One of the many little villages that stud the rolling and wooded expanse of countryside to the north of us is Sillans-la-Cascade. You don’t need a vast insight into the French language to expect a cascade or waterfall here and you would not be disappointed. In fact from looking at the geology, the waterfall at Sillans is probably the last remainder of what would have been a majestic series of cascades in the Var as the waters running off from the south-western Alps flowed seaward across a lines of limestone cliffs. Now the region’s invaluable water is tamed, managed and pumped away well before it gets into the streams and most of the waterfall sites are dry.
We have visited Sillans several times and indeed cycled through it – the new and ambitious EuroVelo 8 passes through it – but it was only recently that we got a good look at the waterfall. Here the River Bresque curves round the village and plunges over 40 m vertically down into a large pool. Writing this as we do at after a protracted period of torrential rain it’s fun to imagine what it looks like now but even when we saw it at the very start of April it was still very impressive.
It seems evident that for a long time there were, as was habitual in the undisciplined world of old rural France, all sorts of ways by which you could get in front of, above and below the waterfall, some of which were clearly remarkably dangerous. Now, as is increasingly the way everywhere, the possibility of any sort of uninhibited access is being eliminated. Reality is being regulated. So, as is now manifestly plain from the abundant signage and from nigh-impenetrable wood picket and wire fencing, there is now only one way to visit the waterfall. So the visitor walks down a well-marked and managed path – noting the warnings every few metres against falling rocks, erosion and the danger of tripping – down to a platform (securely railed, of course) from which you can view the cascade and its plunge pool. It’s a fine waterfall, backed by a considerable thickness of calcareous tufa, formed by the precipitation of calcium carbonate over thousands of years from the very hard water here.
The village – population a mere 600 – is pleasant, particularly if you haven’t seen many of the other villages of Provence. It has narrow winding streets of high, terraced houses – no two the same – that seem to be huddled together for security. There are some restaurants and coffee shops and some walks but overall Sillans still conveys the sense of belonging to another age. However, as the managed nature of the waterfall demonstrates, there is now a determined effort to tidy up the village and its environs and bring it into the 21st century. There is glossy signage, a digital noticeboard and – far less welcome – managed paying car parks. Sillans has clearly set its heart on being on today’s tourist map: a model village of the rural tranquillity that we imagine the old France to be.
Yet if you look closely there are here, as there are elsewhere across France, hints of a past that was not at all tranquil. There are the remains of stout castle walls and you find yourself wondering: against what fears and what enemies were these built to resist? The very solid central building that now houses the Mairie speaks too of sterner times.
Yet it is not simply the distant past that was uneasy here. Walking up above the village through the woods,we came across two memorials to men who had been executed “by the Germans” on 19 August 1944. It’s a slightly curious date: the seemingly authoritative article in Wikipedia on Operation Dragoon – the invasion of the South of France – puts the Allied lines well north of this point a day earlier. It’s tempting to speculate. Did a pocket of German troops find themselves cut off and surrounded in Sillans? Were these men hostages who were killed by desperate, frightened soldiers? Or were they just caught in crossfire?
Some things in rural France are not easily tidied up and its history is one of them.