The renovation is wrapping up. We still have a few things to do, like hang the chandeliers and curtains and reupholster a few pieces. And add some decoration, though that will always be a work in progress.
Welcome to the salon of what we are calling la Suite Barbès, because it faces rue Barbès in the Bastide of Carcassonne.
Because our building, inside and out, is historically protected, the color scheme was dictated by the Bâtiments de France. They decided our window frames and shutters would be RAL 3075, a light gray. The shutters are unusual because they’re on the inside, rather than the outside. Once they were regulation gray, the previous ecru tones just looked dirty rather than off-white. So we decided to roll with Gustavian, which is fine with me.
It was perfectly nice before, except that there was too much furniture–what happens when a family is in the same place for several generations. And the wiring was a fire hazard. And the windows all had to be replaced. And the floors redone.
The dining table is on the other side, in the same spot as before. For closeups, see here.
Between the windows, the beautiful cupboard was a family heirloom so alas we didn’t get to buy it.
We expect them to be ready for rental by Jan. 1 on AirBnB.
There are so many things I love about the apartments we’re renovating.
Obviously the fabulous high-relief carvings are at the top of the list. But many little details make me smile. Like the design of the balcony railings, now painted in regulation gray.
Or the door knobs. Husband scoured all of France to find matching antique knobs.
He also scoured the hardware stores and online to find feet for a couple of radiators. During the demolition, somebody threw them out!
There are a few weird doors to nowhere. A door jamb on one side of a wall and smooth plaster on the other. Though when we discovered the door to the harnais, we decided to keep it. I wonder how they used to get up there? A ladder?
I love the wavy glass in the old interior windows. We had to give it up on the exterior windows, because we aren’t as clever as Daniel of Manhattan Nest, who fixes everything, including making new windows out of old ones, by himself. We had all the exterior windows replaced (by a professional) with double-pane glass, albeit according to strict design rules of the Bâtiments de France.
I love the little interior room that gives onto the light well of the stairway. The view of the stairs is so typically French to me. And talk about a quiet room!
I love that got my way and have black paint on the inside of the window frames in the black and white bathroom. And I got at least a little bit of floor with cabochon tiles.
I love that a friend managed to salvage the Art Deco bed and transform it so artfully from a double to a queen, while improving the frame.
I love the weird things about the place. Like what was the point of the niche below? It isn’t even symmetrical. I can’t wait to scout something to put in it.
I love the furniture we bought with the place. The stories that must have gone with them. Perhaps one day I’ll find out. The previous owner is still around.
The floors have all been treated, the appliances installed (except for the sauna, which is en route), the kitchen cupboards built. We began moving furniture to the right places. It is taking shape.
The front apartment is getting closer. Jacques, the painter, is amazing. He’s meticulous, organized and acts as site manager, coordinating the other artisans. He also cleans up after them a lot. And we are grateful.
We are happy with how the color turned out. Gray wasn’t our choice–we wanted a creamy off-white–but we were required to paint the windows and shutters RAL 7035, so we adapted. (RAL is a color system like Pantone.)
The painting in the front is nearly finished. The tomette expert has to come back to wax and seal the living room’s tiles, which we decided to leave their natural color. They had been painted before.
The bedroom floors just need to be waxed. They are a different kind of tile.
The passage to the other side has been sealed. The doorway, which is two feet thick, will be filled in on the other side with acoustic insulation and a bookcase.
Do you see a problem in the photo above? A wall was erected so all the pipes could pass behind, out of sight. But the plumber stuck a pipe on the outside. He has to redo it.
He (or his assistant) also messed up the connections, so when the water was turned on, it ran all over the floor. More to fix.
The lighting and space is difficult to photograph in the WC, but we are proud of the sink in its pretty converted dresser and with its pretty gray marble. The tile on the floor is the same as on the bathroom wall.
The lighting in the kitchen also is difficult. The floors match the living room (they’re covered with plastic protection now). We have to get the cabinets and appliances installed as soon as they’re done. We are looking for cool sconces. Brocante time!
Some progress has been made on the back apartment. The kitchen backsplash was tiled. I really like how it turned out. The tile was chosen to go with dark red tomettes, but we since learned that tomettes come in many shades. The floors here haven’t been treated yet, so we don’t know what we’ll find.
The back apartment’s WC is tiled and painted and just waiting for the sink to go in. Another tight space that’s hard to photograph.
The second bathroom is installed, but not yet painted, so everything is covered with plastic.
It isn’t all about decorating. Behind the scenes, important upgrades happen.
Luckily there’s a chimney that goes straight up and out for the ventilation from the bathrooms, kitchens and furnace. And lots and lots of NEW wiring. We love the electrician.
The apartments are taking shape, particularly the one in the front.
It’s all primed and taped and ready to paint. Just waiting for the new windows to be installed.
I’ve agonized over the colors. We are required by the historical preservation authorities to paint the window frames (inside and out), balcony and interior shutters a light gray known as RAL 3075. (Turns out RAL is like Pantone, but European.)
I had dreamed of something more in a creamy, buttery palette, with gold touches, like this:
But we’ll go Gustavian if we have to.
We’ll put the whitest white on the ceiling, then a medium gray called Silex on the walls, and two shades lighter for the carved decorations and interior doors. The front apartment faces south and is very bright, so we’re going to be a little daring with darker walls.
We have some wonderful slipper chairs in blush that should work nicely with the gray.
The curtains present some dilemmas. Before, the curtains covered the windows when open, with the rods placed barely larger than the openings.
We’ll have to spread them out in the bedroom. But in the living room, there isn’t much space to avoid covering the wonderful decoration between the windows and to have curtains that aren’t skimpy.
So: should we try curtains that pull to only one side? Or would that look weird?
I am scouring the encyclopedic do’s and don’t of window coverings at Cote de Texas, but am open to suggestions!
The floors are done, too, with some surprises.
The living room went from this (not unusual to paint the terra cotta tiles):
The bathrooms are tiled, and fixtures will be installed as soon as the walls and ceilings are painted. Reveals coming soon.
Carcassonne is home to two Unesco World Heritage sites: la Cité and the Canal du Midi.
The Canal du Midi stretches 150 miles from near Sète on the Mediterranean, to Toulouse, where it meets the Canal de Garonne, which goes to the Atlantic.
Unesco says the canal, which was built between 1667 and 1694, is one of the greatest engineering achievements of the Modern Age, and that it laid groundwork for the Industrial Revolution.
It was the brainchild of Pierre-Paul Riquet, who started out as a tax collector and who not only came up with the idea for a canal (well, the Romans thought of it first but couldn’t figure out how to carry it out), he also was the engineer for it.
It was no small feat. Although the canal travels across a plain, it’s flat only in comparison with the Black Mountains to the north and the Pyrenees to the south. There are plenty of hills (ask any bicyclist). Riquet also had to build a reservoir, the Lac de Saint-Ferréol near Revel, to feed the canal with water from the Black Mountains.
There are 53 locks, or écluses, to accommodate the changes in elevation, which used to be operated by men and/or donkeys but now are electric. As many as 10,000 workers were engaged at a time, making it one of the big infrastructure projects of its time. Support for it was high because it would cut the trip between the Atlantic and the Mediterranean and also avoid the piracy around southern Spain at that time. (More locks shown below.)
Riquet paid for it partly with taxes that he was empowered to collect and partly through his own fortune, which he exhausted. Carcassonne originally had been bypassed, not wanting to pay up; the canal got a detour through Carcassonne that opened in 1810.
Riquet died in 1680, just a few months before the major part of the canal was finished.
Of course, when there’s lots of rain, the canal risks overflowing, so Riquet devised basins (called épanchoirs) to divert the excess.
The canal even goes through a tunnel (the Malpas tunnel), built in 1670 in Hérault, and over a river (the Orb in Béziers).
The barges, carrying wheat, wine, fabric and other goods, were pulled by men and donkeys, and fruit trees were planted along the banks to provide food. As the traffic made the banks erode, the platanes that are so typical of the south of France were planted instead. However, the platanes are under attack from an untreatable fungus, and are themselves being replaced by oaks.
The last commercial barge passed in 1980. The only traffic since then has been touristic.
Around November, segments of the canal are drained to allow for dredging and repairs to the locks. It’s a sad time of year, seeing the mud bottom exposed. When the canal is refilled later in winter, it feels as if spring is already around the corner.
The canal is great for hiking and biking—it’s flat and mostly shady. It’s impossible to get lost.
You also can go for boat rides (or you can rent houseboats (le Boat, Canalous) that you pilot yourself if you want to stay on the water that long). A boat ride is a perfect inactivity for a hot summer day. Just get your tickets in advance–if a busload of tourists arrives ahead of you, you’ll have to wait for the next departure.
Lou Gabaret, le Cocagne and le Defi offer cruises along the canal, with different lengths and starting times. There also are evening dinner cruises. Even if it’s hot, take a sweater, because you get a nice breeze off the water. The starting point is the Port of Carcassonne, in front of the train station. The cruises usually include a historic commentary, given in as many languages as needed. The guides are really amazing linguists.
Quite amazingly, our windows might date to the 1700s, according to the architect from the Bâtiments de France who inspected our place. We have records for the place dating to 1624, but we’re not sure precisely when it was built.
Windows used to be different. Glass was too expensive for most medieval folks. But by the mid-1500s nearly every home had glass windows. It was the disruptive technology of its time.
According to verre-histoire.org, windows took on the charming style of small glass squares set in oak frames. By 1660 in Paris and later in other big cities, the French turned these into big, criss-crossed windows.
I can just imagine the discussion. Husband: “Our neighbors just put in new windows. They say it really cut the drafts. I think we ought to upgrade, too.”
Wife: “I totally agree. Our windows look so last-century. Here we’re putting in the latest wood carvings above the fireplaces, and we don’t bother to get new windows? I say if we’re going modern, then let’s go all-in.”
Somehow, the 18th century windows lasted for about 300 years. But it’s time to change again. Not by choice.
The frames are so rotted that it’s hard to shut them.
Our carpenter, Menuiserie Ribo in Carcassonne, is one of only a couple of carpenters accepted by the Bâtiments de France to replace windows on historically protected buildings. Their Web site says, “We make it a point of honor to copy the cachet of existing elements while using strict standards for materials for insulation against noise and heat.”
It isn’t surprising that a building from the 1600s has seen its share of renovations through the centuries. Electricity and running water, for example. Central heat. Windows. A door would be better here. No, there.
The apartment was about 100 years old, when the owners decided to give it a massive upgrade. The Bâtiments de France architect who inspected our place told me the boiseries above the fireplaces came into style in the 18th century and probably were added to our place late in the century, considering we’re in the sticks vis-a-vis trend-setting Paris.
At some point, walls were added. You can tell, because the coffered ceilings extend to the next room, but the earlier renovators finished out the moldings in the main room to make it look like the wall had been there all along.
The coffered ceiling is cut off
The moldings have been adjusted at the added-on wall
A little storage area for horse harnesses was added above an entry. What was shocking was to strip off the wallpaper and find a door. How did they get up there? Ladder? While carrying a harness? Or was it the harness room much later and this was for a maid or servant? Very mysterious.
My biggest surprise was discovering just what our place is made of. Clearly the two-foot-thick walls are stone—the place has an incredibly good energy rating, despite having leaky windows.
When the contractors were piercing these walls to run new wiring and exhaust vents, they couldn’t just buzz-cut through solid stone. They had to chip them out and fill in with concrete.
And then, while running wiring through one of the added-on walls, which are only about two inches thick, the plaster came off, revealing the inner wall.
It’s called torchis, made of straw and lime (chaux). According to durable.com, it’s lighter than concrete but just as strong. And it’s a great insulator.
In another spot, some contractor of long ago meticulously filled in the space between wood beams with small stones.
Luckily we have great contractors who seem utterly in love with old buildings. It was the artisan restoring our tomettes who excitedly explained to me about torchis walls. Our painter treats the entire place as if it were a canvas for a masterpiece. He has taken charge of making sure the plaster is in good shape for centuries to come, all while preserving the past.
It would not surprise me at all to find out that what is now one apartment was once two, or at least half of it got added on later. There’s a difference in grade between the front and back. There are separate entrances for the two sides. The windows aren’t alike at all. It’s almost as if they’re two different buildings. Maybe they are. Some past renovation, where somebody added on.
We are splitting the halves again, making a single apartment that’s bigger than our house into two roomy apartments. Trying to get all the mod-cons while preserving the old charm.
While la Bastide St. Louis of Carcassonne was founded in 1248, few buildings from that period still stand. That’s because they were built of wood, and had a tendency to catch fire.
Not to mention that in 1355, the Black Prince, aka Edward of Woodstock who was then the Prince of Wales, burned the place to the ground.
If you look at la Bastide from above, you can see that, aside from a grid of streets, not a lot was planned.
Buildings got added onto. Narrow streets from centuries ago got built over and are now corridors within buildings.
The son of our apartment’s previous owner, who grew up there, said rumor is that the whole Bastide sits on a honeycomb of tunnels and secret passageways. Exciting!
I was trying to imagine what life must have been like, back when our place was new. Between 1628 and 1633, the plague killed 1,895 people in the Bastide, or a quarter of the population. Things were worse in la Cité, where residences were smaller and more cramped: 2,146 dead, or half the population of the fortified town.
The people who picked up the dead were called ravens because of the black veils they wore over their faces. Robbers disguised themselves as ravens to move around town with impunity.
The town fell into an economic depression. The authorities let in workers, weavers and artisans to make up for the drop in tax revenues. The fabric industry had been tightly controlled because Carcassonne’s products were renowned for their high quality, sought even in Italy and the Middle East.
Eventually, the Bastide was home to many increasingly rich drapery merchants. The fabric was exported via the Canal du Midi, which was completed in 1681. In 1694, the drapery factory on the Cité bank of the Aude was founded and named, two years later, as a royal supplier. It was the golden age for Carcassonne.
Some of those buildings have been restored. The Manufacture Royale, for example, was renovated for €500,000 euros and now houses government offices. Drapery merchants built their fine homes in the 18th century, such as Hôtel de Rolland, which is now city hall, or Hôtel Roux d’Alzonne, which is now a middle school.
We were lucky to acquire many beautiful pieces of furniture with the apartment we’re renovating.
They are so full of character. How could anybody choose melamine-covered plywood boxes when you can have this?
Not to mention the nasty vapors from the glues that hold together those composite materials.
These are all solid wood. Not recycled, not given a “new” life, but given a new lease on life. Another chance to serve and be appreciated.
To stay out of a landfill. Even the thought makes me shudder!
Some pieces make it hard not to smile. Can you imagine having these critters cavorting around your feet during dinner?
And I would love to know who these two were. Real people? Based on a painting?
Some of these date to the late 1800s, when machines were starting to be used.
But clearly no machine carved this.
I don’t want to do up the place like some stiff museum. It should be comfortable. But a generous helping of antiques seems befitting of our 1624 apartment. It adds to the escapism when someone visits—who wants to go on vacation to a place that’s just like home, or just like any fancy hotel?
I’ve shifted from vintage to antique in my personal preferences, but I also love ultra modern design. I especially like it in restaurants. Yet I wouldn’t want to live in it—it’s too perfectionist and would leave me stressed.
Do you like antiques? Where do you stand on the wood color vs. paint debate?