07 May 2011

The changing landscape, part 1

The first time Walt and I were ever in Saint-Aignan was in 1989. Yes, it was that long ago. On that day we just drove through the town on our way north to Chartres after a trip to Toulouse and Bordeaux. We hardly even noticed Saint-Aignan as we headed north.

We were focused on finding a place to eat and ended up having lunch in a little restaurant in Beaugency. To get there, we drove through the park at Chambord to see the château. We'd been on the road for a week, enjoying beautiful weather, but it started raining as we got closer to Chartres. We saw the cathedral under dark skies, in a heavy downpour.

I wish we had stopped in Saint-Aignan and looked around that day 22 years ago. The next time we came here was in December 2002, when we were looking for a house we might buy for our retirement. We found one, and then we decided to go ahead and move here — lock, stock, and barrel. In June 2003 we arrived. Lately, I've been thinking about how much the Saint-Aignan area has changed in eight years.

A blue flower and a red spider

We live at the end of what is for all practical puposes a dead-end road — a lane, really — about 700 meters (less than half a mile) off the little highway that runs along the south bank of the Cher River. We are equidistant from the main place (market square) in old Saint-Aignan and the center of the village that is officially our place of residence. From our house to central Saint-Aignan, or to the center of our village, is all of three kilometers — two miles. We're in the country but not remotely so.

When we arrived in 2003, we moved into one of nine houses that make up a hameau (hamlet) on the edge of a big vineyard. It has a name: La Renaudière but no businesses or church. The road doesn't really end at our house, in fact; it continues as a gravel track used mostly by the vignerons who own and work their plots of vines out west of our small piece of property. There isn't much through traffic, though there is some. After a mile on gravel through the vineyard, you arrive at another narrow asphalt road.

None of any of that has changed in eight years. There are still nine houses in our hamlet. Six of them are occupied full-time. Three are occupied infrequently or seasonally. Three of our neighbors have died since we moved here — two of them were a couple, both in their mid-90s, and the other one was a widow of the same age. Another neighbor is now in her late 80s.

White clover

Our next-door neighbor is a shut-in who has multiple sclerosis. He's about my age. Five other neighbors are also about my age — early to mid-60s. One house in the hamlet is now being fixed up as a vacation house by the son and daughter-in-law of the widow who died at age 95 a year or two ago. The house previously occupied by the elderly couple who died is a rental, and it's now lived in by a group of young people (20s and 30s I'd say) who are currently working as contractors, evidently, at the Saint-Aignan zoo. I don't know how many of them there are, but four or five cars are often parked in their driveway.

Out hamlet hasn't changed, but the area just a few hundred yards down the hill from us, on the other side of a dense thicket of woods, has changed considerably. In 2003, there were a dozen or so houses down there, on big lots along the road that leads up to our house. Now there are at least twice as many, and many are on very small lots. A few years ago, some people who live down there sold two or three acres of land to a developer, who promptly built 11 new houses on it. And an English couple had a small house built along the road, as did two French families.

All in all, another 15 to 20 houses have been built within a kilometer of our house, down near the highway. Many of them are on a little lane that runs parallel to our road just to the south. I'm sure that all the people living in all these houses have pushed the population (between 1000 and 1500) of our village up significantly. A little farther along the highway toward the village center, I can count another 15 or 20 houses that have been built since we first came here looking for a new home in 2002.

New houses on small lots outside Saint-Aignan

I see this as part of a demographic trend in France. People are moving back to the country, partially reversing the mass movement of people out of the countryside and into the cities, where the jobs were, over the past 100 or more years. Nowadays, with high-speed rail, expressways (autoroutes), and universal car ownership, high-speed Internet, and satellite TV, you can live out in the country in rural France without being isolated. You can commute to a city for your job and still enjoy the spaciousness and quiet of country living.

We would be pretty unhappy if the grape-growers started selling off their vineyard plots near our house and putting up houses up there. I don't see any evidence of that happening, but they do say the wine business isn't very profitable these days. There's too much wine produced in France, and too much competition world from new wine areas in the Americas, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa.

Newly built houses dot the landscape around our village

As things stand, we don't really even notice the new arrivals. Once in a while we'll see groups of people we don't know walking up our road and out into the vineyard. They're out for a stroll. As for car traffic, even down the hill where all the houses are it doesn't seem to have increased much. Maybe there's a lot to traffic down there early in the morning and late in the afternoon, with people going to or coming home from work. We're seldom down there at those hours.

Speaking of our village, it seems to be prospering. One reason, I think, is that the new autoroute that connects Saint-Aignan with Tours to the west and Vierzon and Bourges to the east — and to Orléans and Paris, actually — runs across the western end of our village's territory. it opened two or three years ago. I'm sure the village was well compensated for the land taken over by the new roadway.

Une rose est une rose est une rose

In the village center, all the electric wires were recently undergrounded. New lamp posts were put up. Sidewalks and curbs have recently been built or improved. Otherwise, there haven't been any big changes. The boulangerie has changed owners twice since 2003, and the new baker has just opened a salon de thé, replacing an old café that was seldom open for business. The café-tabac in the village also got new owners last year, but it doesn't appear to have changed significantly. Madame Barbier is still operating her salon de coiffure down there. The little grocery store changed owners — twice I think — but remains much the same as it was when we arrived.

To be continued...


  1. It's interesting that the population of your village is 50% larger than that of our town. I assume the village population includes all the hamlets?

    For some ancient and forgotten reason Preuilly's boundaries include the town and some fields, but no villages or hamlets - all of the small villages around here "belong" to somewhere else, even the ones attached to the town.

    We do have a smallish sudivision going in at the top of the hill, so we could be in for a revival.

  2. Hi Simon,

    According to Wikipedia French articles, Preuilly-sur-Claise has an area of 12 sq. km. Our village is 32 sq. km, and Saint-Aignan is 18.5.

    It's true that our village center is much smaller than Preuilly, but there are many many hamlets and villages like ours all around that are on the territory of our commune and counted in its population.

  3. What an interesting post! Although we've seen the houses being built, we'd never talked much about how they affected you. (Not much, it seems.)

  4. Interesting that some maps, Google for one, treats Mareuil-sur-Cher as a more important town than Ste. Aignan. At a certain zoom-out level Ste.A disappears but M-s-C stays.

  5. Yes, very interesting. I imagine that the weakness of the U.S. dollar contributes to the current French wine business not being great, since those wines cost much more now in the U.S. than they did before... you think?


  6. Bill, sometimes I think the town of Saint-Aignan must have offended Google in some way. For a while, if you searched for Saint-Aignan on the Google maps, you found a place pretty much in the middle of nowhere, about 40 miles south of the town, near Châteauroux. Now, as you say, little Mareuil gets priority over bigger Saint-Aignan on the maps. I don't understand it.

    Judy, I'm sure you are right and I'm sure the California wine people are happy about the situation.

    Chris, I'm glad you enjoyed it. And you are right, none of the building and growth has affected us much. But I still don't like it. NIMBYism, I guess.

  7. I guess you can't stop progress and development, but hopefully your hamlet will stay your little slice of heaven for a long, long time. Who knows what the future will be like anyway? Just enjoy your life and keep on making your readers happy with wonderful stories.

  8. Are those solar panels on the yellow house?

  9. You do make us "happy with your wonderful stories"as Nadage said. This is the first time I knew that you drove through SA in the 80s. You had that memory there, just like a memory I had of seeing Amboise at sunset in '69. Some memories linger longer than others.

    The first decade of the 21st century was one of change and uncertainty. The internet is really going now- who knows where it is going to lead us? It does seem to bring us together and give us opportunities we never could have imagined in our youth.

    BTW loved the red bug on blue flower! Loved every detail of your post!

  10. Do you know about this group? http://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=104158875857&ref=ts
    I am and American living in Nantes an d was in your town yesterday, checking out the lake and a 2hr trek, there was not much of the lake to see, though, the nature reserve was a bit of a disappointment. Cute village though.

  11. Oops, sorry, I mistook Saint-Aignan for Saint-Aignan-Grandlieu, NOT the same place!


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