Old houses are like any relationship. They need care and attention. There’s a lot of ongoing maintenance. They are a work in progress. In that spirit, here are a few of our recent changes here at La Pommetier.
In our La Mirabelle room we finally have an antique daybed installed. Sounds easy enough, but this has been over a year of drama believe it or not. It has involved tappissiers (upholsterers), ebenists (furniture makers) and a charpentier (carpenter) to get it fitted in the space in the room. Fabric has been sourced from all over and the lovely people at VV Rouleaux in London sent emergency supplies of braid when we ran out. I haven’t got the cushion set up right yet – my tendency is to be a bit matchy-matchy rather than mix and matchy – so I’ll keep working on that. But here it is for now…
Next door to La Mirabelle in our La Campagne room our little art collection has grown. I absolutely love those rooms where the walls are absolutely covered in paintings and interesting things (nearby Chateau de Balleroy does this well). It doesn’t have to be of Louvre quality – just fitting with the room and the house. And in this room, which doesn’t have a view of the garden like the others, we wanted our guests to know that they are in the Normandy countryside. So slowly, were collecting up paintings from our local auction houses and antique dealers that reflect our setting. Its going to take a while before we get to Balleroy levels… but work is in progress.
Now I just need to finish the banquette I’ve been working on in upholstery classes for the past nine months.
Work in progress.
Paques is French for Easter. And we had a tres joyeux and tres internationale paques here at La Pommetier. We had Canadians living in England. A Canadian living in France. And Italians living in London. Hosted by Australians living in France. United by Lindt bunnies.
The English/Canadians staged an easter egg hunt in the garden after breakfast and the rest of us tried to look sophisticated while really wanting to join in rummaging around the tulips. I hoped that there was one or two eggs missed that I would find while “gardening” later. Not to be.
Easter really kicked off the tourist season in Arromanches. The village has really come to life after her (well earned) winter slumber. Even the ice cream shops are open. We love it. The church bells ring at 7am and we’re up an at ’em. It’s daylight until 8.30pm now so I’m out annoying the turtle doves in the garden until late.
My winter gardening was severely restricted and my impatience to get to spring meant I started off my seedlings way too early in January and now have trays of pathetic looking bits of green string growing (think alfalfa sprouts rather than delphiniums and hollyhocks). I am determined that they will survive to get to the garden this summer even if they have no will to live of their own. Plants under the care of Mother Nature outside are faring much better. I can take no credit for the lovely bulbs she’s sprouted up in the garden which are now filling our bedside tables. Merci.
We are the only Australians in our little village here in Arromanches. Both our guests and our neighbours have been genuinely surprised to find us here. We’ve not yet run into any other Australians living in Normandy – although I know via some quality Instagram stalking there’s a few more of us here. Across France there’s a quiet little influx of us that absolutely love the French way of life and have made France our home. I call us Fraussies. Short for Fraustralians.
You’ll find Tom the barista brains trust at Cafe Coutume in Paris (best coffee in Paris – its where the Australian Foreign Minister goes when visiting). King of the scissors David Mallet cuts the hair of celebrities and models at his fabulous Parisian atelier (never mind the stuffed peacocks a la Deyrolle). Vicky Archer bases her style empire in Provence for her blog “French Essence”. And fabulous photographer Carla Coulson has adopted the city of light for her beautiful portraits.
I first came across Carla when researching a trip to Italy and stumbling across her book Italian Joy. It was just as it said not the cover, full of the joys of Italy. For an Aussie with a clear love of the sea, beaches and sand under your feet, Carla has such a European sensibility to her photos. It must be the Sydney girl in her – a cosmpolitan city by the beach – that lets her be so at ease shooting one day in a cobbled lane in Paris and the next on a pebbly beach on the Amalfi coast.
If you want to win a personal photo shoot with Carla to be done in Paris this year, head on over to her website and enter away. Just bear in mind that you’ll have to beat me to it!
So we’ve been really diligent doing all our winter jobs – bits of painting, cleaning, fluffing, generally making sure everything is in tip-top shape for 2016 – and we thought we’d have a little mini-break before Easter and the summer season really sets in. We had a friend from Australia (hi Craig!) to meet up with in Paris and join us for our road trip so we figured we’d be half way to the Champagne region and we could come home via Villers Brettoneux – so important for Australians like us.
Every time I drive to Paris (which is a total of three times now) I am a bundle of crazy nerves before hand. In the Normandy countryside, and even in the busier places like Caen, I now know my way around well enough and manage to keep on the correct side of the road. But in Paris they have crazy rules. Like ‘oncoming traffic has the right of way on roundabouts’. And crazy drivers. Like all of them. But then every time I get to Paris I find driving is actually pretty easy. The traffic keeps things nice and slow. If you’re in the wrong spot just put your indicator on and other drivers are generally really forgiving. I think having our department number (14 for Calvados) on our numberplate lets them all know we’re from out of town and they cut us some slack. So don’t be put off too much if you’re thinking about renting a car in Paris.
From Paris we headed to Reims first (unpronounceable in French – you really have to have the rolling r thing happening big time). I’d booked a table at the petite treat Epicerie au Bon Manger – there’s just four tables – and we loved it. Beef stew for the boys, a plate of mixed cheeses and charcuterie and salad for me and coffee and chocolate mousse all round for dessert. Everything made on the premises by the dynamo duo running the place and they specialise in organic and biodynamic wines and champagnes to match. We were well fuelled up for our first tasting tour – Taittinger.
I love Taittinger – enough to forgive them their crazy “you won’t need a booking” and turn up and “the tour is full so come back in 1.5 hours”. Compared to the orderly booking processes of Moet (reserve via email) and even better Pommery (reserve, pay and print ticket before you leave home), I suspect this would be a deal breaker for those travelling in summer. All three of these tours (and four if you count a trip to Veuve Cliquot a few years back) are informative, less than an hour, take you through the caves where they store the bottles (so there’s a LOT of steps down and up again) and my favourite part… exit through the gift shop. While the story behind Veuve and Madame Cliquot is fascinating and the most personable, without doubt our lovely guide Mary at Moet really made that tour shine for us. If you’re hoping for some bubbly bargains at the end, sadly there’s no great discounts to be had at the cellar doors. Instead opt for a glass of the grand cru with your tour ticket – you’d be hard pressed to be able to try these champagnes by the glass anywhere else. I’m now a cuvee Louise fan after a 13 euro cellar tour upgrade rather than the 100 euro a bottle in a wine shop – thank you Pommery.
There’s other ways to try great champagnes here. Reims has some great restaurants with some great champagne menus (and sommeliers to help guide you). The highlight for us was the beautiful Brasserie Flo where it was steak frites followed by the most fabulous gooey warm chocolatey pudding I’ve ever had. I may never put a cake in the oven for more than 10 minutes ever again. A spin past the amazing cathedral lit up at night will walk about two spoonfuls off, but you’ll sleep like a baby afterwards. A slightly drunk baby.
I’m not going to kid anyone, winter here in Normandy is long. OK, probably not nearly as long as in say, Norway or Alaska, but longer than our homeland Australia.
A few hardy souls have come to stay to experience the D-Day beaches in their serene and rugged beauty without the crowds here. If you’re prepared to rug up you’ll be rewarded with pristine photos without another soul blocking your shot, an open fire here to come home to, and the ability to get a same-day dinner booking at the fabulous La Rapier in Bayeux (impossible in summer).
We’ve only had one light cover of snow one morning and a week of hard frosts (bye-bye daisy bush and agapanthus), but its the lack of day light that I find the hardest. Its the price we have to pay for those 10pm twilight walks on the beach after dinner we have all summer.
But we’re nearly there. Its less than two weeks until spring and Arromanches is coming alive again. The sound of lawnmowers is leading the buzz, and the restaurants that have been closed for a well-earned winter break are opening again. We’re off to La Marine for a much missed sole-meunier tomorrow night. We’ve already had our first crepes of the season from lovely Thomas at Recto Verso. It’s just going to be a little while yet before we get tempted by the ice cream treats at Companie du Glaces down by the waterside.
On the home front we’ve had a list of jobs that we’ve been working through over winter to keep the house in tip-top condition. Paint touch ups, changing over bits that we weren’t really happy with (exciting stuff like too dim lamp bulbs) and those ‘drive you crazy in the cuckoos’ jobs like cleaning chandeliers. Next job is to paint the shutters now its warming up a bit.
Every day I’ve been looking out over the garden planning and scheming. The kitchen is now the nursery for two mini glass houses full of seedlings and as they germinate they head up to the attic to grow on in cooler temperatures and new seeds are planted in the warm kitchen. My first lot of 40 seeds only has 5 survivors now – so I’m really hoping my success rate grows. The billion or so tulips, alliums and grape hyacinths I planted last year are all peaking through the soil and I’m being patient to wait to put the dahlia and lily tubers in next month. There’s been some moving and shaking around the garden with things making way for new additions – including a four ball conifer topiary I’m pretty stoked about. Arne Maynard has a lot to answer for.
The garden has also been Terminal 6 at Heathrow over winter as my compassion for our two resident turtle doves who guard the mirabelle tree year round to keep their nest there led to about 40 other hanger-on birds taking up residence. Blue tits, gold finches, robins, and other randoms show up at daybreak each day and check the feeder every 3 seconds until its filled with nuts and seeds for them. Its kept a bit of life in the garden each day and I’ve now entered bird-nerd territory with my own bird watching book kept in the draw of the breakfast table in our kitchen. Gone is Vogue as my bible.
Its bizarre to think back that this time last year we were still renovating and not yet even taking bookings. We’ve come a long way and its been a cracker of a trip…. and there’s more to come with summer ahead!
Yesterday the lovely Sharon Santoni of My French Country Home fame featured La Pommetier on her blog. Sharon has followers the world over and last year released her beautiful book, My Stylish French Girlfriends which has already had multiple print runs. We featured on the day Sharon’s blog turned 6 years old – and for me it’s one of the original and the best in the blogging world.
Sharon had put a call out asking her readers about a life transformation of their own as she has transformed her life from mother of four to international blogging superstar and author as her children all grew up and flew the nest. I wrote what I though was just a little note from me to Sharon really just to tell her how much her lovely insights and photos of life in Normandy meant to me among the demands, deadlines and drama of working life in Melbourne and how they planted the seeds for our own move her in 2014. When she selected my note to publish on her blog, I underestimated the response levels from her very engaged, supportive and lovely community.
Among the notes of support and booking inquiries for La Pommetier today there was a few questions about things people saw in the photos, so here is a few of the sources and suppliers. Please feel free to email me at email@example.com if there is anything else you’d like to know.
The little cushions of painted scenes of Normandy are by the super talented Genevieve Levy and can be purchased online here: www.maisonlevy.fr. For those thinking of coming to stay, the cushions with the umbrellas on the beach in Deauville are in our room “Le Jardin”. In our “La Mirabelle” room we have Genevieve’s cushions with the little red tractor on the beach – you’ll see these tractors here at Arromanches where they are used to take the fishing boats down to the water at low tide. The cushions in the photo are not currently available in her e-shop, but if you send Genevieve a little note via her website and ask nicely she may be able to get some for you. I had these cushions pinned on Pinterest for years before we arrived in France and emailed to ask if her if she could still supply them – it was a little wait for them to arrive but I love them. Genevieve has a store at 20 rue Taylor in Paris if you are in the City of Lights.
The bedhead is from a lovely store in Paris called Le Bout du Monde – its right between the Opera, Madeleine and the ‘grand magasins’ and worth a visit as they style everything so beautifully. They have also recently opened within Harrods in London.
The paint colour for the walls is Farrow and Ball’s ‘Light Blue’. Its such a soft colour and the paint gives a lovely chalky finish suited to old homes.
These Louis XVI chairs (we have a matching pair) we fought off antique dealers to buy while at the huge deballage at Le Mans (a giant antiques/brocante fair held each month). For me they are just on the border of chic and shabby with their wear and tear, but they are utterly charming and so many guests have told me they’ve peeked in the seams to see all the old stuffings and to leave them as they are. So they stay as they are.
The curtain fabric is English linen designer Kate Forman and is called Cameo Rose. They are triple gathered and double lined with both thick thermal lining and cotton lining to give them their really full fluffy look. Of course its the tie-backs my mother made that really makes the room look good (according to her).
The lamp bases are from Laura Ashley and the shades from a market in Aix-en-Provence. If you have time in your French itinerary, Aix is absolutely stunning. It’s Provence straight from central casting – cafes, markets, galleries, cobbled streets and chic boutiques.
The curtain and cushion fabric in this room in our two bedroom suite ‘L’Arro’ is called ‘Mozart’ and is made by an old French brand called Braquenie which is now owned by the veritable Pierre Frey. Braquenie has a lovely store in St Germain de Pres in Paris in an area filled with decorating and fabric and furniture stores around rue de l’Abbaye. Make sure you pop into the very bijoux Galerie Salon for the so chic Astier de Villatte ceramics and water colour maps of Paris, London and New York by Parisian/Norman dweller Marin Montagut.
The bed heads are antique Louis XVI that we were lucky to purchase from the artisan upholsterer that hung the fabric lining in our living room. I had been telling him what I was looking for and voila! he appears with these gems.
The side tables were a long ago purchase in Australia that came to Normandy with us but we have picked up something similar in zinc (minus the cute scallop edge) from a great decor store in Deauville called Kaprika.
Recently I was in Paris for a night with the girls. When I say ‘the girls’ I’m referring to a fabulous bunch of Aussie gals, all in our 40s, who have found ourselves within proximity of Paris and each other. Our ties are loose but bind us together pretty tightly. I have worked with all but one of them in my past corporate career, and that one is the best friend of my last boss (also a fabulous gal!) What amazes me most about them is that they’ve come from small country towns in rural Australia: Mudgee, Victor Harbour, and the Queensland Hinterland and now have these fabulous careers taking them across Europe (and the world) regularly. They are smart, funny, hard working, kind and professional. They are the best for a champagne night in Paris!
During the course of our conversation on our champagne bar tour of Paris, our visiting gal from Melbourne asked what in Paris is a must see for her next three days. The Musee D’Orsay was first on the list and each of chimed in with our favourite pieces there – the large bronze statue of women holding up the world, the giant polar bear sculpture that manages to look so soft while being carved of stone, the paper model of Paris set into the floor under glass so you can walk over it, and the tiny model theatre sets next to the Paris model with their intricate details. And of course the clocks. And the cafe next to the clocks. And the amazing collection of Impressionists works. The Degas ballet dancer sculpture. The Art Deco furniture collection.
So you get the picture there is a lot to see. Its varied and you can cover a lot of arty ground under one roof. Get there in the morning (it opens at 9.30am – closed on Mondays!), accept that there may be a queue to get in, give yourself plenty of time to wander and wonder, and stop by the cafe for a rest and refuel.
1 Rue de la Légion d’Honneur, Paris (is that not the best address ever!!!)
Metro: Solferino on Line 12 (Green line)
Hours: 9.30am to 6:00pm (closed Mondays)
Tickets: 11 euro (14 euro combined ticket with the Orangerie or 15 euro with the Rodin)
No truer words were sung but strangely I’m not California Dreamin’ at the moment. I’m loving it right here in Normandy. While the long sunshiney days of summer are over for this year, there’s still much to be done every day and guests to be welcomed.
It seems to be chateau contents auction time – maybe its the chateaux that were sold over summer that now need their contents cleaned out, or like the one we went to this week near Bayeux that is on the market currently (see here for the details – trust me, its not for the faint-hearted and is going to need a LOT of euro, patience and love). Either way, for us its the double bonus of finding some treasures to add to La Pommetier before they get the dealers mark-ups added to them (you are often bidding against the professional dealers so generally the prices are as low as you’ll get them), and also the opportunity to peek inside some of these chateaux gems.
At a chateau near Tinchebray last weekend we managed to get this delightful petite commode with its original brass decorative bits and undamaged marble top. We found over summer that our guests staying for a few nights really like to unpack a bit and having furniture with ‘bench space’ for them to put their stuff on is really useful – so this commode is a winner. I’m going to give it a clean up with the pine soap and polish before I decide on whether it will look better as is or painted (Mike is for the ‘as is’ and I’m a big fan of painting everything in pale grey chalk paint) and also try it out in a few different spots to see where it fits best. Feel free to add your comments below!
Autumn is also a time for getting the garden ready for winter. In Australia there’s not a lot to do for this as everything grows pretty much year round so its just business as usual in the garden. For spring bulbs in Australia we don’t need to get them in the ground over winter, we need to get them into the vegetable crisper in the fridge for six weeks for their “winter” before planting them in early spring. So here over the past two weeks I’ve planted several hundred bulbs (the result of wine-fuelled online purchasing from Holland one night) and I have about a hundred to go when the dahlias are done for the year and get lifted to winter in the garden shed. Having one of these nifty bulb-hole-digger things is absolutely key to surviving bulb planting with two in tact arms rather than ground down stumps. If I was ever to lose a hand in some freak accident, I would seriously consider getting one of these things grafted on.
As much as I love the autumn leaves when our mirabelle tree sprinkles gold leaves on the lawn and the virginia creeper on the house turns vampy dark nail polish red, I don’t love the fallen leaves blow inside every time a door opens. And I don’t love that our village green waste collection ended this week before 90% of the leaves are fallen and I will once again be making regular trips with boatloads of leaves to the recycling centre.
C’est la vie – on the upside I will have Michelle Obama arms from all the raking and bagging of leaves!
Finally, and its been a while between blogging drinks, I have time and space to sit down and update you all on life here at La Pommetier.
Summer was busy. Crazy busy. Busier than we ever dreamed we’d be. So a big thank you to all our lovely guests that came, oohed, ahhed, gave us feedback and praise that has made our big leap here so worthwhile. Merci beaucoup.
We learned a lot from our guests with great advice on everything from how to get wifi through thick stone walls (you don’t, you use these natty plug things that send the intamawebby through the electrical cables – who knew?) through to mirabelle trees generally only fruit every second year (note: not this year so put away the de-stoner contraption).
We also learned that hanging out all day at home with people who are on holiday every day is waaaaay more fun than hanging out all day in an office with people who are not on holiday. Quel surprise! But our biggest learning was that even when you live and breathe holiday vibes all day, you need a holiday. So the “No vacancy” sign went up for the first week of September and we were off at TGV rocket speed to Aix-en-Provence.
We’d been to Aix a few years earlier and loved it. It’s absolutely what you want and expect Provence to be – all pale blue wooden shutters, cobbled laneways, markets and alfresco rosé-quaffing. We hired a car and headed to the classic hill-top hood of Gordes for lunch with an amazing view of the provincial landscape, we toured the old town of Aix on the tourist tram, we bought fruit at the markets and quaffed with the locals. We ate every meal outside. We loved every minute of it.
If you want to experience two very different parts of France, you can do no better than the lush green pastures of Normandy and the sun-soaked rocky beauty of Provence. Both of them just a short hop from Paris (2 hours to Bayeux and 3 hours to Aix). Book your trains, car-hire and accommodation early and everything else you can just soak up when you get there. Perfect!
Le Haras du Pin – the French National Horse Stud – is oh so French and oh so beautiful. Its rolling hillsides, its chateau, its symmetrical red brick stable blocks with their brass bolted stalls and even more beautiful inhabitants. Founded in 1715 by order of Louis XIV, the Sun King sent his designers to work on the Haras and it lives up to its moniker as “the equestrian Versailles”.
Amazingly, 300 years later the stud retains its 1000 hectares of rolling pastures and woodlands in the Normandy countryside. There are four villages located within its grounds. I can’t help but think that in most other countries the land would have been sold off and developed and the stud would have been moved somewhere smaller and less valuable. A quick google search tells me that few other countries even have a national stud.
The stud is open to the public for tours every day during summer. On Thursday afternoons there is a hugely popular display of the horses and their abilities. But it was the Friday afternoon adventure I was keen on. 2015 is the first year the stud is offering tours of the paddocks where you can see the stallions hanging out in the fields. Its a lovely half hour walk about the property with some stunning views and lots of information about the running of the national stud. A quick cool off in the shop for ten minutes and then you’re off on a tour of the stables to see more equine beauties, the saddlery and carriages. For horsey types its heaven, for everyone else its a glimpse into the past that is treasured today.
Le Haras National du Pin is located on the RD925 at Le Pin (GPS coordinates: longitude 0.14 / latitude 48.74). The nearest large town is Argentin.
The entrance fee for “Le Pin” Thursdays (the stallion parade and demonstration) is €6,50 and is on every Thursday from early June through to late September.
Guided tours in English are available and best to check the website for times and dates.