The village of Saint-Rome, with its 40 official habitants, offers one of the more quirky sidebars in the southwest of France thanks to its legacy as a former utopian village. Last weekend, having just recently heard about Saint-Rome for the first time, we decided to visit and hike around to see just how much of its unusual past we could see.
The village is about a 30 minute drive southeast from Toulouse, following the highway toward Carcassone. Unlike most historical sites in France, there aren’t a ton of guideposts and signs pointing the way. You just have to trust Google Maps or GPS that you’re headed the right direction. Eventually, we did find it, and even in the village there aren’t any signposts indicating there is something special or unusual about the place.
But what does make it distinct is the family that owned it in the 19th century. The estate was formed in 1837 by a Toulouse noble named Alexandre-César de la Panouse. Plopped down in the middle of a farming region, it had mostly been occupied by peasants working the land for the local count.
Several decades later, his son, Marquis Henri Louis-César de La Panouse, decided to tear the estate down and start again. According to several accounts, Louis-César was well-traveled, and well-read, and had become intrigued by the concept of “utopian villages,” some of which were based on religious ideals, and others based on creating more harmonious relations between workers and landowners. It’s not entirely clear what the motivation was in Saint-Rome. But what is clear is that Louis-César decided to construct a village that represented a range of architectural styles he had encountered on his travels.
He engaged the architect Henri Vergnes, who set about designing and building a group of homes that represented styles such as Flemish, Scandinavian, Baroque, Moorish, with hints of Classicism. Not much is know about who came to live there, or how it functioned, but over time it was passed down through the family, who still live there. And so the bulk of the estate is private, behind a wall.
However, we could walk around the exterior and get glimpses of the architecture inside the wall. And several of the buildings are outside the wall.
Here is a satellite image of the village. The center of the enclosed area is just to the left of “SCEA”, a group of about 15 or so buildings. We parked on the edge the village and then began walking.
The first site we encountered was the village church the family had built.
And then what we were sure has to be France’s smallest city hall.
Turning to face the other direction, we could began to see parts of the estate, over the fence and through the trees.
The buildings were intriguing, but it was also often the details that caught our eyes, like the tiling, or engravings, or wooden animals carved into arches.
The walk around the exterior took maybe 30 minutes, with lots of pausing to crane our necks through the gates and take photos. We then we walked out of the village for a bit, before climbing back in the car. Alas, I’m told the centerpiece of the village is never open to the public, not even on France’s famous “Patrimoine Days.”
But there must be a truly fascinating story about Louis-César, and hopefully one day his descendants will decide to tell it.