Dans la rue où nous vivons – On the street where we live
Quai Villeneuve, Saint-Chinian
When we were first planning our trip to live in le sud de la france pour six mois, we had quite a large area to check out. From our previous trip to the Lanquedoc, we had found the history and le terroir trés intéressant so decided to concentrate on that area. Also, the canal du midi is very picturesque and meanders for kilometres from Toulouse to Sete (south east of here), where it drains, 241 km later, into the Mediterranean.
Saint Chinian is situated in the Herault department, 40 kilometres from the Méditerranée and within sight of the Montagnes Noire to the north-west. It is not on the canal du midi but is not far and we criss cross the canal regularly as it meanders its way through the Lanquedoc (green on the map).
The south of France is proud of its occitan culture and history while it is also very much a part of modern Europe. Occitan, also known as lenga d’òc (hence, languedoc) is the local language of southern France (including Provence and Monaco), a small part of northwest Italy, and is known as Catalan in eastern Spain. The name comes from the fact that the speakers use the sound “oc” for the word “oui”. Apparently, written records date the language to the 10th century but it is probably older.
View overlooking Saint Chinian
Saint Chinian, or Sanch Inhan in occitan (various other spellings: Sanch-Anhan, San-Chanhan, Saint-Anian), has had a long and interesting history since its foundation by Benedictine monks, probably during Charlemagne’s reign, but its first charters date from 844 and 899. The historical record is not easy to put together as any paper records before 1875 were lost in the flood of that year. The following is what has been gleaned by local historians (and I have borrowed). Of course, long before any of this, neanderthals and Cro-Magnon men, women and children roamed this country in paleolithic times, thousands of years ago.
Saint Chinian owes its name to the Benedictine monk, Anhan, who founded the Saint Laurent monastery in 782 on the left bank of the River Vernazobre, on land just behind notre maison. He was beatified in 1102 and the monastery took his name: Sanch Anhan, which became Saint-Chinian in the Middle Ages.
In 826, an abbey was established on the other side of the river, on the site of the town today. It survived relatively unscathed from the Albigensian crusades of the early 1200s (eliminating the Cathars) . There was also the threat of la peste noir (Black Plague) in the last half of the 14th century. The abbot constructed walls around the little village in an attempt to keep the pestilence outside. Only a small portion of the wall exists today deep inside the local garage/mechanic building, near where the abbey stood. The village was for a long time a modest village, essentially agricultural. From 1351 to 1465 there was a permanent struggle between farmers and abbots. Abbot Renaud de Valon was eventually given the responsibility of organizing the economy of Saint-Chinian on a more democratic basis. Yet the farmers rebelled in the next century and the religious wars threatened the abbeys’ existence. Not sure what this was about but probably over the use of land.
Old church with new church behind
In 1536 the village was destroyed by Baron de Faugères, a Calvinist, and again in 1578 by the peasants’ revolt. Then, Saint Chinian emerged in the 17th and 18th centuries as a centre for the manufacture of high quality cloth – wool, linen and silk – as well as agricultural products such as flour, wine and olive oil. The rocky shale terraces where the sheep grazed are still obvious in the surrounding hills. Foreign trade reached as far as the Mediterranean basin and the East. The village and its surroundings flourished, but life for the residents changed with the French Revolution. Because of the suppression of monastic orders, the abbot no longer provided the poor with wheat and so they starved. In 1792, the population of Saint Chinian was 3500. After the Revolution, with the opening up of overseas trade, local industry, especially cloth and tanning, plummeted and received its final blow by a terrible flood in 1875.
Only remnants of the workshops, factories, mills are visible along the edge of the River Vernazobres, which runs through Saint Chinian, because after a heavy rainfall in September 1875 a devastating flood roared down from the hills. It ripped away the factories on the south bank and demolished houses on the other side, leaving behind three hundred destroyed or damaged houses. Ninety-seven residents drowned or died. The devastation is still in evidence today by historic markers on sides of building, sometimes 3 or 4 feet above the road level.
The wool trade had already been declining in the mid-19th century due to the industrial revolution and increased mechanization; and the competition with imports from England and Spain did not help. But, at the same time, a new class of consumers, the bourgeoisie, emerged as a strong market for wine. Wine was becoming a cornerstone of the French economy and French wine garnered international recognition as the benchmark standards for the wine world. So, when it came time to rebuild Saint Chinian after the flood, the old industrial labourers moved into this new wine industry.
The next disaster came when Phylloxera (a sap-sucking louse, which feeds on the roots) appeared at the end of the 19th century in the eastern part of southern France. But it arrived later in the area around Béziers, which had by that time planted its vineyards with American rootstocks, which proved very highly resistant to Phylloxera. Saint-Chinian profited from this and became a vine growing area.
From 1914 to 1918, Saint-Chinian was actively involved in the war effort, hosting refugees from the North of France and Belgium, but also sending many of its young men off to fight and never return.
WWII was a bit different as all of the south of France was part of Vichy France. We found very few WWII memorials but, on the good side, no cities with bombed out buildings. This Resistance Memorial is on the hillside above Saint Chinian.
After the Second World War, Saint-Chinian threw itself into the pursuit of excellence for the quality of its wines. This has become even more important over the last few decades and has helped improve the reputation of our wines on a more international scale. Saint-Chinian acquired AOC (Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée) status in 1982 and is now producing a wide range of quality wines. There are twenty villages in the Saint Chinian AOC. The grapes used at Saint-Chinian are Carignan, Cinsault, Grenache, Lledoner Pelut, Mourvèdre and Syrah – not all familiar to us in North America.
Cave Co-operative Saint Chinian
We have lived for six months at 9 quai Villeneuve across the River Vernazorbe from the little village – a two minute walk. Not sure when the first bridge was built, but the stone bridge we use pretty well every day was built in 1610.
The petites maisons which line la rue où nous vivons were built to house les étrangers (essentially foreign workers who came to work in the factories). The date in the official record is before 1811.
In the Bibliothèque, the librarian (who happens to have the same birthday as me – 28 December) very kindly brought in the plans of the village from the archives so that I could see the originals. On those our street looked like this as early as the 16th century. No. 9 was one of three maisons in the building where the arrow points. Not sure what they looked like structurally but they were there.
This property is described on the street plan from 1778 as a maison belonging to Jean-Baptist Gerrieux – patu 9. Note the number is already 9. Apparently, according to an information sheet provided to me by a local historian, Patu is an ancient term used for taxation purposes: is an ancient concept designating a set of indivisible goods intended for common use.
This plan is full of information about the residents and the use of the property. Notice that the buildings across the street and backing on the river are still there. Except for the the first two properties at the bottom right, the rest are gone – demolished after the 1875 flood. One of those is la boulangerie, the best croissants, right on the corner.
The good news is the #9 has a view of the river and pretty houses across the way.
Some of the families listed on the street plan may still be with us. The man next door in #8, I would say well in his 70s, told me he was born in the house and has lived there all his life.
Neighbors such as Elena (middle), and Monsieur René (on left), and others often sit on this bench in the sun and discuss all the world’s problems. Or the latest gossip. Elena is 92. Josette (here with Monsieur René on another day) is the neighbor that I have spoken most often with. She is 68, but looks and acts older. Apparently, about 5 years ago, her husband went off into the woods hunting for mushrooms and never came back. Well, they did eventually find him but she misses him.
Notre maison, 9 quai Villeneuve, is owned by Barbara O’Hanlon. She lives in Ireland and her sister also has a house in le sud de la France. They grew up in Kenya where their father was a doctor. In their 60s they started writing and have now published three books, novels based on their growing up years in Africa and published under their maiden names, Barbara and Stephanie Keating. They first wrote and published To My Daughter in France which is based in Montpellier and in England during the war and in then, also, a generation later. There are vibes of the writing process in notre maison. We have read all these books, which we found on the bookshelves, and enjoyed them very much.
We are now on our way back home to Victoria, BC, Canada. Our time dans le sud de la France and at 9 quai Villenueve has been a very special time in our lives. We will miss the many friends we have made in the past six mois, especially Andreas and Anthony, nos voisins, and the people we have crossed paths with in our day to day life – the fish man in the market where we bought the freshest prawns, the ladies in the boulangerie, the smiley young fellow in the newstand where we bought the weekly Sunday Times.
Also, the patient staff in the pharmacie, supermarket, dentist’s office, and the supply store where we had to order delivery of the fuel oil for the furnace (and the cheery delivery man), the co-op wine people who supplied copious tastings, and the owners of La Caleche, the best restaurant in Saint Chinian. And many others who made our stay comfortable and interesting.
Bonne journée et bon voyage à tous nos amis.
Deidre and Murray. We are happy happy to have had this experience.