In the days when my friend Anne was a child living in Capestang, she would be playing in her grandmother’s garden near the canal when she would hear the long repeated horn of a canal barge. This signaled the locals to stop what they were doing and run to the stone bridge, where many neighbours who also heard the horn would arrive. It is the lowest bridge to pass under on the entire Canal du Midi which stretches straight across France connecting the Atlantic Ocean to the Mediterranean Sea.
Stuck with an empty boat returning upstream, they needed weight to get under the bridge, and the locals would jump on board giving the extra weight needed to sink far enough into the water to pass under the bridge. Once on the other side, they would climb off on to the dock and the locals would wave goodbye to the grateful barge operator.
It was just a regular occurrence, something that they did without really thinking about it. Of course it doesn’t happen anymore, but the locals remember this time fondly, especially the children who lived along the canal who got to jump on and off the boats throughout their long summer months when the freight barges took harvests, fish and wine up and down the canal.
These unique stories would never make any history book; those personal accounts of rural French life of times past. The locals who have lived here for generations carry the essence of their lives forward through these stories; the interesting details that contribute to the local customs and traditions.
France is rich with history and you can’t help but get caught up in it, even if you are not a history buff. There are great tales of fallen empires, bloody victories by ruthless soldiers, brave heroes, enemy invaders, black plague, philanthropist Saints, rivers that changed course due to floods, governing Abbeys with greedy monks and stories of entire faiths slaughtered. Murder, marriage, love and war, politics, religion and kings and queens.
Pieces of local accounts of everyday life from the 13th century can be seen through folklore painted ceilings here in Capestang Castle but the very same style can also be seen in Lagrasse, preserved and restored for the next generations to see. It was through this connection I wanted to visit.
So we decided to go off the beaten track and head 45 minutes west of Capestang to Carlos for a historical walking tour through the famous village of Lagrasse, near the Corbières massif. Lagrasse is a Les Plus Beaux Villages de France, a designation of the Most Beautiful Villages of France. It boasts the Abbey Lagrasse, a Romanesque Benedictine abbey dating back to the 7th century.
It was my first time in the region of Corbières. The landscape was beautiful with rolling hills kissing the edge of one village and then rolling on to the next, like Casanova continuing along to the next beauty. Pastel pastures reach grapevines with the first visible grapes; green upon green foliage in every direction, and the sun shone bright on this midsummer’s day.
Once we arrived in Lagrasse I was surprised at how many tourists were there for the Music Festival which carried through over the weekend. There were people in tents camping in the parking lot, along the river, and on any patch of grass they could find; even under a tiny tree at the base of the tower over looking the Abbey. They were still sleeping off the party from the night before when we arrived at 10:00am, and some were just searching for breakfast when we sat down for an organic lunch at La Petite Maison! at 12:30.
My first impression of the village of Lagrasse with a population of 600, was how perfectly preserved it was from the 13th century. Winding cobblestone paths with three story houses built up from the narrow base reminded me of Dr. Seuss’ Whoville, some teetering and tottering yet very solid indeed! They are not allowed to build the base wider, keeping to the original stamp of the foundation to keep the roads accessible. Innovatively and in need of more space, people would add a balcony, then down the line they would enclose it, and then add another level; making the next level large than the one below. Charming close knit village layout with circular paths which all lead to the central market place, inviting visitors and locals to congregate in the town square.
I finally got to meet Carlos, another offshoot from Vin en Vacances, but his story is a little different. He is of Spanish descent, a polyglot living in a village, who ended up here on a path led by destiny.
I am very pleased to share his story with you.
Who are you?
I am Carlos, I am 43 years old, soon to be 44. I am from Barcelona. I lived there most of my life, until I was 38. I then moved to Lagrasse. I do not consider myself an expat at all but a European immigrant.
Why did you move to France?
I had the privilege to have a bilingual education in a French school in Barcelona. French is my cultural language and I love it. It was also a way to start a new life with my partner all from scratch; new country, new language, and new job.
How many languages do you speak?
I speak Spanish, French, English, Italian and Catalan. And just a little German but I don’t count it.
How did you choose Lagrasse?
My partner and I were driving back from Italy to Barcelona when some friends asked us to come visit them in Lagrasse and stay in their rental holiday home. We fell in love with the village, the area and the house: a real ‘coup de coeur”. Three bedrooms, courtyard, dining area, beautiful archways, original stone walls, and a quaint entrance with a big old door. A year later almost to the day, we bought it!
We ripped out the wall to reveal what we thought was an archway to expand the kitchen, and put in a rustic pillar, a new kitchen and renovated from top to bottom. People love our house. It is exactly what you would fantasize about hidden behind any door way; a little oasis, a trickling water station, an outdoor seating area, a cat sleeping next to potted plants and an upper terrace leading to the bedroom. It is perfect for the two of us!
They say people don’t pick Lagrasse but that Lagrasse picks you. We have often heard stories of people purchasing in a nearby village, come to Lagrasse to visit a festival or tour and end up backing out of their original purchase to buy here instead.
It feels like fate brings us here.
Did you experience culture shock?
No, Barcelona is only a three hour drive from where I am now and I had traveled here many times in the past.
The culture shock perhaps presents itself when downsizing from city life in Barcelona to the much quieter village of 600 souls in Lagrasse. But I do love it, even winter; being the most difficult to experience in rural France.
Many people don’t realize how cold the winters can get in southern France, and the streets quiet right down after dusk. It is such a contrast to the festival summer months, when we are full of visitors and locals.
Did you do anything since moving to France that you never would have expected?
I would have never thought I would be plucking and cleaning farm chickens for Sunday lunch! It is a great experience to be close to what you eat, to know where your food comes from, to follow the seasons and not the supermarkets. It is much healthier.
I have dinner at 19:30 in France! Timings are so different here compared to Spain where we eat much later.
What do you do for a living?
I am a historical guide for tourists in our village of Lagrasse, and a wine expert touring for Vin en Vacance. I also manage some holiday letting properties in our village. With everything I am very busy.
What did you do to integrate with your community?
The first five years we gave free rooms to the musicians participating in the different festivals in our village. It was a way to collaborate with them and to get to be known and integrate into the several activities of this amazingly lively village. We’ve got six different festivals throughout the year!
Tell me something special about the Languedoc that most people don’t know?
There are many secret amazing spots to discover here…but I won’t tell you where they are… we need to keep them secret!
What is the worst thing about being an expat?
The more difficult thing is to integrate in a rural environment. It is difficult to be accepted by some locals, and to be part of their lives.
What is your favourite thing about being an expat?
When you are an expat you can see things from a distance and sometimes have a more objective viewpoint. Being less emotionally involved, we have less prejudices ( by history or tradition). It is a unique perspective.
What do you miss the most about your home country?
I miss shops and restaurants being open at all hours.
I miss long mornings and longer afternoons. Here the days seem to be shorter.
I miss having a bar open on any corner, on any street and being able to eat or drink at any time of the day or night.
Coming from a big city, some things are harder to get used to.
What advice would you give other expats?
Follow your feelings and live the adventure. It is an amazing experience. France is so beautiful! There is so much to learn and to discover from this rich country; in history, and art but also in nature, and landscape.
What are you currently working on? Projects, books, business ventures…
I am working on having my official guide license in France. Then I will try to get it recognized in Catalunya so I can tour on both sides of the border.
The Hamori family thoroughly enjoyed our morning together with Carlos from Entre les Vignes. We left feeling connected to the history of Lagrasse but also to the funny little stories that only a person living and experiencing life in a rural French village could uncover. Unique perspectives, a beautiful village, and a lovely guide makes my recommendation for Carlos’ tours amongst the highest.
What is the Most Beautiful Villages of France?
A designation given by a private committee.
Another good story! It started when the mayor of Collonges-la-rouge wanted to find a way to promote and preserve his charming village. He realized if he could unite with other villages throughout France, they could cross promote together under the designation and bring tourists to their villages instead of watching them deteriorate. The goal was to restore life, to bring an economy that could sustain their towns instead of watching them become deserted as locals were forced to leave in search of work. That was in 1981, and they started with 66 villages. Today they have 154 villages in 21 regions and 68 departments under the official title. To see the full list follow the link to The Most Beautiful Villages of France.
- Website is www.entrelesvignes.fr
- Mobile 06 33 06 60 22
- Contact Carlos for your own personal tour of Lagrasse today!!