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Going back to my roots in Bassac, Charente

Going back to my roots in Bassac, Charente

Thanks to the foresight and dedication of retired French businessman and artist Roger André, the charming village of Bassac in Charente is well on the way to regaining the vitality it enjoyed in the 1950s...

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Childhood memories are full of powerful nostalgia and many of us would like to go back in time to those halcyon days; but for Roger André – a successful business man and talented artist – the pull of the past is so strong that he has taken it upon himself to singlehandedly re-create the village of his youth. In the last three years, since retiring, he has renovated a mill, created a boulangerie, re-opened the village auberge, started a chambre d’hôte and modernised two houses for young families to rent. Due to his hard work and vision the village of Roger’s memories is starting to be reborn.

In the 1950s the charming, stone-built village of Bassac, nestling in the Charentaise countryside with its château, church and monastic Abbey, had weathered the storm of World War 2, and was a picturesque idyll. The 600 inhabitants were well served by the two local shops, and could choose between two restaurants and two bakers. Chit-chat and gossip were exchanged over café crème at one of the bars, while at the other politics and pineau and the latest petanque score were being argued over. At the butchers over the road, rabbits and pheasants augmented more traditional fair. But by 1996, to the dismay of many of the locals, the village centre had declined to just one restaurant, forcing them to go to Jarnac even to buy bread.

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Retirement planning

Having moved away to Nîmes in 1975 for a career in computing, Roger André found himself on the eve of his retirement thinking longingly about his home village and, aware of its decline, he knew that he must do something about it. “Little by little, from a distance, I saw my village dying and so I came back to find my roots. When I discovered my roots were no longer here I vowed to rebuild them.” With this fantastical mission firmly in his mind, Roger set out on the long path to rebuilding his childhood with the purchase of a former restaurant building. A thoughtful dose of renovation and a dash of business acumen created what is now known as The Auberge de Condé, whose calm green awnings and modern tables grace the dappled shade of a village square off the busy main street. With the village’s second restaurant safely integrated into everyday life, Roger sold the Auberge as a going concern, to look for a way to solve the bread problem.

A French village without a boulangerie can hardly hold its head up high and call itself a real village. Where can one collect the twice-daily baguette, or pick up the choicest snippets of village intrigue? So, scouring the streets, Roger found a suitable building in a good location and, with the support of the local mayor, waved his wand once more: hey presto, the village had its combined boulangerie and patisserie!

New beginnings

In reality, things are not so simple and it was more a case of scraping together the necessary cash and then investing blood, sweat and tears. The generous help of his son and his two brothers made this a very family and personal project, but one that has certainly paid off. The installation of young couple Kevin Mosconi and his wife as the proprietors has breathed life back into the very heart of the community. “My family are pleased that I’m back and that their memories are being rebuilt too! I’m actually getting quite well known in the village again despite not living here full time," says Roger.

Now attracting the interest of the local press, Roger planned his biggest purchase yet: a leviathan of a building straddling the ancient Charente tributary and containing the relics of the original water mill. The building had had a turbulent history that dated back to the Middle Ages, when monks had created the tributary off the Charente especially to irrigate their vegetable gardens and feed a mill. Destroyed during the Revolution, the mill was rebuilt in the 1800s, fell into decline and was eventually rescued by Roger.

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The main waterwheel has been authentically reconstructed and drives, via a series of gears in a flamboyant pillared enclosure, three flour-grinding stones on the first floor and a walnut oil mill on the ground floor. Water meanders through a stone channel and lazily sets the huge paddle-steamer-size wooden wheel into a hypnotically slow rotation as fish incandescently dash by in the illuminated pools beneath. The whole majestic process can be watched through a huge glass wall that separates the working mill from a neat and rustic 4-bedroomed gîte that occupies one end of the building. Visitors not only have a spacious kitchen and quiet lounge, but complete run of the mill and various side rooms including a first-floor terrace replete with hardwood furniture overlooking the willow-draped mill pool.

On the working side of the mill, the rooms have been dressed in the local rustic vernacular and Roger has turned the three floors into an informal museum of objects that would have been used in the milling process. Beneath huge iron gear wheels sit an oversized pair of wooden clogs, a dark stained bucket and a machine that looks like a giant mincer; and a toy chicken sits imprisoned in a mesh-fronted cupboard that houses a 1940s radio set.

Artist in residence

Yet despite the wealth of yesteryear paraphernalia it is the truly fantastic artwork that catches the eye: you discover that Roger André has a talent for art that he seriously understates. A spectacular giant canvas of a sunflower, in near photographic detail, hangs beside an arrangement of roses in a vase that is almost a Dutch Master. Now looking around the whole complex you suddenly notice a plethora of original canvases bearing Roger’s signature (and some from his son and daughter) and it's all quite breathtaking. “My artwork and the renovations I have carried out are equally important to me,” he says. “When I consider the buildings, I see them as I would a large sculpture and, in fact, they are almost one and the same. So in the same way that while I paint I have to stand back and assess from time to time, I have to do likewise for the renovation projects, otherwise I would make mistakes.”

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It seems incredible that Roger is the only person in the village determined to stop the decline. When asked why others have not stepped forward and done something themselves, he replies: “I think I’m different because I left the village. When people stay in one place they don’t have any way of valuing what they have. You have to have left something behind to realise that you miss it.”

Now the boulangerie will have a supplier and one can see a definite pattern emerging here. Who supplies bread to the restaurant? Where does the boulangerie get its flour? The mill is even starting to generate local jobs: from the farmer who supplies the wheat, to a miller to tend the mills. Visitors stay in the chambre d’hôte and bring much needed commerce to the village and there is even a handy service for turning those hastily gathered yet unused plastic bags of walnuts into delicious cooking oil.

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As if the regeneration of Bassac and his passion for painting weren’t enough, Roger André still has a little project up his sleeve to stop himself getting bored in retirement: a full blown 12th century château near Montpellier, which he is in the process of turning into three luxury holiday apartments. It seems that breathing new life into the past and generating business and creativity in whatever he touches is a knack that he does as naturally as he paints. So is he singlehandedly trying to renovate France? “Oh definitely not,” he chuckles. “My life just isn’t long enough!”

Originally published in Living Poitou-Charentes magazine April 2011 © All Rights Reserved

WORDS: Mandie Davis

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