Restoring Ancient French Castles
By Linda Handiak
Its soft light and lush sensuality melt hard edges and soften harsh realities. F. Scott Fitzgerald, Picasso and Peter Mayle were smitten by its charms. Unfortunately, so are swarms of tourists who drive up local prices and strain local resources.
Yet there is a way to feast on Provence’s food and scenery without wrecking your budget or the environment. You can volunteer for La Sabranenque, a non-profit organization acclaimed for its restoration work in southern France.
La Sabranenque is committed to revitalizing historic villages and preserving traditional, environmentally friendly building techniques.
No Experience Required
Volunteers can sign on for week-long sessions in fall and spring or for two-week projects in summer. All of the projects cost under US $750. No experience is required since volunteers are supervised by experienced technicians.
Volunteers are picked up at Avignon train station, which proved to be a bonus because it gave me chance to experience the exuberance of the city’s famous arts festival. I stowed my bags in a locker at the train station and caught a few street performances.
By the time I made my way back, other volunteers had arrived: an American archaeology professor, a Canadian museum curator, a Dutch sculptor and a Finnish architect. It made for lively conversation on the drive past rows of ancient stone walls and brilliant sunflowers.
Volunteer’s eye view of Giconde castle – photo by Linda Handiak
We were dropped off at the project’s home base, the village of Saint Victor la Coste, classified by the Reader’s Digest Selection Guide as one of the most beautiful villages in France.
Visions of Vincent
Supper was served on a terrace in the shade of fruit trees. That night, we were lodged by twos in stone huts overlooking a Van Gogh landscape of vineyards and cypresses.
Volunteers can visit the village on their own during afternoons off, or they can wait for the organized visit offered once during every two-week session. Participants may be driven to a local market, monument or nearby town such as Nimes or Arles, home to Van Gogh for several years.
Our workdays began early, at 8:00 a.m., and broke off before the afternoon heat blanketed the village. We helped carry water and equipment up to an 11th century castle, negotiating a winding path designed to slow down invading armies. Castellas, built by the Sabran family (from whom the village takes its name), made Saint Victor la Coste one of the best-defended points of the region.
Bringing Castellas back to life – photo by Linda Handiak
During the last few years, work has extended beyond the castle to encompass nearby villages as well. The staff uses building techniques that are organic to the region: locally gathered raw materials, simple hand tools and homemade mortar.
Listening to the Stones
Small teams of supervised volunteers may be involved in consolidating castle structures or in restoring village paths, ramparts and chapels. The enthusiastic staff breathes fresh life into crumbling stones – and into tired volunteers. Mr. Gignoux, Director of La Sabranenque, exhorts workers grappling with dry stone walling to listen to the stones and let them find their natural place. If you are successful, the rewards are great. “Now,” beams Gignoux, “the walls are smiling.”
We had the option of working mornings and taking time off in the afternoon or participating in more specialized afternoon workshops. Pascal, a master stonecutter, taught us the difference between shaping stones to fill walls and chiselling them to support arches and windows. He cut with the care and attention of a surgeon, feeling for the pulse of the stone.
Castellas stands guard over the village – photo by Linda Handiak
Fresh Organic Food
Respect for the local environment permeated everything the staff undertook, from cutting stone to cutting vegetables. We took turns helping in the kitchen, where we were taught to recognize and select appropriate herbs from the garden, create artwork out of radishes and mashed potatoes, and appreciate the virtues of fresh, organic food.
Eggs were gathered from local chickens, figs and apricots from nearby trees. According to the chef, passing food through a blender is enough to oxidize it unnecessarily. “Slow food” and simple manual technology was the order of the day. The same applied to chores. We washed the dishes together and laundry was done in a large sink. Clothes dry quickly in the hot, dry Mediterranean climate. It’s a lifestyle that’s gentle on the environment.
Sampling the Wares
We were occasionally asked to fetch some of the local produce, a real treat if we had to get fresh bread from the boulanger or wine from the viticulteur who lived at the bottom of the hill. If you are with one of the staff members, you may even be invited to the cave to sample the wares. The Laudun appellation, which covers the three villages of Saint Victor la Coste, Laudun and Tresques, is famous for fruity red wines and for the sparkling Tavel and Lirac rosés.
Volunteers enjoy walking in the nearby villages. Photo courtesy of La Sabranenque
Opportunities for authentic contact with locals come more easily than if you were traveling alone. The owner of one of Saint Victor’s two general stores offered this encouraging perspective. Tourists, he explained, came mostly to take pleasure and formed few attachments. “La Sabranenquers” on the other hand came to give something to the village.
Be forewarned, while summers are very hot and dry, the famous mistral winds come ‘a howling in November. April can be cold as well.
July is a good time to go if you want to take in the Avignon Arts festival street performances, plays and poetry readings. Since you’ll be picked up and dropped off in Avignon, it’s convenient to spend an extra day there.
If it’s visual arts you crave, spend a day in Arles (less than an hour from Avignon by train). You can get a map at the tourist office that guides you to some of the inspiring sources of Van Gogh’s paintings, including the famous yellow café.
Scenery near the volunteer’s residence – photo by Linda Handiak
If you do go in July, you may witness the medieval festival. Be prepared to suspend disbelief when locals disguise themselves as knights and ladies and entertain you with dancing and jousting demonstrations. You can enjoy your afternoons off in Saint Victor la Coste by visiting the local Romanesque Saint Martin chapel, sipping a drink at the café or hiking through the neighbouring shrub covered hills.
If you want a change of scenery, Laudun, a neighbouring village, was the site of the biggest dig in the Languedoc region. The extensive remains of a roman camp, Camp de César, have been uncovered and preserved. Laudun also boasts some fine Romanesque chapels and the Manoir de Figon vineyards. The town can be reached by foot, if you’re up for a few hours of walking.
Two week sessions in summer: US $710 (Includes room, board and activities. You pay your own airfare) La Sabranenque also offers one summer session in Italy.
One week sessions, like Volunteer and Hike or Volunteer and Discover Provence Architecture, available in fall and spring: US $565
Rempart offers similar work camps all over France.
Linda Handiak has volunteered for restoration and conservation organizations throughout Europe. She works as a translator, teacher and freelance journalist in Montreal, Quebec.