The festival of Saint Ferréol and all the fun of the fair

We were going to do Moustiers-Sainte-Marie this week but there has been excitement in our town, so let’s stay in Lorgues.

The idea that every village or town in France has its own patron saint is an extraordinarily ancient one. It is also very persistent; after all it survived the attempt to eradicate the Catholic church during the French Revolution. The patron saint of Lorgues is Saint Ferréol, who is not only poorly known, but doesn’t come from anywhere near the area. As far as we can work out, he was a Christian who was conscripted into the Roman army in Vienne (near Lyon on the Rhone) and then killed for trying to protect another Christian in 303 or 304.

His feast day is 18th September and there is a long-standing tradition of festivities which traditionally involved two things. First, there would be a procession carrying the statue of Saint Ferréol from the church on the hill above us that bears his name down to the big church of Saint Martin in the town. Second, there would be festivities, usually involving food and drink, dancing and games and quite a bit of what clearly wasn’t good, clean fun.

It’s a fascinating thought that this has continued for centuries. The town rejoiced when in 1806, after the chaos of the Revolution, Napoleon’s seizure of power allowed the festivities to be renewed. The feast got cancelled in 1943: the Germans were still unpacking after having arrived to run Provence directly after the failure of Vichy France and the Italians to do it for them. The festival has always been a somewhat curious event involving a (slightly uneasy) collaboration between the secular state (represented by the Maire and the Mairie) and the Catholic church. Anyway, this being the year of Covid, the festivities and the procession have been cancelled by order of the mayor and the approval of the priest. Two things of interest have emerged from this.

First, the procession may have been cancelled, but the statue of Saint Ferréol was been taken down to St Martin without ceremony. There the townsfolk can go in and do whatever they do with statues of saints.

The slideshow on the right shows the early 19th-century statue from the chapel of Saint Ferréol in the church of St Martin, and a carving of Saint Ferréol at the side of the pulpit in St Martin

It’s hard to see the statue because the light is just behind it

Last Sunday, Chris, who is somehow on the board of the Association des Amis de Saint-Ferréol et Vieux Lorgues (ASFVL), i.e. the Friends of Saint Ferréol (the chapel on the hill, not the saint) and Old Lorgues, had a curious request. Could he, as someone with photographic skills, remove the background from a photo of the saint to make a poster? Well, it isn’t the sort of thing he normally does on Sunday, but as an aspiring citizen one has to play one’s part, so he dutifully did a bit of clever editing on the computer. Two days later his edited image of Saint Ferréol adorned the vast collegial church on a banner. At this point we can hear the sound of our more extreme Protestant friends terminating their visits to this blog. We understand, but Provence doesn’t do theological niceties.

This however, is not the only issue that has emerged with the current interruption to the festivities of Saint Ferréol. Of late the festivities have been dominated by a weekend funfair coinciding with the saint’s day. With its roundabouts, rides, shooting galleries and all the fun of the fair, this takes over the centre of the town.

This year however, the mayor, has decided that in the interests of health, it is inappropriate and has cancelled it. (For what it’s worth, we back him.) Undaunted, the great convoy of fair vehicles arrived in the town as usual. The result is that there is now a turbulent contretemps between the mayor and the fair and sanitation and tradition. This battle has even reached the front pages of the regional newspaper. Very little dramatic happens here: the last newsworthy event we can remember was two months ago when a supermarket fridge blew up.

So at the moment the fair has installed itself in town and is threatening to continue without the mayor’s approval. In return, the mayor has done what he must do under the French system, which is to appeal upwards to at least the sub-prefect, and possibly even the prefect, of the department himself. It’s set for an interesting confrontation this Saturday and Lorgues is as tense as it gets; that is to say, not very much. Watch this space.

Setting up a ride on Friday morning

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Les Salles sur Verdon

In the next couple of weeks we hope to cover the really attractive and ancient town of Moustiers Sainte Marie, but before we do we thought we ought to blog on the really different village of Les Salles sur Verdon.

The history of the village is as follows: it was realised in the 1960s – thank you Brigitte Bardot – that a) lots of people wanted to come and live in Provence and b) there was no way there was going to be enough water for them and their swimming pools. The decision was taken to create a humongous reservoir in the valley of the river Verdon. Inevitably it was not an uninhabited valley but had a small settlement near the middle. In the 1970s however the French state was not to be trifled with (it cleared away another settlement not far away to make Western Europe’s largest firing range) and the village was placed under sentence of inundation.

By way of recompense, a totally new village was built, incorporating, where possible, elements of the old one. The result is the modern village of Les Salles sur Verdon.

The war memorial was one of the objects transported from the old village.

It is a curious achievement. There is much to be commended. Unlike traditional French villages, in which the driver – or even the pedestrian – easily finds themselves squashed between a tractor and a wall, here there is space. The layout generally is attractive and by and large they have avoided the rectilinear pattern which has made many modern settlements so unpleasant.

In winter there is, we are told, a population of barely three figures; in a normal summer it is filled with holiday makers because it is an excellent base for water sports and as a touring centre. It also has lots of car parking.

And yet… Somehow or other it doesn’t quite seem right. It lacks any sense of history or deep character. Settlements, we suspect, are rather like bottles of wine. They take time to reach maturity. Maybe in another 100 years…..

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Esparron de Verdon

First of all, a COVID update. We had a mild scare last week when after having had a French friend round for a socially distant aperitif which somehow went on for three hours, he emailed us three days later to say someone in his office had just tested positive. We immediately went into effective isolation, avoided church on Sunday and waited for his test results. They were thankfully negative. Nevertheless we now know someone else who has been tested positive but who seems to be making a good recovery. Our understanding is that although the figures are apparently high in our area, they are distorted by some big clusters around St Tropez where the rich seem to have felt that their wealth gave them immunity. Apparently not.

As we have mentioned, this summer we have tended to avoid the coastal beaches on our days off (normally Saturday). We made a change one day from the usual Lac Sainte Croix and went somewhat downstream on the river Verdon to the smaller reservoir of Esparron.

Although it is much smaller, it is in some ways more attractive as it has a much more indented shoreline with some rather fun cliffs.

It is however a bit further to go and on the day we went the car parking was being managed from a script by Dante. For a start the car park was very crowded. Then you had to display a ticket, which involved queuing for ever at what seemed to be a single meter. However a charming official lady told Chris “But you can pay for it on a smartphone app”. Chris dutifully installed PayByPhone but having entered every conceivable detail and tapped Proceed it failed to work. When Chris mentioned this to another charming official she said “Ah yes. The app……. It doesn’t work ‘ere”.

Positively however, it’s a great place to swim and we thoroughly enjoyed ourselves. We also just about kept a suitable social distance from everyone. At some time we will return and investigate the old village, which looked charming, but not on a hot summer’s day. And preferably when they have the app fixed.

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Sainte Croix du Verdon

The Covid pandemic, which sadly is far from over, has had all sorts of implications and results. One of these has curiously been in the area of bathing. Most of the coastal beaches near to us are fairly narrow, with a relatively small strip of sand. The result is that it’s difficult to maintain social distancing. In fact, a couple of the beach restaurants near St Tropez have been closed because of positive tests among staff. As a result, in the warm weather that we’ve had we’ve found ourselves driving north to Lac Sainte Croix rather than south to the coast.

Lac Sainte Croix, which has appeared regularly in these blogs, is a very large reservoir with a very considerable perimeter. The result is that unless you are careless about where you chose to go, it’s easy to find somewhere where you can be guaranteed space. One place we have been to on a number of occasions and are very happy with, is the village of Sainte Croix du Verdon.

Once upon a time it would have been a small agricultural village high on a slope above the river Verdon, depending on sheep, vines, lavender and some cereals. It now has a different existence as a summer tourist village with what one presumes are a large number of second homes and rentals. But it’s a great place. It is built on a thick sequence of gravels some of which are not as well cemented as the owners would probably like. The views however are spectacular and swimming in the pleasantly refreshing lake water a delight.

This year, thankfully, the water levels are particularly high, which reduces the beach area but does mean that those of us who depend on it for water can at least fill their swimming pools and take a shower. But we need those autumn rains…

There is extra beach and shade from these trees when the water level is not so high
Slide the divider across to see the lake as it was in August last year on the left and this year on the right

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Mentioning the war

On Saturday 21 March 2020, in the middle of the Covid confinement, René Jassaud of Lorgues died at the age of 93. He could very easily have died on 15th August 1944. It was the day of the start of the Allied liberation of southern France, with the massive deployment of landing craft on the coast to the south of us and a major parachute drop just inland to seize the railway line. René was one of 14 young men from Lorgues who, having picked up an arms cache in the country, ill-advisedly decided to head back via Les Arcs and its railway station. They ran into a German ambush and all the Lorgues men other than René were killed. As a survivor of a tragedy that shook what was then a very small town, René was long honoured as a living résistant and under normal circumstances our very large collegial church would have been packed full for his funeral.

In this old photo,
René is holding the ‘P’

In a talk to schoolchildren in 2016 René made an intriguing comment: ‘On a été trahis’, he said, ‘we were betrayed.’ Mentioning that enigmatic remark to someone who knows a lot more about the town than us there was a little nod of agreement, ‘That’s what is said’. But as to further questions on who betrayed them and why, there was only a shrug and silence. And it’s a silence that the wise newcomer to the town respects. All wars are messy but the French experience from 1939 to 1945 was particularly so. It’s very significant that there has been no official French history written of that tragic and heroic period. Perhaps in a few decades one will be. In the meantime, slowly, quietly, like leaves falling off a tree in autumn, those who knew the Second World War and its secrets are disappearing and Lorgues has lost its last résistant.

We mention René Jassaud because driving through Les Arcs the other Saturday on the 76th anniversary of the liberation of the town we saw that there were dignitaries and military personnel assembling by the monument that marks the site where the ‘Treize Lorguais’ were killed. So we stopped and watched as wreaths were laid, speeches made and flags dipped in salute.

One by one the names of the thirteen were read out and after each name we all loudly declared in unison ‘Mort pour La France’. Then muted by masks, we sang La Marseillaise.

In a rather neat touch the area around the monument has just been named the Espace René Jassaud. So, at least symbolically, René Jassaud is finally reunited with his comrades.

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It is the season for events overtaking blogs. We were going to publish on Entrecasteaux last week, but the appalling explosion in Beirut demanded comment. Many thanks for those of you who contacted us either through the blog or in other ways. Although the initial shock has worn off, there is an extraordinary amount of work to be done and the cold and wet winter may only be three months away.

We were hoping that at the time of publishing this blog the house would be resounding to our younger son and his family happily on holiday here. But it is not to be. They arrived late on Tuesday, had a great Wednesday and Thursday and then with the news of immanent quarantine, decided it was best to head back to the UK before that started. This was not a happy household on Friday morning. The fact that the decision makes very little epidemiological sense (many tourists in France have been in the deepest countryside where there are almost zero cases of Covid) and was imposed at ridiculously short notice, has not helped our mood. However, this being 2020, we are constantly reminded that worse things happen than truncated holidays…

So, this is the blog we were going to publish last week.

All the little villages near us have something of a distinctive quality but one that seems to be particularly different to everywhere else is Entrecasteaux. We’ve mentioned it before but it remains high on our list of ‘villages to take guests to’. It’s buried down in a narrow wooded valley and is somewhere that could easily be overlooked. Coming in from the south it is actually rather unprepossessing. You have to enter on a narrow road between towering ancient buildings that are so close that you feel that residents could shake hands or transmit COVID across the street.

The core of the village is dominated by the chateau which aligned along a narrow rocky crag, and is wide, high and remarkably thin. There are all sorts of other smaller pleasing buildings, a tiny park with a formal ornamental garden in the style of the famous French landscape architect André Le Nôtre, a fast-flowing river and a large sports field which bizarrely includes a cricket pitch. Although in summer it’s never short of tourist visitors, it always strikes us as a village that keeps itself to itself.

A few Sunday afternoons ago, fancying a brief walk, we drove over and wandered round the perimeter. Nothing spectacular, nothing awesome, just a pleasant place to be. What more can one ask?

A side angle on the chateau gives a good idea of its height and width (or lack of the latter)
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Disaster in Beirut

We were going to do a blog on a local village this week but the appalling news from Beirut has pushed it off our ‘front page’.

We’ve been asked this week about our memories of Beirut Port. Oh yes, we remember the port. We knew it well and it has left memories. Alison was in Beirut in 1978 and Chris visited in the summer of 1979 before arriving to take up an Assistant Professor position at the American University of Beirut in 1980. In those years the ghastly tragedy of Civil War that had started in 1975 had settled down to a continuous ongoing series of mostly petty battles, many of which had an element of theatre and gesture about them. Beirut was carved up between West Beirut which the press tended to call ‘mostly Muslim’ and East Beirut which had the popular appellation of ‘mainly Christian’. In the middle lay the Green Line, a haunted zone of ruined buildings and spaces across which snipers faced each other.

For much of the time from the late 70s until summer ‘82 there were only three roads between East and West Beirut. Their names are ingrained on our minds and for too many people they were mentioned in their obituary. There was Sodeco, the Museum and ‘the Port’.  On a good day all three were open; on a bad day there was enough sniping across them that crossing from east to west became impossible.

The port was often the fastest but the riskiest route across. For much of the time only the brave or foolhardy took it after sunset, when the fighting would flare up again. From the American University you drove down past the gaunt pockmarked skeletons of the hotels to the entrance to the port area. Even there it was an anxious place. You watched out for any signs of trouble. Were other cars coming across and if so how fast? Was anybody gesturing a warning to you? Were the various militias relaxed or were they hunkered down behind sandbags?

Then with a deep breath and possibly renewed prayer you swung down past the tall building that rumour said often contained snipers and there before you lay an open stretch of battered tarmac with on one side bullet ridden containers and a few sunken ships and on the other cratered and burnt out buildings. This was the free fire zone and here you put your foot down and moved as fast as you could. Some people jinked their cars side to side to make the task of a sniper that bit more difficult. After perhaps 200 or 300m you were through to the Lebanese army or the Phalangist militia checkpoint and could breathe again. There you were relatively safe. Relatively, of course only until, things ‘hotted up’.

We have very few photographs of the port at this time: it was not a place you stopped to photograph.

Taken from a fast-moving car in the summer of 1981. The ship was one which never made it out of the port.

After the Israeli invasion of 1982 there was a brief time – in hindsight one of appallingly missed opportunities – in which the Civil War stalled and there was some sort of peace. Then the war returned before ending in an uneasy truce in 1988. When we came back to Beirut in 1994 the port was little more than a chaotic complex where the old scarred buildings and containers were largely hidden behind trucks, bulldozers and all the equipment of rebuilding. We used to attend the Anglican Church on the western edge and would marvel at the transformation.

The port was always a convenient place to bury things. It’s where a lot of Beirut’s rubbish ended up in an utterly unmanageable, chaotic and foul garbage dump that edged ever further out into the sea. Rumour – and Beirut bred rumours like it bred rats –  held that in among the rubbish were uncountable numbers of human casualties of the Civil War.

Sadly, we all now know that port came to hold other things including over 2000 tons of ammonium nitrate. Yes we have read the conspiracy theories but we find it all too credible that those who knew the problem banged on the doors of the ‘old men’ who control everything in Lebanon, demanding that something be done and were sent away with promises that weren’t worth the paper they weren’t written on.

Where Lebanon goes from here is an extraordinary challenge. The system is poisonous: to get anything done you need to find someone with influence. But if he – and it is normally a he – helps you then you are locked in to them with an obligation of loyalty. This sprawling network of connections and influence stifles innovation and chokes any attempt to remedy injustice. There are many people – across a number of churches – with allies in other ‘faith communities’ who are doing their best to change the system. Whether this disastrous week has made permanent change harder or easier is a very important question. We must pray that somehow out of this appalling tragedy good does come.

We finish with a video from the Lebanese Society for Educational and Social Development (LSESD). There is a website at the end where donations can be made and these will get to the people who really need it.

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A backwards glance: travelling west part 4

Back in June we were staying near Arles and have already posted three blogs on various things we did. We wanted though to mention two other places we went: the old town of Uzès and Pont du Gard.

Old Uzès centres round the castle of the Dukes of Uzès. France may be a republic, but the Dukes of Uzès is the first title in the French peerage and has been since the early 17th century. The castle, with its magnificent Renaissance courtyard, is still lived in by the Duke’s family today.

Round it wind medieval streets with grand stone houses. A wide central square is flanked by shops with ancient vaulted arcades. Altogether well worth a visit. Is it our favourite town in France? It’s certainly high up on the list.

Not far to the north-east of Uzès is a group of springs (Fontaine d’Eure). Today they supply water to the town, but in the first century, the Romans decided to build an aqueduct from there to the city of Nimes, a distance of over 50 km. Of all the aqueducts along the route, Pont du Gard with its triple arches is deservedly the most famous and iconic. Pont du Gard can be admired for several reasons, first as the excellent museum makes plain, it is an astonishing piece of engineering. Quite how the Romans were able to gauge the gradient of the aqueduct over 50 km is remarkable. It is also a structure that has last for nearly 2000 years. But there is also an aesthetic aspect of Pont du Gard. It somehow manages to be simultaneously massive and elegant: not an easy trick to pull off.

As it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site one would expect in late June to be surrounded by visitors from all over the world. Not in 2020. The car park was barely half full, and in the entrance hall, obviously designed for substantial queues, we simply walked straight up to the desk. No need to worry about social distancing in the museum either, as there were so few people.

As we crossed the bridge, we noted that there seemed to be more people enjoying the river or basking on the banks than there were visitors. Well, Pont du Gard has survived everything including the Black Death, so we imagine it will still be around when Covid-19 is history.

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Mountain and sea

For the last Saturday of July we thought we’d post a contrast. One of the problems of Courmettes is that being so high (830m), it often gets cloud when the coast is in glorious sunshine.

Way back in March, we were booked to visit Courmettes for various meetings. Of course they never happened. So this week was the first time we’d been up there for around nine months, our longest absence since we arrived in France six years ago. The occasion was a training week for A Rocha France “ambassadors”, with the aim of equipping them better to link their faith and ecology and to pass this on to others. In a world affected by COVID-19, this conference looked quite different from others, with attention to social distancing and all activities taking place outside.

Chris did his usual (and much appreciated) walk and talk around the domaine that takes in geology, history, site management, wetlands, dolmens and menhirs. Because of the cloud we didn’t get the usual great views.

Nevertheless Courmettes was, as ever, still impressive….

In contrast, we have also been to the coast where the sun shone with a ferocious intensity. We have blogged about Cap Dramont and the Plage de Debarquement many times but it’s not just a good beach, it’s an interesting area and there’s a fine walk up and around the hill to the east with its defensive fortifications, ancient and modern.

It’s nice to get a bit of variety!

From the east side of Cap Dramont you look over to the massif of the Esterel
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Travelling west part 3

Although we are now free to go out and about, we haven’t actually done a great deal of travelling: a couple of visits to Cannes for church, where a new bicycle-only lane has rendered it even more of a driving challenge than before, and a trip to a beach facing St Tropez last weekend. So we thought we’d continue with some of the far more interesting things we saw when we took our brief break at the edge of the Camargue.

We have covered the Camargue before, so here are a few specific extras. We spent a pleasant if unspectacular hour or so at the Scamandre Discovery Centre.; a well run wetland nature reserve.

across a lagoon to the main hide

The Camargue is famous for wetlands and water birds. But in high summer, most sensible creatures are either sitting on the nest or skulking in the reed beds. We did see a number of Glossy ibis, mostly in flight, a species which seems to be very much on the increase, and just outside the reserve a splendid White stork’s nest.

We then went on to the fascinating but rather crowded town of Aigues Mortes. One of the interesting phenomena of 2020 is that it doesn’t take many as people as it did in the past for a town to feel crowded. A year ago you didn’t really mind bumping into people as you walked around, now we do. Aigues Mortes is distinguished by the fact that its walls (arranged in a perfect square) are fundamentally unchanged since the Middle Ages. Probably one reason for this is that as the Rhone delta moved out into the sea, the town got left behind and lost any military or navigational importance. We could have walked around the walls, but this being a relatively lazy holiday, left it for another time.

From Aigues Mortes we went on to the coast where there is an enormous expanse of beach, something that is always pleasurable, but especially in a time of social distancing.

Plage de l’Espiguette at the end of the Rhone

And then we drove back past the lagoons, some of which are dried out for salt, and so back to Arles. A definite and welcome change of scenery.

Salt mountain near Aigues Mortes
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