Alexis Lamoureux and Lotte Van Riel met through mutual friends and fell in love. She was a student at university. He was a bartender travelling through Europe. “He was always travelling. He had a big vision of what life should be like and rarely stayed in one place for any length of time,” recalls Lotte. They have been together for six and a half years now. Necessity became the mother of resourcefulness when the young couple wanted a place to stay but simply could not reconcile with the outrageous rent prices in France. "It's a hard time in Europe right now. The market is performing extremely poorly. The rental market is rubbish. You would have to get three times your usual salary to be able to afford rent. For young people like us who don't have a lot of money, it is a brutal world to be in," fumes Alexis.
Literally troglodyte means a prehistoric cave. It definitely was an apt name for the abandoned and waste dumped structure that the couple came across. They were getting increasingly desperate about their financial situation. If not able to find decent lodgings soon, Lotte would have to go back to Netherland where she had more career opportunities. It was a prospect that would have broken both their hearts. That is why when they found the cave for sale, they went ahead and bought it. For 1 Euro no less. Alexis says, "When we saw this, we thought we could buy it and make it liveable. Nobody wanted it because it was such a garbage dump. But we saw our chance to have a home." "It was incredibly hard to fix it. But we took it on, thinking we could do it," says Lotte.
Amboise in France was once home to many luminaries, including Leonardo Da Vinci and is dotted with beautiful scenery and historic heritage buildings. It was an idyllic choice for home. "We were naively optimistic in the way that young folks tend to be. We thought how much work could this possibly require? We'll get in, clean it up, renovate a little, get in electricity and water and we'll be good to go." The answer to the 'how much work' question turned out to be a staggering lot.
They could hire only one mason due to budget constraints. “Our own labour is cheap,” grins Alexis. “So we learnt everything from him and then the three of us turned this place around." "We did everything ourselves, quips Lotte, “From all the digging and the tiling to the kitchen. In the process we learned so much.”
It was not always their plan to do the excruciatingly hard physical work by themselves. “We applied to ten different banks for loans. The idea was simple. We already own the place. We planned to renovate it and eventually sell it. I drew up a business plan to that effect, but every single bank turned us down," recounts Alexis. “Those days were hard for us," muses Lotte. This is an emotionally charged topic for Alexei. "Banks are crazy. I don't know how it is in India but here they just don't want to lend money to people. They don't finance the real economy. That's not fair." "It would have been a win win situation for the banks. We had all the material costs down to a T. We both had an income. Loaning us money was not a risky proposition. They all loved the story and the plan," says Lotte. But that was not to be, a fortunate turn of events retrospectively. “Now we don’t have any debt to pay off,” Alexis smiles happily.
They worked for three years to transform the cave into a dream home. Their day job was working at Alexei's family restaurant. They worked different shifts and then would come back and work on the cave. It was back breaking work and, at the time, with no end in sight. "Every time we thought we came close to the end, there would be a new onslaught of things that needed to be done. It got pretty discouraging," says Lotte. I ask if they would have gone through with the project if they had known at the onset how hard it would have been. "Oh yes absolutely," enthuses Lotte. "We would have gone through with it no matter how hard it was. The alternative was for us to stay apart and that wasn't an option."
No one knows when this cave was dug. The general consensus is the eleventh century, but there is no definitive proof. "When they started blowing up the mountains to build castles in the old days, these caves sprung up all over the mountains. So people moved in and started living here," says Lotte. Whatever the history of the cave, this one has been abandoned for centuries.
Once, when they were close to giving up, they just moved in. There no electricity. Though water was there, there wasn't any provision for hot water. Both felt that as long as they kept working on it externally, there would be no end of things to be done. So they moved in May 2013. The cave lacked many amenities of the twenty first century then, but within a couple of months it was a warm and cheery place the lovebirds could call their own.
"We had no idea it would be so beautiful," grins Alexis proudly, "The hard labour had obliterated our vision of the bigger picture. When everything was done, the place took our breath away." They had an extra room and decided to rent it out. "We love meeting new people and hearing their stories," says Lotte. For Alexei, the once constant traveller, this is yet another way to keep his wanderlust alive. It did not start out as a business idea. When I ask if they have managed to recoup their original investment, they are indignant. "The intention was not to make a profit. This is our home and we are happy to share it with the world," says Lotte. And the world is happy to share. Ever since they put the advert up on Airbnb, tourists and travellers from across the world have been pouring in.
Newspapers and websites across the world have written about them. "Recently a woman from China saw our story and came across just to stay here. Imagine that, China! You are from India and we get to speak to you. This home has opened up the world to us," exults Lotte.
Though it was not a business idea to begin with, the outpouring of interest from the world over has encouraged the entrepreneurial couple to go ahead full scale with their dreams. Their 1 Euro investment has also secured them the two attaching caves to their residential property. Given the wild success of their venture (they are booked solid, mentions Lotte), they are looking to convert those into home stays as well. This time the route promises to be much easier, though no less fun.
While signing off from our conversation it is hard not to feel a little disappointed. Apart from the warm camaraderie between Alexei and Lotte, I am also saying goodbye to the lovely troglodyte. I assure them that someday, post donating my kidneys, I will make it to their neck of the woods. They laugh heartily and finish each other's sentences while basking in the beautiful home, and now livelihood, they have created for themselves. It is then I realize that they may be a happy couple in love who have overcome insurmountable odds to stay with each other. But they are foremost a stellar team who facilitate each other's strengths by tackling challenges together and with deep conviction. Isn't that every entrepreneur's dream, to be part of such a team?