By SARAH DiLORENZO, Associated Press
COURBEFY, France (AP) — The village of Courbefy has rustic buildings with fireplaces and exposed beams, a horse stable, a tennis court and a swimming pool.
Sound nice? It's for sale.
The saga of the abandoned hamlet is a story of flight from rural France, bad economic times and real estate schemes gone awry. It's turned the mayor of the village next door into a minor celebrity whose office fields inquiries from places as far flung as Qatar and China.
The village in Limousin, about 280 miles (450 kilometers) southwest of Paris, was put on the block last week because its latest owners, who had run it as a luxury hotel and restaurant, had long stopped paying their mortgage.
The entire hamlet carried an asking price of just euro300,000 ($400,000) — about the cost of a studio apartment in Paris.
But nobody bid.
That meant the village fell into the hands of bank Credit Agricole, which holds the mortgage. The bank hopes to put it up for auction again, and this time the odds are more promising: Since word leaked out to the media that an authentic French village was up for sale, Courbefy has swarmed with potential buyers, joined by curious hangers-on.
This past Sunday more than 50 cars pulled onto the grass that serves as a parking lot just inside the gated entrance to Courbefy.
Among those who are considering the property: a band of former college friends who always promised to live in a commune together, a group of retirees looking for a place to settle down, people interested in setting up a center for the handicapped, others scouting locations for a film set and studio.
"It's a real media phenomenon, it's crazy," said Bernard Guilhem, mayor of Saint Nicolas Courbefy, just down the hill from Courbefy. "It's a big snowball that everyone wants to push."
Who wouldn't, after all, want to own a French village?
Well, Credit Agricole, for one.
The bank, eager to unload the property, gave suitors a Thursday deadline to express serious interest by leaving a deposit of euro330,000 ($440,000) — by law 10 percent higher than the original asking price. A new auction date will then be set.
Already more than 100 people have called Credit Agricole lawyer Paul Gerardin's office with queries.
They come from all over — every corner of France, England, Italy, Belgium, the United States, the Middle East and Asia. Gerardin's secretary has done nothing but field calls all day since the first story appeared in the national press last week.
Since then, Guilhem has also been overrun, variously serving as an amateur historian and real estate agent, showing potential buyers and journalists around. His photo appears in newspapers in Paris. His appointment book is filled. He has to turn his phone to silent when he gives his tours of Courbefy or risk being interrupted every 15 minutes.
Courbefy has gone through many incarnations in its long history.
The village goes back at least to Gallo-Roman times, when a road connecting Limoges and Bordeaux passed through, according to Guilhem.
It was the site of a chateau occupied by Jeanne d'Albret, mother of King Henry IV. Its surroundings are dotted with three so-called "miraculous springs" whose waters supposedly have healing powers.
Local lore has it that early in the Hundred Years' War between England and France, the residents of Limoges hired a mercenary to chase away the English who had settled at Courbefy.
One of the ironies of Courbefy's modern twist of fate? It could be the English who step in to save the town. Wealthy Britons in recent decades have flocked to this corner of France, mostly to the neighboring Dordogne region, where they've scooped up vacation homes and retirement properties.
The last couple to live in Courbefy left in the early 1970s, according to Rachel Mallefont, who grew up in Saint Nicolas Courbefy and went to school with kids who lived "en haut" — up there, as the residents of Saint Nicolas invariably call Courbefy.
It was not uncommon for villages to be abandoned in that era. In the 1970s, running water was brought to the last corners of France but many people ended up leaving villages where hooking up to the grid was too difficult and expensive, according to Francis Cahuzac, president of the French Commission for the Protection of Historic and Rural Heritage.