A Monastery in the Pyrenees
The Guardian 2000
It can be hard to convince people that life in a Romanesque monastery in the Pyrenees, surrounded by mountains and orchards of peach trees, is not an idyllic existence. But trying to turn a holiday romance into reality is very hard work. You soon stop making paella over an open fire, stuffing courgette flowers, bathing naked in the river or wandering the fields in search of wild flowers. Instead there are the times when thick clouds descend to surround us like a shroud, followed by the howling tramontane wind that drives every thought from your brain; the termites and capricorn beetles eating our wood beams; the cows who break through the fence and trample the newly planted irises; an overflowing septic tank, mice, vipers, the leaking church roof.
But still. Right now it all seems worth it, as I sit in a corner of the garden with my Powerbook, my son chattering away happily in French to his copain as they play on the swing, the scent of lavender and honeysuckle on the light breeze, the snowy peak of Mount Canigou rising across the valley, the sound of the river, peaches ripening on the trees. And slowly you go native, you stop sunbathing, you eat indoors instead of out, you close the shutters for the day.
Estate agents and insurance agents shake their heads in disbelief over how to value this place, a 13th century Romanesque chapel and monastery, surrounded by seven acres of land, in the foothills of the Eastern Pyrenees within an hour’s drive of Perpignan, the Mediterranean Coast, and the Spanish border. Visitors gasp at its beauty and then mutter gloomily about beaucoup de travaille. Kind friends call me “courageous” when I know they think me quite mad.
The abbey is an ensemble of 13th-16th century buildings, built in the Catalan Romanesque style with rounded arches of local ochre granite stone. It is a style seen at its best in the great abbey of St-Michel de Cuxa, near Prades, with its mozarabic arches and pink marble cloisters. Our chapel was built in 1290, a large, stone single aisle space with a barrel vaulted roof, Romanesque belltower and 16th century frescoes on the apse. On the south side is the 16th century cloister wing with seven Romanesque arches, above which was originally a dormitory with five windows. Remnants of the cloister garden remain, flanked by half ruined walls and stone stairs leading down to the river and field below. There is a huge medieval kitchen with an uneven stone floor, a vast walk-in fireplace, complete with bread ovens, but at the time of writing, no roof.
The building has been severely altered since the monks cut huge blocks of stone to build the metre thick walls and hired journeymen to paint the frescoes. During the 16th century Wars of Religion it was fortified against the Huguenots (the Protestants), arches and windows were blocked up, and a tower -now ruined-was added to the corner of the cloister.
For two centuries since the French Revolution the whole place, including the chapel, was used as a barn and farmhouses. The floors were demolished and new ones built on different levels. The original windows were blocked up and new ones punched through wherever convenient for animals and tractors, weakening the building as well as detracting from its original beauty. Animals were accommodated on the ground floor, and the plaster has been washed away to waist height by centuries of cow piss. Still this is better than had it been left empty when it would almost certainly have fallen into ruin. Now it is like a jigsaw puzzle, with walls built at different times, most of the cloister arches still blocked up, often re-using stones from elsewhere in the building.; the shelf of a bread oven turns out to be a stone from one of the arches, a critical element of a doorway has been jammed in to reinforce a wall elsewhere. Sadly the most damage has been done by recent restoration, using cement which has rotted the old stones. It soon became apparent that one of our first tasks would be to undo the restoration work so far.
We bought the place about ten years ago, on a hot August afternoon. It was love at first sight and we forgot everything we had ever heard about seeing a prospective property at different times. We were lucky- we know one English woman who bought a house in summer which turned out to be in permanent shade all winter.
Cypress trees were growing up against the ancient walls of the church, their roots digging into the foundations, and the whole place was romantically cloaked in ivy. Our first job was to strip back all the vegetation, with the help of our tenant farmer, his ancient tractor and a coil of strong rope. In the
village epicerie, among the flowery pinnies, cheese and vegetables, we found a rack of postcards of which the monastery was the star local attraction, and our sense of responsibility grew appreciably. We gradually realised that the chapel at least was a key part of the local patrimoine. We hope it can eventually be used as a venue for art exhibitions and music, providing a space for the artists who are increasingly attracted to the area. The village, about a kilometre away, is relatively enlightened, with a young enthusiastic mayor, who welcomes foreigners and is sympathetic to our proposals.
For several years we came for summer holidays tackling key tasks as they arose; installing a septic tank and new wiring, securing ruined walls, and renewing the entire roof of the cloister wing. We want to restore the building to its original form as much as possible, with an uninterrupted long open living space in the cloisters, and glass windows on the arches, a New York loft in the country as it were. We began by returning part of the dormitory floor to its original level, with new bedrooms and bathroom. We indulged in a row of bright blue shutters to match the sky, and although the local tradition is mountain brown nobody seemed to mind.
For the past two years we have lived here for much of the year, writing books and keeping in touch via the Internet, and our son is currently attending the village school. We have planted a vegetable garden, and lots of trees and herbs, and begun to make slow progress with the building. We have a French-resident English builder, whose love for stone grew from his early days constructing dry stone walls in Yorkshire. (When I tell the locals he is from my region, they understand.) We also have a sympathetic English architect, locally based but trained by SPAB (Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings.)
Apart from the impossible amount of money we need to ever complete the task, the main challenge is in trying to turn what was once a place with a clearly defined function into a building with its own integrity again. There are so many features; arches, spy holes, cut stone windows, fragments of fresco, a pink marble sink, and two magnificent 13th century oak church doors with their original ironwork. It can be hard though to find somewhere in between all the features to put the banal necessities like a fridge or a wardrobe. The building is so strong in character that decor is a matter of finding elements that fit in, so no chintz, no frills, just basic white walls, exposing carved stones and frescos, big Persian rugs, modern art, (by local artists, of course) local pots, baskets and old linen. If we could afford furniture it would have to be the simplest wood, or minimal modern; as it is we make do with books.
Discussions with our architect, over too many bottles of red wine, tend to end up like therapy sessions as we try to figure how to restore the building with respect and still find room in it for ourselves, never mind how to finance the whole ludicrous enterprise. I think we know it will never be finished. But like a Patek Philippe watch, you never actually own a building like this, you merely look after it for the next generation.