Renovation Nightmares

IMG_0296Happily, no helicopters were needed for our renovations. But such are the challenges of maintaining ancient buildings that lie within walled cities whose streets were laid out a millennium before cars.

A few weeks ago, I was walking around la Cité and heard an incredible racket. With the narrow streets, the sound bounced around such that I wasn’t sure at first what it was or where it was coming from. Then I realized it was a helicopter and got a little worried about why it was so close to la Cité. Carcassonne is home to the Third Regiment of Parachutists of the Marine Infantry (RPIMa), so planes and helicopters are not unknown in skies around here. And when wildfires break out, we get some very low-flying planes that drop water.

Traffic blocked, too. Not that there was any traffic. The beams were picked up from a parking lot and carried inside the walls, like a stork with a newborn.

Outside la Cité’s walls I understood–the helicopter was making a special delivery of long beams for a renovation project. Such beams would have been too long to thread through the winding paths, not at all straight, of la Cité. Having gulped at the cost of delivery of renovation materials by truck (during certain times on certain days!), I imagined many zeroes popping up behind some number, like in a cartoon. Nothing is easy or cheap with old buildings.

Main drag of la cite empty
The main street of la Cité on a busy winter morning.
Difficult access was intentional. Today’s weather–clear blue skies and flirting with 60 degrees–is nothing like this moody photo.

It made me reflect again on what we went through, putting in new wiring and plumbing in apartments built for neither.

Toilette 1
WC 2
YIKES! Not to code!!!
wiring mess
All new wiring, heading toward the new fusebox.
Making a path for the new wiring through 2-foot-thick stone walls. 
New wiring in salon
Wiring in place.
Unexpected surprises: In some places, the walls were stuffed with straw and lime paste. Good insulation.
Cuisine sol 2
Not in good shape. Luckily, they covered a treasure!
We restored the original tomette tiles throughout the apartments.
Kitchen hotte
It served its purpose, but as the architect says, “it has no historical value”

You can see the saga of our renovations under the heading Our Vacation Apartments. We hope you get to visit in person, too!


You Never Know What You’ll Find

artichokeAppearances can be deceptive. The Maison des Mémoires (House of Memories) is a haunting name for nicely restored building in the center of Carcassonne, mixing industrial modern touches with ancient stones. A sun-drenched interior courtyard shows beyond the reception desk.

Why I never entered is a mystery. I love this sort of thing. But la Maison des Memoires is modest, at least from the street, and when I passed, I was usually in a hurry on my way to something else.

I finally visited. And it was a treat. An unexpected discovery of unexpected discoveries. How’s that for meta?

The building, at 53 rue de Verdun (entry is free), was the home of Joë Bousquet, a poet and author who hobnobbed with the surrealists. They came to him because he was unable to get out. He was paralyzed by a bullet to the spine in World War I at the age of 21.

CHAMBRE JOË BOUSQUET Photo de Daniel Depoix
With paintings by his artist friends, who included many Surrealists. Copyright Centre Joë Bousquet/Daniel Depoix. Used with permission.

Bousquet mostly stayed in the dim of his upstairs room, where he smoked opium to cope with the pain. Opium became popular in France at the turn of the last century, as sailors and military brought it back with them from Indochina. It became so popular that smoking it was outlawed in 1908. But Bousquet’s father was a doctor, who had legal access, and his circle of artistic friends supplemented his supply.

Tangent discovered in researching this: France is the biggest legal producer of opium poppies rich in codeine (which is one of the six naturally occurring opium alkaloids; morphine is the most important one for medicine).

DSC_0021 Mail
Another view. He lived by the light of a reading lamp, and the world came to him here. Copyright Centre Joë Bousquet/Daniel Depoix. Used with permission.

The ground floor has a reception area (entry is free), and upstairs are two rooms for visiting exhibits–a series of photographs about immigration when I visited–and two more rooms about Bousquet, with photos and his books. At the end of a small hallway, you can look into Bousquet’s bedroom, kept as he left it, with the shutters closed.

The exhibit rooms are stunning, exhibits notwithstanding. When the building was renovated, gorgeous painted ceiling beams were revealed. They were restored but not brightened or altered. The first room is kept dark, so it was hard to photograph without flash.

first ceiling 1
Ceilings in the first room, which date to 1570.

first ceiling 2The second room’s beams date to 1640 and are quite different. They would be stylish today. I would love them at home!second ceiling 2

second ceiling 1

second ceiling corner

A matching square was on the opposite wall.

The rooms are arranged in the typical French disposition, with doors aligned for sight lines and air circulation. As you stand in the second room and look through the first to the hallway beyond, there’s a trompe d’oeil fresco that was discovered after a new staircase had been installed. The fresco was placed to give the impression of a pastoral view that continued on to the horizon.trompe d'oeilAnd then, get a load of this beauty below. This is no reflection on the Bousquet family, because Joë lived in two other houses on the same street before moving here. But sometimes you have to appreciate when decorators don’t do the “right” thing. Like when they slap something new right on top of the old stuff, instead of first removing the old.wallpaper full angleIn this case, the old stuff was Aubusson wallpaper, signed and dated: 1791. It originally had been a few feet away, at the end of a hallway, but was moved here, away from the window. Whoever had gotten sick of it so many years ago just left it there and covered it up.

wallpaper straight full
If this were in my house, I would put a really comfortable sofa facing it, and then stare at it all day.
Border detail. You can make out the seam in the paper. Perfectly matched.

Another tangent: the tapestries that had made Aubusson (and Gobelins and Beauvais) famous fell out of fashion, in part because they weren’t needed for insulation as homes were better heated and in part because the French Revolution (1789-1799) put a big dent in their clientele. So they started making wallpaper, which was coming into fashion. In fact, the first definition of tapisser today in French is to hang wallpaper. I love etymological connections.

wallpaper bottom half
Still chic, IMHO

Sadly for Bousquet, all these beauties had been hidden under plaster and discovered only during the renovation to create the museum. I can just imagine, having been there, done that: a bump against a wall sends a layer of plaster clattering down. In our case, we discovered not antique wallpaper but that the walls had been filled with straw. You never know what you will find.

After my second visit to la Maison des Memoires, I hit the library for some of Bousquet’s books. I wasn’t familiar with Bousquet, nor with his contemporaries, such as Andrew Gide and Paul Éluard. Another happy discovery. Here are a few passages translated:

The truth that we understand is but the image of that which inspires us.

You have presumed too much of the future and of luck. The time which should have brought you happiness is dead en route, and you fall again to the power of the shadows that follow you. But an unhoped-for rescue comes to you with your strengths, which you hadn’t imagined. Would you say that everything is lost because there’s only you to save yourself?

Don’t imitate reality, collaborate with it.

A fragment of the past.

Meanwhile, a call for help from a reader: what exactly are these scissors used for? They are 6.5 inches or 16 cm long. I was thinking for sewing, though they’re longer than my pretty sewing scissors and the blades are different. What do you say?Scissors 1

Scissors 2

Send your answers in the comments. And merci mille fois!

Before/After: The Bedroom

The bedroom of the front apartment underwent a major transformation. For one thing, it had been chopped into two bedrooms, and we turned it back into one. You can relive the demolition here.

Bedroom wall gone huge room
Notice how the little wall had gone right up around the moldings!

It wasn’t easy–all the debris had to be carried out bucket by bucket.


We ended up with a space that’s 35 square meters–more than 375 square feet. For a bedroom. It’s almost a ballroom.

The historic preservation folks asked us to keep the jib door, but it’s sealed, with sound insulation and shelves on the other side. The door to the right used to lead to a hallway, which opened to the space with the furnace and hot-water heater, and the toilet was off of that. We closed it off and put a toilet in the hallway.

Before: a hall
After: a powder room.

The view to the street shows how each former room had a window. Sorry about the backlight.

After. The door on the left is the bathroom.

I’ve made pale gray slipcovers for the chairs. The fabric is lovely soft velvet with a tone-on-tone paisley pattern.

That door goes to the living room.

The bigger space is more suited to the gorgeous fireplace.


A closeup of the boiserie
Detail on the mantel
The kneeler found a home

The bed is full of special details. For one thing, we went with a queen-size organic mattress made in Mazamet. So it is a bit bigger than the antique headboard.



The sconces were another antique find.


Even the sheets are antique. What young bride-to-be embroidered them for her trousseau? And then put them away, because they are like new.



Whenever possible, we chose Made in France.


We look forward to welcoming visitors with an authentic French experience in an amazing setting.

Our apartments can be found on Abritel/Homeaway/VRBO: the front here and the back here or on AirBnb, with the front apartment here and the back here.

Before/After: Living Room

salon-daybed-centerIt’s way better in person.

The first apartment is ready. The second one will be ready soon. The last i’s are being dotted and t’s crossed on the piles of paperwork.

The journey has been satisfying, especially when we see where we started. The before, below.


Wallpaper (flocked!) removed, wiring and plumbing completely redone, floors restored, windows replaced, furniture edited. Surprises along the way.

400-year-old tomettes, paint removed.

Here’s another angle:


Contrast the dining area:


No longer cramped, it’s the perfect place for breakfast…


or dinner.

table-setNo pets allowed, but there are plenty of animals:


p1060451The details are carefully preserved.


The elaborate mirrors echo…

the boiseries above them…
in the style of Versailles.
Fireplace detail
More under-the-table fabulousness

The apartment is arranged as enfilade rooms, designed for a continuous line of sight as well as for cross ventilation.

en-filadeThe previous chandelier is now in the bedroom. We found a bigger, more sparkly one:

It looks small up there but it’s a meter wide.

It really does have va-va-voom.

chandelierAs is my wont, I changed the furniture around about eight times. I think I like it with the daybed parallel with the wall, rather than in the center of the room (as in the first photo). What do you think?

salon-daybed-on-sideIf you’d like to rent it for your vacation in Carcassonne, contact me here at or at It will be up on the holiday rental sites very shortly.

It’s in the Details

balconyThere 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.

doorknobOr 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!

radiator feet
It’s a small triumph but a necessary one

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?

harnais door

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.

wavy glass
Can you make out the waves?

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!

back bedroom window
More wavy glass! Those stairs don’t ripple like that.

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.

back bedroom bed
This is going to be a great place to sleep. Do you see half of a ghost door in the corner? The wall next to it is solid stone! WTF? No door on the other side, either.

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.

back bedroom niche

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.

Who was M???
A comtoise, or grandfather clock

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.

Renovation update

chimney back aptThe painting is done. The kitchens are built. The electricity is done. The floors are ALMOST done. The bathrooms are installed.


back living fireplace
The living room of the apartment facing the courtyard.

The painter, Jacques, has been amazing. Look how he did the details on the chimney above.

back kitchen sink wall
The washing machine, wrapped up on the left, goes in the hole on the right.

On the other hand, the kitchens were a nightmare. A friend who used to work for one of the fancy kitchen outfitters said that if we weren’t having custom-made solid wood cabinets (which would be crazy expensive for a rental), then we should go with Ikea, because the quality is the same as the fancy kitchen outfitters but at a fraction of the price. Indeed, we made the tour and decided to go with Ikea. We were quite happy with an Ikea wardrobe wall in our kid’s room.

front kitchen
In the other apartment, a different style.

We made plans using their online tool, but the wardrobe experience taught us that there are little astuces, or smart tricks, that their experts know so it’s worth going to the store for advice. We took an appointment with a kitchen expert–I don’t know how it is in the U.S., but in France meeting the kitchen expert costs €149. Which is worth not having problems.

Except, we did have problems.

front kitchen tile
I just love this tile.

Delivery was promised for 10 days later, July 28, with an SMS the night before to give us a two-hour window for arrival. We arranged for a carpenter to install the kitchens the following Monday–and even begged him to delay his vacation so we could get the kitchens done.

A hard-to-get, out-of-stock Dömsjo sink.

But we didn’t get an SMS. On July 28, husband waited at the apartments, but nobody came. I called Ikea, and learned that the Dömsjo sinks we’d ordered weren’t available, so the delivery had been canceled. No warning. The customer service center said, basically, tough luck. They could reschedule us for late August. Or I could go to the store myself and beg.

I wasn’t crazy about going to Toulouse–1.5 hours away each way, but likely far more in July and August when the autoroute is bumper-to-bumper with vacationers. But I REALLY didn’t want to wait that long.

back kitchen fireplace bottom
The big fireplace in the big kitchen.

The person at Ikea in Toulouse was very helpful, and spent an hour dealing with the delivery contractors to get us in earlier. We canceled the problematic sinks and planned for Tuesday, Aug. 2. Then a manager got involved and arranged for Saturday, July 29. Even better–the kitchen contractor would be able to get right to work on Monday.

I warned them that the driver needed to call us when he arrived near Carcassonne, because  the main street is closed on Saturday because of the market. Not all the streets are closed, though, and if you know your way around, you can get almost anywhere. I would guide them through the labyrinth.

back kitchen whole fireplace
Another view to show the chimney

We got our text the night before: delivery between 9 and 11 a.m. At 11:15, we got a text from the driver saying they would be there in 20 minutes. Well, we thought, maybe they would be able to slip in with the trucks of the market vendors, who would at that time be lining up to remove their stalls.

confiturier 1
confiturier, or built-in cupboard in one kitchen.

An hour later, still waiting, we texted the driver. He texted back that the police had told him the main street was closed (DUH) so he’d left! We couldn’t believe they had loaded up two kitchens and driven two hours and then not made an effort to complete the delivery.

Back on the phone to Ikea. But madame, your delivery already has been rescheduled for Tuesday, the guy told me. Promise? I asked. Promise, he sweetly assured me.

No text Monday night. No delivery Tuesday. Back on the phone to Ikea. There was no delivery for Tuesday, they told me. That other guy was wrong. But we can squeeze you in on Thursday.

Powder room

The fourth time was the charm. Kind of. The guys arrived on time. It was impossible to keep track of what was delivered, because the 17 boxes had no relation to the five-page order form. It turned out we had too many toe-kicks, a missing drawer-front (which, it turned out, had been ordered by the “expert” in the wrong size–10 cm tall instead of the 20 cm needed), and were short of feet for two cupboards–again, the “expert” counted wrong.

That meant another trip to Ikea. Actually, it took two, because it wasn’t until everything else was done that we realized we didn’t need the other toe-kick. Sigh.

We checked all the hardware/plumbing stores to find sinks. We found a farmhouse sink like the Ikea one by Villeroy & Boch for €600. You have to hand it to Ikea that they do good style at a decent price (Ikea’s was €125). I suggested we look at, which is a French kind of craigslist. Husband was skeptical, but we were desperate. And….we found the exact same sink near Perpignan, at half the Ikea price. New, too–the seller had decided to remodel differently.

kitchen back
Missing drawer under oven not shown….

We then stopped at a last hardware store. We didn’t want stainless steel or some kind of plastic amalgam, which were the only choices under €600. That hardware store was the kind of mom-and-pop place where they don’t throw out merchandise if it doesn’t move. We got a ceramic sink for the other apartment at the same price as Ikea’s.

front sink
A hard-to-find ceramic sink.

The appliances were delivered and installed, and it’s all taking shape. Now comes the fun part: decorating!

So: Ikea yeah or nay? Were our mix-ups exceptional or typical? Share your stories!


malves chateau 3Welcome to Malves en Minervois. As its official Web site says, it’s “a charming village of about 825 inhabitants nestled in a green setting.” True.

It has a fabulous renaissance château from the 16th century, with 300 square meters per floor (think of the heat bill!). There are some pretty wonderful painted ceilings and frescoes. And a big park behind the château, where they sometimes have arts or food fairs.

malves catThese photos were taken around 9 p.m. on a Friday night. Just sayin’.

Stone houses….malves trees

Sharply shorn trees….

malves corner house

Odd little houses with entries like afterthoughts. There was an elderly lady sitting in the garden around the corner whom I startled as I went by. Clearly unusual to have strangers wandering about. Birds, yes. Photographers, no.

There ARE some things to do, besides stroll. There’s a café next to the château that’s sometimes open. And a little grocery. I was just passing through and couldn’t resist the light. And the flowers in unexpected places.

Of course, there’s a winery. Don’t be silly! Château Malves-Bousquet, next to the big château. It’s good, too–Minervois has some excellent wines. We’ll go into that another time.

Malves road


Renovation update

salon above fireplace
Above the living room fireplace

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.

salon betw windows
In the living room, between the windows

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.)

salon floor 2
The living room floor…a little wet because it had just been cleaned.

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.

bedroom 1 floorThe bedroom floors just need to be waxed. They are a different kind of tile.

bedroom 1 above fireplace
Above the fireplace in the bedroom
bedroom 1 door
Do you see the little door?

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.

The front bathroom

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.

WC 1
Powder room for the front apartment

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.

cuisine 1
The kitchen of the front apartment

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!

cuisine 2 both walls
The kitchen of the back apartment…don’t worry, the door will be painted.

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.

WC 2
The sink has yet to be installed.

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.

Stay tuned.

Renovation update

old and new windows bedroom
I miss the old wavy glass, but the panes were so fragile we lost one almost every time we closed a window.

The windows are being installed!

Wood baguettes will be added where the lines are (new on the right, old on the left, above).

The wood on the bottom of the French doors was so rotten, you could see through the holes.

salon 2 window
Sorry about the backlight!

The windows in the back are a little different, with smaller squares. We had to keep exactly the same style as the originals.

fix door

Other things have been fixed as well. The carpenter had to move this interior door more than an inch because of settling.

kitchen wavy wall
The difference is about two inches

None of the walls are straight. And some are stranger than others. Maybe because of the stones used? Look at how much this kitchen wall varies. I’m glad we aren’t putting cupboards against it.

SDB 1 paint

One bathroom is painted. The gray came out a perfect match with the pre-existing (but new) shower and the new tile.

The front apartment’s living room got a first coat of paint, but I’m going to wait until it’s all done to let you have the maximum gasp from the change.



Les travaux

The apartments are taking shape, particularly the one in the front.

Salon fireplace
The living room
Chambre fireplace
The bedroom

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:

Fave pinterest salon
From Pinterest…if anybody knows the source, do tell.

But we’ll go Gustavian if we have to.

Lovely, n’est-ce pas? Jean-Louis Deniot interior.

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.

Chambre facing street
The attachments for the rods are still there. See how close they were?

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.

Salon facing street
The living room is a tougher nut to crack. How to hang the curtains for maximum window AND maximum carving exposure?

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):

25. Salon actuel tomettes 1
Tomettes…gorgeous when buffed to a shine

To this:

Salon floors being treated
Paint treated for removal.

To this:

salon cleaned floors
They’ll get a protective coating but will keep these colors. In the past, people painted them to have a uniform color.

The bathrooms are tiled, and fixtures will be installed as soon as the walls and ceilings are painted. Reveals coming soon.