A Castle in the Backyard
The Dream of a House in France
Publication Year: 2002
Like any romance, this one has had its ups and downs, and Betsy and Michael chart its course in this delightful memoir. They offer an intimate glimpse of a region little known to Americans—the Dordogne valley, its castles and prehistoric art, its walking trails and earthy cuisine—and describe the charms and mishaps of setting up housekeeping thousands of miles from home.
Along with the region’s terrain and culture, A Castle in the Backyard introduces us to the people of Périgord—the castle’s proprietor, the village children, the gossipy real-estate agent, the rascally mason, and the ninety-year-old widow with a tale of heartbreak. A celebration of a place and its people, the book also reflects on the future of historic Périgord as tourism and development pose a challenge to its graceful way of life.
Published by: University of Wisconsin Press
In 1985, for what it costs these days to buy a midsized car, we bought an old stone house in the hilltop village of Castelnaud-la-Chapelle in the Dordogne Valley of southwest France. The ancient name of this province is P
I. House Hunting
1. A Change of Plans
As we drove into Sarlat on a hot July afternoon, buying a house was not on the agenda. We were simply looking for a place to spend the night. Sarlat is the gem of P
2. The Fall of a Hundred Stars
During the rest of that summer, we scoured the valleys of the Dordogne and the Lot, eventually inspecting forty houses. I was the one who kept saying no. Michael stalked each house the way a lion stalks a zebra. If it could be had, he wanted it, no matter its condition.
3. A Castle in the Backyard
Our spirits were at their lowest ebb when, with only one week remaining in our search, we found ourselves back on Sarlat’s rue de la République, exactly where our journey had begun the year before. On previous visits to Sarlat, we had noted a shop...
II. Dordogne Days
4. We Arrive with a Key
By October the entire transaction was complete. In Madison we received a thick sheaf of documents from the notary confirming that our wire transfer had been received, our account credited, the papers signed and stamped comme il faut, the monies dispersed in accordance with the avant-contrat, our title and deed recorded. Included in the packet was a photocopy of an ancient survey map depicting our little plot of land in relation to the castle grounds.
5. Dordogne Days
When people hear we have a house in France, they usually ask the same set of questions. Where? (We tell them “the Dordogne,” but that draws a blank.) Who takes care of it when you’re gone? (No one, really. We close it down when we leave.) Do you rent it out? (No, that would involve more trouble than it would be worth). And: What do you do there? How do you spend your days?
We hadn’t realized at first that so many of the permanent residents of the village were elderly. Like the young of Najac, Castelnaud’s sons and daughters had moved away to the cities to find employment, as over the years the town’s economy had dwindled to a narrow base of artisan wares, small-scale agriculture, and tourism, which clearly was the engine of the future.
7. Madame Boucher
Our closest companion in the village was Mme. Boucher, whose memories extended back to a time before automobiles were seen in Castelnaud. From her kitchen window, Mme. Boucher could see the house where she had been born and where, from age twelve, she had kept house for her father and brother, who were farmers. In the heat of a July afternoon, she liked nothing better than to sit in the shade, looking up at her birthplace, telling tales of the past.
8. La Grande Randonne
France may have the best walking trails in Europe. La Grande Randonnée, or “the GR,” a network of rustic paths, extends unbroken over the entire country and is open by right and at all times to the public. In addition, every local area has its traditional communal footpaths, which dedicated walkers fight to keep open when the occasional property owner posts a No Trespassing sign.
9. Perigord Terroir
If you ask any Frenchman where the best food is in France, you’re likely to hear, “In the Dordogne—there they eat well.”...
10. Monsieur Cro-Magnon
Since coming to the Dordogne, we’ve become interested in everything concerning the Stone Age, especially Paleolithic art (paleos from the Greek, meaning “old,” lithos meaning “stone”). Some of the world’s best examples of Stone Age art are located within an hour’s drive of our house. Dozens of sites are clustered around the village of les Eyzies, which bills itself as “the capital of prehistory.”
III. The Battle of Castelnaud
There is a seasonal rhythm to owning a vacation house that makes us feel all too keenly the passage of time. Summer’s end brings with it a round of closings. It begins with the closing of the house, which we have to batten down for a long absence. Then there is our wistful circuit of goodbyes.
12. The Battle of Castelnaud
KRASSHOOM! The terrifying roar jolts us from our chairs and sends us scrambling out of the house in panic. “What the . . . “ Michael begins, but he doesn’t need to finish his sentence. We both see what has shaken the walls: a fast-disappearing fighter plane so low on the horizon that it must have singed the castle keep as it screamed by.
13. Exile and Return
Before closing up for the summer, we scrambled to take photographs, estimate the size of rooms, inventory house contents, and record the procedures of opening, closing, and upkeep. We would need this information for an ad in the house-exchange booklet, a promotional letter to send prospective exchangers, and a file of house information for eventual tenants.
“Let’s celebrate,” said Michael. “How about a Fourth of July barbecue out on the terrace?” The Fourth was coming up next Saturday. We would have plenty of time to make the invitations and prepare for company. We had just bought a new grill, but whether we could find all the trimmings for this quintessentially American feast was another question.
And we did stay—for another five years. In Castelnaud shops came, shops went, and it was clear that the trappings of a tourist economy had become permanent features of life in our little town. At least Michael had to admit that my laurier strategy for the backyard was an unqualified success, as the towering hedge now completely shielded us from the catapult behind it.
For Further Reading
For armchair and actual travelers who would like to learn more about the Dordogne, the following list is a beginning:
Illustrations: 1 map
Publication Year: 2002
OCLC Number: 606879449
MUSE Marc Record: Download for A Castle in the Backyard