Retirement exploratory trip to Southern France and northeas Spain....suggestions?

I'm planning a month long trip next April, shortly after I retire, to explore whether or not I might want to spend at least some years of my retirement in Spain or southern France (or Italy for that matter, but that's another trip). I've picked these areas for initial exploration on the basis of climate, affordability, geography and cultural interests...never been to any of them and needed to start narrowing the options somehow! I'd prefer not to rent a car this time...although I know it will limit what I can see. Aside from the expense, I'd rather rub elbows with others on a train or bus than spend my time isolated in a car by myself...after all, getting to know the locals is part of the exploration!

I should make clear that this is an initial exploration trip, with the intention of coming back to anyplace I really like and spending several months there, exploring in more depth. Right now, I just want to get a feel for the people, the food, the lifestyle, the weather and topography and see if any place really speaks to me. I think I'm more drawn to cities...large or small...than to picturesque small towns, but would like to see some of the more interesting and/or beautiful smaller towns to get a taste of what they are like. Would like to find someplace with some expat community, but I've zero interest in winding up in a Little Britain. I would much rather find some place that I can grow into and become part of, rather than carve out a little English speaking niche of it.

My initial plan is to arrive in Montpellier, spend several days there, then head to Carcassonne via train for another short stint. Then, train back to the coast (Narbonne, I think) and take the train to Collioure. From there it's on to Girona, Barcelona and Valencia.

Questions for anyone who knows these areas: Can you suggest any smaller towns I can get to on public transit that would be worth while experiencing? Would a trip to Toulouse be worthwhile? Any smaller towns or areas close in to Montpellier, particularly worth looking at?
Thanks so much!

Posted by ann
staten island, new york, usa
324 posts

When choosing a country to live, have you given thought to the following:
Healthcare, do you speak and read the languages of the countries you are thinking of retiring to, will you have friends to visit you, and will you keep a place in the US so if you want to come back you will have a place to live. I think that southern France may be the best for what you are looking for or even Italy. A few years ago I went on a RS France tour and our guide lived in Carcassonne. Our tour went to her town and we had cocktail and dinner party given by the townspeople. There I met a couple who were retired from Ireland. The wife was a retired doctor and she said the healthcare was excellent in France. They both enjoyed living in the South of France. On the same trip we went to Nice and we met a couple at lunch. They were retired from Denmark and now lived near Nice. He was a retired pilot who had worked for SAS airlines. They too loved living in the South of France. I don't know if this would be of any help, but just some things I came across when I was traveling. I also think it it easier to go from France and Italy to other countries than it is to get from Spain to other countries. You can take the train all over France and take the train into other countries but not from Spain. Just something to think about. Would you consider at first to rent an apartment in an area you like for a few months before you move permanently.

Posted by Tom
Lewiston, NY
10288 posts

If you're thinking of relocationing... stay in apartment on your exploratory trip, not a hotel. Remember, "lifestyle" encompasses more than just the choices of restaurants and other fun things we encounter on vacation. It involves paying and working with utilities. It invovles working with contractors for all the little services you'll need around the house. It involves learning all the little municipal rules, like how to separate your trash, when you can mow the lawn (if you have one), how to retrieve packages from the postal system, where you can park, etc. It invovles integrating yourself into the healthcare system, and how to activate the local EMS if something goes wrong. When you get a taste of doing some of these things on your own (versus having everything arranged for you in a hotel), you can get a better idea of the ins-and-outs of actually living in that place. These kinds of considerations are the real deal-breakers on whether or not ex-pats last in Europe, not the niceties that entice us on holiday in the first place. I even knew a couple who didn't last beyond the husband's intial work contract simply because the wife couldn't adjust to not having closets in the house.

I also agree with one of the posters above. To actually live in a place that isn't your native country, you really need a pretty good grasp of the local language. On vacation, anyone who wants your money will speak English. The plumber you need to fix your backed-up toilet, though, probably won't. Your utilities service contracts won't be translated for your convenience. You'll need CERF fluency to at least a B2 level.

Posted by Lo
Tucson
1232 posts

I don't know if you've seen this, but if not, it's well worth exploring -- Home Free Adventures -- http://homefreeadventures.com/. They are not doing exactly what you are talking about, but something very similar. This would be more applicable to the "spend at least some years of my retirement " part of your question. Be sure to go all the way to the bottom of that opening page for the links and archives. The great thing about going through the archives of HFA is that Lynne Martin gives very honest assessments of the places they have been. Some may be locations of potential interest to you.

It sounds like you have targeted some places to check out already. I'd think It's a chicken and egg kind of thing. When we retired, we each had a priority list of what was mandatory and what was nice to have. If you are by yourself, having only one list makes things a lot easier. As you do your exploration, online and in person, you can start to compare the locations to your list. You may find that the priorities shift a bit or that the places you thought would be perfect aren't.

I've found House Hunters International (http://www.hgtv.com/house-hunters-international/show/index.html) invaluable for learning about locations, and for being entertained by the outrageous expectations of some people, especially Americans. At the link you can find full episodes for locations that might be of interest for you.

As far as "intention of coming back to anyplace I really like and spending several months there" goes, keep the Schengen rules (http://travel.state.gov/content/passports/english/go/schengen-fact-sheet.html) in mind and that anything beyond 90 days in the Schengen world will require a lot more planning than just visiting does.

Posted by Terry
Paris
73 posts

I moved to France from the US about 9 years ago, after my husband retired. It was a big change and a bit scary, but it has worked well for us. There are a few things to keep in mind.
You will need to apply for visas before you leave the US. The procedure is sort of a headache in terms of paperwork, but absolutely necessary. French bureaucracy is daunting, but you can do it! And then every year you will need to go to the local prefecture to renew your carte de sejour (lots of paperwork, and about a day out of your life per year).
The health care system is first-rate but you will have to pay to use it (and you will need to prove to the French authorities that you have adequate private insurance coverage). Cost of health insurance is based on your age; my husband and I currently pay about 900 euros per month for very good coverage (no deductible). My husband is 80 years old, btw.
If you want to have an automobile, be sure to look into the regulations about getting a French driving license. You absolutely need to do that during your first year, otherwise you will need to go to driver education school (more than 1000 euros in Paris, at least), and pass a test in French. Some US states have an exchange program with France, whereby you can change your license. I don't have the details, sorry.
You should check with your accountant about your income tax situation. Inheritance laws are also very different.
I'm not trying to discourage you, but just to highlight some of the challenges. If you choose to live in, say, Montpellier, I would guess that the rules and regulations would be somewhat gentler than they are in Paris.

Posted by Anita
Long Beach, California, USA
1249 posts

There are a good number of expats living around the area of Montpellier as well as towards the west around Pezenas - lots of Brits, Americans and even some Dutch. The area isn't overwhelmed by them at all though; they are there if you need them but it's not like they travel in packs and have taken over. You really don't know they are there unless you go looking for them. It's a nice, supportive group of people who were very welcoming when we were there for a couple of months several years ago. Expat friends of the people whose house we were staying at set me up with summer day camp for my son, helped out when we needed to find someone to fix the plumbing, and checked up on me and my son when my husband had to leave and go home for work. The area is absolutely lovely with every convenience you need to be comfortable yet also experience the French lifestyle.
Carcassonne and the area around it is nice but a bit touristy for me as is Collioure. Pretty but a little overrun.
Toulouse is OK but it doesn't have the feel of some of the towns closer to the sea to the south.

Posted by Bets
Bloomington
2646 posts

There are organizations for English speakers in different areas. Just google English and whatever town you are interested in.

Posted by Melissa
Baltimore, Md., USA
46 posts

Wow...you guys are fabulous! Alex, thanks for the video and for the offer of language lessons! My French now consists of the tattered remnants of high school French and college classes --definitely not enough to be able to explain about the clogged toilet to the plumber! So yes, wherever I land language lessons and full on immersion are a top priority!

Tom, good point about staying in apartments. I'm planning to do the airbnb thing, often choosing a private room in a hosted home so that I'll get as much exposure as possible to what real homes are like as well as the opportunity to meet and talk with locals.

Lo, thanks for pointing me to Home Free Adventures. I've been seeking out and reading as many blogs,etc. as possible by folks who have. Picked up and moved and hadn't found that one yet! And I've now become semi-addicted to House Hunters internat'l. Do you think it's relatively realistic in terms of price points? In terms of American expectations about home sizes (and especially the differences in kitchens) the show confirms for me what I fortunately already knew from good friends I have and visit fairly often in Germany. They've also exposed me by the way to the concept of three way recycling, sweeping the front stairs regularly and no vacuuming on Sundays!

I'm hoping, too, to use my German friends to help me work around the schengen visa issue. I plan to arrive in Germany in February without a visa for the usual 90 day tourist stint. I'll head pretty quickly to Italy...Puglia and Sicily, specifically, for about a month to explore that area. Then back to Mainz for a month to take a course earning me certification in teaching English to foreign language speakers (I don't intend to try to support myself in any way with this....it's just another way to keep busy, meet people and tuck away a little extra cash to travel) . While with my friends I'll apply for temporary residency in Germany., and with luck will get the ok to stay (and continue to travel in the schengen area) for at least a few more months. Come April, I'll do my exploration of Montpellier to Valencia . Then, if german residency has been ok'd I'll head back to Mainz and hopefully a two month, very part time teaching gig that my friends are helping me arrange at the local uni, where one of them works. I hope to make some shorter exploratory trips back to wherever has taken my fancy earlier, If the residency doesn't come through, I'll either head back to the US at the end of April or to Cyprus and/ or Croatia... ( Both still outside the schengen area) -- for 2 more months of pure tourism. That decision depends on whether the deal I'm negotiating to rent my house for jan through June to a visiting professor coming to Baltimore works out. But whether it's May or July that I come back to the U.S., my next step is applying for elective residency in France, Spain or Italy and returning for at least a six month trial expat experience, renting a place.

Terry, the tip on the drivers license is especially helpful.-- good to know. The one thing I'm not looking forward to about this trip and potentially an expat life is giving up my 2012 Mini Cooper. I love that car!

Ann, yes availability of good health care is also one of the factors I've been considering. One reason that this plan seems to be falling into place is that I have to budget for private health care insurance anyway. I'll be retiring at age 61, so no Medicare for me for the next four years even if I were in the US. And so far what I've read indicates that private insurance Qin France, Spain or Italy will likely cost less than I'd pay in the U.S.

Anita, what you say about the expat community in montpellier is exactly what I'm hoping for--a support network and initial community, while I learn the language and find my place in the local community.

I am so exciter about this! Thank you all for your words of advice, keep 'em coming!

Posted by Nigel
East Midlands, England
11107 posts

giving up my 2012 Mini Cooper. I love that car!

Take it with you!!

Posted by Melissa
Baltimore, Md., USA
46 posts

@ Nigel and Alex: Really? I thought import duties would make it prohibitive for a non EU resident. Gotta check that out!

Posted by Tom
Lewiston, NY
10288 posts

The rules for every country are a little different, but importing your car for personal use vs. for selling are two completely different matters. For personal use, you'll only need to pay registration fees. I don't know the rules for France, but in Germany, you can't just pick the car up at the port of entry and drive it away. I had to first obtain a German driver's license (not an International Driver's Permit version of my stateside license, but an actual driver's license issued by the German gov't), proof of insurance coverage in Europe, proof of legal residence in German, and a German mailing address, then register the car. I was then issued temporary German plates (at which point I could drive the car out of the shipping yard), and I had to take the car to an inspection point. Once it passed inspection, I then returned to the registration bureau and received my permanent plates. Now, I think there may be a much simplified procedure if the vehicle is only going to be in Europe temporarily, but this probably won't apply if you plan to stay longer than the 90 day Schengen Treaty limit.

So, it can be done, but once again, this is one of those things where you have to drop the tourist experience out of your head and start thinking like a resident. And all of this will probably need to transpire in French.

Posted by Ed
Pensacola
9110 posts

Except for Narbonne and Montpellier, the places in your initial list are pretty much small and tourist-oriented. Carcassonne is also an exception once you get away from the Cite. You might want to do some more digging.

I'm also a non-citizen resident of another, non-European nation. Of my three homes, two are within thirty miles of major seasonal tourist destinations and that's about as close as I'd want to get. The third, the Florida house, is far enough from the tourist beaches that it's not much of a factor even during the season. Of the other two, one is so far out in the sticks that I couldn't crawl to help in a week if I had a broken leg -- the other is within a couple of miles of the center of a town of about five thousand, which works out about right. The advantages of the smaller places are that you immediately become a known member of the community and you'll be chugging right along, through necessity, in the language in just a week or two.

Ideally, I'd think you'd want to be in a small town or village of sufficient size that you can get what you want for your daily needs, but within range (thirty minutes, maybe) of a place to buy something like a washing machine.

In the areas you're considering, public transportation could be a pain in the tail if you become interested in the smaller places, so you might want to consider snooping around by car if that's what you might wind up using.

I wouldn't worry about language communities, since, once you switch out of the tourist mode, the language will take care of itself.

I know the areas on both sides of the Pyrenees pretty well. I think you'd do better on the north side overall, but once you're about west of the French national park, the Spanish side becomes equally attractive. Continuing with Spain, the whole north coast from Navarra (no coast, but still neat) to La Coruna (absent the city-centers of San Sebastian and Santander) is another possibility. Switching back to France, Aquitaine would also be a contender. Spain is going to be much less expensive than France.

There's going to be a huge difference between living in the Montpelliers, Toulouses, and Pamplonas, instead of the Prades, Jacas, and Orios. That's an individual call.

Beware that, because of the nature of travel forums, many suggestions are going to be anecdotal and based on short visits to places found in guidebooks rather from actual grubbing around, kicking boxes, and shoving stones. You can get a hell of a feel for a place from the people you meet in bars -- learn to drink lots of beer or coffee.

Posted by Melissa
Baltimore, Md., USA
46 posts

@Tom....interesting about the car and appealing! Do you know if there are any issues about different safety/mechanical standards for cars in the US and France? Would a late model mini likely pass? Perhaps someone knows where I could read up on this? But I'm getting way ahead of myself....first is the short exploratory. Then it's the 6-month trial, THEN.....

As for the bureaucracy, zillion forms to fill out, etc...I'm braced for that, whether it's regarding importing my car or getting residency or ultimately even buying and/or renovating a home. I"m schooling myself in patience, reminding myself that I've got plenty of days ahead of me and, once retired, no deadlines to meet and no office to get to. It's all an experience, right? And, when prepared, I can tolerate a lot. I once outlasted a car salesman, exhausting HIS patience with the negotiating process, because I showed up in the AM with snacks, water and a great book to read. Five hours later, I think he and his manager wanted me to make the deal and be gone more than I wanted to get it over with. I liked the book I was reading and in no hurry to get home and cook dinner for my son!

Posted by Melissa
Baltimore, Md., USA
46 posts

@Ed: Interesting observations. I am, by nature, more of an extrovert who is invigorated by people being around...I like being in the thick of things, though not in large crowds. I think my optimum environment would be a close-knit neighborhood with everything needed within walking distance in or near a larger city or perhaps a mid to large sized town. I'm single and tend to get a little broody, when I'm by myself for long stretches!

I had given thought to the northwest of Spain, but ended up dismissing it on the grounds of climate. I gather it's rather like the Northwest US...lush and green, but prone to rain and overcast days? Perhaps my impressions are off-base? I'm looking not necessarily .looking for beach weather, but it's important for me to be able to get out and walk everyday in the sun. If it's rainy or cold, I fear I'll curl up with a book and a pile of snacks and when I emerge I'll be 10 lbs. heavier. The Aquitaine is an area I'd also like to explore...sounds like it could be a good fit.

You don't seem enthusiastic about the northeast of Spain. Can I ask why? I am a bit concerned about expense of French real estate and, as you say, Spain, should be more affordable. After spending 35-plus years in the Washington DC area (I lived in Arlington VA for most of them, now in Baltimore, Md., still commuting to DC for work), I'm fortunately coming from a fairly expensive area. Still, I'm retiring early and my resources are not unlimited.

The bottom line, really, is that it's surprisingly difficult to narrow down where one really would like to be, when the entire world is open to you! So, I'm thinking, rule out those which are clearly too expensive (Paris, Rome) or too cold in winter (Germany, northern France and Italy, the interior of Spain) or which are likely to present more than usual difficulties with language and or visas (Croatia, Prague, ) Then, just travel for as long as I can, as widely as I can in the others, given my not unlimited resources. When and if something speaks to me, I'll try it for a longer period and explore more widely. Eventually, I suspect, I'll find my home abroad or decide that I really am too much of an American to not live back here.

Posted by Melissa
Baltimore, Md., USA
46 posts

@Alex. No I've never noticed the bumper size difference. Are they bigger in the US or Europe? On the antifog lights...the mini already has them, front and bag! One hurdle down.

Posted by Melissa
Baltimore, Md., USA
46 posts

Alex...sounds good to me! But you may not care for Baltimore. It's not one of my country's finer destinations!

Posted by MC
Glasgow, Scotland
437 posts

@Melissa historically American bumpers have been larger than European ones, There are differences with the lighting, basically there are three types of car lighting - North America, Rest of World that drives on right and Rest of World that drives on left (which is rest of world (right) reversed). In case of the car, it might be easier to sell up and buy a similar in Europe if you move. It will be covered by a local warranty.

Posted by Ed
Pensacola
9110 posts

Okay, then you're back to mid-sized places of maybe fifty thousand or even large cities with distinct neighborhoods. Marseille, believe it or not, would fit the bill. So would Zaragoza, Burgos, Bilbao, Tarbes, or Pau. Perpignan is right in your initial area and it might be worth a close look.

You're kind of close on the climate along the Spanish portion of the Bay of Biscay, but it's sure not the miserable, friggin, bone-numbing chill of the Potomac Valley. It's more winter drizzle -- in three years in Bilbao as a kId I probably should have worn a raincoat instead of a jacket all of a dozen times. Winter temps are maybe a forty low at daybreak and mid- fifty by late afternoon. It gets better, but windier, the further west you go.

I'm completely at home in both countries and more than fluent in both languages, so other than city character and size and a few historical/geographic/economic observations -- and without us having tried to drink each other under the table -- I can't find a human fault with either nation, so it's going to be really hard to help you peg what you want. Poking around is going to be the only way to hive it out.

Posted by Tom
Lewiston, NY
10288 posts

"Do you know if there are any issues about different safety/mechanical standards for cars in the US and France?" Once again, I'm applying my experiences in Germany, so they may not apply in France. But just about any car you can legally drive in the US, provided it's in good working condition, should be acceptable for private use in Europe (different story if you're importing the car for sale... but that's not the issue here...). Depending on your model of car, you may have trouble fitting European-style plates on the front and rear bumper, but this isn't an insurmountable problem.

"Would a late model mini likely pass?" If well maintained, yes.

Posted by Kim
Paris
814 posts

Bringing a U.S.-standard car to France: catalytic converter. And, I believe, customs duties, even on your own used car for your own use.

Posted by Kim
Paris
814 posts

Also to be honest, I wouldn't trust my retirement years health care to the Italian health care system.

And I respectfully disagree with Terry's suggestion that maybe some of the rules she mentions would be more lax in Montpellier than in Paris (while recognizing that you don't say you're 100% sure that's the case): all the regulations you're discussing that a person has to follow are national, not local, and apply all over France (which is in any case a very centralized country). In other words, the rules are exactly the same in Montpellier as they are in Paris or Strasbourg or La Rochelle . . .

Posted by Melissa
Baltimore, Md., USA
46 posts

@Kim: Re: Italian health care system...really? I understood that it rated quite highly...or at least private care does, and I'm assuming that I would be buying private insurance that would cover care in a private facility. Starting next Jan. I'll have to pay about $800 a month for a "silver" Obamacare plan...with a $500 deductible and 20% copayments. A quote I got from CIGNA on a global policy which...at least at first look....appeared to be equivalent was several hundred less per month. I'm figuring even if it's the SAME as in the states, I'll be fine. The financial equation changes when I turn 65 and become eligible for Medicare, but who knows where I'll be then. I may not WANT to be anywhere but in the States by then. And if I do, I may be on my way to becoming a permanent elective resident somewhere in Europe.

On the car...it would be disappointing now to discover that I do need to pay import duties even for my own use and that the catalytic converter may not meet European standards. But I wouldn't bring the car until I'm in stage 3...after exploration, after a 6 month minimum stint. So...a long way off before I need to decide what to do. Thanks for adding the info.

Posted by Roland
San Francisco
4 posts

Hi, Melissa: I have a condo in Villefranche sur Mer, about 5 minutes from Nice. We love exploring Southern France. Villefranche is small with lots of history. One can walk to a train station to go east to , Menton, Monte Carlo Ventimiglia and Italy. Going west, one can visit by bus/train Vence, Antibes (the Picasso Museum), Cannes and Marseille, The possibilities are endless. Have fun, I envy you
Roland

Posted by Melissa
Baltimore, Md., USA
46 posts

Roland, thanks for the info and the encouragement. 90% of the time I am thrilled and excited about this adventure and 10% of the time I am totally overwhelmed by the seemingly endless choices to be made and the obstacles to be overcome.

Your area sounds lovely. Would you mind if I PM'd you to ask you some specific questions?

Thanks!

Posted by Anita
Long Beach, California, USA
1249 posts

Hi Melissa,
I would suggest trying out living there through home exchange first. We have done this many times (9 trades total) and it's a great way to "live" in a place before committing to it. We use Home Exchange.com and have had nothing but wonderful experiences with our exchange partners. We've done two exchanges in France, including one in the general area you are looking at. Let me know if you want more information and I'd be happy to share the pros of this type of travel and how to do it.

Posted by Andrea
Peterborough, Ontario, Canada
574 posts

Regarding the car, I would be surprised if it was easily brought over since our neighbours and good friends moved to the States for work and their Canadian car was unacceptable.