We’re coming to the end of our little marathon here in Europe, where we’ve managed to do what seems like one of everything (Paris, check; chateau in the country, check; little village in Languedoc, check; wonderful beach resort in Cinque Terre, Italy, check; street life in Bologna, check). For the last three days, we’ve been holed up at a lovely little hotel in a near-deserted village in the Central Massif, run by a London couple who left their award-winning gastropub behind to raise their kids, make pate and run a hotel here.
The village (or more accurately, collection of houses) we’re in is now home to 21 people — barely more than the number of names on the ubiquitous monument to the village’s dead boys from the first and second world wars. It has emptied out as farming life declines and young people have gone off to the cities.
The two liveliest activities in town are now this small hotel and another one facing it, which hosts groups who want a meeting place. Currently it’s occupied by a group of Dutch tango enthusiasts, who can be seen through the windows doing their stuff late into the evening.
Hitting as many cities and towns as we did on this trip reminds me of the question that faces so many places in this globalized, shifting world, which is: How do you achieve a place that attracts visitors, but doesn’t become just a resort city or a dead monument to the past?
In Vancouver, we often wring our hands at the thought that the city is just becoming the northern equivalent of a Mexican beach town, filled with foreigners who only live there part-time and have no investment in the long-term well-being of the city.
But that issue of resortification is really what so many cities are struggling with and it seems hard to hit just the right balance. Cities that don’t attract anyone are depressing, usually economic losers. But cities that are only filled with tourists and foreigners seem equally depressing, stage sets with no real life, just mobs of tourists snapping pictures of each other in front of yet another old church.
Europe has a lot of those kinds of cities. Bruges was one that really struck me that way, which made me relate instantly to the character in the movie “In Bruges” who says he’s always hated the city. There was another small village we visited near here, Lavaudieu, which was yet another of those French towns that are historical — and dead. We liked Bologna so much, because it felt like it was inhabited by regular residents who were enjoying their own city.
Yet we can’t just stop tourism or stop people from migrating around, not in this world. And, as some have started to point out, tourism done the right way can actually enhance local economies and do some good. Certainly the town of Bedoin, at the base of Mont Ventoux, is a town that appears to have prospered from benign tourism, as large flocks of cyclists head up the mountain every day to pretend they are Lance Armstrong.
And I see people like Harry and Ali, who run the little Auberge de Chassignolles we’re staying in, bringing some life back into villages that are dying. They make their own jams, some from fruit they gather in the forest; they make their own pates and salamis from local meat; they raise the ducks that get eaten at dinner and buy as much as they can locally, from the cheese market in Ambert or the escargot gatherer elsewhere.
That kind of migration doesn’t bring back the old rural France. But it could possibly provide a foundation for a new one. Maybe I’m being my usual romantic or idealistic self, but here’s hoping. I’ll be checking back in 20 years.