Winter Walks by the Argens

We’ve had a busy week but it’s been filled with things that don’t lend themselves to photos – being invited round for a meal, editing work, going to the cinema. So we thought we’d post some photos taken from three walks in the same area, all in the valley of the river Argens.

 

 

Oliver trees in a field by the edge of the river

One of the interesting things about the landscape round here is that it is full of little valleys that are very easy to overlook. In the last week or two, we have discovered a rather charming winding valley not very far from us. It runs along the Argens, which is one of nature’s more circuitous rivers, rising well to the north-west of us and taking for ever to reach the sea. Parts of it have been dammed and are sluggish and uninteresting but elsewhere it’s a lively river which still maintains a healthy flow of water even after our dry winter. There are numerous little walks along it on quiet roads, tracks or footpaths and a virtue of its tendency to curve this way and that is that you get constantly changing views. In the last month we have managed in the course of three separate short walks to explore the Argens west of Lorgues.

One minor problem is that there is a shortage of bridges, which means that you either take one side or the other.

This is one of the few bridges where you can cross, but carefully, as it’s not very wide

It’s a tranquil area that is not heavily populated — the winding roads make it a difficult place to commute from — but there are some very individualistic buildings which with stone walls and red tiled roofs are delightful. In one quiet little hamlet,  separated from the river by the obligatory vineyard, we came across the utterly charming stone house for sale pictured below. A quick check on the internet revealed that for this part of the world it was very reasonably priced.

As they say “What’s not to like?”. Now it’s doubtless a delightful house — we are happy where we are and had no interest in investigating further —  but it does raise what we now see as the great peril of house-hunting in France. This is quite simply the danger of buying with the heart and not the head. It all too easy on a warm day with the sun beaming down on some centuries old stone cottage enveloped in creepers and surrounded by butterflies, with a view of a glittering stream and rolling countryside stretching to the horizon, to be struck by what the French call a coup de coeur, literally, a ‘blow to the heart’, or more prosaically, ‘falling in love’.

With Valentine’s Day only just behind us, it’s a little churlish to say that you need to be careful about falling in love with French properties. Yet life is made of realities not dreams. Winter rains flowing through the kitchen, hunters who rampage over your garden, the fact that the nearest shop is thirty minutes away and that, never mind fibre-optic, you can’t even get a decent phone signal, can all turn the dream into a stressful nightmare. We have heard enough horror stories and read enough tales of woe to know what can happens when you buy without thinking. “Caveat emptor,” said the ancients — buyer beware — and it was never more true than with French dream cottages. There are minor aspects to our house in Taradeau that we wish we could change and it will never win any prize for looks or charm. But then neither will it turn in any tales of woe that begin “What we didn’t realise was….”

 

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Working on the oppidum

It’s been over a year since we posted anything about the Taradeau oppidum, that fortified settlement above our village which dates from around the first century BC. But that doesn’t mean that we have stopped our involvement there. On the contrary, we are still active members of the association that is involved in clearing and preserving it.

Over the past few years, we’ve uncovered all the walls and cleared a large part of the interior. (Take a look at the photos near the end of this blog and you’ll see what it used to look like.) This year, we’re concentrating on two things. The first is to cut back the fast-growing vegetation (a lot of small oak shoots) which would otherwise soon overgrow the walls again and strim the open areas within the walls.

Cutting back the vegetation on one of the walls.

The second is to take all the piles of cut branches that haven’t been burned, and make them into wood chippings. They are going to form the basis of paths round and through the site.

Plenty of wood to be chipped

Yes that’s ice Alison is scraping off the windows

We’ve had some very cold Saturday mornings this year, with the temperatures below freezing. It makes for a very chilly start at 7:45 and we’re glad of coffee to warm us up before we go. As we’re not burning wood this year, we don’t have a fire to warm us, so we have to work hard instead.

 

 

A welcome break for coffee and cake. This was the day when the mayor (back to camera) came up to see us and bring some chocolates!

A full team!

And by way of a total contrast, we were trying out our fast fibre-optic internet (hurray), and we came across this video, taken the week in summer when expensive cars congregate in Cannes. We have shown pictures of many of these cars previously on this blog but this is an extraordinary collection of many hundreds of million pounds worth of automobile, all driven by millionaires who appear to be stuck in adolescence. They seem to be deriving great satisfaction by quickly accelerating from 0 to 10 kph. Its a bit surreal to think that less than a 100 metres away from this circus we at Holy Trinity Cannes are running a church.

 

 

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A short walk in the Maures

The ridge of the Massif des Maures (pronounced ‘moor’) lies between us and the sea and is clearly visible from our house. It’s not the highest of mountain ranges, barely making 1000 feet, but it’s a prominent feature. Prominent geographically perhaps, but not in human terms because apart from the southern slopes which plunge into the sea and are covered by concrete conurbations, it is a remote and quiet area.

Geologically, it’s made up of brown-grey ancient metamorphic rocks quite unlike the limestones of most of our area. Indeed if you can ignore the thick vegetation, there is something about it that reminds you of the Scottish Highlands or the Lake District. There is certainly an uncompromising and rather severe air to the range and it remains sparsely populated and thickly wooded with cork oak and sweet chestnut. The unyielding rocks are partly to blame since they are so devoid of any porosity to store the winter rains – sadly lacking so far this winter – that in summer it becomes an arid area inhospitable to both humans and animals.

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Sweet chestnuts: the ground is covered with old spiny seed cases.

The brown bark shows where these cork oaks have had a layer harvested.

Nevertheless there are small settlements built of dark stone where people have traditionally managed to eke out a scanty living on industries based around cork bark, chestnuts, and where there are gentler slopes , vines and olives. There may also be historical reasons for its lack of population: 1,000 years ago the summit of the Maures was held by peoples variously termed Arabs, Saracens, Muslims or Moors (popular belief says this is where the name comes from). From their fortifications here they sent out raiding parties into the surrounding interior. Memories of that presence and threat are preserved in the fortifications of many of the villages in our area and quite probably in the fears of the Front Nationale.

The sign warns that the track may be closed if there’s a risk of fire.

The Maures is however a great area to walk except in summer when most of the roads are sealed off because of fire risk. There are numerous tracks and trails , the hills seem never to be too steep or too long and there are innumerable charming views. Having spent a lot of the year so far indoors we made a foray into the local margin on Wednesday where after a grey start to the week and before a promised grey end, the sun shone forcefully out of a perfect blue sky.

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La Mourre square with fountain

We wandered through the little hamlet of La Mourre, then out along the ridge with splendid vistas to the west, north and east. Some of the higher peaks further inland still had streaks of snow on them. Then we plunged down – very nearly literally – into the valley bottom and back along the track. It was quiet and we saw very few people. It’s funny to think that only 10 miles away to the south  is the noisy and traffic-clogged chaos of St Tropez. We know what we prefer.

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Of aerial views and roofs

We were in the UK visiting family last week and you really don’t want to see any photographs from there. Almost everything was in what might be called 30 shades of grey.

We did however get some excellent views as we took off from Nice. Now Nice is one of  Europe’s more interesting airports. The problem is that the Maritime Alps begin a mere 8 or 10 km to the north with a east-west wall of limestone that rises within a couple of kilometres to 1500 m. So given that most flights in and out are are heading either north or south this poses a problem. The only solution on take off from the east-west runways is to immediately turn southwards, head out to sea and to gain height in a great loop before heading north and clearing the first peaks. Landing is the reverse procedure: overshoot the coast, lose height over the sea and then come swinging in over the waves. The fact the Var Valley can channel cross-winds across the runway only adds to the fun. We have been on one flight where the landing was aborted just a few metres above the ground.

There is however a plus point of this; the gaining or losing height over the sea can give wonderful views. This is certainly what happened this time. 

There were first rate views eastwards along the coast towards Villefranche and Cap St Ferrat. We also got a brief glimpse of the incredibly dense (and absurdly rich) conurbation that is Monaco.  Swinging round over the sea we then gained height over Cannes before flying over the rising ranges of the Alps. It was cloud from then on until Liverpool.

Monaco with mountains behind

Cannes Bay is on the right; the famous (or notorious) Croisette, and our church, is where the paler water is. This is due to coastal engineering intended to replenish the beaches with sand.

Whenever we fly we live in hope that we are going to get some good photographable views of Courmettes, but in fact flights are normally directly over it. Nevertheless, here is a rather blurry one from September.

At Courmettes itself there is considerable excitement because at long last the roof of the chateau, or grande maison, as it is more modestly referred to, is finally being renewed. It’s very much a key action restoration because there’s never been a lot of point in doing interior work with a roof that was notoriously prone to leaking. The intention is that with the new roof in place, various interior refurbishments will now be able to go ahead. You can read more about it in a recent newsletter here.

Photo: Ellen Teurlings (click here to visit her website)

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The ghost of Tourtour

Almost everybody who comes to stay with us gets taken up to the village of Tourtour about half an hour away to the north of us. No one ever complains: indeed almost everybody falls in love with the place. It is one of those little Provencal hilltop villages that has somehow escaped the building blight of the last fifty years and where it is still possible to imagine that you are in the long vanished old France of the Citroen 2CV, the onion seller, old men with black berets and even the horse and cart.

Tourtour from a distance taken in early autumn

There are magnificent views all the way from the coastal range to the south across a vast expanse of hills and forests to the isolated peak of Mount Ventoux to the north.

Being on the way to precisely nowhere Tourtour gets little traffic and such as there is has been largely diverted around the village leaving it effectively pedestrianised. And where many old French villages have acquired a drab and anonymous outskirts of villas and supermarkets, Tourtour remains largely unchanged; a cluster of tight-knit terraced houses, twisting narrow streets and tiny passageways set among fields and woods. It is a village that rejects the straight line and the right angle: walls curve, roads meander, roofs undulate and doorways sag; the result is that no two houses are the same. Whenever we have been there the sun has always seemed to shine, making the café au lait coloured stone and orange tiles come alive with warmth.

Tourtour is the archetypal French village with everything that imagination demands: remains of turreted towers, old olive presses, a washing place, flowing springs, a main square shaded by great plane trees. It is an organic settlement on a human scale that seems to model the sort of place we would all like to live in; it has appeared on these pages before and probably will again. Tourtour bills itself as “Le village dans le ciel”, ‘the village in the sky’, which has an appropriately celestial overtone; after all “le village du ciel” would be ‘the village of heaven’. It’s a phrase that even in mid-January one would be reluctant to argue with.

However, recently we have become aware of something about the history of Tourtour that is a chilling reminder that even here, you cannot escape from evil. Wandering beyond the main church the visitor will notice the small primary school which now bears a new sign Ecole Nelly Ovadia. Reading the sign carefully you will notice the dates 1942-44 but no other information is given. The story, which we only came across by accident, is appalling and heart-wrenching. In January 1944 the Germans took over Provence from the collapsing Italians who had been running it and immediately began rounding up the Jewish population. Some members of a Jewish family in Tourtour were denounced by the Nazi-appointed mayor and were arrested by the Gestapo. One of the family, the young Annette Barbut, fled with her niece, 15-month-old Nelly Ovadia, into the woods. Some locals found her and told her that unless she surrendered the Nazis would kill the ten hostages they had taken. She returned to the village trying unsuccessfully to give the baby away: “I knocked on all the doors to have the baby taken from me … everyone was afraid…” The entire family were then taken away and put on a train (which would have passed within earshot of where our house is) to Marseille. They were then shipped to Auschwitz-Birkenau. Somehow the aunt survived to tell the tale but the rest of the family including Nelly were gassed, shortly after their arrival, on 27 March 1944.

So nearly three quarters of a century later in the presence of Annette Barbut, now in her nineties, the school was renamed after the infant. It was a courageous decision: it’s not exactly a selling point for tourists and there are many in the south of France who would prefer to forget the way that at least some French people were involved in the Holocaust. Indeed there are those who would prefer to forget all about it. Here we simply note the story not to pass judgment but to note the lesson (sadly apt for these troubled times) that however sunlit a place, evil is never far away and to offer the challenge to make sure that such things never happen again. Ever.

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January weather

As we’ve mentioned frequently in passing, the lack of rainfall over the last twelve months has been a real source of concern in the Mediterranean margin of France. In fact rainfall figures in this area have been declining for a number of years, presumably due to climate change. Over the last couple of months it’s been particularly frustrating to see the weather forecasts confidently predict rain for a several days ahead but, as the day of the forecast rainfall progressively approached, the predicted Heavy Rain faded to merely Rain and then Showers and, finally as the day arrived, all we actually had was a few unproductive cloud patches.

This belongs to the commune of Les Arcs sur Argens

A reminder of the necessity of water and the ever present risk of fire are the frequent water cisterns found throughout the countryside for the fire brigade: all neatly labelled and located with the Commune and their number. Quietly, it seems they’ve been putting new ones in, in preparation for what could easily be an inflammatory summer.

One effect of the shortage of rain has been that the ground is still largely brown and sheep farmers have been concerned that there isn’t the fresh grass for the ewes and their lambs. Certainly the flock of sheep we saw the other day were struggling to find anything to eat.

Finally however in the last week we have had some precipitation. Nothing like the heavy snowfalls seen in the Alps but fairly heavy rain and very welcome. Here to commemorate it is a picture of rain in our swimming pool. It is actually very appropriate because if we don’t get enough rain the most obvious way of cutting the demand for water is to ban the refilling of swimming pools.

As a number of our visitors and contacts have observed, for people who spent years in Swansea lamenting the perpetual rain, to now wish that we had more of it is to have undergone an enormous mental shift. True, but there has been a refreshing novelty about seeing stormy seascapes and fiery sunsets.

With the weather turning wintry and the Christmas season over, the coast is enjoying a short-lived period of quietness. The seafront at Cannes normally, full of those anxious to see and be seen, has been almost deserted. Even the Carlton Hotel’s pier – in summer exclusively occupied by those who give the air of being unconcerned about any financial figure below a million – has been deserted and reclaimed by the gulls.

 

 

And finally on Thursday we celebrated an enormous victory. After three years of battling with Orange and every other telecommunications company in France we finally had fibre-optic installed. There is no exaggeration to say that the speeds of upload and download are now between fifty and even a hundred times faster than they were. On the old system it was perfectly possible to pick up the binoculars and do some birdwatching while a webpage loaded: not any more. What are we going to do with our spare time?

Connecting the cables.

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Food and festivities

First of all, we know we have already said this, but for the first post of 2018 can we wish everybody a happy New Year where ever you are.

We had family down for Christmas – Mark, Alice, Thomas and Phoebe – and with one or two reservations (a teething infant and a wide range of coughs and splutters) it went well. Winter is a slightly tricky time for hosting a visiting family. In summer we have space and we can eat outside on the patio and, of course, a swimming pool can absorb a very large amount of children’s time and energy. But a winter visit worked and although we had some sub-zero nights we had a some very pleasant days out at the coast. Thomas and Mark were even seen paddling.

Yes, that is St Tropez in the distance

We had a visit to Cannes on Christmas Eve for the church service. There was the most dramatic stylised Christmas tree which was even more extraordinary when you went inside it and looked up. As is routine across much of France and elsewhere security remains at a high level.

 

 

 

 

The tree from outside and inside.

 

One particular feature of this time of year is the foodstuff on sale. In the secular West no one is sure what Christmas is all about and the French are even more unsure than most but of one thing they are certain: it is a period that is about food, not in fact just for Christmas Eve, but for that all important Réveillon du Nouvel An (New Year’s Eve).

And what better way to celebrate than with macaroons?

Our own food contribution was a fun Christmas lunch. Mark cooked Beef Wellington with all the trappings.

Finally, Chris has completed his final essay on the Anglican Readership course. So, although there are a few bits of paperwork that need doing, there is no reason why he shouldn’t be licensed as a Reader at some point in the next few months. It’s been a lot of hard work!

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