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Saint-Chinian and its lovely environs offer an array of gentle, fascinating and inexpensive charms.
Published Apr. 29, 2013

I stand in a crowd at a corner of the Sunday market on the main square in Saint-Chinian shaded by plane trees and hypnotized by a large rack of rotisserie chickens rotating over a bed of sliced potatoes. The roasting chickens drip, drip, drip. When all is cooked, I taste the meat and it is exquisite, and then I try the potatoes and join the rest of the crowd in a loud sing-with-your-mouth-full chorus of "Vive la chicken fat!"

My wife and I have rented a house just off the square and, having arrived last evening, this is our first day in town. The market will return later in the week. In the meantime, what to do? The joy of an extended stay in one place is that we have time to figure that out.

And that is the joy of being at home for a while in Saint-Chinian.

The village of Saint-Chinian, population about 1,800, lies near the confluence of the Orb and Vernazobre rivers in the hilly heart of the Languedoc-Roussillon region of southern France. The Languedoc, as it's more commonly called, borders the Mediterranean Sea, just west of the more well-known Provence region.

Vineyards surround it on all sides. This is France, after all, and wine is everywhere. It is lodged in the psyche of the people and the land itself. But here in the Languedoc, the obsession is more relaxed than in some regions of the country. The wine, too, is relaxed - delightfully drinkable, sans all the pomposity apt to break your budget or make your eyes roll. As Mary Hemingway, fourth wife of Ernest, used to say, "We're drinking wine, not labels."

The house we've taken is a renovated, centuries-old building on a small side street about 50 yards from the square. It has a fully equipped kitchen, a living room, dining area, two bedrooms, a laundry room and a bathroom larger than a New York City apartment I once lived in. It is completely and comfortably furnished, including TV, DVD, Wi-Fi and hundreds of books. All this in high season at less cost than a mid-range hotel.

We've come this time by necessity in summer, which we rarely do. But it's not a bad idea. The area is not teeming with tourists, as is much of the continent this time of year, but it is warm. When we've gathered all our dinner makings, we retreat to the house for an apres market siesta.

When the late afternoon air cools off, we venture out again. Nowhere in the village is more than a 10-minute walk from our house.

Walking around the edge of the square, we pass five elderly gentlemen sitting on a long bench. They smile at us and offer four bonjours and one bonsoir. I assume the one fellow has an earlier bedtime than his compatriots. This scene would be repeated every day of our stay, and every day it was as if the exchange had been going on for years.

We stroll through a plant-filled park at the bottom of the square, then past the church and a few shops. A little farther down the street we stand on the bridge over the Vernazobre River. Centuries ago the nearby medieval Canal de L'Abbe supplied water power to the town's mills and workshops. We walk back into the town center, pass a winery and stop outside a small bar to drink a beer and watch our fellow Saint-Chinian residents go by.

Across the bottom of the square from the park is a grocery - convenient for nonmarket days. We buy a bottle of wine to go with the fish we're cooking later.

Dozens of charming villages lie within leisurely driving distance through postcard-pretty countryside. There is a bustling outdoor market in one small town or another every day, offering remarkable breads, cheeses, fish, fresh produce, soaps, oils, lavender, wine and Moroccan baskets and shoes. This all serves our purpose since we've come to cook and eat like the locals.

Living French

In the cool early morning we walk from the top of the square out the other end of the village, past rows of small vegetable gardens. We pick up a lane that stretches through hundreds of acres of vines. The light of southern France lies on the vista of vines as in a van Gogh painting. We walk for an hour and a half.

Back in the village, at the top of the square, is La Maison des Vins de Saint Chinian. The old building was once the house of the French pop singer Charles Trenet. It now sells wines from all 20 towns that compose the Saint-Chinian appellation. The sales staff are a fount of information and offer wine tastings on a daily basis.

This region has been an Appellation d'Origine Controlee for red and rose wines since 1982, and since 2004 for whites. The 20 villages are all a short distance away. A driving tour through several of them is a pleasant day trip. Many of the vineyards have small tasting shops that sell directly to visitors, without a middleman markup.

Easy day trips abound from a base in Saint-Chinian. The preserved medieval town of Minerve is less than 20 miles to the south and west. It is listed by several websites as one of the most beautiful villages in France. The lists don't lie.

Olargues is another, roughly the same distance to the north and lying below the slopes of the 3,500-foot-high Monts de L'Espinouse. About 13 miles west is St. Pons-de-Thomieres, with a large Wednesday market and a magnificent cathedral, originally Romanesque, housing an 18th century organ, both of which are registered as historic monuments. Due east and even closer is the Abbaye de Fontcaude, founded in the 12th century. Its museum is small, but holds an interesting assortment of medieval artifacts. Its cloister is the most serene spot we encountered all week.

There is a lot to France. There is Paris. There is Provence. There is Normandy. We love them all. The Languedoc is none of these. It is quieter, gentler, more budget friendly. The region as a whole has some major tourist sites - Roman ruins, the ancient fortified town of Carcassone, the wildlife paradise of the Camargue, to name a few. But this small heart of the Languedoc is less about sites and more about what it feels like to live simply French.

Steve VandeGriek is a freelance writer in North Redington Beach.

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If you go

Visiting Saint-Chinian, France

Getting there: If you're flying from the United States, Barcelona is the nearest international airport. You can connect on Air France or KLM to Toulouse or Montpellier, either way, which is about a two-hour drive to Saint-Chinian. Connections are more abundant from Paris, and Ryanair flies to the small airport at Beziers, only an hour's drive away. A check on Expedia showed round-trip fares for May starting at about $1,300.

You can rent a car at the Barcelona airport and drive to the Languedoc-Roussillon region up through the Pyrenees, a spectacular day's drive, but not advisable in winter.

Driving: It's cheaper to arrange your car rental in the United States before you leave. Roads are good. They are hilly and meander a bit, and ambitious cyclists are numerous. Most towns have a gas station, but you can go a long time between fillups in a fuel-efficient European car. Road signs are generally good, but a Michelin map is handy. Be aware that most cars are manual transmissions and you'll have to specify if you want an automatic.

Where to stay:We rented our house through Midihideaways Ltd. They manage a variety of properties in Saint-Chinian and the surrounding area. Most are available year-round. Prices vary by house and season. Find them at Le Pressoir is the hotel just outside town. Standard room rates are about $82 a night in low season, about $95 in high. The restaurant serves breakfast for about $12. They also have a package that includes some meals.

Markets: Sunday and Thursday in Saint-Chinian. You can find schedules for all other town markets through an Internet search or at the Saint-Chinian tourist office at the bottom of the square.

Festivals: Festivals take place in the Languedoc region throughout the year. The people of Saint-Chinian love their Fete du Cru on the first Sunday after Bastille Day (July 14). They have a festival to celebrate the wine harvest, which usually ends in mid-October. People from all over the region drive to the small town of Lautrec, near Albi (which is home to the Toulouse Lautrec Museum), for a huge garlic festival in early August. It's about an hour and a half from Saint-Chinian. Nearby St. Pons hosts a chestnut festival in late October. There's a bullfight in Beziers every August. And the town of Olargues holds half a dozen festivals between May and Christmas.