Visigoth signToday we’re going WAY back in history, to the Visigoths. Everybody gets all excited about the Middle Ages, but there were plenty of things that happened in these parts a good 1,000 years earlier.

The Visigoths were a Germanic tribe that moved into southwestern France as the Roman Empire started falling apart, around 400 A.D. In fact, the Visigoths sacked Rome (it was the second time for Rome, having been sacked the first time 800 years earlier, by the Gauls), which speeded the empire’s decline.

Mont Alaric

The chief of the Visigoths was Alaric, whose name graces the peak of a small mountain just outside Carcassonne. Mont Alaric, at 600 meters high, makes for a nice hike that affords wonderful views.

Visigoth tombThe countryside in the south is riddled with Visigoth traces. Near the village of Villarzel-Cabardès, about 12 km from Carcassonne, a Visigoth cemetery, known as the “Moural des Morts,” is nestled under some pine trees. The Visigoths are thought to have lived in the area from the fifth to seventh centuries.

Visigoth tomb 1The cemetery has 44 stone tombs, oriented east-west. The Visigoths don’t seem to have been big people. Obviously child mortality was high back then, but even the biggest tombs seem pretty small.

The archeological artifacts from the area, apart from the tombs themselves, are collected at a small but fascinating museum in Villarzel. It’s the passion of Louis Guiraud, whom one must telephone to open up the museum. He’s an excellent guide.

Visigoth tombs 2

Window to the past

windows cote cour buanderie copy

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, 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.

buanderie window after
After…the first of nine. The decorative crossbars will be added later.

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.

Beyond repair
Beyond repair
wind blowing
A curtain blowing in the wind with the window closed!

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.”

Ribo window
Side view shows double panes, double seals. They are HEAVY.

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.

Extreme vintage

Apt lion detailWe were lucky to acquire many beautiful pieces of furniture with the apartment we’re renovating.

Apt roses on table leg
Table leg

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.

Apt chair detail spiral
The twisting design is machine-made, albeit more than a century ago.

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?

Apt handle closeup 2I’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?

Tile time

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

I cannot believe how many hours it took to choose tile. Even knowing exactly what I wanted (or maybe because I knew exactly what I wanted).

Most of the apartment has terra cotta tile, known as tomettes, on the floors. Since our building is historically classified, we are required to keep the original tomettes as long as less than 30% are broken (and then we have to replace them with antique tiles that match—not easy to find, and if you do, they’re extremely expensive). They weren’t into parquet floors around here, at least not until later.

Cuisine sol 2
Not in good shape.

The original kitchen had been covered with black and white checkerboard linoleum, which we discovered hid tomettes underneath.

Yet they look so gorgeous here! Photo from Pinterest

In the entry and the middle room, plastic flooring covered the tomettes. We’re having all of it restored.

However, we do have two bathrooms, two WCs and two kitchens to tile—we are splitting the 2,000-square-foot space into two apartments. So many decisions! Here are the winners, all from Spanish tile company Mainzu:

In the first kitchen:

I’m a big fan of Spanish-style azulejos. This is the Lucena design for the backsplash, with the frieze, shown right, above it.

Kitchen 2In the second kitchen–the big one:  Victorian Deco for the backspash, with the frieze just along the top (shown at the right here going all the way around). It’s such a huge room, there’s a vast expanse of tomettes. I think this will work great.

SDB1In the first bathroom,  the walls will have Centro Nou going up about six feet, with the Cenefa Victorian Nou frieze at the top and Victorian Azul (which picks up just the blue in a solid) on the floor.

In the first WC, the same Centro Nou, this time on the floor.

In the second bathroom, white beveled metro tiles (it was pointed out to me that in the Parisian metro, the tiles are beveled, so please don’t call them subway tiles. Wrists slapped! Ouch!). With a black trim running through, like this, below.



On the floor, white octagons with black cabochons, like these:

purple bath_thumb[3]
Via Pinterest
I like that purple, too! But I don’t know whether we’ll be that dramatic. I’m still taking flak over the burgundy WC in our house. Not the drama I’d hoped for.

LucitaniaJust in front of the second bathroom, there’s a former pantry, which is a low, dark hole. We’re making the best of the space by filling it with a sauna. The walls in front of the sauna will be covered with Lusitania, right.

WC2In the second WC, there’s a little niche for the sink, which will be tiled with Florentine Centro and the matching frieze, and the same tile on the floor.

What do you think? Will they stand the test of time, or will they look oh-so-dated in five years?

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.