Tuesday, 25 November 2014

Fond farewells

Since we closed our doors to this year's guests at Maison Grillou just over a month ago, we've spent our first couple of sessions at Leela, discovering (as you do) that what at first seemed to be a simple 'lick of paint' type of job was in fact a tad more involved! Once we'd spent the obligatory week Cleaning Up After The Builder, and the second obligatory week putting right the things he'd done wrong or failed to do at all (choosing builders who can follow specifications not being my greatest talent ... sigh), we launched into some fond, and fun, farewells.

Farewell to grossly dirty terracotta tiles

One of the things I immediately loved about Maison Leela is that she had been very sympathetically restored some 20 or so years ago by the last-but-one owner, using natural materials like lime and hair render, lots of wood, exposed stone walls in places, and real terracotta tiles. Sadly though her immediately previous owners, who live a thousand kilometres away, had clearly fallen out of love with her - or at least with looking after her - some time ago, so we've also inherited years of ground-in grub and grime (and scarily, she was let as a holiday rental in that state until last year). Terracotta tiles are beautiful ... but they do need regular attention, and when the seal becomes worn they can pick up dirt very quickly.

When that happens, the only thing to do is to strip off all the old polish, deep clean, reseal and polish the whole floor. It's not a quick fix: each individual 15 centimetre square tile took 20 minutes to clean, after which there were two coats of sealer and three of polish to apply ... on hands and knees, of course, as we don't have any of the pro equipment. We've not tackled downstairs yet but the first floor, where the main living area is, is done, and looks quite different:

Farewell to orange pine

Fortunately not too much of this around, as it's one of my pet hates, but what there was had to go (along with the - erm - knick knacks!):

And so it's gone.

Farewell to 1990s colours

As you can see, we inherited lots of the kind of brightly painted woodwork that was so popular in the late 80s and early 90s: Provençal blue, sunflower yellow, brick red and olive green, all set against brilliant white walls. Not quite ma tasse de thé these days (though I admit to using those very same colours myself in that era). Leela's a small cottage, and she needs a restful, unified colour scheme throughout: we've settled on various shades of natural sienna, using paint we colour (and in some cases, make) ourselves using earth pigments from Ocres de France. Using earth pigments gives much more depth of colour and a finish that looks, and feels, so much more 'alive' than the synthetic colours used in ready-mixed paint, though you do have to remember to note down every gram of powdered pigment you add otherwise matching colours between batches becomes a little tricky, to say the least!

So, this:

Has become this:

In case you were wondering, yes, that is a dog in the cupboard :).

And the brilliant white walls have now been treated to a home-made wash, home-made from a base of a lime-based enduit mixed with raw sienna pigment and some white VOC-free ecological paint:

Next session: tackling the remains of the blue and yellow paint in the kitchen!

Saturday, 8 November 2014

Around the lake ... and some good things found there!

There's a lovely, peaceful lake in Villelongue-dels-Monts. Not many people know that, unless they're locals, so it's a bit of a well-kept secret - and it's not easy to find, having no signposts whatsoever. You trundle down a tiny lane to the side of the lycée, hoping beyond belief that you don't meet another car (you don't, of course), while keeping a weather eye open for the track that leads off to the left down to the shore. If you've taken the right track, you'll find yourself careering down a steep but mercifully short slope to arrive at what's loosely called a parking area. If you like, you can have a barbecue here - there are barbecues set up - though most people just find themselves a space of their own around the shore and set up their own.

That's Canigou underneath the clouds - looking forward to the view on a crisp winter day!

It's not a very big lake, so you can walk around it in 30 minutes. In warm weather it's the perfect place to settle for an afternoon with a picnic; you can fish if you like (lots of people do) and it looks eminently swimmable, though I haven't tried yet. In cooler weather, it's a good dog-walking (or in the case of the some of the locals, who shall remain nameless, chuck-your-dog-out-of-the-car-so-it-can-exercise-itself) spot.

Looking towards the Albères, the last gasp of the Pyrénées before they fall into the Mediterranean

I love this spot and have my eye on it to swim from next year!

It's all very peaceful, and a far cry from the busy buzz of the Mediterranean towns and villages just 15 minutes away - which is sometimes just what you (or at least we) want ... and it's just a 5 minute car ride, or very pleasant 25 minute amble, from Maison Leela.

Walking our dog Noodles there a couple of weeks ago, we found several shrubs almost dripping with an orange-y yellow, small round fruit. We'd literally followed our noses, as the fragrance was fantastic; John thought at first that they were japonica apples. They weren't, though he was close: they turned out to be citrus japonica, or wild kumquat. Inveterate foragers that we are, we made a hasty trip back to the car to collect some plastic bags before clambering around in thorny, garrigue-like scrubland to pick the things.

Not my photo, sadly, as I had no camera with me, but pretty close to what we found

We came away with nearly 5 kilos, and the smell in the car on the short drive home was hallucinant, as the French say. John had a yearning to make jelly, and so he did: mixing the kumquat with a handful of crab apples from Maison Grillou (to add pectin) he produced a gorgeous concoction with the slightly bitter, citrus-y taste of marmalade alongside the light and fragrant texture of a wobbly jelly. Here it is, on a slice of sourdough toast:

Our wild kumquat and crab apple jelly 

There are - um - rather a lot of pots, so if you're coming to stay with us at Maison Grillou in 2015 you can be sure that you'll get to try it!

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

A gentle introduction to Maison Leela

Although we've only managed to spend the grand total of 4 nights there ourselves since she became ours in April - and there's a long, long way to go before she looks and feels as we know she wants to - lots of you have been asking us what she's like, and so it's time to begin the process of introducing you to Maison Leela.

Like many of the older cottages in the village, Leela is built of stone, now rendered on the outside but left exposed in places inside. She's a typical example of a Catalan 'maison paysanne', with an external staircase leading up to the main front door; at one time there would have been no internal staircase and the functions of each floor would have been separate, the ground floor being devoted to work of some kind, usually wine-growing, while the first floor was the living area. We reckon that she's around two hundred years old, the same age as the village museum, built in exactly the same style.

Here's a (slightly distorted) photo of the front of the house, shamelessly lifted from Google street view. Maison Leela is the cream house; the house on her left is also built in the same style.

And here's the village museum, a minute's walk away:

So, climb the outside stairs onto a small east-facing 'landing' (perfect for a coffee in the early morning sun), and go through the front door into the kitchen. We like to cook, so we've completely re-done this bit of the house: we've had some simple wooden furniture built by a local firm that I'll be painting cream, and granite worktops have been installed by another local company - a wonderfully ramshackle place where you choose your granite from huge slabs outside in the yard, not in a posh showroom. The twenty-first century is represented by a (very non-paysanne!) dishwasher, a five-ring gas hob and a Siemens electric oven.

Walk through the open archway from the kitchen into a rather quirky salon, with a high painted wood ceiling and lime-and-hair rendered walls. Here's the salon on the day I first clapped eyes on the house in February:

It will all look a bit different by the time we've finished with it! There will be natural earth pigments on the walls, lots of painted furniture and contemporary artwork, comfy places to sit and eat and a wood burner ... but the main interest for everyone will, I'm sure, be the French doors leading outside onto the terrace, where life will be mostly lived even on winter days.

From the salon, a door leads to the main double bedroom, which has a small dressing room and rather larger bathroom en suite, as well as its own French door out onto the terrace. The terrace faces west, and overlooks the garden plus a rather large and lush plantation of trees that runs along a small stream; to the left are the Albères, and straight ahead, but rather hidden by the trees, is a full-frontal of Mont Canigou.

A wooden staircase leads down from the salon into a large and cool ground floor area where we'll have a a couple of chairs and a coffee table. Off here is the second double bedroom, which has a door out to the garden; a (very) small second bathroom that has an original sitz bath with a shower over; a utility room with washing machine and sink, and a door out to the street. There's a small area behind a wooden screen, with its own door out to a covered terrace, where there'll be a simple summer kitchen with fridge, storage units, worktop and a couple of gas rings to support and complement the plancha right outside; that way you don't have to go upstairs just to boil some water for pasta or coffee or to chill your wine! The little garden just beyond the covered terrace, seen in the photo on the left, has been landscaped by a local gardener and is planted with various Mediterranean shrubs; there's a staircase (yes, another one!) connecting it with the terrace above.

So there you have it. Maison Leela will always be first and foremost our own Mediterranean retreat: a genuine home, complete with quirks and foibles, rather than a perfect but impersonal holiday rental. We're happy though to share her with compatible guests, and she'll be available to rent for holidays for around 12 weeks each year, between April and October when we're busy with our guests here at Maison Grillou. Arrival and departure dates will (of course!) be flexible; you'll need to stay at least a week but any number of extra nights over and above that that will be fine. She sleeps between two and four people, and will be available to adults only.

If you like the idea of getting to know her better, you will however have to be just a little bit patient! Photos will appear here as and when each room is ready; we won't be opening bookings though until we have some idea when she'll be ready. She's had a lot of interest already, mind you; if you'd like to add your name to her growing 'I think I might like to visit' list, just drop me a quick email and you'll be among the first to be able to book.

Wednesday, 20 August 2014

A stroll to St Genis

One of the things we like about Maison Leela is that it's easy to amble to other villages, along quiet lanes or tracks (known as cami in the Catalan language that's used frequently here). Earlier this year, on a quick visit to meet our builder, we took a stroll to our neighbouring village of Saint-Genis-des-Fontaines, which is home to a beautiful Benedictine abbey.

I'll let the pictures tell the story ...

What a fabulous and unexpected start to the walk!

Just a couple of minutes outside our village, Villelongue dels Monts ...

... and you feel remote from the world!

Looking over the vineyards towards the Albères

And looking the other way, a typically atmospheric view of Mont Canigou rising out of the haze

This area turns out some lovely wines, which we buy from the Cave Cooperative at St Genis

Low yields, parched vineyards and hot sun

Part of the lintel of the abbey at St Genis - this sculpture was done in 1020

This little guy protects the right hand side of the door (as well as his modesty!) ...

... while his counterpart guards the left hand side

It was lunchtime - and it would have been rude not to stop, non?

Miam miam!

Lots of colour on the way back

Aren't these amazing?

And here's the Mediterranean, less than 8 kilometres away

Wednesday, 6 August 2014

Pick your own grapes ...

... without leaving your terrace!

Stay at Maison Leela in early August next year and this is what you'll find above your head as you eat on the first floor terrace:

Friday, 1 August 2014

Meetings, mess and moules

This blog may have been a bit quiet on the Maison Leela front for a couple of months, but nevertheless Stuff has been Happening there - our artisan-on-the-spot has been beavering away doing some electrical and plumbing work, and preparing the kitchen area ready for its new installation. We're keeping very much to French country cottage style so there's not an IKEA-type unit or a single bit of melamine to be found: instead, we've opted for simple solid wood free-standing units that we'll be putting together to make a fitted(ish) kitchen, then painting. There'll be a five burner gas hob, a Bosch electric oven and (of course!) a dishwasher too.

A couple of days ago I had to make a short sharp overnight visit to the house to meet up with our artisan, and also with the company who'll be supplying and fitting the granite worktops. I almost wrote 'quick and dirty' there, and in fact that would have been a rather more accurate descriptor: if you've ever had renovation done you'll know only too well the horrors of plaster dust, tiling dust, wood dust, stone dust, lime dust, builder dust and dust dust that go inexorably with it. The whole house was covered in it; furniture was piled up against the French doors so that opening them in order to take the odd breath from time to time was a somewhat difficult operation requiring crampons, a rope and serious acrobatics from the ceiling. It brought back memories of the long drawn out restoration of our Ariège farmhouse, Maison Grillou, which many of you may remember reading about over several years here. It wasn't a pleasant experience, and my fantasies of enjoying a picnic supper on the terrace were soon squashed.

The cooking corner

The washing up corner

Just a few of the tools stored in the salon :( 

A tool for all occasions

Instead, I decided to go in search of one of my favourite feel-good treats, moules frites. Not having had kids, I've always avoided seaside towns like the plague during school holidays, so heading off to Argelès Port, just 15 minutes down the road, in one of the busiest weeks of the year was a new and slightly daunting experience for me. Argelès is one of a number of new resorts that were created along the coast of Languedoc-Roussillon in the 70s and 80s in true socialist mode, with the aim of being non-élitist and accessible to everyone - the antithesis, it was said, of the Côte d'Azur where only those with money could afford to holiday. We rather like Argelès, and often go there to walk our dog Noodles along the long promenade that runs some 3 kilometres alongside the beach; it's a traffic free zone that feels almost rural as the promenade is separated from the buildings by plantations of pine and other trees - 12 hectares in total. The beaches - all 7km of them - are huge, clean and sandy, and there are great views of the Albères mountains, often of Mont Canigou too; parking is easy, and always free. Right at the northern end, as far as you can go without crossing the mouth of the river Tech, is one of our favourite haunts: Mas Larrieu, a nature reserve beach where clothing is optional.

Promenading in Argelès-sur-Mer

No time for beaches or promenades on this occasion, sadly, but I managed to bag a front-line table on the port where I did indeed enjoy a starter of marinaded anchovies, prawns and smoked salmon, a huge pot of very garlicky moules and a plate of fresh frites, then nougat glacé with raspberry coulis for afters. With a glass of sangria thrown in, dinner cost me the grand total of 14,90€. Long live populism!

Tuesday, 3 June 2014

On changing one's boots

I'm slightly bemused to find myself amongst the ranks of second home owners. I'm also rather embarrassed, as to be honest it's something I've always been rather iffy about. Much of that iffiness arose from several years living in a small north Norfolk village, which while we were there made the move from being a living, thriving community to being - to quote a friend who still lives there and is the rather quirky chair of the Parish Council - a "financial commodity for footloose City money". It was strange and sad to live there through those boom years when north Norfolk turned into Chelsea-on-Sea, local people could no longer afford to buy or even rent homes, and village shops metamorphosed into posh delis where to buy a pint of milk (let alone dinner) required a large gulp and an overdraft. By the time we left, most houses were occupied for just a few weeks a year by nameless and faceless people with loud voices. Though we tried hard not to, we ended up selling our house - which had been at the heart of the community since becoming a post office in the 1800s - to a second homer, and it was a bitter pill to swallow.

Villelongue-dels-Monts, between mountains and Med (yes, that's the sea on the left!)

Yet here I am, boot on other foot. But there are differences (and yes, I know I would say that, wouldn't I?!). For a start, Villelongue-dels-Monts has relatively few residences secondaires and remains a lively, largish village with residents of all ages and all origins. I'll tell you much more about it in a future post, but in brief it has a small get-out-of-jail supermarket/boulangerie, an excellent traiteur, two restaurants and a tiny Wednesday market; up in the hills there's a small but very beautiful abbey, Santa Maria del Vilar, occupied by a handful of Orthodox monks, and there's a Romanesque church in the old village centre. There are vineyards, olives groves and orchards, and lots of cami (tracks) on which it's easy to stroll from one village to another. There's even a rather good annual music festival, Musiques dels Monts, which has only been going for three years but has made a name for itself already.

Secondly, Maison Leela certainly won't sit empty for long - when we're not there ourselves, we just know she's going to be a sought after holiday cottage for other People Like Us who'll relish the juxtaposition of sea, mountains and Spain, not to mention the wealth of walking paths, the Catalan culture, and being in the most southerly and sunniest area of France ... and one day, when we're too old and feeble to manage the house and gardens at our Ariège home, Maison Grillou, we'll probably live there ourselves.

Oh, and lastly (but certainly not leastly), a pension pot out of the clutches of the bankers can only be a good thing, non?!