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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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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Back again!

Once more I have the pleasure of hosting Florence Nash in my house.  Over the past twelve years, Florence has become a dear friend, and I greatly look forward to her visits each year! Florence enthusiastically agreed to write a guest post for the blog, to share her experiences of her visits to Saint-Chinian.

 

Before retiring in 2003, Florence worked as a writer and editor at Duke University Medical Center for 16 years. Her poems, book and music reviews, program notes, and feature articles have appeared in publications across the USA. She has two collections of poetry, Fish Music (Gravity Press, 2010) and Crossing Water (Gravity Press, 1996).  Florence is also a “reckless but enthusiastic” cook, and it’s thanks to her that I have been able to write about the wonderful dish that is tomato pie!!

My twelve annual September visits to St. Chinian have been a pretty even balance between time on my own and playing host to friends or family, with a pleasant tidal swing between these two states of being. By myself, I grow impatient for guests to arrive so I can share my favorite places and things, show off my French (however spotty), have someone to cook for or with . . . . but after a few days of company I look forward to their departure so I can get back to my own rhythms and ramblings. This year, for the first time, no visitors are scheduled, so I find myself more than usually attentive to my list of daily Projects, various errands devised to take me out of the house and onto the scenic, fragrant little roads that honeycomb these rolling miles of vineyards.

For instance: Yes, of course I can buy Luques olives, my favorites, right here at the market, but with all the day before me, why not drive over to l’Oulibo? Here at this big olive mill on the D5 near Bize-Minervois, you can happily and shamelessly sample your weight in olives and oils and tapenades before picking up a supply of fresh, unpasteurized Luques — more subtle and delicious than the market ones — AND snag a few appealing olive wood or olive-oil-based souvenirs for the folks back home while you’re at it.

If you need to lay in a supply of jambon sec for your stay (as surely you do!), you may have heard Andreas claim that the very best Serrano ham comes from a vendor at the Narbonne central market — he’s the only one whose stall has a bright red slicing machine — so how about a day trip down to that fabulous foodie palace? This project, incidentally, also provides the minor drama of maneuvering a rental car through thickly trafficked city streets, a challenge quite different from that of winding country lanes.

Then there’s the matter of daily bread: St. Chinian boasts plenty of perfectly good boulangeries, but there’s solid consensus that — until recently — right down the road in Azillanet, Stéphane made the best bread in the region, in a boulangerie so small, with an oven so deep, that he had to open his bright blue door to make room for maneuvering the long wooden paddles that shift the loaves over the wood fire. And, since he only opened for retail sale a few hours at a time and you never quite remembered what those hours were, you might find yourself whiling away a half hour or so waiting on a sun-warmed stone wall, watching the efforts of a giant tour bus to turn down a road built a millennium ago for pedestrians and horse carts. Gazing back at the faces peering from the bus’s tinted windows while the bus lurched back and forth, grinding and huffing, you’d be permitted to muse on the difference between tourists and travelers, and to be filled with satisfaction to know you are among the latter. (This year, alas, the boulangerie behind the blue door is gone, and Stéphane is making his bread at a new location yet to be discovered by yours truly.)

My favorite Project so far took nearly all the free days I had available. Early in my wanderings through the Languedoc, I stopped for lunch in a village, took a photo of its strikingly picturesque central square and, once back home, installed it as my new desktop  background image. To this day I confront that idyllic scene every morning: the fountain, the medieval buildings, sunlight through a gigantic central tree dappling the happy diners at tables scattered below. The image has become emblematic to me of the seductions of southern France. Big problem, though: I couldn’t remember what village it was. So, Major Project! Guided only by memory fragments and vague directional instinct — tight climbing turns, mountains: it must be northward — I set out morning after morning with my trusty road atlas and unflagging determination. As someone said — Homer, maybe? — it’s not the destination, it’s the journey. These explorations were full of new scenery, exhilarating driving, and places I might never otherwise have encountered.  At last, after snagging a scarce parking place along the road, I walked down into a hamlet wedged in a steep, narrow canyon too small to admit cars: St. Guilhelm-le-Desert, refuge of Charlemagne’s general-turned-hermit. Bingo! My square at last! I’ve returned a couple of times with visiting friends, who were thrilled. We stayed overnight in an ancient tower turned hostel (which I believe is no longer open) to explore neighboring caverns and take rented kayaks on the river. Maybe I’ll get back there this year. Fingers crossed.

You may have detected in these ruminations a certain preoccupation with driving. You’re right. In contrast to the calm, cushioned passivity of my automatic-everything SUV on the well-groomed highways at home, my little rental car is lively as a jackrabbit, responding instantly — I almost want to say eagerly — as it slaloms along these skinny little roads that flow sensuously over the terrain’s varied contours. It demands unwavering vigilance and constant gear-shifting for blind curves, oncoming vehicles, precipitous dropoffs with no guardrails, cyclists, wandering livestock (a sheep, once, up near Roquefort), and grape-hauling tractors at harvest. It’s tiring, yes, but also as much fun as taking up a new sport. And it creates a sort of hypersensitivity, a connectedness, to all aspects of the surroundings, which can only be good, right? It’s all so beautiful!

So, whoever you are reading this, thanks for indulging these extemporaneous musings, and, if you don’t know the Languedoc yet, I sincerely hope you will some day. I wish you as much delight as it’s been my good fortune to have. Make sure you contact Andreas and Anthony at Midihideaways. You couldn’t be in more congenial, knowledgeable, and helpful hands. Tell them I sent you.