It’s now a little over a year since our time living in France, and the urge is strong to return. It may have something to do with the fact that friends have not long returned from their own sojourn. It may be the bite of mid-winter weather. Whatever the reason, we’re back into the dreaming and planning. Logistically it doesn’t get any easier to organise, but we’re determined to make it work if we can.
First up is the search for the perfect village. Do you have any idea how hard it is to pin down the perfect village out of the whole of France? Hard. Harder than you’d think. Very hard, in fact. If the perfect village exists, I haven’t yet found it.
First is narrowing down the region. This could be extremely difficult. What’s not to like about any region of France. Take your pick, I’d be happy to find a village there. So we’ve made it easy for ourselves. We’ve cut to the chase, and it’s back to the Pyrenees. The eastern Pyrenees to be precise. We know and love the area. We’ve holidayed happily there. So far, so simple.
Next is the map search to narrow the options. This is a fun exercise actually. The maps come out. And if it’s maps you’re after we have maps aplenty accumulated over 30 years of trips. I figure roads may change a little, but whole villages can’t disappear between 1983 and now, right? Maps get spread over floors and every available surface. Roads and towns are pored over. Relative sizes of map dots are considered.
Surely it’s easy you’re asking… wouldn’t you just return to Quillan? If it’s a smaller village you’re after, wouldn’t you have identified the obvious candidate in all that village hopping? Not so simple. We would happily return to Quillan, but it seems a good idea to consider alternative options. Being in a small town was great, but part of me still hankers after the village idyll. Too many great villages, too much choice.
The perfect village is elusive though. There’s no denying that we’ve driven through countless villages, but while many come close, none has so far ticked all the boxes. Which doesn’t make it any easier when you’re exploring options on a map surface. Thank goodness for Google Earth and Streetview, the combination of which has allowed me to discount numerous villages on sight. Cruel, but true. In the desperate search, which can take up hours of our life, it pays to be ruthless.
So what, you ask, makes the perfect village? In truth, I’m not sure it exists. We’ll no doubt have to compromise on something – or several things – if we ever get there, but here are some of the things we are looking for, when the time comes.
Size – this is the Goldilocks factor. It needs to be big enough to have the basic infrastructure to survive, without being so big it doesn’t have a sense of community. This is a fine balance. More towns than you would think fail on this criteria. Quillan was great. But part of me thinks there’s something out there half the size that would fit the bill just as well.
Setting – OK, so admittedly we were spoiled with Quillan, in its natural amphitheatre of Pyrenean foothills, but it would be nice to have some kind of outlook. A river, a hilltop, a view, a tree-lined approach. All of the above? Not too much to ask? It is the Pyrenees for goodness’ sake.
Beauty – let’s face it, if I’m going to go the the trouble of packing up the house, lugging the family halfway round the world, and dealing in a foreign language, I do not want to be living in a dismal backwater, staring at the back wall of a brewery . Cobbled streets, stone buildings, romantic lane ways, heritage street lighting, half-timbered houses, tree-lined avenues, any of the above, not too much to ask?
School – this is pretty critical. We need to be based somewhere the kids can go to school on foot. We may not have a car for some of the time, and I want to be in easy reach if something goes awry. The smaller the size though, the less likely the village will still have a working school. We were surprised in our previous travels at some tiny villages that appeared to still have functional classrooms – as small as 27 children over two classes, or in some cases 3-10-year-olds all in one room in true rural village style. In some cases villages have kept their schools open by sharing age groups round the community – one village will take the maternelle, another the CP and so on, with minibus transport between. But you have to know which village serves which age group, and it’s subject to change.This means knowing some locals. The larger towns will have schools, but they may be large enough to be a little less friendly. This is the hardest thing to judge from afar and requires a lot of quite targeted research, often via accommodation owners and their local contacts.
Services – minimum criteria: a school, a cafe, and a boulangerie. Let’s face it, it wouldn’t be village life without a boulangerie, right? Wrong! So many villages in France have lost their traditional boulangeries, that this is a harder criteria to meet than you would think. Countless are the villages that we explored in our last visit that would meet all the criteria, right down to the school – but no cafe and no boulangerie. No can do. This one breaks my heart as I could otherwise name half a dozen villages we would happily live in – in some cases buy a house in outright, were it not for that lack of boulangerie. Sigh. Some of them do still get the visit from the bread van. Compromises may be had here.
Sights – along with setting and beauty, comes the need for one or two local attractions – or at least attractions within reach. This is not a hard criteria to fulfill. I’ve yet to find a village or town in France where you can’t find some idyllic D-road to explore, or a local heritage site to explore within walking or driving distance. If there’s enough to keep you occupied locally, so much the better. A local swimming hole – perfection.
Transport – this is key when considering the possibility of life without a car for a period of time. The absolute benefit of Quillan is its position on key train and bus lines giving easy and affordable regular access to local communities and larger cities in the wider region. The rural idyll is a fine thing – but it’s nice to know you can escape if you want to… this one is a bit of a dampener for most small villages.
Authenticity – this is a difficult one to articulate. We’re looking for quaint without honeypot, interesting without tourist overkill, diversity without losing the sense of French culture. This is an increasingly difficult balance.
These are a few of the things we are thinking about as we dream and plan. What do you look for in a place to call home? And if you’ve found the perfect village, do tell!