In the first of a new series Patrick Middleton spends a day in Castellar (Alpes-Maritimes) with Hilary and Thomas Spronken
When we went into Castellar’s one shop – a small grocery store – there was a queue. An elderly woman, who’d selected a baguette, a tin of peas and a six-pack of yoghourt, was talking to the owner Veronique Fostier. Two other customers were waiting patiently. We heard the end of the story about the elderly woman’s son who works in Marseille before she bade us goodbye and went on her way. “That’s what this kind of shop is about,” said Veronique, a former Brussels ballet dancer who moved here with her Belgian husband just five years ago. “Magali came in not just to do a bit of shopping but also for a chat. She couldn’t do that at Intermarché.” This incident highlighted an aspect of everyday village life which some (though not me) find very attractive: a constant interaction between people living close to each other and sharing each other’s concerns. “There’s a real solidarity,” Veronique assured me. “My customers come to me because I’m quite literally a convenience store but also in some cases because they feel they ought to support me as a member of the village community.” There is, though, as I was to learn, another side to village life.
“Fixtures in the community”
Hilary and Thomas Spronken – she’s English from Woking, he’s Dutch from Maastricht – arrived in Castellar in 1998. “I’d been passionate about France and the French language since I was a child,” Hilary told me. “My parents used to take me on caravan holidays here and I used to dream about coming back one day to live. When we were looking for somewhere to settle down here – Thomas had a job in Monaco – we drove through Castellar and realised we’d found our new home.” What attracted them to this village, perched on a steep ridge just nine kilometres north of Menton? “Well, one thing’s obvious: the views. To the south, there’s the sea, to the north the hills and the mountains. And then there’s the village itself with no trace of that urban blight you sometimes find even in the countryside and yet we’re so close to the Coast with its hustle and bustle and endless concrete.”
“Of course,” put in Thomas, “you could say that of a lot of villages in the region but there’s something else we like – that’s the human side, the sense of community.” Hilary agreed: “As a wife and mother going about my business in the village I’ve been well placed to appreciate that. It’s a complicated social scene in some ways. You’ve got six or seven hundred people living in the commune and there are some strong rivalries and antagonisms. Some families just don’t talk to each other. As an incomer you’ve got to negotiate the situation carefully. To put it simply, you don’t take sides and you don’t get tangled up in the web of gossip. When we arrived we tried to be open with people but not pushy and that paid off. We’re now accepted as fixtures in the community.” And I saw the proof: as Hilary led me round the village she was constantly greeted by passers-by.
“People I can really rely on”
“It would be easy to upset people,” she told me. “You’ve got to understand the local way of life and live with it. For example, this is hunting country and making anti-hunting noises wouldn’t make you popular. The real advantage of being accepted is that you benefit from neighbourliness in the full sense. The other day my car broke down just outside the village – six drivers stopped, offering to help. And then there’s my daughter Cassandra. She’s handicapped and people have a very protective attitude towards her which I very much appreciate. Of course, you try to give something back, be helpful when you can and I volunteered to give free English lessons in the village school. You know, I feel I’m surrounded by people I can really rely on and them on me.”
What do Castellar’s inhabitants do to make a living? Explained Thomas: “Some commute to Menton or Monaco for their work while in the village we’ve got people doing everything from herding sheep through doing building repairs to installing air conditioning systems. And we’ve also got a very good restaurant, a pizzeria and a bar.” There are also some independent artisans set up in the village. Hilary introduced me to Emmanuelle Nicolle who offers an attractive range of pottery and Jean-Yves Vidal who produces striking artefacts in metal. “It’s cheaper to be here than on the Coast,” Emmanuelle told me, “and I’ve got a very agreeable life here and from time to time visitors drop in to see what we do.”
They do – from time to time – but Castellar is not a tourist centre nor has it undergone, as some villages have, a notable invasion by expat incomers. “That’s right,” exclaimed James Smith, a former London insurance broker who moved here just over four years ago. “There are places full of whiteys from Blighty and that’s not what we wanted. Here you’ve got all the peace of the countryside and with the Coast and its attractions just a short drive away. I’ve got three children – two are very happy in the local school – and I know this is a much better place for them to grow up than Dulwich where we were before. It’s an ideal life!” Barbara Snow, a native New Yorker, has been commuting between Castellar, Paris and Manhattan for some twenty years. “Frankly, I wouldn’t want to live here all the time – it’s a bit too calm for me – but it’s a great place to come back to, to relax, to recharge your batteries.”
“A popular mayor”
Finally, Hilary took me to meet the mayor Huguette Layet (pictured), a strikingly attractive woman who took over the post in 2004. I was, I admit, expecting a middle-aged man with a thick accent du pays. When I said this the mayor laughed: “I forgive you – there aren’t many women doing this job. In the Alpes-Maritimes we’re just four. It’s still the case that a lot of people, and especially the men, don’t think that this is really something a woman should be doing. At the beginning I faced quite a few doubts of that sort but I’ve worked at it and I think a lot of them have come round.” This I confirmed when I talked to some of her administrés. She’s a popular mayor.
But what’s it like running Castellar? “In one way I’ve got the same problems as other mayors – responsibilities but without sufficient resources to carry them out. For example, there’s no doubt that younger people often don’t behave well these days. This isn’t the banlieue but we’ve got something of a problem locally. I’d like to recruit un garde-champêtre – a village constable – but it’s not easy. And then there’s the human side. I’m the mayor of all the inhabitants of Castellar and I have to be careful not to get too close to any particular clan.” And how does she view the expat incomers in the village? “Well, they’re part of the community. Some are very reserved – like our Swedes – while others get involved. I’ve got a Portuguese councillor, by the way, and there’s Hilary who’s really become a castellaroise and I’d welcome more like her.”
Over an excellent meal (at a non-Coastal price) at Le Palais Lascaris restaurant I reviewed the day with Hilary and Thomas. How to succeed as an incomer? “Simple,” answered Hilary. “Speak French, be open and friendly with people and don’t be too nosey. It’s a great life and a paradise for kids and dogs.”