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.