It’s all in a week’s work for France-based Neil Vesma
Designing new homes and improving old
Back in the Pyrénées with my bicycle, hooray! My pedalling pal Tony is here again too after last year’s debacle where I ended up in hospital for heart surgery (all good now, thanks for asking) and he insisted on going for the dinner we’d reserved at the local Michelin-starred restaurant, all on his own. I’ve only just forgiven him for this, and he’s only just forgiven me for scaring him by falling over in the street.
We are proud MAMILS we are, Middle-aged Men in Lycra. Many people stop and stare at our fine physiques as we pass, though I don’t understand why some of them are smirking. Tomorrow’s the mountains; today we’re warming up in the foothills and the climb up out of Bagnères-de-bigorre soon has us gently perspiring. The banter dies away as the climb continues and we stop at the top at the chapel of Notre-dame de Roumé, the oldest remaining chapel on the pilgrimage route from Vézelay in Burgundy to Santiago de Compostela. Surrounded by its river-stone boundary wall, it has overlooked the hills and high mountains to the south for 800 years.
It’s an easy freewheel from here down to the Cistercian Abbey of L’escaladieu with its cloister and tailored lawns, now a cultural centre with concerts and exhibitions. I love the idea that, une escale being a stopover, its name can be translated as ‘the stopover to God’.
It’s then an absolute pig of a climb up to the Château de Mauvezin, built by Gaston de Fébus. This 14th-century monster sits brooding on its headland, dominating the countryside for miles around. I’m not surprised it has never been stormed by marauding cyclists as I’m absolutely pooped by the time we get there.
I love the idea that, ‘une escale’ being a stopover, L’escaladieu can be translated as ‘the stopover to God’
Chantale, our delightful landlady at the Petites Vosges B&B in Bagnères, gives us an enormous carbohydrate-laden breakfast of toast and honey, home-made jams and home-grown fruit, yogurt and muesli to fuel us for the ride ahead. Our aim is to climb the Col d’aspin, one of the iconic routes taken by the Tour de France. The professionals treat it as an appetiser for the murderous Col du Tourmalet next door but for us, it’s a real challenge; 25km long and all of it uphill.
We start early as the day is going to be hot later, and take a break after 20km of steady climbing, passing and in turn being passed by a 68-year old from Tarbes, who tells me between gasps for air that he is recovering from cancer and pedals a little further every day to get fit again. I tell him between gasps for air that I am impressed.
When we stop, I check my GPS feed and yes we’ve come 20km, but we’ve also gained altitude by some 900m or 3,000ft. I am gobsmacked. That’s as high as a 300-storey building and we’ve done it in an hour and a quarter.
The final 5km is, however, too hard; the road is twice as steep and looks like a wall in front of us. We try our best but eventually give up. As we whizz back down to town I ask Tony how it’s made him feel. His reply sums it up for me too: “Weak at the Pyrén-knees!”
In the afternoon before leaving, we head off to the spa baths just across the road for a massage and a wallow in the vast 34-degrees indoor swimming pool. This has a flat glass roof 15m over our heads with, disconcertingly, a young lad laid out on it sunbathing.
Back in the office feeling simultaneously really fit and really tired. Today’s challenge is architectural: Graham and Pauline’s house near the office at Ferrensac, where we’re improving the internal layout and moving the front door from the street frontage so small children don’t get ingested by passing combine harvesters. We’re going to move it to the gable end of the attached barn, and I need to re-elevate the barn so it matches the main house in the quality of its finishes, and the new front door feels like a proper front door and not an afterthought.
The barn was originally open-fronted, with rather spindly woodwork, and is not among the most beautifully crafted buildings I have ever seen. The house, on the other hand, is. Dressed stone, two and a half storeys, it’s both solid and graceful. Sadly, Graham and Pauline’s pockets are not filled with enough gold bars for us to replicate the masonry of the house on the barn, so I’ve suggested we try colombage – timber framing – using reclaimed timbers with rendered infill panels which will be half the cost. If this is proportioned to echo the stone façade it may be the right solution, so I’m getting out the HB pencil to see what works and what doesn’t. This mixture of styles under one roof is not uncommon in the area; I cycled past one only last week, but it has to be designed with care if it’s to sit right.
FRIDAY Nearly the weekend already and, it being the summer season, everything’s relatively quiet. Until an email comes in to tell me I’m called to Paris in three weeks for an interview for a place on a part-time Master’s degree course to qualify as a Chartered Heritage Architect here in France. I had hardly dared hope to even get the interview, so I’m very excited on reading it, and show it to Charlotte, my glamorous practice manager. She reads it slowly, looks up and eyes me shrewdly. “It says here if you’re accepted on the course that you’ll have to spend two days a fortnight in Paris for the next two years. That’s a tough gig, isn’t it?”
I hesitate, and blush a little. “No you’re right, I don’t think it’s going to be exactly an uphill struggle.”
Top left: Chapelle Notre-dame de Romé, the oldest chapel on the Santiago de Compostela pilgrimage route Above: The cloister at L’escaladieu Abbey Below: Château de Mauzevin towers above the countryside
Neil’s sketches for the attached barn proposal
Graham and Pauline’s house as it stands at the moment