I have come to the conclusion that politics is too serious a matter to be left to the politicians. – Charles de Gaulle
The Hôtel Diderot is on the edge of old Chinon, tucked away at the end of a quiet street behind an elegant, tarnished white ironwork gate. Serenity in a tranquil town. Days in Chinon, bright and temperate, are tranquil as well, even when high season finds streets and businesses bustling with life. Nights are silent, old-fashioned lampposts dot the city, shedding a bright pool of yellow light here and there, the rest in inky blackness, like being captured in an old film noir. Narrow streets just wide enough for a horse and carriage meander through the heart of the town, some paved, many still an uneven surface of cobblestones, like a web of secret passageways leading somewhere, nowhere in particular, simply allowing travellers, if assenting to be led off the beaten path, to discover Chinon’s curious architecture and hidden secrets.
Chinon is a beautifully preserved medieval city where Joan of Arc once trod, where she came to discover Charles VII and convince him to fight for the crown of France. The imposing fortress where Charles had been maintaining an itinerant court when approached by the young Joan stands high atop the old town, offering a splendid panorama of limestone and slate, sunlight bouncing off of the Vienne River which snakes through its middle, separating two halves of the same town. At night, wander over the bridge to the far bank, turn around, and be astonished by the spectacular glory of the fortress brightly lit. The world’s oldest jeu de paume court is tucked away in a side street, soon to be renovated to its former glory. Ancient churches dot the city, beautiful and beautifully adorned structures in creamy white, doors flung open to welcome guests. So many of our clients, and many of them French who also live in old, well-preserved cities, are astonished at the beauty, the quaintness, the picture postcard-perfect charm of Chinon.
When we first arrived in Chinon and became owners of the hotel, we attended a meeting at City Hall for vendors, shopkeepers, tradesmen and women, restaurateurs and hotel owners of Chinon. The newly-elected mayor, who had called us all together on a chilly February afternoon, discoursed on the primary importance of making Chinon into a tourist town, but a tourist town of the highest order, aimed at visitors who come here because of its unique, world-class wines, for its history, Kings and Queens, Joan of Arc, François Rabelais, and to experience the beauty of the Loire Valley and her châteaux. Together we would find a way to fill the empty storefronts blighting the town, draw new residents to Chinon to fill the empty homes, and welcome visitors to the splendor of a city of wine, royalty, and literature
We left the meeting feeling bolstered, knowing that the town was heading in the right direction under the guidance of a mayor who understood the importance of culture, the attraction of preserved beauty and history, the draw of gastronomy and wine. We felt a part of a whole, working alongside the other commerçants and supported by City Hall, all of us with the same dreams and goals for Chinon.
Which is why we were thrown for a loop when the mayor dug up, dusted off, and thrust upon us, sans discussion, the 30-year-old project de la Breche, a project for a 5-story above-ground parking garage with apartments and boutiques to be built smack in the heart of medieval Chinon. A project, I must add, which he denounced and against which he ran in order to win the mayor’s seat just months earlier.
How does this project mesh with his desire to preserve the beauty of Chinon, to promote the historical, the culinary and oenological riches of Chinon, to safeguard and draw tourists to a UNESCO World Patrimony site?
It does not.
We felt that it was our responsibility and obligation to fight against this project, this cement monstrosity towering over centreville, an eyesore huddled in between the graceful shapes of neighboring 15th and 18th century homes. As owners of a business that lives on the tourist trade, we have a responsibility not only to protect our and similar businesses, but to protect the interest of our clients, as well. And while storefronts throughout the center of Chinon remain empty, waiting hopelessly to welcome another artisan boutique or workshop, cheese shop, or tea salon, this project would add at least five more shop spaces to fill. And pay for.
Not to mention the cost, a burden to an already cash-strapped town. And the 2 to 3 years of construction work, demolition, building, dust and dirt, all of the roads in the heart of Chinon blocked and closed, trucks rumbling through our medieval streets, rubbing up against medieval buildings… what will this do to the businesses that line these streets? What will welcome the tourists who come looking for authenticity, quaintness, charm, and beauty? What will those tourists see and experience on a peaceful stroll through town?
A blot on the landscape similar to the others put in place by the same economic entity that is pushing for and overseeing this project. Other buildings of cement that are now stained and dirty after only a handful of years, cement block buildings with no personality or beauty.
It is fairly simple to get involved in a town the size of Chinon, a mere 8,000 or so souls. One needs only to stroll down the street, chat with the neighbors, pop into shops and start a conversation. The mayor’s second public meeting in which he decided to explain the project to business owners and residents (never expecting such a widespread, unanimous backlash of opposition) allowed people to see that they were not alone in their disagreement and disapproval. And so neighbors and fellow citizens who had spent little time together previous to this project, who hadn’t ever really spoken to each other, were suddenly brought together in a common cause.
We began meeting other residents of Chinon who opposed this project and began organizing. A few researched the origins and the organization of the project, looked into in great detail the working of the mayor and his town council who were backing and preparing the project, who, if anyone, would profit personally from the project, scrupulously and carefully analyzing every single detail of the project. Those most interested in working towards preserving the city’s patrimony, architecture and monuments and medieval heritage, joined forces; others worked on an economic or financial angle, how would the project impact local businesses, tourism, the taxes we pay, while others still focused their concern on environmental repercussions. Digging deeper and deeper, issues of conflict of interest began to surface, problems on every front, and an iffy history of the project itself.
And we put together an on-line petition against le projet de la Breche, the very first action we took, getting signatures from locals, citizens, business owners, as well as visitors and tourists who had passed through and fallen in love with Chinon. The petition was the first action that got people talking, asking questions, and coming out of their isolation to meet us, meet each other, and ask to get involved.
It felt like a secret conclave, a covert meeting of a spy ring, red wine and intrigue in a dimly lit room. Six of us gathered in the small salon of an old house on a hill overlooking the city, lights twinkling below in the distance, the dark night pressing up against the window panes as we settled into plump velvet armchairs around a low table scattered with snacks. We had come together to discuss a strategy, share what we knew. My husband had recently had published a well-thought-out, a well-worded response to a very biased article about the mayor’s last meeting, an opinion piece in the guise of objective journalism in which the opposition was painted as virulent riff-raff (pretty much so) in the regional newspaper and the cause was now getting attention. Residents were stopping us in the street offering their support and involvement. We needed to make sure that things were done properly, respectfully, intelligently, thoughtfully. We wanted to make sure that all who wanted to voice an opinion and participate in fighting the project could get involved, but in a well-organized manner.
There are a lot of smart, caring people in Chinon passionate about their city and its future and slowly we were gathering them all together, listening to their ideas and thoughts, organizing and managing actions. It was all filtering through us (well, Jean-Pierre, while I hover on the periphery), groups often gathering in the dining room of the Diderot. The mayor had looked at us askance; we were newcomers, not Chinonais born and raised. Neo-chinonais the likes of us were called. But didn’t we love the new city that we had chosen as our home? Didn’t we own and run a thriving business here? Why wouldn’t we care passionately about Chinon and want only the best for its future?
And here we were, one year after moving to Chinon and buying the hotel and my husband had become the center of a movement, the hotel the nerve center. Although I have never been one to shy away from voicing my political opinions, my husband has always been discreet and reserved, believing, as the French are wont to do, that political opinion is a very private affair. While I would have no idea how to go about getting involved officially and sometime voice my opinion (loudly) before organizing my ideas and reining in my anger, my husband is smart as a whip and knows how to lead, to delegate, to infuse disparate ideas with order and sense, calm the headstrong and put their passion to good work, express himself intelligently and diplomatically, step back and research, study, arrange ideas and actions methodically.
This project goes beyond politics. Yes, we are trying to keep the mayor from pushing ahead with a project that too many of Chinon’s citizens oppose, a project that would be an architectural blight and a financial burden, to push ahead with this major project without public referendum in defiance of public opinion. But we are also trying to preserve the beauty and history of a small French town, our home, trying to save our business and the business of so many others who rely on the tourist trade while caring about the experience of our many, many clients who come to Chinon for the quaint charm, the quiet streets, the medieval architecture.
What would we do if we had the money from this project? The citizens of Chinon have so many wonderful ideas from refurbishing and beautifying the existing parks and town squares that dot the city to building a proper, attractive communal space for the local winemakers, to replacing a thriving bookstore and gathering space for neighbors that once existed in the area called La Breche that no longer exists. A journalist asked my husband what it was that the group he represented wanted. “It’s simple,” he said. “We just want to be heard, listened to, our opinions, desires, and needs taken into consideration.”
It really is just that simple. Politics. And it makes me feel much closer to, more a part of my new hometown, proud of my new city and its inhabitants. And as if we really can make a difference.