31 January 2006

Going to Amboise

Where in France? That was the question.

Walt and I had been spending our vacations in France since 1988. We had spent more time in Paris than anywhere else. But in 1989 we had done a driving tour in the south and southwest, visiting Grenoble, Nîmes, Narbonne, Carcassonne, Bordeaux, Cognac, Poitiers, and Chartres. That covered a lot of territory. In 1992, we did a driving tour of Normandy and Brittany, returning to Paris on a route that took us through the Loire Valley. In 1993, we spent two weeks in Provence. On that trip, we drove through Burdundy on the way south and through the Massif Central on the way back to Paris.

In 1994, we went on a day trip to Champagne, and in 1995 we spent 10 days near Cahors, with visits to Toulouse, Agen, Rocamadour, and Albi. We had friends in Normandy and on many trips we spent a few days with them while we were in France. In 1997, 1998, and 1999, we focused on Paris, renting apartments in the city for a couple of weeks at a time.

In October 2000, after deciding to abandon a plan to go spend two weeks in Alsace, we ended up renting a gîte (a small house rented for short stays) in Vouvray, near Tours in the Loire Valley. We spent a week in Vouvray, and then a week in Champagne, and another week in Paris. We liked Vouvray and the house we rented there so much that we decided to rent it again in June 2001, for two weeks. We loved it the second time, and traveled by car all over the region.

A huge pan of paella at the market in Amboise

In September 2001, we returned to Provence for a two-week stay in a gîte near Cavaillon. In April 2002, we spent two weeks in an apartment in Paris, near Montparnasse, with another side trip to Normandy. The euro was new then, and it was very low against the dollar. Everything in Paris seemed very inexpensive then, compared to San Francisco. In addition, I had very severe springtime pollen allergies in California, but when we arrived in Paris all the symptoms went away. That had happened once before, when I went to Seattle for a conference in March. What a pleasure it was to be in Paris in the springtime!

I say all that just to make it clear that we knew France well and knew what different regions were like. We both understand and speak French well. I lived and worked in France for about eight years in the 1970s and early 1980s. Walt spent a year in Paris as a student in the early 1980s. We love French popular music and have a good collection of CDs that we listened to a lot -- that's a great way to improve your French comprehension and pronunciation. We had a French-language television channel (TV5) in San Francisco via satellite.

In October 2002, then, the French-countryside experience that was freshest in my mind was the place in Vouvray, in the Loire Valley. I had several reasons for not wanting to relocate to Provence or the French Southwest, among them the distance from Paris and the possibility that my pollen allergies might to be aggravated by plants native to the south of France. After our April 2002 trip to Paris and Normandy, my allergist in San Francisco had recommended that I leave California and go live either in the Pacific Northwest or northern France. Doctor's orders...


I was going to start researching real estate possibilities in the northern French countryside, and what better place to start with than the Loire Valley, then? We had enjoyed our vacations in Vouvray, and had toured around quite a bit from Angers to Chinon and Bourgueil, from Amboise and Montrichard to Blois, Chambord, and Romorantin.

Finding French real estate agencies on the Internet was easy. We decided to start looking around Amboise. It’s a beautiful town of about 15,000 people, and it’s far enough from Tours to be outside the suburban ring. Vouvray was nice, but it really is the suburbs of Tours these days. I quickly found quite a few houses for sale within 25 miles or so of Amboise that looked attractive and affordable. I studied several real estate sites, including FNAIM and ORPI.

After a few days of searching, I sent a couple of e-mails to real estate agents in Amboise. One answered promptly and said he would be glad to help me find a place to buy. This whole endeavor was starting to get serious. I told Walt we needed to schedule a trip to the Loire Valley to see if the houses I was seeing on Internet sites were all located near garbage dumps or in the shadow of nuclear power plants. He examined his schedule and we decided to go spend a week in Amboise in early December.

The tourist office in Montrichard

Early December is a good time to travel. The airlines offer good fares. It’s easy to find places to rent — we found a gîte on the northern outskirts of Amboise with no trouble. We rented it for a week for about $350. I wrote back to the real estate agent in Amboise who had answered my initial e-mail and told him we would like to come see some houses that week.

The fact was, I thought it was unlikely that we would see very many houses in one week. I’ve spent enough years in Paris to develop a tough sense of realism about how long it can take to get anything done in France. Things move slowly. I told Walt that we might get to Amboise only to find out the real estate agent was too busy to help us right then. We might spend a week there without seeing a single house. But what the heck, it was a week in France, n’est-ce pas? It was a good Christmas present to ourselves, if nothing else. We could at least drive around and look for "for sale" signs.

The gîte in Pocé-sur-Cisse, outside Amboise

I told the agent in Amboise that we would be there on a Monday morning in early December, raring to go. He answered immediately and said that sounded good, but his office in Amboise was closed on Mondays. Would we mind coming to his office in Montrichard? It would be open that morning. We had visited Montrichard two years earlier, so we knew it was only 10 miles south of Amboise. We remembered it as a nice little town on the banks of the Cher River. I sent back an e-mail saying that coming to the office in Montrichard on that Monday was not a problem. He answered and said we had an 11:00 appointment.

When December came, we flew to Paris and arrived on a Saturday morning. We picked up a rental car (a nice Peugeot 307) at the airport and drove the three hours down to Amboise. The owners of the gîte we had rented had given us directions to their house, and we found it without too much trouble. We checked in and then immediately drove over to Vouvray, familiar territory seve or eight miles west, to visit the Atac supermarket that we had liked there. We bought milk, butter, sugar, mustard, vinegar, oil, and other staples for the kitchen. It felt good to be back in Vouvray.

At the Amboise market early on a cold gray December morning

The next morning, Sunday, there was a big food market in Amboise, the gîte owners told us, and it turned out that jet lag had us up and going early that day. We were at the market by 8:30 a.m. We bought what we needed and wanted to make lunch at the gîte, and then went back to prepare a hot meal. That afternoon, rather than give in to jet lag, we took a long walk around the area, looking at houses (even though they were not for sale) and talking about how much we liked this one or that one and how great it would be to live in such a place.

This would be a nice place to live...

...and so would this, we thought

The weather was cold, gray, and damp. We were of course exhausted after the overnight flight. The gîte owners, Adrienne and Jean, told us there was plenty of firewood in the shed next to our place and said we should take what we wanted. Walt built a fire and we watched French television that Sunday evening, wondering what Monday was going to be like.

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