As we formally launch Provence Life, we are reminded that some projects can feel like the culmination of a hundred-mile march. When we first settled in Provence back in 2001, we had two small children, a rusty use of the language, and planned on staying only a year. Little did we know that that the next twenty years would involve a mad love affair with the region, its lifestyle, and the special properties tucked into the hillsides and rocky clifftops.
The gifts we have gained personally from our experiences in Provence are too many to list, but what we didn’t expect in our early days was that this would open the door for us to building a professional life around so many of our passions— nature, spending quality time with people we love, honoring the history and being a part of the transformation. These elements have since developed into a rich blend of businesses surrounding luxury villa rental, real estate, renovation, and decoration, all of which have been rooted in this distinctly unique and remarkable place—Provence.
But making Provence one’s home, or even a secondary residence, does not present itself without challenges. When we look at the purpose and intention behind the businesses that we have created, the why we do what we do, we realize it revolves around sharing all that we have learned—the best parts and also the frustrating ones. The inspiration to build Only Provence, and now Provence Life, is grounded in a deep desire to help people experience and connect with this region, be it on a holiday or in buying a property here, but also about making that journey just a little simpler— a little less difficult than it had been for ourselves.
When we decided to buy a farmhouse thirty minutes from Aix en Provence we had no knowledge of how the real estate process worked, nor the first thing about restoring anything old. On the day we were due to sign our “act de vente,” we sat at the Notaire’s office in Mallemort around a big table, initialing what felt like hundreds of pages, understanding about an eighth of what we were reading. What we didn’t know was that the real trials were yet to come— finding trustworthy tradespeople and artisans, and developing know-how in a renovation that respected the heritage of Provence. Unbeknownst to us, after toasting to our new purchase, we proceeded to make every mistake in the book. Without a network of any sort, we paid too much for services that were at times poorly done and applied ideas from North America that weren’t in harmony with the region. We got lost finding the big hardware stores (our only source for materials at the time) and hadn’t a clue where to locate the pretty linen drapes we saw in other people’s houses. And last but not least, on a shoestring budget, we tried to do some of the work ourselves. It was exhilarating when things turned out nicely and supremely humbling when they didn’t. Somehow though, over time our Mas was reborn; hot water finally emerged from the faucet, pictures were hung and furniture delivered. We corrected most of the faux pas we had made along the way and let out a giant sigh as we handed the keys to the house to English renters for the summer.
Despite the fact that villa rental was a new concept to Provence at the time, not to mention the travel world at large, it was actually something we did have some experience with. Five years prior, we were young and adventurous and had invested most of our life savings into a house on the coast in Costa Rica. Listing the house on the few villa sites that had emerged, we set out to learn the ‘how to’ of the rental process. Over time it began to return a little profit—Yippee, we thought. With a little luck, we might be able to make a living out of this! Our idea was to now apply this knowledge to our freshly renovated house in Provence. Much to our surprise, the demand to rent a large villa that could accommodate an extended family was high, particularly from Americans and the English who were pleased to have an Anglo-phonic intermediary arranging their stay. In fact, the house booked so well that we were getting requests from other property owners to do the same for their homes. In 2007, we moved back to the US and with only five houses on our newly created website, we formally established the Only Provence villa rental business. Nearly fifteen years later, thanks to an incredibly talented and customer-focused team who have since taken the reigns, Only Provence is now a leading provider of luxury rentals in the region with a portfolio of over a hundred and seventy distinguished properties.
Much of the work involved in developing a villa rental business over the years has entailed understanding how to both simplify and scale a process of booking and reservation online. Having said that, one of the real joys has been in deepening our understanding of the care and attention that these properties need, many of which are hundreds of years old. We discovered, as we had during our own renovations, that these beautiful homes had histories and lifecycles that needed to be acknowledged, honored, and respected. We enjoyed getting to know owners who were devoted to protecting both the authenticity of the property while also introducing new amenities. And we would learn that finding this delicate balance between old and new didn’t take place in isolation either— it would require working alongside qualified local people who were just as passionate about protecting the dignities of these properties. Over time, Only Provence has liaised with hundreds of property owners as they invested in, renovated, decorated, and tended to their properties for seasonal rental. We are now well convinced that it isn’t just the property itself that matters, but the collection of people—owners, guardians, gardeners, and masons who keep vigil over them, that help make sure their beauty continues to live on.
The Birth of Provence Life
It was only natural that in connecting hundreds of groups of renters to luxury properties in Provence each season, that many would want to make the experience a more permanent part of their lives. Unfortunately though, navigating the cumbersome process of buying property in France, at times without a grasp of the language, can be daunting. And more often than not, buyers are confronted with some level of needing to renovate, if not completely restore their properties head to toe. How to even begin such a process can seem insurmountable, especially if living abroad. Having had first-hand experience with the challenges involved in buying, renovating, decorating (we would complete 3 more extensive renovations since that first one) alongside the wealth of experience and contacts gained through Only Provence since its inception, we felt in a perfect position to truly leverage our knowledge for the good. Our new brainchild was to offer a whole suite of needed services together in one place for others. In 2018, we returned to live full-time once again in France to do just that.
Provence Life: What We Do and How We Do It
Finding YOUR Perfect Match
For starters, there is no central system to view available properties for sale in France, requiring buyers to scour the internet, contacting multiple agencies individually for information and visits. We committed ourselves to conduct in-depth research for our clients tailor-made to their criteria, collaborating with agencies and private owners until we find the right match. Surprisingly, not many agencies invest the time to do this–they show you what they have listed, and then send you on your way. We also felt it important to connect our clients with the vast network of bilingual professionals we have gotten to know over the years–experts in French law, accounting, mortgages, corporate and legal structuring, and notaries. If living even part-time in France, you will most certainly need them.
Renovating While Maintaining One’s Sanity
Harkening back to Peter Mayle’s “A Year on Provence,” finding qualified, trustworthy, and efficient general contractors to complete renovations is near impossible unless you know the terrain and are well connected. Sorry, this will no doubt change in the future, but until so, it remains a fact 🙂 Then once underway, managing the project requires daily oversight, restoration experience, and a fair dose of patience. It also requires being in the area, which is not possible for those who have their primary residences elsewhere. It’s worth noting too that the landscape has changed since Peter’s book – people have less time, and perhaps desire for the hands-on, yet they too are in search of the earthy, rich lifestyle that is found here. We believe this to be entirely possible–we’ve made it our mission at Provence Life to deliver the full range of systems and processes around renovation project management, overseeing budgets and estimations, sourcing local materials and talented artisans– to make the dream realistic, accessible and (somewhat) predictable, for anyone.
Making It Yours and Provençal
Our ethos of transformation is rooted in blending what exists with what is new– this of course includes what a new owner envisions for their home with what is found, and traditionally done. With a broad range of furniture and decoration suppliers, both contemporary and antique, we offer a-la-carte support surrounding decoration, which lo and behold can at times be more challenging than the renovation itself! It has been so much fun pulling together the best of the best all in on place (we call it the “marketplace”)– a hand-selected collection of everything from light fixtures and chandeliers to linen (new or vintage), to couches and antique wooden tables to host big family dinners under the stars. While our decorators are fine to find pretty much anything you imagine, we will admit to favoring a decoration style that reflects what is natural and so prolific here–an earthy, organic Provencal style emphasizing light, wood, and stone.
Looking back we can now see how everything we offer at Provence Life is the support that hadn’t been there for us. Our mission is to take what can be a complex and stressful process and make it uncomplicated and joyful. And why? Because life is short. And hopefully, in doing so we can help others focus more on the fun and exciting parts of what is most definitely a very beautiful and life-changing experience.
by Lydia Dean
Lydia helped develop the brand and strategy surrounding the Only Provence villa rental business and building the renovation and decoration services provided by Provence LifeStyle. In 2015 Lydia published “Jumping the Picket Fence,” an inspirational memoir of raising a family in Provence and building a non-profit. In 2021, she published “Light Through the Cracks,” a continuation of her journey, much of which has been based in Provence.