Listless

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).

The promenade

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!

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International Women’s Rights Day – 8th March 2018

This post was kindly written by Suzanne, a friend and neighbour in Saint-Chinian.  She’s a member of an association called WIC, short for Women’s International Club.  The association is very active and brings people of all nationalities together.  A big THANK YOU to Suzanne for sharing this visit!!


This year, WIC (Women’s International Club) chose to visit a rather special vineyard to celebrate Women. The vineyard is special in that it is run solely by a woman – Lidewij – at Terre des Dames, just outside Murviel-les-Béziers – a beautifully situated spot.

The tour was interesting: after explaining the ups and downs of her adventures in launching herself in this new life, Lidewij took us for a walk amongst the fields of vines, showing us how bio-culture can regulate itself.

The lay-out of the vineyards in the Languedoc region is quite particular in that we have small fields of vines surrounded by hedges and trees, in contrast to other regions such as Bordeaux where the fields are immense. These trees and bushes create nesting places for all sorts of fauna, which have various effects on the fields: the birds eat some of the harmful insects. The quality of the soil is checked, amongst others, by counting the amount of a certain kind of spider per square meter. Due to the presence of the hedges, the spiders accumulate there and then are spread out over the fields by the wind.

The almond trees were coming to the end of their flowering season, but still carried some of last year’s fruit:

Lidewij pointed out the various species of grape that she grows. Unfortunately at this time of year, we couldn’t really appreciate this, what with all the plants being bare and waiting for their spring foliage.

Lidewij also explained how she tried to balance out yield and quality – a complicated equation, as it is almost impossible to obtain both at the same time. A certain type of pruning will increase the yield, whereas another way of pruning will improve quality.

The tour ended with a visit of the storage area and a tasting of a few very interesting wines, red and white.

If you fancy a very enjoyable afternoon, you can contact Lidewij Van Wilgen on mas.desdames@orange.fr. She speaks extremely good English and French, as well as Dutch.

Here is some more information about Lidewij’s wines:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Why we are here

This guest post was written by Lori – her home town is in British Columbia, Canada and she co-owns Mirabilis, a vacation rental house in St. Chinian, with her husband Mark.

I wonder if we will ever get over the beauty of visiting the South of France, 🇫🇷 and for us especially the Languedoc area?  With the vast differences in local landscapes, you can drive 35 minutes to the cool breezes of the sea or 20 minutes the other way to the stunning village of Roquebrun and the regional park landscape.  At home in Canada this would require 2 different provinces and a 6-7 hour drive to achieve such diversity.

Right in the middle of these two landscapes, my husband bought us a renovation project vacation house in the loveliest little wine town called Saint-Chinian.  Every year we manage to escape our regular grind of life and make our way to Saint-Chinian for a glorious three weeks of French bliss!  We know we are home the moment we park our little rental car in the lay-by overlooking Saint-Chinian, with the mountains in the distance.  We open the doors to be greeted by the sound of the singing cicadas. After a big deep breath, smiles take over our faces and instant relaxation sets in.  We travel the winding road down the steep valley into the downtown with excitement to see what is the same and what has changed since our last visit. Driving down the road beside the market square, it’s wonderful to see the elderly people sitting on the benches, having conversations and watching life.  As we turn the corner to drive down the road to our house, we ask each other the burning question: “Will there be parking available outside the house?”  YES!
After unpacking, we start with the deliberations as to which of the many restaurants on the Main Street will we walk to for dinner, knowing full well that my favourite restaurant “Le Village” will be the chosen one!
After years of vacations, it is super nice to be recognized by the proprietors and villagers and sometimes overhear, “It’s the Canadians”.  Market day I have to find our friend with the clothing stand for some idle chitchat and to purchase a couple of dresses, which is what he has come to expect. Summertime is amazing, with Artisan Night Markets, two major weekly morning markets, flea markets (like an immense yard sale) on Saturdays, outdoor movies on Thursdays, wine tasting events, music concerts, great restaurants, walking tours and endless people watching.

I would say that this is such a great spot to come and have a vacation because there is something for everyone. People fall in love with this area and they keep coming back!

If you ever wanted to have a vacation in this lovely area, then don’t hesitate!!! Until next year!

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Full of cheer

I’ve just received a lovely message from Noelle, one of the regular readers of this blog, and resident of Saint-Chinian:

I just wanted to thank you for a suggestion on your blog: “La randonnee de Bacchus” from Berlou.

Lucien and I took the hike on Sunday June 4.
After a week of not knowing if it was going to rain, we woke up to a beautiful day, sunny, just a little breeze.
As per instruction we were at Berlou for 10:30 AM. After registration we were given a glass to hang around our neck, and then we were on our way. Since we were among the last group to depart I never felt crowded on the walk. I was told we were around 350 people but I never saw such a crowd. Actually I thought a lot of the time Lucien and I were the only ones on the trail. At each stop the crowd was only around 50 people. The wines and matching food were excellent. Plenty of time to drink and eat, seating sometimes in the shade of a tree on the ground, on a long table with chairs, or on fallen tree which served as a bench. At each of the 7 stops we tried different wines: a sparkling wine, 2 roses, 1 white, 2 reds and a sweet wine. I thought I would get drunk drinking the mix but with plenty of water it did not happen.
The trail is not an easy one but the views are grandiose on the top of the mountain. With such a day, we were able to see very far, the sleeping Lady, towns, wineries…  We were even able to pick some cherries from a lonesome tree on the side of the trail – just refreshing. We did met a few people, mostly Belgiam English and French, living close by.
We ended the walk through the narrows streets of Berlou, a small and pretty village with many flowers on balconies, and on the bridge. At this time of the year it was a feast for the eyes with all the different colours.
Thank you again for suggesting this “randonnee”!
Have you followed in my footsteps and visited any of the places I have written about?  I’d love to hear about your experiences, feel free to share them!!

Restaurants in France

I came across this post on francetaste, and I hope that you find it as interesting as I did!

Taste of France

place carnotFrom what I’ve read, for some people even an IRS audit would be less stressful than ordering a meal from a French waiter.

Yet one of the Top Things to Do While Traveling in France is eating. It doesn’t have to be stressful. Here’s how.

menu chinese russian 2First of all, get the restaurant right. If you go to the big place right on the waterfront or whatever the main tourist draw of your destination is, then you can almost be sure that it isn’t going to be good, and the waiters aren’t going to care. This is true worldwide.

trilingualBut if you’re in France, it’s doubly a crime, because France is a place where you can have absolutely heavenly food, from the finest of haute cuisine to humble yet delicious dives. Bad food is practically criminal here.

The French diner uses the power of the purse to punish restaurants for bad cooking…

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The Village Voice

Florence Nash has very kindly written another post for this blog!  I’ve lived in Saint-Chinian for so long that I take the sounds around me for granted, and as such I don’t really pay attention to them any more.  So it’s wonderful to be reminded of those particular sounds which make living in a village (as opposed to a town/city) so very special – thank you, Florence!!


I usually arrive in Saint-Chinian, at the end of August or early September, as a refugee from the sweaty, buggy, late-summer slump of the southern United States, where people dash from one air-tight, air-conditioned haven to the next. Maybe that’s why one of my favorite images of this many-splendored place is a surprisingly modest one: My waking view of dawn lighting the red roof tiles outside the wide-open casement window, and the curtain sheers, dotted with little Fleurs de Lys, stirring slightly in air just cool enough to require a blanket. This air is sooo delicious! And virtually bug-free, with the sky criss-crossed by swallows (or martins, or swifts — I never can tell the difference) swooping and darting helpfully after their airborne breakfast. I wouldn’t dream of closing these windows at night, even if it were to take three blankets.

acanthus-window

That may explain how I have become so conscious of the voice of Saint-Chinian, the particular texture of sounds human and otherwise that seems almost a sonic portrait of the village. Especially in early morning as the village wakens, but throughout the day as well, I find myself listening for and collecting its distinctive sounds.

To begin with, there’s the town clock that rings each hour and then, just to make sure everybody gets it right, does it again. The local doves join the daily aubade with their soft hoo, hoo-hooo. (One morning a few years ago I heard gunshots blasting through their peaceful calls. To my relief, it turned out to be someone chasing marauding boars out of his vineyards; they have a destructive enthusiasm for ripe grapes.) As the sun climbs, there’s the creak and clack of shutters being opened and secured and, on Thursdays and Sundays, the thrum of van engines as marchands converge on the market square and set up their stalls, calling and clattering and laughing. Plenty of dogs are quick to voice their territorial imperatives — there’s some indignant barking under my window as I write.

saint-chinian-clocktower

I’m renting Acanthus, as usual, the house occupying the two stories over Andreas and Anthony’s headquarters on Rue Cours La Reine, and throughout the day I hear the companionable murmur of many a conversation — in French, English, German, and who knows what — below my windows as friends stop by for a word. The mail carrier on her rounds usually has time for a little chat, too.  This street is one of the few actually wide enough for two passing cars and even a bit of parking. But just in back, and all around, there are “streets” you’d swear a car could never fit through — until you find yourself leaping frantically into a doorway and mashing yourself against the wall as one squeezes past with a few inches (really!) to spare, rear-view mirror practically snatching at the market basket clasped to your bosom. These tiny streets, separating dwellings by only a few yards, are one of the factors contributing to what amounts to a village-wide conversation; that, along with the fact that every sound reverberates full force off these ancient stones. One morning as I lay in bed savoring the rising light and the twitter of birds, I heard the clear ting ting of a teaspoon against a coffee cup in someone’s kitchen across the way. It was extremely intimate, somehow.

saint-chinian-street

To be fair, I have to mention the occasional roar and clatter of huge trucks that shoulder their way along the main drag, momentarily challenging conversation under the trees at Le Balcon, and Vernazobre, and the Café de la Paix. They’re not my favorite noise, but they are part of the real life of all these old villages now strung like beads along a narrow, busy trucking route. I’ve come to love Saint-Chinian because it’s not a Hollywood-glamorous South of France destination, but an ancient town in a surrounding of dramatic beauty — and equally dramatic history — where people work hard and live in close community, mostly either making wine or providing services for those who do. And, for my money, instead of seeing famous beauties in full make-up and stage lighting, I find it a lot more interesting — and  privileged — to get to know what they’re like after a hard day’s work, or first thing in the morning!

saint-chinian-cafes

Speaking of working, I have to share with you one more little item in Saint-Chinian’s voice. The other day I drove up behind the Cave Cooperative to have a look at Domaine La Madura’s new winery, built since I was last here by my friends Nadia and Cyril. On the way up I spotted Nadia out talking with the pickers, so we only exchanged a hasty wave. At the winery, though, I found Cyril in rubber boots hosing off a concrete floor, the air tinged with new fermentation. He showed me around the sleek, modern building crowning the hill (and uncannily harmonious with the landscape): lab, tasting room, sales area, offices. We entered a low-ceilinged space filled with solemn rows of large, apparently identical barrels; but each bore its own markings: contents, origins, age; each had a personal history of weather and work and worry. The room felt like a kind of chapel of wine. Cyril removed the bung from one of the barrels nearby and said, “Come listen. You can hear the wine working.” I put my ear down close to the bung hole, held my breath . . . and there it was, faint but steady. Sssshhhh. Just like holding a seashell to your ear to hear the ocean, hundreds of miles from the coast. The voice of the wine! Delicate and astonishing and new, this voice of Saint-Chinian is now, without doubt, my undisputed favorite.

working-wine

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Before I sign off, just one or two more words about the pleasures of driving in the Languedoc countryside. Because every road wriggles and squeezes through village after village —often without room for two cars to pass and always with two or three badly parked vans in the way— drivers encounter over and over the need to slow down, calculate relative maneuvering ease, and cede right-of-way in the most practical direction. This is accomplished fluidly, quickly, and without fuss by the great majority of drivers I’ve encountered, in a sort of car-ballet of accommodation. It makes me feel better about human behavior. It makes me feel less good about driving in the US. Lastly, my very favorite road sign in all of France is the one that says “TOUTES DIRECTIONS.” No message could be more welcome or more comforting than this, to us strangers wandering in a strange land: “Wherever it is you are trying to go, friend, you are — so far — on the right road!”