If you are wandering around the garden or sitting on the patio at our house at Taradeau it’s not uncommon to hear a strange far-off ripple of deep sound that is more felt than heard. What you’re almost certainly hearing is military training going on the Plateau de Canjuers, the enormous French military base that lies around 20 miles to the north of us. And enormous is the right word. It covers an area of 350 square kilometres, which puts it about the size of the Isle of Wight or twice that of Gower and is apparently Western Europe’s (and possibly Europe’s) biggest military training area.
Inevitably the Plateau de Canjuers is off-limits to the general public although there are two north-south roads that wind across it, one of which takes you to the great chasm of the Gorges du Verdon and which we have taken on a number of occasions. There are innumerable notices all round it on either side of the roads telling you not to stray into the countryside and since this is France, the country which invented the word bureaucracy, they include the number of the relevant article of the penal code.
You might imagine that a military training range was a bleak monotonous area scarred by military activity but the reality is that the Plateau de Canjuers is a charming area of limestone ridges and valleys with forests, pastureland and a fair amount of bare rock. It is at its best in spring and summer. In winter, it is cold and bleak and its lonely, icy roads best avoided. High summer is parched and inhospitable. At any time of the year when the army is not firing, it is a remarkably peaceful place. Interestingly enough the area has only been owned by the French army since 1970 when existing farms were bought and the citizens evacuated. There are a number of places where you can pass by old settlements and glimpse derelict farm buildings in the distance. And apparently there are all sorts of really ancient settlements in the area.
Travelling across the plateau you can see the usual mysterious army emplacements, tank tracks and mysterious warnings. Athough there is a big military camp on the western road with enough tanks to have a reasonable war, the few times we’ve crossed the plateau we haven’t actually seen any soldiers on training. But then given the size of Canjuers you could have an entire army present and still not see anybody.
Never having taken the eastern road we decided to use it a couple weeks ago to go and visit the village of Bargème (see next week). It’s a stiff drive up to the plateau which is over 800 metres high but there are fantastic views southwards to the coastal ranges of the Massif de Maures. Stopping there to take photographs we encountered a cyclist who got us to take his picture before speeding northwards.
The plateau of Canjuers at this point is high and bare. The trees are quite small, and there’s more rock than soil or vegetation. Beyond, the cliffs of the mountains that eventually rise to the Alps. Every now and then we came to a crossroads where there was a warning of ‘tracked vehicles’, and the unpaved side roads started off with fearsome concrete ridges to deter anything but tanks.
As we continued, we dropped into areas of upland pasture, obviously places which had once been cultivated or grazed. And then came a large settlement – a ghost village that had obviously been evacuated when the army took over in the 70s. Here we met the cyclist again and got into conversation. The village he said was called Brovès, his grandparents had owned a house here, and he used to visit as a child in the summer. It had apparently been a summer resort for people from Draguignan. We asked if the British tradition of allowing the church in such military areas to be used for a service once a year ever happened but apparently not. The village was firmly off-limits.
The Plateau de Canjuers is supposed to be a haven for wildlife. One of the curiosities of military training grounds is that, although dramatic, shellfire or rumbling tanks do far less damage to wildlife than the almost invisible, taken-for-granted, poisoning of the landscape by pesticides and herbicides through modern farming practices. There are supposed to be wolves and rumours of lynx. We’ve certainly seen vultures flying over.
Not long ago, in those brief years after the collapse of communism, it must have seemed possible that the military authorities would return the plateau to public use. The world however has turned somewhat darker since and with the French army is now expanding there seems very little likelihood of the military relinquishing it now. Oddly enough, for the wildlife, that may be the best thing.