Charles Darwin, 1872
Our equestrian traveller could have had his mount shod and fed, and his saddle mended; he could have put up at the Hôtel parisien or the Restaurant Africain, and sipped absinthe at the Café National, the Café de la Lyre or the Café de la Ville. Around him, artisan, merchant and shopkeeper (see table), going about their business.
Services in Lagrasse:
|General (novelty) store||1||1||1|
Lagrasse: population figures
Housing stock, Lagrasse, 1962-1997:
The second or holiday home phenomenon has gathered considerable momentum since the late 1960s, less here than in many or most other southerly parts of France–and far less than on the Côte d’Azur or in the Lubéron, for example– but noticeable nonetheless. It is a factor in the decreasing proportion of born-‘n-raised “lagrassiens” in the village, now estimated at about 20%.
The new part-time population brings with it other side-effects. On the plus side, there has been considerable, and it would seem contagious, investment in the physical fabric of the village, and its often historic bricks and mortar. Prominent properties, many of them tumbledown and some even close to ruination, have been purchased and lovingly–and often expensively–rebuilt, repaired and rehabilitated. Façades have been repointed, arches restored, and cracked lintels replaced. One spin-off seems to have been a renewed local pride in the overall aspect of the village. Tattered parking lots, installed wherever some decrepit old hovel had been demolished, have been spruced up. Grubby lanes have been resurfaced. On the plus side, too, hills and environs have been reforested, and many trees planted (photos taken a century ago show a more or less bald landscape, somewhat depressing by our present-day yardstick). There seems also to be a keener and more visible appreciation of vegetation in general, conveyed by a collective, but in no way regimented, effort to add embellishment by the introduction of a much wider range of flora–an aesthetic development that is certainly not in line with traditional peasant thinking. Not for nothing does Lagrasse qualify as “Un des plus beaux villages de France”.
Sixty some holiday homes [cf. Fig. III] means 200 to 300 extra residents in the summer months. Factor in their exponential families and other visitors, and passing tourists in July and August, and the village’s summer population probably rises to almost twice its wintry 700 souls. All this is, as they say, good for business. And when the merchants are flush, the municipal coffers may benefit fiscally, too.
In this respect, however, a paradox rears its head. A century ago, the village was a somewhat autonomous and more or less self-perpetuating hub, where the range of activities had a more intrinsic and organic sense than is the case today. True, there was, then, a layer of existence that was bordering on the feudal (as everywhere in Europe at the turn of the century), but it seems possible that the structure of services offered a wider gamut of real employment, and a more meaningful possibility of fulfilment and integration. Nowadays, the various activities being carried on in the village have a more speculative and artificial character, more to do with consumption than any constructive or contributive spirit . This reality seems clearly illustrated by the nature of the new rash of shops, and the merchandise they offer–targeted essentially at the passer-by, no longer at the resident. In a nutshell, a village that has apparently become considerably more well-to-do is actually functioning less healthily in its viscera–and this tallies with this other imminent turn-of-the-century, where virtuality is a powerful buzz-word, among others…
Another more salient by-product yet of this ‘progress’ is, needless to add, its encroachment on the landscape. I confess, in passing, to a particular bête noire: those who, for their own–often considerable–gain, and with scant regard for the arena of their activities or those unhurriedly inhabiting it, see fit to accelerate the already brisk natural pace of development, progress, call it what you will. In these parts, furthermore, where the stock of available property is now becoming scant–especially in sought-after villages, with a certain cachet, like Lagrasse–it would seem that those involved as intermediaries in the sale of existing homes may now be switching their rapacious attention to land development schemes, pure and simple. That some of these realtors and riffraff agents are foreign nationals with visitor status does not heighten one’s store of affection for their meddlesome doings. When a time-honoured hillside or pleasant riverain lea is earmarked as the next subdivision, and in due course defaced, more often than not, by ill-conceived dwellings , the conversion of the countrysdide is irrevocable: hill and lea will never revert to the natural state (cf. the Côte Vermeille , the Spanish costas, western Eire, Aegean Turkey, and points north, south, east and west the world over).
Second homes offer an illusory populousness. In reality, they have the effect of accentuating the phantom-like climate of places so afflicted in the nine or ten out-of-season months. Houses–often, as we have mentioned, a village’s more salient properties (maisons de maître, and the like) and architectural gems–stand shuttered and gaunt. Shops and boutiques are inevitably spawned (see fig.1) to cash in on the summer influx, but close down in September, as soon as the vacationers have left: more shuttered façades along streets now more lifeless than when once lined with dark-roomed homes.
A somewhat Pavlovian reaction on the part of some second home-owners, often from points north, who think they are perhaps in chic Provence or Malibu, seems to involve the need to install a swimming-pool, come what may. Pools, fancy portals, gardens and yards more manicured than is the local wont, and Toyota Landcruisers… all are so many signals to the ubiquitous larcenous fringe, a new intrusion that affects everyone in the locality, rich and poor alike.
For all the taste, lastly, that is mercifully demonstrated in the restoration of existing, older homes, there is conspicuous evidence of not a little ostentation in certain new homes . Several forseeable look-at-me eyesores now stand on the hill above the Lagrasse village winery. They are owned by Germans, Britons, French from elsewere, and locals, and come complete, needless to add, with pool, some in the mock-Riviera, sun-cult, leisure-in-the-Midi style, others in the spirit of high-design, totally at odds with the environs.
All these factors combined mean that prices are, as they say in realtor-speak, stable, which means they are on the up. This makes it hard(er) for young local couples to set up home here. It is, arguably, in the hands of young(er) residents that the future of places like Lagrasse hangs. If a population becomes too predominantly geriatric and absentee, now matter how wealthy, its habitat will inevitably atrophy. Then the second home-owners will sell up–at a handsome profit if they get the timing right–and run… to another Lagrasse–if they can find one that has not suffered the same fate.