The reason why we were crossing the vast Plateau de Canjuers (see last week’s blog) that Saturday at the end of January was that we wanted to get to the village of Bargème on the northern side. Bargème gets only a brief mention in the guidebooks, which tend to be far more focused on the glitzy attractions of the coast. It’s easy to overlook Bargème – to call it remote is an understatement. Its nearest towns are at least 20 miles away on winding roads; in one case across the firing range and the other winding down the flank of a precipitous gorge. However Bargème has an official status as one of the Les Plus Beaux Villages de France which probably doesn’t need to be translated and so we wanted to visit it. If you are travelling in France it’s well worth while looking out anything that has been given this award, which is pretty much the Michelin star for attractiveness. According to the rather nice website (there’s an English version) there are some 153 villages which have been given the honour. Given that so many French villages are attractive you have to be pretty special to get the award and Bargème deserves it.
Bargème is not just remote but also high, just over 1000 metres and visible from miles. It’s got all the things that such villages should have: narrow torturous streets, mediaeval buildings, views that stretch for ever, a ruined castle and an ancient church. Above all, it just looks and feels old.
Driving in we knew Bargème was going to be empty because were following the postman on his mail deliveries and we saw him deliver mail to one of the last houses before the village and then turn round and drive back.
Thankfully, however it was not entirely empty. I think we saw half a dozen people in the hour and a half we were there. There was even a small coffee shop open and in a measure of the mild winter we were able to sit out in the sun and enjoy our drinks outdoors. Rather odd for late January at over 3000 feet.
Some of the Plus Beaux Villages are very busy places, particularly in summer, and every house seems to have been bought up by people from Paris or northern Europe. By virtue of its remoteness Bargème doesn’t seem to fit in that category. There are no massive car parks and no gleaming tourist office. But in its near-deserted state it seemed particularly attractive. Everything is on a tiny scale and you can easily see everything from every angle in an hour or so.
If you have a lot of money and fancy doing some architectural good, the commune is anxious to refurbish the castle which was knocked around a bit in the unfortunate Wars of Religion of the 16th century: an event which seems to have been last feature of any real significance in the history of the village. We were shown inside the church which was surprisingly richly decorated and had what looked to be a genuine 15th or early 16th century wood carving of the martyrdom of St Sebastian. (Unfortunately for this blog there was no a photography rule which we adhered to.) The quiet charm of the place was heightened by the brilliant sunlight and the fact that the first blossom was coming out.
Some time ago Jean-François introduced us to a useful French word; the verb dépayser which doesn’t really have an English translation. To be dépaysé is to be transported to somewhere else, to be dislocated out of your own world into another time or place. And walking around the cobbled streets of a tranquil Bargème that’s exactly what you feel. Here the 21st century seems a long way away.