In The Days When Bertha Spun: Some of My Stories from a Provençal Village, Coursegoules
You don’t have to travel far from the glamorous French Riviera to find an authentic Provençal village. Coursegules is located in the Pre-Alps mountains at an altitude of 1020m or 3350ft and only about a 45 minute drive from the airport in Nice or 30 minutes straight up from the coast. 20 years ago I quit my job working in finance, left San Fransisco, and this is where I ended up. At first, I thought it would be a one year sabbatical, and well, I’m still here.
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I bought a 300 year old sheepfold that I renovated and this is where I live.
The house, when I bought it was sold as a partially renovated sheepfold. That basically meant that the sheep had moved out and someone had installed water, a little bit of electricity and floor tiles. The whole first year, all I did was work on the house. I didn’t have a big budget so I did as much of the work, as I possibly could, myself. I lived in the house with my dog Patches while I was doing the renovating.
I had no hot water, no kitchen and no central heating. It wasn’t the greatest year of my life but I got the work done and I love my house!
My next door neighbor was a little worried about me, the fact that I was skinny and had no kitchen. She would send her daughter down, from time to time, with a plate of food. Once when I lifted off the aluminum foil and looked at what was on the plate there was polenta, mushrooms and a tiny bird. I assume the bird was cooked as it had no feathers but everything else was there. It had a beak, wings, feet and looked at me with sad eyes. There was no way I could eat that poor little bird. Apparently this is a delicacy if you can find the meat. When the daughter came back for the plate, she asked me if I liked her mother’s cooking and and wasn’t she a great cook. I, of course, politely said yes and two weeks there were two birds on my plate!
Traces of habitation in Coursegoules can be found going back several thousand years before Christ, but it was the Romans who left us the most important remains and also the first site of the village: L’Autreville, literally, «the other town». It wasn’t until the 12th century that Coursegules settled in its present site, with its church, its castle and fortifications.
Here in the village people never say the «in the good old days» because the old days even if they were occasionally good, were above all hard. What people say instead is «in the days when Bertha spun» meaning the old days and referring to the fireside chats. This is where information, stories and rumours were shared.
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The peak of the population of the village was in the mid-1800s with about 850 residents. We now have a little over half of that. At the time, they had a several restaurants, stores, a policeman and a shoemaker! We now have a couple of restaurants and a single store.
The shoemaker, his name was Mr. France, didn’t really have a lot to do. People basically had two pairs of shoes. One pair for work and one pair for special occasions. At some point he decided he was going to build a house. It was going to be the most perfect house in the most perfect location. He found his spot a little bit up in the mountainside behind the village. Before he started building he planted an oak tree, thinking how nice it would be to sit under, in the shade, during the hot summer afternoons. Then he started building, by hand, one rock at a time. It took him 20 years! But there it was! The perfect house, in the perfect location with a beautiful view to the village, that he loved so much, and a nice big oak tree. He sat for a while looking at all this and then he hung himself in the oaktree. The moral to the story here is that you must never finish your life’s work. He had nothing more to live for. It’s a true story. The ruins of his house is up in the hills behind the village.
Until 1920-1930 Coursegoules was a village that lived in a closed circuit, self sufficient in most things. Sheep, a few cows, one or two pigs per family, potatoes, lentils and some wood formed the basis of the economy. If you needed something your neighbor had, a trade was made, and there was no need for money. Money was later introduced when the village started trading in wheat with the nearby city of Vence.
Now we have a small store but most people do most of their shopping in the supermarkets in Vence. We also have the meat truck every Wednesday morning and the cheese truck on Thursday afternoons.
What is so truly amazing about Coursegoules is that it is a small authentic Provençal gem of a village that hasn’t been discovered by tourists. We only have a few rental units if people want to spend a night or two here, no hotels and no tourist shops. The town has remained the way it’s been more or less for the past 800 years. We have a steady population and a new school was built about 10 years ago. Some of the people work here but most commute to Vence or the coast.
We have clean air, our own water, beautiful nature, wildlife, and a lifestyle that, even now in these days, seem less complicated than elsewhere.
Santa Claus is coming to town...Some places he arrives with reindeers, I’ve seen him arrive on a donkey and of course on a surfboard. This was different.
It’s quiet. The biggest problem I’ve had with noise was last spring. The birds kept chirping outside my bedroom window at 3 am! What on earth where they doing up at that hour? It drove me crazy.
I have lots more stories to tell from here but this will do for now.
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This is part of our ongoing series on travel to France.
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