What with doing various things on the house, Christmas and some uninspiring weather, we haven’t really been out and about a lot. Last Saturday we headed inland to Aups (pronounced ‘oops’). We had been prompted by the news of the death of its distinguished inhabitant, Christopher Tolkien, and did wonder whether there would be any notice of what the French call les obsèques, which is more or less translated as ‘funeral service’. In France there is a distinction between les funérailles, a send-off which aims for pomp and ceremony, and les obsèques, which are much lower key: round here the latter is far more common. (In the event Christopher Tolkien, who surely deserved the full les funérailles treatment, had a private and unannounced family ‘send-off’ at our local crematorium on Wednesday.)
Aups is one of those towns that dramatically change character from winter to summer. In summer it is full of tourists pausing on their way up to or back from the spectacular Lac Sainte Croix and Gorges de Verdon. In winter, it slips back to being a rather quiet provincial town where everyone seems to know everyone else and is probably related to them. There’s many of the typical features of ‘France profonde’, the Saturday market where everyone seems to do a lot more talking than buying; the bars where people have had their coffee and are already on stronger stuff by mid-morning; the sporting shop, full of a rather scary array of weapons for killing animals and (rather worryingly) defending yourself. There are also memorials to all sorts of forgotten events, including floods and what was probably one of France’s last local uprisings, which was put down in 1851.
Another feature, and it’s an interesting one, are the narrow, high-sided terraced streets, many of which obviously go back many centuries. These are attractive to the visitor but raise all sorts of problems, notably who exactly wants to live in them these days? You can’t park near and it’s not even easy to get a car in front of them. The houses are ill-lit, noisy and have stairs that are unsuitable for anyone with restricted mobility. One other problem is that it’s all very well for you to do up your house, but what happens if your neighbours let theirs fall into decay?
Still, there’s plenty to see, a couple of decent restaurants, some interesting shops and several churches and chapels. Above all, there’s what is rare in the 21st century: a sense of being somewhere with deep roots that has not been overrun by burger bars, out of town hypermarkets and franchised coffee bars. Here the old France is still alive.