Travel: Poilhes, France: It takes a village

It takes a village; The small communities of southern France offer a special
kind of quiet, but each has an allure of its own
Montreal Gazette
Sat Jul 21 2007
Poilhes is quiet. Population: 640 quiet. It’s not like the quiet when I get
off the bus from work at 11 o’clock at night and I can hear the leonine roar of
the Lachine Rapids in the distance. I hear the white noise hum of cars on de la
Verendrye and the wasp-like buzz of the streetlights.
Here in southern France, I hear birds chirping though it’s 9:30 at night. I
hear TV voices in the apartment next door, one dog barking and another yapping.
There’s a single car downshifting as it negotiates the U-turn off the road from
Montady and continues toward Capestang. A slight breeze pushes through the
leaves of the plane tree in front of the restaurant, as if the leaves, the size
of large hands, were in its way.
That’s about as noisy as things get here in Poilhes.
This quiet is what I needed without knowing it was what I needed when my
family and I set out to vacation in southern France. And having had it, I don’t
know that I can ever travel again without seeking it.
It takes a village to find that kind of quiet.
“In villages, silence is still pure, like a spring rushing from a rock. It is
a refreshment. … A sign of having escaped rather than of having been
forgotten,” wrote travel writer Cristina Nehring, in a National Geographic
Traveler article last summer.
Poilhes, tucked away in the Languedoc region, is definitely not a city. (I
figure if the place can’t sustain its own boulangerie, then it’s not even a
village.) Poilhes is more like a hamlet. It straddles the Canal du Midi, which
bisects France from the Atlantic Ocean, near Bordeaux, to the Mediterranean Sea,
near Béziers. Cityfolk might think Poilhes has been forgotten. Rather, it is a
place to escape to.
We rented a house here for one week of a two-week vacation in late August and
used it as a base for visits to other villages and, admittedly, some cities.
From here we could drive to medieval Carcassonne, or to Collioure, 20 minutes
from the Spanish border.
The villages of Languedoc turn the heart with their narrow, barely car-width
streets, the tiny ruelles onto which spill one-room-wide, three- and four-storey
high houses with bleached ochre stucco and deep green, orange or turquoise
shutters against dazzling daylight.
Sunday seems the best time to catch village life at its most leisurely and
lively. When we arrived in Poilhes, Les Platanes, a restaurant, was booked for
the lunch repast and closed that evening, so we departed for Capestang, a
neighbouring town. The village square is lined by a beyond-old Gothic cathedral
(a plaque in front indicates that several townspeople were killed in the
Resistance, defending Jews), a couple of apartment buildings, and two cafEs
facing off on opposite sides. The centre of the square was filled with dozens of
tables at which sat all permutations of family: dads with children, couples
alone or with children, grandparents with children. Waiters glided among the
tables and around the platanes, knowing, somehow, where the line was that
separated one café’s customers from the other. The whole town, it seemed, was
out for beers and ice cream. They sat, they talked, and the afternoon slipped
away like a cloud. Talk and food. Anything else was just not important.
At seven, Le Provence, the town’s pizzeria, down three steps off the square,
opened. We sat in the backyard terrasse, over which hung a trellis of wine
grapes, not the plastic ones we’d find back home. When the church bells chimed
at eight, we were transported, through a portal of time and space to other
villages and other eras in our lives – yet, we remained, suffused in the evening
light and the glow of the wine, in a place very much itself.
Each of the villages we visited from Poilhes – Béziers, Carcassonne,
Perpignan, Collioure, Pézinas, Sète, Montpellier – was a place very much itself.
The féria, or Catalan fair, of Béziers cannot be repeated elsewhere: Tourists
come from all over France and Spain to see the bullfighting and the horse show,
to dance in the street, to eat paella, to ride the carnival rides. Collioure,
too, has a corrida – annually on Aug. 16 – with streetside food and midway
entertainment. Collioure offers the painterly Vermillion coast – orange sky,
deep blue sea and a crinkly coastline lined with red-roofed houses and a stone
tower and more sea.
In Poilhes, we met a couple and their daughters, age 11 and 8, from the north
of England. The man’s father owned a place just up from ours, on the
appropriately named Rue de la Gaïeté. Three people can walk abreast on this tiny
street, blocked off from cars by a staircase leading to the canal at one end and
a half-dozen metal posts at the other. The family summers here every year. They
know the best beaches, the best aquaparks, the best markets. They shared it all
with us over beers and Fanta. We sat on the single step outside their summer
home talking late into the night. It is possible, in a small village, to get to
know the neighbours.
John and Judy Turner, owners of Les Platanes, are Brits, too. They came down
to Poilhes in the early 1980s, bought a house, gutted it, restored it, sold it,
and did the same with other properties again and again. At one point, John
Turner said, they owned most of Rue de la Gaïeté. Now, they own the restaurant,
where Judy Turner does all the cooking, and the elder of their two daughters
waits tables. Their dog, Pepsi, who’s been known to answer to Pepsodent, snoozes
next to the kitchen door, near the pots of fresh herbs.
The menu, which rarely changes, is haute but not snooty and has a wine list
to satisfy discerning palates, including an exquisite vin de pays called Les
Trois Tomates from Domaine St. Eugène, a vintner so close by that a couple of
dinner guests walked back through the fields to the rooms they were renting at
the domaine.
Their walk took them by the Canal du Midi, where nightly during the summer
one will find a number of yachts and barges of varying sizes carrying families
and friends and tour groups. In the stone walls along the canals are signs
announcing to boaters what village they’ve entered and what amenities are
available.
In Poilhes, it’s not much, but it’s enough. Every day, I walked up the steps
of Rue de la Gaïeté and over the Rue du Stade bridge to what we in Montreal
would call a dépanneur. (You wouldn’t so name it in France; the French would
think you needed a car repair.) The store, open till noon, then closed for two
hours, then open again until seven in the evening, had cheeses and meat,
inexpensive wines and foreign beers, bread, and fresh tomatoes, grElot potatoes
and garlic. Here I bought quart bottles of orange drink and water for our daily
excursions, stamps and postcards, dish soap. Around the corner, there’s the
elementary school, and up the street, the playing fields. Back over the bridge,
there’s a public phone and a postbox.
Along the canal, too, are picnic benches, for eating and watching traffic –
on the water and on the road to Nissan les Ensérunes or the Oppidum, a
Gallo-Roman archeological site 15 minutes away. Bicyclists and other sojourners
stop, unpack their lunches, wish you: “Bon appétit.”
Mornings, shortly after the bells of the church sound 10, come three blasts
of a horn. A look out the second-floor window toward the church in the centre of
town confirms: There she is: the baker from Capestang with our daily bread.

2 Responses to Travel: Poilhes, France: It takes a village

  1. Ron Falconer. says:

    Hi Raymond,
    Enjoyed your well described story, more so because because my wife and I are heading there in around 10 days to live there on a old Dutch barge we have just purchased.
    The “Shop” you mentioned will be soon be our important shopping center. Do you remember if it had general stores as well as the cheese, meat and wine.
    More important have you any idea if it still open? A friend who once visited Poilhe claimed he could not find a food shop in Poilhe. This of course could reflect more on the searcher than the existence of the shop. Thanks again for the article it has been our best indication of where we going we have found.
    Our best regards.
    Ron and Fiona Falconer.

    • admin says:

      Dear Mr. and Mrs. Falconer,
      thank you for the kind words about the article I wrote on Poilhes. It has been 10 years since it appeared, so you are right to ask about whether things are still open. I can’t answer that for you. We’ve been out of touch with the woman we rented from for a couple of years. But you can write to her here, Alix Davis: alixdavis@rogers.com. Please send her my regards.
      As to whether the shop was the only one in town to buy wine and cheese, etc., at that time it was. (Certainly one or two could have been added since.) It was on the east side of the canal across a little bridge. There was access from the canal via stairs, which I’m sure you’ve encountered if you’ve been on a barge. On the west side was a little post office.
      Good luck and enjoy your stay in Poilhes.
      Raymond

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