When we started housesitting in 2015, we always intended to use housesitting as a way of visiting other countries. Covid and other responsibilities delayed this goal until this past year when I started looking beyond the U.S. and Canada. There were some challenges – do we book flights and gamble that I’d find a suitable housesit or do we wait to find the sit and then book flights? And what about transportation once we were in-country? We opted for the safer route, and I started looking for sits that included use of a car and were far enough out that we had a hope of getting reasonable airfare. My search included France, Spain, Portugal, Italy, and the U.K. I also wanted a sit that was at least three weeks long.
Applying for housesits is very much like a job interview – both sides share their best features and the dance either proceeds or it doesn’t. I came across a three-week housesit near Olonzac, France and applied. To our delight, we were selected as the housesitters. With the sit secured it was time to book the flights and figure out other logistics.
While I was looking at flights, I came across another housesit in France that was a short sit and was located just north of Limoges. I applied and we were accepted. So now we had two housesits which allowed us a much longer stay in France.
The first sit was only for four days. The animals included a very active pooch named Tess, an outdoor cat named Pepette, two sheep, and a variety of chickens. A housesit with chickens had been on my bucket list – gathering fresh eggs each day sounded lovely!
The home itself was a 200-year-old barn that had been completely remodeled on the inside by the British homeowner. With its exposed beams and rock walls, the home was interesting, rustic and beautiful. The homeowner is a musician and a baby grand piano graced the living area. In addition, the house fronted amazing gardens under assorted trees, including a prolific fig tree. The first fresh fig I ever ate was picked from this tree!
Tess, the German Shorthaired Pointer, required at least one serious walk each day to burn off energy. This was fairly easy to do as a quick stroll through the cluster of houses and barns–“the hamlet” according to the houseowner–took you onto a road surrounded by fields. Then it was off-leash time. A little leery the first time for fear she would run off, Tess quickly showed that she could race off in every direction, but she always knew where we were and would charge back to make sure we were still coming along.
And the chickens did not disappoint once I figured out where they were hiding their eggs – in a ground nest surrounded by stinging nettles. A few stings later, the eggs were secured and on their way to breakfast.
Their vegetable garden contributed fresh herbs and I even found a few late-season raspberries. Huge squash were suspended in the air with wire supports. They had to have been at least 10-15 lbs. each! By hanging them, each giant squash ripened perfectly with no damage from the ground or squash-loving insects and rodents.
Overall, it was a lovely sit – a perfect introduction to our stay in France.
We had a week before the second housesit started in Languedoc–recently renamed Occitanie–in the south of France. We spent that week on the Canal du Midi aboard a drive-it-yourself boat. Dan will cover that adventure in another post.
The canal trip ended in Homps, which happened to be about 5 kilometers from the housesit. The homeowner whisked us and our luggage to the lovely hilltop village of Beaufort. Our ward, while the owners traveled, was Iko (aka IkoBoo), a very energetic labradoodle. Upon our arrival, the owners took us to a lovely restaurant in the village named Table ‘O for lunch on the patio. And since dogs are welcome everywhere in France, Iko curled up at our feet as we dined.
After lunch we stroll through the town and the vineyards to the neighboring town of Oupia. When I say vineyards, we literally walked through the vines – something you could never do in the U.S. as it would be considered trespassing. In France, it is part of the routine.
During our stay, we would take a different routes through the various vineyards with Iko, sometimes getting a bit lost. But with Chateau Beaufort standing high, we always knew what direction we should be heading. Our favorite walk was one that took us past Table ‘O, down the road past a white horse and donkey, and around by a landscaping service that had an amazing collection of birds in giant cages.
I always had to stop and feed a bit of fresh grass to the horse, which meant after a couple of days, the horse would trot across the field to get his snack. The donkey was a bit indifferent – not willing to move just for a small bunch of greens.
The Quirks of a Small French Village
The village of Beaufort is very small; it has one restaurant, a post office, and not much else. Any shopping is done in nearby Olonzac. The streets are very narrow and wind around the ancient buildings and the hilltop Chateau. If you’re in need of a croissant or a baguette, you stroll down to the Bureau de Poste where you can buy your daily bread along with your stamps. But you must go early, before they are sold out!
Our home, while in Beaufort, was/is a bed and breakfast, Au Coeur de Beaufort. The BnB was originally three separate dwellings but over the past hundred years have been merged into one stone-walled home. Each day started with opening the big shutters on the windows to allow in light through the foot-thick walls. And while the home was right on the small street, the noise was limited to the odd car or two and the occasional dog walker.
On some days, we would hear loud, very tinny, very French music playing throughout the village followed by a voice saying “allo, allo.” A recitation of upcoming events in the town ensued–like a modern-day town crier. The announcer spoke very slowly so even those with limited French could almost understand, but the poor audio quality of the pole-mounted speakers pretty much ensured that did not happen!
One Friday, as we were having a leisurely breakfast, I heard loud bells like an ice cream truck. A short while later I could hear lots of voices on the street in front of the house. I poked my head out to find a mobile butcher set up like a food truck right outside our kitchen door. With money in hand, I went out to see what the butcher had to offer. A fellow shopper pointed at riblet cut of meat and indicated it was the best. So, I bought some and some jambon for sandwiches. I proudly handed my purchase to Dan and told him, the only thing I understood was that the meat should be grilled. Did I mention that my understanding of French is limited, at best?
We love going to Farmer’s Markets wherever we are so going to local weekly street markets was a must. Karin, the homeowner, took us to the local market in Olonzac before they departed. She showed us the best places to get cheese, meat, eggs and produce. Part of the market experience is to end the excursion by having coffee at Café de la Poste and watching the people stroll by. Lovely!
Besides Olonzac, there were other towns in the area that were known for having good markets. A market could be found every day of the week within an hour’s drive. With Iko along, we used market days as an excuse to explore the countryside. Like other markets we’d been to in France, there were generally vendors selling already cooked meals which simplified our dinner plans (and the dishes were delicious). The larger markets also had huge sections with clothing, household goods, baskets, sunglasses, etc. A giant, eclectic mix!
Every Christmas, my father would talk about roasted chestnuts. I’m not sure why as we never had them, at least not that I recall. During our stay in Beaufort, a number of towns had chestnut festivals. With Iko along for the ride, we went to one of the area’s largest, held in Saint-Pons-de-Thomières, a hour’s drive through gorgeous hill country. The event was huge with street vendors, roving musicians, and thousands of people.
A large fenced square was filled with firewood and huge metal-and-wire crate roasters were placed on top of large fires. When the chestnuts were done, they were dumped unceremoniously onto the street and shoveled into buckets. From there they were placed in large rolled paper cones and sold along with beer to the crowd gathered around. Of course, we had to try them and soon our fingers were black from peeling the charred outer skins from the chestnuts. We both agreed quite quickly that roasted chestnuts are dry with not much flavor; the beer was necessary to wash them down!
The Iko Tour
Our housesit included the use of their vehicle, so our trips to the grocery frequently included side trips to towns in the area. Because Iko gets stressed if left alone, he was our constant companion. Many of these trips were recommended by our hosts. One day we traveled to the Mediterranean coast so Iko could have a romp on the beach. Another day we went to the ancient village of Minerve and wandered around the charming town. We also explored the famous Citadel after we visited the open-air market held in Carcasson every Saturday.
We enjoyed both housesits and our travels in France. We look forward to finding future sits beyond our immediate shores. Spain, Portugal, Costa Rica, Iceland? There are more places to explore and more adventures waiting to happen!
We’ve spent several extended visits in the Cevennes area north of Montpellier- although our transportation for the first decade or so was by bicycle! Occitanie is better description of the Occitane nature of the area – which we have also found in our travels in Corsica. Cathy and Fraser “Starting Soon”