Saint-Aignan itself has a population of about 4,000. But the town just on the other side of the river Cher, called Noyers-sur-Cher, is home to 3,000 or so people. And there are a couple of villages -- Mareuil and Seigy -- on either side of Saint-Aignan that have about 1,000 residents each. In all, the Saint-Aignan/Noyers ‘metropolitan’ area -- l’agglomération, in French -- must number about 10,000 inhabitants.
So how do you pronounce Saint-Aignan? Just the way it sounds, ha ha ha. Seriously, saint in French sounds like sant. Aignan is pronounced ay-NYAWN. Well, except you don't really pronounce the final N -- it's a nasal vowel. But to get it right, you have to say the T of sant as the first sound of the first syllable of Aignan. You end up with something like san-tay-NYAW[N]. Easy, no? How about Noyers? That would be nwah-YAY. Seigy is say-ZHEE. Don't even ask about Mareuil. In all cases, the sur-Cher suffix is pronounced syur-SHEHR. Cher is Cher as in Sonny and Cher, in other words.
There are three other towns of about 5,000 people within 10 miles of san-tay-NYAW[N] (keep practicing). To the east, Selles-sur-Cher (famous for goat cheese). To the north, Contres (a farming town). And to the west, Montrichard (a lively town dominated by a medieval fortress). Amboise, Blois, and Valençay are all within 25 miles. So Saint-Aignan (known for its zoo and its Touraine wines) is not isolated.
We live about 2 miles from the main square in Saint-Aignan. We are in the country, but we are very close to everything we need in order to sustain our daily life. We normally drive to san-tay-NYAW[N] or nwah-YAY for groceries and other shopping, but we could also easily ride our bicycles or even walk, depending on the weather. That's not to say that we do either very often.
Saint-Aignan itself is built around the base of an enormous château. The original château was a fortified structure built about the year 1000 A.D. Ruins of some of the old towers are still visible. But the main part of the existing château dates from the 1500s or even 1600s, the French Renaissance. That part of the château complex is not fortified. It’s more like a huge mansion than it is a fort. It is still privately owned and the owners live in it. It is not open to the public, but you can go up onto the grounds and into the courtyard to enjoy great views of Saint-Aignan's rooftops and the Cher river valley below. There's also an enormous old church, as you can see in the picture above. There are more pictures on my photo site, and here's a map of France showing where Saint-Aignan is located.
The old part of Saint-Aignan is right on the bank of the river Cher. There are narrow, winding old streets and there are quite a few ancient houses and buildings. There is a single bridge across the river, and it’s a stone structure that has to be hundreds of years old. Here's a series of pictures of places in and around Saint-Aignan.
There’s a main street that runs from the bridge up through town, heading south towards a town called Le Blanc and then on to Limoges (more than 100 miles south). The zoo, which is a big attraction and actually very impressive, with lots of animals and birds from all over the world (including a pen full of raccoons), is south of town on that road.
In central Saint-Aignan, the main street and a semi-pedestrian street that runs perpendicular to the main street are lined with a dozens of businesses. Saint-Aignan has everything you need. In the middle of town, there are:
- a post office
- a library
- a municipal swimming pool
- four boulangeries/pâtisseries (selling breads and pastries)
- three pharmacies
- three grocery stores, including one that specializes in organic products
- three butcher shops, including one horsemeat butcher
- two charcuteries (French-style delicatessens that sell pork, sausages, pâtés, salads, and prepared dishes like stews and cooked vegetables you can reheat at home)
- six or seven restaurants
- seven or eight cafés
- two hotels
- one bookstore
- one newsstand
- a half a dozen banks
- an appliance store
- an electronics store
- a hardware/building supply/do-it-yourself store (south of town, actually)
- two florists
- five or six clothing and shoe stores
- four or five gift shops
- three or four insurance agencies
- five or six hair salons
- an optical shop
- several doctors' and dentists' offices
- two driving schools
- three antique/junk shops
And on Saturday mornings there are two outdoor markets in Saint-Aignan. The farmers market is on the central square in the old town, and the vendors include a big fish monger, three pork butchers (charcutiers) , a butcher and a horsemeat butcher, two poultry stands that also sell spit-roasted chicken, rabbits, and pork roasts, two cheese merchants (one sells just goat cheese made on his farm), and four or five fruit and vegetable stands. There's a woman who sells the mushrooms she grows on her farm, a man who sells snails (alive or cooked), a woman who sells produce, cheeses, and eggs from her farm, and a man who sells flowers, potted plants, and seedlings for your garden in the spring.
On the main square in the newer part of Saint-Aignan (5 minutes' walk from the farmers market), there's a Saturday market where you can buy clothes (picture), shoes, table linens, curtains, and other dry goods. On special occasions (two or three times a year), there are big town-wide flea markets with stalls set up all along the main streets and squares. On those days, you can find a great deal of everything you could ever think of to buy, from arts and crafts to cars.
In Noyers, there's a farmers market on Sunday mornings where many of the same vendors sell their products. Ten miles distant, Selles-sur-Cher has a big food and dry goods market on Thursday mornings, Contres has one on Friday mornings, and Montrichard has its own on Monday afternoons and Friday mornings. A little farther afield, Amboise (20 miles away) has a huge market on Sunday mornings -- one of the largest in the region or even in France, they say -- as well as a smaller food market on Friday mornings, and Valençay (15 miles away) has one on Tuesday mornings. I won't even mention the markets and supermarkets in Tours (pronounced TOUR) and Blois (BLWAH), where we go to shop just a few times a year. And in the town of Loches (say LUSH), just 20 minutes southwest of Saint-Aignan by car!
Within four miles of our house, besides all that, there are four supermarkets, two in Saint-Aignan (Ed and SuperU) and two across the river in Noyers (Intermarché and Champion). There is smaller grocery store, plus a post office, two bakeries, a café, a library, a hair salon (Mme Barbier), a library, and a garage that sells used cars, in our little village, just on the edge of Saint-Aignan. In Noyers there are restaurants, bakeries, cafés, and all the other normal businesses a town might have, including four hotels that I can think of and a great truck-stop restaurant. There are several garages and car dealerships (Citroën and Renault -- the Peugeot dealer, Garage Danger, is in Saint-Aignan). There are a couple of service stations, and three of the supermarkets have gas pumps. There are three big hardware/building supply/do-it-yourself stores, and a big five-and-ten-cent-style store in Noyers. The train station, with service to Tours, Vierzon, and Bourges, is over there. There's also a computer store and there are four furniture/appliance stores.
What don’t we have? There is no cheese shop, and there is no fish market in the area. But the supermarkets have both, and so do the farmers markets, so good cheeses and fresh fish are readily available. There’s no auto supply store, though there is a new tire store. There’s no wine shop, but the whole area is covered with wineries where you can buy wine at retail, in bottles, boxes, or in bulk, and the supermarkets have big wine and beverage sections. Two other shops in Saint-Aignan, one a wine bar and the other a gift shop, sell wines also. There’s no office supply store, so you have to rely on the supermarkets or drive up to Blois (25 miles) or over to Tours (35 miles) for those products. There's a big shopping center south of Blois, about 20 miles from Saint-Aignan.
Mostly, what Saint-Aignan doesn’t have is traffic. The one bridge across the river can get a little backed up on Saturdays or in July and August when there are a lot of tourists around. But the backup might be 20 cars. It’s nothing, of course, compared to the traffic around Paris or big American cities. In fact, it’s nothing compared to the traffic in my home town in North Carolina, which you have probably never heard of. I was there last April and I was amazed at the number of cars on the big wide highways that have been built there. Everybody is going to the Wal-Mart SuperCenter or the Home Depot!
In our area here in the Cher river valley, there is what is called a route nationale that runs along the river connecting Saint-Aignan toTours (pop. 250,000), 35 miles west, and to Bourges (pop. 150,000), 50 miles east. The route nationale is a two-lane road. There is a main north-south route that links Saint-Aignan to Blois (pop. 75,000), 25 miles north. There is an extensive network of smaller two-lane highways linking towns and villages all around the area, and an even more extensive network of narrow country lane covering the countryside. The narrow country lanes often have no pavement markings (no center line, etc.) and are mostly too narrow for two cars to be able to pass each other easily. You have to slow down and pull a little off the road to the right when you meet an oncoming car.
We have a new toll road (autoroute) that ends at Noyers for now. It's a direct link to Paris, which is about a three-hour drive north. The extension that will connect us to Tours and beyond is under construction a will open in a couple of years. The toll to Paris is about $20.00.
The countryside is a little hilly, and the Cher river runs through a fairly wide and fairly deep valley. It's a couple of hundred miles long. At places there are cliffs along the river, but mostly there are just hills. Our house is a the top of a hill right along the edge of the valley, and we are about a mile from the river itself.
Most of the housing is single-family dwellings, with old townhouses in Saint-Aignan and Noyers, but there are several apartment buildings in each town. A lot of people have big lots -- an acre or two is not uncommon. And of course many people own a lot more land than that. Most of the land around here is devoted to vineyards and vegetable gardens. There aren't many cattle to be seen, though there are some horse farms.