My first real experience of France was in 1990, exploring the west and south coast mainly with a Campervan as a home as part of a three month drive across Western Europe. It looked, felt, sounded and tasted wonderful. Like everything I saw during those 90 days, it was new, it was exhilarating. After spending six months living in Los Angeles in 1991 I returned to France the following year working as a rep for Keycamp, having (mostly) fun times with (mostly) happy campers. I spent seven months near Perpignan in Languedoc 1n ’92, and another seven months the following year near Fréjus on the Côte d’Azur. I spent much of my spare time exploring the region and I grew to love it. I was in my mid twenties, and more than anything I was loving the adventure. Just meeting interesting people and visiting new places was not only exciting at the time, but looking back it was good for me as a person; it helped me deal with my underlying shyness and every month I spent there I grew in confidence.
My Keycamp experience was good for my soul and yes, I may have been looking at France through rosé-tinted sunglasses, but this was no brief holiday romance. Scrubbing tent groundsheets, cleaning mobile homes and fixing blocked toilets in 30 degree heat is, especially after a night with Merlot, Pinot or Bordeaux… merde. Visually, most of the South of France is stunning. I fell in love then with the culture and way of life. The French insist on taking their time over things that are important. Food and drink are an obsession for which everything else stops. No business is so important that it doesn’t take a break (as long a break as possible) for breakfast, lunch, dinner or supper. For me, my surroundings, both immediate and distant need to make me feel comfortable. Compared to anywhere I have visited in the world I feel most comfortable in the South of France, and due to its sheer natural beauty there is nowhere I would rather spend my time than in Languedoc, and particularly the Cevennes.
Leaving aside the stunning natural beauty for the moment – the southern France region of Languedoc-Roussillon remains largely unspoilt by our ever-growing consumerist ways. Compared to parts of Provence and particularly the French Riviera, which could certainly be described as being on the wrong side of suave, capitalism seems to have steered clear of the likes of Gard, Hérault and Lozére. Real communities still exist, people, even strangers, smile and exchange courteous pleasantries as if amongst friends. People enjoy other people. ‘Local’ shops still exist, and thrive. Shops shut on Sundays, some on Wednesdays too. Hypermarkets the size of shopping centres not only shut for lunch, they take their time about it and close for two hours. People look happy and more relaxed, because they are. The locals are clearly fully aware of the history of the area, and not only respect it but look to preserve it and are wonderfully reluctant to change. Maybe time has stood a little still in parts of Languedoc-Roussillon, but architecturally, culturally and socially, the region is all the more beautiful for it.
My most recent visits to France have been vacations, staying amongst the hills in a converted stone shepherd’s cottage (above) in May and even further into the wilderness in September. These magnificent old buildings which dominate the region have clearly been built by men with a love of stone, effortlessly charming and impossibly characterful, seemingly by chance. Yes, it helps that the climate is perfect – still four seasons but the summer is the longest – but it’s the relaxed pace and unspoilt way of life which are irresistible. I love their unaffected attitude. I love their appreciation of fine things, of simple things. I love the fact that Languedoc is not overrun with tourism and consumerism, instead it’s as if its residents realise and appreciate its beauty and charm and simply have no desire to change. I do not have the words to do justice to the depth of natural beauty which resides throughout the rivers, lakes, hills and mountains of the Cevennes. I shall instead quote from a book by R.L Stevenson I have just enjoyed Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes, written by the Scot in 1879…
“The stony skeleton of the world was here vigorously displayed to sun and air. The slopes were steep and changeful. Oak-trees clung along the hills, well grown, wealthy in leaf, and touched by the autumn with strong and luminous colours. Here and there another stream would fall in from the right or the left, down a gorge of snow-white and tumultuary boulders. The river in the bottom (for it was rapidly growing a river, collecting on all hands as it trotted on its way) here foamed a while in desperate rapids, and there lay in pools of the most enchanting sea-green shot with watery browns. As far as I have gone, I have never seen a river of so changeful and delicate a hue; crystal was not more clear, the meadows were not by half so green; and at every pool I saw I felt a thrill of longing to be out of these hot, dusty, and material garments, and bathe my naked body in the mountain air and water.”
So I’d love to live in Languedoc, in a centuries-old cottage with a donkey in the garden and stunning views of mountains, sheep, rivers and goats. It’s my dream and I have ideas. The dream may take a decade or more to become a reality. For now, life is for living and for making the most of, wherever that may be.