Life in the French Countryside: Our Village of Courances

A few years ago, my husband and I had the good fortune of landing in the charming French village of Courances near Paris. Though only about 45 minutes by car (without traffic!) from la Capitale, it is full-on, spacious countryside where we have our French house. Rich green fields, gentle rolling hills and sturdy forests surround the small town. Picturesque old stone dwellings with walled gardens cluster around the 12th century church of St. Etienne located on the main square. The town of Fontainebleau known for its magnificent royal château and forest is about 20 minutes away. And all manner of other lovely small villages dot the landscape including Barbizon, Milly-la-Forêt, Fleury-en-Bière, Bourron-Marlotte and Moret-sur-Loing, many of which have inspired artists since the 19th century. In just about every season and every light, Courances is tout simplement un très joli village (quite simply a very pretty village).

Courances has a population of about 350 souls known as les CourançoisThe village has a mairie (town hall, shown above), an elementary school, an award-winning boulangerie, the village church, a farm store selling organic produce from the Jardins de Courances, and of course, the stunning Château de Courances. Owned privately by the Ganay family for four generations, the Château of Courances was built between 1622 and 1630 at the time of King Louis XIII and has undergone many changes over the centuries. Left in a state of neglect during the 19th century, the chateau was entirely restored in 1872 by a wealthy Swiss banker seeking a large estate. At the time, important stylistic elements were added including the famous horseshoe staircase copied from the Château de Fontainebleau and the red bricks on all the facades typical of the Louis XIII style. This is why the Château of Courances is said to be twice Louis XIII!

Photo credit: Chateau de Courances

 

One of the most fascinating things about Courances is the water. It is said that the name Courances comes from the expression “running waters” – the verb ‘courir’ in French means to run – found in the park and surrounding village. The chateau estate includes 14 natural springs, a small river called the ‘Ecole’ and 17 ornamental pools which have slowly been added to the gardens over the centuries. The earliest pools date back to the 16th and 17th centuries. There are no water mechanisms in the park of Courances in contrast to other prominent gardens like the chateaux of Versailles and Vaux-le-Vicomte. Instead subtle engineering using levels allows water to flow from the famous gueulards (dolphin heads) that enhance the pools. The springs are so good at the Château de Courances that King Louis XIII would have his drinking water brought to him from Courances when he was in residence at Fontainebleau. One spring is in fact named the “Fontaine du Roy” (fountain of the king).  To reinforce the point, there was a well-known saying at Louis XIII’s court: “Bois de Cély, Prés de Fleury, Eau de Courances, sont trois merveilles en France.’ In other words, ‘the woods of Cély, the meadows of Fleury, the water of Courances are all three marvels in France.’ And I’ve been told that the main spring in Courances begins underneath this imposing cross at the entrance to the village.

Speaking of water, historic records of the town show that despite this surfeit of springs and underground waters, Courances did not have running water in houses until 1956! Prior to that time, residents used wells on their own property or shared with neighbors. Water was drawn by a bucket let down into the well by a rope or by a hand pump for those more well off. Well water was used for drinking, cooking, bathing and watering gardens. Laundry, however, was done communally at the 18th century village lavoir located in the center of town. Many towns and villages in France had these outdoor ‘laundromats’ located on streams, rivers or springs, and they are still visible today. The double lavoir in Courances is a more rare version with the two buildings facing each other. Families would be given their weekly day and time slot to do laundry. Since the lavoir is spring fed, though, the water is absolutely freezing. Even on a super hot day (which is not often in northern France), putting your hands or feet in the water will make you gasp it’s so cold.

My husband and I live in the former presbytère next to the 12th century church in Courances. It is a beautiful three story stone house dating from the 17th and 18th centuries (pictured in the beautiful watercolor by American artist Bonnie Cole). Beautiful old beams, lovely fireplaces and ancient tomettes accent the various rooms. Just across the lane are the chateau and its park.

Our large garden is surrounded by old stone walls on three sides and the church and its stone walls and buttresses covered in heirloom roses on the fourth side. The enclosure is perfect for letting our French dog Marcel run around and play on his own. One of my favorite things about daily life in Courances is the church bells and clock tower. We hardly have any clocks in our home as we can just look out the windows to see the time – and the bells help out as they chime on the hour and half hour all day from 7am to 10pm. The Angelus, or call to prayer, rings at 8am, 12noon and 7pm for an extra special bell concert every day. Another blessing is the fresh water well on our property – formerly a circular stone traditional puit, it now has a stone staircase descending into a small pool. To take advantage of this great natural bounty in our garden, we had our handyman install a nice electric pump. Now we have endless fresh spring water for easy watering, especially the flower and herb beds. The hard task is making sure Monsieur Marcel stays out of the flowers – and away from the bees which hover in the summer lavender!

While village life in Courances is peaceful and bucolic, there are various events and social occasions throughout the year to keep things lively. We belong to the social association in Courances which hosts a wonderful variety of parties and activities nearly every month. From Bastille Day dinners and fireworks to theme parties to pétanque competitions to village picnics to the annual Christmas market (and even the annual village vide grenier – garage sale, literally ’emptying of the attic’), these moments offer great opportunities to see and catch up with our neighbors. The Château de Courances organizes activities on occasion and also runs its Ecole de polo with polo matches taking place several weekends during the season. Church services take place roughly every other month at St. Etienne where about 30 to 40 faithful come to worship on Sunday morning. With 23 parish churches and only three priests in the secteur pastoral, it’s just physically not possible to have a Courances service every weekend. And the town also does its part in commemorating special moments including the annual Armistice day ceremony on November 11. A short service run by our mayor Madame Vieira honors the 15 brave young men from Courances who died during World War I. Their names are inscribed on the stone memorial in front of the town hall and are remembered as the small crowd of villagers and children from the school wave the bleu, blanc, rouge and sing La Marseillaise. The bells of the church ring as the ceremony finishes – you can see the video on our Instagram post today to hear the finale from this past November’s Armistice Day.

Courances is just one of many charming small towns and villages in France. The plus for this one is the being able to combine the rhythms of French country life with the chic urban presence of Paris quite nearby. We love having Paris as our neighbor. And Courances loves visitors. So if you’re in Paris during the spring, summer or fall, think about coming out to visit the Chateau of Courances and its gardens and going on a country walk through the village. In our opinion, the French countryside and its villages are a national treasure!

As always, merci for reading – and feel free to pass this on to other lovers of France and French culture!

Coming up soon! Our annual ‘France for Travelers’ class is happening February 26 to 28, 2019 in Texas

If you’re headed to France for the first time or even if you’ve been before, our ‘France for Travelers’ course will help ensure you have a fabulous time – and also help avoid any unwelcome surprises or faux pas! Instructor Dr. Elizabeth New Seitz has been teaching this class at SMU for over 10 years and it’s always a sell-out.

In this special mini-intensive lecture series, Dr. Seitz will discuss French and American habits and attitudes, introduce essential language for a variety of situations (including restaurants – how to order, what to order, what NOT to order), highlight French customs and vocabulary for a variety of contexts (table manners, shopping, hotels, museums, how to ask for gift wrapping!), teach indispensable pronunciation tips, and provide a great list of French travel essentials. Real life stories and anecdotes about travel in France and interacting with the French make this a lively and fun class. You will also walk away with specific tips and strategies about traveling around like a pro in France (by train, Metro, air) as well as the confidence to really enjoy your time there.

This course complements previous study of the language, though no prior knowledge of French is required. The class includes six hours of rich instruction plus comprehensive handouts so you will walk away with a great toolkit and guide to take on your next trip to France. Please note that the class is conducted primarily in English with LOTS of good practice in French. You can bring your France travel questions too!  Click here for more details and to register.

NB: This is the only time this course will be offered in 2019 – just in time for the spring, summer and fall travel season!

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