The other Saturday we went to the first A Rocha France centre, Les Tourades, near Arles. It was for a meeting of the Board of Trustees/ conseil d’administration, of which Chris is a member. It was a particularly significant one, because after a number of years of discussion, the centre at Les Tourades has actually been sold. There are all sorts of reasons for this, not least the fact that Courmettes is increasingly becoming the focus of operations. In many ways it’s a great pity. It was a good location and has been a great blessing to many people. For the moment at least however, the conservation work in the Vallée des Baux will continue. We have been greatly helped here by the kindness of the new owners in letting us continue to use the smaller attached building (the Mazet) for around another year.
There was a good lunchtime meal where we tried to avoid any sense of finality, and then after further discussions we went along various winding and muddy tracks high above the Ilon Marsh.
There were great views and we were delighted to see four Purple Swamphens, which for those that don’t know the species is an oversized, purple moorhen that looks as if it’s escaped from a Disney cartoon.
It’s a great site – one of the last vestiges in this area of the old Rhône delta wetlands and A Rocha has played a big role in helping save it.
In the midst of busy lives we try to make space for the Monday afternoon walking group which, under the able leadership of a French couple, produces walks up to ten kilometres every week. Numbers range from about 8 to 16, and there is a preponderance of what you might call north Europeans (Dutch, Norwegian, Belgian and the odd Brit). It’s a good group and we take regular pauses for photographs and discussions of flora and landscape. The year has started well with dry sunny weather and it’s been a pleasure to explore a number of new places and see old ones from new angles. Here are a selection of photographs from this year.
We find this sort of thing vital; if we weren’t careful, we would find other things to occupy our Monday afternoons and it seems a bit silly to live in Provence and not actually see it.
One interesting French word which has no obvious English translation is débroussaillage. It basically means clearing vegetation and probably isn’t far from the term “de-brushing” (as in brush wood). In our part of the world, with its abundant sunlight, general warmth and episodic but often intense rain, things grow at an extraordinary rate. The main task up at the Taradeau oppidum, which is increasingly becoming well known (and even has its own Facebook page – thanks Lénïac) is débroussaillage. It is slightly daunting to see where you cleared two years ago now in danger of being overtaken again by vegetation.
Having lost a number of Saturdays due to the wet autumn, we recommenced immediately after Christmas. Frankly it has not been the most inviting of tasks to assemble at 7:45 on chill Saturday mornings. We have however been rewarded by some splendid views and it does tend to warm up pretty quickly once the sun gets up. So here are some photographs.
When we first started doing the oppidum three years ago, it just seemed like a worth-while activity and something we simply thought we ought to get involved in. It has however, turned out to be an excellent entrée into getting to know people and has earned us a degree of respect and support from the village community and indeed the mayor. Given that, as we’ve mentioned before, we’re going through the formal process of getting a residence permit, having friends in the local administrative system doesn’t hurt. It may even help with the pruning of that most luxuriant of all vegetation: French bureaucracy.
Just at the end of the old year we decided to take a day out and head down towards the coast. It was one of those crisp, sunny days with lingering mist which gave wonderfully moody views across the plain of the Maures.
We headed towards Toulon but turned off to explore Hyères, a town that we had never visited before. Hyères is easily overlooked because it is very much in the shadow of Toulon and is a rather large sprawling conurbation that invites passing by rather than exploration. However, it does have a long, fascinating and frequently turbulent history (check Wikipedia!), and could claim justifiably to be the source of the now widely used phrase “Côte d’Azur”. (Incidentally, there is a small international airport there with links to the UK and elsewhere: we’ve never been tempted by anything on offer but ‘your mileage may vary’.)
Braving the traffic and a cryptic one-way system we eventually managed to reach the centre but did have to park in one of our pet hates, the underground carpark constructed in the 1960s for cars no larger than the 2CV. However, our careful efforts to park were rewarded and we were able to walk into the old core of the town which has much of interest. It was the tail end of the festive season so the decorations were still up. We were also able to ascend the tower of the Templar’s chapel, climbing stairs, which — like the car park — were uncomfortably narrow. From the top there is a fantastic view over the town roofs, up to the old fortifications on the hill above, and out to the offshore islands.
With the sun still dazzling off the sea we then headed eastwards along the coast. At one point we walked out onto a beach and got a distant view of the fort of Brégançon. We’ve always meant to visit this, but because it is a residence of the President, it is not always open to the public. It certainly wouldn’t have been then, because as we found out a few days later, M. and Mme Macron were in residence. And given the somewhat feverish nature of French politics, would definitely not have been accepting visitors.
From there we wound our way back via La Garde Freinet, stopping to climb to the old fort which overlooks the village, and which has splendid views to the north. There are long-standing tales that this was a Saracen fortification, around the 11th/12th century, but apparently archaeological confirmation is lacking. We then drove down and back to Taradeau through the sweet chestnut woods.
One of the minor frustrations of this part of the world is that high summer with its temperatures and blocked roads is precisely the wrong time to go exploring. As we found, winter is best time for discovery.
We’ve blogged a lot previously about either having too little or too much water down here. However , as you can imagine, with its high temperatures and relatively high population density, the use of water is a big issue. The result is that we all have water meters. Normally this is fine but we were not terribly happy when just after Christmas we received a water bill for about three times as much as it had been in previous years.
Fortunately, we live in Taradeau, a village with no more than 1600 people, and it is precisely in this sort of setting that the French mairie system works best. So we walked into the reception in the mairie, where we are now well known, and started to discuss it with the lady behind the desk. At this point, someone who is in effect the Deputy Mayor, and who also knows us well, stopped what he was doing and perused the bill. Clearly, he said, you have a leak, and followed this up by saying he’d phone the engineer immediately and get him to have a look. Sure enough, within half an hour, the village water engineer arrived and began checking the pipes and running some quite sophisticated tests across the garden. Half an hour later he confirmed that we had a leak somewhere underground in the garden.
Clearly this was our responsibility and not that of the village. Nevertheless he offered to come and fix it for us out of hours. Sure enough, with night falling, he came and started digging and then spent much of Saturday creating a new trench for a new pipe. So with some help from Chris, the new pipe was installed within three days of the leak being discovered.
As for the bill, Alison went in and, again in the best village tradition, talked to the lady in accounts who explained that the standard procedure was that an average of the previous years was incorporated into the bill, and so we got a discount. Thanks!
The whole was a confirmation of what many people say, namely that in small rural communities at least, this sort of centralised system where everything runs through and under the mayor and local officers is very effective. Small is beautiful.
We had further involvement with the village the other night when we had what is called the Voeux de Mairie. This is an interesting phenomena, common it seems to all French communities, where the citizens assemble and the mayor gives something of a report on the previous year, looks forward to the future and wishes everyone a happy new year. And if Taradeau is anything to go by, this is followed by a long period when everyone stands around talking and consuming the local wine.
We’ve been a couple of times and it’s interesting how increasingly we know the various people who run things in the village and they know us. We also noted again a phenomenon, which we have reported several times, of the coexistence here of traditional rural village values with twenty-first century life. So, in the recently refurbished Salle des Fêtes, with its extraordinarily effective architect-designed noise absorption ceiling, we watched a PowerPoint presentation of highest quality on a huge screen of last year’s achievements and village activities. The mayor’s speech, full of geniality and informality with agricultural references and genial digs at neighbouring villages and at ‘Paris’, was probably not much different in style from that which might have been given a hundred years ago. Mind you they wouldn’t have understood the references to the gradual spread of the fibre-optic network where Taradeau is the envy of surrounding communities.
Finally, sharp-eyed readers may have noticed an addition to the menu bar at the top of this blog, entitled ‘Chris as author’. Chris has had his own site for many years but we’ve decided to bring everything together, so in these new pages you’ll find all the information about his fiction (Lamb Among the Stars), non-fiction and geology publications. Take a look (oh, and buy the books if you haven’t already).
It seems a bit odd to go back to Christmas, which is now very firmly in the rear-view mirror, but there were some interesting things which we haven’t mentioned. This year Taradeau seemed to be expending a lot of energy into community events. The biggest of these was Christmas Eve. It started with spectacular fireworks, after which everyone moved on to the village centre, where there was mulled wine. There was lots of milling around and lots of seasonal greetings exchanged.
In the best Taradeau tradition, there was a strong impromptu element. It included lighting of the Christmas log and then a short ‘pastorale’ outside the church. Unlike the one at Les Arcs, this was more of a series of tableaus outside the church.
It was nice to meet various people we hadn’t seen for some time; this being modern France, there were a couple of heavily armed gendarmes standing around keeping an eye open for, one presumes, terrorists. Then eventually we went into the church along with a considerable part of the crowd for what was billed as a midnight mass, but was in fact about four hours earlier.
A key player in all these events was Monseigneur Claud, who is a genial and much loved village priest. He may be a retired abbé but the Catholic hierarchy is rather lost on us.
As with so much in Taradeau, there was the curious juxtaposition of the old world of rural Provence and its traditions with the modern urbanised world that seems to be spreading inland from the coast. So there were people who had been resident in Taradeau for all their lives and know everybody and of incomers whose lives revolve around high-tech or commercial industries miles away and who know no-one.
This grinding of gears between the old and rural and the new and urbanised, is something of a theme within France and a major drive behind the continuing gilets jaunes confrontation, which remains unresolved. One widely reported statistic, which certainly fits with our experience, is that 60% of France’s speed cameras have been burnt or disabled in the last few months. It’s worth remembering that a precursor to the current conflict was Paris’ unpopular imposition of lower speed limits on roads, in theory to prevent accidents but a burden for dwellers in countryside with long distances to travel. Paris and its authorities have always seemed a very long way from this part of rural southern France, and never more so than now.
But we are still just in the Christmas season, so we thought we’d post a few pictures of things we did in the run-up. More next week!
All the local wine-producing chateaus and towns seem to have Christmas markets. Here’s a sausage stall, complete with pig, at one we visited in Chateau la Font de Broc near Les Arcs
At this time of year, the low-angled sun makes for some stunning colours on the rocks of the Esterel. And no, the colour hasn’t been enhanced.
We’ve continued with the work parties on the Taradeau oppidum. Here everyone is admiring the view opened up by felling a couple of pine trees: you can tell it’s the last one before Christmas.
As well as the tradition of having a Christmas ‘creche’ showing a Provençal village with – however incongruously – the stable with Mary, Joseph and Jesus, there’s also a tradition of having a ‘pastorale’ near Christmas. This is more than a nativity play, as it brings in many of the same characters as appear in the creche and is set in the local village. We went to see the play in Les Arcs, which had a background showing the village, gave the stable a local name and included the mayor, a gypsy (no we don’t know why either) and other townspeople, as well as Provençal shepherds, a real baby Jesus, splendidly dressed kings (including a very politically incorrect ‘black-faced’ one) and a choir and band all dressed in 19th-century local costumes. We couldn’t follow all the words (part of which were in Provençal anyway) but it was a great performance and well received. Here are the town council deliberating and then the ensemble singing the final carol. (Double-click on the photos to get them full size).