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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Chill winds

Those of you who have been shivering in the UK may be comforted to know that it’s not been very warm here. On the contrary! With exception of a couple of decent weeks we’ve had a lot of cloud, rain and wind with temperatures much lower than normal. So we’ve been waking up to a chilly four or five degrees and some days it hasn’t got above 14 degrees midday. At the supermarket on Thursday morning the security man at the door was rubbing his hands to keep warm in a way that you would normally associate with February or March rather than May. Still after a dry winter the rain has been welcome.

Taradeau’s 12th century tower and chapel under uncertain skies. They should be blue!

There was certainly something very chilly about the great debate between Le Pen and Macron on French television on Wednesday. We watched most of it and were gratified that we were able to follow the general thrust of the arguments. And thrusts there were, along with stabbings and swinging blows! There was certainly nothing of the tone of the gentle British “here I profoundly disagree with the Right Honourable Gentleman”. Both speakers were openly contemptuous of each other. We sensed that the strategy on both sides was to fluster or annoy their opponent into an outburst. You could have compiled a dictionary of French insults over the two hours: “liar”, “priestess of fear”, “sower of hatred”, “parasite”, and even “banker”. There were open allegations of corruption and fraud.  In Britain you feel that there is still at least lip service to such Christian ideals as decency, honesty and charity in debates. Those qualities were definitely absent in this brutal and loud debate.

Le Pen came over to us as a rather sneering figure who was a bit of a bully and someone  much happier talking about her opponent’s flaws than her own plans. Macron appeared as the cool, steely academic with a frequently rather condescending tone; something that clearly annoyed Mme Le Pen. Macron certainly looked and sounded the more presidential. Among the commentators he is widely held to have won, but it’s not just commentators who vote. The two moderators incidentally were utterly hopeless with the result that there were frequently four voices all shouting at once: not something that you want if you’re struggling with the language. Anyway the vote is on Sunday and we will see.

The cool wet weather has been good for flowers: poppies on a roadside and roses in our garden

All being well we are up at Courmettes with the church youth group this weekend. “All being well” is a nod towards the weather and the risk of rain, wind and cold. The general rule of thumb here is that you drop a degree Celsius every hundred metres and so with the campsite at nearly 900 m altitude that’s a lot colder than the coast. And of late the coast has not been warm either.

After rain and winds the air is so clear you can see the peaks of Corsica from Courmettes; faintly with the naked eye and more clearly with binoculars or a long lens.

The Gospel and Climate Change. Chris’ name appears as one of the three editors

Maintaining the climate theme, Chris got a copy of his latest publication this week, based on the conference A Rocha sponsored for COP21. He wrote two articles, and the basic outline of the introduction and the conclusion, although they did get translated into French. It’s worth noting that the emphasis here as elsewhere is very much now on“climate change” rather than “global warming” and the way the temperatures have been over the last few days there are quite a few people round here prepared to admit that the weather has indeed changed.

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The French elections part one

We promise to return to pretty pictures fairly soon but given the significance of the French presidential contest we thought it might be worth making some observations from down here. The ‘down here’ bit is significant because most of the English language political comment seems to have come out of Paris. As anyone with any slight interest in France will know, the first round of the elections reduced the number of candidates to two: Marine Le Pen and Emmanuel Macron. Our village, like most of the south-east and north-east voted strongly for Le Pen. We have not conducted in-depth surveys as to why this is the case. A lot of people we talk to have been very hesitant to discuss who they are voting for.

The 11 candidates for the first round. In this village it seems someone doesn’t like Le Pen.

‘Votes cast’ in Taradeau. Macron comes in third place with less than half Le Pen’s votes.

Clearly, there is concern about immigration and, just as important, assimilation. Built into the French system is a rather naive view that after a few years anybody who comes to live here from whatever background will automatically have adopted a secular French way of life so that sooner or later there be one uniform happy national culture. This faith in the overwhelming power of the French system is so complete that the census forms – which we filled out earlier this year – don’t even ask for religion. Well, it turns out that some cultures are much more resistant to assimilation than expected. (The British system of presuming that different cultures with different values can coexist has, of course, its own problems.)

And for the second round…

Now we find a lot to like about M. Macron. He has many virtues: youth, energy, looks, education and intelligence, and holds firm to those endangered liberal values of tolerance and openness. Less well-known are the facts that he is, or at least was, a very good classical pianist and that he speaks fluent English with a clarity and concern for grammar that ought to embarrass Donald Trump. And he looks good in a suit. What is there not to like?

The answer, down here at least, is quite simply that that people can’t identify with him. France, as with many other countries these days, seems to be increasingly divided. There are the elite, fundamentally Parisian, who wear smart suits and carry big phones and who are doing very nicely, and then there is the rest of the country. That rest of the country includes the depressed urban areas, particularly one gathers in the north-east, largely shunned by tourists, and the agricultural areas of much of France profonde. In both areas there is nostalgia for the increasingly sentimentalised “three great decades” after the Second World War.

Here in agricultural France one senses a real unease with the Macron image and if he is voted for in the second round it will be because he is the lesser of two evils. One can’t help but think it would have been a good idea if, a couple of years ago, his advisers had persuaded him  to buy a farm somewhere in a remote village and accumulate endless photos of him walking the dogs, frowning over the state of his vines, shooting the odd wild boar with the local hunt, buying his baguette, drinking coffee in the village square and above all playing boules. At the heart of his low polling figures down here is the real concern that actually he isn’t truly French. It’s the suit that does it.

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Cap Lardier

After the panics of March, the subsequent catching up on work and the family visit in early April, it was rather nice to have a visitor this week and do four days of walking in our area. Contrary to the rumour that it is eternally sunny here, even April can have its showers and clouds, but we were extremely blessed with the brilliant sun and deep blue skies that everybody associates with Provence. Mind you the temperature was somewhat lower than usual and the wind was often chill.  Further north in Burgundy there are areas where the vines have been threatened by late frosts: it’s been a long winter.

We decided to do one of the capes on the peninsula of St Tropez, Cap Lardier, which has been protected for the nation against the ceaseless demands of predatory builders by the Conservatoire du Littoral.  We walked out on the coastal margin, a slow but splendid walk along rocks under umbrella pines with the sea and the sky giving an overdose of blue.


We think this is a Violet Bird’s-nest orchid, Limodorum abortivum

It’s a good time to do coastal walks because you can still park your car and the paths are not blocked by families struggling to take the full weight of the obligatory beach kit including sunshades, mats and cool boxes. It’s also not too hot: we’re not likely to forget the walk on the adjacent promontory to the east where the temperature was nearly a hundred Fahrenheit. And at this time of year too there are flowers and new foliage: by July everything has a slightly dusty, faded air to it.

Yes these are spring colours. The yellow is a bushy Euphorbia. You can see the islands in the distance.

It’s a good walk with splendid views to the offshore islands of Port Cros and Porquerolles. The value of the Cape and other protected areas here is increased precisely because of the way that so much of this coast has been eaten up by the merciless cancer-like spread of villas and apartment blocks.

Coming back we took a somewhat adventurous and little advertised route up out of the coast over onto the rugged Massif de Maures. It was a fiercely winding road made particularly hazardous by ceaseless bends, steep drops on one side and deep gutters on the other, and a constant stream of cyclists. But the views from the top were worth it.

Cap Lardier looking from the built-up part of the coast.

A good day. One of the blessings of having visitors is that you are reminded not to take living here for granted. We don’t.​

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Selective visions of France

We have had number two son and family here last week. Their first child, Thomas, is three and of an age where all he wants is to go to the beach. And so for six days we obliged, including Cannes, Nice, St Maxime,  St Aygulf and Cap Dramont. Not for him the sun-drenched vineyards, quaint villages, endless woods and splendid mountain: just beaches. We have this feeling that his entire perception of France is one infinite stretch of sand and pebbles.

How you view France is a very topical issue. As most of the world knows French elections are looming. A recurrent theme here seems to be the need to do things differently to anywhere else and this certainly applies to the electoral system. It is very idiosyncratic and for those who are interested there is a good Wikipedia article on it (click here).  In summary, the President of the French Republic is elected to a five-year term in a two-round election. If, as seems likely, no candidate secures an absolute majority in the first round (23 April) a second round is held two weeks later between the two candidates who received the most votes. In theory this system allows citizens to vote with their hearts first time and then with their heads the second time. In practice, it means that most presidents attain power because the electorate ultimately felt they were less unlikeable than their opponent.

This year however the election is even more idiosyncratic than ever. There are five main candidates, all of whom could conceivably be president and the very strong possibility that the president may not come from either of the two traditional main parties. Indeed there are conceivable (and somewhat alarming) scenarios in which the president could come from either the extreme left or the extreme right.

Despite all this there doesn’t seem to be a lot of excitement down here. No one seems to be displaying banners or posters but then that may reflect the view in the countryside that, as with religion and sex, politics should be kept private and personal. There has however been some strong graffiti against Marine Le Pen of the Front National, a woman who makes Nigel Farage radiate gentle moderation.

Putin’s money = Marine [Le Pen]

It’s all pretty impenetrable but even as outsiders we sense that at the heart of the election is the question of French identity and the vision of France. Currently one of the most popular candidates, the youthful Emmanuel Macron, has his own vision: a liberal, dynamic France, open to business, technology and the world and one which will capitalize on Britain’s Brexit-induced economic and political decline.

There are however other visions. This week Le Pen came up with a curious and revealing statement about the notorious “Roundup” of 1942; an appalling event where some 13,000 Jews were arrested by French police and gendarmes and were herded into the Vélodrome d’Hiver from where most of them were shipped off to Nazi concentration camps.[1] She said that France was not responsible for this. Underlying this was evidently the idea that the France that did this was not the real France: that was somehow De Gaulle in London and the – then very limited – Resistance. This mystical and romantic vision of an authentic, heroic France peopled by decent peasants, brave soldiers and pious leaders stretching back through the Revolution to Jean d’Arc, Charlemagne (and quite possibly beyond) is a heady and intriguing one. It is of course not a million miles away from that of “Merrie England” and equally cannot stand up to scrutiny. But in times of confusion and uncertainty – and we are still in a State of Emergency – such a vision of a glorious past, however fanciful, is attractive.  It’s not just small children who can have strange perspectives.

[1] Like so much of the nastiness of the Second World War and other wars the Roundup seems to have been largely carried out by ordinary men (and a few women) dutifully and unquestioningly carrying out their orders. And in case anybody is feeling any sense of Anglo-Saxon superiority the evidence from occupied Jersey and Guernsey is that, had the UK fallen under Nazi rule, British bureaucracy and British bobbies would probably have done something very similar.  Incidentally there are two good films on this: Le Rafle (The Round Up) and Elle s’appelait Sarah (Sarah’s Key). Le Rafle highlights the heroic role of Annette Monod, part of the great Monod Protestant dynasty, members of which were involved in the early days of Les Courmettes.

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