The other day I took Jacques to Fontenay for a haircut, which gave me a couple of hours to wander about. It’s a beautiful town, with buildings from the early Middle Ages, though most of the historic center dates from the Renaissance. At one time this was an important city: on the ocean, a regional capitol, a center of agriculture and commerce. That is so over. Unfortunately it seems not to have found a new reason for being. Seriously the place above should be the coolest cafe/coffee house on earth, but no, even if one were to open, there are no customers.

As you can see they are working the Renaissance angle, just not to much effect. Really, a multiplex in the heart of the historic city, and a film festival that seems basically intended to introduce school kids to the classics.

Misguided multiplex notwithstanding, there remains plenty of interesting historic building fabric. This place was taken over by an architect who filled his windows with flat-roofed greenfield buildings, the absolute opposite of what towns like Fontenay need.

Maybe Monuments Historiques are part of the problem. I somehow doubt that I would want to be held to a serious restoration of a commercial investment building in a moribund neighborhood. Something about it not ever penciling might get to me. That said, it’s easy to see why MH would want to see this area treated right.

The empty storefronts are disguised by murals, such as this poignant evocation of the bookstore of my dreams. Notice how weathered the paint is. We could be dreaming a long time.

It’s a beautiful town, though, and Jacques got a great haircut. I’ll be looking for more reasons to go back as often as possible.

21 thoughts on “Fontenay-le-Comte

  1. I wrote a piece about Bourges a while ago. Same story. The fact is that France is littered with villages and towns that seem to begging for restoration and waiting in the wings to have their fairy godmother let them go back to the ball. But the truth is that all the fairy godmothers hightailed it to Paris and Marseilles and Lyon and Toulouse and a smattering of b-list big hitters leaving the rest of France to expire. That’s the issue with being a huge landmass with a vast past. Rather like being a forgotten movie icon … if you try to bring yourself up to date you look like withered old mutton dressed as lamb but the alternative is to slowly decay and fossilize. It’s really sad.

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    1. The cathedral in Bourges is stunning. I was taught that Chartres was the high point of Gothic architecture, that Bourges was just too vertical. No, not at all, Bourges took my breath away. But you’re right. It sits there in a pretty park, all by itself.

      I think the solution is immigration. These cities need more people, plain and simple. I think there must be a way to welcome people who don’t really want to be here — don’t you think the average person who was bombed out of their house would just rather go home and find everything as it was? — but make it clear that, like it or not, they are here now. It is important to value where they are, as well as where they came from. That may be a hard sell, as hard on the Le Pen side as on the other, but I believe it has to be done. I think of Los Angeles, which for all its faults has innumerable subcultures that live together relatively comfortably. There are points of friction, to be sure, but on the whole it works pretty well. It is no surprise to me at all that California has chosen to just say no to all this Trump craziness — well, apart from Devin Nunes….

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      1. I think you have an excellent idea. As to selling it … you have to appeal to the ‘everyman’ sense of inclusiveness that the French DO have but that has been eroded by a number of factors in the last couple of decades. I’m from England … London is a mahusive melting pot of cultures and talents and no one turns a hair at a different skin colour or accent. And London has been a melting pot for a very long time, long before it became fashionable to point at Immigration. Liverpool too, where my husband is from. It’s an historic port and no-one is even slightly bothered by other ethnicities. What they are concerned with is that there is some sort of integration. No-one should be stopped from practicing their beliefs quietly but no-one should feel that those same beliefs are of such high importance that anyone else has to listen. So I’m in accord. I also think, though that it is a question of helping people to work in the areas that are rusting away. For example, Cantal where I normally live has a total population of 143,000 at the last count and it is dropping. All the children moving away to the cities. There’s a collective belief in the dying areas of France that Tourism is the way out. But it has to be more than that. Small, medium and Micro-businesses, working from home …. the infrastructure from a teleporting point of view in Cantal is impressive (the transport network less so though the roads, of course are fantastic). I have been evangelical about trying to get the points across in my own area but it is an endemic and it needs to be curbed. Yes, more people but people much have viable things to do to support themselves. It will be extremely interesting to see what comes out of the election – Hollande’s plan, now executed to create super-regions IS NOT the answer. What is needed is to inject populate with people who want to help themselves and give them a little support in terms of supporting SMEs, tax breaks etc etc. It’s as bad in Britain by the way where London is thriving and the rest of the country is peppered with places that are struggling. It’s jus that Britain is amuch smaller landmass and has a population of near as damn it the same.

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        1. In most of France, tourism is three months a year. It’s not enough.

          Funny about the religious tolerance thing. I should dig out photos of churches in the Mekong Delta, in Vietnam. The locals were so tired of having their churches trashed that they created a whole new religion. When you go in you see pictures of Buddha, Confucius, Jesus Christ and one other guy, I forget who but it may have been a French bureaucrat. The colors are gorgeous: lemon yellow, turquoise blue, bright pink. The feeling of those temples is equally bright and happy and the message is clear. These are all good guys, worship all or none — I think the guide said the emphasis was on worshipping all — and leave the place safe and sound. To me, that’s the right approach!

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          1. I say hallelujah for the people of the Mekong Delta … they have it absolutely right! And you are right – 3 months per year is no good at all. I remember when we closed our Cheese Shop in Berkshire … the village was outraged and people became quite unpleasant. My then husband asked them a simple question … how often do you shop here? The answer was generally ‘we always buy a stilton at Christmas’ to which it was easy to retort ‘we need to eat year round not just at Christmas’. We moved the shop to a small market town (with car parking) and of course within a short time people had forgotten they were ever cross – far more interested in our, I must say, rather elegant conversion of the shop to a house. The moral of that diatribe is this …. people may think they have the answers but are often far to close to a situation to see how outmoded and foolish their answers are. Inject change and bring new life in and hey presto bongo … happy community delighting in the new order (no Nazi pun intended!)

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  2. Both you and Osyth are absolutely spot on.
    Sadly, Brexit almost certainly means that the pool of Brit buyers will now dry up. Those who are in France and haven’t applied for citizenship will leave in droves.
    Will France recognise that all incomers who contribute and try their damnedest to fit in are an asset, not a bloody pain?
    I am already hearing horror stories of folk being refused residency applications “because you British don’t belong here any more”! Top that!
    And we are moving to small village France in this climate?
    I’m not saying this will happen in Campagne, but I still have to work, live, shop, buy services etc


    1. Seriously, people are hearing that from the immigration people? That’s bad. What must it be like for the Muslim women that need visas? No wonder they so often look fearful and defensive. I think moving in, letting people get to know you — you do speak French and I’m sure that makes a hiuge difference — is the best response to that sort of bad attitude. Are you sure you are not hearing urban legends? The rules are pretty clear, after all. You check the boxes, you get the permit. Right now you even have maybe a two-year window when you can still just live here.

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      1. I know. And we know people, and I am not saying that would happen in our village.
        And no, I am sad to say it’s not fake news, it really happened in Normandy .

        I am really wobbling at the moment. I think I have lost my impetus big-time and stuff like this does not assist in maintaining a positive frame of mind


        1. It’s hard. I had a combination of momentum and emotional numbness to carry me along. You just have to get up and get yourself going, every single day. You have a clear, realistic goal, though. You are going to a place you know. Focus on that. Try to let most everything else go. Your village is lucky to have you. I’m sure your neighbors are aware of that and will welcome you. You will feel better when you are settled again. Yes, really.

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  3. It really looks full of potential.
    Like Americans, the French outside the big cities want to do everything by car (even in Paris, there are plenty of cars). That requires parking. And all that land on the perimeter of town–the well-connected buy it, then their buddies on the city council give them permission to build centres commercials with big parking lots. And the center of town dies.
    I think a multiplex would be a great thing in a town center–hundreds of people would come in, and then stop for lunch or dinner or coffee or shopping. But what about the parking? What they need are little trolleys or minibuses that would take people (for free, frequently and at all hours) from free parking on the perimeter into the city center. I would happily ride a trolley instead of hunting for nearby parking for 15 minutes.
    We bought a classified apartment and the renovation wasn’t easy. There were a number of things we had to do the hard (more expensive) way, especially for wiring and plumbing. We weren’t allowed to put bathrooms or kitchens where we wanted. No additions of walls. All the windows had to be handmade, at €1200 apiece. As a result, people either let buildings fall to ruin or they do it “in black,” by themselves, without permits. There must be a way to save the patrimony without making it unaffordable.
    The towns that have succeeded, like Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, live on tourists. And that town has become unaffordable for residents. Not unlike SF and Barcelona, where AirBnB have helped drive up rents for locals because landlords can make better money short term (certainly it was our calculation in our apartment purchase–we are making it a business). We met a bunch of locals in Saint-Rémy who said that it now is impossible for young families to buy homes there. You can only live there if you’ve inherited a house–I’m talking about the people who own or work in the shops and cafés and such. Otherwise, it’s all second homes for the very rich.


    1. This is one of those comments where I wish I could see your comment when responding. There is a lot there and it’s a complicated issue. One fine day I’ll learn to take notes.

      Fontenay’s planners seem to have learned from the mistakes of others. There are plenty of small parking areas dotted around. The problems are that they are hard to find, unless you know your way around, and they are almost full up with residents’ cars. I think perimeter parking is a great idea. But unlike say, Siena, which does this to excellent effect, Fontenay does not have clear edges. Also at this point they don’t have much besides the architecture to attract tourists. If I were doing it I would identify a parking area near enough to the center and start the tram service, at least on market days and weekend nights. Then I’d see how it goes. Absolutely forbidding visitor parking is a bit of a nonstarter in a place like Fontenay.

      Fontenay’s main street is a clogged nightmare of parking, delivery trucks who stop in the middle of the street and impatient folks who use it as a main thoroughfare. There is an area that is currently being refurbished — I should have posted that picture — where I think they should have put underground parking. That way they could have eliminated street parking on that main street. Either they could reserve some space for short-term parking and delivery trucks or restrict deliveries to certain hours, require that trucks use different streets or something. Those parking lanes could have become turn lanes, maybe wider sidewalks with trees. Bike lanes and parking could be consigned to spots off the main drag, of which there are many, easily reached. The solution would be much like the one La Rochelle has chosen.

      Frankly I’m all for preserving the exterior of a building — and I paid way more than 1200 for each of my windows. I did enlarge skylights and add a few, though I chose the “English Heritage” versions. If people cut corners on the exterior, the chances of gentrification — which I admit to liking — are greatly reduced.

      On the interior, though, no, not unless it’s a real monument. That makes enforcement easier. It allows an owner to, as you say, put the bathroom in the right place. Seriously, in the Renaissance, what did they know about indoor plumbing? Also when the value of the building is practically nil, as is the case with the building in the photo, the owner can do a cheaper renovation, which will get somebody in there. Then when/if the neighborhood returns from the dead and property values go up, market forces will create demand for nicer interiors. Plus it makes it financially feasible to rent to permanent residents. Even in big cities like San Francisco, where I moved from, businesses like hairdressers and dry cleaners are going under because visitors don’t use them and there aren’t enough full-time residents.

      You can’t just vilify Leclerc, etc. Of course you can, but not only. Few people work in small buildings. They are more likely to work in those activity and industrial zones. Those zones are typically set apart from cities and reached only by car. It’s rare that a planner has more clout than a developer but more transit routes, perhaps employer-based shuttle buses, should be created. Maybe we should rethink historical city centers, make them the residential areas, with emphasis on housing, child care and schools, shops and services for residents and all. At least in Fontenay, that could be a viable solution.

      Maybe I should contact the New Urbanism people ( Their ideas have evolved since my student days, to address the issues faced by large cities. Not that Fontenay is that large but it was once thriving and now it’s dead. This is more than an urban planning issue, to be sure, but it does have planning aspects to it. I haven’t checked on their success rate but if it is any good at all, it could be useful.

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      1. Not villifying Leclerc et al., but the zonings are so far out that they require a car, which seems like bad planning. The subdivisions/lotissements that go up around the center could include hypermarkets, no? The model here is for hypermarkets to include a shopping galerie, which saps the boutiques from the center. In the U.S., at least in my hometown, supermarkets (and Wal-Marts and Targets) are standalone. You don’t buy ice cream and fresh fish and then pop in to try on dresses in a clothing shop. And who wants to haul their new clothes around the grocery store? They seem like separate shopping trips; why house them together?
        There are many kinds of activities that could be done in historic centers that don’t require tons of parking but would bring life –professional offices, for example.
        As far as housing in old buildings, it’s delicate. There’s rarely outdoor space. Some of the old houses are very vertical, with one room per floor, and people don’t want the stairs. Inappropriate for the elderly and small children. Nobody wants to live on the RDC, and without offices or shops or restos there, the street level feels creepy. In Carcassonne, a lot of professional offices are in industrial zonings. I understand for noisy, smelly stuff, or for warehouses that require space and parking for big trucks. But accountants? Architects? Doctors? Some are in the center, but it would be nice to have more. They go to lunch, stop to shop, their clients come and go. It would bring more life to the center.

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        1. Well, in the States they have the category busters. When you go to Costco, Target, Walmart, you can buy absolutely everything, sometimes even the car to get you there. No need for the little attached mini-mall. The net effect on the city center is the same.

          Those skinny houses raise an interesting question. What about the occasional facadomy, using the skinny building to put in an elevator, a passage to adjacent parking, trash bin and bike storage, whatever might facilitate life upstairs? In La Rochelle I noticed that they gutted a whole huge area, keeping the exterior walls, to put in accessible housing for the elderly. Hey presto, lots of permanent residents that don’t commute and don’t need schools.

          You’d have to be careful with the mixed use idea. To the extent possible, if there is any commercial space, you want all commercial space. A ground-floor office breaks the flow of pedestrian traffic. But certainly it can and should be done. And oh, I loved telecommuting. More, more!

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          1. Well, you have your commercial street or several, and on the other streets you have other kinds of businesses.
            In NJ I lived in an apartment complex (brand-new) whose exterior looked like a bunch of rowhouses–just like the older blocks of the neighborhood. Here, the problem is that each parcel has a different owner; it would be hard to assemble enough of them that are contiguous. And you’d have to get the patrimony folks to allow interior gutting.
            Many of the empty buildings here are tied up in inheritance disputes–another thing that needs to be fixed.

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          2. OMG, the inheritance thing! I am so glad I can have my estate governed by US law! No question it gets complicated. I have yet to penetrate the mindset of representatives who just do not want to bring such laws into conformance with the realities of contemporary life. The best answer I have heard is well, there are workarounds. I don’t know. It’s probably like tax law in the States, where any new solution would likely wind up no better than the current mess.

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  4. I agree with more or less everything above by both of you. Here in the Touraine, because we have a good TGV service we are beginning to see a return of young families who can’t afford to live in Paris any more (once they get more than one child). They return to Tours or surrounds where some of them grew up and one of the couple becomes a pendule, commuting to Paris on the TGV for work. Meanwhile they’ve not spent a million euros on property in Paris (which can cover a lot of TGV tickets), and bought a house with a garden here for a tenth of what they would have to in Paris. On average they spend 7 years commuting before getting a job locally. The kids get to go to smaller schools with fewer social problems and generally get to lead the sort of life their parents can remember growing up as part of. Often it means they have more family support too, if they’ve come back to the area they grew up in.

    Taking on a MH means developing a good relationship with your BdF architect. Of course, that all depends on personalities and experience. The BdF architect can make or break the project, as can an unrealistic, unsympathetic or ill-informed property owner. One of the hurdles to be overcome is that BdF is necessarily disinterested in cost. They are only interested in maintaining the historic integrity of the building (although there seems to be a fair bit of facadism getting through…) I’ve also encountered inexperienced BdF architects who were terribly formulaic in their approach. Times are changing though, and BdF is more open to creative solutions and more open to modern innovations such as solar panels. But sometimes they just stonewall and the poor owner, who appears to have done everything right, is never able to get to the bottom of what the problem is. I’ve also heard stories of BdF changing their mind about details unhelpfully halfway through a project.

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    1. Is it Rouen that is more or less promotion itself as a commuter city? I take the TGV through Nantes, which seems to have a lot of weekend dads. I know if I were raising kids and working in Paris I’d look seriously at Chartres. Versailles has become crazy expensive for the reasons you describe, to the point that it may no longer work very well.

      I just lost my handyman to a real job, for which he was trained. It took him several years to find something. He’ll be working in Fontenay, as it happens, and, ahem, I am the only client he is keeping, so I’ll have some deeper insight into what is going on there.

      I was lucky to find a nice house with no monument classification, lucky mainly because I was so naive about the whole situation. I am familiar with preservation regulations in the States and have more than conformed to those. I would have gone in thinking BdF and I were on the same wavelength, no problem. Hahahaha. As you say, there is a range of competence in that office and in the architects who deal with them, plus the reps have so much leeway. Is facadomy always the wrong way to go? I don’t know; I’m asking. I think it’s likely that strict interpretations have pushed the development of those nearly invisible solar panels, the skylights I used, etc. So it’s a balancing act, one I’m glad I didn’t take on. Kudos to those who do.


  5. It breaks my heart to see places dying like this, especially when they are so beautiful. I nearly bought a building in a town like this a year ago with a view to turning it into a business – we were all set and then we realised that we’d be throwing everything into a business without a supply of customers. We still have big plans, but not in that town.

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    1. Wow. You plan to start a business in France. Brave man. Honestly, I think if the roadblocks to business owners were not so insane, it would help save towns like this. It’s a complex issue, no question, but there must be a way for small businesses to be encouraged to repopulate these storefronts. More buses and more parking, to be sure. After that, I don’t know, but it’s something I’d love to study.

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