The old Verdon canal

It’s been a much colder and windier week here, and there was much consternation at the very low temperatures on Wednesday night, which have wreaked damage among some of the more exposed vineyards around us. We were very grateful that all our own more vulnerable plants – two fig trees, two citrus trees and couple of vines – seem to have survived. One curious effect of this was that the attempts by the vineyard owners to mitigate the frost by burning fires, apparently created hazardous levels of smoke and fume along the local motorway. It certainly looked like it from our garden.

In other news, Chris, whose blood pressure leaps up every time a doctor tries to take it, has got an appointment for his first Covid vaccination this coming week (and the second in mid-May). Alison, we’re assured, will be eligible in about ten days.

The gentle lock-down we are under did unfortunately preclude us attending the Easter Church service at Cannes in the flesh, nevertheless, courtesy of live-streaming we were able to be there digitally.

Now back to walks and pictures. As frequently commented in this blog, there’s some truly fantastic walking up around Lac Sainte Croix and the Gorges du Verdon. In fact we keep finding new walks.

The walk we went on at the start of March was on one of the lower stretches of the river Verdon. The entire river is now dammed and controlled but there is some impressive scenery along the way. In the 19th century a plan was made to bring water from the Verdon to Aix-en-Provence, a distance of about 80 km. The canal was constructed with great labour and was in use until 1969. Today it’s empty, but the old maintenance path alongside has been turned into a hiking route.

Looking back to the start of the gorge; downstream it’s hard to see where a walk could go

It’s forbidden to walk along the course of the old canal itself, which is sometimes cut through the rock. Bats now inhabit these tunnels, and near the end of the walk an old warden’s cabin has been turned into small exhibition on the wildlife and history of the canal. At this point, the track does go into the old canal bed – going through one of the tunnels it emerges into a wooded valley with amazing moss and lichen.

The path now climbs up to a ridge, where, in a typically inaccessible place, there is a small chapel. A good place for lunch! For some reason there was a flock of rather fine goats there who seemed to be doing very well off uneaten sandwiches.

There was still snow on the hills above the Verdon, seen from the ridge on the walk back

A good and varied walk, but as with so many of these walks we ended up saying “it would be challenging in high summer”: you’d certainly have to bring a lot of water with you.

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Easter 2021

First of all, we wish you all a happy and blessed Easter!

Second, here’s a puzzle for you to try to solve: we had fibre-optic cable fitted to the house at the end of December. It has worked flawlessly until this week when, curiously it started to cut out at around 3 o’clock in the afternoon until about 8 o’clock at night. An explanation at the bottom of the page!

Third, M. Macron announced this week that we are now in another four-week period of lockdown. It has not been well received although it is somewhat gentler than it was a year ago. We can at least travel up to 10 km away without having to have a form, and the list of ‘essential’ shops now includes bookshops and hairdressers. It does mean however that we can’t head over to Cannes for church. In the meantime the vaccine programme is slowly and painfully gaining speed, to the extent that we will frankly be disappointed if we don’t get at least our first dose this month.

Our limits for the next four weeks (could be so much worse!!)

Anyway, in order to avoid draining our considerable stock of blog-worthy material built up for precisely this eventuality, we thought we’d dedicate this Easter one to the flowers which are such a pleasing feature of spring here. We are constantly reminded that we missed this season last year by being virtually confined to the house.

Finally, the answer to the fibre problem? It turned out to be that the linkage with the fibre cable had been installed on a fairly cold day in December and possibly not as well as it might have been. Carelessly, the junction box had been mounted on a pole facing south-west. The result was that in this week’s high temperatures and abundant sun, the box had heated up and the fibre cables had been stretched and partially separated. This was discovered by an excellent Orange technician (head and shoulders above some of the others we’ve encountered) who at 7:30 on Friday evening re-sutured the link with his rather fancy laser welder. Interestingly enough Alison had earlier surmised that it was to do with the heat. Perhaps she should retrain as a fibre technician?

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Tavernes and Montmeyan

Following on from last week’s blog about places we hadn’t previously visited, at the beginning of this month we thought we’d head north-west of Lorgues to the village of Tavernes. It’s a place which we only knew as a name on signposts and we’d never met anyone who lived there.

So we turned up, put masks on and did our tour of inspection. In happier times we would have had a coffee but alas, bistros and coffee bars are all Covid-closed.  Verdict? It’s not a place to make a detour to but it has its points of interest.  

As its name might suggest Tavernes is a village that came into being because its location at the intersection of a couple of ancient roads made it a place for overnighting. Given that for much of the past, Provence was the sort of troubled place where was a lot to be said for stabling your horse and finding a bed safe and sound behind solid walls and locked gates, inns and taverns were important. But with the rise of the internal combustion engine village inns became increasingly superfluous as people didn’t need to break their journey.

In fact, Tavernes does not seem to have spread very much beyond its medieval size and like so many villages it suffered a sharp decline in population through most of the 20th century, and only started to pick up inhabitants in the 1990s. The core of the old village with its clock tower, church and the remains of medieval walls and towers is surrounded by newer buildings. One interesting hint too of the past was a Rue des Huguenots, although the Protestant cause in this part of Provence was never very strong. Protestantism seems to have been mainly a French-speaking (rather than Provencal) middle-class and literate movement. We stuck our heads into the church which seemed to embody the malaise of Catholicism in much of France today. Despite best efforts it had a clear air of being run down and underused.

One of the deciding factors in going to Tavernes on a distinctly dull day – not wet but overcast and very misty – was to take the walk marked to a chapel on the hill overlooking the town. We drove up part of the way and then walked along the ridge route. There could have been some good views if it hadn’t been so misty, but in any case the path was bordered by some fine woods, mostly young evergreen oaks (Quercus ilex).

Part way along the track we saw that an area had been cleared. A jumble of stones in regular patterns suggested that here was the site of an oppidum, a pre-Roman fortification, although it hasn’t been cleared enough to see properly. As oppidia experts – three years labour on the magnificent Taradeau site – we were not impressed.

  • Tavernes chapel ND de Bellevue: site of hermitage

The chapel itself, sadly locked, is built against and even into a rock in which apparently the footprints of Jesus or Mary had been recognized. A sign told us that the deserted house next to it had once been a hermitage, but from its size, it was built for hermits with aspiration for a communal life. That too was closed but it did have a very pleasant picnic area in the grounds. Descending the path on the other side we got good views of Tavernes and the extensively cultivated plain below.

With little to detain us we drove on cautiously over a pebbly road down onto the plain to the north. It was a weird expanse, resembling in some ways a British heath, with clumps of trees, lots of low shrubs and isolated houses for people who don’t like neighbours. It would probably have been good for bird life but we got the impression that it was a firing range for hunters.

The back road

After a basic picnic we drove on, finding ourselves at Montmeyan. This is a village that we have driven round many times but never previously gone inside. Again, not exactly worth a detour but not without its charms. In particular, there was a very fine view from the top where there had been a castle once upon a time. (Who built it? Who destroyed it? Which of the many wars was it involved in? Does anybody know?) One particularly pleasing aspect of the view was the edge of the great limestone cliffs around the Gorges du Verdon, which can be considered to be the start of the Pre-Alps. They are certainly where the ground rises dramatically and on their heights the retreating remains of the winter snow could still be seen in patches.

Then back home. Not a day of great discoveries but pleasant to get out, particularly with the still looming threat of a further lockdown.

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There was a great deal of uncertainty this week as to whether our département (Var, 83) would be locked down, but in the end we have escaped. However, the adjacent département, Alpes-Maritimes, which includes the A Rocha centre at Courmettes and our church at Cannes, is facing four weeks of fairly tight restrictions. The vaccination programme here is proceeding at the pace of an arthritic snail, but we are hoping that it will pick up speed in the next week or so.

Partly because we have been anticipating a period of lockdown we have been out and about a fair bit and taking lots of photos. So this week we thought we’d blog about an area not far from Lac Sainte Croix, higher and further inland.

We visited in February and by now of course spring will be much further advanced. What was interesting that in six years of living around here we’d never managed to visit the village of Artignosc-sur-Verdon. It’s not really surprising because it’s very small and not on the way to anywhere. But we were able to do a good walk from it and it has its charms.

The large building on the left was the old chateau and mairie, the lavoir to its right was the washing place supplied by canal

From the village you can walk down to the lower gorges of the Verdon river. A hundred and fifty years ago the river would have been spectacular, cutting its way down through the awe-inspiring great gorge, meandering through a broad valley and then down through a succession of smaller gorges before eventually reaching the River Durance (which eventually goes into the Rhone just south of Avignon). Like almost every river on the planet it has now been heavily modified with a succession of dams to generate electricity and create reservoirs to supply water for the area. It’s still however picturesque and relatively unspoiled and to walk along its edge is very fine. What is clear however from looking at some of the old houses in the village and elsewhere here is that this was a very poor part of France.

It was a good walk and it’s always nice to reminded that, even after six years here, there are still many delightful places we haven’t visited.

One of many lakes (reservoirs) along the river. Please note that the water colours are genuine, the river really is this colour!
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Bourmes les Mimosas

To start with, this week has seen one achievement, and one non-achievement. The achievement is that we have each just received our 10-year carte-de-séjour, evidence of our right to permanent residence in France, and essential after the Brexit debacle. The non-achievement is that as healthy people over 65 we still don’t know when we will be able to get a Covid vaccination. Next week perhaps?

We posted a couple of weeks ago about our trip to Brégançon. We wanted to try a walk along the coast path, but owing to landslips, it was blocked from there. So we headed back towards the beach of Bourmes les Mimosas, the other side of the peninsula, intending to walk the other way. We’d been to the beach there before and not been very impressed. Like many seaside towns here it appeared to be all apartment blocks and shops catering for the tourists. No doubt someone in the 60s or 70s thought the apartment blocks by the marina were a bold statement. We are not impressed.

We set off along quite a well done boardwalk which went into a track and then as we got to the rocks, an increasingly narrow path, which frankly was not very interesting to walk along, not least because you had to spend all your time watching where to put your feet. In typically French fashion there was no warning that to try to take the path was to risk your life. After a while we gave up and turned back and had our picnic lunch back near the boardwalk.

About to give up on the sterile concrete of Bourmes les Mimosas we noticed that there was a separate, and evidently older part of the town higher up the hill.

Time to explore!

To our surprise, it turned out that Bourmes les Mimosas is actually two very different places. The old town, high on the hill, is everything that the young town is not: charming, welcoming and full of attractive alleyways, steps and picturesque buildings. It would be tempting to call it ‘classically Provencal’ but what was particularly fascinating was the way that it had a genuine Italianate feel to it. There’s the high buildings, the winding streets and the sense of intimacy and a leisured, close-knit community, plus plenty of palm trees and, of course, the eponymous mimosas.

We wound our way up to the top of the village proper and then couldn’t resist climbing up several hundred metres to the chapel at the top of the hill. Not something we would recommend in the height of summer. We found a proper viewpoint there from where there was magnificent views of the coast and the coastal ranges, including, far away to the west, the peak of Mont Sainte Victoire. We think that Mont Sainte Victoire can generally be called iconic, having been painted 80 times by Cezanne.

So what we learned is that you don’t judge a town by its coastal portions, and it’s well worth persevering into the older parts.

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A recent Saturday dawning bright, clear and still, we decided to head down to the coast. Regular readers will remember that last year we rather shunned the coast because it was crowded. So we headed towards Toulon, turned off across the lovely countryside, rich in farms and vineyards, towards Hyeres and then drifted along the beautifully manicured road from La Londes des Maures marked Brégançon. The reason for the immaculately kept roads is that the fort of Brégançon is the summer residence of the French presidents. It’s also very busy in summer and we decided that this was a good time to get as near to it as we could.

Brégançon beach

It’s a spectacular site, and with the sun glinting off the Mediterranean, was astonishingly attractive. Of course you couldn’t get to the fort itself – in normal years you can book visits if it’s not occupied by the president – but we were able to get fairly close. Originally it was on a small island, but there’s now a causeway which has been expanded to give room for a helicopter pad. Below the French flag, it was possible to see both new and old security measures – a cannon and a CCTV camera.

A sign of the times was that we, and everyone else on the beach, were reminded by a couple of very amiable gendarmes that we needed to be wearing masks.

The views from the beach are spectacular. To the west beyond Hyères you can make out Mont Faron, which guards the great port of Toulon, and to the south the Iles d’Hyères, part of the Porquerolles. 

Iles d’Hyères in the distance

(Incidentially, this week Chris did another English translation for the National Park of Port-Cros and the Porquerolles that protects the islands and the mainland coast.)

As we left, the beach and car park were beginning to get crowded. It’s still a little too early for swimming but one or two brave souls were testing the water. It’s a great spot and we really ought to try and go in summer and maybe wave at the Macrons.

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Farewell to winter

In some ways we have moved on from winter here in Lorgues. We have had temperatures of over 20C in the last couple of days and have even opened to pool to clear out the accumulated leaves. However, there is a continuing threat of lockdown: the Covid figures are not good for our part of the world, so rather than move onto some of our spring photos from a coast trip we thought we’d just add a few from January and early February that we haven’t posted and keep last weeks photos for the future.

We had a miscellany of little local walks, but one Saturday we did go up into the ‘high’ Var and climb up to the tiny chapel of Notre Dame de la Liesse above Aups (which we’ve blogged about before).

On the way we stopped to try and take photos of snow on the higher hills, but ended up being too low down. We think it’s still a great photo!

We climbed up by a different route than we’d done previously. It wasn’t an epic walk but a quiet, pleasant one with splendid views from the summit.

The chapel is tiny, with a miscellaneous collection of objects including a tiny (and somewhat battered) nativity scene.

On a more local walk, we looked across one of the main roads into Lorgues to see the small chapel of Saint John the Baptist. Looking the other way was a good view of Lorgues itself.

With the charming village of Tourtour not far away, it was probably inevitable that we paid it a visit one Sunday afternoon. We’ve blogged frequently on Tourtour, but the view from above the village on this occasion almost looked like a painting.

And finally, on a dull day we walked near the village of Entrecasteaux, getting good views of the hill of Gros Bessillon beyond the winter vines.

So next week, all being well, the coast.

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Cannes in winter

One of the problems with towns and cities that are dominated by festivals, is that the off-season is can be something of a brutal shock. Winter in Cannes is very definitely some a minor key season and it seems hard to connect it with the crowded, noisy razzmatazz of the Film Festival and the less celebrated but no less important other media and trade festivals. With Covid, this winter has been particularly cruel, and when we have gone into church there on Sundays there has been an air of almost ghostly desolation.

It’s not of course been helped by the fact that this has been a wet, cool winter with more than its fair share of rain-laden skies. Many of the largest hotels have decided to make a virtue out of a vice and have closed entirely to allow refurbishment. (Below, the iconic Carlton and the Marriott.)

The famous shops on the Croisette that sell unlovable objects at unspeakable prices are still desperately trying to stay open. Presumably, whatever the mark-up on a 5,000€ handbag is, it’s big enough that you only have to sell one or two a week.

Our church, Holy Trinity Cannes, has continued to meet physically under fairly strict conditions. Chris was preaching last Sunday and there were at least 60 people there. In addition there were a considerable number of people watching online. One very gratifying element that emerged this week was that in 2020 – much against expectations – the church not only achieved its budget but ended with a small surplus. Given that, contrary to many people’s expectation, our congregation is far from wealthy, this was particularly pleasing.

Holy Trinity with appropriate distancing

In other news we had a very welcome email this week giving us an appointment with the sous-prefecture to get our post-Brexit ten-year residence cards. Yes we still have our application in for citizenship but who knows how long that might take?

And finally, we’ve had one or two days when the sun has shone and the thermometer has edged up into the long-forgotten regions of 16 or 17°C. Notwithstanding, the flowers of spring are beginning to arrive. Hurrah!

Almond blossom
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Winter turning to spring

We suppose it’s something of a milestone when we can say this week’s blog is number 350. It’s nearly seven years since we set the blog up. Looking back at the first blogs we wrote, we see how many things have changed, not least at Courmettes, the subject of many of our first blogs. In the past few weeks Alison has been helping to update the English-language webpages for the centre. Looking at all that is going on is very encouraging, even in this time of pandemic!  (She’s also been updating the A Rocha France website, so that the English actually shows some updated news in line with the French version.)

But back to a trip we made a couple of weeks ago. We said we’d taken advantage of the lack of traffic to stop at some places which in summer are inaccessible. One of these was the tiny, but charming “Vulnerable Natural Space” of Pointe des Sardineaux. The Espaces Naturels Sensibles were set up in 1976 to defend natural areas which are under threat for various reasons, including urbanisation and leisure development. And certainly, when you look along the coast adjacent to this small headland, you can exactly see that sort of development.

The houses start immediately adjacent to the headland
We like to visit this beach in summer; from there you can’t see how built up the coast is.

The headland itself has a couple of tiny beaches with rocks.  It is one of the few preserved fragments of the original coast and reminds you of how much we have lost. From it there was a great view of snow-capped mountains beyond the massif of the Esterel.

There were however reminders of a previous “development” in the clear metal outline of a support for a gun emplacement, and a bunker. The Germans fortified many headlands along this coast to defend the beaches against possible attack. In the photo above in the distance is one of the beaches where the Allied forces came ashore with relative ease in 1944. They wouldn’t be able to do it today: there are too many buildings in the way!

Although much of Europe has been bitterly cold, it’s merely been grey and raining down here, with temperatures dropping just about down to freezing. Nevertheless, spring is clearly imminent and going to church at Cannes, the mimosa is out in all its alien glory. Roll on Spring proper!

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A wet day out 2

Before we return to our wet day up on the plateau, some bits of news. We continue with no lockdown except for a very frustrating curfew from 6pm. At the moment it’s tolerable, but as the evenings start to become lighter, it’s going to be more and more of an irritant. The French Covid figures seem to be plateauing but there has been no great decline in rates. What is causing a lot of frustration is the shortage of vaccines, which even for those of us who are pro-Europe, seems an undeniable evidence that EU is a lumbering bureaucracy. Some idea of the irritation was visible in Cannes, where the vaccination centre had a big sign from the mayor, blaming the state for its failure to provide doses.

On a separate note, Alison has finally completed the new bi-lingual website (click on the appropriate flag to change the language) for the Association for the Friends of Old Lorgues, which has already been very well reviewed.

Now, back to our trip of three weeks ago. Under cloudy skies we headed up to Bargemon, which is a lovely village. However winter and the closure of all the bars and restaurants gave it something of the air of a ghost town.

We had a little wander around before rain drove us back to the car. Bargemon is unfortunately badly afflicted by subsidence, and Chris, being an aficionado of cracks, slumps and slides found much to impress him.

From there we wound our way up onto the vast military terrain of the Plateau de Canjuers, where there were patches of snow, a few military vehicles and the sound of sporadic gunfire. We had some impressive views of the first high mountain ranges to the north.

Stopping by the deserted village of Brovès, which was taken over by the army in the 1970s, we had a brief but interesting chat with a shepherd. Yes, there were wolves, but he hadn’t seen lynx but had heard, as we had, that jackals have been reported in the department to the west of us and they are spreading east. The place is becoming more like Africa every day.

We have a good military contact and are exploring the possibility that in good weather we could visit the village some time in the future. Watch this space.

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