After more than a year of pandemic living, I had a nasty case of cabin fever when I signed onto Airbnb in late May and rented a château in Normandy.
Call it pent-up demand. My husband, Ken, and I had barely left our New York neighborhood since March of 2020. Our townhouse, though ample by city standards, was starting to feel like a cage. Having poked around every corner of it looking for amusement, we had unearthed a World War II parachute from our basement and donated it to the Airborne Museum in Sainte-Mère-Église. Now we had our own mission in Normandy: We wanted to visit our parachute.
Of course that didn’t mean we had to rent a château. On a previous trip to that region, in 2014, we had stayed in a cozy 320-square-foot first-floor suite in Port-en-Bessin-Huppain. The town, still an active fishing village, had served as a fueling station during World War II. Our lodgings, decorated in a nautical theme, cost €690 per week ($800 or so at current conversion rates) – about as much as they do now – and seemed enchanting.
That is until we realized that, for about three times that amount, this year we could rent a 12,000-square-foot château on 13.5 acres. While touring châteaux elsewhere in France, especially in the Loire Valley, I had always wondered what it would be like to live in one. The pandemic pricing of this property gave us a chance to find out.
“You mean you reserved a couple of rooms?” friends asked when we invited avid travelers to be our guests. They couldn’t believe that the seven-bedroom, six-bath château would be all ours for the first two weeks of September. Having rented more than a dozen old houses in France during the past six years, we warned them that there were likely to be quirks. All we could promise was adventure.
Normandy would be the second segment of a ten-week pandemic sojourn. Our plan was to take refuge in rural Europe, living in vacation rentals and preparing most of our own meals using regional and seasonal ingredients.
Apart from the overseas flight and several train rides, we figured there were few risks. Vaccination rates in our destinations were higher than they were back home, and infection rates lower. At least in France the European Union health pass, or pass sanitaire – proof of our vaccination against Covid – was widely required.
After flying to Zurich, we spent one week in Wengen, a carless village in the Bernese Oberland region of Switzerland. Then we traveled by train to EuroAirport Basel-Mulhouse-Freiburg, where we picked up a rental car.
Not wanting to eat out in Normandy due to Covid, we assembled a movable feast as we spent several days traversing France. We arrived with a trunk full of regional specialties: pasta from Alsace; cheese from the Jura; and wines from Burgundy.
Finding the château in what we understood to be a one-horse town, proved a bit more challenging. Though the address, “rue de chateau,” ought to have been enough, like so many homes in the region, this one was hidden behind the hedgerows. These are the tall, dense bushes that provided the Germans with natural cover and impeded the advance of Allied troops after D-Day.
We did what has become our habit when we can’t find the entrance to a house in rural France: We position ourselves at a place that every local would surely know about, and phone for help. Most often that leaves us in front of the boulangerie, but this village was too small to even have one. Instead we just parked in front of the church and said we were driving a white Peugeot.
So was Florence, the cleaning lady, who came to meet us, but as we followed her to the château she might as well have been escorting us in a chariot. The château’s long gravel driveway (hidden from the main road) threaded through orchards where we would soon discover trees laden with pears, three kinds of plums and at least as many varieties of apples. As we pulled up in front of the château, we felt like we were about to take up residence in Downton Abbey.
But first there was the matter of getting in the door. It wasn’t clear whether the wood had warped or the handle had been broken by a previous guest. The caretakers seemed to be aware of the problem and didn’t want to tell our absentee host that it required brute force to open and close. We pictured ourselves being locked out – or maybe worse, locked in. Though Florence barely knew a word of English, she got the drift when Ken turned to me and said, “We can’t stay here.”
Later that afternoon, her husband arrived, removed the gigantic door from its hinges, so he could plane the bottom and offered to install a temporary handle that would be easier to operate. All this had been accomplished when our host called the next day to follow up. “Am I catching you at a bad time?” he asked.
“Absolutely not,” I replied. “Actually I’m in the kitchen making mirabelle jam.”
The honey-flavored yellow, mirabelle plum, which is about the size of a cherry tomato, is generally associated with the Lorraine region and is in season in late summer. Finding two trees in the château orchard loaded with ripe mirabelles had been a delightful surprise. Not wanting them to go to waste, we picked as many as we could reach and during our first week there turned them into jam, tortes and clafoutis – a custard-like dessert.
But living off the land was just one of the amusements of our hideaway behind the hedgerows. The place was like a museum, furnished mostly in antiques, with grand armoires in the bedrooms, elegant writing desks, and an old refectory table in the dining room where there might have once been formal dinners.
The American couple who had owned the château for the past 14 years barely went there anymore, according to one of their sons, who was the Airbnb host. Once European based, they now live in California. Renting the château helps pay for what he referred to as the maintenance.
His parents were obviously world travelers, book lovers and collectors. Their acquisitions, from oriental rugs and handwoven textiles to walking sticks and African art, filled the many available surfaces and corners. Books were crammed into the floor-to-ceiling shelves in the library and stacked in other spots throughout the house. His father’s stylish office, with its original herringbone parquet floor, crystal chandelier and view of the rose garden, became my workspace.
“If only this house could speak,” I thought, as I contemplated these surroundings. “Especially about what exactly happened here during World War II.” Normandy and much of France had been occupied by the Germans, and the château would have been an obvious place for soldiers to have lodged. A few bullet holes were still visible on the exterior.
Our Airbnb host had provided scant details. A World War I hero who owned the premises “was allowed to remain at the château throughout the war and was present in June, 1944 when the D-Day landings took place 30 km to the north,” he wrote in a message welcoming us to the premises. Subsequent owners had reportedly included a Tunisian entrepreneur, who turned it into a retirement home, and a Parisian couple who meticulously restored various 18th-century details, including the enormous granite fireplace in the kitchen.
It was this room, with the original dark gray flagstone floor, that had the greatest gravitational pull for me. Situated at the lowest level – homes were built that way to minimize fire hazards – it was filled with what looked like flea-market finds, including cooper pots, an old American flag and mismatched silver ladles and teaspoons.
But it was also, in most respects, a cook’s kitchen, with a propane-fueled high-performance stove, and enough premium cookware to operate a catering service. There were vintage Le Creuset frying pans with wooden handles; complete sets of Mauviel high-grade stainless steel pots and pans; and Staub Dutch ovens in various shapes and sizes.
The largest of them was perfect for preparing poulet au vin jaune du Jura – a traditional recipe in one of the regions that we passed through en route to Normandy. We had stopped there to buy the local white wine that gives the dish its nutty mushroom overtones, along with 100 grams of precious dried morels. The cream and butter called for in the recipe came from a farm stand at the Thursday market in Le Molay-Littry – a Normandy mining village where a weekly market has been held in the same spot since the 19th century.
As I went through the various steps, from cleaning the morels to sautéing the chicken, sun streamed in from the windows above eye level, illuminating a large clay pot overflowing with herbs. I stepped outside and snipped some thyme to add to the concoction. While it simmered, I set up my laptop on the table in the center of the room: a six-foot square with a wrought iron base and a slatted top made of chestnut.
That table could have comfortably seated ten, and the French country lunch that we spread out there when our friends arrived seemed to get lost on the surface. There were goose rillettes, paté and saucisson from what had become our favorite butcher; and an assortment of Normandy cheeses that we had added to our larder. Dessert was a homemade mirabelle torte.
Only as they helped us clear the plates did I start to orient them to our living space. There was no plumbing in the kitchen, so everything had to be carried to the adjacent scullery where there was a double sink and dishwasher (under the staircase). Be careful of the irregular steps on the main staircase, I warned. And heavily trafficked floor tiles in the upstairs corridor that ran the width of the house were either cracked or loose; for more than a week, I had been hopscotching over the most badly damaged ones.
Our guests soon brought a couple of other items to our attention: The toilet in their en suite bathroom didn’t flush properly, and the hot water shower handle didn’t work at all. Florence was able to address the former, but as for the latter, our Airbnb host responded, “the previous guests blocked the valve and broke a piece that we’ve ordered last week. I believe it can’t be operated at the moment. There are two bathrooms on the upper floor that are fully functional.” Only that level of the house, with two bedrooms we didn’t use, was infested with flies.
“Oh no,” our host had replied when we alerted him to that additional issue several days before our friends’ arrival. “This sometimes happens in September.”
None of us mentioned the crumbling exterior, the peeling paint in almost every room and the back staircase visible behind a locked door with glass panels – shut off, we assumed, because it was in a state of extreme treachery. Looking back at the ten rave reviews on Airbnb this year, I wondered if these guests had actually stayed at the same place.
For the four nights that they spent with us, our houseguests took the inconveniences in stride. They were out most of the day touring some of lower Normandy’s greatest hits, including the D-Day beaches, the American cemetery in Colleville-sur-Mer and the famed Bayeux tapestry, depicting the Norman conquest of Britain.
We, meanwhile, revisited the temporary harbors known as mulberries in Arromanches; went to see our parachute in Sainte-Mère-Église; shopped at outdoor markets and poked around rural villages. On balmy September evenings, we compared notes over aperitifs in the garden.
Two days remained in our rental after their departure, and we savored the daily rhythms. From the bathtub I watched cows grazing each morning on the adjacent meadow. In the afternoons we strolled through the orchards where by then the apples were starting to ripen. On each of those days my iPhone registered that I had walked about two miles and climbed at least 20 flights of stairs. The place was just so vast.
Looking at the photos that I took during our two weeks cocooning behind the hedgerows, I realized that this dilapidated place was also extremely photogenic. I am grateful for this Covid cocoon and the taste of how the other half might have once lived. At the same time, I am glad not to be the owner of an 18th-century French money pit.
Deborah L. Jacobs, a lawyer and journalist, is the author of Four Seasons in a Day: Travel, Transitions and Letting Go of the Place We Call Home and Estate Planning Smarts: A Practical, User-Friendly, Action-Oriented Guide. Follow her on Twitter at @djworking and join her on Facebook here. You can subscribe to future blog posts by using the sign-up box on her website’s homepage.