Nevers, the making of a ghost town
Nevers was never a vibrant, busy city but when I was a child, it had over 6,000 more inhabitants than it does today. When I was a child, la Nièvre, the county Nevers is in, had given France its then President (François Mitterrand) and a Prime Minister (Pierre Bérégovoy). Under their government, the county gained the French Formula 1 race, which was held in Magny-Cours, barely 20 minutes away from Nevers, and the country’s latest hospital. But today, neither doctors nor Formula 1 fans want to come to Nevers. It’s too quiet, too complicated to get to. The circuit doesn’t host Formula 1 anymore and the hospital isn’t quite as much of an example anymore.
The first thing to go, back when I was in primary school, was the caserne (barracks). Before the military left, I remember sitting in a traffic jam at noon, on the way from school to lunch. Last time I went back, during the 3pm, 5 minutes-long drive from the station to my house, I spotted just three cars and four people on foot. For every end-of-war commemoration, we would be woken up on bank holidays by a canon. Postings to Kosovo were real, not just another headline in the news, because some of my friends’ dads went. And then one day, the children went too. The disused caserne was meant to become the new nursing school, to host the county archives, to be turned into a real estate development. Over a decade on, it hosts a pharmacy and wild grass. So do a lot of houses, abandoned and never sold when the militia left. The city didn’t cry over it with as much to-do as Mrs. Bennet, but it really should have. Instead, Nevers became the perfect city to buy a manor for the price of a London studio. The problem is: hardly anyone wants to.
When Mitterrand left and Jacques Chirac took power, Nevers, a traditional, anchored left-wing city, found itself on the wrong side of the political spectrum. The left doesn’t have to do much to win elections there beyond making sure its name is on the ballot. Mayorship isn’t as much earned as it is bestowed to pre-determined heirs who run the city until they feel like leaving. Didier Boulaud, who took over from Bérégovoy after his suicide by the Nevers Canal (most of the city believes it was state murder), held the job for seven years. The power check that’s meant to happen through the risk of losing elections has so far been close to nil. It doesn’t happen through the local rag either, since it is the kind of paper where spelling mistakes are considered acceptable – editing would be against editorial independence.
The newspaper, which I even wrote for in high school, used to be printed locally, right by the train station. These days, fewer trains pass through Nevers, and the nearby restaurants and hotels seem to have a new owner every time I return. There was hope, at some point, that a high-speed train (TGV) linking Paris to Nevers would resuscitate the city. A support meeting was held; apparently, the turn out was so high, the highest of all the cities the TGV would be stopping at, that partition walls had to be taken down. The hope of an entire city, riding on a train. How very industrial revolution. The TGV project has been shelved until further notice because of a train derailment a few months ago. Reason: tracks might not have been taken care of as well as they should have. The TGV budget will go into refreshing the tracks, and Paris will remain two hours away.
Nevers is a beautiful city and I wouldn’t have grown up anywhere else. It has a rich history with a church, l’Eglise Saint Etienne, a model of Roman art which used to be pictured in the dictionary. They’ve stopped doing mass there though because they couldn’t afford to keep the heating on and nobody wants to pray when it’s cold. There is a cathedral, which survived a WWII bombing, revealing the presence of a 6th century baptistery. The very first Loire Castle, geographically at least, has been standing proud since the 15th century. Nevers hosts an incredible artisan industry, la faience, a high-end type of porcelain brought back from Italy during the Renaissance. It has been featured in classic movies, such as Alain Resnais’ Hiroshima Mon Amour and gave its name to a fencing thrust, or at least to the duke who invented it in the book Le Bossu, la botte de Nevers, guaranteed to kill one’s adversary with a swift hit between the eyes.
Yet for all this richness, cows and pilgrimage are probably Nevers’ two strongest points. The cows: le Charolais, offer the best type of beef. The pilgrimage: Bernadette Soubirou, the saint who saw the Virgin Mary in Lourdes and came to the Nevers convent. Unearthing her years after her death, the nuns realised that her body hadn’t rotten and, claiming a second miracle, covered her in wax and put her on display in the chapel, where you can see her to this day. As a result, Nevers is something of a compulsory stop for people on their way to Lourdes. These are the days when the train station becomes busy again.
Nevers definitely has the potential to develop again, but it doesn’t know how to capitalise on it. Stuck in the middle of France, far from the sea and the mountains, it hasn’t developed the writers’ or yoga retreat economy many fledging French cities are enjoying. Big city inhabitants crave country vacations, foreigners come to Burgundy for food and drink and a little bit of culture on the side – all activities Nevers is more than able to provide. There are enough destitute farms around to start up a high-end B&B chain, not to mention all the inhabited mansions within the city. Yet the local tourism authorities haven’t bothered to publish an English website, the city’s presence on social media, in any language, is non-existent and advertising campaigns to encourage people to visit are nowhere to be seen. Until Nevers takes an audit of its local strength and comes up with 21st century solutions to exploit them, the city isn’t going to revive. In the meantime however, I would strongly encourage you to go spend your holidays there. I can promise you peace and quiet, good food and a nice castle.