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Saint Chinian

In southern France is a region called Le Languedoc-Roussillon. South of this region is Spain, Provence rests against a portion of its eastern border and in between, in an almost perfect crescent, it looks out onto the Mediterranean. Within this region are plains and rolling hills covered with vineyards, mountains with river gorges and forests, and long sandy beaches. It is a land of numerous hillside villages in mellow shades of ochre, yellow, and pink and of medieval cities besieged by modern traffic. In the beautiful autumnal month of October 2001, I spent two weeks in this area in the small village of Saint Chinian.

The river in Saint-Chinian

Saint Chinian was founded in 825 A.D. by Benedictine Monks during Charlemagne's reign. The monastery and the village prospered, surviving the Albigensian Crusades of the 13th century and emerged in the 17th and 18th century as a center for the manufacture of high quality cloth. During the French Revolution the abbey was dissolved and since the 19th century, the village and the surrounding area concentrated on the production of wine.

My first sight of Saint Chinian was at dusk, in a misty rain. We drove up the Grand Rue looking for the post office where we were to be met by our hosts, Andreas and Anthony, and shown to our house. It was not on the main street though and we didn't see the sign pointing the direction to La Poste until we had driven out of town, turned around and driven back down Grand Rue. As we parked, two thoughts were foremost in my mind. The first was that Saint Chinian looked exactly how I hoped it would look - rural, quaint, and 'old' with scarcely a 'modern-looking' structure in sight. The second was that we were late!

Outdoor cafe

We had driven up from Barcelona in the early afternoon and we had gotten lost. We had taken the wrong turn and had found ourselves on small winding roads instead of the superhighway. We managed to stay headed north, more or less, but when we had gone as 'straight' north as we could and the map said northwest to St. Chinian, we found ourselves heading east toward the Mediterranean. Getting lost is stressful, backtracking is maddening, 'finding' St Chinian 'at last' and seeing Andreas and Anthony waiting for us in the rain and gloom of dusk was a relief. Andreas showed us our house and we then scurried over to the small supermarket before it closed (at 7:15 p.m.), madly tossing items into our baskets - coffee, milk, cereal, eggs for breakfast; cookies and cake because they looked good and we were hungry; wine because it was inexpensive and we were, after all, in France…


We later (during the next two weeks) explored Saint Chinian, walking up and down the streets, going in and out of the shops, sitting on benches or at the tables outside the cafes and 'people watched'. We walked down the Grand Rue, along which can be found restaurants and cafes (La Comedie, Chez Jeannot, Café de La Paix, Le Vernazobre), shops (Video Flash Photo, Pharmacie, Boucherie, Pro & Cie Les Professionels de L'Electronique) and government buildings (Maire); we walked along the river, Le Vernazobre, going east along Qai Villeneuve and west on Quai de La Trivalle; we walked through the Jardins de la Mairie on the site of the former abbey. We went to the tree-lined market square (in the shape of a long rectangle) on market days, nipped into the large church whenever we were passing and it wasn't locked; and explored the outskirts of the village where the cemetery, soccer fields and distillery set almost side by side. And we explored and walked up and down, around and through the maze of narrow streets between the 'wine-growers' houses. These houses, built side by side, are brick covered by plaster, painted mellow colors and made quaint by shuttered windows and doors with knockers and made lovely by lace curtains at the windows and flower pots and plants sitting outside the doorways.

Cafe creme

From the windows of our house we looked down into the triangular shaped Place de Demolition. There was enough room in this tiny Place for a tree, dumpster and parking for about 10 cars. At certain times of the day, it was very busy because the butcher shop in the Place was very popular right before breakfast, lunch and dinner. I went in once and politely stood waiting my turn. I soon discovered that my lack of assertiveness and lack of French left me in the background as others came and went (I left, empty handed). Sometimes a noisy vespa would zoom through (especially annoying at night) the Place but otherwise I found it peaceful. The pedestrian traffic was light and mostly consisted of women with baskets or wire carts on their way to the market or shops. Sometimes someone would stop to chat to the middle-aged neighbor woman who liked to lean out of her upper story window in the early evenings.

Our four-story house was bright and cheerful, compact and comfortable, and furnished with everything we needed. The ground floor was a garage/utility room; the second a living room/dining room and small kitchen; the bedroom, bathroom and toilet was on the third floor. A loft was on the fourth but as we were only two, we did not use it. We bought bright yellow roses at the market and put them in the vase on the table. We found the crockery in the cabinet in the living room and the cooking pans behind the bright yellow 'curtains' in the kitchen. We learned which channels on TV were news and which ones televised "Lovejoy", Beverly Hills 91210" and "Jag" (all in French). We made ourselves 'at home'.

The entire village is picturesque, but my favorite place was Le Jardin de la Marie. It is an 'almost' square park of stone benches, trimmed hedges, rose bushes, tall shade trees, a fountain and a monument to honor those who had fallen from 1939 to 1945. I walked around it and read their names; Pierre, Francois, Jules, Andre, Auguste, Louis, Jean, Georges, Marius, Francois, Denis, Victor, Gaston, Rene - 4 Barthes, 3 Lignons, 2 each Vidal, Pujol, Fraisse and Maceou. We would see these monuments in almost village as we passed through. This was the only one I read. As I read their names I thought about these men, not as a part of distant history, but as ordinary men who lived ordinary lives and who were mourned by loved ones. In a small village square in northern France, my uncle Armin's name is in carved into a similar monument, although misspelled "Armin Franck" (instead of Frank), it is a moving tribute.

We 'lived' there for a short time but we were outsiders and were only able to observe Village Life, not really be part of it. We tried, in small ways. We shopped at the outdoor market on the market days. We bought pastries (pain au chocolat) from the nearby boulangerie and café crèmes in the mornings at one of the cafes on the Grand Rue. We recycled our bottles and newspapers, purchased stamps at the post office and drank the local wine. But we didn't know any French and we didn't chat with or get to know the locals. My one lengthy conversation was with the old grandmother who scolded me for not using the crosswalk. My contribution was to nod and say "oui madame, merci" (and to look contrite!). We were just visitors, looking and observing and enjoying being there.


It was 7:30 one morning when I walked through Place de Demolition and up to the market square in order to take cans and bottles to the recycle bins placed at one of the corners. It was dark and quiet, the market square empty; the shops facing it were dark and quiet and empty. The traffic on the Grand Rue was almost non-existent. I saw no one else walking about. An hour later as we sat at a café on the Grand Rue, the village was 'waking up'. The boulangeries, the cafes and the news shop were open; people were emerging from their houses and walking up the sidewalks with their baskets over their arms. Cars sped and buses lumbered down the Grand Rue. At 9:00 am the shops were open. At noon the doors of the shops were shut.

From noon to 3:00, the streets are again quiet and almost deserted. It is time for the midday meal and that means that you are at home or in a restaurant. At around five in the evening, on warm non-rainy evenings, if you do not have shopping to do for the evening meal, it is a perfect time to sit on one of benches just outside the Jardin; or at one of the café tables with a glass of wine in front of you; or at your open window with your knitting to catch the waning light, to talk with friends or family or neighbors. This was the rhythm I observed from my imperfect 'outsider' perspective.


Languedoc Roussilon Tarn Gorges, Michelin Tourist Guide, 2nd edition. Michelin Travel Publications,
Wonderful Languedoc-Roussillon, Editions Quest-France, Rennes France.
Brochure Saint Chinian Languedoc, Office De Tourisme, Saint Chinian France.
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