France, up close and personal

An English couple have moved to a delightful village; they'll put you up, cook for you and show you the sights.

06/22/2008 12:00 AM

08/14/2008 7:39 PM

Richard Bray, 58, originally from Romsey, in southern England, moved to southwestern France two years ago. Having sold their home near Southampton, Bray and his wife, Christine, bought a house in Villefranche d'Albigeoise, which they operate as Chez Bray, an all-inclusive lodgings/meals/tours company.

Q. How did you happen to settle in Villefranche d'Albigeoise?

We wanted to be close to the Mediterranean, but discovered temperatures were high in summer and winds were strong in winter: You'd either be sandblasted or you'd freeze. We wanted a place with a more consistent climate and found the town of Albi, which remained green in summer. It's quite a lovely part of the world. We applied to estate agents, and when we saw this house in a nearby village, we fell in love with it.

Q. What does it look like?

It's typical of what the French call a “maison bourgeoise” (middle-class house) built around 1860 that later was the village grocery store and post office. This kind of house was owned by someone who was relatively “up” in hierarchy in the village – self-employed – and it's on the main road in the village.

It's quite a symmetrical sort of property, with seven windows across the front and the main entrance on the ground floor. It had been divided into two houses by the previous owner, a cabinet maker who lived in the main part and whose daughter lived in the other.

Q. Does it look like something out of an Impressionist painting?

It's of a design typical of that period and is common throughout every village in France from that time. It's substantial, but in our village of about 1,000, there are probably only three other houses that are similar.

Q. So is it a B&B?

We renovated it for ourselves but have accommodations for a maximum of two guests sharing – people interested in coming and enjoying what we like about living here. We meet them at the airport, bring them here and take them on tours.

Trips and food are covered – my wife, Christine, is an extremely good cook. For the guest, it's like not being a tourist. They stay two weeks, usually. The cost – 2,000 euros (about $3,076) per person per week, or 2,750 euros (about $4,227) per week for two people sharing – includes absolutely everything except souvenirs.

Q. You're close to Lourdes, correct?

Lourdes is about a three-hour drive. It's where St. Bernadette saw 16 visions in a grotto in 1858.

For those of the Catholic faith – or any faith – it's an extraordinary place to go. People drink holy water at the spring there, or bathe in the baths that are alongside the grotto. In the grotto is a statue of the Virgin Mary, allegedly on the spot where St. Bernadette had visions of the Madonna.

Q. Is Lourdes a big draw for tourists?

Yes. After Paris, Lourdes is the second-most visited site in France, with about 5 million visitor bed-nights per year. That's a phenomenal number.

Q. Go there much?

We include it in the two-week visit. We get people to see the major places they would've heard of, like Lourdes. And Carcassonne – a major castle of the 13th century, which is a World Heritage Site. And Millau, which has the largest suspension bridge in the world. We try to show a variety of things. With these three, you have religion, history and something from the 20th century.

At the same time, our guests can go to the local market and help choose what they'll eat the next day, or go to a vineyard and try the wine. If they like, we can get it and drink it with our meal the next day.

We also have Toulouse-Lautrec. The famous painter (1864-1901) was born in Albi. There's quite an extensive gallery and museum showing his work.

Q. Does he still have family around? Is there, say, a Lautrec Car Parts Shop there?

I don't know. Part of his name comes from the city of Toulouse, which is south of Albi. And there's a village called Lautrec that's halfway between Toulouse and Albi.

The village of Lautrec is world famous for having pink garlic. Once a year, they have a village festival – a fete – where they make a pink garlic soup that's popular around here. Nearly all small towns and villages have a fete, which will last a day or a week.

Each place has its specialty, and locals and tourists travel a good distance to try all of them. In Villefranche d'Albigeoise, for instance, we have a cheese soup.

Q. And the verdict on it?

They use cantal, which is a bit like cheddar. When we first heard about the soup, we thought it would be bizarre. But they put in French bread, white wine, spinach and cabbage and it actually ends up more like a meal than a soup. Really tasty.

This fete takes place here in September and goes on for five days. There are various events, but the highlight is a particular dinner.

About 200 people eat in a large tent in the town center, and a further 500 dine in the sports hall, which is about a three-minute walk from our back garden gate. They serve a six-course meal; the local rugby club organizes the catering and does the table-waiting. One of the courses is this cheese soup.

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