Toulon (again)

Toulon, the great French Mediterranean naval port, is our nearest city and where the Prefecture of our department (Var) is.  (Apparently because Napoleon was afraid the British would seize Toulon  he moved the prefecture inland to Draguignan and it was only moved back in the 1970s; a very long time after that particular threat had ended.)  Toulon lies at the foot of  the towering slopes of Mont Faron so that with limited space to expand the city has become rather congested and the traffic is legendary. Having had a busy week doing all sorts of things for Courmettes and others we decided to go and visit it before rising temperatures made it a sweaty urban obstacle course to be avoided.

There's a little park around the natural history museum with some very old trees

There’s a little park around the natural history museum with some very old trees

We also wanted to go because there was a time-limited exhibition on the fossils of the Var at the Museum d’histoire naturelle de Toulon et du Var This actually turned out to be very well done and of interest even to those whose geological knowledge is limited.

It transpires that there are lots of fossils in the area including some spectacular reptile remains and some rather large fossil birds. There was also a display of the fauna and flora of the region upstairs which, if you can overcome any dislike of stuffed animals, was actually interesting and informative.


Life-size replica: but I don't think we would want to have met a live one!

Life-size replica: but I don’t think we would want to have met a live one!


We then went on into Toulon for lunch and surrounded by an embarrassment of culinary riches stumbled upon an excellent restaurant,  Le Table de Lilith run by a very aimble couple from Normandy.  Then on westwards and then southwards to the peninsula of Saint-Mandrier-sur-Mer. One reason why Toulon became the great port of the French Navy is that it has an enormous enclosed bay. The good news about this is that it allows vessels to engage in training exercises without going into the open sea: the bad news is that it is very easy to blockade — something that the British did for four whole years during the Napoleonic War.

Anyway on the road to Saint-Mandrier-sur-Mer you can look back northwards to the port which is dominated by the stark grey vessels of the French Navy. Currently these include the mass of the Charles de Gaulle, France’s only aircraft carrier, which is undergoing an extensive refit.


A beautiful house sadly run down

A beautiful house sadly run down

We then had a brief walk along the coast at Saint-Mandrier in spring sunshine and then after puzzling why someone could let a lovely old house become ruined we headed back home through the city. It would actually be more accurate to say that we headed back under the city because we used the 3.2 km-long Toulon Tunnel which allegedly handles 30,000 vehicles a day. Not the place to be stuck in a traffic jam.


Boats at Saint-Mandrier

Boats at Saint-Mandrier

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The end of winter

From the end of last week we had about four days of thick wintry cloud, low temperatures with intermittent and half-hearted rain. Although such periods are not totally unknown in this area it was unusual enough to be commented on and seemed to have the same effect on the locals as those four-week long rainy spells in Swansea. People complained, looked grumpy, shouted at each other and kicked their Yorkshire Terriers. (That’s possibly a little exaggerated but the locals were not happy.) We didn’t manage to do much  but we did get a nice panorama from above Draguignan.


Then, sometime around midnight on the evening of Wednesday 15th, winter suddenly fled and spring began. We awoke Thursday morning to find not a cloud in the sky and the temperatures heading up into the high teens. On cue the almond and cherry blossom has started to come out, crocuses are springing up and there are anemones in the fields.


Given that we have a two-week break from French lessons on Thursday afternoon – it’s half term – we were able to make the Taradeau walking group afternoon ramble. (It was a small group because many of the others had gone on a full day trip to the ski resort at Greolieres.) And very pleasant it was too. Delightfully dry and warm enough that some people seem quite happy wearing T-shirts.


We went south of the motorway to the rather curious distinctive flat terrain of the Plaine des Maures which is dominated by umbrella pines on the thinnest possible sandy soil and then walked up into the end of the hard metamorphic rocks of the Massif des Maures which tends to be oak covered. As usual with the local walking group a good speed was maintained. The views however were spectacular and it was fun to see the remains of snow high on the distant peaks to the north.



Our department – Var – has two claims to fame. The first is that it is one of the most if not the most forested department in France: something easy to believe on the walk.  The second is paradoxically that it is the most militarised department in France with, amongst other things, the massive naval base at Toulon and the enormous Isle of Wight-sized firing range up on the plateau of Canjuers. On the walk the frequent buzz of helicopters from the training base just to the west  was a reminder that they prefer clear weather as much as we do.


Anyway, a pleasant 10 kilometre walk and after the grey clouds it was delightful at last to be out under the sun. Mind you if the temperature is 20 degrees in mid-February what will it be in late July?

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Short walks in a grey month

Sometimes it's hard to see where the path is going...

Sometimes it’s hard to see where the coastal path is going…

We gather the weather over much of western Europe has apparently been colder, wetter and greyer than for a number of years. It certainly has been so with us and that has kept us indoors more than usual. We’ve also had various things on to keep us occupied. So, for instance, all day last Saturday we were on a training course on protecting the vulnerable in a church context (the Church of England is taking this very seriously). We have however managed three walks in the last few weeks. The sunniest was a loop along the coast to the south of Frejus; we have a soft spot for blue skies and blue sea, even if the day wasn’t particularly warm. With coast quiet and deserted, it’s hard to imagine the clutter of sunbathers, swimmers, sailing boats and super-yachts just a few months away.

Coastal path looking north towards Frejus/St Raphael and the Esterel in the background

Coastal path looking north towards Frejus/St Raphael and the Esterel in the background

Another walk was up around the little village of Entrecasteaux, which has a very individualist chateau, a garden that may or may not be by the great landscapist, La Notre, and yes, a cricket team. Even on a winter’s day the chateau is still rather impressive.


Not far away from us, just south of the autoroute, lies the Plaine des Maures (pronounced ‘moor’) an extraordinary rolling terrain with the thinnest of soil on red sandstones, The plain is fascinating because it has its distinct vegetation, consisting of pines and cork oak, with bushes and herbs such as tree heath and lavender which somehow survive on the very acid soil. Ideally it should be visited when the sun is streaming throught the trees, but even on a dull day it’s an interesting place with a strange character all of its own.


The Plaine des Maures: Cork oak on the right and tree heath in the foreground.

Somewhat incongruously, in an area that can be very arid, there’s a large artificial lake that you can walk around. We’d love to say that it was full of birdlife, but all we saw were two teal and one great crested grebe.


The lake with the rugged Massif du Maures in the background

Despite the cloudy weather, and night-time temperatures only a little above freezing, there is a real sense of spring just around the corner. The owners of the vineyards around our village have been busy with pruning ready for the new shoots to start. The vines now look like rather dead stumps but within a few weeks they will start to sprout leaves and spring will be here!


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The impressive clock tower

The impressive square with the clock tower

Last Saturday was a grey drab day with rain looming and the Oppidum work party was cancelled. We needed to get out of the house so, on something of an impulse, we decided to head over to Aix-en-Provence. We’d visited a number of years ago while on holiday, but hadn’t done so since we moved down here, thinking rather vaguely that it was too far away. Actually it’s precisely an hour on the motorway: no further than Nice but in the other direction.

Restaurants and fine buildings on the left and a street market on the right

Restaurants and fine buildings on the left and a street market on the right

Aix prides itself on being one of Provence’s traditional centres of civilisation: it certainly has a long history stretching back to the Romans. One senses it feels distinctly superior to the troubled urban sprawl of Marseilles or the functional naval port of Toulon. There’s a highly thought of Aix-en-Provence festival, which seems to specialise in such things as a Mozart Cosi Fan Tutti  set “in Eritrea during the Italian occupation in the 1930s, extending the light-hearted story with a commentary on racism and fascism”. So it’s perfectly in keeping to find modern dance and solemn poetry being performed with great seriousness in an archaeological excavation. This desire to have an avant-garde more avant than anywhere else may be a compensation for the fact in the nineteenth century, Aix made the embarrassing faux-pas of ridiculing local boy Cezanne for his crude and amateurish artwork. They have made amends since with an art gallery that houses a few of his smaller paintings and some fine works by other painters. You can also visit his studio which we must do sometime.

The other side of Aix: a homeless person has pitched his tent opposite the cathedral

The other side of Aix: a homeless person has pitched a tent opposite the cathedral

We were also interested and encouraged to encounter outside the tourist office a group of young men from one of the local churches handing out John’s Gospels. To the surprise of many (and the alarm of some) the evangelical church in France is growing, with recent statistics showing a new church or fellowship being planted every ten days. These are indeed interesting times.



The cathedral of the Holy Saviour is a mix of ages and styles. This is the Renaissance dome over the 6th century baptistry.

Anyway the rain held off and we had a pleasant day wandering round. It’s a small enough town that walking is possible and there are no end of classy shops, specialist food outlets and boutiques and, it seems, some fine restaurants.  In France food and culture go together. Indeed for some people food is culture.


Apologies for the pun: Aix and pains.

A good visit, but next time we’ll try to go when it’s sunny.

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Oppidum and opportunities

What with travelling to the UK and rather grey weather here, we haven’t strayed far afield lately. We have however continued to be busy.

One thing has been our continuing involvement in the work of clearing the Taradeau oppidum where the team is making good progress on clearing the lower end of the site.


We were particularly heartened on the first work party of the new year, by the arrival of no less than the mayor along with cakes and (a particularly French touch) a bottle of champagne. It made for a classy mid-morning break.  Taradeau is the sort of village where your labours are appreciated.


Anyway, the task of clearing the site is advancing rapidly as you can see from the accompanying photos. Mind you, we will probably stop shortly after Easter, when rising temperatures make manual labour a little too demanding and we can’t burn the cut branches because of the fire risk.


In other news, although Courmettes is to some extent shut down at the moment – it is after all at over 800m altitude – there is still a lot going on. However, as ever, with Courmettes it’s a case of three steps forward and one or two back, because recent bad storms (which killed someone in a nearby village) did quite a lot of damage, especially to the big marquee which is used for wedding receptions. Nevertheless, things are gradually getting into gear for what promises to be the busiest year yet. The programme includes conferences and seminars, camps for children and youth, and in the autumn, the eighth Lausanne Movement conference on ‘Creation Care and the Gospel’.


All the side walls were damaged and though the structure looks intact, two of the metal bars fell and damaged the (new) flooring.

We otherwise have been keeping busy with various things. The two new reversible heat exchanger air conditioning units we have had installed in the house have proved excellent at keeping us warm in the cold weather (we have been down to -7 C) and will also help summer visitors staying when it’s really hot. Chris was preaching at Holy Trinity Cannes last week, and Giles, our chaplain, has boldly asked Alison to preach in March. Although she spends a lot of her time doing theological editing, this will be a first for her.

Lots to keep us busy!

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Families and fun with electricity

We had a pleasant if busy visit to the UK in the middle of January to see family. Particular high points were the next generation: John, Celia, Simeon and Joseph in Birmingham; Mark, Alice, Thomas and Phoebe in London. The timing for the trip was to allow us to be present for Phoebe’s baptism at the All Souls’ Clubhouse Church: fun and a real blessing!


Simeon, Celia, Joseph and John

Phoebe, Mark, Thomas and Alice after the baptism service

Phoebe, Mark, Thomas and Alice after the baptism service

We returned from a cold, grey and wet London to a no less cold but definitely sunnier and drier Provence. Our return was marked by a dramatic power cut late Thursday evening The power in the main part of the house went off, but bizarrely some circuits at separate ends of the house (happily including the kitchen) were operational. Fortunately too, given that the outside temperature was around -5°C, we were able to keep warm with our wood-burning fire. It’s events like this of course which make living in a new country challenging. Our growing list of tradesmen and artisans that we know and trust did not include a callout electrician.

Fixing the external fuse

Fixing the external fuse

On Friday morning we contacted someone from the Yellow Pages who promised to turn up in the morning, but for some he reason never arrived. We then did the most useful thing you can do, which is ask around the neighbours for recommendations. One of the names suggested turned out to be an extremely helpful electrician from a nearby town who was able to fit in a visit in the evening. He prodded and poked and said “you have a three-phase electrical system (news to us) and the problem is in your external fuse box”. He then called EDF (Électricité de France) who immediately sent someone out to put in a new fuse. They arrived twenty minutes later and gently (there’s 400 volts flying around in these three-phase circuits apparently) replaced a fuse the size of a little finger. And behold, there was light and power. Moral: get to know your neighbours.

In the meantime Alison had gone on to the annual ceremony of Voeux de Maire where the mayor gives the community good wishes for the New Year, which was extremely well attended. In Taradeau there seems to be a tradition of offering good wishes in different languages after the main speech has finished, and she was pleasantly surprised when the mayor (who we’ve now got to know through working up on the oppidum) summoned her by name to do so in English. Gratifying, but are we now Taradeau’s token Brits?

Standing room only

Standing room only

brexitIncidentally no one on this side of the channel seems at all impressed by the new clarity from ‘Mrs Mayhem’. There has been use of the French equivalent of “not being able to have your cake and eat it”: “On ne peut pas avoir le beurre et l’argent du beurre – You can’t have butter and the money for the butter.” Perhaps the best comment has been this cartoon from Belgium:

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From Christmas to New Year

We thought you might like to see a picture of our living room at Christmas, if nothing else to remind you that it does get cold enough down here to make a fire worthwhile. Indeed, we’re probably going to have to buy some more wood at the end of January – we’ve had a lot of nights below freezing.


Shortly after Christmas we decided to visit Nice by train. It’s a spectacular route round the coast, but we do wish that French railways would get around to washing the train windows  so you could actually see the view.

Nice is right in the corner of France and has more than once been part of Italy. In many ways it isn’t really a French city, with a lot of Italianate architecture, such as the main square. There is also, oddly enough, a very strong Russian influence. In fact, there is a weekly train service from Nice to Moscow – it sounds improbable but we’ve had it confirmed by two Russians in our French class.


One of the most spectacular evidence of the Russians in Nice is the cathedral, which apparently is the largest Russian Orthodox cathedral outside Russia. It’s rather weird wandering around it because you definitely don’t feel you’re in France. In fact inside we didn’t even feel we were in a church. Strictly speaking, you’re not supposed to take photos, but somehow Chris accidentally pressed his shutter button. It was built in memory of a Russian crown prince who died in Nice.



The amazing (and recently refurbished) turrets and domes

The amazing (and recently refurbished) turrets and domes

There is a rather sad plaque outside commemorating the visit by Tsar Nicholas II and his wife in 1912 for the dedication of the church. If he’d only known what history was about to serve up in 1917, he might have decided to linger on the Mediterranean coast.

We wandered on down to the sea, and then walked round the headland towards the port and so did a circuit back to the railway station. One reason why there have been so many foreigners in Nice is that it has a very much warmer climate than anywhere else in France. Often in winter it’s 10 or 12°C more than Paris, and 4 or 5°C more than Taradeau. It certainly proved to be so when we were there and there were genuinely people in bikinis on the beach and one or two brave souls swimming. We were not tempted.


If Christmas is less of a festivity in France than the UK, New Year’s Eve (Le Reveillon) is certainly celebrated with a great deal of enthusiasm. In the best French tradition it is dominated more by eating than drinking, and in the run up to it, the supermarkets are overflowing with all manner of delicacies. Our local actually had a special extension full of nothing but oysters.


There were also shelves of snails and foie gras. Incidentally, although we are more gastronomically adventurous  here than we normally would be, we pass on foie gras on the grounds of animal cruelty and actually we don’t care for diseased liver at the best of times. One has to have limits….

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