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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Spring into action

With Spring in the air, it’s time to come out of hibernation!  There are many events coming up which will tempt you, I’m sure!!

Journees Fleurs et Jardins, Chateau de Perdiguier, Maraussan – 7 and 8 April 2018

This coming weekend, Chateau de Perdiguier in Maraussan is opening its doors to the public for the annual flower and garden show.  I wrote about the event a few years ago. Here is the link to that post.

Journees des plantes rares et collections, Beziers – 28 and 29 April 2018

Spring is a time for gardening, and to continue with that theme, this event is taking place in Beziers for the first time this year.  The official website gives a list of exhibitors – it sounds as though there’ll be some interesting plants there!  I’m sure I’ll be able to find something for my garden!! 🙂

Farm open days, various locations in Herault – 28 and 29 April 2018

You may remember my post about my farm visits last year – if you don’t, you can find the article here.  The next open days are coming up soon, and you’ll be able to find details of all the participating farms via this link.

European museum night – 19 May 2018

Since 2005, European museum night has been enchanting visitors every year.  It’s a free event and it gives visitors the chance to discover the treasures of museums all over Europe in different ways.  You’ll be able to find the programme for Herault via this link.

Fete de la Musique, all over France – 21 June 2018

This one is an absolute must for your calendar!!  There will be concerts everywhere, from small recitals of classical music to large pop/rock concerts!  Saint-Chinian will be hosting a concert that day, details are yet to be announced.

Festival MusiSc, Saint-Chinian – 23 to 29 July 2018

The music festival will take place from July 23 to 26 this year.  Two concerts on each of the six days (no concerts on Tuesdays), in the historic surroundings of the former abbey church, the cloister, and the parish church of Saint-Chinian.  A variety of concerts with different styles of music which are sure to appeal: Classical, jazz, Latin rhythms, world music etc…  Full details can be found on www.festivalmusisc.wordpress.com

Come see for yourself?

Last Friday, I was spending time with my parents and I was far away from Saint-Chinian.  Not long after I’d published the weekly post, my father told me that he’d seen something about a shooting “near where you live”.  I was deeply saddened when I found out what had happened in Carcassonne and Trebes.  The funeral of the victims of the attacks took place yesterday.  This must be a very sad time for the people touched by the tragedy, and by the families of the victims, and my heart goes out to them.

In light of everything, it feels strange to publish the post I have written for today.  But life must go on, and I will continue to live my life as before.  I will not start to avoid towns, places or events because of what might happen.  Life is precious and sometimes short.  Let’s make sure that every moment counts!


You may remember a post I wrote last year, about an article which had been published on the CNN website.  The article rated Saint-Chinian among the top 10 destinations to retire to in 2017 – it caused quite a stir in Saint-Chinian when it was picked up by the national media in France!

Live and Invest Overseas, the company behind the rating and the original CNN article, has published their list for 2018.  Saint-Chinian still ranks in fifth place, ahead of Lisbon, Budapest, Chiang Mai and Bali, to name but a few other destinations!!  You can find the whole list here – you’ll have to scroll to the end of the page for the list.

The story was picked up again at the beginning of January on the Forbes website, under the imaginative headline of “Quit Your Job And Move Abroad: The Cheapest Places To Live In 2018“.  In the article, Kathleen Peddicord, founder and publisher of Live and Invest Overseas, is quoted as describing Saint-Chinian as a “quintessential French country village where everyday life is like something out of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast”.

Whilst that may be a bit of an exaggeration, she’s spot on with “quintessential French country village”.  The location of Saint-Chinian and the transport links play an important role in the ranking, and the best part (to my mind) is that the people in Saint-Chinian are described as very friendly!!  🙂

Saint-Chinian does have a lot going for it – though I may be biased?! 🙂  I imagine that I take for granted some of the reasons why life in Saint-Chinian is so delightful.  All the same, I do try to remind myself often just how fortunate I am to be living in such a wonderful village!

if you’re tempted to find out why Saint-Chinian has made it on the list of the world’s best places to retire to for two years running, come and visit!  (For accommodation, have a look here.)

The following photos may give you some idea of why people love Saint-Chinian so much!

The wonderful Sunday market in Saint-Chinian

The wonderful Sunday market in Saint-Chinian

Les Platanettes - a wonderful spot for a refreshing dip

Les Platanettes – a wonderful spot for a refreshing dip

Classical music concert in the former abbey church

The village along the Vernazobre river

The Vernazobre river that runs through Saint-Chinian

Jazz concert in the cloister

Landscape around Saint-Chinian

Grape harvest in Saint-Chinian

Grape harvest in Saint-Chinian

A summer evening of food, wine and music at the cooperative winery in Saint-Chinian

A summer evening of food, wine and music at the cooperative winery in Saint-Chinian

Bastille day fireworks in Saint-Chinian

Bastille day fireworks in Saint-Chinian

Wine tasting at one of the many wineries in the village

Wine tasting at one of the many wineries in the village

View of Saint-Chinain from the Windmill

View of Saint-Chinian from the Windmill

Another view of Saint-Chinian

Another view of Saint-Chinian

Vineyards surround Saint-Chinian - they are beautiful at any time of year!

Vineyards surround Saint-Chinian – they are beautiful at any time of year!

The historic pipe organ in the parish church

The historic pipe organ in the parish church

A wild narcissus patch on the edge of Saint-Chinian

A wild narcissus patch on the edge of Saint-Chinian

Saint-Chinian town hall all decorated for the national holiday, Bastille Day

Saint-Chinian town hall decorated for the national holiday, Bastille Day

The Tour de France passing through the village

The Tour de France during one of the years that it passed through the village

It would take me too many photos to show you all of the wonderful things that make us love Saint-Chinian!  Come visit, to find out for yourself!

A Christmas dip

No, this post is not about food!!  It’s about taking a dip in the sea at Christmas!  🙂

A tradition of winter swimming has grown along the Languedoc coast.  Several seaside towns mark the end of the year or the beginning of a new one with a swim.  Valras Plage, near Beziers, calls it the Bain de Noel, the Christmas swim.

In Valras, the tradition was started over 30 years ago by a few enthusiasts, who went swimming throughout the year.  On December 23, 2017, over 300 people came to take a dip in the sea.  The water temperature was 8 degrees Celsius, and as you’ll see from the photographs, the sun was shining!

People wore all kinds of fancy costumes to mark the occasion:

The life guards had come dressed up as Santa’s helpers:

Santa was waiting for the bathers on a barge:

After a brief warm up, the bathers made a dash for the water!!  I saw some people jump in head first, whilst others went in up to their knees.  I’m not sure that I would have been that brave!  The water must have felt freezing cold!!

The video below will give you a good idea of the fun everyone had!  After the dip, there was hot mulled wine for all the bathers!!  🙂

Would you go for a Christmas swim in the sea?  Or would you prefer a stroll along the beach?  Or….?

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A new cracker

This past weekend, I went to the annual Cracker Fair.  I wrote about this Christmas market in December 2013, when it took place at the Chateau Abbaye de Cassan (you can find the article here).  This year, the cracker fair was hosted for the first time by the Abbaye de Valmagne, located between Montagnac and Villeveyrac.  This market was established ten years ago, and in the early days it was very much aimed at the British expat community in the area, who felt deprived of their Christmas crackers.  If you don’t know what Christmas crackers are have a look here.

Valmange was founded in 1138, and at one point in its history, it was one of the richest Cistercian abbeys in France!  During the French revolution, the last monks fled the abbey in 1789, and it was sold by the French state in 1791.  The abbey church, which dates from 1257 and which is 83 metres long and 24 metres high, was converted into a wine cellar.  It is probably for that reason that the church has survived.  Enormous wooden barrels were installed in the side chapels, and several are still in place today!   I was watching a number people enter by the door at the end of the church, and most of them had a kind of “wow” look on their faces!

The church is impressive at the best of times, but the fact that it was filled with stalls, people and noises added another dimension!

Around 100 stalls had been set up in the church, offering a large variety of goods, from soaps to syrups, marbles to mushrooms (dried) – you name it!

The church was built in the classic gothic style, and true to the Cistercian rules, it is without much in the way of decoration.

From the side of the church, a door led to the cloister, where there were more stalls!!

The cloister consists of four arcaded galleries around a garden.  There is a fountain, which would have been used by the monks for ritual ablutions.

The chapter house is off the cloister, and it too was occupied by stalls!

A barrel-vaulted passage housed an exhibition of paintings.

In the former refectory there were more stalls and a cafe.

Valmagne was bought by the Comte de Tourraine in 1838, and he and his descendants have taken very good care of the former abbey over the years.  Today the estate is run as a winery, and the visit would not have been complete without a stop in the shop.  The tasting room is right next door to the shop, and there was a lovely fire burning in the fireplace!

Since 1999, the wines at Valmagne have been produced as organic wines!

Outside, there were more stalls and – most importantly – a selection of food trucks!!

Saturday was a very cold day, and I’m sure that the stallholders outside must have been freezing, but they all remained cheerful!

Despite the cold, this was a wonderful Christmas market to visit – one you should add to your diary if you are in the area in early December.  The Cracker Fair is organised by Languedoc Living. You can find details on their website.

The Abbaye de Valmagne is open to visitors throughout the year – you can find details of opening hours here.

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The spice of kings

The spice of kings is saffron – a spice as expensive, or sometimes more so, than gold.  The reason behind the high price is not its rarity, or a difficulty in growing the spice.  It is entirely down to the laborious process of harvesting!

The saffron crocus (crocus sativus) is an autumn flowering perennial.  The red “threads” (the stigmas and styles of the flower) will turn into the precious spice once dry.  I’ve been growing saffron in my garden for a number of years, with varying degrees of success.  Last year, none of the corms produced any flowers.  This year has been much better! 🙂

One day last week,  I was able to pick twelve flowers!!  Saffron flowers emerge shortly after the leaves appear, sometime in October.  The leaves persist until around May, when they dry out and the plants lie dormant over the summer.  Saffron  plants need free draining soil and a sunny position – apart from that they aren’t fussy.  I adore all the different colours in the saffron flowers, they are so vibrant and gorgeous!

The flowers should be picked as soon as they open.  The threads are then removed from the flowers and dried.  I like to keep the flowers in water until they wilt, they are so beautiful to look at!

Each flower has three threads and produces on average 30 mg of fresh saffron or 7 mg of dried saffron.  About 150 flowers yield one gram of saffron!  Saffron flowers need to be hand picked, and the threads are also removed by hand, hence its very high price!!

Here’s what the threads above amount to after drying:

Not a great deal, but I’m hoping that my saffron harvest isn’t quite finished yet!!  🙂

The use of saffron dates back more than 3,500 years, and it has always been an expensive spice.  It’s been used as a fabric dye, for medicinal use, and for culinary purposes. Here are some dishes which wouldn’t be the same without saffron:  risotto milanese, paella, bouillabaisse, jewelled rice, and biriyani.  There are many other culinary preparations which use saffron – do you have any favourites??

And to finish this post, here’s a tip which came from the grower I bought my corms from.  He told me never to add the saffron threads directly to a dish.  He recommended that the threads be soaked in a some warm water for a little while, strained out and dried.  They could then be used up to three times, much like a vanilla bean.  Using saffron that way makes it a lot less expensive!

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