All the stuff you never knew you needed to know about life in rural France.....and all the stuff the books and magazines won't tell you.

Sunday, 29 July 2012

French villages. The Beautiful and the Banal.


The French television chain, France 2, has had a competition to choose France's favourite village from 22 preselected to represent the various regions of the Hexagon.....and the votes went in favour of Saint-Cirq Lapopie, in the Lot in south west France.

It seems that the mostly French voters had the same idea of what constitutes a favourite village as the foreign tourist....there have to be narrow streets, preferably cobbled, geraniums must be launched from every window and the place has to be gussied up to within an inch of its life while a chateau doesn't go amiss either....

So I suppose it was the possession of a well known chateau which tipped the balance for the Pays de la Loire candidate in favour of Montsoreau, alongside the Loire, though it has a dearth of geraniums, few cobbles and a main road running through it.
As for the gussying....my own theory is that the monthly brocante market on the riverside is held to hide the true ghastliness of the place.
Visitors always want to go there...but not twice.
One encounter with a trader intent on selling you a so called Quimper chamber pot with an eye in the bottom at a price that has your own eyes watering is enough for even the most hardened tourist.



My vote would have gone to one of Montsoreau's neighbours - Turquant - even if its chateau isn't associated with the novels of Dumas.
It has two places where I used to buy wine, for a start - and wine had to be good to get me to travel miles to get it - though while this personal note would weigh nothing in the scales the vignerons' places of business certainly would.
The man who made one of the best dry white wines in the region had his cave in, literally, a cave.


You can see it above, last on the right, alongside the house. The cliffs overlooking the Loire have been hollowed out both for building stone and deliberately to create dwellings since far back in time and some of the caves contain decidedly sophisticated houses.
When I was first in France, no one wanted to live in them any more....they preferred a nice new breezeblock bungalow  in a development...so they were going for a song.
By the time I left they had become trendy des res for Parisians and arty types with the dosh to pay the astronomical prices demanded.
My vigneron had lived through it all and just used his cave for storing his wine....the walls were black with the mould deemed indicative of a healthy balance of temperature and humidity and the wine was superb.
.
The other vigneron produced red wine and lived in the village. The houses on either side of the quiet road that leads up from the river to the vineyards above are built of the local stone and glow softly gold in the afternoon sunshine, wallflowers blooming red and yellow in the cracks in the blocks and the breaks in the crepi. There are even geraniums in summer...though only in window boxes.

And to my mind the chateau has a lot more going for it than the one at Montsoreau. That one has only the Dumas connection now that the museum of the Moroccan troops has moved out, while the chateau at Turquant housed Ben Bella, freedom fighter and the first president of independent Algeria in the six years of his captivity in France after he was kidnapped by French colonial forces.

So why do the French televison voters go for Saint-Cirq Lapopie?
Because it as different as possible from their high rise flat in town...and  from the village of their grandparents in La France Profonde.

For example...St.Ragondin.

The most banal village in France.

A square where there is a market once a month.
One veg stall.

Where the hairdresser has closed down for lack of custom.

The chemist could find no one to take on the business.

The dentist likewise.

And don't even think about putting out the umbrellas on the pavement outside the caff   'le Pot de Vin'...the local English would nick them.

So, enjoy the most beautiful villages in France...but don't believe that that they are alive.



















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26 comments:

  1. And, of course, it helps(wherever you are in the world) to strike favourable weather.
    There are some places in France that, in my memory, are so redolent of a baguette, a bottle and a Brie that I almost reach for the Ambre Solaire.And there are those dour, tight-shuttered rows that offer absolutely nothing to redeem them on a grey, sleety day.
    But when was there a vote? And from a short selection? Getting a little desperate to extract a few more Euros?

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    1. From what I can gather it was a poll of viewers and it has sent the maire of St.Cirq rather potty, wondering how to cope with all the extra vieitors...I took a look at the village website and they already have six car parks!

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  2. Yes, some dead villages around here too. Part of the evolution I guess.

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    1. Next door to St. Ragondin the is a village which bustles.
      There's only a butcher and a baker but there's a comite des fetes which works hard to put on small events through the year and loads of associations, whereas at St. Ragondin the council members are at each others throats and the comite des fetes president usually resigns before the year is out.
      Must be something in the water.

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  3. This is a tough one for someone like me.....just having moved to France, and still looking at those pretty postcard scenes of hilltop villages, and thinking how beautiful they are. However, I like to think I was realistic enough in our search for the town we wanted to live in, to look for somewhere that had enough commerce to sustain a reasonable population, all year round and not just when 20 minutes away Carcassonne is teeming with Brits. I had become disallusioned with the "perfect" little village where had spent nearly 10 years holidaying in in Provence. It had aquired a Disney feel to it, not helped by people like me returning each year after telling other Brits how delightful it was.
    So....I completely understand what you are saying, and want to enjoy that alive rural France that isn't picture postcard perfect,and want to contribute to the local economy, but worry that just being here spoils it a little. This will now be the discussion for the rest of the day with my family ! Thanks for such a thoughtful start to my day. J.

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    1. No one spoils a place by coming to live there....they spoil it when they stay aloof from what goes on there, which isn't only going to events and doing some of the shopping locally, but picking up your wine from the vigneron's place and joining in the natter in the post office queue.
      That sort of thing. Living somewhere - to me - is knowing people which is why those expat colonies turn me off so much. They don't seem to want to get to know the people who make up the place in which they choose to live.

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  4. The hairdresser had no customers? Either they were all bald or were too indolent to let their hair grow...

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    1. Well, the answer is that people had their hair done when they went to town, in one of the salons in the supermarket gallery.....

      But I remember the barber in the village in my early years in France who was a one man plague spreader of dandruff...

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  5. How can they be alive if people who only come a couple of times a year on holiday buy the houses? Villages need full-time residents but likely contenders are usually priced out of the market by 'weekenders'.

    It's just like the Cotswolds and other pretty villages. In the end, what makes the village attractive (life, residents) is destroyed by the people who sought out the village because it was attractive.

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    1. I think it's the idea of having a house in a pretty - and well known to be pretty - spot which attracts them.
      If you can boast of having a house in St.-Cirq your dinner party freinds will know of it and be impressed.
      Tell them you have a house in St. ragondin and you lose caste.

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  6. Hello:
    However pretty a place may be, without the everyday life going on there, it has no appeal for us. It is sad to note your account of so many rural villages simply being pretty on the ye but offering little by way of essential amenities to its residents. One can just imagine the lack of any soul and, as you say, no amount of Pelargoniums in window boxes can compensate.

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    1. Slap own hand for calling them geraniums!

      I would hate to live in a place over run by tourists...plenty of cafes but no hardwear shop.

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  7. Some are alive - or are at least trying to be. One of the latest recruits to Les Plus Beaux Villages de France is Sainte-Suzanne in the Mayenne. In common with many rural villages, it's seen its fair share of commercial closures but before the chateau and the little streets got spruced up it still retained a hotel, 2 bars, a creperie, bakers, mini-market, post office, hairdressers and pharmacy - so it had something to build on. This summer, new 'commerces' seemed to be sprouting like geraniums in the little streets of the old town - granted it isn't quite as commercialised as the likes of Domme in the Dordogne - but it does seem to be trying to add commerces and other bits and pieces which are a wee bit out of the ordinary, like a micro-brewery, a medieval garden and a little museum dedicated to toys and enamelled plaques.
    So far at least, Sainte Suzanne is not a 'tourist trap' and whilst it probably wouldn't feature near the top of the geranium league, if you happen to be passing through Mayenne, it's well worth a meander round.
    http://www.guide2paysdelaloire.com/news/31/Sainte-Suzanne-in-Mayenne-joins-the-elite

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    1. I couldn't get the link to work but I found another one from guide2paysdelaloire
      which gave a great deal of information....and a Google interactive video in which I ran off the road several times.
      I think that there has to be some factor of size for a place to succeed...but even then it needs a dynamic council and a spirit of co operation from the local businesses.
      It boasts a musical society I believe...the Harmonie?

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  8. Perceptive and thought-provoking as ever, Fly. No-one could eve accuse any of the little towns and villages around our French home of being among the Plus Beaux - too much wartime damage and hasty rebuilding for that. But the scenery is gentle, green, and beautiful, the people are friendly, and there is plenty going on if you look for it. Today, at the repas for our tiny fete communale, we eschewed la table anglaise and sat with our French neighbours, where we chatted and joked and realised yet again why we like this area so much.

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    1. The more I think about it the more I think it is people and not place which is important.
      There could be the most beautiful architecture possible all around one but without people with whom to pass the time of day it would be hollow.

      Good for you at the fete communale!
      When I was first in France there were very few other British in the region, let alone the village, so it was sit with the others or don't go.
      In later years I noticed how some of the Britpack sat together...I thought from lack of confidence but no...that's how they liked it!

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  9. Fantastic post. I think there are dead villages everywhere, sadly. Great photos.

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    1. Good looking places make it easier....

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  10. It's interesting how people view these places isn't it? They don't look beyond the tarted up surface. This seems to be the way in Turkey too. The most popular areas are the ones I dislike the most.
    The cave dwellings remind me of how it is in Goreme, Cappadocia. How they were once run-down and empty, their inhabitants moving to high-rise blocks in nearby Nevşehir. Suddenly they become trendy and you can't find an available one now for love nor money. And the prices..ridiculous!

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    1. Just the same then...there are even 'specialists' in troglodyte renovation offering their high priced services I hear...

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  11. Please don't let our village ever win such a competition. I love that it is beautiful but not on the coach circuit.

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    1. All i can say is hear hear! To think of your village encircled by six car parks...all full...every day in summer...

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  12. I can think of a lot of *pretty* villages in the north of Spain which have been fossilised by the kind of people who move there because of the visual attraction rather than the community, and the others who then visit in droves and require a steady supply of souvenirs and refreshments. Thank heavens my village is ugly and the surrounding countryside, although nice, cannot compete with the Picos de Europa.

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    1. Same reason I'm glad my little town here is off the tourist trail....no one dressed like Crocodile Dundee roaming the streets, no shops selling tat, no blasted zip lines to frighten the wildlife.....

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  13. Quality of life is probably more important than prettiness and having hordes of tourists invading wherever you live must be like living in a goldfish bowl.

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    1. A friend lived in an English village with a much frequented annual festival...so fed up was she with people peering threough her windows that she set up a screen with a collage of gargoyles.

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