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!
By this time on our European house- and pet-sitting adventure, we were firmly ensconced in our first home – in the village of Coussac-Bonneval, in the Limousin region of south-central France.
Another one of the real joys of being in this part of the world was forgetting the GPS and simply exploring. There is so much to discover. There are literally dozens of villages, towns and cities within easy reach, including Limoges, Bellac and Saint-Yrieix-la-Perche.
Our local village was a five-minute drive down a long sweeping hill – what to check out first?
The boulangerie (bread shop) was priority-one for daily fresh baguettes. The cute little supermarket and two pubs were next, quickly followed by the local restaurants.
Then there was the huge private chateau that overlooks the village. It's occupied by descendants of the original owners… about the ninth generation, we were told. This is quite a feat, as many of the family-owned chateaux in France accumulate recurring debts as the generations tick over. The upkeep on old chateau can be staggeringly expensive and there comes a time when some families simply cannot afford to live there anymore.
One thing you will quickly learn about French villages is that between 12pm and 2pm everything shuts down while the shopkeepers go home for lunch. The only establishments that usually remain open are the pubs and large chain supermarkets. In villages outside larger cities, most businesses are also closed on Mondays. When I asked a local about this he shrugged his shoulders and simply said, “This is France”!
Sundays are reserved for big family lunches, where friends and relatives meet to rejoice in life and celebrate being French. It’s a good day to go exploring. Being the most-visited country on the planet, France caters well for tourists, with local maps and guides freely available.
One sunny Sunday we found the village of Montrol-Sénard (pronounced "MON-troll SEN-are"). Closed in winter, this sleepy little village comes alive from April until November. The entire village has been turned into a living museum – a display of traditional French life in the late 19th/early 20th centuries.
Gai and I wandered into wonderful little displays in people’s front yards, barns and other buildings. You just need to be careful not to stray into someone’s private kitchen while they are preparing lunch!
The most fun we had was at the schoolhouse. It’s an authentic early 1920s/30s schoolroom complete with desks, inkwells, bookcases and maps of the world on the walls. It was like a trip back in time. Guess who got to be the naughty kid and who got to be the teacher? "Miss, miss?" Gai later commented that it was exactly like her dad had described his own classroom back in the 1930s, when he went to school in rural New South Wales.
Many of the locals pitch in with displays, gardens and even a blacksmith shop. The whole attraction is free, but you can make a donation in a wooden box at the front of the classroom!
Montrol-Sénard was an engaging few hours, especially with a yummy lunch at one of the reasonably priced local restaurants.
There are more than 30,000 villages in France, with just 150 officially recognised as ‘the prettiest’ in the country, on a ‘paid’ register called Les Plus Beaux Villages de France. Two other towns stand out for us during our time in the Limousin, and they're both on this list. The first is a tiny village on the Auvezere River called Ségur-le-Château.
The day we stumbled across this picture-perfect collection of stone and half-timbered homes and soaring buildings was the opening day of the season. During the snow-covered winter the population plummets to about 70 residents. As spring unfolds, it’s like an awakening. Everything comes to life, including a string of cafes and restaurants along the pretty river’s edge.
All I wanted to do was snap pictures, imagining the imposing 12th-century castle high on the hill was home to a beautiful princess. Locals tell the actual story, of the slightly mad woman and her cat who have lived there for decades. I really wanted to knock on the door and say hello, but Gai thought it a bit too adventurous!
The other town that stood out to us was Uzerche (pronounced "OO-zersh"). This rich, riverside enclave has been described as the pearl of the Limousin and dates back to pre-Roman times. Spectacular towers and soaring buildings seem to hang off the sides of the hills overlooking the fast-flowing river. We parked the car and walked up the labyrinth of hilly streets, marvelling at the old homes adorned with their unique carved doors.
The is home to Abbatiale Saint-Pierre, a powerful monastery built in the 11th century by Benedictine monks. Although repeatedly attacked, it was never taken. You can drive up there, however hoofing it will reward you with a close-up view of the magnificent octagonal bell tower. And the views… très spectaculaire!