Which big French city?

No, we’re not about to move. Even after 6 years, Carcassonne still has what we were looking for when we were deciding on a place to live and it continues to get better. On our “must-have” spreadsheet that put 16 cities to the test, we found everything here except a water view, and that may have been a wise choice after all. (Another blog post will provide insight into that rising question.) Having lived in four of the biggest cities in the US—including numbers 2 and 3— we wanted our retirement location to have more of a village feel. While countless villages do indeed exist with colorful flowers cascading from window boxes outside blue shuttered windows in honey-colored stone houses set between cobble-stoned streets and babbling brooks, most of them are in rural locations (like this featured photo of Le Bec-Hellouin–sorry, not our house) requiring the one thing that we did not want: a car. We are grateful to have found a smaller city where we can walk to everything we need within a few minutes or ride a bus (15 € per year) anywhere else in town. However, lots of people are still looking for the buzz that you can only get in huge population centers so when I saw an article where the residents of this country’s 20 largest cities talk about what makes their home “best” I wanted to see why and who would come out on top.

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Honey, I’m home

Before “buy local” became a household phrase, people had long been doing exactly that in 10,000 open-air or covered marchés across France. We shop at our own market every Saturday morning as much for the fresh produce as for the environment—the smells, the bright colors, the excitement—and we always run into people we know. We see the same vendors week after week so now we have a rapport with them that allows for joking, a few words in English from the truly brave, and even a bonus handful of fruit or veg when they are feeling generous, as they always are. In addition to filling our refrigerator, we can also stock our shelves with eggs, cheese, nuts, olives, and bread, or pick up a rotisserie chicken for lunch. Much of what we see on display comes from the farms that encircle Carcassonne and now I see that there’s even honey from beehives that we pass when we walk along the river to get to the market. It doesn’t get much more local than that!

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St.-Jean-de-Luz and Pau

We were expecting to take today’s trip two years ago and I was going to call the blog post “Walking to Spain”. We would have gotten off the train at the last station in France, Hendaye, walked across the La Bidassoa river bridge to take a photo of the Bienvenido a España sign and then returned to France to continue our journey. The arrival of Covid and all of its associated travel restrictions forced a postponement and a rearrangement of our schedule but it all worked out fine. We still took a southbound train from Bayonne but exited 2 stops before the border (featured photo above) to spend the afternoon where Louis XIV, the Sun King, married his Spanish bride and future Queen of France. The next morning it was time to discover where the Sun King’s grandfather had been born 100 km (62 miles) to the east in the city of Pau.

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Basking in Basque Country

We live between a river and a canal and we can easily walk to either one but our house doesn’t have a water view. When we go out of town, therefore, we like to stay in a vacation rental or hotel that gives us that vista we are missing at home. Since the city of Bayonne is located at the confluence of the Nive and Adour rivers and if you follow that latter one a little further to the west you’ll reach the Atlantic Ocean where the beaches of Biarritz sit a few kilometers south, it was going to be easy enough to find a suitable view. That was especially true for this trip since going to a summer resort in the winter meant that there was little competition for space. Because it offered better train connections we chose Bayonne from where we were able to take day trips and still get back each evening to peer out at the passing boats below.

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Just relax

France has 35,000 communes (cities, towns, villages) so choosing just one to make your new permanent home can be a challenge. Fortunately for us we already had friends here who could help us narrow down the possibilities (And the winner is) once we knew the general area where we wanted to live. Having a train station, a market, and being on or near the water were some of the important considerations. Each year, various media outlets release their “Best Of” series where they classify locations into the most attractive, job hubs, ideal for retirees, among others. Although not a newspaper or magazine, a business called Emma, has compiled what they label as “The ranking of the French cities most conducive to relaxation.” This company manufactures the best-selling mattress in the country, so as sleep experts they undertook the study “with the hope that the results could help the agglomerations to improve the quality of life of their inhabitants.” Confirming what we already knew, the quality of life in Carcassonne is pretty good since it’s number 2 on their list.

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Chewing gum and cakes

One of our local newspapers has had several articles about the impact of Covid on many aspects of French life outside of the obvious serious health concerns. One headline said something about chewing gum that caught my eye since I couldn’t understand its connection to the virus. Apparently there’s been a dramatic drop in sales because fewer people feel the need to have fresh breath. When you’re working from home there aren’t any colleagues around you and even if you do go into the office, social distancing and masks can prevent any problems. In Switzerland it’s chocolate that’s fallen on hard times since that’s what employees often bought on their way into the workplace. The article went on to discuss another item in France that has suffered a similar fate in loss of revenue but for a totally different reason.

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The healthiest cities in France

If you had to study Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs in high school or college you might recall that the base of the pyramid is formed by “physiological needs” such as air, water, food, and shelter. In other words, if you lack any of those essentials you aren’t long for this world; however, once those needs of bare existence are guaranteed you can move up a level to “safety needs” that will ensure your continued survival. Here we address issues such as personal security, resources, and health. Deciding where to live bears some similarities to Maslow’s pyramid: first you must find a location that will give you the kind of accommodation (shelter) and nourishment (food and water) you seek and then you begin looking at less-essential but still vital issues including that safety need of health. An article in the newspaper Le Figaro ranked the top 100 French cities where “one can live in good health” and I was delighted to see that Carcassonne was included in their list.

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