Although it wasn’t a significant factor when we bought our house we increasingly realise how fortunate we have been in the matter of location. The most obvious feature is the fact that from Taradeau we can get to the coast at several places in well under an hour. Less obvious but possibly more valuable is the fact that north of Taradeau lies a vast sprawling hinterland of wooded valleys, forgotten but picturesque villages, rolling plateaux innumerable vineyards and steep sided mountains that offers almost endless opportunities for exploration.
With Alison feeling a lot better we decided to take a day out last week. To the north of us lies an area with lots of little towns which we often visit, but on this trip we decided to go further north and west. This takes you to the edge of the Regional Natural Park of the Verdon into the area that is called Haute-Provence and to a succession of small towns of varying interest. It’s one of those fringe areas that the writers of tour guides don’t tend to bother with the so you will find little reference to any of these towns in the Michelin guides or their equivalent.
After meandering along a number of pleasant valleys and settlements around lunchtime our attention was drawn to a small settlement capping a hill. Perched villages are very common round here but this looked a particularly interesting one, so we decided to explore.
Saint-Julien-le-Montagnier, to give it its full name, turned out to be definitely worth a visit. It’s a time-worn, well preserved village, neat and compact with snaking narrow streets, remnants of high, crumbling walls and an ancient church. There were very few people around but we did have some conversation with one woman about the unseasonably early but very attractive blossom.
Saint-Julien has a 12th century gateway which leads out to a plateau on which stand a tiny chapel and two rather fine windmills. Having visited by now a good number of the small villages what was particularly striking to us was the air of quiet prosperity. There was a lot of modernisation and renovation that had been done in a minimal and tasteful fashion and some of the few people around were builders renovating some old houses.
Beyond the church we found a water tower built with not the slightest concession to beauty but whose redeeming feature was an observation platform on the top. Even on this hazy January day the views were spectacular. The tourist information claimed that from it you could see seven French departements and we wouldn’t want to argue. You could clearly see Mont Sainte-Victoire which hangs above Aix-in-Provence, the massifs of the Côte d’Azur and to the north-east the rising ranges that ultimately culminate in the Alps.
One interesting feature was a 360° ceramic panorama that attempted to inform you of what you were seeing. Evidently created in the late 60s or early 70s, it allowed a sense of how the area had being built up in the last few decades. One rather unfortunate feature of French planning in the south of France is that fact that it doesn’t seem to exist. Houses appear with all the randomness of mushrooms or acne.
The splendidly rural scene was however interrupted to the north-west where we could clearly glimpse cranes and girders around a brutally functional structure. This definite blot on the landscape is Cadarache, a place which physicists revere in the same way some people view Lourdes.
Cadarache is the site of various nuclear test installations but its particular claim to fame is a structure which when it is finally completed in another a decade (maybe) might – and only might – allow sustained nuclear fusion. Fusion of course is the energy hope of humanity which a few decades ago was ‘only a few decades away’ and unfortunately still remains a few decades away. Don’t cancel your order for solar panels: the Cadarache reactor is already over budget, heavily delayed and is only going to be experimental anyway. But the whole site employs around 4500 people which goes some way to explaining the air of quiet prosperity in this part of the Provence. On balance we think we’ll stick to where we are.