This post was kindly written by Annie, my trusted proof-reader who corrects all my mistakes! Thank you so much, Annie, for this article and for all the work you do for this blog!!
There was an article on this blog a couple of weeks ago, about CNN (followed by several other prestigious organizations) which came out with lists that specified the ten best places to retire to. There was only one choice listed for France: Saint-Chinian! Ours is a very different story, but it definitely is related.
When my husband, Ted, and I first saw that CNN list, we gasped and then we laughed – because it had taken us several years of visiting over 200 towns and villages in the South of France to come to that same conclusion!
When Ted was a few years away from retiring (I had retired earlier), we both knew that he would have to find a new adventure, when he no longer had the excitement of a job that he loved. He was the one who came up with the idea of selling our house (yes, that same house about which he had said, “The only way they’re getting me out of this house is feet first!”) and buying a house in the South of France, plus a ‘pied-à-terre’ in the United States, where our family lives.
We didn’t even have any concept of whether we wanted to live in a small city, a town, or a village. It was our travels that helped us to determine that.
Many people love Paris and the areas around it. Paris is definitely an outstanding place to visit, and for some people it’s an exciting and wonderful place to live. But I had fallen in love with the South of France, as the result of a study-summer that I had spent in France as a student, and when I introduced my husband to that area of France, he fell even harder than I had.
When you say, “the South of France” to most people, they immediately say, “Oh, Provence!” We, also, had been in that category, and our initial travels to determine where we wanted our French home to be were through Provence. Oh, Provence is so beautiful – but most of the beautiful towns that we visited were so invaded by tourists, that many had immense parking areas at the entrance to the town, with people taking money and directing us where to park. No, we definitely didn’t want to live in a tourist trap, no matter how beautiful! AND the prices for houses in Provence were really more than we had been hoping to spend.
And then I read an article which specified that living in Languedoc-Roussillon was significantly less expensive than in Provence, with most of the same advantages! From then on, that was the area of our research and travels. We were immediately impressed by how beautiful this area was, and we were astonished by how much less expensive everything was in Languedoc-Roussillon. Even at the marchés (the markets) we found that the prices were significantly lower than they had been in Provence. But the most impressive difference was in the house prices!
And so every time Ted had some time off, and we could find an inexpensive airfare from the United States to the South of France, off we went. I would do a lot of research in advance, to plan out our basic route and decide where we would be spending nights, generally in towns that looked especially interesting. But the main basis of our research was formed simply from driving around. I would follow a detailed map, and whenever I saw a town listed near to where we were, I’d direct Ted to it. In this manner, over a period of several years and trips, we visited and took notes on over 200 towns and villages in the South of France, rating them as we went. I also would add, amongst my notes, some of Ted’s comments, such as, “This town doesn’t speak to me. I don’t really think it speaks to anyone!”
Saint-Chinian had not originally been of special interest to us. In fact we had not even heard of it. I simply routed us to go through it. I still remember the impression of that first visit. The beautiful, mountainous entrance to the village thoroughly overwhelmed us!
And then we entered Saint-Chinian, and were struck by the large, lovely green, treed-over area at the center of town, which we learned was a combination of the garden of the Town Hall and the Promenade (where the markets and special events take place).
We also were impressed that a town of this small size had several restaurants and three bakeries. (We had negated quite a few lovely villages because they did not have even one bakery.)
When we got out and walked around, so many people greeted us with “Bonjour” . . . it left us feeling incredibly welcomed and comfortable there. We ate lunch at one of the restaurants, and my notebook is filled with joyous descriptions of the lovely, treed-in area of that meal, the delightful wait-staff, the excellent food, AND the incredibly affordable prices!
We walked around a little more, loving the Vernazobre River that runs through the village – and too many other things to detail. We ultimately had to leave to get to our destination for the night, but we unhesitatingly gave Saint-Chinian the highest rating that we had.
After several years and vacations of traveling and visiting different towns, it was approaching Ted’s retirement year, and we knew that the time had come when we would have to decide where we wanted to have our French home. We sat down over our notebooks, where we had evaluated the more than 200 towns we had visited. Because of our rating system, it was not difficult to focus on our favourites. From these, we chose the six that had our highest rating and most positive comments, and made plans to spend a week in each of them, so that we could get at least a little concept of what it would be like to live there.
They all were wonderful towns, and we had a great time in each of them, but we were able to eliminate four of them after our week there as being too large or too tourist-filled or too dark. With one town remaining as a possibility, albeit with some qualifications, we still had one more to visit …
And then we spent our week in Saint-Chinian. It was so strange, and I’m not sure what to attribute this to, but after only a couple of days, we felt that we had come home. I remember the exact moment when I looked at my husband – just looked, but he read something in that look and said, “Yup! This is it!”
This is lovely, old Maison Thomas, where we stayed during our visit, a house dating back to the 1600s, if not earlier:
It’s in one of the older areas of town and has an amazing, seemingly ancient stairway:
Yes, there were so many wonderful and beautiful things in Saint-Chinian: The cloisters; the church with its amazing pipe organ; the cool and lovely town hall garden; the wonderful markets (two a week!), filled with villagers, and also attracting people from neighboring villages; the beautiful hills and mountains surrounding the village; the Vernazobre River, rolling softly (usually!) through the village, but having one area (les Platanettes), where large rocks create a widening, turning it into a glorious, treed-over swimming area.
But beyond that, there were so many things going on. The day we arrived, there was a Vide Grenier, like a very extended yard sale with a large number of different vendors. What made this different from the yard sales that we were accustomed to was that some of the ‘junk’ that people had cleared out of their attics, etc., were treasures to us: beautiful hand-embroidered sheets and pillowcases, ancient tools, old books, dolls, toys, dishes, glasses, paintings, lamps, mirrors, furniture, etc. It was as much a museum as a sale!
And then the following day was the annual Women’s International Club’s Vente de Charité (charity sale). My first overwhelmed reaction was to the fact that this was being held in the Abbatiale, the beautiful building that had previously been the abbey church, complete with its vaulted ceiling. [Saint Chinian was founded in 825 as a monastery]. For me, the juxtaposition of the tables laden with goods and the wonderful vaulted ceilings and arches struck me as one of the most delightful things I had ever seen:
While this was happening, the large, Sunday market also was going on, with beautiful fruits and vegetables, cheeses, fish, meats, plants and flowers, jewelry, shoes, dresses, olive oil tastings, baked goods, take-home meals, kitchen knives and implements – on and on.
And our delight in Saint-Cninian just increased all through the week that we were there. We loved the beauty and the activities of Saint-Chinian, but we also loved, at least as much, the warm and welcoming atmosphere that we found there.
The following winter, we again visited Saint-Chinian. A wonderful real estate agent had been recommended to us. She showed us a number of properties, none of which was exactly what we were looking for, and then she said, “I have one other house up my sleeve.” We both remember that phrase, because up her sleeve was our house. It was like a miracle! It had all that we wanted and more!
This will be our sixth year there, splitting our years, with about six months in Saint-Chinian and six in the United States.
We have loved it from the start, but every year that we’ve been there, we have loved it increasingly and have constantly thanked whatever forces it was that had originally led us there – and all of this without a list!