Beyond Toulon part 1

About a month ago we took five days holiday down on the coast. Yes, we would have liked to have taken more, but it was a bit of an experiment. As we have mentioned before, Toulon is very well known for its spectacular traffic jams and it’s not easy to go round it, because of the mountain immediately behind; this rules out day trips to the area to the west. So we based ourselves at Six-Fours-les-Plages with an AirBNB that was well, okay. From here we headed out westwards to a number of coastal towns, which had they not all been quite so heavily built up would have been very attractive indeed.

Google maps shows how built up the coast is. The dotted line between Saint Cyr and La Ciotat is the boundary between the departments of Var and Bouches du Rhone

In successive order west from Six-Fours they are Sanary-sur-Mer (which we have actually previously visited), Bandol, Saint-Cyr-sur-Mer and La Ciotat. The last is particularly interesting because it’s not simply devoted to residents and yachts but has quite a sizeable ship building and vessel maintenance area as well.

From La Ciotat we were able to wind our way along the “Route des Crêtes”, which runs over a protected area that is part of the Parc national des Calanques.

It has many claims to fame, the most striking being that the headland of Cap Canaille is, at 394 m (1,293ft), the highest sea cliff in France. Being France, there weren’t too many warning signs at stops where too far in the wrong direction would have been a serious mistake. We only saw one place where there were railings to stop you plunging 300 metres into the sea.

From the top of one of the cliffs looking towards the Calanques

From the tops of the cliffs we took the steep road into into the town of Cassis, which suffers from being very close indeed to Marseille. It must have been a very pretty town once and the port area is still charming, although when we were there we felt it had already reached and indeed exceeded saturation in the numbers of visitors. But it was good to at last visit it!

  • Cassis
  • Cassis
Looking back at the cliffs from Cassis
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Lavender and the lake

After last week’s blog we thought we’d go back to photos of the natural world.

In our part of France a key period is the end of June and beginning of July. This is the season where in the hinterland, mainly on the plateau of Valensole, but also elsewhere, the lavender comes into glorious bloom.

These great purple expanses attract many people, especially photographers. There are two sorts of these: the first are the happy snappers who, increasingly are armed with nothing more than their mobile phones; the second are also the serious photographers equipped with tripods and big bags of equipment. Some of the latter arrive early in the morning to catch the sunlight. Some, it is rumoured, bring along naked ladies to parade through the lavender. That we have to say is unconfirmed, but who knows?

The other Saturday we meandered our way through the area and enjoyed taking some amateurish but satisfying photographs. The lavender is also attractive not just to photographers but also to insects. Given that the flowering season is fairly short this raises interesting questions about where they come from and where they go to.

The plateau is above the huge reservoir of Lac Sainte-Croix, where in summer you can swim, hire all sorts of boats (as long as any engine is electric) or just have a picnic. The week after our trip to see the lavender, we thought we’d try something different and hired a two-person canoe from the beach by Salles-sur-Verdon.

We landed on a small island: Swallows and Amazons with Golden orioles. Climbing through the scrub we found an old map-maker’s location point from which there were great views up and down the lake.

It was fun. One of the great things about this part of the world is that it is sufficiently warm that you don’t have to don heavy wind and rainproof clothes when you go out on a boat. In fact the lake temperature at this time of year is sufficiently warm that you could easily spend half an hour in it without getting significantly cold. Let’s leave going purple for the lavender.

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Cannes film festival (again)

One displaced seasonal event this year has been – as we mentioned last week – the Cannes Film Festival.

It would take free film tickets and a slap-up buffet to persuade us to drive to Cannes specifically for it, but we go to church there. Anyway, before and after church last Sunday we had a wander round on the Croisette and stood in front of the famous red carpet.

‘But darling we haven’t made a film!’

TV presenters ‘live’ from the Croisette; the men who have the unenviable task of clearing all the rubbish; among the glitz, rough sleepers on the beach; someone who had a hard night going into one of the showings

No we didn’t see anyone famous, but then frankly we might not have recognised them if we had. Inevitably, given the still present pandemic, numbers this year are greatly reduced and we think a lot of people flew in and almost immediately flew out again once their particular film had been shown.

Our rough estimate was that it is about one-third as busy as normal and (a purely subjective option) there was a lot more French to be heard than normal. Certainly the heavy-weight Hollywood contingent seems to have been greatly reduced. The fact of the matter is however they had to make a good show of Cannes this year and they seem to have pulled it off. Everybody hopes that next year things will be more normal; which in Cannes terms means the conspicuous display of excess.

A rather fine sculpture: “Together”

You can’t have a festival without souvenirs…
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A favourite beach, a new walk and the Cannes Festival

On the first Saturday after lockdown was lifted we celebrated by going out to what is probably our favourite beach, the Plage du Débarquement at Dramont near St Raphael. We’ve mentioned it many times before so we won’t repeat ourselves! It is however shaded, scenic, interesting from a historic and geologic point of view, has clear waters and a good restaurant, with a great view.

The flowers on the edge of the beach were amazing!

It also has, at least on normal occasions, a fun walk round the headland of Dramont which, as a protected area, is good for birds, butterflies and bugs (again, see previous blogs!). Our attempt to go round it after lunch was however abruptly brought to a halt by the police.

The reason, we established, was that there was a cliff diving competition being staged for which they felt it necessary to seal off the entire headland (this spectacular video will give you the idea). Undaunted, we turned inland to the massive flooded quarry just beyond the railway line.

Why there is a quarry is that this area has a very high-quality intrusive igneous rock (no Chris won’t go into details) which has been used from Roman times onwards as a building and ornamental stone. From there we found a track which took us up along a badly-marked route to a summit from which we had some wonderfully spectacular views, although St Tropez was hidden in the haze. A good walk, even if it wasn’t quite what we had intended.

In other news, we were at Cannes on Sunday and preparations for the first film festival for two years were underway. The weather however was not obliging, as you can see from the photos. Since then the sun has come out and the local press at least has been making a great deal about a return to an almost normal Cannes Film Festival. Not quite, but it’s definitely progress.

Our church Holy Trinity Cannes is recovering too and we are cautiously seeing a progressive easing of restrictions. Singing however is still done from behind masks. Chris is leading this Sunday and it’s going to be interesting to see how the distinctly contrasting worlds of the church and the festival collide.

And finally, today marks the seventh anniversary of our arrival in France. Extraordinary!

Under the Channel
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A Rocha in the Vallée des Baux

In the last two blogs we’ve talked about our visit to the big A Rocha France centre at Courmettes. Shortly afterwards, we were able to drive over to Mas Mireille, the other centre near Arles. It’s a very much smaller place, in fact just a rented building (see our October blog on it), but there’s a lot of good science work being done there.

Both of us have a particular interest in this because first Chris, and now Alison, have found themselves on the sub-committee of A Rocha France that deals with the work done here in the Vallée des Baux, with its splendid wetland: the Ilon Marsh.

Heading up the work here is our good friend Timothée Schwartz, who is not just an expert on birds but on almost everything else that flies, creeps, wriggles or sprouts leaves. When we visited, Mas Mireille had resident research students from Switzerland, France, Hungary and Spain plus three French interns. What was particularly interesting was that although there were no native English speakers (thank you Brexit) the common language used was actually English.

Planning the week’s activities

We went out with Timothée to help with his continued monitoring and ringing of the resident population of European rollers, which are something of an iconic bird in the south of France. Some nest in trees here, others in the purpose built nest boxes put up by A Rocha France.

Below: taking a roller out of a nest box, ringing and measuring it

Recording the data. Alison didn’t deliberately chose the shirt to colour coordinate with the roller

Insect-eating, rollers overwinter south of the Sahara, before returning in spring. Timothée has been involved in some fascinating on-going research on their migration routes (see the recent news article on the A Rocha France website). Currently roller populations seem to be reasonably stable, but given the decline in insect populations almost everywhere, there are inevitable concerns about their future.

The work going on from Mas Mireille is not simply to do with rollers, but includes the European turtle, amphibians, the splendid and very large Ocellated lizard, various butterflies, dragonflies and bats as well as wetland management.

The team plus Alison. We did take our masks off to eat!

The Vallée des Baux sub-committee is starting to put together some digital and printed information about the conservation programs being done by A Rocha France out of Mas Mireille. If you would like to receive this, do let us know. Also, any volunteers, especially to be a centre manager, would be welcome. There’s no salary, but they are fun and worthwhile jobs.

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Back at Courmettes part 2

We mentioned last week that we had been up at Courmettes for the A Rocha France trustees meeting. Although much of the time was taken up with meetings, there were a couple of forays across the domaine, including one late Saturday afternoon which went on into the evening.

It’s very much the best time of year at Courmettes. Everything is still green, the flowers are wonderful, and there isn’t the enveloping heat that you get in late summer.

Photographically it was also very attractive because the recent rains had left the air fairly clear. What was particularly good was that there were a number of people present who hadn’t realised either the extent or the diversity of the landscapes that are part of the area A Rocha France is responsible for. The result was the usual: a tremendous feeling of appreciation but also the sense of challenge.

an early evening picnic

And finally, some Courmettes landscapes: cliff, wood and pond

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Back at Courmettes part 1

After an absence of over a year we finally made it back to the A Rocha France centre of Les Courmettes on the first weekend in June. The reason was a gathering of the trustees of A Rocha France, one of whom is Chris. After very unsettled weather we were fortunate that the weather was good which meant that all the meetings could be outdoors.

We were able to hold an evening bonfire

It was good to be back! In the last year an enormous amount of progress has been made under obviously very difficult circumstances. One of Chris’ tasks was to take photos of some of the newly redecorated rooms for publicity. For information, there are small rooms suitable for couples, family rooms, two dormitories which would work well with students or young people, and a couple of apartments which are really quite ‘classy’ with splendid views down over the coast.

We were still very much at what we hope is the end of the pandemic, which meant that masking was strictly imposed indoors but not outside.

We also had the opportunity to walk round the site in all its beauty and we’ll give you some of the photographs of that next week. There were however two wildlife highlights which we’ll illustrate here. The first was an enormous flock of wheeling Griffon vultures just to the south of the buildings, obviously keeping their eye on some dead corpse or other. We think there were around 50 but they weren’t easy to count.

The second was a remarkable encounter with a wolf. One of the trustees, Malcolm White, went for a solitary early morning walk on the Sunday and managed to get some photographs, one of which, with his permission, we reproduce below. Although wolves have been recorded on the estate (and indeed the sheep farmer has complained about them), they are largely nocturnal, so to see one in daylight, let along photograph it, was a real bonus. Fun!

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Forgotten valleys

One of our least loved areas of France is the north-east where the flattest of landscapes stretches on into infinity with no more than the odd bump or ditch. We are very fortunate where we live that, in contrast, we have a fascinating landscape. Particularly around Lorgues itself are a great number of gentle wooded ridges separated by long flat and farmed valleys. Chris presumes that it’s something like a rippling or a buckling of the surface close to the edge of the first of the Alpine thrusts. The origin is frankly of no matter: the result is a delightful scenery.

Some of these valleys are precisely on the way from nowhere to nowhere and have at best a narrow dusty road running through them. They are easily overlooked and recently we’ve discovered a couple we had long overlooked. They are so attractive that, rather selfishly, we won’t give precise locations except to say they are not a vast distance from Entrecasteaux. We’ve had a couple of walks recently along one which were very pleasant. Although you aren’t far away from a main road there is virtually no traffic; indeed you almost feel you wouldn’t be surprised if a horse and cart were to come past.

The valley floors are almost universally covered with vines, which show every evidence of being carefully tended. Every so often there are glimpses of charming old Provencal farmhouses, screened by cypress and other trees.

One particular pleasure was the discovery that the valley had at least four pairs of European rollers which are very much an ‘iconic’ bird for this part of the world. Not only are they highly attractive but they tend to perch high on wires and poles and only fly away when you get very close.

We have a particular interest in rollers as a good friend of ours in A Rocha France, Timothée Schwartz (just awarded a well deserved PhD for his work on the impact of nest boxes on roller breeding) is something of a regional expert on these birds. Rollers, or not, its a charming valley that we will be returning to.

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Clouds and the Esterel

Despite the fact that we are now well into June, the weather is still unsettled, cloudy and with episodes of rain. All very strange. Still enjoying our freedom from travel restrictions, the other Saturday we went to Saint Raphael on the coast, had an enjoyable if slightly chilly meal at a restaurant overlooking the harbour and all the yachts, and then drove on the overlooked and little known tracks that go into the heart of the rugged Esterel massif.

Here amid the hard volcanic rocks the landscape is astonishingly different. It’s best seen when the sun is shining and there is a vivid contrast between the orange coloured rocks and the azure sky. This wasn’t one of those days but it actually made for good walking because we have found in the past that in high summer this can be a baking and airless area.

In summer, the extreme aridity and the impermeable nature of the rocks means that springs are rare. However, after the recent rains there were in fact pools of water and even a rapidly drying lake. What was particularly attractive was the wealth of wild flowers. Whether it’s because we were confined this time last year or not, they seemed to be particularly abundant.

It wasn’t an epic walk but it is such a different setting that it feels like being somewhere totally different. We did however find a new hazard in life. Electric bikes are becoming a big thing down here. There are a lot of steep slopes, peddling is hot and hard work in summer, and the French love new technology, particularly when it goes fast. The Esterel appears to be somewhere that people, seemingly on hired e-bikes, feel that they can hurtle around at enormous speed. Given that, unlike motorbikes, they are also silent, the result is that the likelihood of a collision is high. The problem is heightened in that some of the worst offenders appear to be seriously overweight, the bikes themselves are heavy and the speeds involved are substantial. You can do the physics yourself. Death by e-bike seems a very 2021 way to go…..

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South of Carcès part 2

We mentioned last week that we got up to the old chapel of Saint Vincent. What astonished us was the fact that just below it was a splendidly ruined castle that we had never seen or heard of. We continue to be astonished that after well over six years in this part of France we keep discovering things that in Britain would be road-marked 30 km away.

When we checked the map, we found it was the old castle (le Chateau Vieux) of Vins-sur-Caramy – the town was hidden on the other side of the ridge. Sometime we must visit Vins-sur-Caramy – it has a ‘new’ chateau built during the Renaissance, which apparently is very fine!

From the chapel there’s hardly a sign of buildings: the villages and towns are hidden down in the valleys between the various ridges.

Had we had the time, we might have gone down to see whether we could actually pay it a visit, but this being late spring 2021, the clouds were gathering. So prudence dictated a descent. We continued on down through forestry tracks, meeting the only other people we saw, two mountain bikers, and ended up in some splendid gently rolling countryside with expanses of vineyard and a delightful display, again, of flowers.

We would have lingered to take more photos, but at this point the rain started. It was time to head back to the car!

Vines and poppies

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