For sale: One rustic French village, victim of poor economy
In this photo taken Tuesday Feb. 28, 2012, the French village of Saint Nicolas Courbefy, in Limousin, a region in central France, is seen. The entire hamlet is for sale and carried an asking price of just euro 300,000 ($440,000), the cost of a studio apartment in Paris. (AP Photo/Sarah DiLorenzo)
Published Thursday, March 1, 2012 6:43AM EST
COURBEFY, France - The village of Courbefy has rustic buildings with fireplaces and exposed beams, a horse stable, a tennis court and a swimming pool.
Sound nice? It's for sale.
The saga of the abandoned hamlet is a story of flight from rural France, bad economic times and real estate schemes gone awry. It's turned the mayor of the village next door into a minor celebrity whose office fields inquiries from places as far flung as Qatar and China.
The village in Limousin, about 280 miles (450 kilometres) southwest of Paris, was put on the block last week because its latest owners, who had run it as a luxury hotel and restaurant, had long stopped paying their mortgage.
The entire hamlet carried an asking price of just euro300,000 (US$400,000) - about the cost of a studio apartment in Paris.
But nobody bid.
That meant the village fell into the hands of bank Credit Agricole, which holds the mortgage. The bank hopes to put it up for auction again, and this time the odds are more promising: Since word leaked out to the media that an authentic French village was up for sale, Courbefy has swarmed with potential buyers, joined by curious hangers-on.
This past Sunday more than 50 cars pulled onto the grass that serves as a parking lot just inside the gated entrance to Courbefy.
Among those who are considering the property: a band of former college friends who always promised to live in a commune together, a group of retirees looking for a place to settle down, people interested in setting up a centre for the handicapped, others scouting locations for a film set and studio.
"It's a real media phenomenon, it's crazy," said Bernard Guilhem, mayor of Saint Nicolas Courbefy, just down the hill from Courbefy. "It's a big snowball that everyone wants to push."
Who wouldn't, after all, want to own a French village?
Well, Credit Agricole, for one.
The bank, eager to unload the property, gave suitors a Thursday deadline to express serious interest by leaving a deposit of C330,000 ($440,000) -- by law 10 per cent higher than the original asking price. A new auction date will then be set.
Already more than 100 people have called Credit Agricole lawyer Paul Gerardin's office with queries.
They come from all over -- every corner of France, England, Italy, Belgium, the United States, the Middle East and Asia. Gerardin's secretary has done nothing but field calls all day since the first story appeared in the national press last week.
Since then, Guilhem has also been overrun, variously serving as an amateur historian and real estate agent, showing potential buyers and journalists around. His photo appears in newspapers in Paris. His appointment book is filled. He has to turn his phone to silent when he gives his tours of Courbefy or risk being interrupted every 15 minutes.
Courbefy has gone through many incarnations in its long history.
The village goes back at least to Gallo-Roman times, when a road connecting Limoges and Bordeaux passed through, according to Guilhem.
It was the site of a chateau occupied by Jeanne d'Albret, mother of King Henry IV. Its surroundings are dotted with three so-called "miraculous springs" whose waters supposedly have healing powers.
Local lore has it that early in the Hundred Years' War between England and France, the residents of Limoges hired a mercenary to chase away the English who had settled at Courbefy.
One of the ironies of Courbefy's modern twist of fate? It could be the English who step in to save the town. Wealthy Britons in recent decades have flocked to this corner of France, mostly to the neighbouring Dordogne region, where they've scooped up vacation homes and retirement properties.
The last couple to live in Courbefy left in the early 1970s, according to Rachel Mallefont, who grew up in Saint Nicolas Courbefy and went to school with kids who lived "en haut" - up there, as the residents of Saint Nicolas invariably call Courbefy.
It was not uncommon for villages to be abandoned in that era. In the 1970s, running water was brought to the last corners of France but many people ended up leaving villages where hooking up to the grid was too difficult and expensive, according to Francis Cahuzac, president of the French Commission for the Protection of Historic and Rural Heritage.
Other villages were abandoned as farming became industrialized and small plots like those in Courbefy didn't lend themselves to mechanization. Anywhere that manual trades predominated risked being emptied out, as children sought better education and easier lifestyles in big towns and cities.
Many of those hamlets have since been repopulated, often taken up by foreign buyers - especially English and German. But others still languish in obscurity.
Courbefy followed the former path for many years, passing through a series of hands -- many foreign - becoming variously a summer camp for children, a property to rent for vacations and conferences, a luxury hotel and restaurant.
But folly seemed to lay at the end of every road.
Guilhem says the people who scooped up the village always seemed to be amateurs in their chosen field, running the place more on love than know-how.
Its latest incarnation began at the start of the last decade.
Sometime in 2008 or early 2009, the owners abandoned it, according to Guilhem, who says they may have been done in by an overly ambitious plan to renovate -- a familiar story of property bought at peak prices whose owners are unable to keep up with interest payments once crisis hits.
Credit Agricole did not respond to several requests for comment. But Gerardin, the bank's lawyer, said the property was purchased in the early 2000s and that the owners stopped paying the loan a few years later.
On the several-acre property, there are more than a dozen buildings. The interiors have been largely picked over, with the wiring, tiles and light bulbs removed. But a hulking stainless steel stove from the restaurant's kitchen remains. The occasional toilet is spotted and the huge fireplaces and exposed wooden beams set even the most skeptical mind wondering what great parties or intimate dinners could be held there.
Guilhem hopes for something that produces a handful of jobs and breathes new life into the place.
Mallefont, from the neighbouring town, also hopes for a new beginning - along with continued access. She and her husband, Robert, attend the mass that's held once a year in the village's 12th century chapel.
That will continue, they hope, since the chapel itself is excluded from the sale.
But they also want to be able to still visit the hamlet and wander its lanes.
"To see it abandoned, that hurts," said the 63-year-old Mallefont in her living room, as she pored over old photo albums and a scrapbook of cutouts about the area's history.
"The only thing (we hope for) is that it lives again."