It’s a beautiful day in the neighbourhood, a beautiful day for a neighbour.
It’s not very often that I can hum the Mr. Rogers’ theme song and have its words apply to me. The last time I lived in a neighbourhood and actually had neighbours was in 2013 when I was teaching at an international school in Uganda.
Right now, Bruno and I are living in his house on the Mediterranean Coast of southern France in a little town called le Grau d’Agde. We’ve been here almost two months, which is an incredible rarity in our overlanding lifestyle. A couple blogs ago, I explained why we’d decided to make ourselves housebound in France, but I may not have made clear enough that this move is just temporary – in fact, I’m leaving for Canada in a couple of weeks, and Bruno won’t be far behind. In case you were worried that Wandering Footsteps was going to turn into Staying Put-steps, think again.
However, it is interesting for me to reflect on my time living in a house and a neighbourhood and to share it on my blog as yet another travel experience. Even though, for a Canadian, France isn’t as exotic of a destination as many I’ve written about here before (like Ethiopia, Oman, Thailand, or Zimbabwe), that doesn’t mean I should sweep over my experiences entirely! (Besides, there are still enough differences between France and Canada that I’m working on a list of interesting differences as a future blog post!)
So, here is the goal of this post: to share what our house and neighbourhood here in the south of France are like. If the post doesn’t quite speak to your anthropological interest, hopefully it will at least speak to your curiosity!
Bruno purchased this property a few decades ago when there was nothing but a dilapidated home on a worthless piece of land. At the time, everyone thought he was crazy for buying it, but it turns out to have been a sound investment – property along the Mediterranean Sea is now worth a pretty penny. Good foresight, Bruno!
For many years, Bruno lived in the little mobile home on the property while he worked his six-month seasons at his bakery. Over the years, he renovated the adjacent house, and in 1998 he began to rent it. He rented it year-round until early 2014, and since then, we’ve rented it by the week to holiday-makers. (A few weeks ago, we even posted an ad on Air BnB that you can check out and share here.)
The house, by Canadian standards, is simple and small, but is of typical size in Europe. It’s a rectangular bungalow with two small bedrooms, an open-concept living area and kitchen, a bathroom, and a separate toilet (common in Europe). There is a well-manicured garden that is pretty sizeable by European standards, as well as a sea-view terrace and brand new sea-view balcony. There is a long gated driveway for private parking (a luxury in Europe) and a mobile home on the property that has two more bedrooms, another bathroom and toilet, and a small kitchen and dining room.
All in all, we can rent this home to ten adults, and previous renters have found the layout of having two separate spaces ideal for multiple families or couples. (When my parents visited in 2014, Bruno and I stayed in the mobile home and we also found this a comfortable arrangement.)
The best part of the property is definitely the proximity to the sea. We’ve got Mediterranean Sea views from the side windows in the house and from the two terraces (the sunsets over the twin lighthouses of le Grau d’Agde are particularly beautiful). One of our entrance gates has direct access to the beach, so the property is ideally suited for those who want to look at – and take advantage of – the sea. Bruno and I sure do a lot of eating and entertaining from the sea-front terrace.
Le Grau d’Agde is a small fishing and holidaymaking town that, along with the internationally-infamous Cap d’Agde, is part of the larger agglomeration of Agde. In talking about our neighbourhood, it’s easier for me to divide this post into mini-sections by town.
Le Grau d’Agde
The beach in Grau d’Agde is really nice. (Ok, it’s not as nice as my parents’ beach in New Brunswick, Canada, but by European standards it’s good.) It has clean white sand, man-made breakers that create little bays, and the beach extends unbroken for miles. At the western edge is the center of Grau d’Agde, at the meeting point of the mighty Hérault River and the sea. Bruno and I often walk into town from the beach, which is a wonderful 10-minute stroll.
Downtown Grau d’Agde is pretty small – it consists of a main square, a seaside promenade and a riverside promenade. Along the promenades are tons of restaurants and a few shops. There’s a pétanque field that’s busy in the evenings, and a harbour featuring a criée (fish auction) and boat-repair facilities. The central square has a daily local market between April and October (otherwise, Thursdays is market day). In the town, there are two small supermarkets, a few bakeries, and an amazing fruit and vegetable shop where my money disappears effortlessly several times a week.
Behind the square is a small building containing the tourist office, post office, and police station. Next to that is a modern church (where Bruno’s brother got married). Further up is an historical church called la chapelle Notre-Dame de la Genouillade.
But le Grau d’Agde is primarily a residential town with an incredible variety of homes – from expensive modern villas (Bruno’s brother’s being one of the nicest) to ramshackle trailers, and everything in between. Though the streets and properties are smaller than what we know in Canada, there aren’t any tall, thin homes packed together on super-narrow alleys. It’s more like North America than Europe, really, apart from a few flourishes on facades near town, creative house names written in wires on the walls, uniformly-muted pastel colours, and terracotta Roman-tiled roofs.
I think le Grau d’Agde is pretty quiet in the winter, but it’s positively brimming with sun-baked tourists in the summer. I’ve only ever been here in spring or fall when it’s neither dead nor packed, and I like its laidback, provincial feel. Locals still go to their local bakery every morning for their baguette and I see the same people walking their dogs or coming back from the produce market with their bicycle baskets brimming with fennel and mâche and endives.
What I like best about my little town, though, is the bike paths. From just outside my house I can hop on the bike paths all the way to new Agde, or follow the river on bike paths to the historical part of Agde. Since roads in Europe are pretty narrow, I feel a lot better riding around town in lanes set up for non-motorized transport.
There are two parts to Agde proper – the historical and the commercial parts of town. Admittedly, I’m more frequently in the commercial part of town. It’s where I do Zumba, shop for household goods, get organic health food from the Biocoop, and visit the giant supermarket chains more frequently than I’d like. Of the three big supermarket (called hypermarchés here) names in France, two of them can be found in Agde – Hyper U and Intermarché. I generally go to Hyper U, simply because it’s closer. On my bike, I’m there in less than 15 minutes (entirely on bike paths), and in a car it’s less than five minutes. The store is like Walmart, but with a greater proportion of foodstuffs. There are a few shops and restaurants in the centre commercial, but it’s nothing like a North American mall.
Vieux Agde (Old Agde) is the third oldest town in France, and it is here that you can experience the typical European town – tiny, claustrophobic cobblestone alleys crowded with narrow, multi-storey homes with loads of windows and colourful shutters. The unique twist to Agde is that almost all the roads, as well as the old rampart walls (which date to the Phoenician period, 6th century BC) are constructed with dark volcanic basalt rock from the region. It’s very photogenic.
Old Agde is situated a little bit inland from the Mediterranean Sea, but still has a maritime feel because it’s constructed around the Hérault River and the 250km long Canal du Midi (a UNESCO World Heritage site). There is a train station connecting us to the rest of France and Europe, and a very big, very beautiful cathedral, la cathédrale Saint-Etienne d’Agde, that is definitely worth a visit, as is the weekly Thursday farmer’s market.
Le Cap d’Agde
Cap d’Agde is a world-renowned tourist destination, but the irony is that, of the three sections of my neighborhood, le Cap is the one I know least. Last week I went to a wine-tasting event on the port with some of Bruno’s family, but that was the first time I’d really scoped out the area. It was so filled with people that we could barely move while walking along the main pedestrian tourist street, which was brimming with kitsch souvenirs stands.
Cap d’Agde is a fairly modern town chock-a-block with shops, restaurants, and activities. You can do anything here – go to the casino, partake in water activities, bar-hop, visit aquariums and theme parks, golf, spend the day at the spa or beach… You can even go to a nudist camp.
Yep, Cap d’Agde has Europe’s most famous nudist colony. And, believe it or not, this is where I’ve spent most of my time in Cap d’Agde. It’s where Bruno has his bakery business that provides us with the income to travel full-time, and Bruno’s brother, Rémy, owns a supermarket here. Sometimes we stop by to say hi and stock up on food, but I have yet to take my clothes off here. Though the colony used to be for naturistes, hippies that believed in living nude, it’s now a very racy, sex-and-party-oriented place, where whips, leather, and orgies are the norm. Not my personal cup of tea, but we appreciate the continued interest in patisseries and viennoiseries of the nudist population!
Our neighbourhood is ideally situated for visiting a lot of interesting places in the region. In less than thirty minutes, you can be in any number of picturesque French towns, like Pézénas (the home of Molière and the most beautiful historical center I’ve visited in France) and Sète (the home of Georges Brassens and a funky port town). In an hour you can be in the metropolis of Montpellier (French people’s second-favorite French town). In less than two hours you can be in the Pyrenees’ Mountains and Spain.
Yep, all in all, our neighbourhood is a good place to be.
For a while, anyway.