The Infantes tell FrenchEntrée how they transformed a beautiful stone mas in the Vaucluse into a tranquil, relaxed-looking home for their family
FRENCHENTRÉE MAGAZINE: What brought you to France?
ALISON INFANTE: We lived in Hertfordshire near Welwyn Garden City. We had a great life in England, a wonderful circle of friends and all our family from both sides were living locally, but we decided that we were ready for a challenge and a new adventure. Our children Oliver and Lucy were very happy and excited to be on this adventure with us and so our story starts.
FE: What drew you to the Vaucluse?
AI: We decided that the area around Avignon in Provence was where we wanted to be. We spent several months going on viewing trips and exploring the region. Then one day we popped into an estate agent and they showed us the details of a beautiful stone mas called La Saugie in the hilltop village of Sablet, 30 minutes’ drive from Avignon.
FE: What made you fall in love with this particular house?
AI: We fell in love with it as soon as we walked through the big, double wooden gates. It blew us away. We both felt that this was the house for us straight away. The elderly couple who were selling it were sitting on the terrace waiting to welcome us with fruit juice and cookies.
With the help of the estate agent, we managed to hold a conversation. They had lived there since the early 1970s and were very keen to sell to a family who would enjoy and look after the house as they had done. After spending 30 minutes with them, we were eventually shown around the house. By then, we had already bought it in our minds.
Nothing had been done to the house since the 1970s, but it certainly had bags of potential. In my head, I was knocking down walls, changing the floor and putting in new bathrooms. It was definitely going to
be ours, I could feel it.
In August 2003, we bought the house and moved in. The children started at the local Sablet village school. They were the first English children to go there and within six months they were both fluent in French. We had always wanted a traditional stone house, within walking distance of a village with all the amenities that we would need and Sablet has exactly that, two bakeries, a bar, two restaurants, a hairdresser, a bank, a small supermarket and more. We realised very quickly how lucky we were to have chosen this village to live in.
La Saugie has two gardens. The lower walled plot near the house has the Font de Mayol, this is the original stone basin for the village of Sablet with a natural water source constantly flowing down from the Dentelles de Montmirail mountain range. We have put a pump in the shed and now use this to water the lower garden. We have green grass all year round, which in the height of summer is unusual for Provence. The higher garden has an acre of parkland, mature fir and cypress, cherry, fig and plum trees dotted around. Right at the bottom of the garden is the very first swimming pool that was built in the village. This is now a natural basin where frogs sing and play all year round; it is such a lovely sound.
FE: How did you approach the renovation?
AI: Steve is fantastic at DIY, so he was capable and prepared to take on the challenge. We started off by knocking down a massive wall downstairs to create a large kitchen/breakfast/lounge area with a wood burner. We gradually worked our way around the house revamping each room. We updated all six bathrooms, the kitchen, both lounges, and the galleried landing is now an office with the original wooden floor.
We created several outdoor areas too – both for relaxing in the sunshine and alfresco dining – and a couple of covered areas where we can sit and enjoy the garden even when the sun has gone down and the nights are slightly cooler. We really enjoy being outside entertaining in the evenings, and listening to the sound of the cicadas, which is so typically Provençal.
We also decided to turn outbuildings the previous owners had used to store summer loungers and garden furniture into two gîtes. We installed a fully fitted kitchen, air conditioning and a lounge area with a TV in the larger gîte. The smaller one had a bedroom, bathroom and dining area but no kitchen.
We ran them as chambres d’hôte for 10 years. It was hard work, but very enjoyable and we have met some amazing people who have become true friends during that time, with many of our guests returning every year. In 2015, we converted the larger of the gîtes into a self-catering suite for one couple. This is now what we call The Garden House, again it is mainly booked up by regular guests returning each year.
FE: What was your inspiration for the look and feel of the interiors? And where did you source the furniture/decorative objects?
AI: We sourced most of the furniture in Avignon or at some of the local brocantes in L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue, Carpentras and the surrounding villages. We wanted to create a very tranquil-looking home, with soft colours and simple lines. We think that’s what we’ve achieved. We are now enjoying a more relaxed way of life, which was the reason for making the move in the first place.
FE: What advice would you give to anyone thinking about buying in France and relocating?
AI: We would say… just do it, don’t wait until it’s too late. And if you have young children, then the earlier the better for them. Learning a second or third language as our daughter has done (she speaks English, French and Spanish), making new friends, learning to live in a new country with a different culture, is a fantastic opportunity for youngsters. We would certainly recommend enrolling children in the local schools. It is the perfect way to learn the language, make friends and really feel part of the community from the outset. Oliver and Lucy, now 24 and 20, are still best friends with the children they met on that very first day at school.
FE: Was the language barrier an issue? How about now?
AI: We immersed ourselves in village life immediately, joining in whenever there was something going on: the soup festival, the local village and school fêtes, dancing in the village hall on Bastille Day… We even hosted the closing supper of the annual Journée du Livre (the fourth-largest book fair outside Paris) in our garden for 35 authors.
Regarding Steve and I speaking French, let’s just say we get by. We will never be fluent like our children, but we manage, we try and we will keep trying. But if you have the knack for languages, then you are halfway there.
FE: Is there anything you would do differently? Narrow down your search perhaps?
AI: We wouldn’t change a thing – even if we had the chance to. We would do it all over again. We have been really happy here and feel very lucky to have brought Oliver and Lucy up in such a glorious environment.
FE: You’re selling. Where are you off to next?
AI: We are now ready for a new challenge. Oliver is working up in the Alps as a maître d’hôtel and Lucy is currently in her third year at Leeds University, so the time is right for Steve and I to have our next adventure. The house is on the market and we’ll rent while we look for the perfect property or plot of land to build our new home.
We definitely want to stay in this area. We don’t currently have any plans to move back to the UK. Not only because I don’t think we could cope with the grey sky, lack of sunshine and traffic, but also because we have made Provence our home and feel very much that this is where we belong.
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