antique-brocante-store

The wardrobe story

Hooray! We now have a wardrobe!

If you read my previous post you’ll have seen that Jean-Louis and I had been on the hunt for various items of furniture, but the all-important wardrobe was proving to be illusive. We were feeling quite frustrated and definitely rather tired of living out of our suitcases!

So after looking around at various places we finally found a beautiful, solid timber wardrobe in our local Brocante (used furniture and bric-a-brac store) for a mere €140, about $200 (Australian). It looked like it may have been sitting in the store for ages, but somehow we’d missed it – there were certainly plenty of visual distractions around, like animals, junk and dust everywhere. But thank goodness we finally spotted it.

‘La Grange’ the characterful brocante in Meyrargues, two villages away from our village of Jouques.
This place is a bargain-hunters paradise – but with loads of junk to sift through too!

Initially we started looking at single door wardrobes as we knew that it would be tricky to get a really large furniture piece up our very narrow spiral staircase. Luckily one of the elderly chaps in the brocante enlightened us to the fact that the double-door wardrobes could disassemble completely, whilst the single-door ones could not! How weird was that! Of course we promptly changed tack and continued by looking at all the double-door wardrobes.

As we had a shallow spot to fill, a lot of measuring-up of various wardrobes took place.

After having measured quite a few lovely old pieces and finding them to be too tall, too deep, too wide or not really to our liking after all, the one we finally settled on was just right in every way – as well as in very good condition. Solid timber, probably nut wood (walnut, called ‘noyer’ in French), which is highly prized in France for furniture making.

Found it! This is the one! Just look at those perfect bevelled-mirror doors – not a scratch!

We transported it back home ourselves, in our trusty Renault Megane station-wagon (we’re so glad we bought this type of vehicle to enable us to carry all the items we’ve purchased, as it has saved us so much money on delivery!). But first the guys at the brocante showed us how the wardrobe pieces came apart – all three of the old fellows working there helped us – they really seemed to enjoy showing us how to do it.

First things first – off with its head!
Then off with the doors – such a clever hinge-system these old pieces have.

Once we had the wardrobe home, we then had to disassemble the main part ourselves, take all the pieces up our very narrow old spiral staircase, and then of course re-assemble it! Hmmm, perhaps we should have thought to number each piece first?! 

Home at last and up the stairs with it we go, piece by piece.

That’s when the fun and games really began! Especially as JL also had no appropriate tools – ours still had’t arrived from Australia and were probably still on a ship somewhere in the middle of the ocean. So, to bang the dowel pins into place, Jean-Louis used an old hammer-head that he’d found in the attic! A true DIY-er has to be resourceful, that is for sure!

It was a big effort but so worth it.

I hope you’ll enjoy this story in pictures . . . 

Looks like a flat-pack system – invented long before IKEA mass produced the concept!
JL’s camping head-lamp came in handy! Every piece is joined together with very tightly fitting dowel pins.
The frame almost together – no more wobbling around.
Shelves in – look at those lovely little drawers! We didn’t receive a key for the left-hand one unfortunately.
Doors going on – spring-loaded metal pin-system that is ingenious once you understand how it works.
Complete – and oh so beautiful. No hanging space but a perfect fit for the niche we had available!
Table and bric a brac

The bargain hunting begins

The bargain hunting begins

If you’ve been following our story you’ll know that in May 2016 we’d just arrived in our recently acquired house in Provence. Our village is called Jouques and it’s in a very rural part of the region and, although it’s unheard of by tourists it is well known to all the locals, for many reasons, mostly because it has a long and rich history back to Roman times (as well as evidence of pre-history), and also because it’s a very beautiful village.

For Jean-Louis and myself it was now home.

We’d arrived with just a couple of suitcases each – the barest minimum of essentials to get by on – it wouldn’t be too difficult in the short-term we thought, since we were going into Summer. Well, we’d soon find out!

Our priority for now was to get started on finding furniture and whatever else we felt we needed along the way – and we were keen! First we checked out the brocante (second-hand and bric-a-brac store) that we’d discovered six months earlier in Meyrargues, and where we’d bought our bed before moving in (see previous post) – it was just 15 minutes from Jouques.

€50 for this nut wood shelf, perfect for a coat-hat stand in the kitchen.
€50 for this nut wood shelf, perfect for a coat-hat stand in the kitchen.
JL added hooks and polished the timber - perfect!
JL added hooks and polished the timber – perfect!

JL is never one to purchase anything quickly, let alone impulsively – so while I was probably over-excited about seeing loads of old pieces of furniture and could have bought six items on our first day of looking, JL was cautious. Too cautious for my liking – it was frustrating! 

It was also rather overwhelming picking through what seemed like room upon room of assorted ‘stuff’. This place clearly acquired whole house-loads of furnishings and oddments then just emptied the truck contents into the yard without doing much sorting – so it seemed.

After a few visits we could see that a lot of pieces had been hanging around for years, the dust was so thick on them – this place was never cleaned – a positive for us since it had the feel of a place where we could find a bargain, something that had been overlooked by everyone else because there was so much junk in the way!

The provençal style chair in 'noyer', nut wood or walnut wood.
The provençal style chair in ‘noyer’, nut wood or walnut wood.
The messy yard - and resident free-range foul!
The messy yard – and resident free-range fowl!

We grew to love this place, not just because we bought most of our first pieces here for bargain prices, also because it was a lot of fun to discover something that we ourselves had overlooked previously, wipe the dust off, see what repairs it might need (lots of pieces were in bad condition), then banter a bit with one of the old guys who worked there to get the price down a little – it wasn’t difficult! Well not in French for JL – it was harder for me – all part of the thrill though.

But really the guys were a push-over!

We looked at this table many times, but didn't buy it after all.
We looked at this table many times, but didn’t buy it after all.

The first time we came to this place six months earlier, when we’d bought our house, JL found two old ladder-back chairs, while I found two olive pots that would make great utensil pots in the kitchen. Even though we were returning to Australia just a few days later we just had to have those pieces! After deliberating briefly, JL approached the two old guys to propose a price less than the marked total of €40 – to his suggested €30 they countered with €25! What? We looked stunned. However, quickly realising they were having their aperitif (pre-dinner drinks in France) we realised it was Happy Hour! Happy hour for us too to get our first bargain. This would become our preferred time to shop here!

After considering this chair about three times, we finally bought it.
After considering this chair about three times, we finally bought it.

We also loved it for the organized chaos! Most of the pieces were housed inside three long, curved-roof constructions that had once been used for raising pigs in (so we’ve been told), then there was almost as much stuff lying around outside. Here was the domain of quite a few foul: roosters, geese, chickens and chicks – all oblivious to the comings and goings of humans.

Rooster at home amongst the assorted junk and furniture
Rooster at home amongst the assorted junk and furniture.

It was like going back in time in some ways, everything old and a little decrepit – a place transported from a vintage novel or film. 

We were also told about a consignment store in Pertuis, about 20 minutes from Jouques, which sold decent old furniture too. Very different in that it was clean, organized, all items priced clearly and sectioned in rows within a modern building. Not quite as much fun to poke around but there were lots of nice pieces, generally in good condition – this was reflected in the prices, which, we quickly realised, were non-negotiable! There we found a beautiful wooden chair crafted from walnut wood – prized in France, ‘Noyer’ timber is hard, golden and apparently lovely to work with for furniture makers. This we snaffled up as fast as we could for €60, less than $100 for a very beautiful hand-crafted piece!

I loved this little gem - a bargain at €30!
I loved this little gem – a bargain at €30!

The reality in France is that these old second-hand furniture stores are closing shop en-masse, as the French generally and the youth in particular, are not interested in old pieces. They’d much rather have new furniture and they love IKEA! Ironically so much new, cheaply made furniture costs much more than the old items we’d been seeing and buying! Sadly we have even seen what we’d consider to be perfectly good, character-full old chairs, on top of a bon-fire for the festival of Saint Jean (a celebration in late June) – Sacre Bleue!

Nut wood bedside cabinet in need of repair and terracotta dish, both for about €10.
Our beautiful table with a drawer at each end.
Lunch set on our beautiful table with a drawer at each end.

After about three weeks we had ourselves a couple of bedside cabinets, a magnificent dining table with a twist design in the timber legs, the walnut chair plus a couple of other chairs, and ideas for at least two other purchases – items which we were thinking about and might buy later if we couldn’t find a better option.

We dismissed this buffet cabinet for ages, but finally bought it some months later.
We dismissed this buffet cabinet for ages, but finally bought it some months later.

Alas though, we were still living out of our suitcases – so the hunt would continue for the all important wardrobe!

House Jouques

On rue Saint Pierre

On rue Saint Pierre

After leaving Australia in mid-April 2016 and arriving in Bordeaux where we stayed almost a week with family; we collected our car, which Jean-Louis’s Uncle had looked after for us for over six months and, with much anticipation, drove directly to Provence.

Wild and verdant beauty at the edge of Jouques – May is poppy season!

We arrived in the south of France in the last week of April with several suitcases and a carton of kitchen and cleaning essentials – a thoughtful gift that Jean-Louis’s Aunty in Bordeaux had kindly put together from items she’d collected at a ‘vide grenier’ – an ‘empty the attic’ sale (the French equivalent of a garage sale). However, before going to the house we’d bought in Jouques six months earlier, we decided to stay a few days with another Aunty not far from Marseille, then make the hour-long drive to Jouques from there.

How lucky we were to have relatives to help us out!

Of course if we hadn’t had them we’d have stayed in BnBs or ‘Chambres d’hotes’ along the way, but of course seeing family was always nice for all involved – it was a bonus which obviously saved us from spending money on accommodation! Additionally, as our house had not been lived in for a few years, we figured that we would need a day or two to air and clean it, and of course we needed to buy a bed and mattress!

On our first drive to Jouques we stopped at a brocante in Meyrargues, the village just two villages out from Jouques, where we’d bought two ladder-back chairs six months earlier. There, leaning against a wall, covered thickly in dust, we found an old, wooden Provençal bed which we bought for the tidy sum of €33!

Our bed! Found in a local second-hand furniture store

Not my usual style I must say, dark timber and turned spindles galore! I love timber furniture but sway toward clean lines and Scandinavian design – however we’d decided that we’d like to furnish our house with pieces that suited the property and which had integrity in how they were made and the materials they were made from. Of course most furniture over 50 years old fits into this category and fortunately also suited our rather small budget. Mind you, we weren’t going to be buying much if anything at ‘antique’ shops, rather we’d be looking in brocantes (second-hand, bric-a-brac stores) and at vide greniers. This first purchase of our bed, felt right for what we had in mind.

Next stop Jouques!

JL had phoned ahead to meet with the real estate agent, Gregory, who had sold us the house, to let us into our property and hand over the keys. So, on the morning of 28th of April 2016, we entered and had the key to, our very own home in Provence!

Jean-Louis with Gregory, our agent, opening the front door

It was good to see that the previous owners had removed all the old furniture and bits and pieces from every room. They’d offered them to us for far more Euros than we thought they were worth, as they were a fairly ad hock assortment of items that hadn’t appealed to us at all – we preferred to spend time choosing pieces as we would need them. That would be half the fun of settling in! With help from Gregory, we were shown where the water meter was and how it had to be turned on and, by running a tap in each of the bathrooms, we ascertained that it was all working well. He also helped us to switch on the hot water storage unit – we’d have to cross our fingers on that count and see on our next visit if it was working! 

We walked through the entire house again to see that everything was as we expected – and really, just to take it all in – this was ours! It felt surreal. This would be home for us in the next 18 months or so. 

Our bed set-up in the room we’d chosen to be our master bedroom
Our lovely house in Jouques, in the very quaint rue Saint Pierre

Before that could happen we had at least one more trip to make. With that in mind we measured the space in the laundry for the washing machine.

The good with the not so good

The next day we returned armed with a new vacuum cleaner as well as a new washing machine and set to work. The end of the living room where the large stone arch was, was quite a mess – over the Winter with no circulation of air in the house, a lot of gravelly material had fallen from the stones and mortar leaving a mass of coarse, sandy gravel on the tiled floor. This was a concern as we had no idea how much a village house like this would be affected by humidity from the hillside, let alone how cold it might get in the house once Summer was over. Hmmm, we’d find out later rather than sooner – at least we had a long summer ahead to contemplate heating and airing the rooms before the wet weather of autumn arrived.

The arch at the end of the living room – after we’d cleaned the floor!

Meanwhile we were pleased to notice that the previous owners had left a large mirror with a beautiful hand-painted frame behind. We guessed that it was possibly too heavy for them to be bothered to move it – our luck, as we really liked it! Plus it was something on the wall for now – until all of our possessions arrived from Australia we’d have nothing else to decorate our walls. As JL is a painter we had kept a lot of his colourful works over the years and, frankly, we could hardly bear to be in bare-walled houses! We also found that some big, old, round, green bottles had been left behind in the attic. We were so pleased as we’d spied them when we’d first inspected the house before buying it. There were in fact several baskets and boxes of things up there that would need a day to go through, all covered with lots of dust! Sorting that lot would be an adventure we would look forward to in due course.

The low-ceilinged attic with bottles, books and dust, left by the previous owners.
Old green bottles and lots of storage jars, covered in dust!

For now it was the least of our concerns, as we just wanted to be installed in Jouques as soon as possible. That said, the next day we hit a wall as JL, who’d been fighting off a cold for a few days, finally succumbed and decided that he needed a day to rest – he really didn’t feel like driving. I have to admit to not being brave enough to drive at all in France – the fact that we had a manual car which was also larger than the (automatic transmission) one I’d driven in Australia, was off-putting enough, but having to get used to being on the other side of the road, plus contend with what seemed to be many more maniacal drivers on the roads than I was used to, was all too daunting!

I took the timely opportunity to help Aunt Christiane, whom we were staying with, to sort through some of her old towels and bed linen and, in no time at all she has put together a bundle of towels, sheets and quilts for us to borrow. She also found a camping table and a broom, mop and bucket that we’d be sure to make good use of. 

A slow start the next morning and we headed to Pertuis, a town just northwest of Jouques where we’d decided to buy a mattress. Rather than pay an extra €40 for delivery we’d decided to make our purchase as close to Jouques as possible, strap it to the car, then we would drive slowly along small roads all the way to the village.

After finding what we were after in Pertuis, we went off for lunch as it was our wedding anniversary and, despite JL not feeling particularly well, we would at least have a celebratory lunch somewhere in the town. I was a little disappointed to not be celebrating in a big way, especially as we had hoped to have properly moved into our house by then but, by the time you’re married for quite a number of years, it’s easy to let go of some expectations. We decided it was okay that it was a low-key affair since we had such more important things happening at that time!

In any case we bought a gift for ourselves – a new mattress! Befitting for a wedding anniversary! So we tied it to the roof of the car – literally – as we didn’t have roof-bars so we put the ropes through the car windows! We just hoped to NOT encounter any Gendarmes or strong winds on our way to Jouques!

We took time out from cleaning the house to enjoy the blue sky and meet our new friends the donkey brothers in Jouques – Paquito and Angelo.

Even though we now had our bed and mattress in the house, it was all too hard to stay the night with JL not feeling the best. The house was still cold and we didn’t have our bathroom and kitchen organized as yet. 

Jean-Louis found this china bull (which he instantly loved) in a cupboard upstairs as well as this old brush

The next day we moved in properly

After a good night’s sleep we drove once again to Jouques, stopping at a large supermarket on the way to by a load of groceries to tide us over for at least a week. In the meantime we were sure we could find anything additional we might need in the village. 

We felt extremely relieved and delighted to finally be there. Our dreams of so many years, to have a home in Provence, finally realised here, in rue Saint Pierre!

Our first meal in our home on rue Saint Pierre!
Wheat field Jouques

Provence here we come!

Provence here we come!

After finding an ideal house in the lovely village of Jouques in Provence, Jean-Louis and I had returned home to Perth, Western Australia, to pack-up our lives and make the move to France. No easy task as we had gone on holiday within weeks of moving house, leaving our two bedroom, one bathroom town house crammed full of furniture and boxes from our recently sold, four bedroom, three bathroom, two living-room family home. We had even left a pool table taking up the entire dining room!

Jean-Louis and myself whilst staying at JL’s Aunt’s house in Monesties six months earlier

We had quite a mess to sort out

However Jean-Louis (JL) and I felt so positive and I, in particular, felt so free. Although we’d just had a relaxing three months in France, it was only now that we were back home in Perth, that I felt the reality of no longer having to go off to a full-time job every week day. So the days of working to sort and store the dozens and dozens of boxes piled up in every room was a satisfying job in which to immerse myself.

At the same time JL decided that all the brick-paving around the house just had to be redone, including the lengthy driveway – so he set to it, with me helping move, stack and clean bricks and later restack them in-position for laying – all great exercise! We have always done our own handy man and renovation jobs. In fact we’d improved our living situation over the years by renovating and extending our first home, culminating in the last project, where we’d sub-contracted to build a three-level family home from scratch to our own design, as well as doing all the landscaping (multi-leveled on a sloping block), garden design and planting, plus painting and finishing inside and out. It had been an enormous job which took more time and effort than we had ever imagined, but it had been part of our plan to make enough profit to finance this next stage of our dream. We had plenty of know-how (by that I mean JL on the DIY and myself on the final say on design!), energy and enthusiasm but not much money – so we’d had to resolve early in our partnership to be resourceful and hard working. Despite the difficulties in selling our house during the past year, it had all been worth it.

Now we just had to improve the exterior of this recently purchased small house and we’d be able to rent it out, which would further finance our life in Provence. Fortunately the interior had been nicely renovated about eight years earlier – it was reasonably well appointed and neutral in décor, so was fine as it was. However the exterior was a different matter – there was in fact no existing garden, just the uneven and poorly done brick paving and dull, grey sand. The one tree that had dominated the front yard we’d had to have professionally removed, at great expense, as it was mostly dead and in danger of dropping branches. However, this suited us as we had several frangipani trees in pots that needed to go into the ground, as well as many other plants we’d brought over from our last property. Once we redid the paving and JL built a large garden-bed in the front courtyard, we were able to make a beautiful front garden in no time at all. The larger back yard was given a similar treatment and, with a huge load of good soil and a lot of hard work, it all came together nicely.

The completed front courtyard – re-laid paving and new garden bed
The back yard with re-laid brick paving, garden beds being created and our plants going in

At the same time as all this was happening we were gathering prices for transporting different quantities of our possessions to France. Here we were in a quandary. Should we send little and buy practically everything we would need there? Or should we send everything we thought we’d need since we already had it? Which option would be most cost effective?

It didn’t take us long to realize that we would need a sizeable storage facility if we were to leave everything in Perth, and that would cost us quite a lot in rent. Also, I figured it could be expensive to buy all the linen, household and kitchen appliances, crockery and so forth that we’d need over there. I was certainly looking forward to buying a lot of items at flea markets and antiques stores, but I didn’t want just old things – for many essentials like decent bed-linen and towels I had no idea which shops would be the best to shop at for good quality for a great price. At least in Perth I was familiar with all the outlet stores and had always bought top quality at fantastic sale prices. In France I had no idea! 

We finally decided that we would buy most of the furniture we would need when we got to France, second hand from Brocantes (antique/bric-a-brac stores) and flea markets. We’d had a look at some in the area around Jouques whilst we were there and had even bought two old ladder-back chairs, which we’d been able to leave in storage with an Aunt. They were so cheap we could hardly believe it!

A selection of goods at a ‘vide grenier’ – literally means ‘ empty the attic’
Inside one of the many rooms of a local Brocante – second-hand furniture and bric-a-brac store

We settled on a quote to send six cubic meters of our possessions to France for a price that seemed remarkably affordable, even with basic insurance and with help in packing all the breakable items – thank goodness! This enabled us to send crockery, kitchen essentials like saucepans, bowls, cutlery and utensils, glassware; plus most of our clothing, art books and several boxes of Jean-Louis’ art supplies. Additionally, because we had opted to leave our small house as a furnished rental property, we decided to also send a couple of furniture items that we had no space for in the house, specifically two antique French beds that had been our daughters when they were small, a large gilt-framed mirror and a couple of occasional tables. Plus I had to have my sewing machine and at least a couple of boxes of my accumulated fabric – after all I had projects that had been waiting for years for me to finally have time to get to them! We also had a stack of Jean-Louis’s paintings to send, including one, yet unfinished, that measured 2m x 2m!

Gradually we organized ourselves

It was Summer time in Perth which can be brutal, often hitting 37°C (100° F) or more for consecutive days; so we tended to work outside early in the day and in the cool of the evening, then inside during the middle of the day, sorting and packing. We set a date in early March for the final packing to be done by the professionals and all of the cartons to be collected and taken away.

Meanwhile we were contemplating how long our periods of ‘living in Provence’ might go on for. We imagined that we’d need 18 months initially to do the renovations on our house in Jouques – while the first two levels were perfectly habitable the top floor needed every room completely over hauled. So, being practical, I conceded to us needing to be there for one winter – I really wasn’t keen on more. After which we figured we would be in a position to live six months in Provence and six months in Australia. An endless summer – how perfect!

Then of course there was all the paper work!

Fortunately JL had retained his French nationality and had recently obtained his French/EU passport, so he would be able to live in France as long as he wanted. I on the other hand had to go through quite a procedure to obtain a ‘visa long séjour’ (long term visa) from the French consulate in Australia. This required a lot of paper-work, a trip to Sydney to present myself along with said paper-work, an interview at which my husband was not permitted to accompany me, finger-prints and photo taken of course, and a sizeable fee paid. Not to mention the cost of our flights and accommodation! Gosh, one had to be keen to do all this!

Because JL had done such a thorough job of organizing my papers, the interview lasted barely 15 minutes, which was great though ludicrous, since we’d travelled all the way across the vast county for it! Luckily we had accrued travel points from our trip to Europe, which had paid for that flight. Also, to make the most of the trip, we decided to visit family and friends in the east and have a short holiday to see a part of Australia we hadn’t visited before.

A section of the magnificent ‘Great Ocean Road’ – formations known as ‘The twelve Apostles’

We spent just two nights in Sydney where we caught up with my cousin and her husband for an evening, then flew on to Melbourne to see and stay a few days with our niece, before heading to Geelong which is only an hour by train from Melbourne. It’s the second largest city in the state of Victoria, surrounded by an extensive rural community and is set on the coast at the start of a section of coastline famously known as ‘The Great Ocean Road’ – magnificently picturesque and which we’d wanted to see for some time. We stayed the weekend in Geelong with good friends, then collected our hire car and set off on the three-day drive.

It was a wonderful few days – perfect weather and so many beautiful places to stop and take in the scenery, the ocean breezes and the colours. To think we were right on the southern edge of the continent, looking out toward Antarctica was breath taking!

Back home in March and the day for our cartons to be collected to commence their journey to France had arrived. The very large truck and its two sturdy occupants arrived at 11am precisely – exactly the time we’d expected them. Two hours later, with 51 cartons numbered, documented and loaded aboard, we watched the two guys who’d very efficiently packed the last of our things, jump into the cabin of the truck and depart. Although we had that feeling of “will we ever see our goods again?” we also felt like we were now on the home stretch!

The next few weeks simply raced along

We had decided to use our second bedroom as our storage space and secure it well to prevent curious tenants from entering. The price of rentable storage units was far more than the amount of money we’d be losing by renting our property as a single bedroom house instead of one with two bedrooms available. So our next task was to arrange that room to store everything else that was left, some furniture that was unsuitable to remain in the house for tenants to use, plus loads of personal items.

It was a struggle but eventually we fitted everything into the second bedroom and the garden shed. We packed our bags and, with a lot of help from my energetic and ever helpful parents, set about cleaning. Even though we’d been consistently using our time effectively to work towards our departure date, we found we were still busy to almost the last minute.

Just a small part of our crammed storage room

Suffice to say we managed to enjoy a last day with our family and, after sharing a few tears at the airport with our daughters, we were finally off. Many friends had joked that it’s normally the kids who abandon their parents to go off on an adventure, but here we were, the adults abandoning our kids! That was tough. In many ways I guess we’ve never toed the conventional line, rather, we’ve tried to model (as parents) that life is a series of calculated risks, and that (true to the old adage) in order to cross the ocean and follow your dreams you have to lose sight of the shore.

In any case, we’d be back!

Typical Bordeaux landscape near Portets where we picked up our car

We flew to Bordeaux where Jean-Louis’s Uncle had been looking after our car for the past six months. We stayed a few days with family but, naturally, we were impatient to get to Jouques and our house. Even though we’d been there quite recently, we’d driven the same route just six months earlier, this time it felt surreal because we were going to our new home. Provence here we come!

Wheat field on the plateau of Bedes in the commune of Jouques
Lavandin field in Jouques

A house in Provence

A house in Provence

There was no holding us back now!

Once I’d given the nod of approval to Jouques as the ideal place for us to venture to, in order to fulfill our dream of living in Provence, Jean-Louis was raring to go! Understandably so, as the prospect of finally returning to the country of his birth for an extended period of time, had been a deep-seated yearning in him for so long. I have to admit, I was just a little bit apprehensive, but also excited at the ‘grande aventure’ that lay ahead.

View of old Jouques

View of old Jouques

By an ‘extended period of time’ I mean more than just a brief holiday. We weren’t sure how long we were going to live in France, but we knew that we had this window of opportunity that allowed us precious time and freedom. We were in the extremely fortunate position of each having both our parents still alive and in good health; plus our daughters, though both happily in long-term relationships, were not planning to give us grandchildren in the next few years. Of course we also felt very lucky to be fit and healthy ourselves, but the cliché ‘you only live once’ was resounding in our heads! So basically we were off the hook from the kind of responsibilities that keep a lot of people close to kith and kin.

As soon as we returned to Perth after our month in Jouques in June 2014, we considered our plan of action: to prepare our present home for sale and, once sold, move our possessions to a smaller property in Perth which we’d yet to find and purchase, then get back to Provence for the following European Summer and find a house to rent for a year. Sounded do-able.

South Perth

Perth city seen across the Swan River from South Perth

We had a large bespoke and beautiful, family home in a leafy inner-city suburb, which we’d designed and built ourselves and lived in for ten years with our daughters until, only very recently, we’d become empty nesters. Our plan all along was to use the house as an investment to allow us to downsize once the girls had left home; naturally we hoped to have sufficient funds leftover to enable us to live in Provence part-time and potentially purchase a house there.

Alas, our timing was not the best

The very month our home went onto the housing market, house prices started to drop. The reason being was that the commodities boom that had existed in Western Australia for the previous five years or so, had suddenly slumped. One consequence being that property at the higher end of the market was no longer in demand; we would just have to hang-in there with our fingers crossed, and wait and see.

It took almost nine months to sell and settle the sale of our property, a phase in which we felt helplessly in limbo, in fear of something going terribly wrong and the deal falling through; a fear that we were likely to lose a lot of money on our investment and potentially see our dream significantly diminish or vaporise entirely!

I won’t go into the nitty-gritty of the sale and behaviour of the buyers, but fair to say they did not comply with the contract and caused us to have to seek legal assistance!

In the meantime we had taken a chance and bought a small house that we thought would be an ideal toehold for us in Perth, then finally, in mid June 2015, the sale of our family home was completed.

With our mortgage paid off, money in the bank and a huge sense of relief, we moved into our comparatively tiny new home in the adjacent suburb. A month later I left my long-time job as a graphic designer and we decided to head to France to catch the end of the summer; somewhat later and feeling significantly more stressed than we’d hoped, but at least we were on our way.

Obviously we’d had to adjust our plan of action since we were behind by at least six months so, instead of moving our lives completely to France at that moment, we decided to go there temporarily to A. have a holiday and de-stress after one of the most anxiety-causing experiences of our lives; B. meet-up with some family and friends who would also be in France in September; and C. get to Jouques and look at properties for sale and rent. So off we went for three months.

Luck was at last on our side

Not long after we’d arrived in Bordeaux and whilst staying with family there, JL heard through the family grapevine that one of his Aunt’s was going to Australia for a month’s holiday – which meant we could stay in her house while she was away, save money on accommodation and see that area of the south-west of France (the regions of Tarn et Garonne and Midi-Pyrenées) really well! It also gave us much needed time to really relax and consider what we wanted going forward – what kind of life we might actually live in France? All a bit late in the peace you might say, but really, when one is caught up in living and working, with it’s stresses and demands, it can be hard to step aside and see clearly what the future may look like.

With our new, second-hand car in Portets Bordeaux

With our newly acquired, second-hand Renault, in Portets, Bordeaux

In Bordeaux Jean-Louis’ Uncle helped up find a second-hand car to purchase, in which we then made our way south to the pretty village of Monestiés to settle into Aunt Claudine’s home there.

A wonderful region to explore

From that comfy spot we made many day-trips to some splendid places: the lovely town of Albi, the red city (due to the red clay bricks that are used predominantly for its buildings) the home of the magnificent Toulouse-Lautrec Museum and the huge Cathedrale de Sainte Cécile with its incredibly beautiful interior; Toulouse, the pink city (because of the pink-hued bricks mostly used for its buildings); Cordes sur Ciel, a quaint and artistic perched village; St Antonin Noble Val, an exceptional medieval village situated on a picturesque bend of the Aveyron river; the perched village of Najac also on the Aveyron; the incredibly elegant Millau Aqueduct, designed by Sir Norman Foster and, at 343 metres, the tallest bridge in the world; as well as many tiny medieval villages and ancient castles to be found via narrow, winding roads, through undulating hills and hidden amongst dense forest.

Albi in the Tarn region

Beautiful Albi in the Tarn region

 

Toulouse

The big but beautiful city of Toulouse

 

Cordes sur Ciel

View of pretty rural landscape seen from Cordes sur Ciel

 

Najac

The very interesting perched village of Najac

 

Monesties in the Tarn region

The lovely little village of Monestiés in the Tarn region

All along a large part of our plan was to move Jean-Louis’ art practice to Europe, to see if he could make a success of creating, exhibiting and selling his work to a wider audience. For myself, I had a yearning to get back to being personally creative too – the work of a designer is forever constrained by a brief, a budget, the whims and genuine needs of the client, and constantly by deadlines; so I was desperate to reconnect with my ability to create with my hands from my own perspective, in my own time. We needed a house that would afford us space to set up our own studios and have sufficient workspace to not be in one another’s way.

We were also now in a position to know what our financial situation was and so consider a budget for whatever we wanted and needed, in particular if we were to rent or purchase a house and what we required of a house to be comfortable.

We realised that the savings we had may not be adequate in the current economic climate, where investing was tricky and interest rates generally poor; unfortunately we’d had to sell our house for a considerably lesser amount than we’d initially hoped. So we agreed that we might have to consider having some way of supplementing our meagre income for the first few years whilst JL was feeling his way in the art-world of France. JL considered that he could teach art workshops if we had a house with a suitable space. We also thought of hosting guests in our home, travelers who wanted to experience a genuine Provençal village for a few days. All these details we would consider whilst looking at property.

Pont Millau

The tallest bridge in the world, Pont Millau

 

St Antonin Noble Val

We were impressed by the village of St Antonin Noble Val

By the time September approached we were well ready to meetup with our daughter Isabelle and her partner Chris, plus his parents, to spend a couple of days together in the Tarn, and then we would eagerly travel on to Jouques.

We could hardly wait!

It felt strange to arrive in Jouques in mid-September with a feeling of distinct familiarity, particularly with family members in tow with whom we so wanted to share what we’d discovered there. As we drove into the village we were overwhelmed by the strong scent of lavender, heavy in the air; we quickly realized that the local distillery was, at that moment, pressing lavender into pungent oil!

We’d previously seen that there were many fields of lavender around the edges of Jouques, but we hadn’t been around at harvest time, nor had we visited the distillery. Crops are usually harvested from mid-July, which may take a month or so, after which the distilling process may also take a few months to complete, depending on the volume of crop harvested. We learned that, as Jouques sits at almost 400m above sea level, it is the hybrid lavandin that is grown in the vicinity, while lavender is normally grown at 600-800m. In any case, the scent that welcomed us that Friday afternoon was not just intoxicating, it was an aroma that announced that we’d well and truly arrived in Provence!

Lavandin field in Jouques

A recently harvested field of lavandin at the edge of Jouques

A house to inspect

JL and I exercised extreme restraint during the following few days by not going directly to see the real-estate agent, whom JL had been in occasional contact with during the past year. He’d seen several properties online over that time and one in particular appealed to us immensely, so we were keen to have a look at it as soon as possible. When we eventually did go to see the agent on the Monday he said that, unfortunately, that house was no longer on the market – naturally we felt rather deflated. However, he declared that he had just picked up keys for a property that we might like to view; since it offered the kind of accommodation he thought we were after. Well, why not we thought as he pulled the keys from his pocket and dangled them before us – so off we set.

He led us up into the little lanes of the old village and along the first of several ruelles that run parallel to the main boulevard; we walked to its end then turned up a steep incline onto another smaller street with which we were unfamiliar, and there we soon stopped. Looking around we observed a very short, characterful little street of stone houses, all butted together in the usual style and, at its end an ancient stone arch with a niche, sadly missing it’s statue. The house in front of us had faded green shutters, shut tight, its outside façade rendered in a light ochre cement, and a sundial at the centre of its first storey; it appeared to be three levels and quite tall.

kitchen

The very Provençal kitchen

 

The stone arch at the end of the salon

The stone arch at the end of the salon

In no time at all the shutters to the entry were unlocked, then the classic but narrow French doors were opened and we were in. We found ourselves standing in what was the most incredibly Provencal looking kitchen I have ever seen! Decorated in bright yellow and green square tiles on the bench-tops and walls, with yellow cupboard doors beautifully hand-painted with sprays of olive leaves and fruit, plus a large chimney canopy, it was a cheery welcome into the house.

 

From there we stepped up into the salon (living room), the main feature of which was a large fireplace and an impressive vaulted arch at the end of the room made entirely of stone. We walked under the arch and found on our right, a door to a small, windowless room, also with a vaulted ceiling, which was deemed the laundry and storage room. We backed up a little to another door in the centre of the salon which led to a small foyer, which held the stairwell. Here was no ordinary staircase, rather a spiral of the most sensual and perfect proportions it made us gasp at its fluid, organic beauty! Looking up from its base we could see its concentric circularity rising up several levels. JL and I looked at one another with that look of excitement and amazement on our faces!

Up we went

The first floor contained two large bedrooms overlooking the street, each with large windows which the agent opened along with the shutters as we entered; plus a bathroom set to the back of the house, in yet another vaulted-ceiling space. It was then explained to us that the first two levels of the house, this one and the one below, were set directly against the hillside, hence there were no windows in the back rooms, and the vaulted ceilings were designed for maximum strength. We’d never been into a house quite like this before!

The very organic staircase

Our daughter Isabelle looking up the very organic staircase

Up further we ventured. After only a few steps we encountered a door situated at an awkward angle off the stairs, which the agent announced was a surprise room. On opening the door and turning on a bare-light-bulb hanging on a cord from yet another vaulted-ceiling (the switch for which had been difficult to find in the dark), we could make out what looked to be literally a cave. There was a tree-trunk shaped chopping block and several chunks of wood on the ground which was covered in dark sawdust; against the wall were several mis-matched parts of timber furniture – this space was obviously used for storage as well as to chop wood for the fireplace. It was larger than it had first seemed and very cool inside, as well as pitch black once the light was out.

Up then to the second storey to find a third bedroom, it appeared to be smaller than the two below, largely due to having a much lower ceiling. Around to our left was a low door, which opened to a bare, grey, cement-floored room, mostly empty apart from a few more pieces of old furniture. It had a second door, which, on opening, led us out to a street. What a surprise! We were in fact on the street further up the hillside from the one on which we’d entered the house below. We’d been a little disoriented as we’d ascended the stairs, and we at once realized that this was how many of the village houses worked, though most of them had long-since been divided into two or more smaller houses or apartments.

Back into the house and we continued up the last section of now steeper stairs to a trap door in the ceiling, above which was an attic. We had only a brief glimpse around up there since the light was dim and there was so much dust, plus the ceiling was sloped and mostly too low to enable us to stand upright.

Once back down on the landing outside the third bedroom, the agent unlocked what was to be the final door on our journey of discovery through this house. It opened into a large space the full depth of the house, we estimated it to be some nine meters long, lying above the bathroom and second bedroom below. Half the floor was covered in what we assumed were original old terracotta tiles, while the other half was plain dirt. We figured it had been used as a barn since there was what looked like a hay-loft above, plus a small manger built into the wall and a metal ring secured in the wall near it – obviously a spot to tie-up and feed the donkey or perhaps a goat! The walls were all bare, dull stones and there were two solid shutters that opened out onto the top street. JL and I both noted that it was a really good sized space.

The top street

The house seen from the top street

 

barn

The impressive space that was once a barn

On our descent through the house we naturally revisited each room while the agent busily closed all the shutters and windows behind us. While JL and I waited for him in the kitchen we again took in the detail of the hand-painted cupboards and, just as we expected to depart by the front door, the agent sprung another surprise on us; this time in the form of a trap door in the floor of the kitchen. How had we not noticed that before?

Gosh, how many surprises this house held!

We stepped carefully down the steep, ladder-like steps. We observed a space directly under the salon and half the length, carved directly out of the hill and rocks. The floor and walls were tiled and in reasonable condition, it was cool but not damp or musty. There was a good light-fixture in the room and a little air vent to the street. Overall a very useful space and possibly perfect for use as a wine cellar!

With so much going on in our heads at that moment it was just as well the agent didn’t have anything else to spring on us, as we needed to go away and think.

And think we did, probably for a full fifteen minutes! Haha! Yes, on reflection that seems crazy and ridiculous, but we quickly agreed that the house checked every box we had on our list and then some. The bottom of the house offered rooms that were immediately habitable and entirely functional, while the top level gave us an opportunity to value-add to the amenity of the building and stamp it with our own style. The clincher was definitely the generous-sized barn that we could visualize as a studio-work-space, the fact that it had double doors opening onto the road was a distinct bonus – perhaps (we thought) it could even work as a gallery!

Additionally it was priced to sell; significantly it was about 30% less than the house we’d previously seen online. We could hardly contain our excitement at the serendipitous nature of the course of events that had led us to this day, this village, and this particular house. Had our home in Perth not taken nine months to sell we would not have been in Jouques at this particular time; had we not been in Jouques that very week, we would surely have missed the opportunity to see and purchase this house altogether – as someone else would have snapped it up with as much speed and gusto as we were prepared to do. As luck would have it, we were the first to see it.

We returned the next day with our family in tow, to look the house over and to reaffirm what JL and myself were thinking but not yet disclosing to them. Isabelle and Chris, as well as Chris’ parents were all enthusiastic and, as we made our way through the building, the excitement became palpable – in fact it reached new levels when we disclosed the existence of the cellar – the wine lover in each of us went a bit crazy!

The cellar

Our friend Sue about to inspect the cellar

 

the cellar

In the cellar – once used for pressing grapes for wine

We were then able to see that the little street was at the very western edge of the old village and, in our view, the nicest street in the village. The stone arch carried the date 1676, and all the neighbouring houses looked to be occupied and cared for.

The rest is history

We made an offer the following day, the day after that we received a phone call at 7pm suggesting that an amount slightly more would be more amenable to the seller. Our immediate response to that effect meant the agent’s next sentence was that he had the authority to accept our revised offer and we could consider ourselves the new owners!

Of course that called for a celebration and two of our guests ran out immediately to buy champagne as we had none – talk about not being prepared!

And just like that our dream to one day have a house in Provence became tangible.

Jouques seen from the ridge

The hidden gem

The hidden gem

June 2014 and we were, finally, heading to the village in Provence which my husband, Jean-Louis, had happened upon four years earlier!

Significant things had transpired for us between June 2010 and June 2014 when Jean-Louis (JL) first came upon Jouques by chance and phoned me in Australia, excited, to tell me that he thought he’d found the place where we might like to live in France. Since then JL had taken a huge leap of faith in giving up his career of many years as a visual arts teacher, to pursue his artistic vocation full-time! To paint, draw and create original artworks. Four successful exhibitions later, plus one arts prize, and he had found his métier as a practicing artist.

As for me, I’d stayed in my job as an in-house graphic designer and evolved from working mainly on publications for print, to designing for web, and so found myself having to think in pixels instead of picas, points and vectors! If I were honest, I’d have to admit that I was feeling rather unmotivated by the constant need to keep up with technology in my profession, not to mention having to sit for most of my eight-hour working day at a computer!

Fortunately for me the carrot of travel adventures had been dangled often during the past four years and so we’d been to a fantastic array of varied and interesting places. The holidays had tided me over whilst JL found his feet. However, since JL was now established in his solo career as an artist, we felt that the time was ripe to get back to France and, together, see what we thought of that village in Provence.

A holiday to that village

So at the end of May we flew into Nice and stayed a couple of nights, which we enjoyed tremendously, the weather was warm and perfect for walking around, the sky was blue and, although we’d visited years ago when we were newly married, it had been just a fleeting few hours, so this time we gave ourselves more time. We explored the colourful and interesting old town precinct, then climbed up the stairway at the end of the Promenade des Anglais to Castle Hill, via a veritable maze of small paths and greenery, to take in the fabulous view over the beach and city of Nice on one side, and the beautiful old port and the Baie des Anges on the other; as well as admiring the waterfall and ruins of the old Chateau de Nice along the way. It was a truly fabulous way to start our holiday. 

Nice
Nice and the Promenade des Anglais

Of course Nice was just a prelude to the main event!

And so it was that we drove on a sunny Sunday afternoon in our little red hire car, north into the hills beyond Aix-en-Provence, with exaltation along the magnificent avenue of plane trees, passing fields of golden wheat, plus a small field of lavender, along a lengthy stretch of narrow winding road, over two ancient bridges, and finally, with my heart beating far more rapidly than normal in my chest, (perhaps I was even holding my breath and had moist eyes) we turned the last corner onto the Boulevard de la République and voila, we’d arrived!

JL had booked a studio apartment in the village as our home for the month, which thankfully we located quite easily – the owners were there to greet us and, in a trice, we had the keys and our bags down – we were ready to explore!

Our accommodation in Jouques
Our accommodation in Jouques

What struck us first was how very quiet the village was, but we have since learned that it’s perfectly normal for a Sunday afternoon in France – after the busy-ness of market-day morning in Jouques there is the all important lunch, followed by a mostly quiet, family oriented afternoon, maybe even with a siesta!

We spent the afternoon walking some of the little streets set back from the main road, paved with stone and river pebbles, each lane different to the others in the way the stones or pebbles were laid and gutters arranged, there was no bitumen or potholes in sight! We made our way up to the chapel on the hill, from where we could see most of the old village below and take-in its rustic charm – the old roof tiles presented such a fantastic patchwork of terracotta tones and pure earthiness I could hardly believe it! Of course there were innumerable little satellite dishes poking out from the roofs at various awkward angles, the occasional ugly air-conditioning unit strapped-on to a roof here and there, but overall an absolute picture of Provencal postcard perfection!

Jouques seen from the ridge
Jouques seen from the ridge

It was such a great vantage point from which to appreciate the vastness of the forest all around and the hilly landscape of Jouques which sits within the nationally recognized ‘area of natural beauty’, called le grand site Sainte Victoire. The commune of Jouques we would learn, extends north to the Durance river, south almost to Montagne Sainte Victoire (the main geological feature of the landscape around Aix-en-Provence), east to the border of the next department called the Var, and west to the village of Peyrolles-en-Provence, which we’d passed through on our way.

Later we discovered the quirky attributes of our little apartment – being the bottom level of a four level village house, it was probably once used as a barn in which to store agricultural tools and stock, and perhaps to house animals over night as well. The back wall was directly against the hillside and there were large rocks protruding into the room. An ancient stone staircase in one corner was blocked off so that we couldn’t continue up into the owners house above, and for practical purposes it had been transformed into shelves for a makeshift but adequate wardrobe, with hanging space and a broom closet tucked in under the sweeping upward swirl of the stairs. The owners entered their front door from the next street up on the hillside, how convenient!

Within there was everything we could need for a comfy four week stay, including a washing machine and tasteful decorative details like the small bunch of dried wild-flowers hanging from a huge ceiling beam which was such a nice touch. For outside we had a folding table and two cute folding bistro chairs, so that we could sit out in the little street with a glass of wine of an evening and watch the locals go by. 

The location was smack, bang in the middle of the old village, right below (as we would soon discover) the horloge (the clock tower), and directly behind the large impressive building that is the Mairie (the Town Hall). To one side of the Mairie was a stepped path which, because it goes between buildings, from one street to another, is called a traverse – la traverse de la Mairie! This would prove to be a main thoroughfare for many inhabitants of the old village as they came and went from their cars parked in community parking around the village, since there was not parking in the old village itself.

The next day we awoke to the sound of the clock tower tolling, its first for the day, at 7am. Conveniently the night before it had stopped announcing the time at 11pm. During that first day we visited the local tourist office and found it well stocked with loads of information, maps and pamphlets, many of which we took back to the apartment to study, but not before adding our names to a list for a guided walk to take place the following week around the outskirts of the village, plus another in a village about 45 minutes drive away, on the other side of Montagne Sainte Victoire, for the following week. We also checked out all the little shops along the main boulevard, finding that there was a post office, florist, tabac (from where we could purchase bus tickets), two small supermarkets, a fruit and vegetable store, two small restaurants and a pizzeria, two bars, a traiteur (delicatessen), and a store for the local hunters! We were thrilled to discover there were three boulangeries too, so naturally vowed to try as many of the different breads and pastries as possible in the time we had!

Pastries for breakfast
Pastries for breakfast

We realised that the local bus was not only very regular throughout each day but also super cheap at only 1€ each way, so at 9.30 the next morning we were sitting on it, making our way to Aix-en-Provence.

The 45 minutes bus-ride to Aix was a picturesque reversal of our excited experience driving to Jouques of two days before, made all the more enjoyable for being chauffeured, so we made the most of the elevated seating to observe the countryside as it went by. Plus we smugly felt like locals on a jaunt into the main town of the region to do some shopping or meet friends! And so it was with this sense of fun that we arrived in Aix.

Aix en Provence Mairie
Aix en Provence Hotel de Ville

The best thing was to not have to drive – we’d had many stressful instances of trying to find our way into and around some of Frances’ cities and larger villages, none of which we wanted to repeat. Four years earlier we’d got terribly lost and confused on the outskirts of Aix at dusk as the light faded to dark, trying to find a place at the edge of town to stay the night.

On this occasion we arrived better prepared to explore the town, rediscovering the artistic and inherently rich and cultured city. Above all we found Aix to be a city with a wonderful human scale to it, the perfect size to walk around and enjoy its narrow, irregular pedestrian streets and admire the elegant architecture, as well as its numerous fountains – perfect to sit by and drink from in the warm Provençal sunshine.

Water everywhere

During our few weeks in Jouques we noticed that people frequently stopped in the village to collect water from the many fountains; always eager for an experiment, we readily compared the source water to some bottled mineral water we’d bought and deemed it to be better! How fantastic, no more buying bottled water for us! 

It turns out that the Romans tapped into the natural source in the area of Jouques in the 2nd century AD, and built an aqueduct some 30kms to Aix-en-Provence, which supplied drinking water to that growing city until approximately 1850. Hence Jouques was a very important place way back then. Even now having nine fountains of drinkable water flowing 24/7 in a village is quite something!

Jouques fountain
One of many fountains in Jouques

We also soon noticed the fast-flowing Réal river which runs right through Jouques and has, it seems, always been a source of economic prosperity for the village. We learned that there were once up to eleven mills along its banks, but today there remains just one, which operates as a ‘Bed and Breakfast’ (Chambres d’hotes). 

Every day we were building on our knowledge about the village and finding it to have a long and important history. We were also having many friendly chats with locals (well JL was chatting as he is fluent, but I had very little conversational French at that time) and finding that there were a handful of folk from elsewhere who had also serendipitously discovered Jouques, and now called it home. Most were from other parts of France, some keen to escape the cold north to live in the southern warmth, while others were ex-pats from various parts of Europe; every one of them was keen to keep Jouques a secret! The reason being that Jouques was a place that had somehow retained immense authenticity and was barely touched by tourism; close enough to the facilities and services of Aix, yet far enough away to remain serene.

Jouques seen from the river
Jouques seen from the river called ‘La Réal’

We actually couldn’t believe how such a visually appealing, historically important and well-located village could have escaped mass tourism, particularly as it has all the ingredients of a picture-postcard place: beauty, rustic charm and ruins on a hill-top to name just a few! 

Gradually we found out that the local government (the Mairie) in each village can choose for their village to be listed as one of the ‘most beautiful villages of France’ or not (of course it must also satisfy certain criteria to be listed); can choose to accept money from the generous portfolio of culture (allocated at a national level from Paris) for Summer events that may attract more tourists; or can choose to simply upkeep the integrity of the village for it’s residents and provide economic stability through good management. Conservative it may be, but the latter style of local government was definitely alive and well and living in Jouques!

Jouques equestrian festival
Jouques equestrian festival

Exploring the surroundings

Four weeks certainly gave us time to properly explore the surrounding area too, to find out what was within an hour’s drive of Jouques. We visited the Luberon valley, a drive of 40 minutes north-west following the Durance river, to reach Lourmarin and enjoy its wonderful Friday morning market; then onwards another twenty minutes along a twisting, narrow road to get to Bonnieux and then a host of other lovely villages in that area to make a really fun day trip. However this area is overrun with tourists from June to September in particular and, despite being pretty villages set in spectacularly beautiful countryside, is no longer a truly authentic representation of Provence. 

We also drove an hour north-east following the Durance river, to the pretty village of Moustier Sainte Marie and on to the spectacular Gorges du Verdon and Lac Saint Croix, which made for another wonderful day trip. Just over an hour south we were able to visit the picturesque coastal village of Cassis, take a boat trip out to see the Calanques (limestone coves) and then have lunch in the village followed by a swim. A day trip by bus to Marseille was also very do-able, though required an early start. In fact we found that within a neat radius of 30-90 minutes by car from Jouques, there were an immense assortment of places to reach to be able to experience an exhaustive exploration of the region.

Yet all the while we kept our minds alert to other villages that may have been a contender for our affections, there were a few. Some perhaps a little smaller, some even slightly prettier, some had a cinema (which appealed to me), some were more touristy and therefore offered lovely boutiques and more English speaking opportunities. In considering all the points we wanted in a village, what we thought was important, we kept coming back to Jouques. 

Aside from authenticity and being able to walk easily to get our bread each morning, one big thing we felt was important was to be able to get on the local bus with our bags, then take the shuttle from Aix to the TGV (Train å Grande Vitesse = very fast train) station or to the airport in Nice or Marseille, and so travel to anywhere in the world, without having to drive and park the car. Many other alluring villages had plenty of appeal for lots of reasons, but none of them also had this single important factor of being in a convenient location with easy access via public transport.

Cassis seen from Cap Canaille
Cassis seen from Cap Canaille

One of the best things though . . .

. . . was simply to walk the 10 minutes from our door to the edge of the village into the forest; to follow some of the many marked trails, with a picnic lunch and a bottle or two of Jouques water in our backpacks! 

We discovered that there are thousands of well-marked trails all over Provence and maps are usually available at tourist offices or online, there are also lots of books illustrating these walks, plus clubs in every city and many villages for keen walkers. We noticed that the only tourists who did seem to frequent Jouques, were different groups of (mostly French) walkers, armed with walking poles and back-packs, who’d gather in the car park near the church and set off into the forest on any given morning, then reappear in the village at noon, ready to déjeuner at one of the local cafés. 

Likewise we went on jaunts into the forest whenever we could and, by the time our four week stay was drawing to an end, we were fitter, healthier, suntanned, certainly well-fed, relaxed, well-travelled around the area and, most importantly, feeling like we’d found a true hidden gem!

Jean-Louis and I on the hilltop above Jouques
Jean-Louis and I on the hilltop above Jouques
Field of sunflowers - Provence

Following the dream

It started as a dream. A simple one.

To one day live in another country, where the sun shines, a lot, the sky seems to be eternally blue, the food is good and the wine even better!

Perhaps not everyone’s dream includes Provence as the destination, I’m sure that must vary enormously from, say, tropical island, to Tuscan countryside, to Paris – city of love, to the coast of Spain or perhaps a surfers paradise on the coast of Australia, or even simply a tree-change to a rural location near to where one already lives. For us it was always France, specifically Provence – that group of departments in the country’s south that collectively make up one of the most visited and travelled places in the world.

Sunflowers in Provence
Field of sunflowers in Peyrolles-en-Provence

So why Provence and how did the dream come to be?

Not such a long story really, in fact more of a natural evolution of things, since one of us is French-born, Jean-Louis, my husband of many years. Myself, I am Australian, born and raised in Perth, Western Australia. 

I can only imagine that most people long to return to their place of birth, especially if they were removed from that place at an impressionable age. Such was the case for my husband when his parents decided to migrate with their children to Australia, when he was just 11 years of age.

As for myself, I have always been fascinated by the idea of far-away places, and cultures different to the very Aussie, Anglo one in which I was raised. 

This was fuelled by the stories of childhood my Mother would recount when I was very young, of her years growing up in British India, in far-flung places that her Father had to move their family – his work involved managing stations for the North-Western Railway Company in remote places that no one else would go to – he was the fixer!

She told me tales of boarding school in the lower Himalayas; of traveling by bus on treacherous roads; of monkeys in the schoolyard that stole books from students and teachers alike and tore them to shreds; of school picnics in mountainous places with magnificent views of even bigger mountains; and of exotic food. She also told me of living in the deserts of northern India; of seeing a Camel man go by regularly with a train of camels, then one day offering her a new-born baby camel! Perhaps I’ll write about all that another time, as I’m sure you get the idea for now – suffice to say that my imagination for discovering what life was like in other lands was ignited!

Over the years our combined dream, Jean-Louis’ and mine, took shape then morphed. At times it faded to almost nothing, whilst we renovated our first home then much later built our dream family home.  At other times, our dream seemed out of reach, like when our children were very young and we deliberated over whether we’d try settling in France before our eldest started school. This was followed by a significant delay of many years, during which we both changed jobs a few times, hunkered down to create a comfortable family life, raised our daughters and (more recently) contemplated our future as creatives and empty nesters.

Despite these ups and downs, whilst our daughters were still quite young, we formed a plan to go on a fact finding mission. This came to fruition at the end of 1999 when, after seven years of saving our pennies, we took our daughters out of school for a term and spent most of 12 weeks in France. We travelled from Paris to the Loire Valley, then to the south, seeing the sights and visiting family along the way. This was an opportunity to introduce our children to the part of their Dad’s life, his heritage, that they had no way of imagining previously, as well as to meet a whole new swag of family members! During this long holiday our dream, of one day owning and renovating an old mas (farmhouse) in the French countryside, crystallised into a desire to have a village house in a quaintly narrow street, in a real (read: not touristy) village, not just somewhere in France, but specifically in Provence.

The four of us in Paris, October 1999, by the banks of the Seine
The four of us in Paris, October 1999, by the banks of the Seine

For the next ten years family life and work commitments just seemed to pull us along but, in mid 2010 whilst Jean-Louis (I’ll call him JL from now on) and I were on holiday in Europe, a chance discovery would determine the form of our dream once and for all.

We spent six weeks traveling in Europe, starting with a weekend in Amsterdam, then Istanbul for five days, on to Athens and three islands of the Cyclades; we flew from Santorini to Paris for ten glorious days, from where we caught the TGV (train-grand-vitesse, or ‘very fast train’) to Avignon where we picked up a hire car and were finally in Provence in early June where we had only a week together.

Sadly all great holidays come to an end.

And so it did for me, as I had to return home to Perth to resume work. JL had some additional time to spend with family in France, but first he was going to meet up with colleagues for a few days in the town of Riez, known as the lavender capital of Provence. 

The day after farewelling me at Marseille airport, and spending the night with an Aunt and Uncle not far from Marseille, JL set off for Riez via what he hoped would be a scenic route north of Aix-en-Provence. After passing Aix, he drove east through rural countryside and many small villages, leaving the department of Les Bouches du Rhone (meaning: the mouths of the river Rhone), he planned to stop the night at a small town in the Var, and continue on to Riez the next morning. 

Avoiding autoroutes, preferring the small roads as always, he recalls being awe-struck when driving along a particularly long avenue of majestic Plane trees – there are many of these beautiful avenues in the countryside of France, but this was perhaps the longest he’d ever seen. Immediately at the end of the avenue he stopped in the village of Peyrolles-en-Provence for lunch and coffee, then continued on through Jouques, which struck him as being a very pretty place, then on he drove to Rians, the town in the Var where he intended to stop the night.

The magnificent avenue of Plane trees between Meyrargues and Peyrolles-en-Provence.
The magnificent avenue of Plane trees between Meyrargues and Peyrolles-en-Provence

Unfortunately on arriving he was very disappointed, put simply, the village seemed drab. He walked around and explored a little but, despite having some significant historical buildings, the village held no allure for him, so he decided to return to the previous village to stay the night instead.

Luckily he arrived in Jouques before 5pm, so was able to enquire at the Tourist office for a place to stay and, by chance, there was a ‘Chambres d’hotes’ (the French name for a place offering ‘Bed and Breakfast’) just across the boulevard with a room available. With an entire balmy evening ahead, he had time to explore and then to explore some more the next morning. Before he left Jouques, heading for Riez, he was so unexpectedly excited, that he called me in Australia with exuberance, to announce that he felt that he’d found the place where we could live in Provence!

Looking from the river, over the Grand Prés, to the main boulevard of Jouques
Looking from the river, over the Grand Prés, to the main boulevard of Jouques

What initially struck JL was that Jouques so resembled Aix-en-Provence – almost a mini version – the use of ochre on the facades and the many flowing fountains interspersed along the tree-lined main boulevard. He then discovered that behind the main road, hidden from passing traffic, was what seemed to be a labyrinth of narrow lanes all hugging the hillside and lined with ancient two and three story stone houses. Climbing these little streets he walked to the hilltop above the village to see the 12th century Romanesque chapel and to take in the view of the old town below, the large green space at the heart of the village (called ‘Le Grand Pres’), the looming hills and ridge-back of Montagne Sainte Victoire, as well as the forest all around. A beautiful, living, real village, not marred by mega-tourism or super-marchés at it’s edge, yet close to Aix-en-Provence and so much more!O

Part of rue Grande, near the Museum, in the old village of Jouques
Part of rue Grande, near the Museum, in the old village of Jouques

So that’s how our dream finally began to materialise.

During the following four years we began to focus on how and when we would we change our way of living – what we would need to do in order to mould our situation into a plan of action.

It would be almost four years before we would travel back to Provence, and together spend a month in Jouques to really see if it would become the village where we’d make our dream come true.

Looking down over Jouques from the hilltop above the old village
Looking down at Jouques from the hilltop above the old village