Exploring the Sarthe: Saint-Calais

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A day trip on market day

Saint-Calais is one of France’s two-hundred-some Petites Cités de Caractère. These days it has about 3,000 inhabitants, and as I looked online at properties in the Sarthe and at pictures of the various towns with modestly-priced houses for sale, I thought Saint-Calais seemed the most promising. I came to visit on Thursday morning when the market was taking place. Every town shows its best on market day, of course. Residents won’t be all shut inside, there will be people out and about who might be willing to chat, and I can get a feeling of how friendly the community might be. All random, of course; depends upon whom I chance to meet and their mood on the day, so it’s quite likely I get more false impressions than true ones. But I have to just go with what I experience – so off I go, over and over again, to have those experiences.

There were a surprising number of vendors for a food market in December, with stands outdoors but also in an appealing, airy covered market hall. First spotted was a street vendor with his rotisserie, asking 18.80 euros for a roast chicken (ouch!). There were a number of veg and fruit stands with good variety and many things that made it painful not to have a real kitchen to go back to: beautiful little potirons ( a small pumpkin) in a deep reddish-orange; the most gorgeous chard, about two feet long from base of stem to tip of leaves, brilliantly green and white; long fat leeks, fat cauliflowers and Brussels sprouts. And, irresistible to me, Comice pears – no need for a kitchen for those.

I enjoyed circling the stalls repeatedly and managed not to buy things I couldn’t deal with. Just a head of lettuce, an avocado, a pear, a lemon. I chatted with the woman who sold me those last three items. She told me she and husband had decided to change their lives, left Paris, and now operate the convenience grocery Coccinelle here. No need to ask if she thought they had made a wise decision: she radiated happiness and energy.

Searching for the property listed for sale

Now that I’d seen the market, I was ready to look for the house I’d seen listed online. It has five rooms including three bedrooms, for a total of 147 sq meters of living space, along with a terrace and a cellar. Asking price of 80K. I called to ask for an appointment to see the property, but the seller wasn’t in town. It was an odd conversation: I asked if he would tell me the address, so I could at least see the exterior. He didn’t want to say the exact address and mumbled something about the risk of squatters and other problems. But he finally said it was in the neighborhood of the church. If I would go to the church and then find a Chinese restaurant, I’d be right in the neighborhood and could see what I thought of it.

Off I went, then. And soon understood his hesitation and the frustration in his voice.

The church was – of course – an interesting old structure and looked like it had had its era of importance. The street opposite was very shabby for several blocks: buildings with boarded-windows, doors and sashes in need of paint, graffiti. It did not look like a neighborhood to settle in. And as I’d walked along the river to get there, and as I walked around the church and down this Grande Rue, I came across eight apartments where people were blaring their rap and other pop music, imposing it on the neighboring blocks. I was actually shocked. This is the sort of behavior that could drive me mad in Mexico, but I’d never come across it in France. Guess I haven’t visited the right wrong neighborhoods. I circled the church and walked a couple of other side streets, looking for the terrace I’d seen in the listing photos – quite a distinctive one with a pale green picket fence surround. Didn’t spy it. But I was convinced there was nothing here I needed to see. Since my call, the listing has been noted as being on pause. Whatever is going on does not matter.

My impressions of Saint-Calais

While just the day before, I’d had such a positive impression of Fresnay-sur-Sarthe, today I had a very mixed response to the town I was visiting.

The good

On the plus side, the market was impressive especially for winter, the market building was clean and inviting, and the vendors friendly. The town has a good variety of shops in the center, including some upscale design and gift stores. There are many food purveyors, from butchers to gourmet items. There were at least four bakeries open, and one artisan confectioner had very beautiful desserts as well as breads. There’s a town médiathèque – how simple for the French to modernize the label for their libraries from “bibliothèque” to “médiathèque” as the offerings expand beyond printed works! – and some arts and activity centers.

This heart of town was pleasant and attractive enough, with clean, well-maintained streets, some fine monumental buildings for government services, and some attractive architecture.

The not-so-good

But the riverfront area seemed a bit sad most of its length, in spite of some park spaces and footbridges. A number of homes were in a poor state. So much potential for the district, and none realized. And that section around the church, not far at all from the market area and the city hall, was in terrible decline.

If another property would be available here, I can see that its location matters very much, and simply being “in the heart of town” is no guarantee of being in a desirable spot.

Onward. Will get to at least one more town plus Alençon before I go back to Paris.

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