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In our still quite feudal France, each village has its church and its chateau. And in the hearts of many foreigners, as well as some French, there lives the romantic dream of owning a little French chateau.

This was not at all my own aspiration! A photographer originally from Paris, but living so long in London I was considered British, I had a fulfilling professional and personal life which I shared with my husband, the photographer and writer Jorge Lewinski. We already had a beautiful house and a large garden… but fate is unpredictable.
In 1997, purely out of curiosity, I accompanied an English journalist on a cultural trip to Cathar country. Between Toulouse and the Cathar castles I chanced to discover, well hidden in the centre of the village of Alan, the former palace of the Bishops of the Comminges region. One could admire the cow sculpted on the tympanum of the entrance, climb the beautiful spiral staircase and visit two rooms. The building was freezing, nearly empty, barely inhabited for a few months of the year. Patches of cement disfigured the walls and the rotting shutters were held together with wires. Nevertheless, from its noble proportions emanated a serene and beneficent spirit. I fell in love with the place and was immediately convinced that I was going to live there, without even knowing that the residence had been up for sale for the past three years and that no one had dared to take on the project of restoring it.

So I acquired the palace in April 1998 against the advice of everyone, and to the consternation of my husband and my daughter, who nevertheless consented. Everyone in the area predicted that I would break my neck doing it up and they'd have a good laugh. This was because the building was in a piteous state, much worse than I'd first realised. Everything had to be redone: the electrics, the heating, plumbing, the shutters (some of which were three and a half metres off the ground), the terraces, the roof, the moat with its stagnant water and snakes… In the first few months there were seventeen leaks – water cascaded down the staircases to the bedrooms, along the windows and through the ceilings – and I asked my husband's forgiveness, admitting that I'd bought a sieve! Some people heard of my remark and the consequence was nasty anonymous phone calls.

Thanks to excellent local artisans, some of whom remain loyal friends, the work progressed rapidly. Many problems had to be solved in order to render the 800 year old house habitable at the end of the twentieth century, and I was impressed by the inventiveness and the ingenuity of each craftsman. To be an artisan requires intelligence and I pay homage to them here. Not having asked for grants for the works, I had to roll up my own sleeves and get my hands dirty. I white washed most of the walls after having scraped and cleaned them. From the top of rolling scaffolding, and sometimes with the help of my daughter and friends, I cleaned, painted or waxed close to a dozen ceilings four to five metres in height. I spent weeks on my knees cleaning tiled floors and parquet. Having been educated at the Legion d'Honneur boarding school housed in the château of Ecouen and at the abbey of Saint Denis, the high ceilings and sonorous tiles are familiar to me… During several months the palace was a hive of activity, even though there were painful moments of doubt and discouragement. I began to understand what the former owner, Mr Gaillan, must have felt once the optimism of early 1969 had subsided and he was confronted with the practical and financial problems of his courageous restoration, for he had endeavored to save a near-ruin. With the help of the Monuments Historiques and then thanks to the tv programme "Chefs d'oeuvres en péril" which awarded him a prize, he was the first to give life back to this forgotten palace. Since 1999 we have maintained the tradition that he started of opening it to the public in the summer months and we organise an art exhibition every year in the vaulted gallery. In 2002, the cultural association "Art et Rencontres" was launched. Concerts, workshops and other events take place according to demand and opportunity, resulting in enriching encounters.

-- Mayotte Magnus-Lewinska

Address

Ancien Palais des Evêques
31420 Alan
Haute Garonne, France

Contact

Mayotte Magnus Lewinska
Tél : +33 05 61 98 90 72

mayotte.magnus.lewinska@gmail.com

Mayotte Magnus'
photography website :
www.mayottemagnusphotographer.com

Design: Kim Chevalier