Snow

Given that the winter months down here are December, January and February there was something very appropriate about the first winter storms occurring on Saturday 2nd December. As regular readers will know everybody here has been desperately anxious for precipitation in whatever form, due to the drought that has gripped our area (and much of southern Europe) since spring. Exactly how dry we have become can be seen in the photo we took in late November looking towards our house.

Actually in our area we merely got sleet and rain, but as is the way of these things a hundred metres above us and a few kilometres to the north there was some short-lived snow. It was however much thicker to the east where Courmettes received nearly a foot of snow. Sunday afternoon returning back from church around the coast, we stopped and admired the view north and despite fairly rapid melting you could still see how extensive the snow had been on the Pic des Courmettes.

Despite more melting on Monday there was still a great deal of snow up at Courmettes on Tuesday when we drove up for the A Rocha team Christmas dinner. In fact we had to stop the car a couple of hundred metres before the centre because packed snow was  blocking the road. So we parked the car  and cautiously walked up to the buildings carrying everything with us.

Later that afternoon, as the sun was setting, we took a walk out to the one of the viewpoints accompanied by Cuca, the centre’s dog. Even though the snow was only a fraction of what it had been it was still wonderful and there was a spectacular view down to the coast.

By way of a change the annual Christmas meal was held in the old kitchen of the château which goes back at least two centuries. Initially freezing, it soon got warm: after all there is no shortage of firewood at Courmettes. Gradually people arrived, some having made it up courtesy of a 4×4 and including children, there were soon over 20 people present. Dominic the chef rarely fails to deliver but this case the excelled himself in a series of dishes.

There was much to be grateful for: not just the food but the number of people present. It was also hard to realise that this was the fourth Christmas meal we have had with A Rocha France. Time and seasons pass swiftly.

Wednesday we walked back down to the car and cautiously – Courmettes’ notorious hairpin bends do not encourage careless driving – drove back to Taradeau.

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November miscellany

We were hoping that today would see a promised snowfall. However, we’ve had to settle for rain instead. Still, we’re grateful for this. After seven months with barely a millimetre of rain, everywhere is incredibly parched, including our local river, which in places is quite literally bone dry.

One possible result of climate change is that the local authorities at Cannes are engaged in a very large-scale beach replenishment programme, in which they are going to distribute 80,000 cubic metres of sand along the seafront. Presumably the intention is to allow yet more room for those who are (or wish they were) rich, famous, slim and tanned to pose semi-naked to the world in summer.  Actually it may not be needed: given the downfall of Harvey Weinstein (the “Caligula of Cannes” according to the Guardian) and others there may already be more space available.

We had the annual festival of new wine in Taradeau the other Sunday. We missed most of it because we were at church, but we turned up for the afternoon. As we mentioned last year, it’s not just simply a celebration of matters to do with the vine, but also something of an affectionate look back at a rural France that is now disappearing rapidly.

Accompanying Provencal dancing

This couple in traditional dress are sitting on the running board of a 1940s truck

Despite this emphasis on history and culture, wine is not forgotten, and for one or two people, it had clearly not been forgotten.

Our département, the Var, which as every French person knows is number 83, is distinguished by two claims. One is that is it the most forested département in France. Well  true or not, there are certainly places where it looks like it, as in the picture below.

The other claim is that the Var is the most militarised département in France, with the enormous naval base at Toulon, the Isle-of-Wight-sized training ground of the Plateau de Canjuers, and the army’s helicopter training base not far from where we live and the school of artillery at Draguignan. Normally, these are incidentals in our life, but we did recently have an interesting encounter with an armoured personnel carrier on an ancient and narrow bridge. When you find yourself in that situation, there is only one thing to do, which is to drive backwards as fast and carefully as possible. The French army prefers not to reverse.

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A backward look at autumn

Finally, after the long dry summer and autumn, it looks as if winter is on its way. For the next couple of weeks the Météo is actually predicting some days when the sun will not shine unbroken from dawn to dusk. And in terms of temperatures we’ve already had some nights that have seen  -4°C and where the fire has been very welcome. It is generally assumed round here that the true winter period is little more than two months – from early December to early February – a fact viewed enviously by the inhabitants of colder central and northern France.  So as we tiptoe away out of autumn we thought we’d post some photographs that have been sitting on the computer for a while.


Most of the sailing ships that were moored off Cannes in early autumn are either laid up for winter or, in the case of the bigger ones, have set sail for the Caribbean.

Visiting interesting old churches is more fun when there’s appropriate music being played!

Yes, it is indeed a man on a motorbike wearing a stork on his head. This was just one of about 100 colourful motorbikes all with flags or costumed riders, that blocked our passage one Saturday in the countryside. Provence attracts bizarre events like this.

The plaque on the right may not be very easy to read but marks the place where on the coast not far from us, Napoleon disembarked in 1799 after his conquest of Egypt. It tactfully overlooks the fact that he came back with far fewer ships than he went out with: he lost 13 of his 17 ships to Nelson in the Battle of the Nile.

And finally, you never know what you are going to see when you visit Cannes!

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Clocking up train miles with adventures en route

It’s been a busy couple of weeks. Monday last week Chris took the train from a dry brown Provence to a moist green Brittany to meet up with some A Rocha people and look at a potential project. Maybe!

Green and muddy in Brittany

Wednesday, he took the train back. Unfortunately due to a number of factors including the late arrival of the Rennes train into Paris he found himself running short of time to get from Gare du Montparnassse to Gare du Lyon. (A note of advice: online booking assumes that you can travel between any Paris station within an hour. It ain’t always easy: allow longer!) The upshot was that he took a motorcycle taxi across Paris which broke several French traffic laws including those clearly trivial ones to do with maximum speed, which side of the road to drive on, and the requirement to stop at red lights. It was distinctly, well, exhilarating.

The first snow of winter on Mont Ventoux

He got back Wednesday afternoon but on Thursday we both took the train north again to Paris and from there to London. Saturday Chris spoke at Cuddesdon College near Oxford for CRES (Certificate in Christian Rural and Environmental Studies) on “Creating Conservation with Roots: developing a sense of place and time”.  This was two lectures of over an hour each talking about some of the issues to do conservation and using Courmettes as an example. If anyone is interested you can get a PDF of the presentation from him.

The sleeper train at Austerlitz station

Then on up north via Leamington and Birmingham to see Chris’s parents on Monday and Tuesday in their residential home near Preston. The plan then was to head south Wednesday (Preston to London, Eurostar to Paris), picking up the overnight train south from Paris. Tuesday evening however we had an unwelcome text message that courtesy of a strike the overnight sleeper train was cancelled. No one who we managed to contact by phone seem to know what was happening so we simply headed to Paris anyway.

breakfast!

In fact at Paris Austerlitz, SNCF had everything well organised and, complete with a complimentary breakfast, we got beds in a sleeper coach parked in a siding and were rebooked on the fast TGV on Thursday morning. The result was that by Thursday noon we were back home.

 

Frosty fields in the centre of France

Crossing the Rhone with Avignon in the distance

Mont Sainte Victoire near Aix-en-Provence. We speedily overtook all the traffic on the motorway you can see at bottom right.

Chris reckons that in ten days he has travelled well over 5000 kilometres by train. That sounds a lot, but given that much of the time it was on France’s excellent TGV at around 300 kph (approx. 186 mph) it’s not quite as bad as it sounds. It would be nice to take it easy for a bit, but on Saturday there is a meeting of the Conseil d’Administration of A Rocha France near Arles, and he is preaching twice on Sunday in Cannes. But for both of these we are going to drive.

Nearly home. Taradeau is behind the nearest ridge.

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Autumn cycles 2

Since we wrote last week’s blog we have had a bit of rain and the temperatures have dropped. It will soon be time to light the fire! But before we switch into winter mode we ought to mention another of our autumn cycle rides.

A second cycle route from the town of Salernes along the old railway goes westwards. It’s a steep climb out of the town and they are still working on the route so that, at the moment, its easy to lose exactly where you are supposed to be cycling.

Unmistakably an old railway line…

But with a map and some hard peddling up hills you eventually strike the old railway line again which takes you after about thirty minutes to Sillans-la-Cascade. As you would expect from its name it has a waterfall, but after six months without rain we thought we’d save going to the viewpoint over the fall on another day.

Old railway bridge high above the river that leads to the cascade at Sillans

We considered cycling all the way on to the next large town of Barjols, but it’s deep in a valley and we didn’t want to have to lose height and then regain it. Instead we swung north to the wonderfully named Fox-Amphoux, enjoyed the view and then tried to take a minor route clearly marked on the map back to Salernes. Cycling through the lonely woods near here  we were reminded that there was a wolf attack on a flock here last winter. It’s remote enough for that to feel possible.

A tomb at Fox-Amphoux. French graves are rich in sorrow and nostalgia but poor in hope.

Dry fields near Fox-Amphoux

Here we came across a problem of French maps which we have met elsewhere and which is largely absent on their British equivalents. French maps do not mark rights of way when they exist, and more frustratingly, when they don’t. So you can pick what appears to be a perfectly usable track or road only to find that at some point it is sternly marked ‘Route Privée’. This proved to be the case here, but as taking the road back the way we had come involved a considerable distance and the afternoon was wearing on, we decided to ignore the sign. Instead we peddled as swiftly and quietly as we could along the track which took us around the margins of a ancient chateau, through its grounds and back to the road.

This problem with maps seems to reflect an age when in rural France you could pretty much walk anywhere you wanted: one of the legacies of the Revolution was the idea that the land did not simply belong to the rich but also, to some extent, to everybody. But the problem now seems to be that the old traditions are fading away. At least down here the chateaux are increasingly falling into the hands of multi-millionaires, many of whom are not French, and for whom the idea of open access is unwelcome. Slowly, track by track, without any great fuss, one of the best and most lasting fruits of the Revolution is being lost. Let’s hope that other people notice and start to do something about it.

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Autumn cycles 1

Although the clouds are gathering overhead, we are still waiting for our first rain since April. Everyone is somewhat concerned – the ground is like concrete, a number of trees and bushes seem to be in an unhealthy state and the firemen are still on a state of alert when they should be preparing their traditional Christmas calendars. The worst drought for sixty years they say.

However, the continuing dry weather has been a real blessing for cycling. Yes, of course you can cycle here in summer, but slogging up Provençal hills when the temperature is over 30°C is not particularly compelling. So we’ve had three good cycle rides in the area immediately to the north of us.

The central line (and the one of the coast) are now cycle tracks, but the northern one still takes trains.

One interesting development for cyclists is on the old railway line north of us that ran from Nice to Meyrargues north of Aix-en-Provence and which passed below Courmettes. it seems to have been called Le train des pignès because pine cones (pignès in Provençal) were used as tinder to light the fires in the original steam trains. Rather confusingly there is a modern train des pignès  that, with aid of subsidies, still runs from Nice to Digne-les-Bains.

 

Anyway the old line is now being turned into a long-distance cycle route. And we mean long-distance: it’s part of a European cycle route, EuroVelo 8, which starts on the Atlantic coast at Cadiz, and in theory continues all the way across to Cyprus. There is of course a small problem with the final part of the route, but we’re sure there are plenty of ferries.

It’s not just a good and gentle route, but one that it allows you to branch off in different directions. Both days we started from Salernes, a curious little town with a long history of tile manufacture, due to the presence of suitable clays. It still retains aspects of the traditional French town – don’t look too carefully and you could imagine yourself in some 1960s French film.

From Salernes it’s possible to cycle in between the vineyards to Villecroze, which has its own charms, and there’s a lovely route back through more neatly tended vineyards, quiet woods and elegantly decaying old buildings to a charming gorge with caves. Hidden away here is also a tiny chapel, Chapelle de St Barthélemy, along with a lovely picnic area.

At this time of year it’s not just the temperature that’s ideal for cycling, it’s that the roads are relatively quiet, as the tourists have largely gone. That’s good for us but rather a pity for them because it’s France at its best.

 

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Bon voyage!

Bon voyage! It’s a good phrase isn’t it? But if you were to take a journey in rural France in the Middle Ages, you’d definitely want something more than good wishes for a long journey along roads where the rules of law, kitchen hygiene and good sanitation were often conspicuously absent.  That’s presumably why so many really old roads in France have chapels along the wayside.

Certainly our local market town of Lorgues is ringed with small chapels on all the main roads out. The town was on a secondary (or maybe tertiary) route to the famous pilgrim destination of St James of Compostela (Santiago de Compostela) in NW Spain and several lesser routes as well. Actually some of these chapel actually bestrode the roads making it almost obligatory for travelers to stop for a quick prayer for safety.

The most celebrated of these is the small chapel of Ben Va, or to give it’s full title, the Chapel of Notre-Dame de Benva, to the west of Lorgues . ‘Benva’ is a contraction of the Provençale “Ben vaï”, or Bon voyage.

Up to the 1920s the carts and cars still ran under the huge porch of the chapel but inevitably this couldn’t continue, so now the road goes round the chapel which means that most people drive past. Which is a pity because around 1510 Ben Va was visited by an unknown Italian artist who painted extraordinary frescos on the inside walls of the chapel and inside the porch which somehow  survived the Reformation, the Revolution and the odd rebellion. We had the opportunity to visit it last month as part of an open day and the frescoes are fascinating not just as works of art but as windows into the mediaeval world.

Faded exterior fresco showing Mary and the baby Jesus, with Joseph

The outside frescos are faint, but still impressive. Inside, the right-hand side originally depicted hell, but has been almost totally obliterated (from the small part that remains, one can imagine that it wasn’t a very pleasant sight!). The left-hand side shows heaven, with God on his throne surrounded by the souls of the righteous, and below women depicting virtues. Over the entrance door is purgatory.

 

The court of heaven on the upper right, purgatory over the door

The righteous in heaven. The artist chose to represent the multitudes in heaven by outlines of the tops of their heads

In terms of church art, they are not the highest quality:  by all accounts, the frescos in Italian churches of this era are even finer. But we found it fascinating to find these on our doorstep. In them we see an entire medieval theology, and though the faces and costumes may be stylised one feels they are real people, who could have been identifiable to their contemporaries. Decoding the pictures – and they do need decoding – is challenging. So for instance, the woman with the long loose hair is Mary Magdalene. Some of the saints are instantly recognisable: St Sebastian looking like a pin cushion, St Michael trampling on the dragon, but others aren’t, at least to us.

Sebastian, Martha and Mary Magdalene. We’re not sure what the significance of the beast at the bottom is.

We found ourselves wondering why these walls were painted. Was it, in this age before widespread literacy, to teach the fear of hell and the hope of heaven? Was it to encourage the traveller to make a donation? Or was it quite simply to encourage the weary pilgrim to keep going?

The archangel Michael trampling on the dragon. From the bits that remain of this wall, you can see why people might have wanted to cover it over its grim depiction of hell.

It’s interesting to think that in those days people would have stopped and looked at these frescoes and thought about where they were headed in this life and the next. We, in contrast, just drive by.

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