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Life in slow lane catches on... a town at a time

Sleepy villages abound in France, as anyone who has travelled off the motorways in summer will tell you.

Now, an increasing number of communes are making a virtue of their relaxed way of life and joining the CittaSlow association, set up in 1999 to celebrate a gentler pace of life.

Its origins are in the Italian “Slow Food” movement, in which chefs and environmentalists made an effort to push back against a fast-food culture, symbolised around the world by McDonald’s restaurants.

The first French commune to join was Segonzac, a short distance from Cognac in Charente.

Maryline Chaillou, who runs the tourist office, said: “Don’t translate CittaSlow as ville lente (slow town), but rather as a ville bien-vivre (good living town) as that better sums up the philosophy behind the way we live.

“Not everyone likes the idea of being in a ‘slow’ place.”

As part of the agreement to join, the town of 2,200 residents undertook to set up a network of similar-minded places in France. Labastide-d’Armagnac, in the Landes, and Mirande, in the Gers, both joined.

Colette Laurichesse, deputy mayor in charge of all things CittaSlow in Segonzac, said: “It is perhaps significant that the first three are all in grape-growing areas. When you are working with plants which take all year to grow, and then with wine and spirits which are only ready to sell years later, you have a different appreciation of time and value.

“Above all, there is the notion that we can think globally but act locally to improve things.”

The pioneers have been joined by seven other communes, mainly in the south west, but also two on the outskirts of Paris. Ms Laurichesse said the practical benefits for Segonzac came from integrating its values in everyday decisions, such as designing road improvements.

This has resulted in a one-way system, which virtually eliminated traffic jams, and building cycle paths when roads are resurfaced.

The town uses biomass central heating in all public buildings, and has waste-water treatment plants using biotechnology to improve river quality.

She said: “It sums up a way of life which has existed here for some time while giving us a structure to move forward.” Not all of the town’s residents are fans, however.

Cédric Rangier, who runs the Chevalier de la Croix Maron restaurant in the town centre, said: “We live in the real world, not in a Utopia.

It is all very well wishing things were different but anyone who runs a business will tell you the charges you have to pay before making a centime mean you have to run and not take things slow.”

As with many urban-planning concepts, pointing to physical benefits of Segonzac adopting the CittaSlow philosophy can seem a bit underwhelming to outsiders.

Ms Laurichesse said: “It could have all come without CittaSlow, but having the label and the philosophy means things have been done more coherently.

“We also boost associations in the village as much as possible but, as in most places, it is often the same people who volunteer.

“Some attempts, like creating a bio-market or slow-food themes for restaurants, have not worked but accepting that is important too. 

“The quality of life here reflects the CittaSlow movement. If it is not looked after, it can go, quickly, and being part of the movement makes you conscious of that.”

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