The big bike event

Two weeks ago we went over to Fréjus on the coast for what is called Roc d’Azur. All we knew was that it was just some sort of mountain biking event and the day being warm and sunny and Fréjus not being far away we thought we would drop in. It turned out that our ignorance was in fact comparable to thinking that Glastonbury was just a music concert or Wimbledon just a tennis match.

The reality is that Roc d’Azur is the biggest mountain biking event in the world. (The French for mountain bike by the way is velo de toute terrain or VTT and mountain bikers are conveniently abbreviated to VTTistes). Indeed Roc d’Azur is astonishingly big. It’s a five-day event that it is claimed attracts 150,000 attendees and has around 20,000 competitors. (No we’re not making an order of magnitude mistake and from what we saw we really wouldn’t argue with the figures.) And it was really mostly mountain bikes, there was very little sign of the anaemic road racing/Tour de France type of bike; although there was an almost infinite variety of bikes, almost all had suspension and knobbly tyres and were peddled by serious-looking men (mostly, and some women) sporting hefty muscles, gaudy Lycra and sunglasses. Sunglasses are definitely needed: it wasn’t just that it was another cloud-free day but that there were so many bikes hurtling along the routes sometimes you couldn’t see the riders for dust.


Roc d’Azur is based on an old airfield with car parks so big you can get lost in them, and from it run well marked racetracks that wind up some of the spectacularly steep local mountains, swing down across beaches and even sway across pontoon bridges carefully created by the local authority. Every so often thousands of bikers gathered at the starting line and then with a great flurry of dust hurtled off over the horizon. Then half an hour later another batch of a few thousand would assemble before they in turn set off.

Waiting for the start

Waiting for the start

In addition to the adult races there were also ones for children, starting from 4 years (they only had to go 2 km), a family one and one in fancy dress. We missed the evening race round the narrow streets of a nearby village.

One of the race starts, with a view of Fréjus behind

One of the race starts, with a view of Fréjus behind


Designer saddle anyone?

Designer saddle anyone?

There were also seemingly endless stalls promoting bikes, bits of bikes, cogs, gears and cables for bikes, T-shirts for wearing on bikes and almost everything else you can imagine to do with mountain bikes.


It is also of course a great venue for displaying new technology where you could stare at and stroke the latest mountain bike designs. There are some fascinating developments: bikes made out of carbon fibre, titanium and even more truly exotic materials that allow weight to be reduced in some cases by under ten kilos or twenty pounds. And particularly interesting was the presence of a large number of electric bikes with lithium-ion batteries that allow you to go not just faster but further. There were also some very geeky things; it was quite common to find people staring with extraordinary fascination at cogs and chains and muttering about gear ratios. There were also some eye-watering prices: some hi-tech bikes now head up to the €9,000 price which we are afraid is now very easy to convert to £9,000.


These bikes will set you back between €8,000 and €9,000

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAFor the visitor one of the nice things about the world of mountain biking and cycling generally (as opposed to birdwatching where it’s all camouflage) is that everything tends to be incredibly multi-coloured. At the very heart of mountain biking is not simply the idea of bouncing down some impossibly steep slope at an enormous speed but to dazzle the world as you do so.


It was an extremely good-humoured event and we were struck by the fact that is absolutely free to visitors. Indeed we even got given a free coffee. The money comes not just from selling marketing space but from the race entry fees. With 20,000 competitors they make a fair amount on that.



One other observation. The merciless and joyless commercial competitiveness (yes Sky, we are thinking of you) that seems to have effectively destroyed the Tour de France has not yet  made it into the mountain biking world: people seem to be enjoying themselves and having fun. Long may it last.

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Time-out at Courmettes

There is something of a tradition in A Rocha of having a team “time out” in September or October. The idea is that everybody gets together, talks a little bit about what they’re doing and then has some sort of Bible study or Bible teaching. The idea is, as autumn deepens into winter, to stand back briefly from the ‘one-darn-thing-after-another’ situation which can dominate life, particularly in the warmer parts of the year.


Paul Jeanson, president of A Rocha France and pioneer of the A Rocha work at Courmettes in discussion with David Nussbaumer (one of the Courmettes team) and Jean-François.

So last Wednesday we went up to Courmettes for a couple of days. There’s a lot to be encouraged about: some new faces and a lot of new work being done inside the buildings. Mind you after decades of neglect and the need to meet strict standards for official accreditation there is always more to be done.


Paul Jeanson’s presenting on Eco-churches in France

It was also a good time for our French. We sat through the three-hour discussion on eco-churches when we probably got most of what was said, and benefited from three good talks on the Bible and creation by a local pastor.






Wednesday evening's menu beautifully written by Anna Mouhot

Wednesday evening’s menu beautifully written by Anna Mouhot

We have probably mentioned that Dominic, the cook at Courmettes, is distinctly superior and while we were there he was on top form. Chris was able to tell him in perfect honesty, that what we had that Wednesday evening was probably the best meal we’ve had in over two years in France. The fact that we had bought a couple of bottles of wine from our next-door neighbour (the Château D’Astros ) was definitely appreciated.

Time to pour the wine!

Time to pour the wine!

This sign indicates it's not any old hunt but a specially authorised one to bring down the boar population

This sign indicates it’s not any old hunt but a specially authorised one to bring down the boar population

Thursday was a rather grey and saw the first of the winter hunting days. After the tragedy two years ago it was good to see that everybody seemed to be wearing fluorescent jackets. Apparently they managed to kill four wild boar. Some idea of why wild boar to need be shot is given in this video from a small town near us where they seem to be taking over the streets. Actually not far from Taradeau there was a serious accident recently when a driver swerved to avoid a boar in the middle of the road and hit an oncoming vehicle. The hazards of life in France!


And while the hunters were shooting away at the west end of the estate we were able to walk eastwards up onto the ridge high above Tourrettes- sur-Loup and look east to Nice and Italy. Up on the summit, not far below the cloud, we were both aware of a sensation that we haven’t felt for six months: we felt cold.


Looking east towards Italy

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Tourtour and Brexit


Although we discovered the little village of Tourtour just a few months after arriving in Taradeau, it has rapidly become one of the places we take visitors to. It’s only 20 minutes away but it’s easy to overlook: it’s not exactly on the route to anywhere. It’s not particularly big (only a few hundred inhabitants in winter, perhaps 1,000 in summer). But it is an astonishingly attractive place and seems to typify all that is best about French villages.


Definitely not for cars!

Definitely not for cars!

There are some lovely old stone buildings without the sense of rundown decay that you can get in some settlements. There’s a tree-lined square which for most of the year is sealed off from traffic and, in summer at least, seems full of places to eat and drink. There are two modest châteaux and a number of narrow streets that wind so intensely that despite the small size of the village you can actually manage to get disoriented. By an extraordinary feat of planning – rare indeed in this part of the world – the village has not accumulated a vast and ugly suburb around it.

Tourtour main square in early autumn

Tourtour’s main square in early autumn, still sealed off from traffic

dscn6013Tourtour advertises itself as “The village in the sky”. From its hilltop there are astonishing views; particularly a sweeping panorama where you can see everything from the Massif de Maures above the Côte d’Azur to the mountain peaks above Toulon and westward to mount St Victoire by Aix, round to the distant summit of Mount Ventoux above the Rhône Valley to the north-west (double-click the photo below to see it better).


And yes there are tourists but it rarely has that overcrowded feel that you get with some of the more for popular French villages in the Dordogne. Above all it still feels French.

Brexit and beyond

Although various people have asked how we are managing “since Brexit“ (thank you) we have picked up that one or two folk still think that it’s business as usual. Well it isn’t. Actually although you hear people say “since Brexit”, so far the process hasn’t started. This week though, apparently triggered by the Conservative party conference where a number of political leaders seem to have been trying to outdo each other in recklessness, the phoney war seems to be over. Sterling, which has been sliding ever since the referendum, has suddenly plummeted and, as we write the pound (in which we get our pension and income from editing et cetera) now only buys €1.1 whereas it bought €1.36 at the start of the year. The result is that everything is very much more expensive. Matters are made worse because there is no indication that we have reached the limit of the pound’s decline. People here ask us what the British Government is playing at, and we find ourselves a little embarrassed for an answer.

There’s an estimate that around 50% of people in our church depend on UK funds (pensions etc). Many of them are far worse off than us. There’s not a lot of complaining, but there’s a sense of unease and a very definite feeling of betrayal. And as for the innumerable practical implications of being a British citizen outside the European Union, well we’ll leave those for another day. But unlike Tourtour, they aren’t pretty.

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September miscellany

We thought it would be worth covering some of the other things we did during September, a month that here seems to begin in summer and end in autumn.

So, at the start of the month we made it to the coast at Frejus. Early September is a great time to ‘hit the beach’ in our part of France because most of the tourists have gone and you can actually park your car and not be packed like sardines on the sand. Frejus beach is great and you can get an interesting view of the the old port of St Raphael, where a small fishing village was once dominated by an ornate basilica, built in the 1880s. In a way that seems to symbolise the age, the basilica has become largely blocked from view by tower blocks. Talk to anybody about town planning on the Côte d’Azur, particularly a couple of decades ago, and you get the very clear message that there were some very dubious planning decisions made.


There has been one very significant spinoff from our visit to the America’s Cup and a fortuitous conversation with one of the scientists from the French state research organisation CNRS: Chris has been asked to help edit some of the English language versions of papers and webpages of the splendid Port Cros National Park. We visited the island of Port Cros last September and it’s a fantastic marine nature reserve; here’s hoping that this will give a renewed opportunity to visit again. There’s an English language introduction to the National Park here and unless Chris’s hastily revised version has been posted up you will understand why he volunteered to tidy up the English.

We visited this bay on Port Cros with the A Rocha marine team last September

We visited this bay on Port Cros with the A Rocha marine team last September

On the subject of liaising with the local community several things have happened. We have become members of the local walking group and will no doubt blog on that some point. We have also started our first formal French lessons and are gratified to find that we are having no trouble with intermediate level material. Back in Taradeau the society for preserving the Oppidum had its annual general meeting this week with a splendid presentation followed, inevitably, by everybody standing around chatting while the local rosé was consumed. It was nice to see ourselves in the presentation photos and get mentioned by name, and nicer still to have our membership fee for next year cancelled because of our hard labour. Coincidentally  Google Earth has just posted new imagery of Taradeau from 10th April this year and you can see the progress we have made on the Oppidum as well as detailed images of our house and the new bridge.

Google Earth screenshot of the Oppidum. The sports field and houses behind look a bit flattened...

Google Earth screenshot of the Oppidum: you can see where the bushes have been cleared and the small grey circles are the remains of where we burned the cut vegetation. The sports field (being renovated at the time) and houses behind look a bit flattened though.

That's Pic de Courmettes from Nice Airport

That’s Pic de Courmettes from Nice Airport

Finally, we flew to the UK for 10 days at the end of the month, and no we didn’t mention it in advance. It’s not a very clever thing to tell the world when you are planning to leave your house empty. The trip enabled us to catch up with family including our delightful new granddaughter Phoebe and also visit Swansea where Chris preached and we were able to catch up with old friends.

It was a good trip although we were glad to get back to somewhere where, even at the beginning of October, the sun still shines brightly and you can get away with wearing T-shirts.

Gower in the sunshine: this is Three Cliffs Bay. The Med may be warmer, but Welsh sand is better!

Gower in the sunshine: this is Three Cliffs Bay. The Med may be warmer, but Welsh sand is better!

And in a fitting end to a month that has seen us go from summer to autumn, we had a very well-attended harvest festival at church.

The collection for a local food bank (yes, they are needed on the Cote d'Azur too).

The collection for a local food bank (yes, they are needed on the Cote d’Azur too).

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The America’s Cup part 2

Last week we concentrated on the sailing or more specifically the lack of it, but promised to have something about security. It’s not surprising it was tight after the tragic security debacle at Nice on 14 July.

The maritime gendamerie patrolling the edge of the racing area, with a naval ship in the background

The maritime police patrolling the edge of the racing area, with a naval ship in the background

The area of sea for the races was off a small stretch of coast just to the east of Toulon’s main harbour: there’s a small park on a slope, then a massive carpark, and along the edge of the coast, some beautiful sandy beaches, with the usual accompaniment of restaurants, snack bars, mini golf and beach volleyball courts. Footpaths lead down into this area and normally cars can access it at either end.

dscn5841For the America’s Cup however the whole area was surrounded by high metal fencing, leaving access only at the two ends. Every road leading down towards the area was sealed off with massive concrete blocks and large vehicles. Lessons from the Nice lorry attack had clearly been learned. Security at the entrance looked in our bags and ran a hand scanner over us. Inside, armed soldiers were doing patrols.

The leash he is holding is attached to a large dog

The leash he is holding is attached to a large dog

There were police, gendarmes, soldiers, dog handlers, overhead helicopters, offshore patrol boats and a small tented village of doctors and nurses etc. However as is now the case in France no one seemed in the slightest bit put out by the fact that we were in an armed camp. Once inside everyone was strolling around, looking at the exhibits in the tented village, or sunbathing on the beaches and taking a swim. It’s the new normal.


How can you possibly have a big event in France without a cheese stall?

Back in Toulon harbour afterwards, looking through the yachts you could see some of the vessels of the French Navy. Something like 70 percent of the very considerable French fleet is based in Toulon. Somewhere deep in the port and presumably under the highest of security is the massive nuclear-powered aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle being refitted ready for further action in the eastern Mediterranean.


It was hard to avoid being reminded that beneath the perfect blue sky, that not far away over the horizon, a ugly, unpredictable and contagious conflict is going on.

Echoes of that war of course continue to be heard in France. The ‘Ban the Burkini’ decisions generated a lot of publicity during the silly season of August. What made less publicity was the fact that only a few days ago a group cycling in a suburb in Toulon were abused and physically attacked because the women were wearing shorts.

Neither high security nor aircraft carriers are going to easily sort this conflict out.


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The America’s Cup part 1

Regular readers of this blog will have noticed that there hasn’t been any reference to us taking summer holidays. It’s partly because we seem to have been rather too busy to take them, partly because we are going to the UK for eight or nine days sometime in autumn and partly because with the post-Brexit drop in the value of the pound, going away would be a bit of a luxury that we couldn’t afford. Now if you happen to be Boris, Nigel or Michael then contributing to our holiday fund would be very nice but in all honesty the money you promised for the NHS probably ought to come first. In case you’ve forgotten – and rumour says that you have – here is a helpful site to jog your memory.

dscn5795Of course living as we do on the edge of the French Riviera we can hardly expect sympathy for missing holidays. And actually last week, having been tipped off that the America’s Cup was coming to Toulon, we decided to take a day off and go and see what the fuss was about.  Our ignorance in this area was enormous and required a reading of the Wikipedia article to clarify matters. So for instance it has nothing at all to do with America: that was simply the name of the schooner that won the first prototype race in 1851. The present – the 35th America’s Cup – is sailed in 50-foot foiling catamarans. For the uninitiated these can go twice as fast as the wind and can get up to speeds of nearly 60 knots which is around 60 miles an hour.


So we drove the 45 minutes to the edge of Toulon – in the usual perfect summer weather with brilliant blue skies and temperatures heading upwards to 30 degrees – and took the very cheap bus to the beach area where the event was being held. You’ll not be surprised to learn that security was very tight, but we’ll blog about that next week.

The science dome with lots of submersibles for exploring the Mediterranean's floor

The science dome with lots of submersibles for exploring the Mediterranean’s floor

There was a big exhibition centre with some very fascinating science exhibits and Chris had a long and interesting chat with a French researcher on Mediterranean pollution which hopes he will be able to continue. The Toulon Port area is very busy marketing itself as the new hub for science, particularly marine and defence science, around the Mediterranean and we decided that if we were in the business of basing a new company somewhere you could do far worse than Toulon.

After lunch several thousand of us began to line the coast to watch the catamarans, as the racing was due to start at 2 o’clock. We sat out on hot rocks and soon got pretty baked ourselves. One fascinating feature was the presence of a replica 18th-century sailing ship La Grace, not dissimilar from those which the Royal Navy used when, having taken Toulon in 1793, they were bloodily evicted by French Republican forces led by a young and almost entirely unknown captain, Napoleon Bonaparte. It was a name they were going to hear a lot of.


Eventually six catamarans looking more like aircraft than boats assembled. They performed what we assume were practice manoeuvers, and sailed along the shore for the crowd to clap them.

The British and French boats doing their sail-past

The British and French boats doing their sail-past

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThen with all the spectators feeling the heat and the race ready to start…. the wind dropped. Nothing happened. After about three quarters of an hour of waiting and increasingly feeling like fried eggs, we slipped away and walked back into the centre of Toulon. It turned out in the end that racing was cancelled for the day. If you want to see what we should have seen, then try this YouTube clip.

Still Toulon is a pleasant place and even if we didn’t get to see the racing proper, it was a fun visit.

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Even Provencal summers end…

meteoWell it might not seem like it from the weather forecast for the next week or so but autumn is definitely in the air.  How do we know?

  • The supermarkets are suddenly empty of beefy Belgians staggering under crates of beer and bewildered Brits lost in the cheese section and cursing the exchange rate.
  • The collection of grapes – the vendage – is underway either by machines or human labour.
  • There are traffic jams at the start and end of the school day. Things have been made worse this year by heightened security around the schools.
The road round the primary school in Taradeau is blocked off

The road round the primary school in Taradeau is blocked off and this year there are stricter rules on when the gates will be open.

  • The beautiful flocks of bee-eaters whose habit of assembling loudly over the house at 6 am could get somewhat irritating have changed their pattern and are clearly ready to head southwards .
  • The hunting has started. So far, we think, only for woodpigeons. But if you want a classic example of French bureaucracy take a look at the document on official rules for hunting for our department: preferably on the very largest of screens. How anybody is supposed to police it is beyond comprehension. So for instance the hunting season for the Stock Dove Columa oenas ends on 20 February while that of the Wood Pigeon Columba palumbus ends on 10 February although a footnote tells us that you can hunt it for another week if you shoot from a fixed hide.

A key feature in most villages and towns at this time of year is a Fête des Associations. This is where all the clubs and societies come together with stalls and try to get new members for the coming winter. We turned up to ours at Taradeau and were delighted to see a number of people who we knew (and who knew us). One of the best stalls was to do with the project we have been involved in – cleaning up the Gallo-Roman settlement (the Oppidum) – and it was interesting to see what we achieved last year and what we hope to achieve this year. We may try to take up with the walking group and Alison is also considering helping out for an hour or so a week at the local school.

Cyril and Xavier at the oppidum stall. Xavier is the driving force behind the association.

Cyril and Xavier at the Oppidum stall with lots of ‘before and after’ photos behind.

There were some interesting conversations a number of which went along the following lines:

“What is Brexit?”
“The Prime Minister says that Brexit is Brexit.”
“What does that mean?”
“No one knows. It’s like…. a mushroom is a mushroom.”
“So is there a plan?”  (There is a lingering suspicion amongst the French that the British always have some sort of cunning and probably unethical plan.)
“It’s secret.”
“Who knows the secret?”
“No one.”
“Aah.”  Pause. “Would you like French nationality?”

davIn other news, Chris has been labouring away on his essays for Anglican readership. So far it’s going extremely well but at the cost of some very hard work. The pile of books is an entirely unposed photograph.

Also, the first volume in his Lamb Among the Stars trilogy (now only available in electronic format) is being promoted at the princely sum of 75p ($0.99) all this month on Amazon. Try it and then buy the other two books!

Last weekend we had a church weekend away which was both pleasant and stimulating. This is now our third one and it’s gratifying to see the numbers have increased each year.

The obligatory group photo!

The obligatory group photo!

And finally

In family news, we are delighted to announce the birth of Phoebe Elizabeth to Mark and Alice, our first granddaughter.


Not yet 12 hours old…

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