Did you think we would let a bruising encounter with France put us off the challenge? Of course you didn’t think that, after all what would be the point of this story. Okay, so on landing back in grey Dublin at the end of September we did feel down for about a day until I started to broaden the house hunting search. One thing Andrew and I love and share a passion for is good food and wine. I started to muck about with searching for houses near famous wine areas, after all we had looked in Burgundy and Champagne in France, why not Barolo in Italy?
We had been to Italy once to twice a year for the previous 11 years. Andrew had taken me to Italy for my 30th Birthday knowing my love for Italian food and sunshine. We had the most romantic two weeks of my life, to that date, staying on an agritourismo near Certaldo and San Gimignano in Tuscany called Casse alle Vacche. I fell in love with Italy instantly, just by looking out of the car window on our trip from the airport to the beautiful Casse Alle Vacche vineyard. The vineyards lining our route and olive groves rolling and tumbling their way over every inch of land took my breath away. The heat and the smell of the warm earth on the vineyard added to the magic and I was caught hook, line and sinker. So we returned once more to Casse Alle Vacche and then emboldened with a basic grasp of Italian we took braver self-catering holidays throughout Italy, to Puglia, Umbria, La Marche, Rome numerous times, and each time we vowed that one day we would live in Italy, the usual tourist dream I am sure, but I also knew this had to happen. Even when we were considering a business in France we had spoken of how we would grow it and eventually set up in Italy.
So, I opened trusty Google maps, entered Barolo and viewed my first sighting of where Barolo actually is, because though I had heard of it, and had the odd couple of bottles of it, I had absolutely no idea where it was. Google is great for maps, it opened in a micro view of Barolo, close up so I couldn’t actually see where it was in Italy and as I gradually increased the map perspective, and it inched out slowly, I still didn’t recognise any names around and kept going wondering where the sea was, sea always seemed to be close by in Italy in our trips there. It just kept expanding until I saw Turin, I knew that, and eventually Milan. I was staggered, I truly thought Barolo would be further South, near Chianti, or somewhere warm like that, not way up North near Switzerland! My heart sank a little, I had always thought of that region as snowy and cold and mountainous. But it had piqued my curiosity, after all if they can grow the most prestigious wine in Italy there it must get some good sun. I started to research Barolo and found a few websites extolling the virtues of the area of ‘Piedmont’ that totally threw me. as though I had heard of Piedmont I had assumed it was in France. Bit by bit the area started to awaken in front of me on my computer screen. It felt like a game of ‘pass the parcel’, every new page I opened more glorious prizes were unwrapped. Bra, the slow food movement HQ of Italy and the world, I had been a fan of slow food but again not knowing the origin of slow food, and here it was, down the road from Barolo. The white truffles of Alba, world renowned and as good as the French, some say better. The famed Barbera and Barbaresco wine all in this small radius. Why didn’t I know of this before? For fun I thought to look at properties in the area, some seemed to be on the pricey side, it figured, I sighed a lot during this search, of course properties near Barolo and Alba would be out of our measly price range. I couldn’t seem to find any suitable properties with lots of land. Then I thought to expand the search, in France we had looked at a radius of 2 hours from an airport and here was Milan with three international airports and Turin and Genova all up in the North. I kept widening until, finally, one day up came about 5 properties all in the same town, all in our price range, and with lots and lots of land. Now, of course there were some cynical alarm bells ringing in the back of my head, why all of a sudden were 5 properties, meeting our needs, coming up in one town, what was wrong with the place? It was bang on our limit at 2 hours from Milan, and coming from Ireland was a hindrance, as there were no flights to Genova, and Turin was very infrequent. Yet, here it was, a solution. Yet the cynic came to the fore, no doubt due to being burnt in the French shambles, I feared the worst, perhaps a motorway, or plans to build one next door, factories galore perhaps, as Andrew thought the industrial North was just that – industrial. I started researching but got stumped, as nothing came up for this town in Piedmont, only a place in Piemonte, what was that about? It was rather confusing, there was also a Piedmont in the US, as I kept stumbling across it in the searches. But no, Piemonte was the correct name, the Italian name for ‘Piedmont’, another twist, entering Piemonte Italy into Google search, up came more pages of goodies and amongst them, our town. Our town, which read like a dream, loads of restaurants, bars, a weekly market and some industry but no motorway plans, thank goodness. Just lots of lovely Trip Advisor reviews of how great the place is.
Our house hunting in Piemonte took off like a rocket. Andrew and I started firing off houses to each other found on-line, with subjects: “look at this one”, “this is the one”, “wow” etc. I admit I had a favourite and Andrew had a favourite too, but I thought his too modern, mine looked more Italian, you know that vision of a house in Italy, though ours weren’t quite like that, they didn’t seem to have large stone houses like those in Tuscany, or Puglia’s Masserias. These had plenty of land though, only, instead of fields, they were all on terraces, long hillside grass terraces, stepping elegantly down into their respective tree filled valleys. I knew in my heart that Hemp had been left in France, and a short four weeks after returning from France we booked our flights to Piemonte.
A French Tale
I have always liked to start the new year off with a challenge, one that can capture my imagination and inspire me to get out of bed in the morning and work hard for the next 12 hours. Andrew and I had returned from Christmas in Denmark where I caught the flu on the flight out, which ended with me spending Christmas Day in bed with a fever feeling extraordinarily sorry for myself and sorry for Andrew’s family who had so generously invited us over for Christmas. I knew I was burnt out, I had felt more tired and mentally fatigued than ever before leading into the last week of work in 2014. My recruitment business had had a good, though roller coaster year and I was still running my coaching business in the evenings and Saturdays. It was good financially but poor in life quality.
I had never really understood new year resolutions, they seem to get forgotten quickly and so the one challenge a year has been the closest I get to resolutions. In January 2015 I resolved to do something radical and change our life pattern. I decided to buy a property abroad in a warmer climate with a challenge of growing hemp. Yes, hemp. I know, it sounds a bit iffy and certainly smells iffy but I had been converted to the medicinal health benefits of hemp oil by my friend Heli on my writing retreat with her in beautiful Monda in Spain. Heli would take me into her tranquil world for a week a year and quietly work her magic on my tired limbs and mind, thus enabling me to write freely, her retreat is a wondrous place and a small price to pay for a week of restful writing. Heli’s husband, Garry, had had throat cancer the first year I went there and he was introduced to the power of hemp oil by a concerned friend, when it seemed the cancer medicine was failing to help. Miraculously he pulled through and got the all clear and he put this down to hemp oil. I won’t bore you here with the depths of hemps restorative qualities, there is more than enough information on google to do that. But the business of it had tinkered and percolated in my subconscious all of 2014 and, ta da, that would be the challenge.
After extensive research we settled on France, mainly because the French government support the growing of hemp (Chanvre) and you can farm it without red tape, which is a rarity in Western Europe, as long as it is the right hemp, not the pot smoking cannabis strain! And so the story began. January found me scouring the French property websites and to my gobsmacked amazement the properties were all very inexpensive. I think I must have been brain washed by the media to think a place in France was on par with a house in rural England because these houses in France, with land were all around the €50-100,000 range. Big farmhouses with 20,000 sq metres, and more, of luscious produce growing land.
Now just in case you thought this was supposed to be about Italy fear not it is, please stick with it and you won’t be disappointed.
After a few more months we had whittled the areas down to North Burgundy and the Perigord areas. In September 2015 we set off to see these wondrous properties with all the excitement and hope in our dreams being realised. My mother also came out to meet us in Burgundy for the first few days and this is where the dream started to go off course. Mum arrived with a really bad cold. We set off to Champagne to visit our first few properties and dragged poor Mum (though she insisted) through dusty and aged barns of gargantuan sizes, hay lofts heaped with hay and bird poop, creaky dusty, damp rooms and cellars and spider strewn attics. I have always had a bit of a physical aversion to dust and started to get sinus problems, and coughing and spluttering we one by one crossed each farm off the list, mainly due to too many outbuildings, or poorly laid out land. On the last of these days in Burgundy we went for a lunch to cheer ourselves up, and found a little restaurant in the midst of the French countryside, near Champagne, and to top it all off I had the worst dish I have ever had in my whole life, Andouillette. When ordering food in another country I do like to be surprised, I had never heard of this dish before coming to this region and it seemed to appear on all the menus in this area either as ‘special of the day’ or plastered across the butcher windows in Chablis. It must be good, right? Wrong! It looked like a large sausage when it arrived with a French flourish to the table, nothing unusual, just not attractive (see picture above), I cut into it and to my gut turning horror a waft of the vilest stale urine smell wooshed up my notrils and then like an explosion floated around my head and over the table going up my mother’s cold nose, which was supposed to be blocked, instantly this melted any cold blockage there and she looked at me with great disgusted pity. Andrew meanwhile said nothing as he tucked into something only just less unappealing. I carried on bravely and cut a little bit off and tentatively popped it in and started to chew, it was disgusting, I’ve never had anything so horrible ever, it tasted like it smelt, of urine, and it was gristly and wouldn’t break down just letting the urine juice soak its way into every crevice of my mouth. The horror of it, I lifted my napkin and, as gracefully as I could, spat it into the napkin. Andrew was in hysterics at this point and my Mum looked paler than ever. The worst was that there was no service staff around to save us from the pungent smell and we sat there for over 20 mins with that smell circling the table until finally we were rescued by the smiling waitress who asked if we enjoyed our meal. Never again will I eat Andouillette.
There was so much going wrong I started to get a sense of foreboding about the rest of our viewings and as we said goodbye to my Mum, I kid you not a little uncomfortable sensation was felt in my throat and I knew that I had caught the cold. The next day we set off for the day drive from the East of France to the West and I sat in our car in a rigid cocoon of sweat and body aches the whole while over. The only pleasant part of this trip was the empty roads, we barely saw a car, it was really strange, nothing going on at all on these roads from one side of the country to the other. Of course, it was pleasant for Andrew who had a lovely driving experience, which was particularly useful as it rained most of the way, but really it was a sign of what we had been warned of by my good friend Julian, a resident in South of France in Sete, he had warned us we would find the country areas dead, that the French countryside and villages were dying a death of epic proportions, leaving ghost villages everywhere and he sadly was right. Pottering through one village after another in the Perigord we barely saw a living person, barely saw a coffee shop, or bakery, nothing. All there was on the outskirts of these Marie Celeste towns were large industrial supermarkets with a handful of people gloomily pushing their trolleys and buying manufactured baguettes and branded foods of the mass consumer. A society gone wrong. It was like the French people have sold out. We were brought up on the romance of popping down to the French bakery to get fresh warm croissants and crisp vibrant fruit and vegetables from the market stalls, a little aperitif in a local bar, or perk me up coffee and pastry in a tiny coffee shop. Here there was nothing it was dead dead. And yet the odd gleam of hope arose, the land was beautiful, rolling hills and countryside and even a couple of farmhouses with the promised land to grow chanvre on. But each time we got our hopes up and thought ‘we could buy this’ they were dashed by the isolation of the ghost village accompanying them, there was no energy, no vibrancy, or sound, no life. We wouldn’t get a chance to practice our 6 months of French lessons on the fantastic ‘Rocket French’ audio course we had burned into our minds in the aspiration of conversing with the locals. When things couldn’t get worse, they did. We had a fight with a landlady in one B&B who felt her other B&B guests were entitled to party with whiskey at the kitchen table outside our bedroom door at midnight, most bizarre. We went for a second viewing of a property only to find a camp full of young migrant men set up a quarter of a mile away and the locals, not in existence, had left the village to the young and bored men who had nothing to do but sit on walls in the village and glare at people, including us, driving by. Every corner we turned there was an obstacle. We decided a big ‘Non’ to France and headed back to Ireland with relief but dismay that this dream was over.
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