During over 40 years of driving in France, we have seen, stayed and shopped in a large number of villages and small towns in France. Many of these places are nondescript, but quite a large proportion are quite charming or beautiful, due to their geographical situation – often by rivers, on hillsides or in valleys. The apparent changes in village life over those years have been marked.
In the 1970s I think we just caught the end of an era. As well as its war memorial, pretty well every village had its own boulangerie (baker) and a bar. French bread does not last more than a day, hence the boulangerie ensured fresh bread every day. And I got the impression that the bar featured in many everyday country lives. Indeed, we used to stop for a breakfast of delicious pain beurre (yes, bread and butter) with coffee at a bar in Normandy about an hour’s drive from our overnight ferry crossing to St Malo.
The one thing you did have to remember, was that everything closed over a lunch time of at least two hours between 12 or 1230 and early afternoon. Vital to remember when you needed to pick up fresh bread, but often forgotten!
Sometimes there was also a tabac selling tobacco and papers, often with its own bar. The larger villages/ small towns would also have an épicerie (grocer’s), boucherie (butcher’s), pharmacie (chemist’s) and so on.
Over the years we began to see rapid change, as hypermarkets spread like a plague around the larger towns, sucking custom and life away from the smaller places. Gradually the boulangeries and bars closed, and the villages became dead places during the daytime. We still come across the odd boulangerie or bar in the more out-of-the-way places where the old ways still prevail, notably in the more remote parts of the Massif Central, but today they are the exception rather than the rule.
Many of the villages are still pretty and still have their war memorial, but much of the life and part of the charm are now gone. Some call it progress.