Montolieu, France, Is a Town for Book Lovers

Montolieu, France, Is a Town for Book Lovers

Set between two rivers in the foothills of the Black Mountains, the town of Montolieu has all the dreamy trappings of French country life. I arrived from London around breakfast time to find empty lanes that ran through tiny plazas to a large buttressed Gothic church. Wooden shutters in cornflower blue and poppy red echoed the colors of the region’s wildflowers. But around 10 a.m., gears shifted. Shutters opened and trestle tables laden with books began to multiply in the streets. Browsers arrived and began sifting through the volumes.

While other villages in this region rest on their charming, sleepy laurels, Montolieu has spent the past 30 years building a fizzing arts community. Though it has just 821 inhabitants — and no ATMs — the town is remarkable for its 16 bookstores, more than 20 public and private art studios, and a cosmopolitan population that hails from around the globe. (During my visit, word on the street was that an Israeli pop star had recently bought a house there.) 

It all started in 1990, when Michel Braibant, a Belgian bookbinder who was living in nearby Carcassonne, began encouraging collectors and small-business owners to open bookshops in Montolieu and, later, helped raise funds to create the Musée des Arts et Métiers du Livre, a space dedicated to the practice of bookbinding. (Braibant was reportedly inspired by Hay-on-Wye, a town in Wales with a similar bibliophile focus.) 

Vintage volumes for sale at the bookshop La Rose des Vents.


To learn more about life in the village, I met hoteliers Bart and Marieke de Jonge in the cypress garden of La Manufacture Royale (doubles from $163) over glasses of Blanquette de Limoux, a local sparkling wine. The de Jonges, who are from the Netherlands, converted an 18th-century linen mill into a high-design apartment building with suites 20 years ago. The Dure River babbled below my window at night, and at breakfast the hallways were laced with the heady scent of nutmeg. 

The property is an echo of Montolieu’s past. Long before the village embraced books, the mill had a royal warrant from King Louis XV and produced some of France’s finest linens. But production dwindled in the mid 20th century, and the town was quiet until Braibant arrived. 

Today, Montolieu’s streets feel like an open-air library. At La Manufacture & Eclectic, a shop specializing in art and design books, I talked to shopkeepers Sophie Chaverou and Sébastien Ducrocq. Ducrocq originally had two shops: one in Montolieu and one 55 miles away in the city of Toulouse. But over time, the Montolieu outpost became markedly more successful than its urban sister location. In 2010, the couple moved to Montolieu full-time, drawn by the country lifestyle and the village’s packed calendar of literary and arts events. “The community is complementary rather than competitive,” Ducrocq said.

From left: Browsing for books in Montolieu; the storefront of La Rose des Vents.

From left: Vincent Photographie/Courtesy of Grand Carcassonne Tourisme; Courtesy of La Rose des Vents

One of my other favorite bookstores was La Rose des Vents, which has a wood-paneled façade the color of vintage Bordeaux and charmingly haphazard columns of titles. Out front, I found owner Marie-Hélène Guillaumot hunched over a car trunk sorting through boxes of books while the seller fanned herself in the front seat, waiting for a deal to be struck. Later, Guillaumot led me out the back door, down an alley, and into a cavernous warehouse where she keeps some 15,000 of her treasured tomes.

At the museum, I took a bookbinding workshop with Camille Grin, who is challenging stereotypes in a once traditionally male field. On a mezzanine above almost two centuries’ worth of old typesetting machines, we cut, glued, and punched holes in cardboard and hand-marbled paper before choosing colored threads to bind our creations. “In bookbinding, as in life, we must always move forward,” she said, demonstrating with nimble fingers how to stitch the pages together. 

Throughout Montolieu, unexpected artistic touches kept catching my eye. Marking the entrance to one shop was a stack of books run through with a sword, their pages warped from years of sun and rain. Whimsical back-alley murals depicted library shelves. Open doorways led to studios where artists cocooned themselves amid paintbrushes and stacked canvases. 

At Cave des Oliviers, a wine store, English owner Adrian Mould described Montolieu’s distinct atmosphere. “Historically this area was known to have people with an independent attitude,” he said. I heard that sentiment — We’re not like other French towns — time and again. And I was glad it wasn’t. This rural village has written its own script.

Four More European Book towns

Hay-on-Wye, Wales

This village on the Wales-England border is famous for its 10-day literary festival, held every May, and its eclectic antiques shops.

Damme, Belgium

Just outside Bruges, this pretty Flanders town hosts book fairs on the second Sunday of each month: on the Market Square during the summer and in the Town Hall during the winter. 

Mühlbeck-Friedersdorf, Germany

Two neighboring villages north of Leipzig came together to form Germany’s first book village in the late 1990s. 

Fjærland, Norway

Every spring and summer, this glacier-fringed village on a fjord in the west of Norway places bookshelves at bus stops, cafés, and on a ferry quay. Go in June for the annual festival. 

About Edward Richardson

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