Carcassonne has been encouraging property owners in the center of town to freshen up their façades. At first, the results seemed garish amid the predominantly sandy shades of plaster past. Painted ladies. But now that so many have been done, the effect is festive. It’s also an opportunity to hide all the wires that have accumulated over the decades. As one of the historic preservation people told me, folks put in an electric line for one lightbulb per room, then they added lines as they added radios, refrigerators, and other appliances, usually without redoing the wiring, and just bundling everything on the outside, because these walls are stone, as thick as an arm’s length. Indeed, the wiring in our apartments was frightful, and we had it completely redone. I see lots of hanging wires still, but the regulation is to hide them, so it must be coming.The central square, Place Carnot, fairly gleams now. Above and below. All those colors are so Instagrammable.Even the safety netting was celebratory.The main street, rue du Verdun, also is looking smart.Below, a façade that has seen some history. Those claw-like things are to reinforce where the wall is threatening to buckle.I kind of enjoy the traces from the past, like the walled-over door. But there’s a fine line between character and disrepair. I’m also chuckling because I took these photos over several months and somehow the sky is consistently azure.
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!
We don’t do things by half measures. We have two vacation rental apartments, and both have earned four-star ratings. We featured la Suite Barbès on Tuesday. Today is the turn of l’Ancienne Tannerie. On AirBnB, you can find la Suite Barbès here and l’Ancienne Tannerie here.
The apartment’s name comes from the fact that, back in medieval times, the inner courtyard was a tannery. The tiny alley behind the building is called ruelle des Tanneurs–Tanners’ Lane. Our apartments are in the “new” town of Carcassonne, which was built around 1260 under the orders of King Louis IX, aka St. Louis, to house the refugees expelled from la Cité after the Albigensian Crusade of 1209. Our building, however, must have replaced an older one (that likely burned down–fires were a big problem), because the high ceilings (13 feet) and large windows are in later architecture.
BTW, here’s a list of the residents in our building in 1624. You can see several were tanners, well into the Renaissance. (There’s also a captain, “called Captain Galaton of Pezens,” although Carcassonne isn’t on the coast.)
As with the other apartment, we preserved the historical details while adding modern conveniences (sauna, anyone?). And, to make sure visitors know they’re in France, it’s furnished with locally sourced antiques. Like this marvelous crystal chandelier that we drove to a little village to the south of here to buy.
We kept the old piano with ivory keys. I love the sconces on it, though I imagine that one would have had to play carefully if candles were burning.
What’s new: all the wiring, double-paned windows, plumbing…. plus the original terra-cotta tomettes were cleaned and treated.
The apartment sleeps up to five. There’s a spacious bedroom, a small bedroom, and a sofabed.
The kitchen is my favorite room. The fireplace is big enough to stand in. I love having the table in the middle.
Among the paintings we found was one of the kitchen. It shows the clock and the fireplace.Another painting we found in the apartment depicts Square Gambetta, which is two blocks away, before World War II. During the war, German troops destroyed the pool and its fountain, pictured.The square was redone a few years ago for construction of an underground parking garage. First, it was completely covered with gravel, and everybody hated it. So it was done over, with squares of formal gardens, a small restaurant, the old carousel and a fountain where kids can play in the water in summer. The same allée of plane trees still stands.
Visitors always ooh and ahh over the bathroom. It has a giant glass shower that doesn’t photograph well at all, being clear. The sauna always brings smiles, too.
It has been such a pleasure to hunt for pretty furnishings and accessories that establish an ambience of French tradition and authenticity. And it has been an even greater pleasure to meet people who appreciate it all as much as we do.A quick reminder of the main draw of Carcassonne, the majestic Cité, just a few minutes’ walk away from the apartments:We’d love to welcome you and your friends!
Desire to Inspire, one of my favorite blogs, featured our apartments! We are so excited to be part of such a collection of gorgeous interiors and exteriors. Desire to Inspire lives up to its name. All the pretty things. A cornucopia of eye candy. Beautiful homes and work spaces from around the world.They even did two posts. They chose our best photos, of course, so click over to see them. The back apartment, aka L’ancienne Tannerie on Airbnb, is here. The front apartment, aka La Suite Barbès on Airbnb, is here.
Here are some other shots, professionally done by Paul Catoir, who runs Clic Clac photography in Charleroi, Belgium.
We’ll start with L’ancienne Tannerie.
Yes, we ate the delicious pastries after the photo session.
On to my favorite room, the kitchen.
We ate all that stuff, too. Yes, before the pastries.
Every single renter has been crazy about the bathroom. Again, more shots on Desire to Inspire.
The bedroom is exceptionally quiet and stays cool in the summer, thanks to all those two-foot-thick stone walls.
There’s also a small bedroom with a twin bed. It’s much cuter in person.
Now let’s cross the landing to la Suite Barbès.
The shot above is from the entry-slash-kitchen.
The space above the kitchen is the “harnais,” which was used back in the day to store horse harnesses. Now it’s furniture limbo.
The bedroom is gigantic–35 square meters, or 376 square feet. You can see the before and after here.
And in the bathroom, another huge shower:
Check out Desire to Inspire on Instagram, too. We’re also on Instagram (although I’m mostly a weekend poster).
We have just gotten started renting out the apartments, and all the visitors have been so nice. It has turned out to be really fun to welcome people from around the world, and to give them a place to stay that is unmistakably French.
You could call it shopping the closet. We bought much of the furniture along with the apartments we renovated in Carcassonne. And in closets and cupboards there have been lovely finds.
The embroidered screen now stands in front of a fireplace. It’s really exquisite. I suppose it was handmade–everything was, even just a couple of generations ago.
The wooden bowl, below, is big and heavy and certainly hand-carved. So much of the furniture has a grape motif. Appropriate for the region!
And this funny dish, shaped like a shell, very light, and painted by hand. What would such a dish have been used for? There’s a souffler for a fireplace.
And this delicate lamp.
We also found lots of books, mostly old school books of several generations. School back in the day must have been awfully rigorous. The pages of the history book below are half-consumed by footnotes. Enough to make the biggest history buff’s eyes glaze over.
Which is probably what led to notes like the ones below.
There were books for all ages. How about this one:
The title translates as “While Laughing: Reading Without Tears.” One would hope so! It’s from 1930 and does away with the “old analytical method” in favor of the new “global method.” As illustrated below:
I’m not sure it accomplished its goals. It’s not exactly a laugh a minute. And how confusing to have to learn letters as printed and in cursive at the same time as trying to figure out the code of what they say.
Another book has vocabulary for items I don’t even recognize. What ARE those clippers?
However, it gives some great pronunciation points. Here, you have a list showing which “o” sounds are alike. It’s similar to a book I had in a French class back in the day, “Exercises in French Phonics,” by Francis W. Nachtmann. Excellent book, although pronunciation can’t be learned by books alone. It helps to also have a native speaker around to say the words correctly and then to point out how one has failed miserably to repeat them.
We also found another trove of old newspapers. It seems madame (or monsieur? their kids would have been pretty young) was thrilled by the Apollo 11’s moon landing on July 24, 1969. The papers show the extent to which it was big news, even in France profonde.
Ted Kennedy’s woes also warranted saving for posterity.
I was intrigued by a note about the weather. Perpignan had a record high of 36.9 Celsius, which comes to 98.4 Fahrenheit, while Carcassonne was at 33.2 Celsius, or 91.8 Fahrenheit. The all-time record for Carcassonne was during the 2003 heat wave, with 41.9 Celsius, or 107.42. That is definitely hot, and shows that the records are getting higher. Usually the average high temperature in summer is 28.6 Celsius, or 83.5 Fahrenheit–very pleasant.The finds reminded me of the book “A Paris Apartment” by Michelle Gable“A Paris Apartment” by Michelle Gable, which was based on the real story of a Parisian apartment that was left untouched for 70 years. Another book, in French, titled “Madeleine Project,” by Clara Beaudoux, is the true story of the author trying to figure out the life of the previous owner of the Parisian apartment she has bought–full of stuff.
We have found many small traces of the previous residents, some too personal too show. A torn bit of a photo. An electricity bill from 30 years ago. A Mary medal pinned to a mattress. I know the family endured tragedies, but I don’t know the details. In cleaning out a storage room, amid all manner of sports equipment, we found a wrapped present, itself wrapped up in sheets and stuffed into a box of clothes. I think it was too painful for them to go deal with, and too hard to let go. Even I was overwhelmed by emotion, their grief was so evident, despite decades of being shut away.
A closet left untouched for over a decade, but probably filled long before that, is a kind of time capsule, full of clues about life in France years–sometimes many years–ago.
First, the closets themselves. They (both, I think) started as water closets–toilets. Folks used to have chamber pots, which they would empty out the window to the street below, passersby beware.
According to the genealogy blog Histoires d’Antan et d’à Présent, there were some public toilets, which were little stalls with holes in the floor, set above a pit. How difficult that must have been when women had to wear long dresses with big skirts!
People started to want more privacy and would put in a water closet as high as possible in the building–as far as possible from the main living quarters. The excrement would flow down a pipe into the street, while the odors would escape above. By 1553, the parliament of Paris required each house to have a septic pit.By the 18th century, most buildings had two WCs, one near the ground floor or near the stairs, and the other on the top floor. And indeed, in our apartments’ building, there are two closets on the landings between the floors.
When I first moved to Europe in the 1990s and looked for an apartment in Brussels, I was shown one with the toilet and bathroom (separate) on the landing; the facilities were shared with the other two apartments in the building! I passed on that one. Also, on a trip to Paris around the same time, I had chosen an “authentic” hotel from the Lonely Planet; it praised a “charming Turkish toilet.” If you don’t know what that means, see the photo below. And steer clear of “authentic” and “charming”!
Anyway, these water closets had been converted into just closets (the toilet was filled with concrete). And they were full. One had nothing interesting, but the other one, which had no traces of its former use, was full of stuff.
The lock box in the top photo, was an exciting find, but sadly it was empty. (Imagine the typical French gesture of swiping your forefinger under your nose–meaning out of luck.)
A plastic tote bag held architectural documents for city halls/schools from the late 1800s; I want to go around to the villages and get photos of the buildings today. With them was this document, which seems to be a handwriting/copying exercise: “Hommage to Our Lady of Angels. Extract of a letter from my Lord the Count of Massaïra (today brother Mary Joseph of Angels) to his sister, Madame the Countess of Weisemberg.”Look at how it was bound by sewing the three sheets together. Even a tear on the fold was repaired by sewing. The handwriting is beautiful. Not a single bit scratched out.
The content is odd; the writer says he was born in Naples and recounts his life, mentioning that he married off his sister to the count of Weisemberg. Wouldn’t his sister be on top of this info already?There were several pots à graisse (grease pots), used for making confit de canard (duck) or pork.
A few stray pieces of a set of Limoges china. I plan to use the surprisingly large sugar pot, above, as a vase.
In the lower closet–the one with the Turkish loo–we mostly encountered rubble and coal! The upstairs closet did harbor a charbonnière, or a kind of scoop/bucket for gathering coal from the heap to put into the furnace. Happily we don’t heat with that anymore.
What’s the best thing you’ve ever uncovered in cleaning out a closet?
Our vacation rental apartments are a collection of used-to-bes. The bathroom in the courtyard apartment (which we’ve named L’ancienne Tannerie, because the courtyard used to be a tannery) used to be a laundry room.
One of the earlier demolition moves was to extract that gigantic concrete sink. We kept the niche in the wall. That corner now is the shower, with two shower heads. I tried both and can’t pick a favorite.The door in the before shots leads to a circular staircase in another building on the courtyard. We sealed it off, and smoothed out the curve, because that deep corner gathered scary things.
I had a hard time getting decent photos. This room is crazy bright, even with a glaze over the windows. The inside of the window frame is black. The Carnivore, our painter and the other workers lamented such a bad decision, but I got the last laugh because it looks great.
This room got the black and white cabochon floor that I had wanted for the big kitchen. The walls have metro tiles, which are beveled subway tiles, like in the Paris Metro. I had asked at the tile store about “subway” tiles and was told crisply that surely I was looking for “metro” tiles. Ahem.
On the other side of the sauna, but reached by a different door, is the powder room, in its original place but with a different door (it used to be reached via the closet for the furnace and hot water heater. Yes, that had to change).The former doorway’s arch became home to the sink, with the toilet now across from it (next to where the sink originally was). The floor has the same tile as the wall. I was nervous that it would be too much, but the floorspace is small and it looks nicely seamless.
While we have been obsessed with finding antiques for the apartments, here it feels so clean that everything is brand spanking new. Well, except for the Venetian mirrors. And the little marble-topped cupboard for toiletries in the bathroom. New and old.
The apartments are available for rent on AirBnB: l’Ancienne Tannerie here and the front apartment here.
This is a difficult room to photograph. It used to be a den, with four doors. Now it’s a bedroom, with two doors.
It looks out at the interior stairway, with a light well. That makes it a bit dark, which usually is a good thing for a bedroom. It also is very quiet and stays exceptionally cool in summer–nice when there’s no air conditioning (the historic preservation authorities frown on air conditioning units sullying the exteriors of buildings).
I liked the old wallpaper, but it was in bad shape, and anyway rewiring made lots of holes in the walls. The floor was covered with vinyl, and we had no idea what we would find underneath.
First, the floor: we ripped up the vinyl and found tomettes. But in what condition? We didn’t know until all the glue and gunk had been removed by our tomette expert. The verdict: the middle of the room was a ruin, but the tomettes around the perimeters were OK.
However, we had the same situation in the kitchen. We decided to save the kitchen by cannibalizing the bedroom: all the serviceable bedroom tomettes were used to replace broken ones in the kitchen. Not a single one to spare.
We favored the kitchen, with its big, beautiful fireplace, over this room, which, as the Bâtiments de France architect put it was “without historical significance,” lacking boiseries, a fireplace or other embellishments. A quiet room, sleepy for sleeping.
I dreamed of putting in herringbone parquet, but that was far beyond our budget. Instead, we found long tiles that look like a plank wood floor. The weathered design has a blue/gray tinge that goes perfectly with the blue silk oriental carpets we had chosen.
The niche was preserved, in all its lopsided glory (including the slanting base, which limits what can go in it). A very odd brass and copper urn took the place of honor.
The doors in the corner led to the other apartment: on the left, to the bedroom and on the right to the entry. They have been closed off with sound insulation and drywall. Some books and knickknacks adorn the shelves, but we wanted to leave empty space for guests to stash their bags or set out their things without creating clutter.
Another door, used by us only, goes to the closet with the furnace and water heater. And the fourth door leads to the big kitchen.
You might recognize the Art Deco bed and matching wardrobe from the blue-flowered bedroom that now is the salon of this apartment (husband points out that a living room combines sitting and dining areas; a salon is for sitting only). We enlarged the bed frame to queen size, topped by a bio (organic) mattress from a local maker in Mazamet.
The windows have interior shutters, and I made a single curtain (it opens to one side because of the niche) with white-on-white damask fabric. Everything is as white as can be.
We are still hunting for art for the walls. Some things must not be rushed.
This room faces a pretty courtyard full of flowers. It has evolved as we worked on it, and I’m so glad we didn’t rush. Plus, I procrastinated on sewing the curtains and only just finished them.We have two vacation rental apartments, both extremely elegant and spacious, yet they couldn’t be more different. The front apartment faces south, with balconies over the street. It has some of the most elaborate boiseries, or carved high-relief decorations, of Carcassonne.
The back apartment faces north, with the hidden courtyard, and somehow feels more intimate, despite having large rooms and ceilings just as soaring as the front.
The apartments started as one huge, unpractical labyrinth (who wants to wind through a couple of other people’s bedrooms to get to the bathroom?). We sealed the connecting doors with sound insulation and drywall to create two separate apartments, which had separate entrances anyway.
That is why this room used to be a bedroom.
The previous owner’s wallpaper aside, it has always felt like a blue room to me. The front apartment feels red, but this room feels blue. Does this happen to you, where a room seems to tell you what IT wants? And it’s up to you to find the right pieces to carry out the room’s vision of itself?
The tomettes were stripped to their original state. Painting tomettes was fashionable, the restorer explained, because often houses had many different kinds, from different makers in different periods, with different colors, even in the same room.
Because it faces north, we chose a bright white for the walls, and gray for the trim–the reverse of the other apartment. I like that the boiserie doves are white while the chimney is a contrasting dove gray (it’s true!).
We bought most of the furniture with the apartment, but the family kept some things, including the mirror that was here. But look at that trumeau mirror the Carnivore found. We were going to touch it up, but friend Ali advised leaving it alone, and I’m glad we listened to her. It’s perfectly imperfect. A place that’s 400 years old shouldn’t be too glossy, even if it’s grand.
The furniture went through several iterations. We had the daybed in here with the greenish gold armchairs. They were true to the cool blue feel and went very well with the silk carpets the Carnivore scored (he is a genius at shopping, especially for antiques), but I wasn’t happy with two carpets side by side, as gorgeous as they were, and identical, to boot. They were still a bit too small. We separated them for use elsewhere and moved that furniture to the front living room. This is what happens when you furnish with antiques: you discover something, then find something else. It takes time, not like walking into a store and getting everything at once. I am very happy about giving these beautiful, high-quality pieces a new life.
We found a bigger carpet, mostly cream tones, with a little blue-green and touches of salmon. And the salmon chairs, which had been in the front, worked here, despite not being blue. They actually are the exact same color as the tomettes. This wasn’t on purpose–they were upholstered before the tomettes were restored, when the floor was a dark red. Happy luck.
We managed to find a Louis XVI-style sofabed–not easy! I’m not a fan of sofabeds, but we wanted to give the option for more people; the front apartment is for two people max. The sofa (which has a matching armchair) has a dark teal-blue stripe. The curtains are a paler shade of the same color. They turned out great–out of all the curtains I made (for five very tall rooms), they were the least anguished.
The coffee table was hand-carved in Lamu, Kenya, by an artisan I first met in 1985. He was still in the same place when I was back in 2001. I bought a chair from him, and also wanted a coffee table. He didn’t have one but, not wanting to miss a sale, got one from his house to sell to me. Trust me, I gave him a good price. In our house, that table felt too small, but here, with the imposing sofa, it feels just right, and it’s easy to move if the sofa needs to turn into a bed.
Behind the sofa, the piano moved in from the other apartment’s entry. I hope to get it tuned, if that’s even still possible. A painting, strong on blues, by my mother will go above the piano as soon as it’s framed. We are looking for other little gems to decorate as well. I think it will never be “finished,” but will always be evolving based on our discoveries.
If you look closely, you’ll see how we repurposed furniture. The armoire originally was in the kitchen; husband cleverly installed rods for hanging clothes; it also holds pillows and extra blankets for the sofabed.
The lyre-back chair was originally in this room (you can just make it out in the shot with the bed), and now accompanies a little desk.The pièce de la résistance, though, is the chandelier. Not only is it dripping with crystals (called pampilles), it is gigantic. The room is so large and the ceiling so high that you don’t realize just how huge it is.We bought it via the French version of craigslist, driving at night into the foothills of the Pyrénées to a house on the edge of a little village without cellphone reception. Yes, it totally felt like a horror movie. But the sellers were lovely and their house was beautiful. It was more like an oversize cottage, rustic, with low, beamed ceilings, and its new owners said their old chandelier didn’t work at all–it was too big and anybody kind of tall would bump their head on it. We barely squeezed it into the car. The Carnivore had spotted the ad only about an hour after it was posted, and we were there about two hours later to buy it, otherwise it surely would have been snapped up by an antiquaire and resold for many times more.
This entry is fairly small: just a coatrack in there. Previously it had been used as a closet. In the first before photo, you can see the linoleum that had covered the tomettes. There’s another small bedroom off the entry; I’ll show it later.
The apartment is for rent via AirBnB or VRBO (which is the same as Homeaway and Abritel). Or contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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.