August miscellany

We’ve been travelling to visit family this month and then having other family members visit, so we haven’t got round to doing anything very special on the blog. Instead we thought we’d share some picture of two villages in the eastern part of Var which we visited recently: typical of the region they are both ‘perched’ villages with old houses clustered together on top of hills.

Seillans is one of a number of villages along the edge of a valley. The street up to the old part is steep and winding, and typically for these villages, the streets narrow and lined with tall houses.

A restaurant in one of the small squares

Mons is more difficult to access and proved to be strangely hard to park in on the day we visited. But it turned out that there was a wedding on: hence the crowd.

A thoroughly charming village but we aren’t sure we would want to live there in winter!

Wedding guests outside the town hall

In France it’s the mayor who performs weddings, so here’s the mayor of Mons waiting to welcome the bridal couple

Mons runs along a ridge with steep drops on either side: a very defensible position.

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Notre Dame de la Garde Marseille

And with this blog we come to the last of our series on Marseille – that is, until we visit it again.

Many major cities have identifying monuments: Big Ben tells a cinema audience they are now in London; a glimpse of the Eiffel Tower and it’s Paris. For Marseille, it’s the curious towering structure of Notre Dame de la Garde which, perched on a high hill, literally overlooks the entire city.

Visitor be warned! On a warm day it’s hard work climbing up the nearly 150 m to the entrance. You are however rewarded by an astonishing view of the sprawl that is modern Marseille and out towards some of the rocky islands.

Looking south

looking north

Not only is the building high, but it’s surmounted by a bell tower supporting a monumental statue of the Virgin and Child. You might expect to find a fort on such a hill rather than a church, and in fact if you look closely from a distance (as the first photo here) you can see that it does indeed rest on an older fortress.

The basilica is apparently the ‘most visited’ site in Marseille, and we can believe it, although there was plenty of room on the wide platform round the building to admire the amazing view.

Although there has been a church of some sort on the site from the earliest days of Christianity in France, the current basilica was built in the mid 19th century but with a distinctly backwards look towards Roman basilicas. The result is in many ways rather disconcerting. You feel it ought to be incredibly ancient, but it isn’t. The architect probably wanted to offend no one but ended up annoying everybody.

When your eyes get used to the distinctly fussy interior with its architectural embellishments (which probably have names) you’re stuck by how ‘Greek’ it looks. Although it’s a Catholic church, it was deliberately built in the Byzantine style so there’s Greek lettering as well as Latin round the edges of the domes. Those domes are inlaid with mosaic of gold and bright colours. It’s sumptuous but is that how a church is supposed to look?

But it’s not just the colours that stand out, but the model ships on strings which hang from the ceiling. On closer examination the models also include aeroplanes. Why? There’s been a long tradition of giving votive offerings of thanks to “Our Lady” of La Garde (Notre Dame de la Garde) for safety in travel, so, ships and planes, and a few lifebelts, abound. The walls of every side chapel are covered in paintings representing images of prayerfully averted disaster . Some of these are extremely curious…

 

 

Are the nuns giving thanks that the aeroplane missed them or that they survived the crash?

To be honest, as an example of ecclesiastical architecture, we weren’t particularly struck by the church. Nevertheless the view (and the quirky offerings) makes the ascent worthwhile.

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Marseille part 2

Even in the course of our single day’s exploration of Marseille, we found ourselves stumbling across various elements of what has been a dramatic and frequently turbulent history. In vaguely chronological order, we came across the following.

As the history books will tell you, Massalia was a Greek colony founded around 600 BC. The town’s history museum was built alongside the remnants of the ancient port, discovered in the late 1960s during excavations for a new shopping centre. The museum is on our list when we visit another time.

Christianity came to Marseille in late Roman times, but the town suffered attacks from the Saracens in the 8th and 9th centuries, who destroyed the 5th-century monastery of St Victor. Its rebuilding in the 11th century was with fortified towers which make its remains look much more like a castle than a church. As with other layers of Marseille’s history, it’s now surrounded by newer buildings and parked cars.

In the 16th century Francis I had a fort built on a small island just off the harbour entrance to protect the coast from invasion. This was the Chateau d’If, made famous by Alexandre Dumas in The Count of Monte Cristo. Political prisoners (basically anyone who disagreed with the government, including, for a long time, Protestants) were sent here from the late 16th to the 19th century. Some time we will pay it a visit, but in the meantime here it is with a modern marina behind slightly spoiling the effect of its high cliffs and towers.

It wasn’t just in medieval and early modern times that the city’s history was turbulent: it was a centre for the French Revolution and gave rise to France’s current national anthem (La Marseillaise). You might think that the two forts which flank the entrance to the old harbour were built to keep enemies out, but no. When they were built on the orders of Louis XIV in the 1660s, their guns were trained inland towards the unruly town.

Fort Saint Jean on the west side of the harbour.  The main part of Fort Saint-Nicolas is just out of the picture on the left but you can see the lower wall.

And finally, Marseille was occupied by the Germans in 1942 and suffered extensive damage during its liberation in 1944. Shell marks on the wall supporting the basilica of Notre Dame de la Garde have been preserved as a reminder of the conflict.

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To Marseille, Part 1

As we have mentioned, we’ve only really taken three days proper holiday this year, but the other week we did decide to make a long-promised rail trip to Marseille. In theory, it’s a little over an hour away by car, but we are not lovers of driving into the centre of unknown French conurbations. And besides, we had a good deal with the railway, (who were not on strike that day), and gave us cheap tickets.

One of the things that strikes you about the impressive Gare St Charles at Marseille is the sense of the town as the gateway to the French colonies. Even before the Suez Canal was opened in the 1860’s  Marseille served French North Africa, that vast expanse from Morocco to Tunisia including  Algeria, which was (unwisely) considered part of France until the 1960s. It also served the West African colonies, but from the latter part of the 19th century became the departure point for anyone travelling to the French colonies of SE Asia, the Indian Ocean and the Pacific. It had an important role but the rise of air travel and the collapse of empire has left it all but a memory.

This plinth of “Asian Colonies” at the bottom of the steps is matched by one on the other side for “African Colonies”. Its  revealing that both colonies are represented by semi-naked women.

As you walk down towards the old port there are various buildings and monuments which testify to Marseille’s imperial role, including the very impressive former Chamber of Commerce which features ships along the front.

Mind you, gateways can open both ways, and from overheard conversations it was extraordinary how much Arabic was around.

The imposing steps from the station — those colonial monuments are at the foot of them.

We went down to the old port which is now full of yachts and pleasure boats of all kinds. (It’s not big enough for the modern ferries and cruise liners.) Here you can take a boat to view some of the local coast or islands, but all we did this time was get on the little ferry from one side of the harbour to the other.

The old port

There’s a new port where cruise liners dock and where we walked was full of tourists.

The “new” port was full of cruise ships and ferry boats

The new Marseille is bustling and lively but you can’t help but think that the city has lost a lot what the French consider so important: its glory. But perhaps given the troubled history and legacy of the colonies that loss of la Gloire may be no bad thing.

 

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An excess of purple

Last September Alison joined an association based in Lorgues, the International Women’s Club of Provence (IWCP) and in fact has just been made secretary.  The club exists to provide friendship and social interaction and one way of doing this is by encouraging participation in different activities.

One of those activities is photography under the tuition of a former professional photographer who offered to share her knowledge with those who want to learn more about using a ‘proper’ camera. So since Alison joined she has been experimenting with shutter speeds, focal lengths and depth of field etc. As the practical to the course there was a trip to the lavender fields about an hour to the north of us. So here are some photographs and yes, the colours are like that.

We were six altogether including Chris, whose interest in photography goes back decades and obviously couldn’t miss such an event.

Chris taking a photo of the group

And this is the photo he took.

The lavender fields in full bloom are an amazing site and unsurprisingly we weren’t the only people taking photos.

These fields are situated on the far side of Lac Saite Croix and have as background the mountains at the edge of the Gorges du Verdon.

Photos, though wonderful, don’t convey the smell and the ceaseless sound of the bees among the flowers.

 

Oh and though the club is an International Women’s Club, the events aren’t all just for women. The men get to join in too, for instance on the walking and singing groups, and at other social get-togethers. Now that Alison has become secretary for the club you will doubtless hear more about the IWCP.

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South Luberon, football and Boris

This is a final cluster of photographs from our trip to the Luberon, this time in the southern part. And yes do have something to say about the football, but the pretty pictures come first.

The cedar forest near Bonnieux was first planted in the 19th century with seeds from north African cedars. Today it has numerous marked trails to follow, some with botanical information.

Bonnieux from the cedar forest, showing the old ramparts

And here’s what some of the ramparts look like from inside the village, with houses in them that are still lived in.

And finally, we didn’t stay long in the village of Lourmarin which was crowded with tourists; it has a castle you can visit, but we gave it a miss on this occasion.

On the football

A local waiting for a match to start

We confess to being slightly relieved that Croatia beat England. This avoided divided loyalties had the final been between England and France. Actually, we probably would have shouted for France, which we certainly will do now. Where, you ask, is our “English” patriotism? The answer is that it is strained to the breaking-point and beyond. In all the discussions on Brexit, the situation of the very many British citizens living within the EU has almost entirely been ignored. With a theoretical date of 29th March next year for Britain leaving the EU it is scandalous that there has been no attempt whatsoever to provide for the legal status of people like us. Apparently it has even been alleged that someone in the government has said that they are the responsibility of the country they live in. Very well, if you want to forget about us, we hope you don’t mind if, when it comes to football, we forget about you.

In related news, we were delighted to hear of the departure of Boris Johnson from his position of British Foreign Secretary. His presence was not just adding insult to injury, it added embarrassment to it as well. Not long ago Chris met a German man in our Skoda garage and quite literally, within a minute, the German said,  in good English, “Your foreign secretary is an idiot”. To which the only honest reply Chris could make was “Yes”. Boris has been a particular problem for the French, who treat diplomacy with the utmost seriousness, knowing from bitter experience that failures in diplomatic action lead to deadly wars. Here ambassadors and the like seem to be trained to think silently for several seconds as they compose a careful, measured reply to any question even if it’s only “Would you like a coffee?” Can we please not have any more bungling amateurs with monumental egos representing the UK?

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Orange soils and limestone ridges

As noted last week we recently took a three-day trip to the west of us into the Luberon part of Provence. Continuing our explorations of the area we visited one of the hilltop villages in the north of the region, Rousillion. The village is surrounded by a huge ochre deposit, which was mined extensively during the 19th and early 20th centuries and exported all over the world. The ochre gives rocks and soils that range from yellow through orange to red, and the colours of the houses in the village reflect this. So unsurprisingly Rousillon is a magnet for tourists as the reds, yellows and oranges contrast with the green of the vineyards and the pine trees and all against a vivid blue Provencal sky. Unsurprisingly we took lots of photos, and we assure you that the colours are genuine!

One of the attractions of Rousillion is that you can walk the ‘ochre trail’ through an old quarry, now a nature reserve, winding through the strikingly weathered cliffs of the ochre-laden clay.

A wall and archway still guard the path to the top along the cliffside

In complete contrast is the village of Saint Saturin lès Apt (lès meaning it’s ‘from’ or ‘of’ Apt). The long limestone ridge has been occupied since pre-Roman times, followed by various stages of medieval fortifications, of which the ramparts and the 12th century chapel still remain.

 

Only the chapel remains of the buildings on the top of the hill

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The other end of the ridge is occupied by the last remaining windmill of four which used to stand there. Since medieval times the village has progressively moved down the hill so that it now hugs the edge of it instead of being on top.

The remnants of medieval towers and walls above the later village

It’s quite a climb to the top of the ridge but once up, you can see why it made such a good defensive site, with a wonderful view over the surrounding countryside.

It’s a fine area but, as a friend recently commented rather sadly “It’s been gentrified”. We are afraid so.

 

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