Monday, July 18, 2011

You Mean Someone LIVES There?

A friend of mine posted an article on Facebook called "Nine Houses You Won’t Believe People Actually Live In". That set me thinking.
     I’ve seen my share of quirky homes during my years in France and on my travels back and forth across the Héxagone, as France is called because of its six-sided shape.
The photo in that article was of a house in Portugal built between two stones. It reminded me of Castel Meur on the north coast of Brittany. I’m showing it here at my own risk, because the present owner is so tired of having it photographed that she has acquired the right to sue anyone who reproduces it. I think her breaking point was that busload of Japanese tourists, one of whom climbed up on the roof to have his picture taken. As you can see, the house is sandwiched between two of the massive rock outcrops that are frequent along this New Englandesque coastline.
     Similar in its rockiness is a house - a much bigger one - in Biarritz. This house in the Basque region near the Spanish border was built in 1885 on a plot of land called the champ du rossignol - the field of the nightingale. Nightingale, maybe, but even looking at photos that predate the house, I couldn’t find any "field"... although there may once have been a scrap of soil on top of the rocks where some mad farmer grew something with very shallow roots. Originally built of dark stone, it’s called the Villa Belza - "black" in Basque, even though it’s now painted resolutely white. The house has quite a history: gala parties with Russian themes until it was requisitioned by the Nazis in 1940, burned twice, abandoned... Luckily, Napoleon III, emperor of France, and his Spanish wife had once made Biarritz the center of the summer universe for a minute and it’s remained a popular vacation spot, thanks to its climate, so this immense house - too much for any one wallet - is now broken down into apartments.
     The Quirky Home I discovered most recently is in the Morbihan, which is the southern third of Brittany, where the Golfe du Morbihan is studded with thousands of tiny islets. This one has a cozy house on it but no room for anything else because it’s only 25 m across; that’s 82 ft, about one-quarter the length of a football field. If global warming ever melts the polar ice cap and raises the sea level just a foot, there’ll be no island around the house at all! But in spite of its tiny size, the island does have a name: Nichtarguer, or "oyster of the village" in Breton, because it was built in 1894 for the keeper of the bay’s oyster beds. I don’t know that anyone lives in that house now, but the door and shutters were freshly painted when I saw it. I can’t imagine living in it during a storm, even though this corner of the bay is sheltered. I’m sure the wind must send waves crashing right over the rooftop, and I’m sure the blue shutters earn their keep.
     And then there are two houses built by dreamers. One is in the suburbs of Chartres, the home of the man called Picasiette - Plate Thief. Raymond Isidore wasn’t really smart, some would call him a simpleton, and he did spend some time in a mental hospital. But he earned his living sweeping out the cemetery near his home. One sunny day, on the way to work, he saw a sparkle in the gutter. Fascinated, he picked up a broken piece of colored crockery. The rest is history. From 1938 until his death in 1964 he collected ceramics to cover his two-room house with mosaics. First he would find shards in the street and in the trash. Then neighbors would give him their odds-and-ends of unmatched dishes. He’d draw an outline on the wall, then he’d break the plates and cement the pieces over the drawing. Everything was covered: the walls of his house, inside and out, the furniture, everything... right down to his wife’s sewing machine! And when that was finished, he moved on to the garden walls, covering them with multiple drawings of Chartres Cathedral. But he never finished, and some of the lines are still visible, waiting for their art naif tessera. (

The other dreamer’s home is in the Rhone Valley: the Palais Idéal du Facteur Cheval. Ferdinand Cheval was a rural postmaster who walked miles and miles across the countryside every day to deliver mail. One day he tripped over a rock and found it so strangely shaped that he took it home with him. That started off something remarkable. Every day, after his rounds, he would take his wheelbarrow and walk miles back to gather more strange rocks. It took him 33 years to carry back enough stones to build his "Ideal Palace". I think his wife must have been very understanding. Although parts of his Palace look strikingly like Angkor Wat in Cambodia, Cheval never saw a photo of it, or anything else Cambodian. His handiwork sprang from his bubbling imagination and what the stones reminded him of. (My favorite detail is what I see as the Three Little Pigs.) The life’s work of Ferdinand Cheval has been praised by Picasso and by surrealist author André Breton and immortalized in a collage by Max Ernst and an essay by Anaïs Nin. Since 1969, Culture Minister (and famed author) André Malraux listed it as part of France’s official cultural heritage. It’s been restored and is now open year round to the public. Technically not his house - his wife let him just "play in the garden" - it’s still on my list of incredible places people lived. (
 And finally there are the maisons troglodytes, the cave houses. They exist in several regions of France. Many are in or near the Loire Valley, such as in tiny Trôo or all along the north bank of the Loire River, where the cliffs face south to catch the warmth of the sun. There are also cave houses on the north bank of the Dordogne River, like these in La Roque-Gageac. In the Dordogne region, the land of prehistoric cave paintings, it’s not hard to imagine cavemen moving into natural caverns and then improving them by carving out more living space. That’s especially easy in the Loire Valley, where the ivory white tufaceous rock is so soft that it can be scraped away with a fingernail. An extra shelf, an extra nook, even an extra room require relatively little effort. A new baby? Just get out the chisel! In the Dordogne region, the cliffs are limestone, but still carve-able. Such cave homes had been lying empty for generations... until recently. In the 1980's, maisons troglodytes in the Loire Valley suddenly became all the rage as summer homes, especially for city-dwellers from nearby Tours. Shutters and doors were repaired and painted. Window boxes were hammered together and filled with bright flowers.  And families moved back in.
     The cavemen must be smiling.

1 comment:

  1. I'd love a cave house. I'd just need some skylights to keep it bright.