Through a twist of fate, I made an unanticipated trip to France in July, and spent nearly two weeks in a medieval city of 11,000 located in the Midi-Pyrenees region, just a few hours drive north of Spain.
In this region of France, a drive of a few hours reveals a pattern. Driving along a river valley I savored the sights of small family farms with hayfields, sunflowers and corn crops interspersed with flocks of sheep and an occasional dairy herd. Rising up along the hillsides, the fields give way to forests of oaks and poplars, some planted and some natural. At the crest of the hill, a small village of centuries-old stone houses with red stone shingle roofs and in the center, a steepled church, also made of stone in the 15th to 18th centuries. Along the way, I pass by occasional new houses with stucco exterior rather than the solid stones; and in the pastures, ancient stone cazelles, circular stone shelters that protected shepherds from inclement weather as they tended their sheep. Not that different from a Sunday drive in western Maine, with its white churches and wood-framed general stores.
In afternoons exploring downtown Figeac, and then in evening drives to the homes of family friends a few kilometers out of town, I experienced new sights and yet discussed the same issues as in Maine. I work to implement a plan to improve the economy across our state in a way that will also keep intact our unique collection of quality places. Conversations with friends in France addressed the same challenges on this side of the globe. Figeac has been around since at least the 11th Century. As a New Englander feeling great pride in our 200-year old wooden buildings, I was in awe as I walked along cobblestone streets no wider than fifteen feet, and stepped into 500-year old stone buildings . Their history includes knights gathering in preparation for the Crusades, while Maine’s begins with farmers walking to Massachusetts at the start of the Revolutionary War.
This region, which has thrived as a commerce and agricultural center for a thousand years, now includes hospitality in the economic mix, as tourists travel from the United Kingdom, Germany, and other countries to enjoy the same sites I was enjoying. Each afternoon, I sat for a few hours in a café at the center of town, sipping my café au lait working on my computer, thankful for “wee-fee” as they call wireless internet. The history and beauty of the area drew people to it. Yet in this setting, there are challenges that rang oh so familiar. Locals now struggled to buy a home, as people from away are purchasing and renovating old farmhouses for use as summer homes. Farmers are finding their children are often not interested in continuing the family farm, as the physical strain and financial stress seem more challenging than to past generations. And yes, there is a new McDonald’s on the outskirts of town, although none of the locals I spoke with admitted to frequenting it more than once or twice a year.
Mainers struggle with such issues as the viability of our fishing, farm and forest-based communities, bringing new life to our downtowns, and welcoming new seasonal residents while their presence can bring challenges, all part of our work to diversify and strengthen our economy while keeping the things that make Maine – Maine. My time in France affirmed the value of these efforts.
Where have you seen quality of place challenges in your travels?