Far From The Madding Crowd

…continued from Post-modern Pilgrim

the road to the village of Epineux-le-Seguin

I took a cross-country TGV (high speed train) from Aquitaine up to the Loire Valley, connecting through the cities of Tours and Angers then getting off in Sable-Sur-Sarthe from which I would be fetched by motorcar before finally arriving at the tiny commune of Epineux-le-Seguin (population 170) and Le Domaine, my final French haven on this extended excursion.

the masters of Le Domaine

When I first introduced myself to my hosts Edward and David, they nodded, “Ah, Jude, like the Thomas Hardy novel.” It was an oddly appropriate welcome, not because it seemed like a series of unjust tragedies were to befall me, but because I felt like I was transplanted to Wessex, the “partly real, partly dream-country” imagined land in which Thomas Hardy set his stories of rural life.

Like Hardy, the two Brits have apparently set out to create a mythic territory of their very own. With the daftness worthy of mad dogs and Englishmen, they both decided to spend their semi-retirement revamping a centuries-old country estate into a domain fit for royalty, or at least two respected academics. The compound has undergone a major overhaul, from the roofing to the grounds. But a lot of work remains to be done to bring it up to snuff and the renovation has been far from smooth or cheap. The pair sometimes admits to asking themselves whether it’s all worth it. I can assure them that it is.

While strolling around the property, I kept hearing Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony in my head, and was reminded of the novel by André Gide it had inspired. The two ardent gardeners vow that the flowerbeds turn gaudily vulgar with color in the spring and summer when the buds bloom. Yet even with most vegetation hibernating for the winter, their grounds and views effortlessly charm despite the chill. On a tour around the compound accompanied by my hosts’ earnest commentary, every room and rock was determined to posses both an historical past and a higher purpose for the future. In the main house, the room I occupied (which had been christened the “Princess Margaret Suite” after an eccentrically deluded friend) was discovered to have served as a chapel centuries ago.

the lake at Le Domaine

David, a keen historian, related how the region had always been a bastion of the church and aristocracy, even after the French Revolution had rendered both unfashionable. More recently however, the arrondissement has been undergoing a subtler invasion by well-heeled transplants. Drawn by the pleasant weather and scenery so pretty it makes you wish your eyes were cameras that took snapshots with every blink, high ticket real estate has been booming, and with it a surge in such genteel pursuits as equestrianism, river cruising, antiquing and horticulture.

coffee/cocktail nook by the lake

The English expats do bemoan the gradual encroachment of suburbia, with cookie-cutter housing developments, strip malls and chain stores sprouting unchecked in the margins. As much as possible, these idealists prefer to patronize traditional public markets and shops in old town centers. Exploring their environs for delicacies, design ideas, fixtures, furniture and vestiges of history is another activity they enjoy and for which I literally came along for the ride. The vicinity is still bucolic enough that they don’t even lock their doors when leaving the house. The post office is still the commune’s buzz central and everyone knows the neighborhood cat. Le Domaine is truly a model retreat for modern romantics, which I hope to return to when in its full glory.

-text & photos by Jude Defensor, some rights reserved. first published in Expat Travel & Lifestyle magazine, 2008

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  1. Post-modern Pilgrim « judefensor

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