Originally Written June 27th 2022
We arrived in the fortified village in the late afternoon and were greeted by a kind, young girl with short, tightly spun blond curls and piercing green eyes. She had been watching the B and B for the owners who were out of town and would be there for the remainder of our stay. Leading us up the stairs to our room, our hostess made sure to note all of the quirks of the old home and the numerous ways to navigate them, before leaving us the key and heading back down the stairs to chat with some other guests. I placed my backpack on the King Louis style chair and sunk onto the bed next to Andy. “So….. what now?” I think we were both feeling a bit lost, not knowing what exactly our next move should be now that the house we had literally flown across the ocean for was off the table.
During the remainder of our ride to Carcassonne, the agent had returned my email, but only to say there was nothing she could do to accommodate us and, if we were still here in a month, perhaps she could set up a viewing. “I’m not sure. I’m not used to this. American agents are so…. cutthroat. Why does it seem like we have to beg agents over here to show us a property in order to make a sale? It’s like we are begging them to take our money!” It really was beginning to feel as though the agents could care less if they showed a home or not, let alone respond to your request for a visit. Perhaps their earnings weren’t based on commission like in the U.S.? It was something I wanted to look more into at some point, as it could really clear up a lot of the confusion going on.
After washing up and changing our clothes, we decided to go for a walk and explore the walled city, which was only five minutes from our accommodations. I’ve seen photos of the tourist destination, each usually flooded with people packed into crowds, swelling the tiny streets to over capacity. To our surprise, however, a mix of covid and visiting two weeks before school let out in France played into our favor. We had the whole place to ourselves! Every couple of streets we would intersect with some locals who were out for an evening stroll with their dogs, but, for the most part, Andy and I wandered the cobblestoned streets engulfed in medieval architecture and absolute silence. As the sky started to turn purple, we decided to make our way back down the windy hill to the town below and our B and B, ready to tuck in for the night and make a new game plan for the next day.
With a whole free day in the west, I used this opportunity to convince Andy that we should travel up north and explore the town of Cordes Sur Ciel. It wasn’t really a widely known destination, but I had stumbled across the town in a few blog posts detailing the most charming villages in that region. As all of the other towns of interest were just a bit too far out of our driving range, Andy was easily persuaded and we began our journey early in the morning, but not before a wonderful breakfast at the inn of butter, sugar and orange zest crêpes. The drive was a little under two hours, allowing us to explore more of the countryside and get a better feel for that part of the south. During the car ride, we talked about our last two home visits planned for the region and decided that we were going to go into each viewing with a positive attitude and open mind, as we built a list full of incredibly quirky homes that had a lot to offer, even if they weren’t the Watchmaker’s house. We also agreed that we didn’t feel any pressure to come home with a house. “If it happens, it happens,” I said. “The house will pick us,” Andy chimed in, stating our home buying philosophy. “And if it doesn’t happen, it wasn’t meant to be,” I ended as we pulled into the car park of Cordes-sur-Ciel. The lot had a large RV parked on one side of it. The family traveling within had set up a little camp for themselves around the space. Lawn chairs, bikes and a portable grill littered the surrounding area, despite there being no sign of its occupants. Two other cars were randomly placed around the other end of the lot. “Wonder where everyone is?” I asked, looking around the quiet, wooded landscape. Andy shrugged, grabbing our water and travel pack. We walked up the road to the base of Cordes, still not 100% sure of what we had come to tour. The decision to visit was so impulsive that it didn’t leave much time for googling the highlights of the area. Standing at the bottom, surrounded by a few park benches and sleepy cafés, we looked up the cobblestone street that wound its way through town. “Let’s go!” Andy said, starting up the hill. Cordes-sur-Ciel was founded in 1222 by the Count of Toulouse. It was renamed from simply Cordes to Cordes-sur-Ciel in 1993 because of the way the town appears to be floating above the mist that settles in that region and gives the illusion of it floating in the sky. We began our ascent, hiking up the small path and past sweetly tucked shops and cafés, all rising unevenly from the cobbles and resting on its neighboring structure like unbalanced dominos, leaning ever so slightly, but still remaining upright. The town was charming and again very quiet because of our impeccable timing. Shopkeepers were setting up their wares outside of their shop doors while deliveries brought in by cart, as cars couldn’t fit up the tiny paths, were gingerly navigating the bumpy and uneven streets, on their way to their destinations.
We made it all the way up to the old clock tower, before finding a weathered green bench on the other side of it to rest. “This place is adorable!” Andy said, taking a drink of water. I looked up at the house who’s entryway front windows sat flush with the bench. “Hey, wait. THIS house is for sale!” I said pointing up to the handwritten sign in the window. Andy turned around, inspecting the character home that shared its wall with the fortified clock tower. “Seriously!?” He questioned. “Yeah! It looks like it is for sale by the owner, see the number listed. I mean, we’re here… want to see if we can take a peek?” “What else are we doing,” he said, pulling out his phone. After a short back and forth with the Spanish owner, who happened to be in Spain on business, it was decided that he would send photos and if we were still interested in a visit, he would be back tomorrow and we could try and work something out. The property, he explained, also had a walled garden behind the home, but he had decided to sell the space separately, meaning if we liked the home and wanted the garden, we’d be making two separate purchases. It all felt truly serendipitous, we decided, as we continued our ascend and waited for photos of the home to be sent via email.
When we finally reached the top of the town, we were greeted with a few shops selling traditional tourist items on one side and a huge terrace that belonged to a café on the other. The terrace was hugged in a small ancient stone wall large enough to section it off, but short enough for anyone to step over. It also had the most beautiful view in town, giving guests a front row seat to the beautiful rolling hills far below. We sat along the wall looking out and catching our breath from the climb. “Do you think you could live here?” I asked Andy. “I’m not sure,” he said. “How do people get appliances and furniture to their homes? Are they putting them on carts and wheeling them up?” “Yeah, I’m not sure. The guy said the place needs some work, but maybe not large appliances? I guess we’ll wait and see!” We wandered the tiny cobble paths that jetted off from the main road until we believed we saw every nook and cranny of the hill top village before starting our descent. Ending back at the clocktower and the weathered, green bench, we sat down and checked our phone again for an email containing photos of the home. The email count ticked up on the Gmail app icon and we opened it to find a message waiting from the owner. The charming, weathered appearance of the front of the home, who’s aged look gave it a rustic French charm, could have never prepared us for the photos we received from the owner. As Andy scrolled through the photos, I placed my hand over my mouth. “Didn’t he say he LIVES here? With his children!?” I said in a concerned tone. “Yes, he said they’re working on the house while living in it,” Andy replied, wide eyed. Every room on every level looked bare and dirty. It looked as if someone had moved out and left the building vacant for a decade. There wasn’t much of anything in the actual home, no furniture, no linens, no photos or painting, absolutely no sign someone had been living there. The few items that were left in the home, a random single chair or broom, were covered in spiderwebs and a thick layer of dust. The kitchen had a few dirty plates left in the sink and an old 1960’s oven built into the counter. A few of the windows randomly had curtains covering them, but they were tattered and dirty. “The photos are so dark, does this mean the place doesn’t have electricity?” I asked. Andy's eyes grew wide and he blew out a long breath, shaking his head, indicating he wasn’t sure. “The location of this house is so cool. I bet it has so much history,” he said, trying to weigh the pros and cons. I chimed in, trying to add some reason to his thought process. “But it literally needs almost everything. And, might I remind you, we said no big renovations. This house is a shell that possibly needs electricity and, by the looks of it, I’m not sure it has a working kitchen. Also, deliveries here would be a nightmare. Even simple grocery shopping would be an incredible chore. What, do we park in the carpark and lug our groceries up the huge cobbled hill twice a week? Sounds exhausting just saying it!” “Yeah, definitely not ideal,” he replied, sounding distracted. He took a step back from the home and took it all in. “Let’s check out the walled garden.” He slowly peeling his eyes from the structure and started to head towards the side of the house. I followed him around the house and to the back. To our surprise, there were a few pièce de résistance hidden at the back of the house. The first thing our eyes immediately hit on was the larger road that wound up behind the home. It seemed to first start at the bottom of the hill we had climbed earlier and worked its way around the outskirts of the town, giving residents an easier way to bring items in. For a house that sits on the edge of town, like this one, it put it in the perfect location for convenience. People with locations deeper and higher into the town, however, still had to lug items into the tiny streets within, to its final destination. “So THIS is how you get things in. That makes things a lot easier,” I said, resting my hand against the stone garage that was built into the home. “And this!” Andy said walking into the open structure, “is amazing. A walk from our garage as opposed to the car park about a mile and a half away all the sudden seems much more doable with heavy items!” We looked across the street to an overgrown walled garden. “Something tells me that is the garden,” Andy said, leaving the garage and crossing over the uneven stone road. The walls were just tall enough so that we couldn’t actually see inside of the garden, but from the street, it looked like a contained wild forest. After walking the perimeter, we were able to find a large boulder to stand on and get a small peek inside. The dense thatches of shrubs were so thick, you couldn’t even see from one end of the small space to the other. “This would take A LOT of work to make into a usable space,” I said, looking back at Andy over my shoulder. “Yeah, but you couldn’t buy the house without also buying this space,” he said, trading places on the boulder and taking a peak. “I can see myself out here in the summers, doing some work or listening to a podcast.” “Yes,” I interjected, “but then who takes care of this space in the fall, winter and spring? This might be too much work for people here only 3 months a year. Besides, this location is only about 25 minutes away from Saint Antonin Noble Val, which we said was too far north for us.” Just then the owner messaged with the price for each property. For about 300,000 euros, we could be the proud owners of an overgrown walled garden and a home that needed about half of that price in order to give it a proper face life and make it functional again in a region we had no desire to be in. We kindly thanked him for providing us with photos and information and told him we’d contact him if we wanted to proceed with scheduling a visit. The price shook us both back to reality and we decided to continue our descent back to the car and head back to the B and B for the evening. We had two house showings tomorrow, our last day in the region, before moving on to Avignon.
Originally written June 25th 2022
When planning our trip, we coordinated the first two showings, the winemaker's house and the beach house, as we dubbed our second stop, with picking up the car and heading to our B and B homebase. The two homes sat right in between Perpignan and Carcassonne, so it just made sense to do a little road trip now and not have to double back later. Our next stop was the tiny medieval town of Pouzolles, which was about 10 minutes away from the winemaker’s home. Early on when building our favorites list, we gave each of our little homes a nickname in order to keep them all straight. The Pouzolles house looked as though it had been plucked off of a Greek isle and gingerly placed right in the middle of the ancient village, looking like a misplaced, Mediterranean beach house. The white stucco against the bright blue accents definitely gave us holiday vibes and made you feel like you were vacationing next to the sea. We met the real estate agent, Kerry, in front of the town’s carpark. Kerry had moved to France from Ireland a few decades ago and ended up never going home. Finding a French husband and loving the way of life, she fell into real estate and rentals and made herself a life in the South of France.She also was a resident of Pouzolles and couldn’t speak highly enough about the activities and people. We walked past a small park that had two caterers setting up for an event. “You should stay!” she suggested. “We’re having our first fête for the summer! When the sun goes down everyone will come to the park and there will be music and food. It’s going to be a blast!” Andy glanced at me looking for any indication of interest and then back at Kerry when I didn’t give much of a response. “As fun as that sounds, we really need to get to our B and B before they shut it up for the night.” Kerry nodded, leading us up a windy cobble stone hill and around the town’s church. As we walked, Kerry went on and on about the events and the people who lived in the town. “So many English speakers here,” she boasted. “And many people come to me to learn English, I give lessons in the library.” While I have no doubt she was mentioning it as a positive, we were actually searching for a town that did not have many English speakers, as we wanted to fully immerse ourselves into the language and culture and leave home at home. I think part of the reason we wanted to buy abroad and not back in the U.S. had a lot to do with wanting a big change and having experiences we couldn’t at home, so while the idea of having some commonality with our neighbors was nice,the fact that they were anglophiles didn’t fall into the pros category for us.
When thinking back on this particular visit, it stands out that she never said anything about the actual town itself. She mentioned the residence and the happenings, but didn’t really mention any positives about the town. Perhaps this should have been a red flag.
As Kerry winded us up through town (which might have consisted of 5 tiny “streets”), we noticed that it was around 10:30 am and all the businesses were shuttered. Having some kind of commerce was a big must on our list of wants and this was looking quite bleak, as we hadn’t passed a single person or had seen any signs of life since passing the park with the caterers. “Is it normally so… quiet?” I asked Kerry, careful in my word choice as to not sound rude. “The café opens later on some days. There really isn’t a schedule. Sometimes he opens at 8 am, sometimes noon.” Andy and I exchanged glances as she continued. “The boulangerie truck comes in the morning, but he’s already gone for the day. The two restaurants we passed open for dinner and sometimes lunch,” she said, stopping in front of a worn wooden door surrounded by tall stone walls on each side. The walls rose so high, the house behind them was completely hidden, giving it complete anonymity from the surrounding homes whose doors spilled open to the street. She inserted a key into the rusty padlock and pushed the door free from its latch. I rested my hand on a stone wall and looked up. Andy smiled at me, also loving the ancient discolored walls. Little pockets of gaps in the rocks were filled with cascading ivy and other Mediterranean shrubs, giving it a very secret garden feel. We were led down a small flight of stone steps into a sunken courtyard with a small dipping pool that was tucked into the right corner of the space. The courtyard wasn’t very big, but it was perfect for two people who wanted a small, easy to maintain outdoor area for a few months out of the year. Homemade wooden benches lined the space, providing seating around the walls. Terracotta pots of all shapes and sizes balanced on rock ledges at different heights on the stone, while vines of different shades of green spilled out of each pot and traveled down the wall. It was a charming and cozy space, but the best part was a small porch that connected the house to the courtyard. Two French doors swung out onto the courtyard porch, giving you access to the dining room for the most idyllic alfresco set up. The dining space was small, but with the doors open, the space felt bright, airy and cottagey. A large farmhouse table sat square with the doors, while brocante treasures lined the walls in the shape of an old hutch, an antique buffet and a gilded 18th century chest. Though we had only seen two homes, I was starting to see a theme. Back at home, open concepts with minimalist style was a popular decoration choice. Clean lines and simple designs were featured in magazines and ads of all mediums. Here, though, I had started to notice that the French loved very large,very heavy, old, wooden furniture. While the pieces made the room feel very cozy and French, it also made it so that it was very difficult to walk around the room without having to squeeze past the chunky items. After taking a pause to envision long summer nights spent in the space, we shimmied our way past the hutch and through a small opening that led to the kitchen.The space was big enough to cook comfortably, but didn’t have enough space to entertain a large group. It was windowless, giving the atmosphere a cave-like feeling with its stone walls and low ceiling, but the wood burning stove resting in a corner added an element of coziness. The layout itself felt like a bit of a hodgepodge. There was a microwave precariously balanced on a randomly angled ledge and another large hutch taking up an entire wall, brimming with nick nacks and the refrigerator sneakily peeking out from under the kitchen counter, covered with a traditional French fabric curtain. “I know I’m going to sound very American and please don’t kill me, but I don’t think this fridge would work.” I said, pointing to the tiny, half hidden rectangle. “Ah, yes,” Kerry started, “but when you buy your food fresh and often, you don’t need a large fridge.” I guess it should have been refreshing that there were any appliances at all, or that it even resembled a kitchen for that matter, thinking back to the last place.
Kerry explained that all of the appliances stayed and, as the foreign buyer used it as a holiday home and was not buying in another town in France, all furniture and dishware remained as well. For two people coming with absolutely nothing, it was a pretty appealing deal. Kerry stepped up two small stone steps and into the bright, white living room. The space was a really unique, triangle-shaped room with 14 foot high ceilings. Though small, the living room had an expansive and airy feel to it due to the tall ceilings and open air landing, leading to the second floor. A beautiful white stone fireplace rested crookedly against the angled main wall, adding an element of coziness not usually associated with a beach home. Large cream-colored blankets were draped over the couch and woven baskets full of logs were resting alongside the fireplace. Our eyes traveled across the room to a big black pit. Along the far wall was the original front door, but with a large, square-shaped hole in the floor right underneath it. “This can’t be original. Was this recently done?” Andy said, walking over and peeking down. “Yes, the previous owners wanted easier access to the cave. After much deliberation, they had decided that this location would be the best place and they created the hole and built a spiral staircase leading down to the cave,” she said, walking over to the staircase and grabbing the ultra-modern railing. “This is where they did the most updating and remodeling, they used this as their master bedroom,” she said, starting to disappear down the stairs and into the dark. Descending into the cool damp space, we are greeted with a very modern, minimalist bedroom decorated in Japanese decor. Black and cream colored Asian art fill the space with bamboo wood accents sprinkled throughout. While it felt peaceful, it also felt a bit odd for the house as a whole. The mix of styles were overall so, so different. The Greek looking exterior, with the French feeling dining room, along with the Swiss chalet cozy vibe of the living room, layered on to the Asian inspired zen minimalist bedroom, the design choices were fine on their own, but together just didn’t make much sense. I looked at the nightstand, which seemed to be glistening. Reaching out, I swiped my finger along the top and my index left a streak where my finger just slid.“Things are wet down here,” I said, holding out my finger and turning to Kerry. “Because of the location of the bedroom, in the cave, it will always have a cool, damp feeling. This is why they put their master down here, then there is no need for air con,” she said, trying to spin an obviously bad situation. Andy and I exchange sideways glances, reading the other’s thoughts. Since we plan to use this as a second home, cool and damp aren’t the kind of conditions that lend themselves to being left stagnant and unattended for months and only being aired out two or three months a year. We took a mental note as we passed through the bedroom, into the newly remodeled bathroom. It was dark. Dark tile, dark black sink, dark lighting. An odd choice for an already dark cave. The room was also sectioned off into two spaces. As you went through the door, you could walk around one wall to the left and end up in a small space with a handwashing sink or walk around another wall to the right and end up in the shower. If you kept going straight, however, you ended up in another space that held a small toilet to the right and a storage closet to the left. It seemed like a bizarre layout for someone to have recently chosen to do on purpose. “How long ago was this updated?” Andy said, reading my thoughts. “The previous owners were German, they did this reno maybe… perhaps 5 years ago,” she said, trying to nail down the exact time period. “They have only moved a few homes up, they just needed a place with more space. I could inquire and let you know if you’d like,” she offered. “No, no. It’s ok,” Andy said. “I was just curious.” We were very curious about the whole French housing market and genuinely interested in the homes on our list, but never curious enough to dig any deeper than the surface level questions. Deeper was being reserved for our Watchmaker’s home.
After resurfacing up the spiral staircase, we were next led to the other side of the living room and up a flight of homemade, wooden stairs that lead you to the premier étage. On this level, there was a small landing with another tiny staircase that connected you to a small terracotta rooftop terrace. Stone bench had been masoned around part of the wall, economizing the space and a little table had been set out, taking up most of what was left of the available space. “It’s south facing,” Kerry said, peeking her head through the small terrace door. “Why do people keep telling us that?” I asked. “Is that something of importance here?” Andy chimed in. “Bien sûr!” she answered, almost appalled that we didn’t know. “North facing properties will have less sun in the winter months and be more cold,” she answered, turning and going back down the stairs. I shrugged at Andy who returned the shrug and followed her down. As this wasn’t a home we planned to visit in the winter months, we weren’t sure if that mattered to us. I turned back and took one last look at the terrace view. From there, all of the tanned terracotta roofs of the neighbors could be seen throughout the whole town, touting the view or confirming the small size of the town. The bright sun hit my face and I closed my eyes, taking in the warmth. Maybe south facing wasn’t so bad after all?
I headed back down the small steps to catch up with Andy and Kerry.
From the landing, there were two steps that continued up to the next level, leading you to two very small, characterless bedrooms on opposite ends of a small hallway. Each room had its own tiny window that allowed small pools of light to flood into the dull, shadowy space. One of the rooms was a little bigger than the other, but had a thick, newly installed shiny silver pipe running from the floor to the ceiling, taking up a large quantity of space. This “feature” crushed any hint of character the room may have displayed, giving it a cold, factory feel. Behind me, Kerry noticed what caught my eye and quickly said, “it is from the wood burning fireplace in order to bring heat to the bedrooms,” as if the practicality could save my opinion. With a home that has so many different style directions and identities, I was a little surprised that the two upstairs bedrooms look how they did. It’s as if the owner had just kept to the main level of the home, never coming up to this section of the house, leaving it as an afterthought. “There is one more room to show you,” Kerry says, slipping past us and out the bedroom door. She stopped at a door that sat in between both bedrooms. “A closet?” I ask, seeing that there wasn’t too much wall space between the two rooms. “Not quite!” She says, opening up the door and fiddling in the dark to find the light. I peek my head into the closet-sized space and find what looks like a rest stop bathroom. “A bathroom,” I say flatly, trying to hide my real thoughts. “It’s more of a wet room?” Andy asked, from the doorway. The shower was not enclosed to keep it separate from the rest of the room. Instead it was integrated as a part of it, with a drain in the middle of the floor and a shower head that hung delicately from the ceiling, right in front of the sink. Every inch of the room was covered in dated, faded blue tiles. A large squeegee rested in the corner, dictating the rituals of the shared space. Andy squeezed past me into the room and raised his arms out from each of his sides, touching end-to-end each wall from the middle of the room. Point taken.
With the courtyard and dingingroom oozing with charm and style, it seems as if the rest of the home seemed not only like a mishmash of styles, but, in some cases,an afterthought completely. And with the town right outside the door and nothing open, the appeal of the beach house had slowly fizzled out. We thanked Kerry for her time and told her we must think about things, but I think she could tell that this wasn’t our home. We left Kerry at the car park with a promise to update her after we’ve completed half of our trip and gained more clarity about what we liked and where the beach house stood in all of that.
We started our drive to Carcassonne with a lot to talk about after our first two visits as international home buyers. Could we imagine living in a home with an attic room whose main purpose was slaughtering pigs? Was it important at all to live amongst English speakers? Where did commerce fall in our must have list and how little of it was enough? We had just gotten onto the highway and started seeing signs for Carcassonne when I received an email from the watchmaker’s agent. We were set to see the home first thing tomorrow morning and couldn’t wait to visit the home that literally got us on a plane. I read the email out loud, as if that would help me comprehend it a bit clearer.
“Hello Rachel, I am very sorry, but I have to cancel the visit to the house in Montaigu tomorrow… the owners have had some family issues and can’t do the viewing. I’m really sorry for the late notice. Bien cordialement! Carol.” Andy took his eyes off of the road, “wait, what?”
I quickly wrote a reply, hoping she was still by her phone and able to shed a little more light on the situation or at least be willing to reschedule. We drove the rest of the way to Carcassonne in silence.
Originally Written June 23rd 2022
Come June, all of the homes on our list were still miraculously available, with the exception of one. In the end, however, we had decided that the home was located a little too far north (located in Saint-Antonin-Noble-Val) and there was no love lost.
We boarded a plane the second week of June, excited at the prospect of physically standing in each of the homes and allowing the photographs (as meager as they were) to come to life. This was during the time when some countries were still closed to travelers due to Covid and two of our destinations, France and Italy, had restrictions, making it difficult to travel to and around the countries without first meeting a laundry list of requirements. Because of this, we decided to fly into Spain and spend a few nights in Barcelona. Crossing the border from Spain into France was significantly easier than just flying directly to France, as Spain’s restrictions were more loose than the other countries.
We chose Barcelona as our destination because Andy had visited the city a few years before and loved the food and the culture. He was excited to hop from tapas bar to tapas bar and visit all of its historic sites, but mostly he was giddy about sharing one of his favorite places with me and being a part of my first trip to the city. After a few days exploring Spain, we boarded a train from Barcelona to Perpignon, stopping in the city to pick up our rental car and then driving to the fortified town of Carcassonne, which we were using as our home base for our southwest tour of France. We were seeing three other homes before our showing of the watchmaker’s house, but we were just going through the motions, comparing them all to our beloved little blue house.
The first home we visited was in the tiny medieval village of Magalas. It was an old winemaker’s home and was a sprawling grande maison in the middle of town. We knocked on the massive double-carved doors and were greeted by not only the real estate agent, but much to our surprise, the seller, whose family had owned the home for hundreds of years. She had decided to put it on the market because it was now too large for her to maintain in her older age. Having her at the showing caught us a bit off guard, as it wasn’t customary to tour a home back in the U.S. with the owners present. While we were happy to have someone directly related to the house there to answer all of our burning questions, having her there did keep us from being as expressive or authentic as we normally would have been when touring a home. As it was also our first ever French viewing, we still weren’t 100% sure on what the norm even was. Do we express how much we like the home? Do we play coy? How much honesty is considered rude? Buzzing with nervous excitement, we walked through the grand double doors and into the twenty-foot high ceiling foyer. Our gaze flowed around the room, scanning the intact original tiles and deep set plaster molding flourishes, both absolutely stunning but worn and discolored with age. I ran my fingers over the chair rail plaster molding and smiled towards the owner. “It’s beautiful.” She smiled a half smile back at me, happy that someone could see the beauty in her ancestral home, but saddened that steps were being taken to remove the home from her family's history. The agent put out her arm towards an entrance off to the left of the door way, leading us into what used to be the kitchen. A sink enclosed by a cupboard door sneakily hid the remnants of the original lay out. We peeked our heads into the shallow space. The enamel sink was beautiful and surprisingly functional, but rarely used now due to its impractical location and lack of inhabitants. An orange ring outlined the drain, matching the flakes of rust that fluttered off of the sink hardware and onto the off white basin. Backing out of the closet, I mentally noted the sink as another original feature that, with a little love, could be brought back to life.
The agent turned and started towards a door at the other side of the room. Off of the old kitchen was a tiny dark hallway, peeling 60’s era wallpaper glided down the walls and hung, waiting to be finally pulled free. The neon green and yellow flowers brightened the space despite the lack of natural light or electricity, giving the false sense of warmth. Off the hallway were two doors, one on each side, now used for storage and stocked full of family heirlooms that had been boxed away and forgotten. Peeking our heads around the musty boxes tiered one on top of another, we tried to make out the original intention for the rooms. All that remained from its original occupancy were the large fireplaces, each with a piece of plywood resting against their hearths, trying to deter the cold from creeping in. The sound of footsteps shuffling back down the hall behind us was our cue to follow. I gingerly closed the door so as to not disrupt the owner’s personal effects and turned back towards the agent, who was leading us back down the hallway, through the old kitchen and back into the main foyer. Once we had all made it back to our original starting point, the agent pointed to the door to the right of the entryway. “This”, she stated, “makes the property unique. But you have to enter from the outside,” she said, reopening the double doors. We were then led back outside and came to another door next to the home’s front door. Leading us through a much less grand, vinyl door, we found ourselves standing in a shop. “This gives the house extra rental potential,” the agent said, walking us into the back and stopping at a dated, tiny bathroom. “It’s currently being used as a hair salon, but could be rented for anything.” The owner explained to the agent, who relayed the message to us. We nodded as we looked around the room, taking in the extra space and adding it to the pros side of our mental pros and cons list. The agent walked over to the door and then turned to look back at us. “Let’s see the kitchen and dining room,” she said, unlatching the door and holding it open for us. Walking back through the massive double doors and into the large foyer, the owner started up the beautifully hand-carved winding staircase. With each step, I let my eyes wander up the crumbling plaster walls as each level of the home was revealed the higher we climbed.
The appeal of the house was instant. If restored, this 14 bedroom home could be a fantastic B and B, which is something I’ve always considered doing, as I love cooking for people and being around fellow travelers and admirers of antique properties. The home was in our price range, but the amount of work needed to bring it up to a certain level of comfort would take several hundreds of thousands of dollars and around 3 to 4 years of renovations. In some rooms, it was simple wall paper peeling. In others, the ceiling was collapsing from water damage. The owner continued to lead us up the stairs and through her childhood home, blissfully unaware of the absolute disrepair it had fallen into. At the top of the first flight of very long stairs, we were led into a large sitting room decorated in the bell epoch style. Traditional plaster molding adorned the walls, giving an air of classic 1900’s grandeur. The intricate molded fireplace yielded flourishes of gold gilding, rising from the wall, and wrapping itself around the whole ceiling, making your eyes float up and around to the beautiful original touches. The floors were laid out in the most sophisticated patterns of cherry and oak, weaving the two into ornate motifs around each of the corners. The plaster walls, however, were crumbling around the room. Discoloration and cracks where water had seeped in gave the once grand room an aged and distressed look. The owner, seeing our eyes fixate on the walls, quickly ushered us through a small door at the back of the room and into another sitting room. It was a mirror image of the previous room, with some of the ceiling's beautiful plaster loosened from water damage and laying in piles of rubble on the floor. The fireplace had a painting of a sailboat resting on its mantle along with a few small figurines, tokens of a life once lived. The owner walked over to the painting, dusting off the edge of its frame. Watching her, I wondered how many family gatherings were held in that room? How many fires were enjoyed after a family meal or celebration. I also wondered how the painting got to that spot? Did it originally hang on one of the not so stable walls? Was it painted by an uncle or a sister and given as a gift? I couldn’t imagine having a home that had been lovingly passed down from generation to generation and finally have to be the one to make the tough decision that a grand home like this isn’t sustainable for a modern family in today’s world. It would be heartbreaking. Part of me would feel as though I failed the family, not being in a position to hang on to our ancestral home. I sensed her hurt as she fumbled with the objects on the mantle.
“The kitchen is through the last sitting room,” the agent said, bringing us back into the moment. The owner snapped back to life, shaking away whatever she was thinking and turning away from her nick nacks. I looked back at her and then to the agent who waved us back through the door and into the last room.
When we entered the kitchen, we were surprised to find that it was just a room with pipes sticking out where appliances used to be. Debris and plaster filled the spaces where the fridge and stove used to occupy. “So, the house doesn’t come with a kitchen?” I asked, a bit clueless to the norms in France. We later discovered that this is typical for French homes that are for sale, as they don’t always come with the kitchen appliances. “No,” the agent answered,” but this gives you more freedom to customize things as you personally like them.” What a way to spin it!
There were a few dated cabinets, which the owner cheerfully pointed out were made by a local artisan, that hung willfully to the walls, ready to topple into the plaster piles at any moment. We turned away from the heaping disaster that used to be the kitchen and were faced with the pièces de résistance. One of the walls of the kitchen was a wall of sliding doors, made entirely of glass, which led out to an incredibly large second story patio. “This would be a fantastic place to have dinner in the evenings,” Andy remarked. “But what are we on top of right now?” The agent exchanged words with the seller who then relayed her response to us. “We are on top of the garage.” My mind went back to seeing the garage from the outside of the house and taking a mental note of how far left it leaned. “Let’s see some bedrooms,” I said, afraid of going through the ceiling of the garage with each step.
We were shuffled through the disastrous kitchen to a closed door down the hall. “This leads to the servants quarters,” the agent said, nudging herself against the door in hopes of coaxing it open. We entered the flight of stairs that were encapsulated in plywood. The owner ran her hands up the wooden walls as we ascended the stairs. She and the agent exchanged some quick phrases and then the agent turned her head over her shoulder to include us in the conversation. “She says that when the family downsized and didn’t have servants anymore, they didn’t need this extra floor. In order to save heat, they closed off this level of the home.” Andy and I nodded as we followed them up the stairs. As we climbed another level of stairs, we found ourselves in the old servants quarters. Four or five tiny rooms sat off of the right-hand side of the long hallway. We peeked our heads into the rooms, each with no electricity and only small beams of light coming from a single tiny window. In the dim light, we could make out that each room still had all of the old furnishings lying untouched, as if waiting for the return of their former tenant. When you walked into each of the rooms, a feeling of sadness washed over you. As your eyes adjusted to the lack of light, you could make out a tiny brass bed and a chair with a few family heirlooms, forgottenly shoved into each room’s damp corners. One had an old baby carriage stuffed with old dolls. Another had a few vintage suitcases, overflowing with left behind items and shoved behind the chair.
Making my way down to the end of the hall, I found the only room not used as a bedroom.
I entered the room, looking around, trying to make sense of its purpose. The room had dark gray stone walls and large rusted hooks hanging from the ceiling. At the back of the room, against the wall was a large stone tub built into the floor and spanning the whole length of the room, worn with use and age. Racking my brain for a reason for this room to exist, I finally turned to the agent, who was waiting silently in the doorway. “What was this room??” I asked, tilting my head and squinting my eyes. The agent stoically replied, “to slaughter the pigs.” I looked at Andy who silently looked back at me. We knew it was time to go. Au Revoir Magalas.
**Above is our journey from the Spanish boarder through the whole south and all the stops in between. You may notice Vaison is not marked, it was a totally by chance we ended up there!
Bonjour, Ciao, Salut! I'm Rachel and this is my story documenting our experience buying a home in France. If you are looking for advice on home buying, feel free to e-mail me or check the bottom of the home page for a link to a basic guide.