Manmade disasters and Malpasset

Recently Chris took one of the geologists from Wheaton College around the area of Courmettes  to look at the possibility of running a field course  down here. Maybe.

But we were reminded twice this week of  one part of the trip, once by the appalling and seemingly preventable inferno at Grenfell Tower and also by the fact that here in Var it has been the seventh anniversary of the severe flooding in our area where at least 27 people died .

But the Malpasset Dam failure  of December 1959 was worse than both, with a death toll of 423. It’s a sadly instructive story. The dry summers of the region and the post-war population boom made increased water storage in the area essential.  And so a dam was built across the River Reyran some seven or so kilometers upstream of Frejus. In theory, it should have been fine: a state-of-the-art, carefully engineered, reinforced concrete dam on hard metamorphic rocks. No problem. 

But someone hadn’t done their homework. Under pressure, the water slipped into an overlooked fault which ran under the dam and lubricated it. After heavy rain the dam totally collapsed in the middle of the night releasing a 40 metre high wall of water that tore down the river valley at around 70 km per  hour. The narrow cross-section of the valley channelled the flow and kept the speed up so that blocks of concrete from the dam the size of cars and trucks were tumbled along down the valley for a kilometre or more. The water raced on and when it reached Frejus, 20 minutes after the breach, the flood was still 3 metres high and wreaked enormous and deadly havoc.

In hindsight, and there has been a lot of hindsight, the cause of the failure was the coming together of a whole series of managerial and technical mistakes; each on its own minor but together contributing to an overall whole that was a disaster waiting for something to trigger it.

The dam was never rebuilt and a totally new artificial lake (Lac de Saint-Cassien) was created to replace it. Any one driving between Nice and Frejus on the autoroute drives within a kilometre of the ruins of the dam, which now lies half-forgotten  in a tranquil valley disturbed only by walkers and the curious.

But it’s open to question whether, nearly seventy years on, we have learned the lessons that Malpasset should have taught: you can pay a terrible price for carelessness in construction.

This aerial view of the dam and lake must have been taken in the mid 1950s.

To get to the site you have to go under the autoroute

Memorial at the start of the walk (in five languages)

These room-sized blocks of concrete are over 1 km from the dam

The dam as it is today. You can judge its former height by the structures at the top of the slopes on right and left.

Remains of the wall and discharge pipe

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Nice and Courmettes

We had our elder son and family here for their half-term recently. It’s a good time to come with youngsters: the pool has warmed up to the point where you can spent a couple of hours in it – which they did – but it’s not so baking hot that you don’t want to do anything.

There were a lot of high points for them, not least two good beaches, but particularly enjoyed were a visit to Nice by train and staying up at Courmettes on the now annual Fete des Courmettes.

The train journey to Nice is great, but as we’ve probably commented before, why oh why do French railways not clean the train windows? In Nice the boys enjoyed the dancing fountains (and got very wet), we wandered round the headland, had lunch in a restaurant by the harbour, and came back through the old town. Here we stopped for ice cream at a place with a mind-boggling choice.

Trying to decide between nearly 50 flavours of ice cream

On Saturday we all drove up to Courmettes. This is the third year for the Fête des Courmettes. This year the workshops included bread-making, painting and a demonstration of bee-keeping.


Making fougasse in the bread workshop. (Baked in the wood oven, it tasted delicious!)

The afternoon included craft and nest-box making for the children and many other stalls. There was even a demonstration of compressed air rockets. After the evening meal, attended by at least 60 people, there was a bonfire on which our grandsons were delighted to toast marshmallows.

Making bird boxes: the children get to use the power tools

Evening bonfire: the long sticks are for the marshmallows

Those of us who grew up in a Britain where countryside was abundant and close at hand can fail to appreciate how valuable an outdoor experience is to those many youngsters today who live in urban areas. It doesn’t just clean their lungs, it stretches their senses.

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Sainte Baume

What with family visiting and other responsibilities,we have been very busy for the last few weeks We did however have a walk we meant to blog about since we’ve done it twice, so now’s a good time.

The cliff of Sainte Baume rising above the plateau

The Massif of Sainte-Baume is about forty minutes’ drive to the west of us and not far from the town of St Maximin. It is one of those long Provençal limestone massifs that, without warning, just rears up from a surrounding plain. Its name means ‘Holy Cliff’, baume being the Provençal word for ‘cliff’. The ‘holy’ part comes from the large cave which has been a site of Christian pilgrimage from the at least ninth century; a succession of (mostly French) kings and pope visited it from the thirteenth to the sixteenth centuries. Why? The legend in Provence is that Mary Magdalene and two other Marys of the gospels left Palestine because of persecution, sailed in a frail boat without oar or sail and arrived in the Camargue. They then preached the gospel, and Mary Magdalene later went to live in the cave which now bears her name and has been turned into a church.

Whatever you may think about the legend, there’s no doubt that the site is a spectacular one. First the road climbs to a plateau, from which you see the cliff of Sainte Baume rising out of woods. There, nestled improbably into the cliff, are a cluster of buildings – a monastery for the Dominican friars who run the site.

The monastery buildings cling improbably to the cliff

Final ascent to the cave

The walk too isn’t too hard: you follow the steep but well graded ‘Kings’ Road’ which winds up though lovely woods up along the side of the hill, until you eventually reach the final steps to the level space in front of the cave. If you are a connoisseur of French Catholic church interiors there is probably much to get excited about in the low, gloomy space of the cave with its altars and statues. Even if you aren’t, it’s not hard to imagine it being a near impregnable place of refuge for people during the many wars, insurrections and raids that so frequently disturbed Provence in the past.

The cave/church entrance


And inside the cave/church








However, the cave is only two-thirds up the massif and the walk continues. A further path – less smooth and with steps in places – takes you to the top of the ridge. Here the views are  magnificent, particularly to the north where the bald and solemn massif of Mont Sainte Victoire broods over Aix-en-Provence. By any standards it’s a memorable walk.

Mont Sainte Victoire from Sainte Baume

Looking down on the plateau from the top of the ridge

Finally, although we make a point of not being rude about ailing, psychologically troubled old men we have to make an exception for Donald Trump. His decision to take America out of the COP21 agreement – and we were there in Paris for it – has been held to be a triumph of stupidity and stubbornness over sanity. We wouldn’t argue otherwise. President Macron immediately made a well measured speech (in French and English) in response in which he invited concerned environmentalists interested in climate change to come to France.  Merci beaucoup M. Macron; we already have.

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The Cannes Film Festival at 70

Yes, the film festival celebrates its 70th birthday this year, and as we mentioned in a previous blog, has been advertising that fact for some time. It is however in several senses a nervous 70th birthday. There is understandable and open unease about the security but also a deep fear about the new technology. The film world has seen what has happened to the music trade and is worried for the future.

Okja is a film that caused controversy because it was produced for and by Netflix and not for the cinema. 

Still Cannes rolls on. The film festival dominates the town in a way other big events don’t: every hotel seems to have advertising on it and the yachts in the marina are hung with names of sponsors who have hired them. We could probably boost church finances by marketing our exterior wall space.

With Chris away at an conference for Anglican Readers and Readers-in-Training in Cologne, Alison decided that it would be a good idea to go to church by train. Car parking in Cannes during the film festival is bad, and with the new security restrictions, has become horrendous. All the parking spaces round the church had in fact been reserved for official vehicles and someone’s car was being towed away just before the service started.

The unfortunate owner was too late to move this car before it was towed away

As you’d expect, security was tight. Even the beach where they show the free films was blocked off this year, though happily for those who wanted to sunbathe some of it was still accessible.

Even if you don’t go to any of the films, or see any of the stars, Cannes during the film festival is still a lot of fun. The town is even more outrageous than usual, and the “please-look-at-me” stakes are so high that there are some quite outrageous outfits and individuals to be seen. It’s perfectly normal to see people having their makeup done in public.

Hair and make-up must be just right for Cannes

There were the usual queues for registration to get that all-important badge, and photographers waiting to take pictures of the celebrities. A quick Google tells us that this year these included Will Smith, Bella Hadid, Tilda Swinton, Nicole Kidman, Harrison Ford, Jared Leto, Dustin Hoffman, Ryan Gosling…. One gets the impression that the one thing worse than being at Cannes and having your film booed is to be at Cannes and to be ignored by the press.

It was quite a relief to get away from it and into church. There were a number of visitors attending the festival, including the excellent and biblical Rachel Zylstra, an American singer-songwriter based in Edinburgh, who sang twice during the service.

At the time of writing, the festival is literally on its last gasp, and everyone is about to breathe out a long sigh of utter relief. Cannes has survived its 70th birthday, but as the stars and directors depart, the question lingers: will it be around for its 80th?

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Walking by the lake

We’ve just come back from the UK. Unlike our trips in March, this was a planned visit to see our parents. Chris’ mum and dad are pretty much settled into a care home that’s very near where they used to live, and we are very happy to know that, as they get increasingly frail, they are being well looked after. Alison’s mother continues in her own home and we were able to see her most recent painting in a local exhibition. In other family news, our younger son Mark has been accepted for Anglican ordination and starts his training in September.

We had a couple of days of sunshine in England but more cloudy/rainy ones, so we were glad to get back to a pleasantly warm south of France. Not that we have been lazing around, as we had plenty of things to do when we got back. So for this blog we thought we’d show you some pretty pictures from a walk we did last month with a good friend.

A very small part of the enormous Lac de Sainte-Croix

We’ve mentioned Lake Sainte-Croix in passing before on the blog. It’s a vast reservoir at the end of the Gorges du Verdon, created in the early 1970s. The village of Bauduen used to be perched on a hillside, but is now just above the lake and offers a walk along the lakeside, round a small promontory and so in a circuit back to Bauduen. It was a  good time for the walk: not too hot, not overcrowded with tourists and spring in the air.

The path was clearly marked: we consulted a map beforehand and also a noticeboard. Clearly an easy circuitous route. But there was one oddity on the map.   “Why is that part dashed instead of being a continuous line?” we wondered.

We found out.

Nearly at the top!

The first part of the walk was a broad track which in summer will be crowded with the cars of people enjoying the lakeshore. Then we wound single-track just above the water through woods, with a cliff on our right. Finally, we realised that in order to round the cliff-like promontory, we needed to climb! So we clambered up and over many rocks – and then down again. No wonder it was marked with dashes. In the best French tradition of scoffing at Health and Safety there was no mention anywhere that the path became a climb that required use of every limb.

However, returning to a good lakeside path we found an excellent picnic spot. After lunch, we walked round the other side of the hill, up through woods all showing their spring leaves before dropping down again towards the lake and Bauduen.

A good walk but a warning would have been welcome!

An excellent picnic spot

Ascending again but this time on a proper path

Olive trees and spring flowers on the descent into Bauduen. This is one of the southern arms of the lake

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High places and dark shadows

After the blogs dominated by national politics it’s time to return to the countryside and the record of a day out taken a few weeks ago with a friend. We headed over to the east to Correns, an area we discovered in autumn, and had a charming walk around the lanes there. As everybody comments – and we aren’t going to dissent – spring is by far and away the best time to see the countryside here. In a month or two’s time the flowers will be over, the fresh colours of spring will have faded and the air will be hazy and dusty. And of course walking will be a sweaty business.

Correns surrounded by hills and organic vineyards

Then on via Bagnols, a town that like so many has lost its industry and not found an alternative, to the sharp-edged limestone ridge of the Gros Bessilon which rises up abruptly from a very attractive and fertile plain in the most striking manner. It is a feature that here is merely a hill but in the UK would be definitely counted as a mountain.

Gros Bessilon seen from about 50 km away.

In the clear air at the top there were fantastic views in every direction. Far away to the north and east we could see the snows of the edges of the Alps and the great limestone ridges that frame the Mediterranean between Toulon and Marseille. A particular delight was the explosion of flowers which we wished we could have identified.

There were scores of irises carpeting the ground, but plenty more we didn’t know the names of

Yet not all is sunlight and beauty at Gros Bessilon. At the foot of the ridge is a monument to a bloody incident near the summit in 1944 where, as the result of a betrayal, nearly a dozen resistance fighters and ten hostages were killed by the German occupying force. On that day, in the clear air, it was possible to make out, far to the north, the great ramparts of the Plateau of Vercors not far from Grenoble. Vercors is famous as the site of the greatest and bloodiest confrontation between the Resistance and the Nazis. There in June 1944, apparently under the belief that they would be supported by the Allies, the Resistance declared an independent state. Their hopes of support proved false, whatever aid came was too little and they were crushed without mercy.

Monument to those killed at Gros Bessilon

Plateau de Vercors from Gros Bessilon

To be reminded that such things happened is perhaps no bad thing in these days. We have taken for granted that Europe is a place of peace and stability. Within what is still just living memory terrible things happened here. M. Macron is perhaps overoptimistic and naive in his hopes for a new and more united Europe, but the history that Bessilon and Vercors reminds us of makes the point that there are worse alternatives. Far worse.

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French elections part 2: now comes the tricky bit

Well to widespread relief, if to not universal joy, M. Macron will be president of France and with a very sizeable majority. It’s a remarkable victory. After seeing an impressive performance by him on a British television documentary two years ago we mentioned him to a couple of French people who seem to barely even know his name. And now he is president. We have just listened to his speech after the victory and found it very fine. Passionate, gracious, inspirational and clear, and he even mentioned global warming.

But for those who pray can we ask for prayers for him and his cabinet? Now the tricky bit starts. As a certain Mr Trump has found out, you can win elections but running a country is something else.

A long time ago Voltaire – the “patron saint” of secular France – pointed out that the Holy Roman Empire was neither holy, Roman nor an empire. Names and slogans are often betrayed by history as the inhabitants of the United Kingdom may well soon find out. And the problems that he will face can surely be summarised under the great slogan of the French Republic: Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité.

With respect to Liberté M. Macron is going to need all his wisdom to find a way for people to be free from terrorism without being enslaved by surveillance, police and monitoring and without losing long-cherished freedoms in the name of security.

With respect to Égalité, he needs to resist rewarding the wealthy and thriving elites to which he and many of his followers belong and find a way to channel wealth to those who are struggling in the troubled urban areas and rural backwaters . Thankfully, inequality in France is much less than in Britain where it appears to be something of a growth industry. But then it ought to be: perhaps the reason why France exploded bloodily in the revolution of 1789 was that it was an utterly unstable social structure with a few very rich on top of a heap of very poor people. There’s a lot to be said for having a sizeable middle class: Theresa, please note. Everybody we talked to in France points out how here governing elites tend to govern for themselves. M. Macron needs to reach out to those who feel they have lost out. If he doesn’t, then the results of the next presidential election in 2022 may be very different.

And as for Fraternité? Well that may be the biggest challenge. To create unity amongst the different tribes of France – and tribes based on culture, religion and locality there are – is going to be far from easy. M. Macron has great charm and he is going to need every ounce of it, plus grace and common sense to build that. He needs to create a cabinet with links into every community: if he wants to call it ‘a cabinet of the people for the people’ he has our permission to use that slogan. (Just fast track our citizenship applications.)

So well done M. Président Désigné. And accept our prayers: you are going to need them.

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