Alice “Lisa” Verberne is living the expat dream. And she’s inviting you to join her in Haute-Marne, the most authentic and unspoiled areas of France, just a couple of hours east of Paris.
When Lisa looks out of the window of Maison Renaissance, her 16th-century house on Bourmont’s hilltop perch, she can see the Meuse River below. The far bank is Champagne, while she lives in the Lorraine region. The Champagne city of Reims and Strasbourg are a couple of hours by car, as is Dijon.
The surrounding French countryside is La France Profonde, where visitors relax amid a panorama of meadows and oak forests. Where there’s a Jardin des Roches at the foot of a cliff for rock climbers. And if you know what you’re doing, you can dig for truffles.
An expat-fueled Renaissance
Her aristocratic small city has an interesting mix of people including local artisans and locavores, Parisians who inherited second homes, aristocrats and expats newly arrived from the Netherlands and the United States.
Over the past few years, expats and more than a few French people have arrived as property prices in cities such as Paris and Lyon have skyrocketed. And one of Lisa’s roles in Bourmont is to get everyone on the same page.
“Belgians, Dutch and a few Germans have come in the last two years. A few Americans. Americans are very well received here,” said the French-speaking Louisiana native and Louisiana State University grad. “Everyone helps each other out, and everyone is close.”
Her friend Peter is from the Netherlands, “and I go to Peter’s house for breakfast. I have (Dutch expat) Roel’s keys. I even arranged to have his septic tank pump replaced. So, you learn all kinds of vocab you never thought you needed.
“That’s the way we roll.”
There are also locals with whom Lisa works with daily as she restores her house on the way to listing it on Airbnb next year. And she has more plans including a café as she and her friends plot to turn Bourmont into a creative-class destination.
While there are still French aristocrats wandering the rues and passageways of Bourmont, Lisa is not one of them. Which is cool, because you don’t have to be rich to become part of her grand plan. “Bourmont is famous in France for being the most affordable place in which to purchase property. They do (French) TV programs from time to time about it.
“You can literally buy a house here for the price of a car,” she says.”And it’s up to you to decide if the price is a Hummer or a hoopty.”
There are, of course, a couple of stipulations
• First, this is a protected city under the Petites Cités de Caractèrers preservation program. “You can’t build McDonald’s here. I can’t choose colors I paint. I can’t replace shutters with PVC shutters. And they have to be the color they were when the house was built,” Lisa said. A city historian totally knows what-is-what and walks property owners through the restoration process.
“I agree with the concept wholeheartedly, and guess what … they bought the paint!” Lisa said.
• You can buy a house if you have the morney, and you can get a loan through a French bank.
• To buy a house the Mayor’s Office has seized due to foreclosure or other reasons, you have to submit a dossier to the Hôtel de Ville, the city government, explaining what you want to do. Then they negotiate a price and decide if they want to sell it to you.
The good news is, there are houses for sale for as little as 1 euro, with the goal of restoring the buildings and returning properties to the tax rolls. Such as Lisa’s Maison Renaissance. Lisa told me last year that a 3-bedroom apartment – completely renovated – was on the market for 45,000 euros.
She bought the three-story house at 1 Rue de Colonel de Baudel back in 1999, part of a complex, and Lisa has been working on it ever since to return it to its former glory.
It is a house with quite a story.
Maison Renaissance was built from the stones of the city castle/fortification and is actually three separate homes – referred to as École des Vatelottes – connected together on the side of a massif.
Her house is actually one of the three in a vast compound, with two of the buildings still owned by the city. “My house is one of the buildings attached to the side of the mountain. I can crawl onto my roof from the ground, the other side is a 40-foot drop!”
The former nunnery and college is strategically placed next to the church at the top of the rocky overhang that offers exceptional panoramas of the valley. The original building has a stone tower and stairwell, and a stone back stairwell with 100 steps straight up to the church at top of the hill. “When they opened that door, I said I have to have this house!”
A house with a history
Lisa said she originally thought it was built in 1645, “but I talked to the city historian, and it’s even older … my house was constructed in 1569.”
Basically, the house was built for the overload of the area, a relative of the Duke of Lorraine. At some point, it became a nunnery, then a school. École des Vatelottes in Bourmont, France was constructed in the mid-1600s as a convent that operated as a school until 1960.
“The plumber says to me, ‘You must feel imprisoned in the nunnery.’ That’s because the nuns didn’t give a shit about a view, so they put a wall in where the morning sun came in.”
As she undoes some of the bigger, earlier renovation faux pas, her goal is to have Maison Renaissance open next year. And that’s part of a larger mission to revive Bourmont without diluting its Frenchness. By actually leveraging the culture of the region.
“We want to create a group … we want to start a movement to get (expats) out here. To complement what the local farming community does – agriculture, dairy and bee culture – so people who visit can meet the artisans,” Lisa said.
“There are local people who make their own Mirabelle liqueur. We could sell that. Have a guy who grows crocus for saffron.”
Her No. 1 tip for a happy ending? Just do it.
She bought Maison Renaissance after an American friend bought a house 15 kilometers south in Clefmont.
“I said, ‘If Anita – a single American female – bought a house, then I could. I knew if she did it, I can do it too!” Her approach, which she recommends highly, is to not overthink the situation and follow your heart.
“They say if you do that, rather than waffle back and forth, it makes you psychologically happier. If you just make a decision and stick with it.”
Life in Bourmont, she says, “is simple, cheap and wholesome.”
If you want to experience the REAL France, Lisa could use some help next year. The details are here.
(Full disclosure: I’ve known Alice Verberne since 1999 when we were colleagues at European Stars & Stripes in Germany. She’s the most adventurous expat I know.)
Co-CEO of Dispatches Europe. A former military reporter, I'm a serial expat who has lived in France, Turkey, Germany and the Netherlands.