I don’t know about you but I am obsessed with programmes such as Escape To The Chateau where English couples find themselves renovating rambling French properties. While I’d never be brave enough to embark on such a challenge I take my hat off to anyone who does it. Enter Rachael and her epic Carcassonne bed and breakfast project.
Before making the move to France, I worked in marketing and events for 20 years, including in both marketing agencies and client side roles. Immediately prior, I was working at PapaKåta, marketing their beautiful teepees and Sperry tents. Being involved with such an entrepreneurial small company helped to inspire and reinforce my belief that making such a lifestyle change and setting up my own business was totally achievable.
My husband and I both love to travel and after getting married in the French countryside several years before, we decided we’d like to make the move across the channel. The attraction was the better weather, slower place of life, easy access to all of Europe – plus of course the glorious food and wine! There was no deep-seated desire to own a bed & breakfast, but we wanted a business that would allow us to spend more time together doing more of the things we enjoy.
We originally spent almost two years trying to buy a property in Brittany, which eventually fell through due to huge amounts of French bureaucracy. We had friends in the South of France, who suggested we visit Carcassonne. With its fairytale medieval Cite, the UNESCO world heritage site is the third most visited place in France. With thousands of tourists, we knew a bed & breakfast would be a good business option, plus it has great weather, is 40 minutes to the beach, and hour and a half to skiiing and cycling in the Pyrenees and an hour to the Spanish border.
On a whirlwind five day trip, we viewed a range of houses, from grand countryside residences to serene village retreats – and an 1850’s townhouse in the heart of Carcassonne. We were sold on the later’s incredible riverside location with amazing views of the medieval Cite, and its quintessentially French balconied facade. Stepping inside was a treasure trove of period features, from beautiful patterned cement tiles, wood panelling, marble fireplaces, ceiling roses, and at the heart of the house, a magnificent winding staircase with 70 steps over 5 floors, plus outside a small hidden courtyard. The house had been owned by the family through generations, and despite years of neglect, the potential to renovate and create a bed & breakfast was huge.
On that one and only trip to Carcassonne, we also found out we were expecting our first baby! The news helped us make a decision to buy the townhouse there and then, as we knew if we didn’t move to France before the baby arrived, then it would potentially be very difficult to do so after, when support networks, relationships and routines were in place.
So like a typical episode of Grand Designs, we renovated the property whilst I was pregnant, and as I was lucky enough to feel well throughout, I was still decorating the day before she arrived. We considered going back to the UK for the birth, but ultimately decided to have the baby in France. The French hospital care was amazing, and after a standard five day hospital stay, we brought our tiny baby back to live in a building site! We’d rushed to get our owners accommodation finished in time, and it was just about liveable. The rest of the house was full of workmen, noise and huge amounts of debris and dust.
Buying In France
In comparison to the house in Brittany, our Carcassonne sale went through in a matter of months. We’d sold our house in the UK and moved into rental accommodation, so were able to proceed quickly. All seemed to be going incredibly smoothly, but the day our sale contract arrived on our doorstep was the day that the Brexit result was announced! We never expected a leave result and it left us reeling. The ‘safe’ decision would have been to pull out of the sale and await the impact of the decision, but we felt we’d come too far to back out, so we jumped in, eyes shut and fingers crossed and signed on the dotted line.
For our peace of mind, we used a UK solicitor that specialised in French property, and paid for a full UK style house survey, despite this not being recognised or necessary in France. We’d renovated a listed property in the UK so we weren’t novices at tacking period properties. But without fluent French, assessing the major jobs such as electrics and plumbing was pretty difficult as these required French tradesmen. It took us over a year to complete the renovation – slowed down considerably by the arrival of our ‘petite fille’ – plus the slow process of finding decent French and English tradesmen.
Now complete, the house is decorated in an eclectic style, combining classic furniture with vintage elements. We saved and restored as many of the original features as possible, including elaborate vintage wallpaper and floor tiles. Much of the French furniture – such as the giant armoire what we use to serve breakfast – was sourced from French ‘brocantes’ and strolls around Sunday markets. We combined these with some family heirlooms such as my gran’s beautiful ornate sofa, then added some design classics such as eiffel chairs, elieen gray side tables and Barcelona sofas, and lots of modern artwork, to balance the old and new.
The New Life
Looking back, starting a family, a house renovation, and a new business all in one year was a crazy undertaking! Initially anticipating that the renovation would take six months, we ended up missing the first Summer tourist season for the bed & breakfast, finally opening in February this year. Getting Eve settled in French creche has been invaluable in giving us time to complete the work and open the business, and happily creche costs are a fraction of the UK. We try and remember why we set out on this journey – to have a lifestyle change. If you are lucky enough to have a super busy business from the start, you shouldn’t under estimate the work involved. We went straight from completing the renovation to opening the bed & breakfast. Putting my marketing skills to use, investing in great photography, and advertising through Booking,com, we started getting bookings very quickly. Great reviews (our last 10 reviewers have given us 10/10!) mean we are very busy, but we are committed to booking time out to go and enjoy the the beach, mountains and coastline.
Words of Wisdom
If you need to make a livelihood, then its important to keep your head ruling over your heart. It’s very easy to get carried away with a romantic vision of a huge house in the French countryside, for what seems like a tiny investment compared to the UK, but this isn’t necessarily going to be a good business choice if you have to work to get tourists to you. Carcassonne has visitors all year round, so we just need to make our business stand out.
If your language skills aren’t great, like my French, which despite having lessons in the UK, still has a long way to develop, then consider using an intermediary to help with all the life and business admin you’ll be faced with. We wasted so much time and energy trying to sort out our water, gas and electricity supplies, understand the French healthcare system, child support and services, all the business paperwork…precious time which could be better used elsewhere.
If you’d like to book a stay you can find Carcassonne Townhouse on booking.com.
Images by Brahim A Photo