The village of Gordes in Provence is one of the most beautiful & charming in a part of France that’s teeming with small towns that are … well, beautiful and charming. Perched high on the slopes of the Monts de Vaucluse, Gordes is a treasure trove of narrow, winding cobbled streets, crammed with old homes that cling to the mountainside, and lead up to an old medieval castle. But in one corner of this magical village overlooking the Calavon Valley is a tiny bar that’s one of the last of its kind in France– the Cercle Republicain! The what now? Pull up a chair and pour yourself a virtual glass of rosé as we investigate these old fashioned cafés, once found all over France, that operated on a “members-only” only basis…
Members of these almost-forgotten establishments were mostly local working men and artisans, who would meet in these small club houses to discuss the values of the French Republic, whilst sipping cheap drinks, and worrying over the threats posed by the church, surviving royalists and the Prussian menace.
Once, the Cercle Républicains thrived throughout France, but especially in Provence. At one point there were over 700 in the southern department of Vaucluse alone. In the tiny village of Gordes, with a population of just 2,000, there used to be thirteen Cercle Republicains, such was their popularity.
Today however there are sadly just twenty six left in all of France. The Cercle Républicain in Gordes was voted into being in April 1912. To venture inside today, you still have to become a member, even if it’s just for the day; a few centimes that will be added to the bill.
The hundred year old bar leads onto a small balcony that commands breathtaking views over the valley below. The Cercle Républicain de Gordes is plainly decorated, and filled with mostly elderly villagers, quietly enjoying their subsidised drinks.
Indeed not much seems to have changed inside a Cercle Républicain from a scene recorded by Eugen Weber in his book Peasants Into Frenchmen, where he describes one sequestered away in a quiet side street in Carpentras, just north of Avignon; “Around a table sit a dozen peasants, their staffs beside them, drinking their coffee. A handsome young man….reads aloud an article from the Monarchist newspaper. He stops at almost every sentence to explain it in Provençal……here is the urban club at work.”
Today, just as in 1912, the Cercle Républicain in Gordes provides privacy, easy access to newspapers, and perhaps above all, cheaper drinks and longer opening hours than the other bars in the picturesque mountain top village.
But the century old rules still apply – there is still a voted in president, vice president, secrétaire and trésorier.
Perhaps however, the need for a fervent vigil against the perils of monarchism isn’t needed as much today; when I visited, the barman explained that the current president was chosen simply because it was his turn, and he’s the eldest in the village. The current president M.Galante is likely to hold the post until he passes on, such is the gentle, old way of things inside the Cercle Républicain de Gordes.
Today Gordes throngs with tourists during the summer months, and suffers from high real estate prices in the old homes that enjoy the nicest views of the valley. But the Cercle Républicain remains charmingly unchanged, lost in time.
Tucked away behind the main square, annual membership entitlement (€6) provides lower prices for regulars, but those passing through can pay an symbolic €0,20 for a one day membership to enjoy a cold drink on its hidden terrace at the back. Membership fees become less strict as the years go by, and as the number of other similar clubs steadily decrease (and their members age), it’s sadly likely that the final few Cercle Républicains will all disappear for good.
Until then, this quiet corner of the beautiful medieval village of Gordes remains the perfect place to enjoy a glass of wine, and to escape the strong Mistral winds blowing through the valleys of Provence.