Aups

What with doing various things on the house, Christmas and some uninspiring weather, we haven’t really been out and about a lot. Last Saturday we headed inland to Aups (pronounced ‘oops’). We had been prompted by the news of the death of its distinguished inhabitant, Christopher Tolkien, and did wonder whether there would be any notice of what the French call les obsèques, which is more or less translated as ‘funeral service’.  In France there is a distinction between les funérailles, a send-off which aims for pomp and ceremony, and les obsèques, which are much lower key: round here the latter is far more common. (In the event Christopher Tolkien, who surely deserved the full les funérailles treatment, had a private and unannounced family ‘send-off’ at our local crematorium on Wednesday.)

Aups is one of those towns that dramatically change character from winter to summer. In summer it is full of tourists pausing on their way up to or back from the spectacular Lac Sainte Croix and Gorges de Verdon. In winter, it slips back to being a rather quiet provincial town where everyone seems to know everyone else and is probably related to them. There’s many of the typical features of ‘France profonde’, the Saturday market where everyone seems to do a lot more talking than buying; the bars where people have had their coffee and are already on stronger stuff by mid-morning; the sporting shop, full of a rather scary array of weapons for killing animals and (rather worryingly) defending yourself. There are also memorials to all sorts of forgotten events, including floods and what was probably one of France’s last local uprisings, which was put down in 1851.

In summer these chairs would be full, but now everyone’s inside the cafe

Another feature, and it’s an interesting one, are the narrow, high-sided terraced streets, many of which obviously go back many centuries. These are attractive to the visitor but raise all sorts of problems, notably who exactly wants to live in them these days? You can’t park near and it’s not even easy to get a car in front of them. The houses are ill-lit, noisy and have stairs that are unsuitable for anyone with restricted mobility. One other problem is that it’s all very well for you to do up your house, but what happens if your neighbours let theirs fall into decay?

Still, there’s plenty to see, a couple of decent restaurants, some interesting shops and several churches and chapels. Above all, there’s what is rare in the 21st century: a sense of being somewhere with deep roots that has not been overrun by burger bars, out of town hypermarkets and franchised coffee bars. Here the old France is still alive.

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The Passing of the Inklings and Lorgues part 2

Buried right at the end of volume 3 of Lord of the Rings, easily overlooked in the Appendices that only geeks read – and then probably only once – is the brief mention that eventually, long years after the War of the Ring and Sauron’s destruction, Sam went to the Grey Havens ‘and passed over the Sea, last of the Ring Bearers’. It’s an oddly mournful phrase that came to mind when we heard that some time on Wednesday night Christopher Tolkien had died in our local hospital at the age of 95. He lived a somewhat reclusive existence well off the road about half an hour away making only rare appearances in the wider world. The press has noted his important role as the guardian of the world of the Lord of the Rings. What has not been noted, but is also significant, is that he was (and thank you Colin Duriez for confirming this) the last surviving member of the legendary Inklings. At the age of 21 he became a member of the extraordinary Oxford literary group which included not just his father but also C S Lewis and a host of other writers and scholars, most of whom were Christian. Christopher Tolkien long outlived them all and with his death an age ends.

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We are beginning to find out a lot more about Lorgues. You won’t get much about it from any of the tourist guides, but it’s a charming town, full of an enormous amount of history that is easily overlooked. The centre at least has avoided the horrors of planning and some main road that carves through the middle: what is effectively a ring-road has spared the town centre. As for that other scourge of towns, bombing, Lorgues has also been spared, although the Americans did accidentally bomb the school during the liberation of the south of France, causing 15 deaths.

This wall painting on the side of the wine cooperative gives a view of Lorgues as it must have been in the 1960s. Indeed, it is the mental picture of Lorgues that some people still have.

The history down here is long and complicated, even for France. For Christmas we got a rather fine book on the history of Lorgues, which, despite being fairly terse, runs to 300 pages. There are some very fine indvidual buildings but also many little details that are easily overlooked. Some buildings go back to the 15th century, and others even further. One of the features of towns like Lorgues is that these centuries of habitation have resulted in many of the houses being reworked, recycled or modified to the extent that its hard to say what they really are now. The result of this is that you need to be a bit of a detective to work out which bit is 15th century and which is 17th.

The “New Square”. The mid-18th century building in the middle behind the plane tree was originally a court house (Palais de Justice), the equivalent to a county court in England, now an annex of the town hall.

Lorgues however, is not simply history. We were at the formal ceremony of the presentation of the mayor’s good wishes for the new year to the community. It’s treated here very seriously; there was standing room only in the large salle des fêtes, and M. Alemagna gave a lengthy speech. In summary he expressed the view that Lorgues was successfully balancing substantial growth with maintaining its rich heritage. That’s certainly a challenge, given the substantial population increase in the area. We wish him well.

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A new year's day cycle

In our previous house at Taradeau we never did as much cycling as we would have liked. One of the main reasons for this was that to cycle anywhere from the village meant either climbing around 200m (500 feet) onto the plateau behind (not pleasant in high temperatures), or crossing various fast roads along the valley floor. Here in Lorgues, things are very different. Five minutes cycle from our house puts you onto one of the main European bike routes and there are all sorts of lanes and tracks in the area.

So, having moved here, we decided it was time for Alison to have a new bike, the old one having been bought more than 15 years ago; it was something of a Christmas present. With New Year’s Day bright, windless and reasonably warm, we decided to take the bikes down to the coast in the car and cycle from Ste Maxime to St Tropez. It’s not a demanding cycle; we have done it before and it totals around 30 km.

The cycle route follows the D559 and the D98A but is separated from the traffic.

The views however in winter are splendid and off season St Tropez is actually quite charming . So here’s a complication of photos of the cycle trip. We’ll try and do something more adventurous another time.

We stopped for coffee part way round at La Tarte Tropézienne which not only has mouthwatering pastries and breads but a poster of the 1956 film which launched the career of Brigitte Bardot and made St Tropez the place to be.
St Tropez from the bike path
Looking across the Gulf of St Tropez to snow-covered moutains
The bikes at St Tropez and looking back to where we came from
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A Christmas Miscellany

Somehow, the Christmas season is already over. We can’t say that we did an awful lot, but given that we’re still doing bits and pieces with the new house it’s not surprising that we didn’t attempt anything too adventurous. However, one thing we did do was to organise an English-language carol service in a little used chapel attached to a retirement home here in Lorgues, which was something of a novelty. Despite appalling weather during the day, we had forty people for the evening service, most of whom were not regular church goers. Chris preached and we were very pleased with the way it all went and feel that it bodes well for the future. We don’t have many photos of the event itself as we were too busy organising it!

Setting up the Christmas tree before the carol service

The week before, there was a Christmas event organised by the International Women’s Group which attracted a good number of women and a few men. Alison is vice-president and as the president was ill, she had to do all the announcements. It’s all part of getting involved in the community.

The bad weather continued up to a couple of days before Christmas with the result that Cannes had an unusually wind-swept and wintery appearance. Anyone who considers the Mediterranean simply in terms of gentle, placid, warm blue seas would have been in for something of a surprise. In fact across the area there has been quite a lot of damage through fallen trees, felled power lines and landslides.

Just before Christmas we drove over to Aix en Provence, just over an hour away, to do a bit of Christmas shopping and just enjoy the very difference ambiance of what is a very fine town that prides itself on its culture and class. It is full of lots of very specialised shops and has an extremely fine Christmas market with some high-quality products for sale.  

Christmas market
Streets in the old town

So, a good Christmas, but we find we are already bracing ourselves for what 2020 will bring. Over here, the phrase ‘getting Brexit done’ merits only a cold smile or a weary shake of the head. There are an awful lot of questions still to be answered and a good many loose ends yet to be tied up. Whether the new goverment in the UK can actually deliver on the many bold promises made ( or is it ‘made up’?) by the Prime Minister is going to be very interesting indeed.

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Lorgues Christmas

Last week we posted a picture taken from above our house. Here’s another more dramatic one taken from the same place, as the sun sets. The wet, warm weather has given good sunsets.

Christmas here approaches at the same speed as the UK but without its urgency. We’re always grateful that there’s not the same frantic busyness or commercialism here as in the UK and that the season doesn’t start quite so soon. Nevertheless, the supermarkets are stocked up with wrapping paper, foie gras, chocolates and smoked salmon, and the towns have had their decorations up for a while. Lorgues has a splendid (artificial) tree outside the town hall, which looks very impressive at night. Of course there is a scrupulous avoidance of anything that might be seen as religious but some of the more bizarre Santa manifestations are avoided too.

This local restaurant has gone in for a snow theme.

One of the biggest features of Lorgues at this time of year is its Christmas market, with everything from locally produced food to the traditional provencal crèche figures (the santons).

But if the date is approaching fast, the weather is odd. Not that we expect the crisp and even snow of the Christmas cards here, but it is too warm, and has not only been wet but very windy. We returned home one day last week to find ourselves in a tempest of leaves, as they flew off the oak trees and (mostly) into our driveway. But at least the sun was shining.

Yes those are leaves, not birds up there.

Our Christmas tree is up, our cards displayed (many thanks to all who sent physical or electronic cards or news), and our nativity scene just awaits the baby Jesus to take centre stage. Amazingly the house is more or less finished; we have just had delivery and installation of a state-of-the-art reversible air conditioning unit, which quietly pumps out heat at the moment and should do the same with cold in summer. Apparently it is claimed to give 5kw of heat for 1kw of energy used. We will see if our electricity bill reflects this.

We are going to take a break for Christmas and won’t be posting again until Saturday 5th January. So to all our readers, a very happy and blessed Christmas and best wishes for the new year. Joyeux Noël et meilleurs voeux pour la nouvelle année.

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Lorgues part 1

We realise that in discussing how we have moved to Lorgues that we haven’t really written a lot about it. So this is the first of what will be a couple of blogs with pretty pictures.

Lorgues from the hill above our house

There are many good things about Lorgues. One of them is its architectural heritage. Like so many French towns there’s tons of history at the centre. There are what must be a couple of hundred ancient buildings squashed against each other with barely a straight line in sight, twisting and turning streets just wide enough for donkeys to pass, venerable doorways revealing winding stairs and shadowed hallways, old wells, time-battered doors and half glimpsed courtyards and crumbling towers.

There are street signs and memorials that point to ancient mills, olive presses and washing places and all sorts of echoes of long forgotten traditions, professions and tragedies, some of which go back over half a millennia.

Lorgues is not a big town and you could walk across the old part in ten minutes and although there are few individual buildings of a quality to make you stand and marvel the cumulative effect is rich and rewarding. There is history here; a history not just of aristocracy and epic events but of generations of ordinary people struggling to make a living in what was for a very long time one of the poorest backwaters of France.

Thankfully too, Lorgues has not really been ‘discovered’ and despite being so close to the Côte d’Azur the centre of Lorgues has not been gentrified; indeed most of the old houses appeared to be lived in all year round by locals. Some one suspects are family houses going back centuries.

It’s charming, but we should offer a caution to anyone at risk of being seduced into buying some apartment or building in the centre of one of these Provençal towns. Yes, they are wonderful to wander around, and it’s fun to dream of living in one but the practicalities are actually rather daunting. There is generally no nearby car parking and sometimes no car access at all and there are generally no views other than into your neighbours’ window. Perhaps above all, air conditioning is rare and often impossible to install which means that on hot, humid Provençal summer nights all you can do is sweat quietly, throw the windows wide and try to ignore the noise and music from the lives of others just a few yards away.

So although we enjoy walking amid the accumulation of years and lives that there is at the centre of Lorgues it’s a relief to be able to walk out of the town, climb up under the pine trees of the hill of St Ferreol and slip down the little road to our own house; nowhere near as picturesque or overflowing with history, but quiet and peaceful.

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A December miscellany

We ended last week’s blog with a mention of the emergency services and the words “ready for the next time”. They were, as it turns out, uncomfortably prophetic because the day after we published the blog the heavens opened again, and what felt like a substantial part of the Mediterranean fell as rain over Provence. We very nearly turned back from going to church because conditions were so torrential, but persevered. Damage this time was slightly less, but sadly, another six lives were lost. The figures are that many parts of our region had about 80% of their annual rainfall in under 30 days.

As we mentioned last time, one of the effects of the heavy rain has been widespread landslides. This was in evidence when we drove up to Courmettes for what was almost certainly the last time this year. Going into the gorges of the River Loup, the road has slipped away and the diversion is now along the 19th-century railway line. This pattern of landslide and diversion could probably be repeated a hundred times in the area.

It was good to be back up at Courmettes, although we are fairly certain from our memories of living there five years ago that we didn’t get 15°C temperatures at the end of November.

In connection with A Rocha France Chris went up to Lyon last weekend for a Board of Trustees meeting. He had an interesting encounter on the train which he thinks highlights a fundamental difference between France and Britain. His allotted seat turned out to be opposite someone who was transcribing a music score by hand, and as Chris knew the music (Arvo Pärt, Für Alina), they got into conversation. A moment later someone else in the carriage joined in the discussion on the music and then – you can’t make this stuff up – the guard passing through turned out to be a musician too, so he joined in discussing the score. It might happen on a British train, but Chris doubts it.

At the house the garden is drying out after the wet weather and we thought we’d put in a few pictures of our vegetation. The olive trees are looking very healthy and attract a large number of Sardinian warblers. The lemons are fun, but we’re not sure what we can do with them. It’s also fun to have a small number of cactuses.

And finally, we have unpacked all our books and put them in the old garage. Unfortunately when we had someone round to give us an estimate for putting in insulation and covering the beams, he pointed out that in order to complete the work we would have to pack everything up and clear the room. Oh well.   

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