When Ollie and Tom are at school, Stephen and I pop Nicholas in his car seat and indulge in our favourite pastime – village hopping. There is no shortage of little villages in the vicinity of Quillan and we have already covered quite a bit of the local terrain on nearby ‘D’ (Departmental) roads.
No two villages are quite the same in geography, size or architecture. Pretty much all of them have a church, though many of them no longer have a bar, tabac or a boulangerie, which gives them a sleepy, and slightly abandoned feel. Where they differ hugely, also, is in their vibe. It’s all about perceptions (and prejudices) but most of the time, it’s funny how you can get a pretty accurate feel for a place, just by driving through and observing what’s going on (or not going on).
In most cases it’s just a sense that there’s nothing much to the town, it’s a bit sleepy, or not really ‘our kind of village’. In other cases we ooh and aah after rounding the first bend in the road, quickly find a place to park, and hop out for an explore. In extreme situations we case the joint for houses to buy and photograph likely ‘For Sale’ signs. In some cases however, we get down right ‘creeped out’.
In recent days we’ve had two of these experiences – one where our initial instincts were proved right, and one where (sadly) they were proved wrong.
On Thursday we drove into the remote ‘Pays de Sault’. It’s only a 15-minute drive from Quillan to enter this territory, but it feels like a world away. There are only two or three small villages and they’re a reasonable distance apart. The terrain is true mountains, with the highest village, Belcaire, sitting at 1100 metres, just below the pass (and ski station), well higher than any habitable land in New Zealand. We saw a house we liked. For sale. Cheap. We would probably be tempted to buy it, if it wasn’t comparatively remote, and cold.
A vendre. Maison, jardin et remise.
Having passed through the most idyllic valley of green rolling fields and mountain streams, we approached a village sprawled across the mountainside. It was perfectly formed, and looked picturesque in the way only French mountain villages can. “Let’s take a detour and see what we think’ we said to each other. And so it was that we drove in to Belvis.
Belvis from below. Looks beautiful. Looks can be deceiving.
Entering the village we passed a youngish guy coming out of his house. He gave us a rude hand gesture. Or it could have been he was simple. Or possibly just a bodily twitch that he couldn’t control. On our right we observed an old woman entering her house. Along the edge of her house wall (and the road), was a carefully placed line of evenly spaced, half-full 1.5-litre water bottles. OK. Reaching the end of the village, a passing elderly male pedestrian eyed us through the window. We waved cheerily. He returned a cold stare. Exiting the village the way we came, we were waved on our way by another hand gesture from the young man. Au revoir.
Five hundred metres down the road we stopped in where a sign marked a goat farm. It turned out the farmer was Belgian, and had spent time in Canada. We got chatting. He was a friendly guy. ‘How do you find living in this area?’ we asked, thinking it was beautiful but might be a bit remote. ‘Belvis?’ he asked. ‘Oh, the village is BAD, but we are separate here, we do our own thing, and we like it’. Turns out he’s been there 29 years, his wife is on the local school council, and his children were born in the region, but his 5-year old son is still known by the locals as ‘the son of the Belgian. Yup.
Just up the road from Quillan is the pretty little village of Nebias. It lies on the plateau above the town, and is fringed on both sides by a plane-tree-lined approach road. There’s a church, a cluster of houses and a cafe. There are hill walks starting from the village centre. Frankly, I could happily own a house there. Through our neighbours we have met the owners of the cafe in Nebias, where they offer amazing menus of all organic, home cooked, French, regional and Vietnamese food. They are Vietnamese by origin, but have lived in France a long time, and in the village of Nebias for nine years, I think. They speak good French, they cook amazing food. They are generous and lovely people. And they are being hounded out of Nebias. They are tired of fighting the needless bureaucracy of the Mairie and of waking to find hateful graffiti on their cafe walls. Needless to say, we won’t be buying property in Nebias, no matter how pretty it looks.
The Belgian goat farmer’s observation was that such ‘fear’ of foreigners (Belgians as much as Asians) is rife in the mountains, and the higher up you go, the worse it gets. I’m sure there are exceptions. We’ve visited many of them. We’ve talked to many friendly villagers. But in some of these small, sleepy, isolated, deprived – and frankly, dying – places, you certainly see how suspicion and resentment could become entrenched quite quickly, particularly when the place generally is overrun with expats like us!