What’s next?

After another successful summer at Casa Sola we do what we’ve done each year and assess how the business is running for us and our guests.

The plus points for us have very much been all the lovely people we have met that have stayed with us, and with excellent reviews from our guests we feel we have continued to impress our guests with what we offer a Casa Sola.

It would be very easy to rest on our laurels at this point and just continue to do do the same as we have been doing but that’s not within our nature; we like to see where we can do things differently, not change for change sake but change that will give our guests a better experience.

At the moment we are focusing on our lovely one bedroomed apartment. We want to extend the booking season for this as it provides a fairly unique, in this area, rental property. It has its own pool for the summer months, a large south-facing private terrace as well as the terrace around the pool and like the rest of the property enjoys amazing views of the surrounding mountains.

We often feel that we mention the views too often but, without exception, that is the first thing that any and every visitor mentions when they come to Casa Sola. From delivery people to tradespeople to friends, family and guests. The first sight of the view ALWAYS elicits a ‘WOW’.

There are always are improvements to be made as well as just basic maintenance on any property and Casa Sola is no different. We are in the throes of getting quotes to repaint the exterior of the property and that in itself has been a huge task just going through the administrative hoops that France has in place to protect the culture of the towns and villages. Despite wanting to repaint in the same colour we have to apply for permission from the Mairie; our Mairie then told us that as we are within a designated zone permission has to be gained from Batiments de France. Nothing is ever simple but we are happy to follow the process as we know how important these things are to the community plus it gives us time to scrutinise the quotes we receive for the work as we have to wait 2 months for permission to be given, or not. Fingers crossed we get the permission.

In addition to that we need repairs to one of the old dry stone walls near the in ground pool. Our excellent dry stone waller has visited and quoted for the work, we are now just waiting for him to fit this work into his very busy schedule. This will be the third time we have used him at Casa Sola, he has built two walls for us, one in front of the solar panels and the other behind the house. As Casa Sola is built into the mountainside having good dry stone walls allows the water to flow down the mountainside without getting blocked behind solid walls and, potentially causing them to burst. We have learnt that working with the natural environment is the best way and you cannot impose structures that impede nature. A lot of fast learning has taken place during our time living here.

Aside from the necessary improvements, to ensure we continue to attract guests we need to keep getting 5* reviews as well as looking at how and where we market Casa Sola. Airbnb has been a wonderful resource for us, and as a booking facility for guests it obviously meets peoples needs well. We would love guests to book direct with us and we’ve installed a secure payment system on our website to facilitate ease of payment for guests as well as peace of mind, we know how important this is for people and why reluctance to book direct is often due to lack of secure booking systems, so we know we have done the right thing in investing in providing this.

That then leaves social media and we try to cover all those bases with regular updates on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Sharing latest photos and snippets of news. Why not follow us there to keep updated too?

Finally we are delighted you are reading this blog and we hope you’ve enjoyed it. Please comment as well as share it to your friends and family and we hope to welcome you here one day.

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Buying a property in France (our experience and how we’d do things now)

Lots of our guests are interested in why we moved here and so we put a copy of the magazine article we did for Living France in the welcome pack which probably answers most of their questions. In addition to that we’ve also done a blog explaining more in depth our journey of discovering Casa Sola.

Increasingly though we’re being asked quite a lot about the process of finding a property as well as any advice on how to approach a move to France so we thought it would be a good idea to put down our (very personal) thoughts on our experience and talk about what we would do if we were to go through that process again.

What follows would be how we would approach this process if we were doing it now, with hindsight. Some of what we say can be controversial but these are our thoughts based on our experiences only and in no way is making a judgement on people or others experience. So here goes:

  • The most important thing is to do your research about which area you want to move to. For example we had certain criteria which dictated areas to start looking, warm, close to the coast, an area tourists would want to visit and most importantly a budget. Everyone’s criteria will be different because their circumstances and their needs will be different to ours however once you have that criteria, use it and remind yourself of it especially when you’re looking on the internet after a glass or two of wine and there’s a property that looks amazing, a great price and there’s roses over the door ……and suddenly you totally forget that it’s not where you want to move to, there’s too much or too little garden, the house is in the middle of nowhere or close to a bypass/motorway/industrial area. We did that so often. The criteria is crucial to keep you on track but also be prepared to review your criteria especially regarding area but never regarding budget.
  • Visit areas that meet your criteria, take holidays in season and out of season. (We ruled out one area because of the persistent cold winds something we’d never have discovered if we had not visited in March). We found that staying in self-catering accommodation helped you get to know about how easy it is, or not, to go shopping for food, medication etc that is something you wouldn’t necessarily find out if you stay in hotels or b&bs.
  • When you’re in the area take a drive out to neighbouring areas and look at the lifestyle in those areas, you definitely get a sense of a place by visiting both lunchtimes and in the evenings to see what the area is like, how busy or quiet the towns and villages are.
  • Look in estate agents windows and don’t be afraid to pop in and talk about what you’re looking for, the estate agent will know their area and will be able to tell you if you’re being realistic with your budget and type of property.
  • This leads me into probably our most controversial point. Like many Brits looking to buy with limited French language we were drawn to agencies that were run or staffed by Brits. Don’t think this is your only option. Many French agencies will have staff that can speak some English and they will know the area well. We’re definitely not saying dismiss British agents we’re just saying do your searching online as well as via local estate agents and choose not because the agent has English as their first language but because you’re seeing properties that meet your criteria. We travelled miles and wasted inordinate amounts of time with agents looking at properties that, with just one glance, we could tell was nothing like we wanted and no amount of imagination could have turned it into our dream.
  • When you find the house of your dreams, visit it at least one more time before you commit to anything. Look around the area closely. What are neighbouring properties like; well tended? all for sale?
  • Negotiate on the price. House prices seem to be plucked from the air in France, there are lots of properties that are very unique and the market is much more stagnant than the UK so there’s little to compare with. Put in an offer that you think is realistic, don’t be afraid and don’t be put off by being told that the owner won’t entertain offers, you’ve got nothing to lose, honestly. Even if you think you’ll never find another property like it, if the offer is rejected and you really want the property you can up your offer. After all the owner wants to sell as much as you want to buy.
  • You will be told that there’s no need to have a survey done; the French don’t bother, if this house has been standing for a hundred years it’s not going to fall down, that crack in the wall is nothing that a bit of plastering will put right and that damp patch is not rising damp etc etc. Do find a surveyor, they will invariably be British, but it might help you avoid future problems and will give you some peace of mind.
  • Don’t assume the best Notaire to use is the one your estate agent recommends, do some research and choose one that you feel happy dealing with.
  • Do join Facebook groups for the area and ask advice and recommendations, people generally are really happy to share hints and tips but also be prepared to be inundated with unwelcome advice or comments, this is social media after all.
  • Do get a bornage done by a land surveyor (geometre). This identifies your boundaries and is part of a legal process. Your agent or seller may say “oh it’s expensive”, “it’ll take a long time and delay the purchase too much”, “the owner has never had any problems” etc etc but remember this is going to be your property and setting the boundaries before you move in may avoid future discussion or disputes.
  • Is the house is being sold fully furnished (many French homes are sold like this)? Do you like and want the furniture? If not say right from the beginning you don’t want the furniture and make sure the price is amended plus get agreement in writing that the furniture will be gone before you arrive. If however you do want the furniture that’s great and just means you won’t have to bring much, if any, of your furniture with you. Do an inventory of the household items before and after the sale with the agent to agree what’s being left. Also think about the costs of storing and moving furniture to France. We had a period of 5 months between selling our UK home to moving into our French home and had put furniture into storage then paying for delivery to France, in hindsight it would have been cheaper selling the furniture in the UK and buying new in France for the extra bits and pieces we needed.
  • Don’t be afraid to get clarification on any points during the process, if you don’t understand something don’t sign or agree to it until you do understand. Don’t be pressurised in speeding through the process to suit the buyer, agent or the Notaire.

At many stages of this process you’ll go into a panic, wondering what on earth you’ve done, all perfectly normal but the day will come when you will be sitting on your terrace enjoying the view

and you’ll know you’ve done the right thing, just like we’ve done.

Good luck

A new kitchen?

As time moves on we look at how the house and the apartment operate and we make decisions on what, if anything, needs updating or changing to make not only our lives better but also to improve the experience of our guests.

I’ve mentioned previously that Casa Sola is a House and Apartment that we live in as well as rent out to holidaymakers. For the larger part of the year we live in the house and rent out the apartment and for 2-3 months of the year we move into the apartment to allow larger groups to rent the house. This means for all our guests that the accommodation really is a home. We only take personal items between the two properties when we move into them.

Everything we provide from bedding to kitchen equipment to the herbs and spices in the cupboards are there because we need them and we know our guests will too.

It is with that mindset that we undertake improvements in both spaces.

The major changes that we’ve implemented in the past three years have been:

Installation of solar panels for providing hot water

A new, and greener, heating system

Repaired and replaced dry stone walls in the garden

Installed a new liner for the in-ground pool

A new family bathroom in the house

A new en-suite shower room in the house

A new kitchen in the apartment

A new high quality bed settee in the apartment

In addition to these major items we’ve also improved the TV systems in both spaces, decorated throughout and looked at how the living spaces are used and we’ve improved those to make them more comfortable.

Now onto this years big update with the clue in the title of this post… we are having a new kitchen installed in the house. The current kitchen is perfectly fine and many people have remarked on it but we wanted to improve the storage plus take the floor level down to the same level as the dining area (something that’s ‘bugged’ us for some time). After a lot of deliberations, research and advice we finally settled on a design idea. We’ve employed a local kitchen company to provide the kitchen units and electrical equipment and work starts next week.

I’ll be providing updates and of course pictures, we’re very excited and we know the improvements will benefit not only us but our guests enjoyment of Casa Sola.

Jazz and blues and Rock n Roll

We love how this area is so tourist friendly, from multiple amazing historical sites which are free or very reasonable cost, to the proliferation of high quality music festivals in most towns and villages around the Pyrénées Orientale during the summer. Again many of these are free to enjoy or where there is a charge it’s very reasonable.

We’ve been taking advantage of these music events every year and we’ve seen some incredible acts. We’ve been to pop, jazz, blues, rock, classical gigs etc…

Last night was no exception after picking up friends we headed to the small village of Sorede, enjoyed an excellent freshly made three course meal (€20 per person) then headed down to a large open area by the Hotel de Ville to enjoy an evening of high quality blues.

With over 2000 people already there we ended sitting on the grass behind the stage, with an incredible view of the bands.

We marvelled at the skill of the harmonica player with a suitcase full of his instruments.

We laughed at the shenanigans between the drummers who during the performance were playing tricks on each other (attaching luggage straps to trousers belt loops and then to the stage, or pouring water down the drummers trousers whilst he kept playing not missing a beat).

We watched young children enjoying a picnic then dancing along to the music.

We cheered and clapped as each musician showed off their talents.

And finally some six and a half hours after we headed out we went home full of the buzz from spending an evening with good friends, enjoying (free) live music.

Last nights experience was no different than many other nights where we’ve enjoyed the spectacles the region has on show during the summer.

To quote my friend last night “I sometimes have to pinch myself, we’re so lucky not only to live here but, in little villages like this, see incredible bands live”

We are lucky and we’re especially happy that our guests have the opportunity to enjoy these events too.

Questions, questions, questions

There are some questions we often get asked by guests so I thought I’d use the blog to answer one or two of them.

The most frequent question is: 

Why did you move here? (There is a long and a slightly shorter version so I’ll stick with the latter)

I’ve always loved France, I cannot explain it but the moment I arrive on French soil I feel at home. So it was always an ambition to move here when my daughters had finished their university courses and had settled into their work. Luckily for me my husband soon fell in love with France once we’d visited a couple of times, the only stipulation was that it had to be an area that was warmer than the UK. 

OK that ruled out Northern France so we started a quest, via the internet and combined with visits, began to narrow the area down. Languedoc-Roussillon gradually became a favourite and we were drawn to the Carcassonne area, however being adventurous little devils we’d often drive further afield and on the two occasions we headed into the Pyrenees Orientale area, the sun shone, the weather was warmer and our spirits lifted higher and higher. We then concentrated our search in this area and saw a very diverse selection of properties (trust me whatever your criteria, agents persist in showing you properties that are not what you’re looking for). A visit to Casa Sola sealed the deal, once we stepped out onto the balcony and saw this view we were sold 

It’s a view that entices us, as well as visitors and guests, every single day. Even on those rare cloudy or wet days there’s still something beautiful to admire. 

So that is the story of finding and falling in love with Casa Sola.

What is there to do locally?

Apart from the very unhelpful answer of lots, we do recommend a variety of places to visit, things to do and recommended restaurants. Of course we only recommend places or things we actually have experienced ourselves but we also hope guests share their experiences in the guest book too. 

Casa Sola has a wicker basket full of publicity leaflets and business cards but we always point out our favourites, many of which we’ve blogged about as well.

Finally and this is the question most family and friends ask. 

What do you do all day? 

This question has an obvious fascination with many who perhaps wonder if early retirement just means sitting in the sun all day, drinking the wonderful local wine and swimming in the pools. Well of course all of those things happen, and why not? Life is a balance and enjoying our lovely home and surroundings is important. However it’s a lot of property we have and it has to be maintained so DIY, gardening, and keeping on top of the business are all top priority tasks that are crucial to ensuring Casa Sola retains the four star status it has and continue to attract guests to enjoy our slice of heaven.

So there you have it a bit more about us and life here.

If any of that whetted your appetite please do check out our website and contact us if you want more information about staying at Casa Sola, we’d love to meet you.

Wine

Last weekend we visited an excellent wine fair, showcasing a large number of local vineyards. This wasn’t just a pleasure visit, although we did have a great time there, but the aim was to identify a quality local vineyard to provide the wine we give guests in their welcome pack.

Up until now we’ve chosen the wine based on being local, one we’ve tried before and liked. But we’ve not been happy just providing a bottle that we were unable to tell our guests too much about. Hence the search for a local vineyard that offered good quality wines, plus would be able to offer our guests the opportunity to tour the vineyard and do wine tasting if they wanted.

I’ve undoubtedly mentioned previously that Languedoc Roussillon wines are highly rated, that the region is the biggest producer of wines in the world and, in our opinion, knocks spots off more well-known French wines.

So with the ‘arduous’ (😂) task of tasting ahead we went around the wine fair meeting local producers and talking to them not only about their wines but what they offered tourists visiting the area. We were very impressed by so many of them and obviously what they offer can be determined by the size of their vineyard or facilities available. By the end of our visit we’d identified three vineyards that impressed us the most.

Today after visiting one of these we decided to use their wines as our gift to our guests. The vineyard we have chosen most closely matches our ethos in providing service but also is a traditional family run vineyard (for over 100 years) with an excellent range of wines on offer.

We look forward to hearing what our guests think of the wine we’ve chosen and hope they’ll be interested in visiting the vineyard during their stay at Casa Sola, we loved our visit today it was very informative and good to see how the process works at close hand.

Fort de Bellegarde 

There are so many places to visit in this area and one of the things John and I have good intentions of doing is building up our knowledge of local places ready to impart that information onto guests. As with many good intentions our progress has been slower than we’d intended. Life sometimes gets in the way. However whilst my daughter was staying she was intrigued by the signposts to Fort de Bellegarde, a 17th century fortification, which we passed frequently on our trips into Spain. Insisting that we must visit and finally on the penultimate day of her stay with us we headed towards the Spanish border and just as we arrived in Le Perthus took the sign for the Fort travelling through the back streets of Le Perthus up a rather unassuming route to the small car park of Fort de Bellegarde.

So we hadn’t done the most important thing when planning a visit and that was to do some research. The Fort was closed and wouldn’t reopen until June. It appears it’s only open in the summer months. Disappointed though we were, the ramparts were open to wander around so we were treated to some stunning views of our favourite mountain Canigou.

 

 

Recent heavy snowfalls had capped Canigou in a bright white covering and against the winters sky the view was awesome. I never tire of seeing Canigou, known as the sacred mountain of the Catalans, it has a magical quality for me. It always makes me smile and the sight of it reminds me I’m close to home.

So whilst we didn’t get to see inside the Fort and learn more of its history defending the area we did get to look out and see wonderful views of the area, from mountain to sea. All in all not a bad way to spend a bit of time.

Further information on Fort de Bellegarde can be found here including opening times.

Postcards from the P.O. 

We’ve changed our blog name to Postcards from the P.O. to reflect the fact that the Languedoc no longer exists as a region in France. The Pyrenees Orientale (P.O.) is now part of a larger administrative region called Occitanie. It doesn’t affect the sunshine or the beauty of this wonderful area, it’s still as exciting and as lovely as it’s ever been. We look forward to seeing you here in the future. You can find out more about our luxury holiday rentals at http://www.casasolavilla.com

Miss, Missing, Missed….Found

Probably one of the most asked questions after “Why did you move here?” is “What do you miss the most?”. Well the answer to the latter, apart from the obvious which is our children, is what has become a rapidly diminishing list of foods;dsc_0031

A decent curry……we found an amazingly good Indian restaurant in Figueres

Branston Baked Beans……Heinz are everywhere but are the food of the devil in my opinion (sorry Heinz lovers) so when we, or friends, visit the UK by car we ask for some cans to be brought over

Tea, or rather specifically M&S Gold loose leaf tea……again we have to resort to the kindness of friends or family

And lastly cream, thick double cream to slather on desserts…..this one has been the trickiest to solve. The French do not do fresh cream as we know it in the UK. I went into a Cremerie and asked and got a very blank look from the shop assistant. I’ve trawled the aisles of supermarkets in France and Spain tasting everything labelled ‘Creme’. I’ve even emailed the question to a famous french chef but NO the French really don’t do cream as we know it in the UK. Finally, after nearly 2 years of searching, I spotted the same question on a forum for ex-pats in France and a lovely lady offered this alternative: Put equal proportions of Creme Liquide and Mascapone into a bowl and mix thoroughly and voilà you have a very respectable and tasty extra thick double ‘cream’ to spoon onto those delicious desserts.

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Now just to source a decent, and reasonably priced, loose leaf tea. Any suggestions?

Autumn…or is it still summer

November: Autumn, nearly Christmas, warm sweaters and log fires. All the things you usually think of this time of year. Whilst we do not have the cold Autumns like the UK we still expect it to be cooler, if generally sunny, but this month has been amazing. We’ve enjoyed high temperatures, up to 25 degrees centigrade and clear blue skies.

Today whilst in the middle of clearing some trees in the garden it became so delightfully warm that we downed tools, donned our shorts and sat on the terrace reading for a couple of hours.

The dry summer and autumn has meant that the autumn colours are enhanced this year, there’s lots more golds amongst the trees in our view from the house, these colours have   been exacerbated by the crystal blue skies.

Yesterday we popped to the coast in Spain for a walk, it was fairly deserted with most beachside cafes and bars closed for the winter but it was a glorious day, the sea was still warm and the skies were incredible.

The clear skies we have been enjoying have meant that the supermoon on the 14th November was clearly visible and we were treated to almost daylight conditions as the brightness was dazzling and lit up everywhere. Photos rarely do this justice but below are a couple of the many that I took the other night.

We constantly feel very lucky to live here and love that we can share this wonderful area with guests. Please visit our website for more details on how you can stay here. http://www.casasolavilla.com

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View from the house

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Low clouds skidding past in the valley below Casa Sola

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View from the apartment terrace

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View of Casa Sola with snow capped Canigou to the left

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Supermoon I

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Supermoon II

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Roses beach

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Roses with Canigou in the background