Nothing says escaping the modern-day rat race like chucking it all for an ancient house in a small village in Europe.
For Trish Michie, the escape was buying a 200-year-old village house in Lagnes, Provence, France, and – eventually – turning it into Maison Noel, a charming bed-and-breakfast with three guest rooms.
“When we first found the house, it was sad and tired and needed love, but the bones of the house were good,” Michie said in her native West London accent. “It transformed very easily. It wasn’t any Under the Tuscan Sun experience (the renovation-disaster romcom starring Diane Lane); it was a fairly easy renovation.”
Perhaps it’s more A Good Year experience than Tuscan Sun; based on the novel of the same name, that 2006 film starring Russell Crowe and Marion Cotillard was filmed throughout the region, including the hillside village of Gordes, where the chateau owned by Albert Finney’s character stands. Our heroine found her place just 12 kilometers away, in Lagnes.
The B&B’s charm becomes clear even before arrival; note the personalized directions to Michie’s street, sent via email.
“Place du Bataillet is located in the centre of the village just to the right of the church and access is a little lane next to the cafe, in fact you drive through the tables at the cafe to get to me,” Michie wrote.
She didn’t mention the seven-foot-wide passageway between the cafe and the building across the lane. Perhaps that scares some away.
Escaping the Escape
Lagnes (rhymes with Tonya), though, wasn’t Michie’s first getaway – she and her husband, Peter, owned a sales and marketing consulting business in Toronto from the late 1980s until 2000.
The couple decided they had had enough of the business world. So to escape the rat race, they started a boat-chartering business in the Bahamas.
But that getaway had its own challenges.
“In 2004, just four years into the adventure, two major hurricanes hit the island,” Michie said.
So she and Peter retreated from their young retreat to a friend’s place in Provence for six weeks the next year. They loved the region – who wouldn’t love the hillside villages and looming mountains of the Luberon, just south of where the Tour de France is set – and settled on buying a place to visit during the worst of hurricane season.
Peter enjoyed long hikes around the region and once asked Michie to pick him and his friends up in a little village called Lagnes, not far from the friends’ home in Cabrieres-D’Avignon.
Michie parked in front of 12 Place du Bataillet and remarked how charming that house was. Naturally, as these stories go, the couple finished their trip without finding a suitable place, headed back to the Bahamas, got on the internet – and found 12 Place du Bataillet newly listed.
They flew back to look again, and agreed on a price around Christmastime 2006. The Michie vacation home Maison Noel (Christmas House) was born.
The Michies kept the Bahamas business afloat and retreated to Lagnes for vacations for some years after the purchase.
Michie used the time in France to shop the vide greniers – empty your attic – visiting yard sales and secondhand shops. She was near L’Isle Sur La Sorgue, the Little Venice of France, probably the antiquing capital of that part of the country.
“My husband would roll his eyes as another piece of, in his opinion, crap would roll in,” Michie said.
But she would paint and distress it, transforming, say, an old mahogany chest of drawers into something nice.
And now the hallways and guest rooms are lined with armoires, tables, chests, and other pieces refinished with such precision it’s hard to tell whether they’re old or reproductions.
Michie’s husband never got the chance to see Maison Noel in its B&B form. Peter died suddenly in 2013 after some heart issues, and Michie decided she would proceed with moving permanently to Lagnes and renting to guests.
“We had thought about rethinking life,” she said. “We planted that seed together.”
A Lifestyle Commitment
Though Maison Noel appeared to us while searching listings on AirBnb, that’s something like finding filet mignon at McDonald’s.
Michie’s operation of the B&B tends more toward personal touches than profit; breakfast starred croissants from a local bakery (among other items), and bed and bath were comfortable and high-end, a rare find among old European places to stay.
And Maison Noel is kept only as someone who lives there would keep it, from the wisteria-lined entrance to the front garden, through the first-floor country kitchen, separate guest kitchen, and into the private garden in the back.
After arriving, we were invited to enjoy wine and snacks with Michie and her friends in the front garden while awaiting dinner reservations – that Michie had arranged – at the Auberge du Lagnes. She welcomes her guests as family.
“You need to like people,” Michie said. “It’s a lifestyle commitment. You’re not going to stash the cash and make a million bucks.”
Michie has run the B&B with a nod to her own lifestyle so she can have the freedom to make the occasional visit back to her mum in the UK. (The otherwise empty inn meant a surprise upgrade for us to the suite during a May visit.)
But she said if Maison Noel were owned by a couple with an interest in keeping the place booked, they might be able to take in 20,000-25,000 euros a year as profit.
Hand-Picked and Inspected
Guests, of course, have found Maison Noel a delightful place to stay, as dozens have attested in the guestbook and on the internet over the years.
Though being listed on the internet is a must for B&B operators, Michie has hers listed on Alistair Sawday’s site (www.sawdays.co.uk), which advertises “hand-picked and inspected places to stay.”
“We’ve met every owner, seen every bedroom and bathroom, and, on our lucky days, eaten the food,” Sawday writes on his website.
Sawday’s representatives arrive with clipboard in hand and offer feedback to the owners, Michie said.
“Enchanting, historic, and partially shaded by an old lime tree, it is the home of a charming and well-traveled hostess,” reads the review. “The heart of the house is downstairs (open fireplace, country kitchen), the décor is stylish and soothing, and you can spill into a heavenly garden for supper (borrow the barbecue!).”
Sawday’s listing zeroes in on Michie’s personality as the key to Maison Noel.
She’s a fish out of water, with no schooling in French – “my late husband told me I massacred the French language” – who nevertheless has won over the people of the village.
For those lured similarly by the temptation of southern France, it’s worth noting that Michie’s British passport made life a bit easier for her. She’s now a French resident.
“My only advice would be probably to do what we did, and that’s to spend some time,” Michie said. “Rent a place for a year, spend a few seasons, get to know an area. Try before you buy.”
Places to Visit
Lagnes is within the boundaries of the Parc Naturel Regionale du Luberon, and development has been limited throughout the more than 700-square-mile area, so a historic feel remains vibrant.
A tiny, quiet town, Lagnes is far less touristy than the others mentioned below. Visitors to Lagnes will definitely appreciate having a car, despite the dearth of parking at Maison Noel.
Cycling is a popular pastime, as well, being so close to Tour de France country and so scenic and rural, but people who want to cover more than a few of the nearby towns on two wheels would need a lot of time – and an equal amount of stamina.
Hikers can trek in the hills and along the canal directly from Lagnes, or drive farther to venture deep into the mountains and woods in the park.
Closest to Lagnes is L’Isle Sur La Sorgue, its canal-front shops and restaurants offering a great place to get lost for a day. Side streets wind away for blocks and blocks, their twists and turns inviting a peek around the next corner. It’s also a nice, flat walk in comparison to much of the region.
Gordes and Bonnieux are among the most attractive towns in the region. Both stone villages jut out of hillsides and can be enjoyed from dramatic vantage points across the valleys.
The towns figure heavily in the movie A Good Year; Gordes town center was the village in the film, and the fictional Chateau La Sorgue from the movie is a private residence on the grounds of the Chateau La Canorgue winery near Bonnieux.
Like almost all the communities in the Luberon, Gordes and Bonnieux have market days, when the village centers are filled with stands of food, clothing, and touristy items.
Oppede-Le-Vieux is a different kind of hillside village that dates to the 12th century (Le Vieux means “the old”). Luberon.com says the old village had once become a ghost town but was colonized by writers and artists after World War II. “That is not to say that they transformed the village into a lively one,” the site notes, and firsthand accounts support that. “There is still a sense of ‘what happened here?’ as you wander up through the remaining old gateway into the village and up toward the two churches and ruined castle.”
A little farther afield is Avignon, about 20 miles west, a small city of about 90,000 with a walled section dating to the 13th century.
About an hour to the west, Arles has an even more impressive walled downtown, with a Roman arena and amphitheater right in the center. Restaurants fill the Place du Forum, a square deep inside the old part of the city. Arles inspired many of the paintings of Vincent Van Gogh, and they are displayed at the Fondation Vincent Van Gogh there.
For beach lovers, Lagnes is about as close to the Mediterranean as Philadelphia is to the Atlantic; Marseille is only an hour to the south.
The Parc Nationale du Camargue lies 90 minutes west. There, people can visit the salt marshes and see all manner of wildlife, including the famous pink flamingos and other avian creatures. Ranches offer horses for rent, and only horses and bicycles are allowed on some of the paths. At the end of the Camargue, Sts. Maries De La Mer offers France’s version of Wildwood, with a carnival-like atmosphere on the sea.
Cannes and Nice are two hours to the east. Nice is definitely worth the journey; its beautiful city beaches are brimming with people, though some of the nearby towns have a quieter side and offer a more laid-back experience.