Lagrasse Caveat venditor

lagrasse“I cannot avoid the conviction that no innate tendency to progressive development exists”

Charles Darwin, 1872
by Simon Pleasance, Ribaute, canton of Lagrasse
The horse-borne traveller coming upon Lagrasse, a century ago, would halt astride the abrupt and draughty promontory called the Bouche au Cers , bulwark against tantrum gales. Before him, spanned by a wide-arched bridge , stout and svelte, the river Orbieu running its course between the mediaeval bourg, confined entirely within its occasionally toppling fortifications, on the rive droite, and a sumptuous abbey on the rive gauche. The whole surveyed by an imposing, if unfinished, belltower . Beyond the village, a riant valley with olive groves, vineyards and wheatfields, worked high up the flanks. Further south, the jostling peaks of the Corbières and, on a clear day, the far Pyrenees.
Today’s car-borne visitor will survey from the same vantage point–and all things being, it is claimed, relative–a similarly pleasing prospect, qualified now by a second elegant bridge, but sundry less harmonious developments, too, residential and infrastructural, east and south of the walls: a new gendarmerie adjoined by a singularly characterless housing estate, a school, barns, wine cellars and homes, the village winery at the southern head of the village, another cramped housing estate close by, and, most recently of all, a decidedly up-market development on the hillside above it. Scattered homes are gradually peppering the immediate environs, here, there and everywhere. The olive-groves have all but gone , the once endless carpet of vines is chequered with fallow–some already reverted to garrigue scrubland–and invasive Aleppo pines [Pinus halapensis] clad the heights.
Lagrasse, at the turn of the century , was still a fairly bustling chef-lieu and administrative centre, though it had already seen better days. It had a population of 1,125, virtually unchanged since the Revolution. It boasted a bureau de bienfaisance or charitable office taking care of the destitute, a rescue and emergency service, and a fanfare municipale républicaine–the village brass band; a tax inspector, a rate collector, a municipal clerk, a postmaster and a garde champêtre ; a justice of the peace, a clerk of the court, a bailiff, and a notary. The Mayor (Calvet) and his deputy (Mailhac) presided over a ten-man council (Camps, Oulé, Toulza, Belly, Castel, Roques, Ferrié, Nouguiès, Sicre, and Falet).
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.
Figure I
Services in Lagrasse:
Service 1906 1950 1997
General (novelty) store 1 1 1
Hotels-restaurants, bistrots 2 2 4
Cafés 3 3 2
Groceries 4(?) 5 2
Bakeries 5 3 1
Butcher’s shops 2 2 2
Saddler-harnessmaker 1 1 0
Cartwright-blacksmith 1 2 1
Hairdressers 4 3 (?)
Fodder-seedsmen 1 0 0
Tinsmith-lamplighter 3 0 0
Watchmaker-jeweller 1 1 0
Locksmith 1 1 0
Ironmongeries 2 1 0
Plumber 1 1 1
Garage mechanics 0 1 1
Wine Merchants 2 1 2(?)
Housepainter-glazier 1 1 0
Pharmacy 1 1 1
Carpenters-joiners (?) (?) 2
Craftsmen (?) (?) 9
Shops (?) (?) 5
Estate Agents 0 0 1
Physician 1 1 2
Oil Mills 4 0 1
Dentist 0 0 1
There were three major fairs in Lagrasse 100 years ago: the Fête des Cochons in late January, the Foire de Lagrasse on 12 August, and the Fête des Comportes , in late October. Today, the summer months see an occassional Wine Fair, a Potters’ Fair for the past dozen or so years, and latterly, since 1995, the Banquet du livre, a book fair.
Back in 1906, our traveller would have watered his horse at one of three municipal drinking troughs. For the denizens, a water-mill at the weir 1.5 km upstream fed three fountains. The mill was replaced in the early 1920s by an electric pump. In the 1950s, many smaller private homes still used their own wells, usually sunk within their four walls, from 3-4 up to 10 metres deep. The larger residences in the village were the first to boast running water in this decade. The village lanes and thoroughfares were cobbled and smaller byways took the form of packed earth tracks. The cobbles in the Place de la halle were embedded in sand, and known by local anglers as rich nurseries for bait-worms. Such was the plunder and displacement of the cobbles, that they had to be reset in mortar. Macadam was introduced to Lagrasse in the 1950s, starting with the exiguous Rue des Remparts, behind the Promenade. Vehicular traffic was very sparse in the 1950s, though it had increased since pre-war days, when there was just one camionnette in the village. The streets enjoyed public lighting by electricity back in 1906, and by the 1950s most dwellings were supplied with power.
By all reports, though, there were no foreign foreigners in the village, and only very few French foreigners: just the gendarmes, the tax inspector and the fiscal registrars, the postal employees, the schoolteachers, and other fonctionnaires.
Figure II
Lagrasse: population figures
1789 1936 1954 1962 1968 1975 1982 1990
1147 1006 738 708 665 623 711 725
In the 1950s, so far as Charles Alquier and others can recollect, there were no house-hunting foreign nationals in the village, but there was some incidence of exogamous marriage. Tourism, as such, barely existed. Any visitors there were, tended to be for elderly relatives who were patients in the Abbey. It would seem that the first foreign nationals to purchase a house in Lagrasse were from the Netherlands, some time in the mid-1960s. Another Dutch family purchased an outlying homestead 2 km west of St. Pierre-des-Champs at about the same time. A description of Lagrasse drawn up by an unidentified agency in Béziers, includes the following table for dwellings:
Figure III
Housing stock, Lagrasse, 1962-1997:
1962 1968 1975 1982 1990 1997
Principal residences 218 214 224 251 266
Second/Holiday homes 29 48 55 75 61 63+
Total stock 247 262 279 326 327
——- II ——-

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.