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France Part 2: Mas de Jammes

Around the World
17 July 2017

It was a sunny, Monday afternoon when my host, Fabien, picked me up from the train station in Villefranche de Rouergue. I didn’t know what to expect, but he was happy to see me upon my arrival.

He’s a thin-framed man of average height with a little more than 30 years on him. At first glance, I could tell he was tired, but I didn’t know if that was from a busy day or a busy life. In time, it became clear he dealt with the latter.

The farm is located further in the country about 20 minutes from the city center. During the drive he told me a brief program of his grand plans for the property and all about his various “enterprises”, much of which I couldn’t believe. This disbelief did not stem from amazement as much as the possibility that he was a crazy farmer caught up in his own dreamland. I was curious all the same.

We pull onto the property’s main drive and pass through an overgrown tunnel of trees, shrubs, and briars, all knotted together in a fabric of wild green. We follow the road as it turns right, cutting along a hillside where the greenery grew denser still. A centuries old stone wall appeared through the endless web of ivy and Fabien confidently held the wheel as the car bumbled along in first gear.

A structure appears to our right, “the little house,” Fabien calls it, and we park in a worn out patch of grass below, flanked by two tool sheds and storage piles of wood and stone. A girl sits there on a white bed sheet spread out under the shade of a Tilia tree. She’s busying herself picking the flowers from a collection of cut branches from the same tree.

At this sight, it’s clear we have arrived at the farm, Mas de Jammes. A direct translation is helpful: the hamlet of James (St. James).

This place was once a monastery run by monks circa 16th-18th centuries, possibly older. As devote ascetics and simple farmers, the monks housed pilgrims who were passing through on their way to Santiago de Compostela.

The Big House
Mas de Jammes, France

While the Camino can be any road you take to reach Santiago, there are a few well known and travels routes. Once upon a time, the Mas de Jammes was one of them until the “official” route was moved away to a nearby city. I actually saw a few bronze seashell markers while wandering Villefranche de Rouergue.

The monastery was sold or given away in separate parcels of land after the French Revolution. Then, much later along the region’s timeline, Fabien’s parents bought this property with another family 35 years ago. This is where he grew up. It’s hard to believe this was anyone’s normal.

I leave the car and Fabien introduces me to the girl, Violeta, who’s a current volunteer on the farm. She’s from Chile but has been living in Paris for the last few years. She’s here on a holiday of sorts, taking a break from the city life. She speaks Spanish and French, with a working knowledge of English. This makes for some interesting conversations in the future.

We leave Violeta and walk toward an intimate stone-paved courtyard, fronted by a workshop, a barn, and the main house. Fabien leads me to my room. It’s quite large, white-walled with a single window and several hand-cut wood beams stick out from the ceiling. It holds two beds, a single and a double, but the whole room is mine for the duration of my stay. I set my things down and follow Fabien outside for the rest of the tour.

The property is stunning. It’s comprised of six different structures, some fully renovated, some under construction, and others wait in the queue of the Fabien’s master plan. I can’t recall how many hectares he owns, but while the structures are all fairly close together, it’s not a small piece of property.

The Little House, as he calls it, is fully renovated and rentable on AirBnB or a similar renting app. It’s quite beautiful (It’s only now that I realized I didn’t take a single photograph to show off any of the interiors – a reason to go back I suppose).

The main house is where the wwoofers stay, a four bedroom home which sleeps nine. Here is where I meet the second volunteer on the farm, Marion. We only give a brief hello. Marion’s a native Frenchwoman who lives in Paris and speaks French, English, and German (I find it fascinating how frequently the people I meet speak multiple languages – hashtag casualpolyglot). These rooms are also available for rent.

The Big House is built into a hill, so the bedrooms on the first floor (second level) open up to one elevation while the ground floor opens to the courtyard. On the ground floor, you’ll find the living room, kitchen, and laundry room, which connects the next structure – an unfinished house which Fabien currently occupies. The remaining unmentioned building is the unfinished laboratory and medicinal plant storage space. A pleasant little house filled with the smell of dried flowers and herbs.

Gardens are spread out in different areas on the property, some which were neglected for years due to poor maintenance from people renting the property for a time. Fabien’s only now getting things back to the way they were. Some plots will still need a few years before they bud and bloom in their former glory, but others are churning out produce in abundance.

• • •

The farm continued to unfold for me like this for the first few days I was there. Everything was beautiful in its own antiquated way. The property held you in the past. It was easy to forget another world bustled only a few kilometers away.

As for the work, I found it quite enjoyable at times. My first job was weeding the property of a horrid plant known as the Common Nettle. When brushed against it, the plant leaves a terrible irritation on the skin, some worse than others. I didn’t fair too well in the fight against it.

Then came clearing the stone wall that backed the garden. When I first approached the wall it was completely covered in ivy and grown over with weeds and small shrubs from the ground below and in the wall. I tore out everything. After a few hours, I was worn out and the wall was exposed for the first time in who knows how long.

Only after I cleared away the overgrowth could you see two sections of wall that had either tumbled out in a pile of dirt and rock or left so precariously in place that it became a hazard to walk by. When Fabien saw the wall I convinced him to let me have a go at it. He was away at university for one more week, so he agreed as it was something I could do alone.

This wall took up the majority of my time throughout my stay. I only spent about three hours a day on the wall due to the intensity of the work or hiding from too much sun or rain. Before I could lay a single stone I had to dig out everything to the foundation. That was a deceptively large job. But things went faster the longer I worked.

I’m happy to say I cleared and rebuilt this entire section of the wall. Fabien said the monks probably built this one by themselves, as the other walls on the property are nicer and were probably built by hired masons. It’s strange to think I had a hand in rebuilding a wall first constructed centuries ago – and by monks. Or it could have been built by a few French farmers just a hundred years ago. I find it fascinating either way.

Fabien and Violeta

Two other volunteers came and went during my stay. Toward the end, it was only Fabien and me for almost a week. He’s an interesting man, to say the least, and it seems my first impression didn’t hold much weight. And if his master plans are a little too ambitious, well, I’m right on board the crazy train with him. After getting to know him, it’s clear he has the capacity to achieve such lofty goals.

A student of architecture; an experienced designer, carpenter, roofer, mason, musician, and farmer; fluent in French, Spanish, and English; finishing an agriculture diploma; and manager of the Mas de Jammes, the man has a lot on his plate. While he was first my host, I left the farm three weeks later calling him a friend. I will be eagerly awaiting the next opportunity I can afford him a visit.

And this post tells nothing of the locals I met and other friends I made while on the farm. A lovely young couple took me out into Villefranche one night for a local festival. There was even an English family that set up in the workshop to build Koras, a West African instrument that borrows particulars of a harp but with an incredibly unique style of play – will definitely have more on this later.
I have more to tell about my stay in Mas de Jammes, but for now, all I can say is how thankful I am for the providence that I came to find this farm among all others, not to mention all the friends I made. I think it’s the beginning of another unwritten chapter in my life and I’m excited to see where that story unfolds.

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