What’s It Like To Retire To Southern France?

Excellent food, a relaxed lifestyle and affordable properties – no wonder France ticks the boxes for retirees. But what’s it really like to retire to Southern France? Journalist and author Peter Grose and wife, Roslyn, did retire to France.

Peter’s hometown is Sydney, although it is quite a while since he has lived in Sydney (or anywhere in Australia).

Peter and Roslyn retired to live on an island – an island that’s famous for oysters, wine, surfing and commercial fishing.

Read on as Peter tells us why they chose France, the challenges, the lifestyle, learning the French language , the cost of living and more!

Why choose France to retire? 
Long story. For 36 years we lived in London. For 26 of those years, we had a second house in Wales, and we went there religiously every weekend. We got to the point where we couldn’t justify the cost of two houses in the UK, so we sold the Wales house in 1997 and decided to use some of the money to buy a holiday house in France, which was easily accessible from London and where property prices were much lower.  Long story. For 36 years we lived in London. For 26 of those years, we had a second house in Wales, and we went there religiously every weekend.

In those days I still had a proper job (working for ACP UK) so we could get to the new holiday house in France only once a month, for a long weekend.

The house was in Brittany, which was an easy ferry trip from Portsmouth. We loved it, and we loved France. So for nine of our 36 London years we shuttled between London and Brittany.

large white ferry on sea, with Brittany Ferries in writing along the side offerry, What's It Like To Retire To Southern France?
Photo: Viktor Forgacs

When I ‘retired’ we decided we wanted our French location to move further south, for better weather, and we wanted to be closer to the sea and a beach. Then we had a road-to-Damascus moment when we asked ourselves why we needed two houses? Why not give up London and move to France and be done with it?

So we did! It’s important to note that we already knew France when we moved there permanently. In Brittany we built up a stock of experience in buying and selling a French property, negotiating the minefield of French bureaucracy, finding a doctor, getting to know neighbours, making French friends and so on.

So when we decided to move permanently to France, we had some nine years of vital experience behind us.

What are some of the challenges you have encountered? 
For me, language was the biggest challenge. I was forced to choose at school, at the age of 14, between French and chemistry. I chose chemistry.

I could speak ‘restaurant French’ when we arrived, which is to say that I could do not much more than order food in a restaurant.

My French is still far from fluent, but my test of competence was always: could I survive a dinner party in French? I can now happily answer: yes. However lack of language at the beginning can be a bit of a trial. For instance, setting up broadband when all the instructions are in French, ditto setting up satellite TV, or fixing the fridge. Without the local language, problems multiply. 

Bottle of red win=e, glasses, baguette with Eiffel Tower in the background, What's It Like To Retire To Southern France?
Photo: Jim Harris

Roslyn’s French was always good. She learned at school, and she had an Alliance Française certificate of competence from Sydney. When we lived in London, she did a three-year diploma course in French with the Open University.

However she suddenly found herself the only person in the household who could answer the telephone, or communicate with doctors, cleaning ladies, electricians, gardeners and all the other people who become part of your new life in a new country. I think she found this burden both tiresome and irksome.

Why choose Île d’Oléron to retire? 
Another long story. I hold a British private pilot’s licence, and in the London years we were in the habit of spending flying weekends in France. I would plan the weekend with two bibles: an aviation map of France and the red Guide Michelin, which lists good restaurants and hotels.

I would pore over my two bibles, looking for interesting restaurants with an airfield nearby. We had a sybaritic policy of sleeping cheap and eating expensively, finding cheap hotels in the Guide Michelin and eating well at restaurants found from the same source.

On a couple of these weekends, we flew to La Rochelle and rented a car at the airport, then drove to the Île de Ré, which we liked. I was looking at the usual aviation maps when I noticed there was another island near Ré which had its own airfield (Ré has none), so we thought we’d give it a try.

We arrived on Oléron on a Friday afternoon and had what the French would call a coup de coeur. In English it was love at first sight. We spent the next day (Saturday) in estate agents’ offices looking for a house to buy. That was in March 2004.

Map showing France and a small part of Spain, What's It Like To Retire To Southern France?
Photo: Ian

For the next few years we made trips to all parts of France looking at houses, but we always found ourselves drifting back to Oléron. In April 2008 we came to Oléron armed with a big list of houses we’d found on the internet, looked at 25 houses in all and then chose our present house at L’Ileau.

We moved to France on 3 May 2008 and into our present house on 8 July 2008. For us the advantages of Oléron were three: it is mostly French, with little or no expat community and very few English speakers; it’s a working island, not solely a holiday island like Île de Ré, with strong industries like oyster-growing, wine-growing and commercial fishing; and it has miles of beaches with actual surf (they’ve held French surfing championships here).

Rocky beach on Île d'Oléron, France
Photo: Damien Dufour

Let’s talk about the cost of living on Oléron. Peter gives

Islands are expensive. Prices are higher on Jersey than in Kent, and prices are higher on Oléron than they would be across the viaduc and on the mainland in, say, Marennes. I rather suspect that prices on Kangaroo Island are higher than in Adelaide.

How much is a ‘Cup of coffee’ ?
The current exchange rate between the euro and the Australian dollar is 1 € = A$1.63. About 1,50€ buys you a small, simple cup of black coffee in a bar or café. You might pay 3€ for a latte.

What about the cost of housing?
Housing  In the last six years, houses in our immediate area have sold for as little as 188,000 € for a simple three-room box on very little land up to 400,000 for a house with seven principal rooms and enough garden to swing the proverbial cat.

Houses on Oléron are generally more expensive than on the mainland. House prices outside major cities like Paris and Bordeaux have not increased much in France in recent years. In general, I would say housing in cheaper in France than in Australia. You can still buy a château for not much money, then watch your heating bills mount!

What about the cost of food?
Supermarket prices Hard to say, but not unlike the prices you’d pay in Coles or Woolworths. Some things are cheaper here (wine and spirits, for instance) while others are more expensive. I did some ’top-up’ shopping yesterday (Sunday) in the local Super U supermarket and this was the result: 1.35 kg of good quality stewing beef, 7,46€; 1 x 500g pkt Fruit ’n’ Fibre breakfast cereal, 1,84€; 1 kg coffee beans 4,59€.

Photo: Anna Kaminova

Booze is much cheaper. Brittany Ferries closed down their on-board Duty Free shops because, as they admitted frankly, they could not compete with French supermarket prices. And that was DUTY FREE. A bottle of good wine will set you back about 10€. Drinkable local wine costs about 4€ a bottle. 1.5 litres of none-too-special whisky costs about 30€. A litre of flash Cognac will also cost about 30€.

Meal out at a restaurant / cafe Again, it varies. A good simple meal with a drink beforehand and a bottle of wine will cost of the order of 25-30€ per head. A meal at the best restaurant on the island Saveurs des Îles would probably set you back 60€ a head, but that’s for a very high quality slap-up meal.

Electricity? Our electricity bill is spread out evenly over 10 months of the year. That includes heating the house as well as the usual cooking, refrigerators, TV, computers, etc.

Medical? The medical system in France works very well. There is a standard scale of charges. A visit to the doctor costs 25€, which you pay on the spot. The government then re-imburses you some 70% of that, directly into your bank account and generally within a week of the original bill. Most people have a so-called mutuel or private medical insurance which in theory will make up the balance. In practice it doesn’t and we instead have created our own mutuel by putting aside 100€ each every month into a special bank account, which currently stands at 8 518,97€ each. That will cover any likely eventuality.

Rates? This is changing. Up to this year, there were three ‘local’ taxes: the taxe d’habitation was pretty much like the ‘rates’ in Australia. The taxe foncière was a kind of land tax based on the area of land occupied. Finally, you paid separately to have the bin emptied. However 2020 is the last year of the taxe d’habitation, all part of a long-overdue rearrangement of taxes in France, and from 2022 there will be a kind of pay-as-you-go system for the bins. Last year our taxe d’habitation was 1 449€, our taxe fonciere was 1 954€ and our bin tax was 200€.

Trades? Pretty much like Australia. We have a radio-controlled front gate which throws endless tantrums. The last time it got stuck we paid 77,10€ to for an electrician to come here and get it fixed. That included 17,10€ for GST. The actual bill was 60€.

Communication? I thought I’d mention broadband, telephones etc because I’m endlessly shocked by what you all pay in Australia. We pay 44,99 a month including GST to Orange (formerly France Telecom and a bit like Vodafone). For that we get broadband, a landline, a mobile phone, and satellite TV which is also part cable TV. On the land-line phone, calls are free all over the world including Australia.

There’s usually a few euros on top of the 44,99 for mobile phone calls, but the bill seldom goes over 50€ for a month.

How do retirees (generally) spend their time on Île d’Oléron? 
Dunno! Our next door neighbours are retirees (retraités in French). James has his own mini oyster bed, he cooks, plays boule and does a lot of DIY. Freddy, his wife, does a lot of housework, and stays up late to watch TV.

Our two friends André, a retired mathematics teacher, and his wife Joscelyne, a retired civil servant, are good examples of making the best of retirement. They garden a lot, and André is a keen photographer (he and Joscelyne and the local camera club, of which André is a keen member, make amateur documentary films together).

We have a franglais session with them at 5 pm every Friday afternoon, during which they are supposed to speak English and we are supposed to speak French. This tends to descend into bibulous chaos at about 6 pm, when the bar opens.

French red wine in bottle and poured into a glass
Photo: Armands Brants

Do many people (retirees) on your island have ‘encore careers’ / side hustles? Again, dunno. Thinking of our circle of friends, many of whom are retirees, very few to none of them have second careers.

Some rent out holiday houses (gites) to make a few extra euros from tourists. Others just play tennis, fish, swim, garden, cook, travel, watch TV and surf the internet. France has a well-structured pension system, so very few of them need extra income.

But, like me, they need a reason to get out of bed in the morning and that often takes the form of these activities.

What 5 activities should visitors to Île d’Oléron do? 
Oléron is the second largest French island, after Corsica. It is about 35 kilometres from end to end, and about 17 kilometres wide at its widest point. So, as islands go, it is pretty big. it is linked to the mainland by a three-kilometre bridge, so it is seamlessly accessible by road. 

Photo: Tomasco Cantelli

Anyone who comes to Oléron should:
(i) eat oysters;
(ii) eat out, particularly if there’s fish on the menu;
(iii) swim in the sea;
(iv) drink pineau, a local tipple made from cognac and grape juice;  and
(v) go for a walk or a cycle ride.

Brandy distilled from grapes is produced on the island, as is a lot of undistinguished but largely drinkable wine, and you can usually enjoy a wine tasting or dégustation at the cave of any of the local wine makers.

For no obvious reason the island is included in the wine-growing region of Cognac, so local producteurs are allowed to call their brandy cognac. As the town of Cognac is about 100 km drive from the island, this is both generous and unwise on the part of the distinguished brandy-makers of Cognac.

The island is almost entirely flat so it is perfect walking and cycling country, and it is criss-crossed with well-made cycle paths (pistes cyclables) which are free of cars and which thread through forests and vineyards as well as through fields and villages.

There’s not much by way of ‘attractions’ but you could always treat grandchildren to a ride on the mini-train at St. Trojan. There’s a ‘water park’ called Ileo, which I’ve never been to but which boasts water slides and so on, and a cinema in Saint-Pierre which shows good films for 10 months of the year, and violent rubbish for children in July and August.

If you are a bird-watcher, this is paradise. About half the island is given over to marais, or marsh land, and sea birds in particular are both spectacular and plentiful. The island was occupied by the Germans during World War 2, and there are still a few fortifications to be found.

For history buffs, the last land battle of World War 2 on French soil took place at Saint-Pierre d’Oleron, the ‘capital’ of the island.

Best time to visit? 
Without doubt the two best months to visit Oléron are June and September, with a slight edge for September. The permanent population of the island is 22,500 but in the height of the holiday season (July and August) it can swell to as many as 350,000.

The tourists are mostly French, with a smattering of Belgians, Dutch and Germans and even the occasional Brit.

At a guess, about 80% are French, mostly from big cities like Paris and Bordeaux, with Belgians forming the largest contingent in the remaining 20%.

In the tourist season the roads are jammed with cars, and there can be long queues at the supermarket checkouts. The beaches are over-crowded though largely unspoiled by the flocks of volley-ball players, ice cream sellers and deck-chair renters found on most popular French beaches.

The island dies each year by mid-November, when the tourists have totally disappeared: restaurants close, as do markets and even shops, and we residents are left with the supermarkets to ourselves.

The island usually reopens at Easter. However in June and September everything is open, but the island is less crowded and much easier to handle.

The weather is reliably hot and dry in September, but June can be patchy. In general, the weather is good most of the year.

Take a look at Peter’s books:

A Very Rude Awakening. The night the Japanese midget subs came to Sydney Harbour

An Awkward Truth The bombing of Darwin, February 1942

A Good Place To Hide: how one French community saved thousands of lives from the Nazis in World War 2

Ten Rogues: the unlikely story of convict schemers, a stolen brig and an escape from Van Diemen’s Land to Chile

Plus

You can also read about Peter’s writing here

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