Robynne McTaggart loves to spend time in France, whether skiing in the alps or enjoying the summer in the picturesque villages and glorious countryside. With a business doing well in Perth, Australia where she and husband Garry live, Robynne decided to find a home of her own in 2006. She set herself a goal – to visit as much of the unspoiled, uncrowded and authentic far south west France as she could in just two weeks – and find her dream property.
Searching for the dream house
“Arriving at the Vallées du Gaves in the Hautes-Pyrénées, close to Lourdes, the French capital of miracles, I immediately and instinctively felt it was where I wanted to be, and that I would find ‘the one’” says Robynne. She rented a hotel room in Pau and got to know the area. Finding herself more and more inspired by what she found she became more determined than ever that this was where she wanted to be. She already knew that her dream home was a maison de maitre, a mansion house, but it seemed an impossible task to find just one, let alone ‘the one’. By luck, as she spoke to a bar owner about her quest, some local people told her of a rumour that a family with just the type of house she was interested were thinking of selling. It was called Le Belvedere, and it was a large mountain style mansion house.
Robynne went to see the property and meet the family who, it turned out, were indeed selling their home in the village of Salles, on the outskirts of Argelès-Gazost. The 300 year old local stone property nestles at the base of the Regional Nature Reserve of the Pibeste-Aoulhet. Robynne says “the minute I went through the door, I knew I’d found my home. It blew my budget out of the water but, it was love at first sight and I just felt I had to do everything I could to make this mine”.
Restoring an old property
The house needed little structural renovation, the authentic chestnut wood floors, plasterwork, fixtures and fireplaces are beautiful. It meant that Robynne could concentrate on getting the house decorated and furnished. She was fascinated by the history of her home but found it hard to find out details since most of the documents were lost almost a century ago, though in its location next to the Chateau Arzaas, it was likely built by nobility.
Local artisans have transformed the house into a gorgeous, comfortable and stylish home, though it took a lot longer than estimated. “It takes time to understand a property” she says, “and I wanted to make sure that the restoration was authentic and the best it could be”. In fact what she thought would take a year or two, took 12 years in total. There was a lot to consider, for instance the 300-year-old wooden staircase which is heritage listed for its unique construction as it is entirely free standing without vertical support beams and needed to be completely preserved.
Making friends in the mountains
During this time she made friends with her neighbours and the families of the French mountain guides and got to know the area well. It’s a village with a rich natural heritage, and thanks to its mountain environment it has preserved its authentic pastoral character.
Perfect for nature lovers, the beautiful landscape is stunning, wild and totally unspoiled. “It’s a place where foraging for mushrooms such as girolles and cèpes, and wild berries is the norm” she says, “it is an absolutely joy to experience a way of life that most of us think simply doesn’t exist anymore”.
The nearby UNESCO listed Cirque de Gavarnie, described by famous French writer Victor Hugo as a “colosseum of nature” was created by glacial erosion over millions of years. “The mountains and rivers, the gentle pace of life, the richness of the heritage here and the relationship between man and terroir are just some of the reasons that this place is so very special” says Robynne.
The ancient market of Salles, Argelès-Gazost
From the 12th century, the village of Salles was located within the Noble Fiefdom of Arzaas and was linked to the 10 villages in the valley by a series of footpaths, still in existence to this day. The town has held a farmers market for 800 years and it remains one of the most important markets in the area with more than 100 merchants.
Robynne says of her French home, “it is really special, it’s somewhere to recharge, reenergise and to completely relax in the most beautiful house in the most amazing surroundings…