Happily, 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.
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.
It made me reflect again on what we went through, putting in new wiring and plumbing in apartments built for neither.
You can see the saga of our renovations under the heading Our Vacation Apartments. We hope you get to visit in person, too!
Appearances 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.
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).
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.
The second room’s beams date to 1640 and are quite different. They would be stylish today. I would love them at home!
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.And 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.In 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.
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.
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.
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?
Send your answers in the comments. And merci mille fois!
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.
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.
The view to the street shows how each former room had a window. Sorry about the backlight.
I’ve made pale gray slipcovers for the chairs. The fabric is lovely soft velvet with a tone-on-tone paisley pattern.
The bigger space is more suited to the gorgeous fireplace.
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.
The apartment is arranged as enfilade rooms, designed for a continuous line of sight as well as for cross ventilation.
The previous chandelier is now in the bedroom. We found a bigger, more sparkly one:
It really does have va-va-voom.
As 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?
If you’d like to rent it for your vacation in Carcassonne, contact me here at email@example.com or at firstname.lastname@example.org. It will be up on the holiday rental sites very shortly.
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 painting is done. The kitchens are built. The electricity is done. The floors are ALMOST done. The bathrooms are installed.
The painter, Jacques, has been amazing. Look how he did the details on the chimney above.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 leboncoin.fr, 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.
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.
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!
Welcome 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.
These photos were taken around 9 p.m. on a Friday night. Just sayin’.
Sharply shorn trees….
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.
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.