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THINKING OF buying a house in France? A lot of people do and most manage to turn the experience into something pretty exciting. Some even write books about it. The sense of adventure is often enhanced by comparing what your money wil

 

THINKING OF buying a house in France? A lot of people do and most manage to turn the experience into something pretty exciting. Some even write books about it. The sense of adventure is often enhanced by comparing what your money will buy in France with real estate costs in the UK or USA. Property seems so cheap in France: for the price of a 2-bedroom flat in Camden Town you can buy a villa in the south of France with pool, an acre or two of land and enough bedrooms to take a siesta in a different one every afternoon of the week.

Even so you're probably paying over the odds for it. Here's a little cautionary tale . . .

A house we know, which we'll call Les Amandiers (The Almond Trees), was put on the market a few months ago at 1 050 000 francs, about £100,000. The house, on the edge of the village, had three bedrooms, a swimming pool, about three acres of woodland, orchard and garden, beautiful views and no immediate neighbours. The property itself was valued at a million francs, and the remaining 50 000 francs was the 5% commission due to the local estate agent, who had a little shop in the village where rough particulars of the house and the asking price were in the window. So far, so good.

A few weeks ago an estate agency which we'll call Dodson et Fogg because that obviously wasn't its name, rang to make an appointment for some Brits to come and look round. They were to be accompanied by Hector, a young man who spoke English, but please would the owners NOT tell him that the village estate agency was involved? Very curious. A little conversation revealed that Hector worked on commission for a Dutchman, Mr – well, I'll call him Groot because groot means 'big' in Dutch and I enjoy inventing names. Hector was surprised to hear that the owners had never heard of him, either: everyone knew Mr Groot, surely? He was the chap through whom all the house-hunting Dutch, Brits, Swedes and Americans passed, all those drawn to the area by the Mr Groot internet real estate shop-window.

The Brits weren't interested, however, but a day or two later a newly-retired Dutch couple appeared from Dodson et Fogg by way of Mr Groot. They seemed very taken with Les Amandiers and Monsieur Dodson (or Fogg) closed in for the kill. He took the owners aside to say, nudge nudge, wink wink, that he had nudged the asking price up a wink or two to 1 200 000 francs, but of course the Dutch couple weren't to be told this. They didn't speak much French, anyway. Scam fodder didn't come much easier.

The owners were scandalised. With no authority whatever Dodson et Fogg had slapped an extra 10% plus on the price. But this was was perfectly reasonable, M. Dodson/Fogg insisted: every one of the agencies – Dodson et Fogg, the village agency, Mr Groot, the website owners and maybe others for all I know – had to have their cut.

The Dutch turned out to be a thoroughly pleasant couple, the owners weren't prepared to be party to such an appalling scam and spilled the beans. The Hundred Years' War just about broke out again and the ensuing scenes were so distressing that the owners decided to withdraw the house from the market. If the Dutch had bought Les Amandiers, they would have paid £15 000 over the asking price, with a colossal 20% of the purchase price going in middlemen's commissions. No joke.

They're still at it. A pretty house a few kilometres away is advertised on the internet at 900 000 francs, about £90 000 or $124 000, furniture extra. It's in local estate agents' windows at 800 000 francs. From what I hear the owner's looking for 750 000 francs. He wants to sell to foreigners because they pay more. If it was restricted to the local French market it would go for about 450 000 francs.

The moral? I leave you to draw conclusions. After all, you may be an estate agent.

Meanwhile the Dutch couple have bought elsewhere. Privately, by dealing directly with the owners. Can you blame them?

MUCH MORE fun than all this was an alfresco midsummer dinner at La Barraquita, a restaurant down by the river Paresse and practically at the water's edge, on one of those magical evenings when the day's warmth lingers long into the indigo night and mosquitoes and other no-see-'em ankle-biters have been given the evening off.

Most of the main dishes were barbecued: we had either magret de canard, an entire duck breast cross-slashed, rock-salted and then grilled in its own fat (whenever I do this at home I have to have a squeezy plastic water bottle handy to act as a fire extinguisher, but at La Barraquita there seemed to be no such problem, at least no leaping flames lit up the evening sky) or gambas, outsize prawns, char-grilled and served in a spicy sauce which French restaurateurs are uncertain whether to call armoricaine or américaine, but either way it's mouth-wateringly good.

Giggle of the night (admittedly, we were the bettle of a botter or two, I mean – oh, work it out for yourselves) came with the dessert. Some ice-cream manufacturer with his eye on Haägen Dazs (a name designer-coined to suggest a frosty Nordic richness and purity) has come up with a range of totally delectable ice-creams called Möven Pick. I announced this to the company.

Mervyn Peake? asked one of our guests, on holiday from the USA. The man who wrote Titus Groan and Ghormengast? Ho ho. Not bad for a literary American. Or should that be Armorican?

SMALL, UNIMPRESSIVE prize to be won!

Thanks to all those who entered last month's competition, who kept telling me réglisse meant liquorice (or licorice for Transatlantic entrants) right up until this issue went to press. Félicitations to Cynthia St Clair of Seattle, USA, and Pat Bull of Reading, UK, who breasted the tape together. Each wins the promised tin of Grisettes de Montpellier, which, the multi-language tin tells me, were once used as small change for pilgrims on the road to Santiago de Compostella. (It sounds the sort of scam the Dodsons et Foggs of their day went in for: 'Fresh out of small change, squire, innit? Tell you what, I'll do you a deal with these boiled sweets . . .')

OK, the competition. I'm standing on the very top, which is strictly against local regulations and isn't doing my vertigo much of a favour, marvelling at the conception and ingenuity of the ancient Roman civil engineers. Part of the arch-borne top tier is roofed over, part is a sort of wide stone gutter open to the sky. It's dry now, but it wasn't once. I'm level with the hills on either side of the valley, but if I dare to look down 50m below the river Gardon – a confusing name, because there's more than one river Gardon in the area – purls away towards Remoulins and the town the Romans called Nemausus, which was clearly a dirtier and thirstier place before this colossal structure was built.

Where am I? First e-mail answer wins a pack of 'Olives de Provence', in this case not olives at all but chocolate-coated roasted almonds. Mmm, délicieux!

A vos claviers!

If you enjoy Campbell's Diary, you'll find Christopher Campbell-Howes' book 'French Leaves: Letters from the Languedoc' a delight from beginning to end. It'll be available shortly from Gopher Publishers at £6.99 (about $10) plus postage and packing. Further information? Try www.romarin.net for full details.