The Beautiful Montolieu
The cute French town of Montolieu is surrounded by the beautiful Black Mountains and two rivers. It has all the charm of life in the French countryside. When I got to town from London, I was met by quiet streets that wound through small plazas and ended at a beautiful Gothic church with buttresses. The bright cornflower blue and poppy red shutters made the shutters look like the plants in the area. However, when 10 a.m. came around, the town changed. As the streets cleared, shutters began to squeak open and wooden tables piled high with books began to appear. Book lovers began to look through the literary gems with great interest.
In contrast to some nearby towns that are happy with their quiet charm, Montolieu has spent the last thirty years building a strong arts community. This town stands out with its 16 bookstores, over 20 public and private art spaces, and people from all over the world, even though it only has 821 residents and no ATMs. There even talk that an Israeli pop star had just bought a house in the town while I there.
When Montolieu’s literary focus first came about
Montolieu’s literary change began in 1990 with the help of a Belgian bookbinder named Michel Braibant, who lived in nearby Carcassonne. He pushed fans and small business owners to open bookshops in Montolieu. He even helped raise money for the Musée des Arts et Métiers du Livre, a museum that celebrates the art of binding books. People say that Hay-on-Wye, a town in Wales where people love books just as much as Braibant did, gave him ideas.
I met hosts Bart and Marieke de Jonge in the cypress garden of La Manufacture Royale (rooms from $163) and drank Blanquette de Limoux, a local sparkling wine, to learn more about village life. The de Jonges, who are from the Netherlands, cleverly turned an 18th-century linen mill into a modern apartment block 20 years ago. At night, the Dure River echoed below my window, making me feel calm. And then, in the morning, the halls filled with the delicious smell of nutmeg.
Outdoor Library in Montolieu
The building is a tribute to Montolieu’s past, when the town was famous for making some of France’s best linens, which backed by a royal warrant from King Louis XV. But around the middle of the 20th century, the mill’s output dropped, and the town empty until Braibant came.
The streets of Montolieu have been turned into an outdoor library. I talked to Sophie Chaverou and Sébastien Ducrocq, who run the shop La Manufacture & Eclectic, which sells books on art and design. Two shops opened by Ducrocq at first. One was in Montolieu, and the other was in Toulouse, 55 miles away. Over time, the outpost in Montolieu did better than its cousin in the city. The couple moved to Montolieu full-time in 2010 because they liked the country life and the village’s busy schedule of arts and literature events. Ducrocq says it’s interesting that the community works together instead of against each other.
Looking Around the Bookstores
With its old Bordeaux-colored wood panels and pleasantly disorganised columns of book titles, La Rose des Vents was one of my favourite bookstores. Marie-Hélène Guillaumot, the owner, found outside, hunched over a car trunk and going through boxes of books. She was waiting for a deal while her partner sat in the front seat and fanned herself. After that, Guillaumot took me through a back door, down an alley, and into a huge building that held about 15,000 of her favourite books.
During my trip to the museum, I took a workshop on bookbinding with Camille Grin, who is challenging standard gender roles in a field that has traditionally been dominated by men. We cut, glued and punched holes in cardboard and hand-marbled paper on a mezzanine level above typesetting machines from the last two hundred years before choosing coloured threads to tie our work. “In bookbinding, as in life, we must always move forward,” she said as she skillfully put the pages back together.
Artistic Wonders in Montolieu
Everywhere in Montolieu, there artistic wonders. At the front of one store, there a striking sight: a stack of books cut through with a sword. The pages worn from years of being out in the weather. Back alleys had whimsical murals of bookcases, and open doors led to artist workshops full of paintbrushes and canvases.
The unique vibe of Montolieu could felt at Cave des Oliviers, an Englishman named Adrian Mould’s wine shop. Many people in the town agreed with what he said about how this area had always been home to people with strong personalities. This is what makes Montolieu so unique: it’s not like other French towns. This small town in the country has its own story to tell, one that celebrates a deep love for books and art. This makes it a unique place to visit for artists and book lovers alike.