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.
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 trompe l’oeil 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.
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.
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.
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.
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