Progressive déconfinement and the Toulon hinterland

This weekend sees the start of a progressive déconfinement in France. Starting from today more shops are open, we are allowed to go further for exercise and church services can restart although with a maximum of 30 attendees. If the infection rate keeps falling, it is hoped that by mid-December we will be out of the lockdown, but still under a curfew. The chart below spells out the various stages, but of course it does depend on those all-important numbers. M. Macron has been urging people to be responsible, but we can’t help wondering what the impact of Christmas and the New Year will be. Still, it’s all very well ordered, the ‘attestation‘ application for the smartphone works very well and there is no use of ‘regional’ tiers which seem to be so problematic.

So since we haven’t yet had the chance to go out and about very far, we thought we’d post some more photos from the same Saturday in September that we visited Brignoles (see last week’s blog).

Driving south from Brignoles, as if you were heading to Toulon, takes you into the edge of the great ridge of Sainte Baume and then drops you down into the valley between that ridge and the end of the Massif des Maures. Its very picturesque but we didn’t manage to get right up into the hills, although we found a spot for a picnic surrounded by woods and limestone cliffs.

This area is not on the tourist map at all but there are some very typically Provencal villages with considerable charm. To get to them you have to turn off the main roads, but it is worth it to wander around. La Roquebrussanne, our first stop, seemed to consist of one main street. It’s not surprising that the main road has been diverted around it.

Although quiet, it seemed gently prosperous, with all the buildings looking to be in good order. We couldn’t quite work out whether it was because it was a place where people commuted to Toulon or whether it was a week-end retreat. In theory you could commute to Toulon because, as the old Michelin plaque tells you, it’s only 34 km away but what it doesn’t say is that the first two-thirds are winding country roads over quite hilly terrain and the last third is the almost permanently blocked motorway into the city.

And so on into the wider valley, where we stopped almost at random in Garéoult, which was obviously something of a local hub since it had several schools, a sports centre and swimming pool in addition to a supermarket and a pharmacy. We simply wandered around the charming old centre.

So nothing stunningly spectacular, but just more perfectly charming little villages in a poorly known quarter of Provence. In a way it’s like an awful lot of France – wonderful and restful but you’re not sure you want to live there, especially in winter.

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Beaujolais and Brignoles

Chris subscribes to a very small number of Twitter feeds, almost entirely those that are useful. One is the Police Nationale for our department, who are very helpful for giving updates on crime initiatives and changes in legislation. This week however there was a striking tweet, pointing out that consumption of Beaujolais Nouveau in the streets, as would be normal for the third Thursday of November, was, because of Covid, not allowed. That’s France for you! We actually walked into one of our local supermarkets this morning and couldn’t resist getting a bottle for a princely 4€. There – as one does here – we met a friend whose partner has a vineyard and she said that the word was it was a good year. We agreed that it was nice to hear something positive about 2020. And having tasted it, it does seem very pleasant.

As our lock down continues, we thought we’d do a blog on another post-industrial town which we visited late September. Brignoles is a place we’ve long ignored, largely because the guide books do. It is a central and accessible spot however, well served by roads: it’s on a junction on the A8 Autoroute de Provence and is a good spot to leave the motorway and join the old Route Nationale that leads eventually to the coastal towns of the Côte d’Azur. So since we always usually go round it, we thought it would be interesting to see what the town is actually like.

Brignoles has a long history and at its heart a medieval core, reflecting the fact that it in the Middle Ages it was under the direct lordship of the Counts of Provence. Their splendid palace is now a museum (closed when we visited though).

An old church with the palace of the Counts of Provence to its right

Covered alleyways, a ‘newer’ square and an old advert in the old part of town

In the 17th century, plums were the big ‘industry’, to be succeeded by bauxite mining in the 19th and early 20th centuries. As with Barjols, the decline of the the mines has left the town with something of a post-industrial feel, reflected in many boarded up shops in some of the older parts. The municipality is obviously making a great effort to improve things but when the cloud comes over the sun in some of more run down parts, its not hard to be reminded of one of the old ex-mining towns of the South Wales Valleys.

It might have been made more sense for us to have visited the Tourist Office before the old town, so we could have got a map and some idea of a route to follow. Instead, we headed into the town for coffee first, and made the discoveries on our own.

As always with these Provencal towns, there is an attempt to recall the long-gone rural Provence immortalised in the books and excellent films of Marcel Pagnol’s Jean de Florette and Manon les Sources. The books were set not far away in what they are now trying to market as ‘Pagnol country’. In practice that rural Provence was waning after the First World War, almost totally died out after the Second, and was given the coup de grace by the 1960s ‘Brigitte Bardot’ boom of the coast. Making a living from the soil down here was never easy and became impossible once property prices went through the roof. And of course it was a rough, tough and short life, a long way removed from the jolly peasants endlessly feasting and dancing of popular mythology. As everywhere down, here the contrast between the dream and the reality is sharp and often uncomfortable.

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Barjols part 2

Last week we started a retrospective couple of blogs on Barjols, a town which because of its semi-industrial past is not really on the ‘tourist trail’ and which we visited in September. It is a bit of a mixed bag with derelict leather-tanning factories mixed in with some very fine ancient buildings. We went for a walk up through the town up onto the hill where there is a very good viewpoint that overlooks it and then back down through a valley which is now a nature reserve.

A fine place for a picnic!

As we said last week, the reason for Barjols’ industrial episode was the abundant water. In the Vallon des Carmes which runs down to the town, the water has formed a deep gorge.

In the cliffs, there is a 16th century ‘troglodyte’ church, and an ancient hermitage just off the path down through the gorge, where you can see traces of carvings and shelves.

The stream descends in various cascades and pools. However there were notices warning of danger to swimmers owing to bacteria in the water.

Descending back through the town we discovered a proud monument to the Declaration of Human Rights (Declaration des Droits des Hommes), suitably decorated with republican symbols. Created in 1789 as part of the French Revolution (written partly by the Marquis de Lafayette, of Hamilton fame, in consultation with Thomas Jefferson), it’s still part of the French constitution and the basis for the phrase “Liberty, Brotherhood, Equality” that lies at the heart of the French identity.

So we enjoyed Barjols. It doesn’t make it very high in our ‘must see places’ but it deserves a better fate than being totally ignored.

Meanwhile the lockdown continues here. It doesn’t seem to be intensively policed we haven’t been stopped yet, but, at least in Lorgues, it is widely respected. As of today it seems as if both death and infection rates are dropping in France. Nevertheless we have another two weeks to go and the Prime Minister has urged the police to clamp down even tighter on people who are out without the official forms. The feeling is that it’s fingers crossed that anybody can have some sort of festive Christmas, which here relies on the restaurants being open.

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Barjols part 1

We are now reluctantly getting used to new confinement. One useful change from that of spring is that there is now a very nice COVID smartphone app which allows us to easily fill out the attestation that allows movement around for specific and limited purposes. So far this new confinement doesn’t seem to have slowed the drastic rise in positive COVID tests here but it is perhaps early days. One particular frustration is that we are prevented from seeing much of the countryside in late autumn which with its golden and red fields of vines is always spectacular.

our house is on the hill in the distance

As we promised last week, instead of giving you photographs of our garden, we are going to use some of the images that we shot earlier in the year but never used. This week and next we will be covering the small town of Barjols, about an hour to the west of us which we visited with some friends in September.

The old agricultural town with its 11th century church

One of the interesting things about the towns in this part of the world is the difference between the towns which are fundamentally agricultural and those that have been industrial. Because agriculture stays much the same, such towns (like our own Lorgues) tend to change little over time. Yes, there can be crises as when hard frosts wipe out the olive trees, but in general, life just goes on. Such settlements often end up as ‘unspoilt’ tourist towns. In contrast, towns that have had industries, such as mining or, as in the case of Barjols, tanneries, tend to go in a boom and bust pattern. Suddenly everyone is throwing up factories, warehouses and cheap housing and then, as the market wanes or collapses, there are a lot of rusting machinery and derelict buildings. It happens in France but the same pattern occurs across the world.

Old industrial buildings

Barjols lies in a narrow valley into which many streams flow and the abundant water gave rise to numerous mills – there were up to 24 tanneries in the 19th century. Despite all sorts of adventurous attempts to turn these cavernous industrial buildings into exciting workshops and art venues, there’s only so much that you can do. All of this is a rather long way of explaining why Barjols isn’t on many tourist agendas or in many guide books. Nevertheless, there are many charming and fascinating corners where you can wander around and without bumping into other tourists.

Late in September we met up with friends and did a fascinating exploration of Barjols. If you can ignore the industrial past there’s actually a lot of interest. More next week!

Barjols apparently has 30 fountains and 12 washing places (lavoirs). Above are just a few of them. The ‘mushroom’ fountain is the result of calcium deposits from the hard water; over the years the original shape has been lost.

The door of the house of the Marquis de Pontevès. The date 1532 is carved at the top.
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Déja vu

So here we are in confinement once more, although it has to be said that it is somewhat lighter than before: more essential shops are open, the list of exemptions is slightly higher and schools remain open. And, as a nod to the struggling restaurant trade, takeaways are allowed. How effective this is going to be is questionable. On our allowed one-hour walk yesterday we were delighted to see a large team installing fibre-optic cable round our road but it was slightly disconcerting to see that no-one was wearing masks.

Anyway, life is more than confinement. We said last week that the Lorgues fellowship was going to be having a service at St Honorat and it actually worked very well. We were about 14, which with social distancing is about all you can manage there. But the ‘staged’ pre-recorded version has already had 38 viewers. We don’t have any problems with services in modern buildings but there is something rather encouraging and uplifting about worshiping in a 14th century chapel. Church services are banned from Monday for the next month but actually as the Lorgues fellowship has been operating on a digital basis for the past months we can work with that. All being well we hope to have another service at St Honorat just before Christmas.

The sudden lockdown announcement has been slightly problematic with regard to Holy Trinity Cannes. Chris was due to preach there on Sunday in a live-streamed service. But travelling 150 km there and back is very much against the spirit, if not the law, of the present rules, so he had to record the sermon, upload it and send the link which we hope will be seamlessly inserted into the service. There are other problems with Cannes. Following the appalling attack in Nice on Thursday, which left even a nation that has become hardened to terrorist attacks, shaken, the church may well have an armed guard outside.

So what with confinement, terrorism and Covid, it’s not a happy time down here although one must be wary of the tendency of reporters to talk up the sense of crisis. There is an enormous shrug-your-shoulders resilience in France.

In other news we also celebrated – rather extraordinarily – a whole year in this house. Rather gratifyingly, we do seem to have done all the limited but essential major work that was needed. On the cards is getting our roof space insulated for the very acceptable government-supported price of 1€. We are also going to get a reversible air conditioning unit put into the upstairs part of the house for guests who we will hope to get next summer. We are also looking very cautiously at the solar panel deal that IKEA are promoting. Well if we can’t get it to be economic with 300 days of sun a year who can?

From the garden, showing the hill behind which we can walk round

Finally, as we have alluded to, we are now restricted to walks within 1km of our house. Fortunately, as we said in spring, we are blessed with a very fine circular walk with some delightful views. And, partly with a foreboding that another confinement was due, we have accumulated a whole pile of photos from earlier in the year which we haven’t posted, so for the next few weeks we will dig out some of those happy sun-drenched memories. We may need them. So may you.

View from the road round the hill across the valleys to the Massif des Maures

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Matters of state and religion

Three things on the blog this week.

The first is that there has inevitably been a very considerable amount of careful (and not so careful ) discussion about the brutal killing of teacher Samuel Paty for discussing in class, with suitable warnings, the notorious Charlie Hebdo cartoons. Of course it is not an isolated incident – there have been less reported and less severe incidents that have troubled people: the attack on a girl in one town for wearing ‘too short a skirt’ and demands on one French beach for women to ‘cover up’. There’s a lot that could be said here because it’s a complex issue and the French commitment to la laïcité or state secularism involves a long series of skirmishes and wars between the state and the church that goes back over 200 years. The problem now is that we have a secular state that prides itself on having an infallible response to religion and on the other a religion that prides itself on having the infallible response to society.

Flags outside the mairie tied up in mourning; the banner reads “I am a teacher”

This however is not simply a French problem that could be ended by closing down Charlie Hebdo. In the early 1980s when Chris taught at the American University of Beirut there was a Civilisation Sequence program for all students, whose well-intentioned if overambitious purpose was to introduce students to Western culture. Chris noted that although they taught Dante and his wonderful Divine Comedy, the book chosen was the second volume, Purgatory. Why, he asked, did they not do the much more dramatic and engaging L’Inferno? Here amid smiles he was told that in teaching L’inferno lecturers had had to mention that, following the verdict of early mediaeval theologian St Thomas Aquinas, Dante had put Muhammad deep in hell. This had been a mere awkwardness till one day in the 70s the police turned up at the university gates with an arrest warrant written out for Thomas Aquinas. Oh how in those far-off days we laughed…

Anyway on Wednesday there was what the French call a manifestation, something that may be a demonstration – these thing can can get angry in France – but is generally a gathering, in front of the Mairie in sympathy and support. We attended, not of course because we support the frequently unpleasant and generally adolescent Charlie Hebdo, but because this was a man doing his duty for the state. There were perhaps a hundred people, M. le Maire spoke and we all dispersed. In the evening M. Macron gave a solemn, ringing speech with an almost Churchillian tone of stern defiance in front of the coffin. But this issue isn’t going away……

The second thing is to do with the small Anglican fellowship here in Lorgues. Previous to the pandemic they had been meeting twice a month in a small chapel attached to a residential/nursing home (formerly a convent). We held the Christmas carol service there in December. This of course is now firmly closed to all outsiders due to COVID. But happily, Lorgues has many other chapels (subject for another blog!), and the fellowship has been allowed the use of St Honorat, at the foot of the hill of Saint Ferréol, ten minutes walk away from our house.

And finally, you may have seen in the news that, in response to mounting COVID figures France has imposed a curfew on a large part of the country, including the Var where we live, for six weeks. Between 21h and 6h people are not allowed to go out except with very good reason (and must produce a document to justify this). Sports in enclosed places (i.e. sports halls and closed swimming pools) are also banned during this period: Alison is glad she went to her exercise class this week! It’s particularly bad news for the restaurants, which often don’t get going until eight in the evening. The result is the sense of a noose gently tightening. Behind this is the clear intention that the virus be pushed back to allow some sort of normal Christmas. Let’s hope it is so.

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Mas Mireille

We’ve mentioned before that the A Rocha France project in the Vallée des Baux near Arles was moving its base. For many years it had been running out of a big old house, Les Tourades. It was a much-loved setting but as everyone knows, big old houses demand a lot of upkeep and what with one thing and another it was decided the best thing to do was to sell it. In a fortunate arrangement with the new purchasers, A Rocha France was able to keep a small building in the grounds as a base until this October. Given that looming deadline we were all very pleased when the possibility of renting a house at Mas Mireille emerged a few months ago.

All that was needed was for there to be a move, which had to be by early October. Matters however were complicated by two things: first the responsable,Timothée Schwartz, was down to have his PhD defence at the start of October and so was understandably preoccupied, and the other was that over two decades or so, an enormous amount of material had accumulated. Well Timothée got his doctorate, (well done!) but that left a very narrow window to move. So we drove the approximately 140 km to Tourades to stay for three days and help out. We must confess to a degree of unease because the project is pretty much midway between Aix and Marseille, both towns which are in high level COVID alert and we were working fairly closely with Timothée and four strong young men who didn’t balk at lifting tables and the like. However, everyone stayed masked and as distanced as possible for most of the time and we did our best to keep socially distanced. Over a week later we don’t seem to have caught anything!

Well the move went as smoothly as we might have hoped. We emptied one place and filled the other but there is going to have to be a lot of sorting out. That’s not our responsibility though!

As the first people to sleep in Mas Mireille we are very impressed with it. To use an adjective rarely applied to centres for field studies, it is stylish.

Although it doesn’t have the space that Tourades had, it is very close to the wetland and literally only a stone’s throw from the start of the Ilon Nature Reserve.

Outside Mas Mireille looking towards the marsh. Digital trickery could have removed the wires, but we’re showing the view as it is.

Interestingly enough, science has already started at Mas Mireille. The Thursday night we were there was a swallow ringing expedition on the marsh (we took part in one such in 2015) and the merry band of ringers were up into the early hours of the morning ringing over 300 swallows.

The team were then up at dawn on Friday to do some more bird ringing on the marsh, leaving us the task of letting the swallows loose, which we enjoyed doing. Seemingly undismayed by their night in cardboard boxes, they all raced up skyward and were last seen heading to Africa. Bon voyage!

And a final note: if anyone is interested in getting involved with the Vallée des Baux project in any way, just contact us.

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Moustiers Sainte Marie part 2

We mentioned in last week’s blog that Moustiers had been a religious centre in the past – In fact the original settlement was by monks, thus giving its name, a corruption of the Latin monasterii. High above the village, perched in the notch between the two cliffs that tower above it, is the small chapel of Notre-Dame de Beauvoir. Restored in the 12th and 16th centuries, the original chapel dates back to the 8th century and is apparently built on the site of an even older one. Pilgrims have been making their way up a steep path from the village since the 5th century.

The climb starts one side of the ravine, crosses the stream by a bridge and winds up in a series of wide steps, giving great views of the village below.

The path is paved with limestone cobbles, which stops erosion but which have been worn smooth over the years, meaning that those visitors in flip-flops and smooth-soled sandals don’t find the descent easy. To be honest, we didn’t either.

Returning to the village, we explored one of the side streets away from the shops and more crowded centre. It was charming and gave us a good view over the town towards Lac Sainte Croix.

We can’t finish a blog on Moustiers without mentioning the gold star which hangs high above the village suspended on a chain reaching from one cliff to another across the ravine. There are various accounts of why it is there – the most popular appears to be that a 13th century crusader promised it if he returned safely. How they got it up there is a mystery. Over the years it has fallen and been replaced a number of times, the last in 1995 with the use of a helicopter.

So four stars on our personal evaluation list for Moustiers, but with an important qualification: avoid the tourist season!

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Moustiers Sainte Marie Part 1

We first visited Moustiers Sainte Marie over ten years ago when passing through the area on holiday. It was very nearly our first and last visit. Moustiers is in all the tourist guides, is officially one of the “most beautiful” villages in France, but has paid the price of fame. For those who know Windermere in the English Lake District, it reminded us of that on a bank holiday – extraordinarily crowded, full of shops designed to separate visitors from their money and any original charm long since buried under the mob. So, having come back to the area, Moustiers has always been very much one of those places we mention to visitors but never actually go to ourselves.

Perched either side of a ravine under towering cliffs, this is the ‘newer’ side of the village

Anyway, about a month ago, the tourist season having come to an end with the abruptness that the French employment and school system brings, we finally decided to brave a visit.

The result? Well we have to say we owe the village a bit of an apology. We found a great deal that is charming, intriguing and interesting and rather enjoyed ourselves. So this week (and next), we thought we’d do a two-parter on Moustiers with an array of photographs. It is after all a very photogenic place, built on two sides of a ravine underneath towering cliffs, and with steep slopes that allow you to climb up and look over the town. There are even vultures that fly overhead, which beats Windermere!

Moustiers is at the north end of what is now the reservoir of Lac Sainte Croix but until the 1970s was a farmed broad upland valley. It was a considerable focal point for the region over centuries, being a market town and an administrative and religious centre. As with almost all these towns, the ancient history is a bewildering succession of contested and changing loyalties, bitter feuds, plagues, massacres and the usual unhappinesses of the past.

Nowadays however it is very conveniently sited at the edge of the spectacular Gorges de Verdon (which if you haven’t visited you ought to) and the lake, which retains its attraction for anyone who is interested in water sports (as long as they do not include power boating or water skiing). So it’s a useful centre and the considerable number of restaurants adds to its attraction.

So as the autumnal rains lash against your windows (and ours), enjoy Moustiers!

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Loose ends

Yet again we are delaying the Moustiers blog. The reason is that, with the possibility of another lockdown looming here, we are in no hurry to use up our material. We – and possibly you – got a little bored of pictures of our garden in the last lock down.

We ended last week’s blog with a bit of a cliff-hanger over the contretemps between the mayor and the fairground people. In the end, something of an unsatisfactory compromise seems to have been agreed and the fair took place but in a briefer and more restricted fashion. Interestingly enough one of the governing principles for French mayors is that they ‘are to keep the peace’. And we suspect that ultimately it was this principle that won out.

As we mentioned last week we have become involved in the association for preserving old Lorgues and are accumulating photographs of the town for the updated website which Alison is working on. Here are a few of the town in summer which, as the temperature is plummeting, we may as well post now before summer becomes a distant memory.

Nearly the last of the markets for local producers which runs June to September. Already the autumn vegetables are appearing and masks have joined the local products.

We are still making regular trips to Cannes where church services have started again but under rather restricted circumstances. With the temperatures dropping, high summer seems to have suddenly shifted into autumn. There are still a few heroic folk on the beaches, and we came across a British Ferrari owner who seemed to have come down with the intention of displaying his pride and joy to the assembled multitudes. Unfortunately, this being 2020, the assembled multitude had disappeared.

On the subject of church, we are all beginning to wonder what a Covid Christmas is going to look like and we are delighted to use this blog to advertise a very interesting offer of free material from J. John with whom Chris has written a number of books. You can find it here: Christmas 2020. We suspect a number of church ministers are going to find it very useful indeed.

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