The America’s Cup part 2

Last week we concentrated on the sailing or more specifically the lack of it, but promised to have something about security. It’s not surprising it was tight after the tragic security debacle at Nice on 14 July.

The maritime gendamerie patrolling the edge of the racing area, with a naval ship in the background

The maritime police patrolling the edge of the racing area, with a naval ship in the background

The area of sea for the races was off a small stretch of coast just to the east of Toulon’s main harbour: there’s a small park on a slope, then a massive carpark, and along the edge of the coast, some beautiful sandy beaches, with the usual accompaniment of restaurants, snack bars, mini golf and beach volleyball courts. Footpaths lead down into this area and normally cars can access it at either end.

dscn5841For the America’s Cup however the whole area was surrounded by high metal fencing, leaving access only at the two ends. Every road leading down towards the area was sealed off with massive concrete blocks and large vehicles. Lessons from the Nice lorry attack had clearly been learned. Security at the entrance looked in our bags and ran a hand scanner over us. Inside, armed soldiers were doing patrols.

The leash he is holding is attached to a large dog

The leash he is holding is attached to a large dog

There were police, gendarmes, soldiers, dog handlers, overhead helicopters, offshore patrol boats and a small tented village of doctors and nurses etc. However as is now the case in France no one seemed in the slightest bit put out by the fact that we were in an armed camp. Once inside everyone was strolling around, looking at the exhibits in the tented village, or sunbathing on the beaches and taking a swim. It’s the new normal.

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How can you possibly have a big event in France without a cheese stall?

Back in Toulon harbour afterwards, looking through the yachts you could see some of the vessels of the French Navy. Something like 70 percent of the very considerable French fleet is based in Toulon. Somewhere deep in the port and presumably under the highest of security is the massive nuclear-powered aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle being refitted ready for further action in the eastern Mediterranean.

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It was hard to avoid being reminded that beneath the perfect blue sky, that not far away over the horizon, a ugly, unpredictable and contagious conflict is going on.

Echoes of that war of course continue to be heard in France. The ‘Ban the Burkini’ decisions generated a lot of publicity during the silly season of August. What made less publicity was the fact that only a few days ago a group cycling in a suburb in Toulon were abused and physically attacked because the women were wearing shorts.

Neither high security nor aircraft carriers are going to easily sort this conflict out.

 

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The America’s Cup part 1

Regular readers of this blog will have noticed that there hasn’t been any reference to us taking summer holidays. It’s partly because we seem to have been rather too busy to take them, partly because we are going to the UK for eight or nine days sometime in autumn and partly because with the post-Brexit drop in the value of the pound, going away would be a bit of a luxury that we couldn’t afford. Now if you happen to be Boris, Nigel or Michael then contributing to our holiday fund would be very nice but in all honesty the money you promised for the NHS probably ought to come first. In case you’ve forgotten – and rumour says that you have – here is a helpful site to jog your memory.

dscn5795Of course living as we do on the edge of the French Riviera we can hardly expect sympathy for missing holidays. And actually last week, having been tipped off that the America’s Cup was coming to Toulon, we decided to take a day off and go and see what the fuss was about.  Our ignorance in this area was enormous and required a reading of the Wikipedia article to clarify matters. So for instance it has nothing at all to do with America: that was simply the name of the schooner that won the first prototype race in 1851. The present – the 35th America’s Cup – is sailed in 50-foot foiling catamarans. For the uninitiated these can go twice as fast as the wind and can get up to speeds of nearly 60 knots which is around 60 miles an hour.

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So we drove the 45 minutes to the edge of Toulon – in the usual perfect summer weather with brilliant blue skies and temperatures heading upwards to 30 degrees – and took the very cheap bus to the beach area where the event was being held. You’ll not be surprised to learn that security was very tight, but we’ll blog about that next week.

The science dome with lots of submersibles for exploring the Mediterranean's floor

The science dome with lots of submersibles for exploring the Mediterranean’s floor

There was a big exhibition centre with some very fascinating science exhibits and Chris had a long and interesting chat with a French researcher on Mediterranean pollution which hopes he will be able to continue. The Toulon Port area is very busy marketing itself as the new hub for science, particularly marine and defence science, around the Mediterranean and we decided that if we were in the business of basing a new company somewhere you could do far worse than Toulon.

After lunch several thousand of us began to line the coast to watch the catamarans, as the racing was due to start at 2 o’clock. We sat out on hot rocks and soon got pretty baked ourselves. One fascinating feature was the presence of a replica 18th-century sailing ship La Grace, not dissimilar from those which the Royal Navy used when, having taken Toulon in 1793, they were bloodily evicted by French Republican forces led by a young and almost entirely unknown captain, Napoleon Bonaparte. It was a name they were going to hear a lot of.

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Eventually six catamarans looking more like aircraft than boats assembled. They performed what we assume were practice manoeuvers, and sailed along the shore for the crowd to clap them.

The British and French boats doing their sail-past

The British and French boats doing their sail-past

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThen with all the spectators feeling the heat and the race ready to start…. the wind dropped. Nothing happened. After about three quarters of an hour of waiting and increasingly feeling like fried eggs, we slipped away and walked back into the centre of Toulon. It turned out in the end that racing was cancelled for the day. If you want to see what we should have seen, then try this YouTube clip.

Still Toulon is a pleasant place and even if we didn’t get to see the racing proper, it was a fun visit.

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Even Provencal summers end…

meteoWell it might not seem like it from the weather forecast for the next week or so but autumn is definitely in the air.  How do we know?

  • The supermarkets are suddenly empty of beefy Belgians staggering under crates of beer and bewildered Brits lost in the cheese section and cursing the exchange rate.
  • The collection of grapes – the vendage – is underway either by machines or human labour.
  • There are traffic jams at the start and end of the school day. Things have been made worse this year by heightened security around the schools.
The road round the primary school in Taradeau is blocked off

The road round the primary school in Taradeau is blocked off and this year there are stricter rules on when the gates will be open.

  • The beautiful flocks of bee-eaters whose habit of assembling loudly over the house at 6 am could get somewhat irritating have changed their pattern and are clearly ready to head southwards .
  • The hunting has started. So far, we think, only for woodpigeons. But if you want a classic example of French bureaucracy take a look at the document on official rules for hunting for our department: preferably on the very largest of screens. How anybody is supposed to police it is beyond comprehension. So for instance the hunting season for the Stock Dove Columa oenas ends on 20 February while that of the Wood Pigeon Columba palumbus ends on 10 February although a footnote tells us that you can hunt it for another week if you shoot from a fixed hide.

A key feature in most villages and towns at this time of year is a Fête des Associations. This is where all the clubs and societies come together with stalls and try to get new members for the coming winter. We turned up to ours at Taradeau and were delighted to see a number of people who we knew (and who knew us). One of the best stalls was to do with the project we have been involved in – cleaning up the Gallo-Roman settlement (the Oppidum) – and it was interesting to see what we achieved last year and what we hope to achieve this year. We may try to take up with the walking group and Alison is also considering helping out for an hour or so a week at the local school.

Cyril and Xavier at the oppidum stall. Xavier is the driving force behind the association.

Cyril and Xavier at the Oppidum stall with lots of ‘before and after’ photos behind.

There were some interesting conversations a number of which went along the following lines:

“What is Brexit?”
“The Prime Minister says that Brexit is Brexit.”
“What does that mean?”
“No one knows. It’s like…. a mushroom is a mushroom.”
“So is there a plan?”  (There is a lingering suspicion amongst the French that the British always have some sort of cunning and probably unethical plan.)
“It’s secret.”
“Who knows the secret?”
“No one.”
“Aah.”  Pause. “Would you like French nationality?”
“Hmm.”

davIn other news, Chris has been labouring away on his essays for Anglican readership. So far it’s going extremely well but at the cost of some very hard work. The pile of books is an entirely unposed photograph.

Also, the first volume in his Lamb Among the Stars trilogy (now only available in electronic format) is being promoted at the princely sum of 75p ($0.99) all this month on Amazon. Try it and then buy the other two books!

Last weekend we had a church weekend away which was both pleasant and stimulating. This is now our third one and it’s gratifying to see the numbers have increased each year.

The obligatory group photo!

The obligatory group photo!

And finally

In family news, we are delighted to announce the birth of Phoebe Elizabeth to Mark and Alice, our first granddaughter.

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Not yet 12 hours old…

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Things to ban in Cannes

We did promise not to blog about burkinis but two points are probably now worth making. First, the whole thing is essentially a battle between a state that thinks it’s replaced religion and a religion that thinks it ought to replace the state. No wonder there’s a conflict. Secondly, the whole affair is very revealing about how France actually works. Countries essentially operate on one of two patterns. Either decisions are made at the bottom by the local authorities and transmitted up to the government, or by the government and communicated down to local authorities. The problem with France is that both patterns operate simultaneously. So on the one hand we have mayors making important decisions for their local area (and remember French mayors are powerful enough to have their own police force) and on the other politicians sitting around desks in Paris issuing orders that they expect to be obeyed nationwide. The result is an inevitable grinding of gears, particularly when the mayors are of a very different political flavour to  the politicians in Paris.

Anyway after over two years of regularly visiting Cannes, strolling along the crowded coastal pavement that is the Croissette and occasionally enjoying the beach, let us suggest, slightly tongue in cheek, a number of other things that ought to be banned in the interests of decency. We do not apologise for not having photographs of some of these: they would not be in good taste.

Sunday afternoon on the Croisette

Sunday afternoon on the Croisette

1) Bodies with more tattoos than flesh.

2) Little dogs wearing pink skirts.DSCN5676

3) People hurtling along the pavement on skateboards/rollerblades while staring down at their smartphones.

4) Bikini clad women of such a carefully achieved slimness that you can count their ribs.

5) Men in shorts who look as if they weigh as much as a small car.

OK so he probably doesn't weigh that much, but he's crossing the road wearing only a towel

OK so he probably doesn’t weigh that much, but he’s crossing the road wearing only a towel

6) People who delight in weaving in and out of crowds at speed on scooters, bikes, segways and hoverboards and various other items of transport otherwise unknown outside California.

7) People who step out into the road in the sure and certain knowledge that Death could not possibly be active in this place of sunlight and glitz. Unfortunately Death is, as one might say, alive and well in Cannes.

8) People with enough suntan lotion on to create their own oil slick.

9) Showoffs with designer jeans, handbags or hairstyles and – in case you can’t recognise wealth when you meet it  – carrier bags from the Cartier or Versace shops.

10)  Sculptures which are apparently designed on the basis that some people will buy any kind of modern ‘art’ as long as it’s expensive.

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10) T-shirts that are either written in some language that the wearer imagines is English or that say something incredibly rude. Advice to parents: “I’m too sexy for this T-shirt” is not appropriate for a 10-year-old girl.

11) Unshaven tramps shambling uncertainly along who, in reality, are technology millionaires trying to remember where they parked their Ferrari.

12) People who are anxious to display to the world that their dog is bigger than anybody else’s.

13) People who are anxious to display to the world that their dog is smaller than anybody else’s. (Or simply more aggressive).

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14) Off-duty bodyguards with military postures, muscles, crew cuts and tattoos celebrating death and dismemberment, who look as if nothing would make their day more than you picking a fight with them.

15) Tourists all simultaneously squealing as they take selfies in front of the red carpet.

16) Car drivers who go along the Croissette at 20 kilometres an hour gawping at the above.

****

In other news, our local (French) paper announced that “an English daily” had put Var (our department) as the first of 30 European destinations to ‘see before you die’. Well done The Telegraph. We are expecting the first coachloads of the terminally ill any day.

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Signs of the times

In the last few weeks we’ve been up to Courmettes a couple of times to either take people around the site  or collect them from there. It’s been particularly interesting because there now seem to be a number of people who are quite seriously interested in getting involved there in the short- or long-term. (They are also looking for a gardien, but you need good French for that, see this link). We’ve also taken a few days out both on our own and with friends and will probably be posting some pretty pictures from those in the weeks ahead.

One couple we were talking with wanted to go down to Nice to visit the university so we drove down with them and took the excellent park-and-ride tram system. This being France and it being August the university was closed so, almost by accident, we walked down instead to the seafront and along to the “Ground Zero” of the 14 July attacks. The fact that the beaches below the Promenade des Anglaises were full of people enjoying themselves seemed to make the point that this particularly vile act of terrorism had, apart from agony and distress, achieved precisely nothing.

Nice tributes

Nice tributes 2

This bandstand has become an unofficial memorial

 

Elsewhere in the region one of the major features has been just how dry it is. Even up at Courmettes, which gets the occasional rainstorm in summer, the pastures are bleached yellow.

Looking down on Courmettes and the dry pastures

Looking down on Courmettes and the dry pastures

The fire brigade is getting very nervous indeed at how dry everywhere is. In our area the authorities release daily maps giving the fire risk. For information, we are hiding just under number 6 in Centre Var.

fire-risk

Each level of fire risk has various dos and don’ts. The yellow level – severe – advises against entrance into the forests and prohibits smoking, fires, wild camping and using garden power tools or metalworking after 1 o’clock in the afternoon. Red bans almost all access into the area except main roads. Rain would be very welcome.

At this time in August the supermarkets are full of parents clutching lists issued by schools and shaking heads and breathing deep sighs at the cost of the obligatory textbooks and dictionaries. You have to feel slightly sorry for the editors of French dictionaries: the language is clearly evolving very rapidly indeed and if this sign is anything to go by, not very prettily.

At the new WiFi area in a local supermarket...

At the new WiFi area in a local supermarket…

DSCN5037Out in the countryside the grapes are nearly ready for harvesting and indeed we’ve heard that in some areas near us they have already been picked.

One particularly troubling sign of the times was noted by Chris in our local wine cooperative (is it too embarrassing to confess that we have a loyalty card there?). The printed statement about the wine containing 12.5% alcohol had been covered by a sticker with a handwritten 13.5%. Guessing the answer he would get, Chris asked the checkout girl for an explanation and was unsurprised by the response. ‘The weather is hotter in recent years so the wine has now become stronger. C’est le climat.’

Taradeau wine

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The Beach, the Bugatti and the Beckhams

Given the international interest over the banning of burkinis at Cannes you might be expecting us to either comment on this matter or simply consider it too trivial for discussion. Well we aren’t going to discuss it, not because it’s too trivial but because it raises some very fundamental issues about Islam and France that are too deep to be discussed in a blog. Instead we’re going to be unutterably trivial but keep with the letter B theme.

The beach

In the last two years we have visited a number of beaches here (probably not as many as you suspect) but our current favourite is that of the Plage du Debarquement au Dramont east of Frèjus and St Raphael. Let’s give you some reasons why.

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  • There’s good free car parking as long as you get there early enough.
  • It’s got space. It’s not just long but it’s also deep which means that it doesn’t feel cramped.
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    Yes these really are bicycles on floats

    It’s got facilities. There are loos, a coffee shop, a restaurant, and the possibility of hiring canoes and rather bizarre floating things with bicycles on top of them.

  • It’s got shade. If the sun gets too much you can retreat under the trees.
  • It’s got fantastic views. You can see as far as the St Tropez peninsula.
  • The water is clear and clean.
  • It’s a great place for snorkelling, as you get to see lots of fish.
  • It’s interesting. The beach takes its name, Plage du Debarquement, because it was one of the main beaches for the Allied landings (Operation Dragoon) on the coast in August 1944 that ended the Nazi occupation of southern France. To commemorate the fact there is an imposing and solemn parade ground, various inscriptions and a well preserved landing craft. It’s an interesting reminder that even a secular state has to have sacred locations.

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  • If that isn’t enough, when you look offshore you see the extraordinary tower of the Ile d’Or. It’s widely believed that Hergé was inspired by a photograph of it for the Tintin book The Black Island (yes we know he transposed it to Scotland). It’s actually a 19th-century folly but it certainly gives a certain character to the beach.

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  • There’s a good walk nearby. Cap Dramont to the east is a dramatic headland of volcanic rock which gives rise to some challenging and fascinating scrambles around its edge. It’s also a nature reserve which means it has more than the usual amount of birdlife. We have even seen a Blue Rock Thrush there, which is well, a blue Thrush that hangs around rocks.
  • Finally there’s a more than passable restaurant which has good food at modest prices and has a view that most restaurants would trade a Michelin star for.

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The Bugatti

There was a great deal of excitement last weekend outside the Carlton hotel which is as we have previously commented is around 50 yards away from our church. Everybody was ignoring all the usual Ferraris and Lamborghinis and staring at an exotic blue Bugatti with Saudi plates guarded by two bodyguards who had that don’t-mess-with-me attitude. It turns out that this is the first Bugatti Chiron to be seen publicly. Having a little bit of research on the matter we can tell you that the Chiron is billed not simply as a supercar but as a hypercar and is a replacement for the famed Bugatti Veyron. It’s claimed to have a 1500 horsepower engine, a top speed limited to 261 mph, goes from 0 to 60 mph in less than 2.5 seconds and apparently at top speed can drain its hundred litre fuel tank in nine seconds. It has an alleged cost of over two and half million pounds (which explains the bodyguards). The word ridiculous comes to mind.

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The Beckhams?

We wouldn’t ever have called them our neighbours – they were at least twenty minutes drive away – but David and Victoria Beckham are selling their six-bedroom house in France. If you’re interested in some details try this link. It’s a snip at £2.4 million.

Compared to the Bugatti Chiron it looks an absolute bargain.

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Aftermaths

Regionally and internationally the two big events for us have been the Nice atrocity of 14 July and of course, Brexit. Last Sunday we came to terms with something of the aftermath of both.

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These hanging baskets with massive concrete bases have suddenly appeared across the seafront to prevent vehicle access.

When it comes to security Cannes faces something of a security quandary. It’s not dissimilar to that portrayed in Spielberg’s Jaws, where the mayor of a marine resort doesn’t want to face the fact that there is a killer shark in the water because it’s going to ruin the economy. So when we went into Cannes precisely a week after the Paris attacks last November there was not a trace of security around. ‘Crisis? What crisis?’ was the invisible message and it was understandable. After all Paris is a long way away. However the Nice attack was a bit too close for comfort. So security has been tightened, although to be honest you could easily not notice it.

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Actually one of the perverse effects of indiscriminate terrorist attacks is that after a while they lose their effectiveness. After all, if you don’t know where terrorists going to strike next how do you know that it isn’t going to be where you flee to?  For instance,  this summer you could  have shunned France and gone to Thailand; the site of Friday’s terrorist atrocities. (If this is jogging memories we refer you to Somerset Maugham’s Appointment in Samara, the retelling of an ancient Mesopotamian tale where someone fleeing from Death in one place escapes to exactly the place where they are destined to meet him.) Anyway on balance everybody seems to be having a grand time in Cannes and we thoroughly recommend it and if you are passing by, our church is just round the back of the Carlton Hotel.

As evidence of normality – if you can ever use that word for Cannes – there seems to be more than the usual number of outrageous cars, some of which parked themselves in front of the church.

Outside the church and on the pedestrian crossing

Parking your Ferrari outside the church (and on a pedestrian crossing). That never happened in Swansea.

So it’s business as usual in Cannes. More or less.

In terms of Brexit (is anybody now prepared to admit they voted for it?) we had a Conservative MEP Richard Ashworth speaking in church afterwards on the implications. (Note that if politicians speak during church they are expected to be honest, after church they can behave normally.)

Note that the church isn't really this shape but the panorama curves it.

Note that the church isn’t really this shape but the panorama curves it.

Given that he was a Conservative (albeit a Remain one) it was a brave appearance and he did little to defend Cameron’s disastrous gamble. He spoke well but frankly it was a little bit like a soufflé — all rather insubstantial. He pointed out what everybody now realises: we have blundered into an enormously complicated mess, we are most unlikely to get any better deal from the EU than we had before, and it’s going to take a very long time to sort out. Having been in favour of remaining in himself he was able to hint that he wasn’t terribly impressed with some of his colleague’s arguments in favour of leaving. (Yes Boris he meant you.) In the course of his talk he sensibly skirted around the unfortunate reality that most of his hearers in the church were dependent on sterling pensions or funds that were now worth around 15 percent less than they were a couple of months ago. His advice to everybody seemed to be get a big book, sit on the beach and enjoy the summer.

That’s probably what the Cannes Tourist Office is saying too.

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