Pergola — or State Park Picnic Shelter?

Owning a house is a constant source of stress and expense – especially an older house in the boondocks of southern France.  Something always needs to be replaced.  Things stop working.  Leaks, cracks…it never ends.  Finding experts to do the necessary work is a challenge.  The next hurdle—will they show up? …the $64 question.R-house4

Our house is probably 30 -35 years old—not an ancient ruin that we restored.  God Forbid!  We’d have never survived that ordeal.  But, we have lived through  gutting a dreadful kitchen and having  a beautiful new one installed, replacing the insulation which we learned had been installed backwards, (no wonder we froze during those early winters) , then  installing heat pumps .  A fire place is not enough to keep you warm in winters when temperatures dip to below 10 degrees F.  And, it can be dangerous.  We’ve experienced a chimney fire – scary, but fortunately the house was not in flames and by the time the volunteer “pompiers” (firemen) arrived, all was under control.  Just lots of smoke everywhere.

First septic tank crisis
First septic tank crisis

We’ve had extensive roof repairs and major septic tank work.  More of the latter, very complicated and costly, lies ahead.  The system must be “recanalized” or some such, but first an expert soil tester must come to see how best to install new “canals.”  She’s already warned us this project would cost “many thousands of euros.”   The latest crisis: the hot water tank needs to be replaced.  No wonder I have headaches

However,  the biggest, most  recent (and controversial)  project has been replacing the pergola – a lovely white wooden structure just adjacent to the pool which provided shade, shelter and a pleasant place to sit.  It was covered in spps.1climbing white roses when we bought the house, a thing of spectacular beauty.  Alas, those roses have died, as have most of the other gorgeous roses on the property — but that will be the subject of yet another blog.

I must admit, the old structure was crumbling.  One of those mighty gusts of Mistral winds that are a too frequent occurrence here could have had it crashing to pieces.spps.2

What kind of a new structure did we want?  Who would do the work?  BB (he doesn’t deserve to be called Bicycle Bob these days as it’s been ages since he’s been on a bike, but I have hopes that he’ll get back to pedaling, so BB he shall remain) had ideas.  I was not so sure.  The easiest and cheapest would have been to find a ready-made structure, buy it and assemble it.  We did not like any we saw – not in stores, nor on the Internet.

So, friends of ours recommended a friend, a British builder – great!  BB could communicate with him.  Attempting to translate building, plumbing and electricity terms into French when you don’t even understand them in English does a number on the brain.  Yet another source of stress!  So, I was more than happy to bow out and let the”boys” move on with the project.

First was demolition.  BB was determined to save all the wood for the fireplace, but friends cautioned that the paint would be toxic and we should trash it.  That meant numerous trips to the dump.  Poor BB.  Of course, the dump is only open on certain days, and at certain hours.    They are also not averse to changing those times and days with little forewarning.  Too often he’d come back with the Toyota still full.  Dump Closed!spps.5

The construction project got underway in November.  We rent the downstairs apartment n the summer, so the new structure had to be finished by spring.  The British worker showed up on time, worked diligently, and slowly a new structure emerged.spps.5

As I watched it grow, I grew skeptical, nervous.  What the hell was happening?  This was no pretty, delicate pergola. Massive posts were erected to support a tile roof.  The roof connected to our house – BB wanted that.  It is practical, I must admit, as those downstairs can walk right out the door under shelter in case of foul weather.  But, it was mammoth.  And, in my mind, not attractive.  It’s a State Park Picnic Shelter (SPPS), I declared.   A sturdy picnic table and a sign directing one to the toilet was all that was needed to make it an official state park structure.spps.4

Friends came for a viewing and were complimentary.  One pointed out that from our balcony the sloping roof directed one’s eye to the gorgeous view we have of the Luberon hills.  Several said it was a great improvement.  I was suspicious. They are just being nice, I assumed.  French neighbor Nicole just took a long, cold  stare and said nothing.  It was obvious she did not approve.  Finally one comment:  “There is no protection from the wind.”spps.4

True, but I wanted to leave the sides open.  The view of the pool is lovely.  And it’s nice not to feel closed in.   During those blistering summer days (we have many), breezes provide welcome relief.

But, it needs help.   Sections of trellis would be perfect, we thought.  We combed the countryside, checking out building supply stores – in nearby Manosque and Apt, then on to Avignon and Marseille.  We decided the best option was skinny trellis panels we had seen in Manosque.  We set off to make the purchase, only to learn that they had sold out and would get no more. Fini!  Back to square one.

Meanwhile, input from an expert:  Glamorous Gloria, a California decorator who is a friend of our friend Lynne, and who visits every year.    “It’s too leggy,” she said.  “You need to soften it.”  She proposed a rather grandiose landscape gloriascheme, or so it seemed.   Plants with paths or borders in between…flower beds…I told her the last thing we needed was more garden work and flowers and plants to water.  In the summer, we have week after week with no rain.  Every evening  something must be watered.  I’d rather be sipping a glass of rosé on the balcony than traipsing through the yard with a hose in my hand every night.  Not to forget – the cost of all that water!  And,  flowers need more than water.  Gloria  assured me that what she proposed would require little maintenance.  No doubt it would be a sensation and make us eligible for a Landscape Architecture Magazine cover.  However, at this stage we need to keep things simple.  But, thank you, Gloria,


Of course, we do intend to plant climbing vines, perhaps some roses, at the base of the monster  “legs.”   Our wise and wonderful gardener Bernard said best wait until November for planting,  with November 25, the feast of St Catherine, being the optimal day.  “Nothing can go wrong on that day,” he assured me.  With St. Catherine’s blessing, we will plant on Nov. 25.

Friend David, a computer whiz and Internet sleuth, came to the rescue, forwarding  several web sites with a great selection of trellises, including the ones we had originally decided to purchase.  And, we could get them in Marseille.  Last week we embarked on the trek to that fabulous city (see my blog post,”A Taste of Marseille”) , convinced this time we could come home with the needed décor for the naked SPPS.   No way.  The store, Leroy Merlan,  carries them, but they must be specially ordered.  Waiting time:  3 months.  Merde Alors!  We were devastated,

These would be perfect
These would be perfect

but then the salesman mentioned another one of their stores located in Marseille Littoral (wherever that is) that stocks them.    Yesterday we made the nerve wracking trek (driving in Marseille is not for sissies and requires nerves of steel)  to this giant shopping center.  And, the mother of all “bricolage” (handyman)  stores, a gargantuan Leroy Merlan.  The selection of trellises was overwhelming.  We found something we liked even better than what we had planned to buy, and loaded two in the car.spps.11

We’ve learned that not only is the SPPS in need of  decorating  elements,  it needs to be hazard-proofed.  The builder installed two sets of mini steps as a way to access the structure both from the garden side  and the apartment.  They are attractive, but…  Our first renters this summer, who come every year, said the steps were frightening.  Both BB and I have tripped on them .  Nicole called them “mortel,” (lethal).  Alas, a lovely Swiss guest recently fell on the nasty steps and broke two bones in her foot.  Fortunately for us, she was nice about the accident and did not blame us.  But, it could have been far worse.

We’re working on a solution to that problem.  Meanwhile I consulted Webster on the true definition of a pergola, still convinced we were stuck with a SPPS, not a garden pergola: “ A structure usually consisting of parallel colonnades supporting an open roof of girders and cross rafters.”  ??   Even the original structure did not fit that definition, but perhaps the SPPS comes closer.

Lynne with new puppy Koa testing theSPPS.
Lynne with new puppy Koa testing the SPPS.

For a delicious and easy first course, see recipe in column at right for “Grilled Scallops with Melon and Avocado Salsa.”

What do you think?  Is it a pergola, SPPS, or does it merit a new designation? I love to hear from readers. Please share your views. See “Leave a Reply” below under Comments. Subscribers also welcome.  Don’t miss future posts.  Click on Email Subscription at top right.

11 thoughts on “Pergola — or State Park Picnic Shelter?”

  1. What a project!! I like it a lot, looks so sturdy and definitely “fits” nicely on, complements the house as a place of comfort and enjoyment. I haven’t “hung up” my bike yet, but I guess we all get to that point! Best be protective of those old bones : ) I’ve noted kids/grandkids visits on FB, and so happy for your fun times together. We’re always here together on the Cape every summer for about a month, and I know how special those visits are! Hope all your other house projects/fix-ups go well also! XO


  2. Hi Leah – What a classic family tale, I guess, if there ever is an earthquake, you can run out and stand under the pergola. It looks like it could hold the weight of the house B>).

    B t w, Your story of repairs is reminiscent of life in rural California. I think some things are universal when you choose to live beyond the lights.

    I was surprised to hear that BB is no longer cycling. Wasn’t he the driving force behind the pasttime? Is it medical or age that shut him down? And you, with a new knee and ‘no place to go.’

    Speaking of plans, I still hope to see you guys one day in the Tiberon. (Hope springs eternal.) Meanwhile, take care. -Bill

    Sent from out there somewhere …


  3. Quite a saga! Nonetheless, the spps has many merits and, like all of us, will improve with age. And, for what it’s worth, I like Ben’s idea of a light color.


  4. Leah: we are in the process of getting the outside of our 25year old home in the mountains of Western North Carolina painted and repaired. The man doing the job is an 80 year old German who learned his trade starting as a 15 year old apprentice in Bremen, Germany. He is in terrific shape and blows me away when we mountain bike or cross-country ski. He scares me the way he leaps from scaffold to ladder to roof with no hesitation! His own home looks like a Black Forest villa transported here…he and his wife bulit it themselves. If I could convince Ralf to fly over to your place, he would get it squared away: tout de suite!


  5. Your SPPS.
    Paint the wooden structure on which the roof rests (including colums) in the same colour as the colums of your house. The light colour solves the major problem of massiveness. All other fixations like trellis thingies (adding to massiveiness) or whatever should have at least the same colour.


  6. I approve of the new trellis thingies 😀
    Just as a matter of interest, did you need permission from the Mairie to build that, or was it ok seeing as you were replacing an existing temporary structure?
    That Bricolage store sounds pretty awesome!


    1. We just did it — best not to ask. so, please don’t tell the officials. Think the Brociolage place must be where your giant Carrefour is. The one there is incredible.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: