It took us a year to make the move from Portland, Oregon to Collioure, France. While we staggered through the paperwork-heavy process of securing our visas, prepared to put our house in Portland on the market, and found an apartment to rent, we spent hours online looking at French real estate sites.

The American way of selling a house includes dumping so much money into it you question your reason for moving in the first place. Then, you spend a small fortune to stage it, so that it looks like the lobby of the world’s smallest five-star hotel. Out goes everything that makes it look like humans live there and in comes the white carpet and thousands of dollars’ worth of throw pillows.

The French have a different approach to selling their property. They list their house, then take a few pictures with their phone, making sure to focus on the darkest corners with the worst lighting, the freestyle DIY remodels executed with neither level nor measuring tape, and the requisite garage or kids room, where stuff is jammed willy into cubbies and IKEA shelves groaning from the weight. It’s as if they’re saying: “Here’s what you’re going to get. I’m not trying to pull one over on you by making it look better than it is. Nor do I have the time or inclination to do anything to make it more appealing. Take it or leave it.”

The Man of the House got into it, and soon we had a friendly competition going to see who could find the least-pretentious French homeowner.  I would find a place where the bathroom photo included a towel left on the floor, and he would counter with an image of a living room with the cleaning supplies and roll of paper towel still sitting on the coffee table. I found an entry way with some nasty flip flops abandoned in the middle of the floor. He found an office with a FAX machine (a FAX MACHINE), a FAX chugging out of it when the picture was snapped.

Collioure: fifteen miles north of Spanish border, where the mountains meet the sea

We moved in May 2019 and after spending the summer getting settled, we found the name of an estate agent. Neil Hitchen spoke English and came highly recommended (he understood the American need for multiple bathrooms).

Part of the charm of this place is the reason it’s tough to find real estate here. The Pyrenees mountains, which form a natural border between France and Spain, meet the Mediterranean at Collioure. Cup your hands and imagine the sea is at your wrists, and you’ll have a pretty good idea of the topography. The village is surrounded by steep hills quilted with ancient vineyards. There is one winding road in and one winding road out, beloved by motorcyclists across the land.

Thus, there are more or less two choices when it comes to buying a house.

#1 A villa. In the surrounding hills there are large houses, mostly second homes, with swimming pools, gardens, terraces, garages, and picture postcard views from multiple terraces. Villas have plenty of room, a sense of spaciousness, and a generic feeling of an upscale domicile in any beautiful southern place. You could be in Southern California or Costa Rica. They also tend to be 20- or 30-minute walk from the centre ville down a steep hill or three.

#2 A fisherman’s house. In the village proper, close to shops and the sea are tall, multi-story “fishermen houses,” with a room on each floor, and shared walls. There might be a bit of a view on the top floor. They ooze authenticity, which includes no air circulation. Collioure is one of the last outposts before Spain – 1793 marked the final occupation by Spanish troops – and a its long history in one of battles between warring tribes and nations. Between the fishermen who spent long days hauling in nets of anchovies and the soldiers who spent long days strategizing in the barracks, there wasn’t much call for large, lavish spaces suitable for vacationing bourgeois. Even though they occupy most of the primo beach adjacent real estate, fisherman’s houses tend to be small, dark, slightly depressing spaces that no number of clever mirror placement can disguise.

“Charming fixer upper” is the same conceptually in both English and French

Two weeks after we arrived, like the optimistic and generally clueless Americans we are, we presented Neil with our list of must haves, not realizing they were also close to impossible-to-haves: a view, a garden, a parking place, close to the sea. “I don’t suppose there’s anything on rue du Soleil.” Rue du Soleil was reputed to be one of the most beautiful streets in Collioure. It was wider than many of the residential streets in the village, a gentle hill that ran parallel to the sea and boasted a view of le moulin, Collioure’s 14th century windmill. It was an American city block from our favorite swimming beach.

Neil said, “Actually, a house just went up on rue du Soleil that ticks all the boxes.”

The house was a squat, stucco box half-painted a dingy cream. It was homely. And not “all it needs is a fresh coat of paint” homely. Somewhere during its history (no one knew exactly when it was built, including the owners) the little house had been separated into two rental flats. Each flat had a kitchen, a bathroom and separate toilet (in the traditional French manner), and a salon. There was a small courtyard in front, a terrace on the second floor and a massive exterior staircase connecting the two floors along the west side. The courtyard, terrace and staircase were enclosed by a heavy openwork brick walls. I immediately fell down a deep Google hole trying to identify this hideous feature, one that we were told was “characteristic of the region.” Characteristic, perhaps, but not common. Most of the houses on the rue de Soleil sported elegant black wrought iron.

Clastras, from the Spanish for “cloister”

The heavy brick railings are called claustra terre cuite – terra cotta claustra. Claustras are generally used as inexpensive, decorative fencing on large properties with swimming pools and gravel drives. (See villas, above.) The little house on rue du Soleil, however, looked as if it was going to fall over on its face. In the back, there was another balcony enclosed by crumbling claustra terre cuite, and a massive oleander that looked as if it hadn’t been pruned since the Y2K and was probably visible from space, and a concrete patio that looked as if it was the first stage of an abandoned garden renovation project. However, and it was huge however, the view was magnificent.

Bedroom with a view. Bougainvillea, vineyards, Fort St. Elme

We couldn’t imagine how much it would cost to renovate it. But Neil was right. It did tick all the boxes, something true of no other house in our price range in the entire village. In October 2019 we made an offer and almost exactly a year from the day we first saw the house, we received the acte de vente, the bill of sale.

Our house is a block from our favorite swimming beach. Also Picasso’s.

If you’d like to follow along on my incredible (and ridiculous) journey, please subscribe to my newsletter at the bottom of the page. Merci.

Join the discussion 15 Comments

  • Joy Wright Abbott says:

    I’m so excited for you! “Just say ‘yes!’”

  • I enjoy yr posts on FB, but this is even better. Shared yr book with my 30 something daughter in law. She is much smarter than I was at that age, but still loved it. Self improvery. I’m still laughing!

  • Elisa Petrini says:

    What an adventure!

  • Heather Sharfeddin says:

    This is so exciting. I love renovations and can’t wait to tag along on your journey.

  • I would love to subscribe!

  • Diane Dean says:

    Karen, being the romantic that I am, I totally see the beauty of your “fixer upper”. I can see the potential in a shack. I am excited to follow your journey as you create your footprint on your new space. Sounds like a book to me.

  • Allison V Fine says:

    Please subscribe me Karen! I love this adventure vicariously!

  • Kimberly Witherspoon says:

    Good luck! Can’t wait to see what transpires. ❤️

  • Karen Donaldson says:

    Looking forward to more updates on your French adventures!

  • This must be fate. I wrote you a LONG, probably way too long, response to your blog about the house you bought that I dreamed of redoing for my stepkids and their kids who live in Italy and have come here ever since we discovered this sweet village in the 80s….
    It is fate that the whole friggin’ text disappeared as I finished and saved you the hassle of addressing my comments on what I saw in my dream of re-doing as a wonderfully quirky re-done house up the street from ours with contrasting colors on the lovely terre cuite claustra (!) in the colors of Barragan (okay, that’s a stretch, but I love your grillwork and found it unique and so charming as the signature of the house). But it was a dream, to do over yet another house (we have done four – 2 in LA, one in Rome and now this one on rue du Soleil, completely gutted and rebuilt). And only a dream.
    All of this is to say that we are so glad to have neighbors, even if you are “clueless” Americans, haha. Not in my book, having had The Man Of The House help us with computer hassles, and I do know that the first years here in our French life, we went native and avoided Americans like the plague, forget that simile, we avoided staying in our LA habits. We are both from European backgrounds and have longed to live in Europe and finally did it. Welcome to your new French life/street/neighbors/food/wine/tramontanes and so much more. Welcome to change, welcome to lemons from my tree, if they ever show themselves again in this weird changing climate, welcome to having your incredible view of the chateau St Elme and the goelands soaring in from the sea, welcome to the smell of fougasse from your bakery around the corner, welcome to aperos at the beach and the changing colors of the water and landscape that drew so many artists to this unique tiny spot on the map. Welcome. And as I have been isolated too long and Ms Amazon a terribly tempting source of connection with the outside world, I offer you a wealth of probably useless items that you might need during your rebuild! Just ask. Welcome to rue du Soleil and the wondrous house you have found, just waiting to emerge from its cocoon to be the dormant butterfly it has always been. Bienvenue, you two.

  • By the way, love your books, and more.

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