but this was not nearly enough.
  5. Do you want to be in a village or out in the countryside? In a village, we found integration much easier than our friends in the countryside, as they often only spoke to their nearest neighbour.
  6. Learn to speak French! Some knowledge is essential.
  7. Check out your nearest market town. A weekly market is an important part of French country life, both for fresh produce and for socialising. 
  8. Locate the nearest city. It is helpful to have a city within an hour's drive at least. Peace and quiet is fine, but sometimes it is nice to visit the theatre or cinema and get in some serious clothes shopping.
  9. Think carefully if you need an income from your property and factor in the cost of renovating outbuildings etc. We created a very successful B&B, but if you decide to do the same, be sure you don't mind sharing your house with strangers! We also found the cost of renovating the house left nothing for the barn and had to forego an excellent source of income.
  10. Most importantly, pick the house that fulfills your dream and start your adventure.  Good Luck!
Well I hope my tips have been helpful and you find your dream home in France soon. The story of our relocation to the 'Old Presbytery', is told in my book, 'Bonjour Darling' by Heather Francis. Available on Amazon, by clicking the book image top right.

The last episode of 'Escape To The Chateau', was screened on Channel 4 on Sunday 19th June. It is now available on Chanel 4 Catch Up. 

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Wednesday, 23 September 2015

A Taste of Lyon for my Birthday!

Welcome on board everyone! It's been a while since my last blog, but let's just say, as well you know - life gets in the way sometimes!

Never mind, why not put aside its stresses today, as I invite you to share in my birthday treat; a weekend in Lyon, the gastronomic capital of France. Well, it was a milestone birthday, so I guess it had to be a pretty good present and Lyon certainly didn't disappoint.

We flew into  Lyon-Saint Exupéry airport on Friday afternoon and took a taxi from the airport to our hotel, booked by my lovely daughter and her husband, as a treat for mum. That's when the fun began! Arriving at Mama Shelter Hotel Lyon is a great way to forget your age, because it's all about having a good time. It begins at reception, where the hotel's unique design by Philippe Starck ignites the senses and encourages even the older guests to prepare to let their hair down!  

Mama Shelter Lyon - Reception

Mathieu Viannay
After settling in that evening we met in the bar for a cocktail, before heading off to the centre of Lyon, where we were about to experience fine dining at it's best. Our table at La Mere Brazier found us in the capable hands of Mathieu Viannay, their two Michelin starred chef and what followed can only be described as a gastronomic adventure! The evening was finally topped off with a visit from Mathieu himself and leaving we stepped out into the night, our taste buds still savouring the memory of haute cuisine at it's best.  

Saturday found us exploring the city as it straddles the wide River Rhone and is overlooked by the amazing Basilique Notre Dame de Fourviere, perched high above the city. Let's just say, for shopping and those looking for a bit of retail therapy, Lyon is hard to beat and, as my lovely daughter is expecting twins, we spent the day in its many baby boutiques. Finally the evening is topped off with a visit to a Korean restaurant with a tasting menu to die for. Oh! Let's not forget the beautiful 2006 Riesling specially chosen for the occasion by my son-in-law, which literally blew my mind!

Basilique Notre Dame de Fourviere
Sunday morning, after a lazy breakfast at the hotel, we returned to Lyon centre and climbed the steep cobbled streets to explore the Basilica. Breathtaking, is the only way to describe the interior of this late 19th century building. It is dedicated to the Virgin Mary, who saved the city from  bubonic plague, the 'Black Death', that was sweeping Europe in 1643 and its unique interior is bedecked in mosaics of beautiful shades of blue and gold. In fact every inch of this amazing building has been tastefully bejewelled to amazing effect. Katie and I loitered around the altar, sitting down, as we have in so many holy places, to soak up the unique beauty of man's creativity to the glory of God. 

Back down to earth and, after admiring the view of the city from the front of the Basilica, we head down in search of Les Halles de Lyon Paul Bocuse, Lyon's renowned covered food market. The market named after Lyon's famous chef, Paul Bocuse, houses stalls featuring every ingredient of Lyonnaise cuisine, both to buy and also for tasting. We wander its stalls in mouthwatering amazement at the diversity of its produce from oysters, cheeses, wine and meats, to tapas and breads of every possible size and shape. Lining the counters, shoppers sit on high stools tilting their heads back to savour oysters washed down with crisp, white wine. I end my birthday weekend sharing seafood with the people I love, before heading back to the airport with treasured memories of a beautiful city and the taste of Lyon still lingering on my tongue.

 Les Halles de Lyon-Paul Bocuse

Sunday, 17 May 2015

Turning Back Time - Our Move to the French Countryside

Welcome back everyone! Glad you could join us. I hope, like me, you are enjoying a warming cup of coffee or perhaps a relaxing glass of wine, depending on the time of day you have chosen to drop by. I thought today I would elaborate on the 'relaxing' theme and take some time to share with you the tranquil life I discovered, after my husband and I moved from the busy and often troubled city of Belfast, to a little village in south west France. 

We arrived at the old presbytery, our new home, to find ourselves catapulted into the centre of village life. Still stressed from the journey and with our body clocks set firmly to the pace of the city, we awoke the next day to a new life, where we would gradually discover that the clock had been turned back thirty years!

It was the church bell that would be our time piece from now on; no need to clock watch here. We would soon find ourselves up with the Angelus Bell, it's chimes at 6am calling everyone to rise and get those chores done before the heat of the day. Once again at noon, the bells signified it was time to down tools for the seemingly obligatory 2 hour lunch and, finally in the evening, the 6pm chimes ringing out across the village, called everyone indoors for a relaxing aperitif before dinner.

On Mondays, the nearby town was transformed into a busy colourful street market, where we would stock up with fresh produce for the week and spend lazy hours over a coffee in the village square, catching up with the local gossip.

Neighbours shared produce from their gardens and helped one and other out with seasonal chores.

At Christmas, everyone gathered in the local town hall and made decorations, gifting each house in the village with a brightly coloured cracker to hang on their front door.

Entertainment was 'homespun', centreing around the village hall as it had done down the ages. We didn't need an excuse to celebrate; there was a fete for every occasion, each accompanied by a hearty meal and washed down with the local wine and Cognac, as dancing carried on into the early hours.

Very soon the stress of the city became a distant memory, as the pace of life slowed down in tune with nature and the surrounding countryside. We began to spend more time out of doors, busy in the vegetable plot. It was over a glass of wine on the terrace one evening, we agreed we might have gone back in time, but we certainly didn't want to go 'back to the future' anywhere else!

The story of our French adventure is captured in my book, 'Bonjour Darling' by Heather Francis. Below you can read two of the reviews on Amazon which have given the book it's '5 Star' rating.

'A wonderful book which brought laughter, tears and a desire to visit and experience it for myself. I would highly recommend this to everyone. It is filled with delightful stories and brings to life people you would like to meet and spend time with. The village and its characters sound idyllic.'

'This is truly a delightful read. With an array of memorable characters, it gives a warm and heartfelt account of their time and adventures in Southwest France. Written in a style that is humorous and easy it flows effortlessly from one adventure to another, and you become immersed in the way of Village life. It says that, together with humour, love and determination, you can overcome most difficulties. its a book you will not want to put down. I can thoroughly recommend this read especially to anyone thinking of a life in france. C'est une excellent lecture.'

To purchase your copy of 'Bonjour Darling', just click on the image of the book top right.

Tuesday, 10 March 2015

Bonjour, Belfast!

Belfast City Hall

Hi, Guys! Welcome to my blog! For those of you who have been sharing life with me now for the last four years, it's great to hook up again and, for anyone joining us for the first time, please make yourselves at home in my, 'Empty Nest'! You are very welcome!

My name is Heather. I am a writer and lover of all things French. Since the 'young' age of 40, I have found myself feathering an empty nest.  Well, I say empty; if you look carefully in the corner behind a few twigs and a feather you'll find my husband Ron; a rather reluctant adventurer, preferring the quiet life. He has, much to his surprise, shared a wonderful three years living 'La vie en rose' with me in south west France.  

As you may guess from the title of this post, 'Bonjour, Belfast', we have been forced by circumstances beyond our control, to migrate back to our home town of Belfast. It is from our nest here in the suburbs of this interesting city that, reliving every moment of our French adventure, I have written and published, 'Bonjour Darling', the funny, poignant and amazing true story of our time in France.

Life and blogging wait for no man, however, and so I will continue to share with you my thoughts on living here in Belfast, life in my empty nest and, of course, I will share with you my reminiscences of life in France, when a rainy day in Belfast leaves my nest a bit soggy!

For now, let me leave you with a memory that transports me every time I revisit it. We are travelling home through the Loire valley on a balmy evening at the end of June. The river is wide and snakes effortlessly through the vineyards. Passing sleepy little towns, each clustered around a village square, where the spire of a tiny church marks the centre, and on, following the river as if caught up in its flow, mesmerised by its beauty. Turning a corner, the river stretches out on our left and, like a golden ball of fire, the sun sits on the horizon where the river meets the sky, creating a sparkling pathway across the water. It beckons us to stop the car and get out. Looking into the crystal clear water, the emerald green reeds obey the direction of the flow; like life, it is unstoppable on its journey. We stand in silence for a few minutes, the only sound the gentle lap of the water and then turn back to the car. At home in Belfast, as I write this post, I share with you the lesson I learnt from the river Loire that night. For a peaceful life, don't resist, just go with the flow!   

I hope you have enjoyed your visit to my empty nest and that you will call back again soon. In the meantime, please check out, 'Bonjour Darling', the true story of our French adventure. You can read the reviews and order your own copy, by clicking on the image of the book on the top right of this post.

Thursday, 15 January 2015

It's Good to Walk!

Murphy - Sunset at 'The Edge of the World'

Hi, everyone! So glad you could join me this morning. I've just been listening to the latest health news on the radio; apparently a 20 minute walk a day is the key to longevity and it got me thinking.... 

I have to agree; never mind the benefit to your heart and cardiovascular system, walking has always been my way of sorting out life's problems. Every step taken, seems to put so much distance between you and what's on your mind. It's a theme explored in the new Reese Witherspoon movie, 'Wild', where she tells the true story of Cheryl Strayed who walked 1,100 miles of America's West Coast on the Pacific Crest Trail, after losing her way in life. Subsequently she finds ultimate healing through the experience.

Of course, most of us won't ever feel such a need, but it does help demonstrate my point about the therapeutic benefit of walking.  I don't know about you, but I am sure most of us have a favourite place to walk, where we feel a spiritual connection with our surroundings. If you have read, 'Bonjour Darling', you will be aware of my constant companion, 'Murphy' the West Highland terrier, he and I spent a lot of time exploring the Charentaise countryside of south west France and shared a very special destination for our walks.  
We christened it, 'The Edge of the World'. It is briefly mentioned in chapter seventeen of the book. Before arriving at our destination, we would follow a slowly ascending track about a mile and a half long. On our left, rolling hills were dotted with terracotta roofed farmhouses and to our right the valley dropped away below us. Murphy always ran ahead, both of us separate, but always connected, until we reached the end of the track. The summit was marked with a cross and around it on either side the land dropped away, giving us 360 degree views that seemed to stretch to the edge of the world. We would sit down together, letting the silence and space take away all our cares. 
The Edge of the World!
It lead me to thinking; Do you have a special place to walk or a special companion?

If you would like to join Murphy and me on more of our French adventures, the book of our true story, 'Bonjour Darling' is available on Amazon. Rated 5 Stars. Just click on the book image top right, to read reviews and order your copy.

The countryside around our village in France

Wednesday, 31 December 2014

Sharing my French adventure!

Welcome everyone to my first post of 2015! For me, 2014 has been a great year for writing and seeing my travel memoir, "Bonjour Darling" published at the end of October, was the icing on the cake. 

Little did I know this was only the beginning. You have taken 'The Old Presbytery' to your hearts and, as you share in my adventures there, your feedback has been wonderful. For me, this whole experience has been so much more than selling books, although that has gone amazingly well, the joy is sharing my story with other people and having strangers come up to me asking after characters and places that we now have in common. 

One of my favourite reviews on Amazon ends with these lines..

I savoured every page as I would have a marvellous box of chocolates. One only wants to come to The Old Presbytery and actually share a meal with the hosts and their charming neighbours. Thank you and ... Bravo!

This review particularly thrilled me, as I now know my readers are genuinely engaging with our story and the characters which so colourfully bring it to life. This is a place I love and also people I love; to find you too share that love is heart warming. Many of you have asked for pictures of 'The Old Presbytery', as up to now it has only existed on the pages of the book and in the corners of your imagination.  Well, to help you enjoy our true story even more, you don't have to imagine any longer. Below, I share with you a before and after picture of the house at the heart of our village and the heart of our adventure!

'The Old Presbytery' before renovation

'The Old Presbytery' after

That just leaves me to thank all of you who are enjoying the book, especially the 10 winners of the Goodreads competition. I hope your signed copies have arrived safely. I will leave you with another review from Amazon, and look forward to sharing again in my next post...

Loved it! Was so sad to reach the last page, I really thought I was in France with Heather Francis. What an idyllic life! Can't wait for the sequel.

To obtain your copy of  'Bonjour Darling', just click on the book image top right! This will take you to Amazon, where you can find out more.

Happy New Year

Tuesday, 2 December 2014

A 'Christmas Giveaway' from our little village in France!

Welcome everybody to my double celebration Christmas and the launch of my new book, 'Bonjour Darling' by Heather Francis. 

I thought I would take this opportunity to share with you a brief moment taken from the book, of our first Christmas in the little village of Saint-Allier in south west France. As you will discover when you read our story, we purchase a magical old crumbling presbytery in the centre of the village and, arriving just before Christmas have not yet had a chance to meet the villagers. 

And so, one dark evening in early December, we find ourselves disturbed by the sound of voices in the street below and, taking our place at the landing window peer out in dismay, as a small gang of men proceed to scale the walls of our new home. Now, as I am sure you are all well aware, an Irishman's home is his castle and to say this felt like an invasion was not an understatement!

Quote from 'Bonjour Darling'

Much running back and forward ensued, between our house and the house diagonally across from us, where by now, another ladder had been carefully erected.  To our right, as we watched, one of the men was at the top of his ladder, with what looked like a long line of bulbs hanging from his shoulder and trailing down to the pavement below.  His accomplice, taking the other end, proceeded to climb his ladder and on the given instruction of “Allez!”, the bulbs were lifted and stretched across the road, well out of the reach of any passing traffic. 
In front of our eyes, from our secret vantage point, we watched as, accompanied by a loud cheer, the coloured lights sprang into life.  Ron and I looked out into the night from our little spot on the landing and like two children watching for Santa Claus, realised Christmas had arrived in Saint-Allier! 

To celebrate this festive season and the book launch, I am offering 10 free copies of 'Bonjour Darling' as prizes in 'Goodreads Giveaway' competition (UK only). To enter and have a chance of winning a copy simply press 'Enter to Win' on the 'Goodreads Giveaway' link top right. It is also possible to purchase the book here, should you wish to be sure of a copy for Christmas. For a full synopsis of the story see my previous blog post or click on links top right.

Finally, that just leaves me to wish you all,  'A Very Merry Christmas and a Happy and Peaceful New Year'.