Travelling west part 2

We mentioned last week that a fortnight ago we took a short four-day break over to the west of us. We were based just outside Arles and the second day there we decided to make a trip into what many people consider to be ‘typical’ Provence, but which is reality only the western part. This is the area that is grumpily referred to by many residents in France as “that bit that Peter Mayle ruined with his books”. That’s probably a little unfair but it does seems as thought it went from being absolutely unknown to being almost submerged by house-hunters, German camper-vans and gawping tourists.

Although we had been to this part of Provence about seven years ago, one place we had always missed visiting was a village that appears in the tourist guides as ‘must see’: the spectacularly perched hilltop settlement of Gordes. From the viewpoint on the ridge approaching the town (at the top of a cliff with no guard rail), it’s easy to see how Gordes became one of the “most beautiful” villages of France. The view over the Durance valley is just as spectacular.

In high expectation we then went into the centre of the village. If you’ve not ‘done’ many Provencal villages you’ll probably be delighted with Gordes. Maybe we have slightly jaded palates, but we didn’t think a great deal of it. If you want the experience of medieval streets and what the French call dépaysement – that sense of being removed to another place or time – there are other villages that do it better.

Inextricably linked with Gordes is the Cistercian abbey of Senanque, which is a charming place, made even more attractive by the wisdom – or was it the folly? – of the monks of putting lavender fields in front of it. The result is at this time of year a wonderfully photogenic view of ancient stone amid vibrant imperial purple. It is one of those places where there is a desperate battle between the existence of a religious community and a tidal wave of tourists. And even in this year of COVID it was quite difficult to take photos without including people posing among the lavender.

We then when on to what was the discovery of the day, L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue. It is only strictly an island because here the river Sorgue briefly splits into two, but the central island has lots of attractive buildings, some very tempting restaurants and a charming ambiance. We didn’t find a lot of tourists there and, at the risk of annoying those responsible for the town’s economy, long may that state last.

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Travelling west part 1

With the cautious ending of the confinement in France we had been planning to take something of a holiday. However, as so often the way with us, it got rather curtailed. The fact that Chris needed to go and check out a possible replacement building for the A Rocha France project in the Vallée des Baux near Arles suggested that this was a good area to head to. So we had three very pleasant days in the area that the French administration calls Bouches de Rhône (the Rhone mouth) and adjacent areas.

Road along the Vallée des Baux not far from the Ilon marsh, with the Alpilles in the distance. A Rocha is hoping to rent a building just to the right.
One of the local farmers raises black bulls

One afternoon we spent a very pleasant hour or so by the Marais de Ilon (Ilon Marsh), where A Rocha has been working for nearly 20 years and hopes to continue for a long time.

Footpath along the edge of the marsh (right) with cliffs on the other side

There wasn’t a lot of bird life around, apart from egrets (Little and Cattle), but there were a lot of butterflies. We are not very knowledgeable about butterflies and other insects so the only one we are sure of is the swallowtail – any of our readers who can identify them, please let us know!

But it’s a splendid area for nature and we are delighted that we have been able to find rental accommodation within cycling (and possibly walking) distance. Moving in is we think going to be an October project, but if anyone wants to know more about the work here, or even to volunteer, feel free to email us (via a comment on this blog if you don’t have our address).

Black bulls with cattle egrets
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Chateau de Berne

For all its many attractions, our part of the world is not a great place for chateau, certainly not in the sense of the enormous turreted edifices that so wonderfully adorn the valley of the Loire. It’s partly geology (we don’t have that splendid lightweight limestone that dominates the Loire area of France), but it’s more a matter of economic history. Provence was traditionally a relatively poor part of France and royalty of any sort rarely made it down here: it would have taken you the best part of a week to get back to Paris. There are however a number of grand estates and grand houses which merit the title ‘chateau’. These can be classified into three.

There are those owned by film stars, business magnates and those who have made their money through means it’s best not to ask about, which are utterly private and sealed off to the outside world. The wise walker or cyclist is well advised to avoid these, their ferocious dogs and especially the guards.

The second type of chateau are those which are attached to vineyards and who are very happy to have customers. By that we mean people who drive in through the gate, buy cases of wine at the shop and then immediately drive out again. Unless you are a wine fan these are not very exciting.

But one near us is the rather splendid Chateau de Berne** just to the north of Lorgues. At the heart is the chateau which includes a restaurant and 5-star hotel complex which are beyond our budget (though not unreasonable for what they offer), but by all accounts are pretty spectacular. It also has a big shop, plus a coffee shop and bistro.

We mention it because the other Sunday we walked one of the trails which was well-marked, very varied and a lot of fun.

So, on that basis alone, if you are looking to spend substantial money on a corporate event, a splendid wedding or just a classy couple of days in our part of the world, it gets our vote. For no other reason than it actually seems to like people. Full marks guys.

** Clicking on this link will get you the French version of the website but you can change it to English – or German or Dutch or Portuguese.

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An almost normal day No. 2

We mentioned last week that we ‘celebrated’ the ending of confinement by a cycling trip out to Lac Sainte Croix, and promised some photos. The rainy weather had resulted in wonderfully clear air and on the way out of Aups we stopped at a well-known viewpoint to take in the scenery. There were fantastic views all the way over to Mont Sainte Victoire (overlooking Aix-en-Provence) and the Alpilles, which overlook the eastern Carmargue.

Le Petit Bessillon with the perched village of Fox-Amphoux to the right and the range of Sainte Baume behind
The Alpilles are the far range in the middle, Mont Sainte Victoire on the right

The lake was its usual spectacular self, extraordinarily blue, and high almost to the point of overflowing. It was also pleasant to be there with the sky still unspoilt by vapour trails.

We didn’t do a vast distance on the bikes – we are getting back into the habit of using them – but it was great to be out in the open. We picnicked at the end of the trail and cycled back into Les Salles sur Verdon, a tiny village that originated as the resettlement of the original village after the lake was created in the 1970s. The economy is almost entirely tourist-oriented and it was still fairly quiet compared to when we have been there in the past. But there is definitely the hope that something like a ‘normal’ July and August tourist season will be recovered. May it be so!

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An almost normal day No. 1

The last few weeks have seen some very unseasonal weather here. Lots of rain (welcome!) and cool temperatures (much less welcome). But last Saturday was classically provencal – cloudless blue skies and t-shirt temperatures. We decided to make the best of it and go cycling round Lac Sainte Croix. We’ll show you the photos of the actual cycle and the lake next week, but the trip was bracketed by events that marked something of a return to normal in our part of the world.

A rather fine rainbow from our house as the sun managed to creep out below the clouds

We drove out to Aups, a town frequently mentioned in these blogs, and enjoyed a return to that classic of French life, sitting outside having a coffee watching the world go by. The Saturday market – a key focal point of a traditional town like Aups – was thriving, although we did detect a shortage of tourists, a fact lamented by one or two stall holders. It was interesting to see the mixture of masked and unmasked faces. In our département – the size of the whole of south Wales – we are down to one or two deaths a day from Covid-19, and a number of people clearly feel the risk of contagion outdoors is pretty minimal. Let’s hope so!

At the end of the day we enjoyed a return to a second classic of French life, the restaurant. Nothing special. We simply walked into Lorgues and picked one of our favourites. Things started pretty quietly but eventually numbers built up. In general everybody seemed to be sticking to the rules, waitresses masked, tables more widely dispersed than before and, an uncomfortable reminder of reality, a plastic bottle of hand gel on each table. Again, in the overheard conversations, there was a shortage of Dutch, German and English, but there was very much a sense of our town getting back to normality.

Taken by our waitress

As we write, President Macron is due to speak on television tomorrow night, and we are hoping that there will be some sort of formal announcement of the end of the crisis. Our sympathies to those of you in the United Kingdom; the unfortunate status of ‘Grande Bretagne’ has been fully noticed here and it’s not been easy to explain in French (or English!) how a nation, long upheld by the French as an enviable model of sense and stability, allowed itself to get into such an appalling mess. It’s a good question.

A final note: our application for French citizenship has been accepted; however there is a delay of between 12 and 18 months before we get our interview.

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Déconfinement 4: Bits and pieces

Those of you who are still stuck in lockdown are probably saying to yourselves, “the moment I get out I’m going to enjoy myself doing…” In fact, if you’re anything like us, you will find that your longed freedom is going to be eroded by having to go shopping for bits and pieces that you haven’t been able to purchase over the past few months so that you can do all the tasks you couldn’t do in lockdown because you didn’t have the relevant bits and pieces. This has indeed rather been the case for us, although some very unseasonal, unsettled weather hasn’t encouraged adventurous forays. So, with the end room finally refurbished, we paid a visit to our nearest IKEA at Toulon to get a sofa bed and other things for it. It was all very well managed and contrary to what we hear from the UK, the queues were modest. We are promising ourselves it will be the last visit there for a very long time.

We have mentioned before what can be called the ‘Swimming Pool Fallacy’. This is the belief that all you really need for a swimming pool is a hole in the ground filled with water. Far from it. In fact, if swimming pools are holes in anything, it is in the wallet and there are a bewildering number of ways in which they allow money to leak out. One minor issue for us was that we realised there was an open contact between the edging slabs and the pool liner all the way around in which moss was taking a hold. Armed with a high-pressure hose, Chris went round the pool clearing it out. He hopes to seal it in the near future.

However the major issue and the big expense was the realisation that the aging pool robot that we had inherited with the house and which was supposed to clear the water was doing nothing more than kicking up dust and debris, giving an impression of a clean pool which quickly disappeared the next morning. Given that aging electrics and water really don’t mix, we decided it was time to get a replacement. After a couple of fairly fruitless visits to small pool specialists, we discovered a ‘pool supermarket’, a phenomenon unknown in the UK, a vast shop piled high with every conceivable item for the swimming pool, from a bewildering array of chemicals, through pumps, tubes, filters and heaters to (we kid you not) yellow plastic ducks. We were glad to escape with merely a robot, which operating according to some sophisticated piece of programming, now meanders happily around the pool clearing up dust and leaves.

In fact we haven’t actually spent much time in the pool for the simple reason that the weather, as in much of Europe, has been very weird. After virtually no rain from January to March, April and May have been particularly cool and wet.

The result of this has been a wonderful array of green vegetation, lots of flowers, and, it seems a number of fine moths. We did one brief cycle ride and had great views of the coastal ranges. Birders may be interested that our garden bird list has now added Cirl Bunting, Golden Oriole, Nightingale and Scops Owl. (Well we have at least heard all of them!)

Presumably the late rain is good for the local vineyards, however the best news for them has been that the French government is buying up a lot of last year’s unused wine to turn into alcoholic hand gel. So if you do have to get French hand gel in the future, take a sniff: it may be made from our excellent local rosé.

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Déconfinement 3: out and about, further afield

With the weather heading into summery temperatures and unclouded skies, there was a fairly obvious choice for where to go on a Saturday of limited ‘déconfinement’ . This was the famous beach of Pampelonne on the St Tropez peninsula. We’ve only been here one or two times. The main reasons for neglecting it have been that it’s generally very crowded with difficult car parking, and you have to negotiate the normally appalling (but very classy) traffic around St Tropez. This stage of the déconfinement still has a 100km limit on travel, and the fact that everyone’s car number plate reveals their department number, discourages any visitors other than relatively local.

So on a sunny May holiday weekend, it was a strange feeling to drive along the coast road close to the speed limit rather than crawling along at 15 km per hour. The car park was unnaturally empty with the new regulations for the beach clearly displayed.

The beach restaurants which, would normally be open and crowded, were deserted although a few of owners were obviously taking the opportunity to do some maintenance. We set off walking towards the headland of Cap Camarat.

Eventually we left the beach and set off along the meandering and rocky coastal path. And as we have often remarked, even authorised French footpaths can be challenging. This is no exception. It’s difficult to image any British local authority allowing it to exist without handrails, concrete steps and a plethora of warning signs. At one point a section that had slipped away had been crudely repaired. One COVID curiosity was how you maintain social distancing on a path that is barely wide enough for one person.

In the end we decided not to do the long climb up to the lighthouse. We’ve done it before and the day was already getting almost uncomfortably warm. And, after eight weeks of life inside, we didn’t feel we’d built up the tan necessary to resist the sun for too long.

Chris is using the Birdnet app on his phone to identify which bird was singing in the thick bushes on the edge of Cap Camarat. It confirmed his identification of a nightingale (no they don’t just sing at night).

We returned the same way and after a brief swim – the water is still cold by our standards – had a picnic lunch on the beach. A very laid-back Police Municipale officer with a megaphone turned up as we were leaving but the beach is so vast and the number of people so limited, we don’t think he saw anything to distress him.

We do gather though that the police did close down one of the smaller rockier beaches a few kilometres away because social distancing was impossible. Anyway it’s all about to change . The prime minister has announced the lifting of the 100 km limit and has allowed for the opening of all beaches and, under various conditions, restaurants and bars. There is a cautious feeling that the summer tourist season may yet be rescued. We will see.

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Déconfinement 2: out and about, locally

It might have been assumed that with the loosening of confinement that we would immediately head over the hills and far away. Well, we didn’t do that. There were two reasons: the first was that we had a ‘must buy’ list of things to get for the house which went back nearly two months. The second was that the weather was wet and not conducive to travelling a long way.

Saturday we made a quick trip up to the lovely old village of Tourtour and did a short walk to the Grimaldi Tower (end 12th century), which overlooks the rolling wooded plain below. Yes, we’ve been there before, but it’s always pleasant, especially when you’ve been cooped up for eight or so weeks. (The pictures below show the tower, Chris taking photos, and one of the photos he took.)

The Sunday afternoon we just drove to some quiet lanes not far away and wandered along them taking lots of photographs of wonderful flowers, butterflies and beetles.

Weatherwise, things are very much on the cusp between spring and summer, and the flowers are absolutely fantastic. But it is very much the end of spring, something that in many ways we feel we have missed seeing very much of. Although the weather was grey and wet for the first part of this week, daytime temperatures have risen rapidly and are now heading towards 30°C – that’s rather too high for May.

In general there is a real sense of confinement ending. Although everybody is wearing masks in Lorgues, it’s lost its resemblance to a ghost town, and when were in Friday morning Chris saw some of the Police Municipale discussing with a bar owner how it could be opened up in the near future. We did both manage to get our hair cut but despite a big notice saying that in the interests of health, clients shouldn’t engage in conversation, the coiffeuse was delighted to see us and chatted away from behind her mask all the time. Everyone in France is awaiting the infection numbers over the next few days, and there is a desperate hope that there will be no second wave. If there is, there’s going to be a very real reluctance to going back to being locked down.

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Déconfinement No. 1

To everyone’s relief, here in France we have started the process of déconfinement and under certain restrictions are now allowed to go out and about. There is a great deal of caution (and a lot of face masks) about as well as a certain anxiety lest the numbers of infections and deaths start to rise again. Nevertheless it does mean we’ve had slightly more of a normal week.

First of all, to pick up on two things from last week, we had two of the scheduled workmen around, for the pool and the solar water heater. The water heater man got up on the roof and confirmed what we had suspected: our resident dormice had chewed the cable to the temperature gauge. He replaced it with a, hopefully, unpalatable aluminium-covered cable. But it has increased our resolve to try and get rid of the dormice. Whether it is the dormice that were responsible for this extraordinary hole under the fig tree we’re not sure.

One other new resident that emerged this week was a rather fine slow worm which had been hiding under the pile of garden material that had accumulated during confinement.

The weather has been peculiarly wet and stormy for mid May, something for which everybody is grateful. We had to make a trip to the coast to check on a friend’s property, and the seas were very rough indeed.

The rain however has been splendid for the garden. The fig tree that was badly affected by the late frosts in March has recovered well and our vines (which we should have pruned over winter) have erupted in foliage.

As for so many people, church continues to be virtual. We are however beginning to look for the way forward when (and if) déconfinement proves to be effective. The general feeling however is that it’s going to be a long road back to any sort of normality.

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Lockdown post No. 6: Things to be done!

Well we are hoping that this is the last of the lockdown posts as the strict confinement rules are being lifted on Monday. There are a number of caveats, first, no restaurants, bars or coffee shops to open, second, it is provisional and could be revoked if the figures climb back up. And, worryingly for our part of the world, travel into France is still restricted. Anyway it’s progress. But the key thing is that now it’s over, all sorts of work needs to be done.

One thing we needed done we have already achieved. This week was that the municipal waste centres – déchetteries – were opened, though access is now restricted to two vehicles at one time. One of the issues about living down here is that at this time of year everything grows at an extraordinary rate. The result of this is that you can accumulate a very great amount of garden waste in six weeks. There was a large but patient queue.

Beyond confinement, temperatures continue to rise and summer is almost upon us. This raises all sorts of issues, particularly in a new house. One is the weighty matter of the swimming pool. Those people who live in more northerly climes can assume that a swimming pool is merely a hole in the ground filled with water. The reality is that to keep a swimming pool clean, pure and well, swimmable, requires an extraordinary level of technology. So if you go into our pool house you will find an accumulation of tubes, dials and switches which would not be out of place on a submarine. We think we’ve got our pool water reasonably balanced but we still have to check pH, levels of chorine and water hardness. Anyway we hope to have a pool specialist visit this week to check it over.

We have also inherited a pool robot, which is a small tracked cleaner which you lower into the pool. It then wanders around cleaning the floor and the walls. So far ours seems to be working well but as with so many things in this house, it came with no manual. Nothing needed here (we think) but anything that involves electricity working underwater needs to be watched carefully.

One other feature of this distinctly over-featured house is a passive solar water heating unit. The theory is straightforward: water circulates through the panels on the roof, is heated by the sun, is transported down into the hot water tank where conduction allows it to heat up the domestic water supply. Simple; at least in theory. In practice ours comes with a bewildering number of pipes, cylinders and dials and, a source of some slight concern, an LCD screen which is flashing red with a warning exclamation mark. We’ve found a firm who specialise in this complex interaction and hope to get them out next week to have a look. Another thing to be done!

Summer of course is the season of pests round here and we were intrigued to see this wasp starting to build a nest near our side door. It’s an extraordinary creation but we’re afraid to say that after a couple of days we removed it and the wasp and hope it’s not going to come back.

Finally, we have discovered that we have guests in the house. For some time there have been suspicious noises from the roof and last night something was clearly galloping along above the ceiling of the living room in a rather unnerving manner. Almost certainly these are what are called loir, the edible dormouse (Glis glis), which has an interesting lifestyle of hibernating from November to April before waking up to feed and breed over summer. Although they look charming, they have a nasty bite, can carry infectious diseases and have an unfortunate habit of chewing through electrical wiring. It seems like we need a specialist for them too.

The peace of confinement is clearly ending!

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