Layers of renovation

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.

A shocking discovery

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.

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.

Kitchen 1 hidden door above
See the door?!?!

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.

Thick wall kitchen
Those are solid walls (don’t worry, the wallpaper is gone already)

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.

This is not stud-and-drywall construction


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.

Do you see the straw, sticking out?

It’s called torchis, made of straw and lime (chaux). According to, 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.

New wiring in salon
Wiring that doesn’t run on the outside of the walls!

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.

Les Halles

Veal tongue on the left, beef ribsteak on the right

The market isn’t limited to fruits and vegetables. A block away from the produce at Place Carnot are les Halles Prosper Montagné, named after the Carcassonne native who wrote the first Larousse Gastronomique, the bible of French cooking.

UnknownLes Halles are indoors, built in 1768 next to les Halles aux Grains—the former grain market, today a public library for youth. Les Halles are for not for vegans.

For example, there are several butcher stands selling all kinds of meats. There are big hunks of beef, waiting to be carved on order into steaks. Thin? Thick? Extra thick?

There are dozens of varieties of pâtés.

So many pâtés (round) and terrines (square), not to mention rillettes

And sausages (saucisse), below left, not to be confused with hard sausages (saucissons), below right.

Poultry is in a class by itself. You have whole birds—chickens, geese, ducks, turkeys—birdsalways with the head on because it shows whether the bird is young and tender or old and not. They’ll cut it off for you if you aren’t up for doing it yourself.


There are birds of every size, down to little quail and pigeons.


quail pigeon

Duck breasts, left; quail, center; pigeons, right

The seafood stands are another marvel. They don’t stink at all—proof that the goods are fresh from the nearby sea.

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There are plenty of dishes ready to pop into the oven: escargot, cassoulet, lasagne and more.

And let’s not forget the cheese. There are several cheese merchants at Place Carnot, and in rue de Verdun, as well as vendors of yogurt, goat’s milk, and other specialties.

The black lines are from truffles in the front cheese and from cinders in the morbier behind

Here’s a video with a local historian (so it’s in French, with his wonderful southern accent), explaining how les Halles came to be:ècle-des-lumières-les-halles

The square carries a German name since 1976, when the former “Place du Pilori”—yes, Place of the Pillory!!—was renamed for Carcassonne’s sister city, Eggenfelden.

Get to Work

We did it! We got the green light to renovate our 17th century apartment in the center of Carcassonne!

Boiserie above a chimney...the previous owner generously included the mirrors because they match the decorations and it would be a shame to separate them
Boiserie above a chimney…the previous owner generously included the mirrors because they match the decorations and it would be a shame to separate them

Officials from the Bâtiments de France toured, asking questions. Many of the old buildings in the center have been “renovated,” but without regard to historic preservation, even though almost all have historical classification. People rip out the original tomettes, or red tiles. They install dropped ceilings to make it easier to pass electric cables. They stick wires and pipes anywhere they want, including on the façades, which is strictly forbidden. They even get rid of historic details like chimneys and decorations.

Tomettes...gorgeous when buffed to a shine
Tomettes…gorgeous when buffed to a shine

As a result, renovation permits require a visit from the Bâtiments de France (the folks who break the historic preservation rules also don’t bother to get permits or to pay contractors officially). It’s really sad.

So our visitors seemed a little on guard at first, wary of what we might do. Their smiles got bigger and bigger as we explained that we would completely rewire the place, restore all the tomettes, replace the rotted windows with exact replicas, install completely new bathrooms and kitchens and not touch any of the antique decoration.

Marble mantel in the big kitchen
Marble mantel in the big kitchen
The cast-iron plate in the big kitchen's big fireplace
The cast-iron plate in the big kitchen’s big fireplace

The renovation is going to cost more than the apartment itself, and we’re doing it all by the book. But in the end, we’ll have a treasure to share with travelers to Carcassonne who want more authenticity than one can find in most hotels or lodgings.

Plenty of work to be done
Plenty of work to be done

We’ll post updates about our travails with our travaux. No sooner did we get the OK to start work than the electricians started ripping out the old wiring.

We’ll also tell share stories about the building, which has had many lives over the past four centuries.