Is living the dream impossible? We think not! We would like you to meet Brian and Marianne, two very inspiring friends we met on Twitter. They changed course, charted a new route and are now living their dream.
Here’s their story ….
decided to make a long- held dream reality: quit the stresses of commuting to London and start a new life in the French Pyrenees.
Brian, originally from Cornwall/England, is a keen road cyclist and found a cyclist’s nirvana here. He also brews a variety of beers of excellent quality, as anyone who tries them will attest, and is a talented guitarist and musician as well. Marianne, a Berliner by birth, with an inborn wanderlust, is a natural linguist speaking three and a half languages: German, English, French and a bit of Spanish. She is also passionate about vegetarian cooking, many ingredients coming from our potager, the typical French kitchen garden, where we grow a lot of our own fruit and vegetables.
Here is our story: For many years, working and living in London we had felt (like many people) that there should be more to our lives than feeling constantly exhausted by demanding, stressful jobs which left so little quality time.
Unlike many people we decided to do something about it and the desire to move to another country, either Italy or France, took hold. The much simpler life style and the slower pace of life that draw millions of people like us for their holidays was a powerful incentive to choose one of those countries to live our dream.
Not yet old enough to retire and with our kind of employment abroad not only hard to get but contradictory to the whole idea, we still had to make a living. The appeal of running a B&B or a vacation rental was strong, but there had to be a unique selling point.
Competition is strong. The business needed a theme that would make us stand out from the crowd. Suddenly on an Italian cycling holiday a few years ago, the seed of an idea was planted; to run a B&B that focused on the needs, aspirations, challenges of keen cyclists.
It was a couple of years later, when a series of stressful work events took their toll, that we knew the time had come to make the change. In 2011 we took a vacation in the French Pyrenees, looked at some properties, took in some of the cycling on offer and reasoned that this would be a great place to run a B&B catering for cyclists. The grandeur of the mountains; the magnificent rivers and lakes; the beautiful, ever-changing landscape; the neat villages and the friendliness of the people totally won us over.
Driving home through France we stopped for a night at another B&B run by an English couple. Their 27 year old son and his wife were over to visit them. We started talking over dinner and it turned out that he had terminal brain cancer and had been told to see his family one last time. If we needed another reminder of how short life can be and that it’s too precious to waste, meeting Richard whose future was being stolen by disease acted as the final push. We knew that if we were serious about changing our life, we had to do it now. (Sadly Richard passed away in early 2012. We are still in touch with his parents who found some consolation in how much he had inspired us).
Back home in the UK we set about putting the plan into action, starting with selling our house. We knew that we were pushing our luck, trying to sell in a tired slow market at a poor time of year. But despite this, we managed to get a decent price. We had to buy our dream home with Euros and even the exchange rate moved a little in our favour. This gave us the freedom to quit our jobs, book the removal truck and find a rental in our chosen spot, the French Pyrenees. This was too big a move to make a mistake and we expected to be on the ground for a few months, thoroughly exploring the area in our search for exactly the right property.
We arrived at the rental in February 2012 to be greeted by freezing temperatures, a heavy snow fall and a house that was quite literally frozen solid. Even the WC was solid ice and no running water cold or hot. It was quite a shock after our centrally heated house with all mod cons in England! We set about defrosting the cottage, melting snow in a metal bucket on the only heating source, a large wood burning stove. Getting the toilet to flush was a big step in the right direction that gave a surprising sense of relief! These primitive beginnings, though, were a perfect incentive to start house hunting!
We had given ourselves 6 months to find our dream house. Our list of “must haves” was huge but our budget was not! The added complication was that the property had to work as both a home for us and as a business. We viewed more than 35 houses, and something was wrong with most. We just didn’t get that instant gut feeling with any of them. Were we aiming too high? Did the perfect property even exist? We started to think that our expectations were just too great. Then one day we came up a winding country road to a village on the crest of a hill overlooking a valley with the Pyrenean peaks behind. Down an unmade drive through a huge pair of solid wooden gates we came to view Le Couloumé, and we knew we had found the ONE!!!
A very old house dating back to 1850 that needed lots of work and updating (rewiring, heating, new kitchen and bathrooms, redecorating throughout), but what a grand house with bags of character, lots of outbuildings including an independent small house that was crying out to be converted into a holiday cottage. With nearly three acres of land there was plenty of space for a pool, chickens and a vegetable garden.
We made an offer which was accepted, in fact we have become friends with the previous owner, a charming old French lady who was very emotional about selling the house as it had been built by her great grandfather (there is a great story to that too, but maybe that has to wait for another post!), and had been in the family ever since. Sadly her husband had died a long time ago, she had no children and it was getting too much work for her. She needed to sell. We still see her regularly and she’s been back here to see the work we’ve done. We are a bit like the children she never had, we think, she even says it feels as if the house has just passed on to someone in the family!
Since moving in during August 2012 we have been working constantly, doing most of the renovation ourselves and completed the vacation cottage, Le Fournil, about 2 months ago. Our aim was to preserve the character of the building but use quality materials to bring it into the 21st century. Within days of completing the work we had our first sets of guests, and they all seem to love the house, the view, the setting and the ambience. It makes us very happy to see that all our hard work was worth it.
At first sight Le Couloumé seems modest; but drive through the huge wooden portal and prepare to have your breath taken away. The stunning view of the mountains is superb (unless it happens to be raining – which, sadly, can happen!). I always feel that by stepping into our courtyard I’m leaving the outside world with all its stresses behind.
The opening of Le Fournil was just the first stage of our project. Next up will be a 50 square metre swimming pool with a tiled surround showing a magnificent view of the mountains. Perfect for lazing away the sunlit hours or cooling off at the end of a hard day’s riding.
During the coming winter we will be renovating the main house to bring high quality B&B accommodation to Le Couloumé for 2014 in a nod to its past when it was an Auberge with guest rooms. We plan to make all rooms ensuite, prepared with great attention to detail, and with lovely views from all of them.
We will also extend the facilities for cyclists with a secure area for bike storage and a workshop for small repairs. We will be on hand to advise on some great routes into the mountains or even provide company to show off our favourite rides in the region.
Hopefully this will inspire some of you to follow your dream, or maybe share ours by coming to spend some time in this wonderful part of France with its stunning panoramas and rich history. Our beautiful setting can be enjoyed from almost anywhere in the garden. The mountains stretching from east to west seem so close you can almost touch them from the patio at Le Fournil. Totally private and secluded if you want to be; but open to the wide spaces, the pure, clean air, the birdsong and the high skies of deep France we will make you very welcome.
We have no regrets, we love our new life here, and quite often we pinch ourselves just to realize: we are no longer dreaming. We have really done it and we feel blessed to be here together.
To contact Brian and Marianne:
By telephone: 0033 980 637055 / 0033 652 786898
Marianne Müller and Brian Willis
Le Couloumé, Loudet, Haute Garonne, 31580, France.
GPS N 43.14899 E 000.57615
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