Montauban: Changes for Better – and for Worse

Montauban - Place Nationale

Montauban – Place Nationale

Montauban is our préfecture, the main town of Tarn-et-Garonne. The département has the distinction of being one of the youngest and smallest in France. Napoleon created it in 1808, 18 years after the others were established, declaring Montauban worthy to be a préfecture in its own right. Tarn-et-Garonne was formed of chunks hived off the neighbouring départements: only 10 others in mainland France (including Corsica) are smaller.

False windows - note also false cat beneath them

False windows – note also false cat beneath them

We had to go there last Friday for various mundane tasks. At least we were under cloudless skies (a rare event this year). It’s so much nicer to wander about in the sunshine than to dash from door to door in the rain. You feel like lingering to look at things, like these false windows above. I think the painter is probably supposed to be Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, born in Montauban in 1780. But I might well be wrong.

Montauban's Place Nationale plus cafés

Montauban’s Place Nationale plus cafés

We have seen changes to the town in our almost 17 years in France – some for better, some for worse. The central Place Nationale, above, is now completely restored. When we first moved here, some of the buildings were dilapidated and the cobblestones in the place were uneven and cracked. Happily, that has all changed and Montauban has a central square worthy of a préfecture. Napoleon would have approved.

Monbeecycles at Montauban

Monbeecycles at Montauban

In common with many French towns in thrall to the car, Montauban has established a Vélib’ system. Distinctive yellow bikes (‘monbeecycles’) are placed at strategic points and you can take one to get from A to B for a reasonable fee. I have to say I’ve never seen anyone using one when we’ve been in Montauban but we don’t go that often.

Rue de la Résistance

Rue de la Résistance

The rue de la Résistance, one of the main shopping streets, has been partially pedestrianised. This is a mixed blessing, since the lateral streets that cross it are still open to traffic. So you risk being mown down by wayward white van men, who don’t take prisoners. Generally, though, it’s an improvement and makes strolling around window shopping much more pleasant.

Another mixed blessing is the creation of an esplanade, complete with ubiquitous fountain, to replace the former market place. True, the latter was covered with a rusting metal structure known fondly to Montalbanais as ‘le parapluie’ (the umbrella) but it had a certain eccentric charm. The new space is the wrong end of town and nobody sits on the benches except for menacing-looking youths wearing hoodies. The work to create it and the underground car park beneath it took years and caused a lot of disruption.

But the biggest change we’ve seen, again in common with many French towns, is the proliferation of out-of-town superstores. Ribbon development has taken place all along the road from Montauban centre out to the A20 motorway junction. These superstores sell everything from electronic equipment to clothing and have one big advantage: you can park easily and for free. This is all very well if you want to buy standardised goods but they are tearing the heart out of town centres. Montauban is no exception.

On Friday, we noticed shops and restaurants closing down that had been there since we arrived in 1997. Other factors are in play, of course, such as the difficulty of getting credit from banks, consumers’ caution about spending money and the increasing sovereignty of internet shopping. And I have to put my hand up and say that we find it convenient to buy goods over the internet, living where we do. But I fear that many town centres in France will soon be the preserve only of offices and national chain stores.

Mimosa for sale at a flower shop in Montauban

Mimosa for sale at a flower shop in Montauban

You might also like:

The Tale of Napoleon’s Thumb
Musée Ingres at Montauban
Toulouse: pink, violet or blue city?

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About Vanessa Couchman

My husband and I moved to an 18th-century farmhouse in SW France in 1997. I am fascinated by French history, rural traditions and customs and enjoy seeking out the reality behind the myths. I run my own copywriting business and write short stories and the occasional novel in my spare time. My husband appears here as the SF, which stands for Statistics Freak, owing to his penchant for recording numbers about everything.
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11 Responses to Montauban: Changes for Better – and for Worse

  1. Pingback: French Restaurant Capers | Life on La Lune

  2. amelie88 says:

    The bike sharing program has become pretty much a global thing. NYC got Citibike (sponsored by Citibank so hence the name) recently last year and I see plenty of people riding them. I personally would never bike in NYC because I don’t know how to bike in traffic. I also remember the Velo Toulouse back in 2009 when I was studying abroad there.

    And it is so disappointing to see all the local non-chain stores closing down. We call these small businesses in the USA “mom and pop stores.” The main street in my own town has changed drastically in 25ish years I’ve lived there from these small businesses to national chains like CVS and Starbucks.

    • nessafrance says:

      I would be rather nervous about cycling in traffic. I think cyclists have the right to use the bus lanes but, even so, I would rather not!

      And the shops closing down is a shame. Someone else commented that they have to move with the times, which is true, but it’s not easy to compete with the national chains.

  3. I’ve been to Montauban many times, and spent a month there on work experience (graphic design). I like the town and it’s red-brick buildings, particularly La Place Nationale. I wasn’t aware of the new market place – what a pity! As for the super-stores, it’s the same everywhere but as long as we shop in them, they’ll carry on popping up like carbuncles. Sad.

    • nessafrance says:

      Montauban has a nice centre but the suburbs are not particularly attractive – like a lot of towns, I suppose. It’s always suffered a bit from its proximity to Toulouse, which I think has prevented Montauban from developing as it might have done.

  4. Loads of the shops in the centre of Langon have closed. It’s only a small place but when we moved here it had three bookshops, a cookshop, four shoeshops, several boutiques, a café philo, two chocolatiers, two design shops and a computer place right in the centre. Now they’ve practically all gone, mainly to be replaced by banks and opticians but loads of places are empty. It’s partially because of the crise and the ribbon development with more convenient parking as you mentioned but I can’t help feeling that it’s got a lot to do with the way the council quite deliberately tried to drive cars out making it too difficult to park and get to the centre. Nouvelle Galleries response was to buy a couple of lots and make a car park for their customers which is probably why they still have them.

    • nessafrance says:

      Our own village has lost a lot of shops since we moved here. What I don’t understand is why the park and ride idea hasn’t caught on in France. I might be mistaken but the only town I know within a 50 km radius that has gone down that route is Cahors. The park and ride car park there is close enough to the centre of town to walk if you don’t want to wait for the bus (provided it’s a nice day, of course).

  5. Evelyn says:

    I really should explore Montauban sometime. The only thing I know about it is that you have to slow down on the autoroute when you go around it or face being ‘flashed’ by the traffic cams!

    • nessafrance says:

      It’s worth a visit. The centre is quite pleasant. You just have to ignored the superstore-clad suburbs as you drive in. Parking can be a bit of a problem there. My husband got flashed by the radar on the bypass but that was because he was fulminating about former UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown and put his put down!

  6. MELewis says:

    Amazing how every town in France has its own bicycle system – with its own quirky name. It was Vélov in Lyon (even before Vélib in Paris). I’m with you on internet shopping – the fusty old shops that are falling by the wayside are victims to what is a huge improvement in convenience for shoppers. Too bad, but it’s adapt or die….what we need now are storefronts that work with the online retaillers to go a step further. But I doubt that France will be first in that!

    • nessafrance says:

      I agree that there needs to be some kind of conjunction between the physical shops and the online retailers. Alas, it’s not just the fusty old ones that are closing down around here. It’s hard to see how they can compete.

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