Queensland couple Neil McLean and Gai Reid journeyed to Europe to enjoy some authentic travel, ‘living like locals’. The result? They spent 300 days pet- and house-sitting their way across four countries, spending less than it would cost them to live at home. Plus they started a new business, Village to Villa – and even made a TV series about it!
This amazing house sit was different from every other thus far on our 300-day Village to Villa European tour.
Firstly, there were no animals to look after. Secondly, the owners were in residence. Thirdly, the sit had been arranged on a personal basis, rather than through a house- and pet-sitting agency.
Château du Mauran is a spectacular, almost dream-like mansion set on six hectares of manicured grounds in the tiny town of Mauran, deep in the south of France. This was the top end of the 'villa' part of Village to Villa. This was to be our home for the next month.
As we arrived, driving down the long, tree-lined driveway, it was pinch ourselves time! With the famous Garonne River across the road, the walled complex stood like a beacon against the pretty French background.
The Dutch owners were part-time residents, splitting their time between the 200-year-old renovated chateau and their stylish beachfront penthouse in Holland. Through a friend, Gai and I had made a connection with them prior to leaving Australia.
Our job, as part of a personal arrangement, was to produce a private video of life at Château du Mauran. As ‘visual’ people, this was going to be a snack for us. Set at the base of the Petites Pyrénées, the estate was a visual fiesta. At various times bathed in sunlight or shadows, it boasted long lines of trees and massive landscaped areas. It was also just coming into French spring with colourful ‘old roses’ starting to bloom, and outbuildings draped in purple shades of heavenly wisteria. And that was just the outside!
Read episode 9 here: Living like a local: A D-Day veteran remembers
We were accommodated on the third floor in a private apartment, complete with a large separate living room overlooking the mountains, stylish dining room, modern kitchen and master bedroom with en suite.
The apartment was reached by walking down a long, heavily carpeted corridor with several bedrooms off either side.
To access this corridor, it was either via the grand central staircase (a wide, sweeping carpeted walk to the first level, followed by a marble excursion up through the second and third levels), or take a side entrance and negotiate your way up a dark, timber-lined spiral staircase straight up three levels. In Australia, we would call that a ‘six-pack walk’ – slang for a very long way! Bad luck if you forgot something back in the car when you had made the trip upstairs to the apartment.
It was amazing to live in this kind of environment. We kept to ourselves for the first few days for a couple of reasons. One was to recover from the long drive, the other being playing ‘catch up’ on our writing duties for the series. Lastly, we didn’t want to intrude on the owners’ privacy. Turns out they wanted to interact with us and get to know us.
Over the next month we spent a lot of time with our hosts, getting to know them and their plethora of international friends who had made the move to the south of France. The common reason so many Dutch had retired or moved to southwest France was for the ‘space’. In Holland, much of the population lives in close quarters. Seems they enjoy not being able to see their neighbours!
Our hosts took us on many drives to various places within a couple of hours of the Château. The regular ‘long lunches’ we enjoyed on a Sunday – either at the Château, at a nominated restaurant or at the home of other friends – were another much-anticipated pleasure. They became an essential part of living like a local, and meeting other internationals who had relocated – Dutch, British, French and Americans – became quite a ritual. The glue that held it all together? The cuisine – and especially the wines.
Our hosts also generously opened their doors to charity fundraisers, many in the form of wine tastings from various labels who were invited for the day and whose top drops were matched with gorgeous culinary delights. Under lovely marquees on the expansive lawns, these afternoons became highlights in an already crowded calendar of events.
One of the aspects we enjoyed the most about our time at the Château was walks in the grounds. Long tree-lined drives weaved their way to three separate entrances to the grounds. Flower arrangements, big stands of shrubs, even a bamboo forest provided tranquillity as we strolled through the acres in the mornings or late afternoons.
The tiny village of Mauran, within walking distance of the Château, came alive on Saturday mornings with markets and vide-greniers (like car boot sales), where locals gathered to offer their own produce and ‘no longer needed’ items.
Despite the grand surroundings of the Château du Mauran, the hospitality and warmth of our hosts reminded us of the most valuable things in life… genuine friendship, generosity of spirit and one’s own sense of adventure.
Episode 11 of Neil and Gai's ‘Living like locals’ housesitting blog will be published on Travel at 60 next week!