A Sunday of contrasts

One of the fascinating things about living where we do is a sense of being involved in two worlds: slow-moving, traditional, rural France and the frantic, glamorous twenty-first century urban world of the Cote d’Azur.

That contrast was very much brought home to us last Sunday. In the morning we headed off very early to church at Cannes. The haste was to ensure that we got parking during the Film Festival – no easy task.

Palais des Festivals Cannes with 72nd film festival hoarding
The empty red carpet!

As widely commented, the weather was not kind to the early part of festival this year. Sunday was grey, wet and chilly, and if there were any stars around, they were hidden from view.

Queuing to get into a film in the rain. Those without tickets display signs of what they hope to see.

From our limited view of what was going on, there didn’t seem to be quite the buzz about Cannes that there has been in the past, and one senses that this is a view shared by people in the film trade. Still, as they say, the show must go on! Sadly perhaps, no glittering stars turned up for the church service. We did however return to Cannes Thursday afternoon when things were sunnier and much more upbeat: see next weeks blog for a photospecial!

We would have lingered but we had duties in Taradeau to attend to. There was what had been intended to be a picnic (hog roast) up at the Oppidum for those of us who have worked up there and members of another village association. Forewarned by the Meteo, it had been rescheduled to a marque in the village centre and we made it back just after the aperos had been served.

Xavier Crest giving a speech about the oppidum work this year

Genuine roast wild boar, à la Asterix.

One of the oppidum team had created his own beer. It was agreed that err, it needed further work.

There were only three of us who were not ‘locals’ and it’s quite interesting to be considered the resident ‘Anglais‘. There was a lot of chatter and a few speeches and, it has to be said, quite a lot of drinking. But then given that the village focuses on wine, that is hardly a surprise. But, as we’ve said before, it’s very nice to be at the heart of the village and if, as we mentioned last week, we do move, we would very much like to try and stay where we currently feel at home.

The mayor pouring the deputy mayor some Limoncello at the end of the meal. When he came to us it was hard to refuse his offer but at 25% proof even the smallest amount was quite enough!

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Time to move?

It seems an extraordinary thing to report but in only six weeks we will have been in France for five years and in this house for 4 ½ years. To answer two frequently repeated questions: a) No, we have no regrets whatsoever and b) no we have no intention of returning to the UK. But time creeps on and we have started to make plans for the future. Two factors here have been the deaths of Chris’ parents over the last year and the fact that Chris has come to that age where he gets his state pension: a fact which, given he was out on his mountain bike yesterday, seems a little incongruous but is nevertheless welcome.

Our house. As you can see from the colours it was taken in the autumn but we think it’s a nice photo.

We continually give thanks for the fact that we found our current house in Taradeau; not least because we have discovered all sorts of far from obvious problems with other houses and other areas. Nevertheless, we are looking for somewhere new for ‘the long-term’.

What’s wrong with our current house? Actually, at the moment not a lot. We are running a bit out of space (it’s all those books) but we can manage with that. We do however want to look ahead and one of the key factors is that we have some very odd stairs. They are narrow, steep and take two sharp turns. Someone who had some experience of British standards felt they would be illegal in the UK and that’s quite likely. At the moment they aren’t a problem but if you are going to consider life here in your eighties then they will be. And we would like better insulation, a bit more space for family and friends to stay and a few other things. Mind you, it’s a difficult equation. We have lots of friends in the area, some splendid woods a hundred metres away, good access to motorway and rail and, not to be dismissed, fibre-optic Internet access.

our steep stairs
This photo makes them look only slightly steeper than they are.

Yes, we have considered modifying the house but everything founders on the immutability of those stairs. So we have put our house on the market and are looking around for somewhere new. We would prefer to stay in Taradeau but there are only limited properties here and many of them on slopes which means they are multilevel; something that we would like to avoid. But we want to stay within a short drive away and don’t want to distance ourselves any further than we are already from our Cannes church.

General view from the road

Buying and selling property in France is very different to the UK. Let’s just list some of the things we have found which may be of interest to others.

  • Down here in our part of Provence you can forget any notions of getting a small château with a forest for €200,000. This is one of the more expensive areas in France and even here, 40 minutes from the coast, fairly modest houses can be priced at the half million euro mark.
  • Moving house is an expensive business in France. Estate agents charge between 4 and 6% when you sell and the state charges between 6 to 8% when you buy.
  • These high costs discourage people from buying and selling in the way that is so frequent in the UK. As someone said to us “in France people buy a house for life”. This actually is posing real problems for the government because it restricts social mobility: there is a great reluctance for anyone to move to a new job in a new area because they will take such a big financial hit. In other words, if you are going to move, you need to get it right.
  • The consistent (if problematic) rise in property prices in the UK has meant that houses there are an excellent investment: this is much less the case in France. Prices down here are only rising by 1 or 2% a year. Fortunately, we bought our current house at a very good price.
  • The large amount estate agents charge mean that they only need to sell a couple of houses a year to make a living. The result is they tend – let’s be polite – to be more laid-back than they are in the UK.
And moving even further back, and taken from the oppidum, our house is in the group of buildings on the right of the photo, looking over the hills and towards the fields
  • Many people try to sell their houses privately – a favoured website is Leboncoin – but some of the prices are utterly unrealistic. We looked at one recently where the owners had been asking €475,000, which they had now dropped to €390,000 and it was still overpriced at that.
  • The cost of moving to a new house has encouraged many people to add on extensions to existing properties. We have visited a number of houses where this simply hasn’t worked and has created something of monstrosity.
  • Rather than drop prices, in many cases people keep their houses on the market. We know some that have been around for three or four years. No, we don’t understand it either.
  • Some of the depictions of houses in estate agents advertisements are guilty of spectacular sins of commission or omission. We have wasted quite a bit of time visiting houses where, within a minute it was obvious that there were fundamental problems. Yes, this happens in the UK but it seems to be a particular vice here.

So, the hunt is on! Watch this space and if anybody wants to buy a nice property in the south of France then contact us: we will do a deal for regular readers:-)

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St Tropez in spring part 2

street in old St Tropez

Last week we mentioned we’d had a pleasant guided tour around the inner part of St Tropez. It is still possible, along various secluded streets, to imagine what the town must have been like before it became popular in the 1960s. Brigitte Bardot – whose success as a film star popularised the town globally and who still lives here – must unfortunately take some of the blame.

St Trope with shoes
These shoes are quite cheap, and a bust of St Torpes, who gave the town its name, watches over them

Some of the streets however have become dominated by extraordinarily expensive shops. These seem to operate on the premise that if you have anchored your yacht outside the town or flown in by helicopter, you are not going to balk at 500€ for flip-flops or 10,000€ for a watch. There are probably three sorts of people who visit St Tropez in high season: the ordinary people who work there, the extraordinarily rich who buy the bling in the shops, and ordinary tourists who like watching the rich buy the bling.

Sandales tropezienne
Our guide is explaining the origins of the St Tropez sandal

As we have mentioned before, there is a small, but very pleasant art gallery, if your taste runs to French impressionists. We had a guided tour which involved the tour leader giving a detailed account of every painting and we’re afraid to say that after about 10 minutes or so we tiptoed away and wandered round ourselves. One of the curiosities of the gallery is the presence of a number of windows looking out to the town or the port. In one or two cases, they created a more aesthetically pleasing effect than some of the paintings.

On the way back we were able to get some fine photos from the coach across the bay back to the town itself. We have the suspicion that St Tropez is best seen at a distance or taken in small doses off-season. We don’t plan to visit again before September.

St Tropez from the other side of the bay
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St Tropez in spring part 1

The Lorgues International Women’s group that Alison is involved with runs various social events and one recently was a coach trip to St Tropez for members and partners. This was too good an offer for both of us to miss, not least because the road to St Tropez is frequently congested and no pleasure to drive. Parking is also extraordinarily expensive. There was also the opportunity of having a guided tour around a town we’d visited on a number of occasions but missed various details. It also allowed us to get to know more people.

St Tropez port
This is the stereotypical view of St Tropez

The weather being very pleasant – St Tropez is definitely to be avoided on a hot summer’s day – we inevitably took lots of photographs. This week we thought we’d put in some of the port, which is many ways the heart of the town. Next week we’ll post some of the town itself. Despite being strangled by its popularity there is still much of charm in St Tropez. Mind you, part of the fun of going to ‘St Trop’ is watching the visitors. There is something about the place that generates a certain recklessness in dress sense and behaviour. But we restrained ourselves….

Fortunately at this time of year there are only a relatively small number of disgustingly large yachts in the port
Ironically sometimes the view of the port is blocked by paintings of it

The fish market. Part of the St Tropez culture is the existence of expensive restaurants for those with expensive tastes.

Despite the predominance of the extraordinarily ostentatious and state-of-the-art yachts, there are still reminders of the St Tropez of the past.

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Spring miscellany

A belated happy Easter to you all!

After last week’s text-heavy blog, we thought we would have something of a compensation with very much a photo compilation. After what was effectively three months of total drought, which regular readers will have noticed, worried us considerably, April has been extraordinarily cool and wet. We were in Toulon on Thursday with a guest and everyone was wandering around with winter jackets and rainwear.

The arrival of rain after such a long drought has, unsurprisingly, given rise to an explosion of flowers, buds and foliage. So here are some photos:

Spring foliage in the valley of the River Argens
poppies growing out of a stone wall
Our wisteria is now just past its best, but this year it has had the most flowers we’ve ever seen.
The vines are showing their leaves
swallowtail butterfly on clover
and we are seeing butterflies such as this Swallowtail attracted by all the flowers
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On Notre Dame and the state of the nation

We had planned to write something else this week, but the appalling fire at Notre Dame has dominated French life. We would like to offer you the consensus opinion in the bars and churches of the region but our sample size is a bit more limited; nevertheless, we have had some conversations and kept an eye on the French and international press. It’s clearly been a deeply felt and shocking event across the nation and it has raised a number of issues.

Something that we are becoming increasingly aware of is the French sensitivity, bordering on a neurosis, about religion and religious buildings. In theory, there is a rigorously defined gap between the sacred and the secular. This goes back to the French Revolution – when the church was very definitely on the losing side – and was heightened by a formal legal separation of church and state in 1905. Yet Notre Dame is important in both areas of life. If you ignore the far too recent Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame dominates a Parisian skyline mercifully free from skyscrapers.

Notre Dame from one of the bridges over the Seine

In a similar way it dominates French history, having played an important role for over 800 years in almost every event that has shaped the nation. It has seen moments of transformation: the crowning of Kings and emperors, the celebrations of the end of wars, the funerals that have closed eras. Yet it has also acted as some astonishing point of stability. Geographically, it is an island in the middle of the flowing river Seine; historically and socially it has been a fixed point in the middle of a flowing and turbulent history. Whatever happened – and in France a lot has happened – Notre Dame has always been there. So, its burning has been seen by many as the shaking of foundations. In fact, when Chris suggested to one thoughtful French person that Notre Dame played a similar role to the British monarchy in the UK in offering stability there was only agreement. Given that the nation is already in the middle of a very major upheaval – the angry and widespread gilet jaunes protests having been occurring regularly now for nearly six months – this dramatically visible fire has come as a deep body blow.

Yet at the same time Notre Dame is not just a historic monument but also a religious institution. Even if, bizarrely, it is been owned and maintained by an explicitly secular state for over a century, it is still the heart of the Catholicism in France. And Roman Catholicism is increasingly the faith that people don’t belong to, although their mother or grandma might. Actually, until Monday’s dreadful events, most of the headlines in the press about Catholicism concerned the slow but relentless legal procedures against historical child abuse in France.

We attended an ecumenical service in Notre Dame at the start of the COP21 conference in December 2015

Given this curious double role of Notre Dame that it was interesting to listen to what M. Macron said at the scene on Monday night. Occasionally inclined to say the wrong thing when he speaks off-the-cuff, the president was here careful and his words were well measured. Evoking the long history and weight of heritage associated with the cathedral and its central role in French culture he studiously avoided anything that could be associated with a religious sentiment and carefully offered his sympathies to Catholics without anyway identifying with them. He ended with a very presidential appeal: “We will rebuild Notre Dame because that is what the French expect, because that is what our history deserves, because it is our deep destiny.” It would be interesting to unpack what the idea of ‘destiny’ really means, but it was a good speech.

Yet the fire at Notre Dame has highlighted the hole at the heart of French culture. The problem is that while the secularism of la laïcité is resolutely defended, it generates no enthusiasm and arouses no affection. The result is that while the Catholic faith is widely rejected (almost everyone we talked to about Notre Dame has uttered the phrase ‘of course I’m not a Catholic but…’) there seems to be a lingering and uncritical nostalgia for the ‘good old days’ when priests and moral certainty reigned in the land and France knew what she was. The loss of Catholicism as the focus of belief and morality has left a faith-shaped void in the heart of France. It was that wisest of Frenchmen, Blaise Pascal, who spoke of the God-shaped gap in the human heart that nothing but God can fill. He might have been prophetically speaking of modern France.

One picture has been on almost every front page: in the middle of the dark charred gloom of the interior stands erect and gleaming the great bronze cross. For Christian publicity at Easter it’s been an astonishing success: it’s a pity it cost so much to achieve it.

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Courmettes in April

What with UK family crises and winter, we haven’t been up at Courmettes for some months. Last weekend, however, it was the Conseil d’Administration (think Board of Trustees) of A Rocha France, a body which includes Chris. After unseasonably warm and dry weather in February and March, April has been cold and wet and Sunday morning saw us waking up to a thin covering of snow on the peak.

Coupled with the formal Annual General Meeting, which all French associations have to have, was a day-long discussion of how ARF can best operate, including a discussion of the vexed question of where we get money for conservation from. It is a universal complaint of conservationists the world over that although everyone is in favour of saving the planet, very few people want to pay for it.

The Conseil d’Administration

As it was also a ‘discovery’ weekend at Courmettes, on Sunday afternoon, the weather having slightly improved, Chris led another of his Geology and Natural History walks around part of the domain. What was particularly interesting that both for the walk on Sunday and the activities on Saturday, a number of people had come from a considerable distance to be present: the fame of Courmettes is spreading. It was great to be up at Courmettes even if it was a bit cold outside.

The cloud was down during Chris’ walk and you can see snow on the ridge beyond the marsh area.
Refurbishment in progress!

However the new insulation on the roof makes the interior warmer, and there has been some splendid work done over the past few months. This includes refurbishment – still ongoing – of a number of old rooms in the big house and also some wonderful and beautifully created explanatory panels on the nature and history of the domaine and what a Rocha France is doing there. Well done Esther!

We’re due to go up again just after Easter; let’s hope the weather has warmed up a bit by then.

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