Aquitaine part 2

In our exploration of Aquitaine we headed north from Agen and the Garonne towards Bergerac and the Dordogne, which is both a river and a department.

A very full Dordogne river in early morning light

This is rich farming country, not just for the famed Bordeaux wines. It’s not surprising then that it’s been much fought over, particularly during the 100-years war between France and England.

To stake their claim to the land, both sides established “bastide” towns – semi-militarised towns, usually on a hill, laid out on a regular grid pattern and surrounded by defensive walls. The concept reminded us of something we couldn’t put a finger on until Chris realised it was the Israeli settlements in Palestine, created in the memorable phrase of one of his old colleagues at AUB, Rashid Khalidi, to make ‘facts on the ground’. Normally, there’s a central market place surrounded by arcades where goods could be sold even in bad weather. We visited quite a number of such towns and we’re glad we labelled our photos, as seeing too many can cause them to blur a bit in the mind.

Montflanquin, with typical straight streets, a central market place and arcades. The church on the right in the street photo is, or was, a Protestant ‘temple’

Beaumond-de-Perigord has a small covered market as well as arcades

One characteristic of many towns in the Dordogne area is the houses which have stone walls on the ground floor, and an overhanging wooden first floor with walls of a wooden framework filled in with brick or plaster and a roof with wide eaves.

Large churches also seemed to be characteristic, much lighter inside than the ones we’re used to in our part of France, although many also had obviously formed part of their town’s original defences.

As you can probably gather, we found this part of the Dordogne both pleasant and stimulating. It’s a very different world to Provence, where the conflicts, such as they were, were between Italy and France rather than England and France, and where the farming and settlement pattern was and is totally different. It’s a useful reminder of the variety and riches of France.

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Aquitaine part 1

It’s not been a year for planning holidays, but rather for taking them at short notice. And as we’ve mentioned before, July and August were not good times because this year it seemed the whole of France was on holiday in France. So, with September arriving, we decided to snatch a week’s holiday in Nouvelle-Aquitaine. It’s actually a vast area so our exploration was very limited as you can see from the map below where the red circle shows approximately where we were.

We did a long cross-country journey, past Carcassonne, which we’ve visited in the past, and then spent a very pleasant hour in Moissac, which seemed almost totally empty.

The abbey church at Moissac with its early 12th century doorway depicting Christ in majesty from Revelation 4 and its 13th century brick bell tower.

We then drove on into gently rolling terrain, making our way to stay at a very pleasant chambre d’hotes near Agen (pronounced ‘Ajen’). Agen, hitherto unknown to us, is a very attractive town on the Garonne, and one of those centres that seems to be on the ‘up’ rather than the down. The key to its success seems to be the fast motorway and the hope that the existing rail line will be upgraded to the very fast TGV in the next few years. Situated as it is midway between the two big cities of Bordeaux and Toulouse, it’s strategically placed.

We were amused to see Llanelli on this sign in Agen. Below, some of the buildings in the old centre
This bridge over the Garonne is actually an aqueduct carrying a canal

The next day we pottered around the southern side of the Garonne, visiting the abbey at Moirax and the charming town and picturesque town of Nérac.

The splendid chateau at Nérac looks over the river

We also went through a number of towns and villages which were not interesting, but French libel laws being what they are, we won’t mention them. The great biblical rule of “unto them that hath shall be given” does seem to apply to French towns. When they’re on the up they attract investment and people, when they’re on the down, they acquire a depressing rundown feel that deters all but the desperate. Of course it applies everywhere but it seems particularly evident in France and often there seems no particular reason why one town is happily on the up escalator of life and another miserably on the down. C’est la vie!

And finally, we stayed at this chambre d’hotes (B&B) which was once part of a small castle, hence the turret on the left

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This is something of a stocktaking blog.

First of all, despite rumours that we have heard from various sources in the UK, there are no fuel or food shortages in France. Or at least, none that we have seen. Something special must have happened to Britain to make it prone to such shortages. We wonder what that could be?

With respect to Covid-19, there is a widespread, though possibly dangerous, belief here that the end is very much in sight. The latest figures are that 85% of the population over 12 has had a double dose of the vaccine and the curve for infections has shown a consistent decline. It is certainly virtually impossible to go into almost any shop or restaurant without having your pass sanitaire checked. Curiously enough, given France’s reputation for rebellion, this has been widely accepted. There may have been some small if high profile protests but frankly it now seems to be seen as just part of life.

Reported cases

One evidence of the reduced sense of risk is a gradual return of social activities. We joined with the Lorgues Brigades Vertes the other Saturday for a town clean-up. Masks were only imposed if you shared a vehicle. Lorgues is actually a fairly clean town, but we still managed to find an awful lot of waste objects. Typically French however was the ‘reunion’ after two hours of walking round town, where we all stood around an enormous amount of food and the obligatory box of Vin rosé. Even here however, very few people were bothering with masks.

One of the big questions that everybody is asking, from churches and other voluntary organisations, is how quickly will membership or attendees go back to pre-pandemic levels? There is a concern that having got used to a lack of social activity, some people are content to avoid communal activities.  

Mind you, the French system is capable of throwing up perversities. Two weeks ago it was announced, seemingly out of the blue, that if you lived in particular départements with even the slightest risk of snow, you’d be obliged to carry snow chains in your car if visiting certain communes. Having dutifully bought snow chains, we have since learned that the authorities have now decided to delay the imposition of the rule for a year. Oh well.

We have had the first of the traditional October rainstorms, with a good couple of inches in Lorgues. We still need a lot more to overcome the groundwater deficit.

One other seasonal sign is the traditional ‘wine festival’ in supermarkets and along with that, calendars for 2022. Time passes!

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The beach and the Burnt Zone

We’ve just come back from a very nice week in Aquitaine, so for the next few weeks we will be showing some pretty pictures from western France. However before we drove over there, we decided to go to the beach. September is that time of year when the weather hangs on a knife edge and you can never be quite sure when summer is suddenly going to end and autumn begin. Forewarned by the météo we realised that this particular Saturday was going to be the last really warm day, so we came up with a trip to the beach which would allow us to come back through the recently burnt area on the Massif de Maures to the south of us.

The beach is the Plage de Guerrevielle which is just to the east of Sainte Maxime, has wonderfully clear waters and, if you like that sort of thing, a great view of St Tropez in the distance. There is a school of thought that says St Tropez is best viewed from a distance. Having been stuck in traffic jams outside it, we quite sympathise with this position.

A long telephoto shot of “Saint Trop”

We did enjoy ourselves, not least because the beach was relatively uncrowded and, during this strange Covid Summer (II) a lot of the beaches down here were so crowded as to make distance sanitaire something of a mockery.

There were certainly a lot of boats, which from the shore looked very close together

Suitably baked and salted by sea water, we then wound our way back over the hills (not far away, if you are at all interested, to where Johnny Depp is trying to sell his hamlet, current asking price well over 50 million euros). Eventually, coming over the ridge, we started to come into the burnt zones.

All very sombre and disheartening, although we gather that regeneration is already starting to take place. There has been quite a lot of concern about the damage done to the indigenous Hermann’s tortoise. Recent comments are both encouraging and discouraging. The encouraging is that the damage to the tortoise population seems to have been much less than was originally feared. Many of the tortoises had already taken refuges in holes, caves and suchlike. The discouraging element about their survival is that the reason they had taken refuge is that the ground had already been baked dry over the rainless summer months. Not only that, but the fire spread so rapidly, aided by an unusual summer mistral wind, that it leapt over some areas, leaving them unburnt. These last two facts confirm what the fire brigade was saying which is that there was something of an unprecedented aspect to the summer fires. An aspect that in all probability be laid at the door of climate change.

Since then we have actually had some rain and Cannes was looking pretty gloomy when we went over to church on Sunday.

The last Sunday in September was our harvest service.

As long as the earth endures,
seedtime and harvest,
cold and heat,
summer and winter,
day and night
will never cease.

(Genesis 8:22)

It’s going to be interesting to see what the limits of that promise are.

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Mont Lachens: the summit

We explained last week how – by mistake – we went up Mont Lachens on the south side and just want to repeat that this is probably not the best thing to do, especially if you have a car with a low suspension.

The summit from the car park

Having made the summit intact we had a good wander around . The precise summit peak is somewhat scarred by a series of communication towers but it was wonderfully silent apart from sheep bells and a party of motorcyclists. There were some splendid alpine flowers and quite a good number of birds.

To the south we could see the coast, including Cannes and the Îles de Lérins. To the north we could look into the succession of ridges that rise into the Alps.

We then descended cautiously down the very winding north face, dropping down through charming forests. We stopped to have a look at Bargeme where we could clearly see the castle.

From there we drove back via Comps-sur-Artuby. It was a good trip and we’re glad we were able to make the summit of the highest peak around. Yes, we wish we’d walked up it, but maybe another time!

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Mont Lachens: the ascent

Ever since we have lived in the Var we have been aware of a high but rather unspectacular mountain surmounted by radio aerials in the north-eastern corner of the Var. You glimpse it from the autoroute de Provence, but if you walk around the hill behind our house you can also see it in the distance. In winter it gets snow covered as you can see from the photo below.

A little research told us that it is the highest peak in the Var at 1,714m (5,623ft) but that it is also considered rather boring. Of course ‘boring’ here carries a different meaning than elsewhere: it is after all only 30km away from Europe’s deepest gorge, so almost anything that isn’t purely vertical can be considered slightly dull.

So, encouraged by the presence of a guest, and the fact that, on the day concerned, it was about the only area near us not closed due to fire risk, we decided to make an ascent of it. We wimped out on climbing it by foot (too high, too hot), and decided to go up by car. Unusually for us, however, we hadn’t done our homework. We crossed the firing range of the plateau of Canjuers, but then, misled by an absence of signposts, attempted to ascend the mountain from the south side.

The sign marks the edge of the military zone

This was not what should have been done. Fortunately, although our Yeti is not a four-wheel drive, it does have a pretty good clearance and although the road was little more than a track, it was thankfully free of most major hazards such as traffic, hunters and fallen blocks of rock. We carefully wound our way up to a spectacular alpine meadow which was in fact a take-off and landing strip for paragliders and where the tarmac ended. Here we were reassured by someone that we could drive up to the summit, adding, with a shrug, that notorious French phrase that has lead so many to their doom “pas de problème!”.

The meadow with paragliders practising their descents; the way to the summit is beyond the sign in the third photo

The (stony) track now went into woods and some way below the summit we stopped for a picnic lunch and watched a string of Griffon vultures cross overhead beneath the clouds.

Looking towards the summit from our picnic spot which had lots of flowers

We then drove on further and stopped for an exploration of a thoroughly charming wood, from whose edge we had some excellent views.  

We were rather concerned that we would find the road blocked before the summit and be forced to retrace our steps, but happily (much to the relief of Alison who was driving), we made our way up to a car park near the summit. There, from the good bitumen road leading away and down northwards, we realised that we had indeed come up the hard way.

There, despite the shifting clouds, we got some spectacular views, but we’ll post those next week.

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Brue-Auriac and Bras

We are still finding villages in the area that we haven’t visited. About a month ago we took the excuse of a friend visiting to head westwards into an area of rolling hills and valleys just north of the town of Brignoles.

Our first objective was to visit Brue-Auriac. Unusually for round here, where most of the villages have medieval roots, Brue-Auriac is an 18th century creation, built by the local lord to merge two decaying villages. The result is quite distinctive, a spacious settlement with various imposing buildings and, particularly striking in an area notorious for its narrow streets, wide roads in which you could have turned a carriage.

One particularly striking feature of Brue-Auriac is a huge (22.5m high according to Wikipedia) round tower just outside. Not for defence though, this is an ancient pigeonnier (dovecote), which presumably gave the landowner and the town a ready supply of fresh meat and eggs throughout the year. This one is indeed remarkable and, in absence of pigeons, there was some discussion as to whether anyone had complied a book of the ancient pigeonniers of Provence. One well-known psychological phenomenon occurred after this, which was that we kept seeing pigeonniers elsewhere. In fact we can now lay claim to be something of an authority on them.

We then drove on to the wonderfully named Bras. This afforded enormous amusement and we invented a history in which the town was attacked and set fire to by feminists in the burning of Bras. Well, Chris thought it was funny. But you probably had to be old enough to remember the heady days of women’s liberation.

What was fascinating was that although we hadn’t heard of the village we found an extraordinary richness of architecture and history, starting with the 12th century castle (now in ruins). Inevitably there was (of course) a pigeonnier, but there also were a number of splendid old buildings, some of which were in a definitely questionable state.

Remains of the old castle on the hill, the ‘new’ village below and a modest pigeonnier

A sign pointed to a “Templar chapel”, which turned out to be within easy walking distance. Like our own town of Lorgues, the Templars had lands around here, though all that’s left of their presence is now this small chapel. It was locked.

This is the area that George and Amal Clooney have just bought a large estate in. When we went on in the evening for a very fine meal in the splendid Auberge at Correns, our waitress was distinctly miffed that, so far the Clooneys hadn’t turned up. Chris suggested that perhaps there wasn’t enough space for the helicopter…

The all-organic and excellent restaurant at the Auberge de Correns

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Summer’s end

At the end of August we decided to make the most of a potentially limited ‘window’ for travel and headed to the UK for six days to visit those members of the family we hadn’t seen for 18 months. It was a great trip but as everybody is saying, international travel is now incredibly stressing. So we took the notorious (and pointless?) Day 2 test in the UK and couldn’t really get a proper answer as to what would happen if they came back positive. Thankfully, they weren’t.

When we left France on 23 August, it was very much summer. Strangely, when we got back, we suddenly seemed to have shifted into autumn: time to find pullovers, put the duvet back on the bed and check exactly where we put those waterproofs. Not, we should say, that we’ve had much rain since, but the weather is vaguely looking as if it might just rain. Still, the grapes are ripening nicely.

The result is that we now feel something of a summer retrospective is appropriate. One of the great successes of summer was having number 2 son (le cadet as they say in French) and family to stay for a full 10 days. It’s not easy to imagine how you could wear out a swimming pool, but they did their best.

In the UK trip we saw our elder son (l’ainé) and family as well as Alison’s mother.

We made various local trips over summer and we will mention some of these in future weeks. One Sunday afternoon we caught the end of the commemoration of the Allied landings in Provence in 1944.

One thing we did do of interest this summer was to act as guides for Lorgues’ heritage association, both for a tour of the old town (once in English and once in French) and the medieval chapel of Ben Va (in French).

We also managed to get a couple of meals in town over summer. The general feeling is that the whole area has never been quite so busy, with so many French residents choosing to holiday within mainland France.

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The fire and the aftermath

We are drafting his a few days before it gets posted but at the time of writing it looks as though the Var fire is out although there are a number of hot areas that are being carefully monitored. The attention of authorities is now on clearing up across the 7000 hectares (27 square miles) that was burnt. It was, as everyone agrees, a distinctly unpleasant event and watching it from our house was something that we wish we had been spared.

At some point we may find out what the cost of putting the fires out has been. For several days there were 11 out of the 12 French Canadairs constantly in the air, other planes, various helicopters, bulldozers, fire engines and over 1,000 fire personnel. It’s at time like this that you can understand why in France the fire service is under the Ministry of Defence.

There are interesting questions to be asked about the frequency of such fires. The area has always suffered from fires; the famous cork oak has its distinctive and economically valuable bark precisely to allow it to survive, but with one very major fire in 2003 and this recent one, there are obvious feelings that climate change is beginning to tip the environment towards being highly combustible. It’s not just the higher temperatures. The shift from a pattern of extended and frequent periods of gentle precipitation to shorter periods of intense rain – which tends just to run off – separated by long dry intervals has not helped. There are going to be some very interesting discussions held about fires in this area and the fact that M. Macron was staying at his summer residence just over the ridge should hopefully add seriousness to them.

In a slightly surreal moment, the lights on the football pitch were illuminated and we could hear the sound of people playing tennis even as this photo was taken.

Whatever the ultimate causes, the losses are lamentable. Here are a couple of photos we’ve taken of the Plain des Maures nature reserve in the past. At some point when all is clear we will go and take a look at the damage. But for the moment it’s off-limits to all but the professionals. There’s a lot of work to be done.

As a final upbeat coda, we decided to lift our spirits this Saturday by driving to our favourite lake, Lac Sainte Croix – many of the coast roads are still closed because of the fire. We hired a canoe and paddled over to a quiet island. Even here however it was difficult to escape the impact of the fire; the central part of the lake is used by Canadairs to pick up water, and it was noticeable that almost all the boats on the lake were giving it a clear berth. It’s never a good idea to get in the way of an oncoming fire engine, particularly when it’s coming at you over 100 miles an hour, weighs 15 tons  and has wings.

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The fires part 2

A quick update on Friday morning.

Over the past couple of days the very large civil defence and fire forces have been working to put out the fires, and, as of Friday morning, appear to have succeeded. The view below from our upstairs window has none of the tell-take plumes of smoke which have been such a concern.

There is still worry because there is the expectation of more strong winds this afternoon and there are a number of hotspots which threaten to break into flame. The death toll has now risen to two and the accounts of damage to homes, vineyards and roads etc is also rising.

The environmental damage is also being assessed. There are reports of tortoises and other animals being recovered from under rocks but the damage has clearly been very major. At some point in the future we will go and see the people at the nature reserve and see if there’s anything that can be done to help.

The fact remains however that the whole region is now on the very highest levels of fire risk as the map of forest access (click the link to get a pdf), which is updated daily, shows.

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