St. Sauveur-en-Diois: a rural French idyll

 Our holiday house is directly in front of the church.

Most families back in the 70s would go camping in the summer or maybe take a package holiday to Spain but not us. Back in 1973, or thereabouts, my parents bought a derelict farmhouse in the south of France and spent every summer for the next twenty years renovating it.

Once Mum had finished teaching for the year, Dad would book a ferry and start loading up their VW camper van with everything they wanted to take out. This would include furniture for the house, white goods, pots and pans and of course boxes of tools, as well as the trusty red suitcase for our clothes. To get everything in, Dad would take out all the seats in the back and then fit everything in like a jigsaw. Once he was done, he would lay a mattress over the top for my sister and I to lie down on for the 800 mile journey.

We would get the evening ferry from Dover and once in Calais, Dad would drive for as long as possible in the direction of Reims, then when he got too tired he would pull off the road and sleep in the back with the rest of us. Once morning came, we would find a cafe for breakfast and stock up on food for a picnic lunch: then would begin the long hot, drive south.

Our fully loaded van would only do 55 miles an hour up hills and there are plenty of long ones in that part of France between Reims and Lyon! My sister and I would amuse ourselves as best we could by reading and playing cards but the journey was long, hot and tedious.

We would picnic for lunch at one of the many roadside stops, brave the stinky, hole-in-the-ground loos and get back on the road. Once we got towards Lyon, the landscape became more interesting with mountains and sunflower fields and we knew that we were on the last stretch. At Valence we would finally turn off the motorway and head south east into the mountains towards the tiny village where the house is.

The further east you drive, the prettier the landscape becomes. Thickly wooded mountains on either side of the valley, fields of sunflowers and vineyards everywhere, the odd herd of goats and tiny villages perched on hilltops. Winding its way through it all is the river Drome running down from the mountains, wide and lazy in parts and tumbling rapids in others. The houses are different to northern France too, now they are stone ones with shallow tiled roofs and shutters of battleship grey. Needing food before we arrived, we would pull in at one of the many roadside stalls. Aubergines, courgettes, tomatoes, beans, melon and peaches would all find their way into our basket and often a hard saucisson and olives too.

The final landmark on the journey to our house is the towering donjon at Crest, a massive keep which is perched on a mountain above the local town, lit up at night. Once we arrived here, we would drive over the river and take the tiny road that winds its way along the valley, past sunflower fields and little villages until we reached the turning to our village.

Leaving the valley, you make a 120 degree turn to the right (very tricky with a loaded van  – don’t stall it Dad!) and head steeply uphill on a very narrow road (not a chance for another car to pass). Around a couple of bends you are suddenly greeted by the most amazing vista; nestling on a hill in front of you the village, surrounded by vineyards, with the Trois Becs mountains, covered in thick forest, rise steeply in the background. 

It is an ancient place; just a few houses gathered around a church, with a tiny square in the middle that has a traditional “basin” – a communal washing area. When we were small, chickens ran freely around the village and every morning we would hear the tinkle of bells, as two herds of goats were taken out to pasture. There was still a pig kept in one of the sties too. Arable farming was more mixed then also, with other crops like lucerne and fields of lavender, as well as the vineyards. Nowadays, all the fields are full of vines, cultivated for the local co-operative. As small children we would watch two old weather beaten brothers, dressed in blue smocks with caps on their heads, ploughing their fields with oxen down by the river, the last to use such a traditional method in the area.

By the time we had reached the last road along the river on our epic journey from England, we would all be extremely hot and tired and if the sun was still up we would have an impromptu swim. We know all the swimming spots along the river, so we would pick one that didn’t look too busy, grab our swimming gear and jump in to the inviting waters. Feeling refreshed and suddenly very hungry, we would then make our way up to the house all wanting to eat.

Like most houses in the village, ours is a traditional farmhouse, with living quarters for the animals on the ground floor, (chickens, goats and pigs) and rooms for people above. As it is joined on to the church, it’s one of the oldest. One of the cellars is vaulted and we learnt recently that the building was a monastery many centuries ago. Now a large and rambling house, it used to be 3 or even 4 houses that have been knocked into one over the years.

You approach it through a pair of wooden gates that open onto a tunnel. This leads to a small courtyard, on one side of which, behind the Virginia Creeper, is our house. If you climb up the stairs you’ll reach the heavy wooden door into our kitchen; a cool, dark room with a red tiled floor, white walls and a traditional bread oven. The rest of the house leads off this kitchen, up and down steps and through thick wooden doors. All of the walls are incredibly thick stone (maybe as much as a foot) which keeps the house nice and cool in summer but much too cold in winter. The windows are all shuttered to keep out the summer heat and the wind, rain and snow in winter and some of the rooms have fireplaces as well.

When the house was bought, the living rooms were all on the first floor, with little lofts to store crops but my parents have added a proper second floor in order to make bedrooms. We don’t have a garden but the house came with a field instead which we have never made much use of as it’s steep and very overgrown. The house is simply furnished with white washed walls, tiled or wooden floors (laid over the original stone) and traditional wooden French furniture, bought cheaply from brocantes at a time when they couldn’t give the stuff away. My parents have restored it sympathetically, keeping all the interesting nooks and crannies and so it retains its character.

When I say derelict, I really mean it, although sadly there aren’t any photos to show what it was like. Imagine a house that hadn’t been lived in for 40 years, with no electricity, a roof that leaked and was knee deep in leaves and soot and you get some idea of the challenge my parents took on.

They haven’t done it all on their own though; there has been a lot of help from friends and family along the way. We were never on our own in the house, there was always at least one other family staying with us during the long six week holiday and often a succession of visitors.

Friends would be enticed to come out by the wonderful scenery, the swimming in the river and the chance for a cheap holiday. The deal would be that they worked on the house alongside Mum and Dad and shared the costs of the food etc. Some families only came out once but many have been several times, seduced by the charms of the area and so the house has been renovated.

Apart from the roof, work has progressed a room at a time, starting with the kitchen and the bathroom. My parents have turned their hand to everything: Wiring, plumbing, plastering, stripping wood, tiling, reupholstering chairs, digging out septic tanks and making banisters. The list is endless. They even put in the extra roof beams themselves. I vividly remember the local farmer bringing an enormous log on his tractor from the forest above the house and my parents and friends cementing it into the holes they had made in the walls.

Dad is a fluent French speaker and well liked in the local community, so he soon found out where to buy everything he needed for the house and made deals with people, like the man who brought the beam on his tractor. In the early days, shopping trips didn’t just mean food; there was always a trip to the builder’s yard as well to pick up supplies, brought back in the trusty VW van!

Work would start in the morning, with a break for lunch and continue until around two or three o’clock, when hot and dusty, the adults decided that was enough for the day and it was time for a swim in the river. Us kids would stop playing and gratefully go and find our swimming gear, desperate for a swim as a respite from the August heat.

Once down the hill, Dad would park the van on the side of the road and we would make our way to our favourite swimming spot, walking along the side of a field and through some trees to reach the river. The river is shallow for the most part and not very wide; you can easily ford from one side to the other. The riverbed and the banks are pebbly and wearing jelly shoes is absolutely essential. In places there are deep pools, where the water is undercutting the rock and this is where we swam.

One of the first things that Dad and his friends did every year would be to dam up the river (with a small gap for the canoeists) in order to make the water deeper. It also slowed down the current a bit, so you could swim more easily. The water is clear and cold, full of fish and wonderfully refreshing. Also, when you’re swimming in the river, you get the most amazing view of the mountains behind you and often birds of prey wheeling overhead in the blue sky. On the far side of the bank were a series of rocks, ideal for jumping off and learning to dive on. Every afternoon was spent here, swimming, diving, floating down the river on tractor inner tubes, skimming stones, sunbathing, reading and generally messing around. It was the highlight of the holiday and now the next generation enjoy it as much as we did. They have learnt to swim in the river, as did we.









The river with the Trois Becs in the background.

Looking back, I can see that we had a great deal more freedom to roam than the current generation. Whilst Mum and Dad and the other adults were working, we would take ourselves off to play, only coming back when we were hungry. As the road through the village is a dead end (ending further up the mountain in a farm), hardly any traffic came through, so there was little danger from cars. We would play in the square and go further afield too, taking walks and bike rides around the village, through the fields and the vineyards.

As we became older, we were allowed to go down to the river on our own, being too impatient to wait for the adults, who would come along later. There was a collection of rackety old bikes in the pig sty and we would take one of these and freewheel down the hill, hearts in our mouths, hoping we weren’t going to fall off onto the unforgiving tarmac. The only downside was that we then had to push the bikes all the way back up the hill, as it’s much too steep to ride back up on an ancient three-gear bike!

One really vivid memory of my holidays there are the spectacular thunderstorms that broke out when the heat had reached intolerable levels. You knew we were in for a storm when it was 30 degrees and humid by midday and the thermometer was still climbing. Sure enough come evening the clouds would pile up over the mountains and the sky would darken. Spectacular thunder and lightning would ricochet round the valley, accompanied by torrential rain.

We would stand by the window in the top bedroom watching in awe and jumping whenever a particularly loud clap broke overhead. In the early days, when the mains connection to the village was dodgy, we would always have a power cut. Very used to this, Mum and Dad always had a stock of candles in the kitchen cupboard. The other problem was the roof, it always leaked somewhere but never in the same place every year. We would be sent off to check on the strategically placed buckets and told to report any new leaks. The other downside was that we couldn’t go swimming for a couple of days, as the river would be freezing cold and muddy.

The daily routine of working and swimming would be broken up by regular trips to the market and the occasional day off when we would take a trip further afield, to visit a pretty town or maybe a cave. Most of our food shopping was done at the weekly markets, my parents not being a lover of supermarkets. We would pile into the van, with our collection of shopping baskets and drive to one of the local towns, depending on which day it was and therefore which market was on.

We would park up on the outskirts of town, easier than negotiating the tiny narrow streets of the old quarter and wander over to the market. Once here, we would make our rounds of the stalls; fruit, vegetables, cheese, olives, bread and sometimes sausages were all bought. As Dad knew most of the stall holders, progress was slow, as he had to have long conversations with all of them! Sometimes we would be treated to a delicious ice cream or we would stop at a cafe for the adults to have a pre-lunch beer and the kids an Orangina. As the bells of 12 o’clock tolled, the market would empty as the locals made their way home for lunch and a siesta. 

Mealtimes were quite an event on holiday, with as many as 13 people sleeping in the house! The kitchen has a long trestle table flanked by two church pews, which Dad bought back in England and then persuaded the shop owner to bring out on the roof of his Volvo as they wouldn’t fit in the VW. We would all cram into the pews and sometimes we had to have a chair on each end too.

The washing up would take twice as long as preparing the meal, as facilities were limited, the only hot water available being from the kettle. Tomato salad, saucisson, olives and bread and cheese were the staples of our diet, followed by delicious peaches or melons, stored in the cellar to keep cool. Occasionally we would barbeque the local speciality sausage, Merguez; very spicy, North African style ones and absolutely delicious. Of course there was also plenty of cheap beer and red wine for the adults; necessary in the evening after a long day of hard labour and energetic swimming.

Socializing with local families during the holiday also brought variety to the daily round. The village is tiny and when I was a child only the old people were left, the young all having moved away in search of jobs other than farming. Therefore we quickly got to know all the local families and the people who lived out on the farms, as well as the stall holders in the market.

We would be invited round for drinks, sirop de menthe for us and home-made vin de noix (walnut wine) for the adults, usually in the early evening. More fun would be going to someone’s house for dinner. My favourite place to go was the farm high on the mountains, run by a French/Polish couple. We loved walking up the mountain beyond the village to their house. Once the road ran out, you had to take a track through the woods which came out at the back of the farm. We would sit outside on their verandah for an aperitif and then have dinner in their cosy kitchen once the sun had gone down. They were a friendly, talkative couple and we missed them when they moved away.

We also went canoeing down the river when we fancied a bit of fun. I’ve never forgotten the first time that I went and the lesson we had about getting out of the canoe if you capsized; the trick is to remove both legs at once so you don’t get stuck. After minimal instruction we donned our life jackets and set off. I guess I was about 11.

The river winds its way down the valley towards the much bigger Rhone river, past farmers’ fields and vineyards and through little towns and villages. It tumbles over the rocks in places making exciting rapids, in others it is very shallow and slow moving. I think we all probably capsized at least once on that first trip but that was all part of the fun. We would rescue one another and make sure none of the oars got lost. When we got hot, we would pull the boats up on to the bank and have a refreshing swim. By the time we got to the end point several miles downstream, where we had to pull the boats up for them to be loaded back on to the van, we were starving and really thirsty and went racing across the bridge to the shop at the campsite to see what we could find.

Going to a local fete was also a high point of the summer. Every village and town has one and the whole community turns out to celebrate. The one in the nearest town was best as they had a fun fair and a firework display down by the river. Trestle tables would be laid out in the square and there would be some serious eating and drinking and then dancing.

I have been to a few weddings in our village too. Most of them have been of descendants of the main village family. Although hardly any of them live in the village anymore, they still own a lot of the houses which they holiday in during the summer. A catholic ceremony in the tiny church was followed by a party in the square lasting into the small hours. As a small girl I can remember being thrilled to receive a paper cone of sugared almonds at one wedding.

So how come my parents came to choose this unknown part of France and how have they integrated so well into the local community? In fact my family’s association with the Drome goes back some 60 years to when Dad was a boy. My grandparents were both Francophiles and sent their children to the French Lycee, close to where the family lived in London, so they grew up learning lessons in French from the age of three.

Tired of wet, cold holidays camping in Brittany, they decided to look for somewhere else. According to my grandmother, a map of southern France was laid on the table, she was blindfolded and told to stick a pin into it. Underneath the pin was a little town called Saillans. There was no such thing as a local tourist board in this very rural part of France, in the 1950s, so she contacted the town hall and asked them if there was anywhere to camp in the area. The reply came back that they were welcome to stay on land belonging to some local landowners, who had a big house not far from the river; we are still friends with them today.

My grandparents holidayed in the area every year after that. As summer holidays could be three months long in those days, Dad would be sent out on his own on the train, staying with a local family for weeks at a time, so he was already known in the area by the time my parents decided to buy a house out there.

What of the village now? It is still a backwater and has a gentler pace of life that I love but it has come to life again over the last decade with more families choosing to live there, including my sister. Now children can be heard playing all year round in the square not just in the summer.

But I have visited only intermittently as an adult. Twenty years of holidaying in the same place and doing the same things, left me with a yearning to see other places and try new things. However, for me, it is still one of the most beautiful places in the world and one that I have real affection for. When I die, I want my ashes to be scattered on the little hill directly above the village, where the three crosses are, with its lovely view over the whole valley.









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