Trials and Tiles

Trying to mop up the water pouring into a dormitory in November 2014

We first visited Les Courmettes in the summer of 2008, shortly after A Rocha had taken it over; the crying need was for major refurbishment of the main house. This is a big building which, if it hadn’t exactly been neglected for the best part of a century, hadn’t exactly been lovingly cared for either. When we returned to stay in 2014 not a great deal had changed and that need was even more pressing. The great obstacle to any refurbishment however was, quite simply, the roof. After all there was no point in repainting walls and renovating woodwork when, come the next downpour, the rain would rush in through the roof which, for the most part consisted of a single layer of aged tiles. Equally, and rather embarrassingly for an environmental organisation, the nature of the roof made the pursuit of energy conservation a rather pointless exercise: heat simply disappeared into the air through a thousand cracks. And to make the fairly obvious point, re-roofing a large, ageing building at 800 plus metres on a fairly remote mountain is not something that you can do bit by bit as the fancy takes you. Reroofing, by its very nature, needs to be done speedily.

New roof on the main building and copper guttering

Nevertheless, in the last four years Jean-François and the team have laboured hard to obtain the funding for a major roof refurbishment and finally this year, in the slack season before the weddings and conferences start, the re-roofing was started and achieved.

We hadn’t been up to Courmettes before Christmas so when Chris had to go up for a geology meeting we were eager to see how the re-roofing work had progressed. We reported in a blog at the end of January that work had begun on the main roof and we were delighted to see that not only had this been finished but the replacement of the roof over the dormitory wing was almost complete. The work is not simply been re-tiling, insulation has been laid down, new skylights fitted and, thanks to a certain kind donor, distinctly elegant copper guttering fitted.

Coupled with the roofing project has been the refurbishment of bedrooms and given that, as ever, funding is in short supply, the challenge here has been to use creativity and paint to achieve maximum effect at minimum cost. As anyone who has stayed at Courmettes over the last few years will remember, another area that needed improvement was the showers and toilets, and we are glad to report that there has been considerable progress here.

It’s been tremendously encouraging to see what once seemed insuperable obstacles overcome. Yes there is still a lot of work to be done but we and the team give thanks to God and grateful donors for making it all possible. It’s been particularly appropriate as 2018 marks the centenary of Courmettes being bought for the Protestant church in France: something that will be celebrated later in the year.

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Mortality and a March miscellany

As we have explained before, we make a point in these blogs of not revealing travelling plans and thus absences  In fact for much of the past three weeks we have actually been in the UK. After a year in a nursing home with increasing dementia, Chris’s mum died on Saturday 10th March. She had been fading away for some time and her death, while sad, came as no surprise. We didn’t head up to the UK immediately – it’s not easy organising funerals out of a hotel room – but our sons both went up in the days after the death to see Chris’s dad. Thanks, boys! So we flew up on the Wednesday and managed to get the funeral and cremation arranged for the following Friday. In fact, as they say, everything “went as well as possible under the circumstances”. It was a good service (thanks Rev Mike for a good preach) and nice to see some family members that we haven’t seen for a long time. And just to add a little bit of excitement to the ten days in the UK, the day after the funeral we managed to move Chris’s dad from the nursing home he’d been in with mum to a new residential home not far away.

So it’s been good to return. We were expecting to come back to find this part of Provence in the full flush of spring but in reality things weren’t much more advanced than they had been when we left. The cold wet weather has continued and the good news is that in our absence we had a lot of rain here in Taradeau and our river is finally flowing.

The Florièye looking upstream from the Taradeau bridge. The top picture shows it bone dry in February, the lower one with (rather green) water on the left and right a few days ago.

In fact as we write this the temperatures are still unseasonally low and there are reports of snow down to 1000 m in the hills beyond us. One result of this is the sense of a curious pent-up spring as if nature is revving its engine ready to go. The first of the migrant birds are flying in and we’ve seen swallows and house martins. The giant orchid Barlia has popped its head up everywhere. Unfortunately its height seems to be at the expense of elegance: it definitely lacks the delicacy of most orchids.

 

Red-backed Shrike on the Plateau de Canjuers

 

In terms of wildlife there has been much discussion about the very worrying report on French birds which suggests that there has been a catastrophic decline, in some cases up to two-thirds, across the French countryside over the last few fifteen years. Given the fact that this has followed a massive decline in insect life it seems unarguable that the cause is the excessive use of pesticides linked to intensive farming, something also seen in the UK. Our own testimony here is that if you go up on the Plateau de Canjuers, the Isle-of-Wight-sized army training ground to the north of us, where there have been no pesticides, birdlife is much more in evidence. The Minister responsible for the environment, Nicholas Hulot – something of a French David Attenborough – has made a strong and impassioned representation about this at the highest levels and it will be interesting to see what happens.

Snow on the mountains behind Nice

Talking about government, we ought to mention for anybody planning to go to France this summer that we have now entered a protracted season of strikes and it’s well worthwhile checking on planes and trains. Given that M. Macron faces almost no Parliamentary opposition and is working on radical changes to the way France works, strikes seem to be the only way of expressing discontent.

Oh and given that – at least in theory – it’s only a year until Britain leaves the European Union, we have to report that no one this side of the channel has the slightest clue what’s going to happen. The impression we get is that no one is bothering to do anything until it is clear what exactly the depressingly dysfunctional British government manages to decide is actually going to happen. It could be a very long wait.

And finally, Alison has been one of those working on a new church website for Holy Trinity Cannes. Check it out here!

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Cannes and the curse of the Image

There is a problem in being Cannes. Because Cannes’ very existence depends on being known as bright, glitzy and exclusive that image must, at all costs, be maintained. The mayor must lie awake at night worried that he will read in some influential journal that Cannes is looking “dowdy”, “shabby” or  is simply “no longer the place to be”. (It’s worth remembering that from March to November, Cannes is the focus of not just the famous film festival, but many other much less newsworthy festivals, conferences and symposia that are here for the glow of fame that the film trade likes to think it bestows.)

The result of this hound of image constantly nipping at the heels of the town’s administration means that Cannes is in a seemingly ceaseless state of “makeover”. This leads to the fascinating and frustrating situation that when you drive into Cannes on a weekly basis you’re never quite sure what you’re going to encounter. Which roads are going to be dug up today? What streams of traffic are rerouted? Which buildings are being dismembered to be refurbished? What new pipes are being relaid across what roads? There is a perpetual sense of manic activity in Cannes which is either invigorating or incredibly annoying. Certainly around our church we seem to have lost at least ten vital car parking places and we live with the uncertainty that, come next Sunday, we might lose a dozen more.

Cannes: replenishing the beach sand

One embarrassment for Cannes has been that for some time it’s been a coastal town without much of a coast. A combination of proliferating hotel restaurants and sand erosion has reduced the public beach areas to two small patches either end of the Croisette. This sorry state is now being deal with by a major program of coastal engineering which, it is hoped, will be a win-win situation for everybody. There will be a wide beach accessible to everyone in front of the restaurants and a pedestrian walkway and cycle path immediately behind them. Well, that’s the plan and its not going to come cheap. But that’s the price of the image.

At the moment 95,000 cubic metres of sand are being spread out along the length of the Croisette and, on the basis that you may as well be hung for a sheep as a lamb, they are simultaneously refurbishing and replacing all the various sewage and water pipes. Work is currently in progress and it’s going to be ongoing for at least another four years. It will be interesting to see the results.

There is, it is remarked acidly, a distinct plus point about the fact that the main part of Cannes is a perpetual and seemingly random excavation and building site. It has produced a very effective anti-terrorist strategy in which any attempt to deliver an explosive-laden vehicle or unleash a hurtling truck would undoubtedly be foiled by being rerouted around a random and ever changing series of side streets.

Still it is fascinating to see how Cannes, having become what it is on the basis of its image, is now enslaved to maintaining that image at all costs. Remember the phrase about “those who live by sword perish by it”?

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Agay and Dramont

As we mentioned in our last blog, continuing along the coast from Théoule sur Mer we kept going. There aren’t actually that many places to stop around the headland of the Esterel, and unless you get there early, you won’t find any parking in summer.

The orange rocks of the Esterel coast. You can just see the railway line to the left.

Cap Dramont from Agay

 

The first town of any size is Agay, which again must once have been a rather quiet fishing village. Mind you, the arrival of the railway line around the coast in the middle of the 19th century started a holiday home industry which seems to have exploded from the 1960s onwards. There isn’t much of charm in Agay now apart from a decent beach and a variety of restaurants. But you can get a splendid walk up to Cap Dramont.

 

 

From Cap Dramont you see how the rest of the coast is built up.

Partly because of its military significance – there is still a naval observation post at the summit – Dramont has been miraculously spared the infestation of villas that has affected so much of the coast and remains a precious nature reserve. It’s spectacular at any time of the year but when we visited it recently it was particularly so with great breakers crashing over the jagged orange volcanic rocks. At the summit there are splendid views, which after the cold spell included far off snow-capped ranges of the upper part of Var.

We were also delighted that for the second time in our visits to Dramont we caught a glimpse of the spectacular, if unimaginatively named, Blue Rock Thrush. This time Chris managed to get a (poor) photo of it before it flew off into the inaccessible crags.

Exactly how beleaguered quiet, tree-covered spaces such as this are can be seen by the frankly brutal edifice of a holiday village complex that almost encircles Dramont. It is great it has been saved, but it’s a pity so much else was lost.

 

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Théoule sur Mer and a sombre reminder

As we’ve commented before, we have two ways back from church in Cannes. One is the fast motorway route that winds smoothly over the hills. The other is to take the spectacular, cliff-hugging  road along the coast (the Corniche d’Or), which has dramatic views for passengers but forces wise drivers to keep their eyes on the road. The other Saturday, coming back from a church prayer breakfast, we decided to take the coast road and stopped off at one of the first towns/villages/conurbations, Théoule sur Mer (which may or may  not be hyphenated: the Mairie seemingly can’t decide).

One of the challenges in the conurbations of the Côte d’Azur is trying to find the original village now buried under the almost universal sprawl of apartment blocks, shops and villas.  (It’s an almost universal problem around the Mediterranean: the once beautiful Lebanese coast is now an almost solid strip of concrete, asphalt and brick).

The view from Théoule to the apartment blocks which line Cannes Bay

Théoule was obviously once a pretty little fishing village and there are still, overshadowed by anonymous and uninspiring blocks of flats, isolated buildings of distinction that suggest that in the past it had an Italianate charm. Théoule is at the mouth of a narrow valley which has limited the main part of the town and from passing through it in summer, it’s definitely not the easiest of places to park. But in this curiously extended tail end of winter, we found it a pleasant little place to wander around in for an hour or so.

The names from Lebanon are at the bottom on the pink stone, along with another peacekeeper killed in Chad.

Yet there was one detail about Théoule that we should mention. We have a curious habit of paying French war memorials more attention that most visitors do. You see we were in Beirut on the 23 October 1983 and we heard the twin blasts – almost synchronous – that wreaked carnage on the American and French peacekeepers. There were 58 French deaths of soldiers who came from across France and their names occur as fresh, sad additions to those monuments in every town, village and hamlet with their staggering lists of First World War casualties and the lesser numbers of the Second World War.

In Théoule we found two names of men killed in Lebanon in 1983.  One, Pierre Joseph Grilli, it turns out was killed in an accident at sea but the other, Thierry Di Masso, was killed in the blast we heard.

Almost no one alive remembers the First World War except as a child and there are only old men and women who recall fighting in the Second. The names of those killed in those conflicts are history. But we were there for these casualties from Lebanon and in some way, we find ourselves linked to them. Its an odd and perturbing thing to look at such names as Di Masso’s and hear yourself say “Friend, I heard you die”.

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Snow in Taradeau

As promised, we did indeed have an encounter with the “Beast from the East” or as it is more clunkily named here la vague de froid Moscou-Paris: the “Moscow-Paris cold wave”. That’s a term that probably reflects the long shadow cast by the appalling destruction of Napoleon’s Grande Armée by the Russian winter of 1812/13 in which some 380,000 soldiers died and 100,000 were captured.

Our house taken while it was still snowing

The temperature fell dramatically on Sunday evening, it snowed all day Monday and began to stick in the evening. Tuesday we woke to a spectacular snowscape and Chris headed out with his camera and walked into Taradeau taking lots of photographs. Wednesday we had a renewed burst of snow but by Thursday afternoon it had all largely melted.

Further up our road on Tuesday morning

Last week the question was raised how Taradeau would handle the snow. After all there are only four routes into our village, roads here are never gritted or salted and two of the routes involve steep winding descents that demand caution even in good weather. And snow is not exactly common here: the last comparable snowfall seems to have been over ten years ago. The answer is interesting. There is a temptation for the British mind – doubtless heightened by books such as those by the late Peter Mayle – to think of villages in rural Provence as places still living in horse and cart technology where the obvious response to snow is to feed the animals, yawn and then go back to bed.

That’s a palm tree under the snow

Well, on reaching the centre of Taradeau Chris noticed that the woman who runs the main office at the Mairie which offers advice on everything from planning permission to hornet extermination was there, as normal, opening up at 9:00 precisely. Impressive. No snow day there!

He then returned home, uploaded the photographs to the computer, did the usual tweaks and then sent off a dozen good images by email to the mayor’s office telling them they could use them if they wanted. Almost instantly there was an email back of “Merci beaucoup Chris! Nous allons les publier…” (“we’re going to publish them”). And lo and behold shortly afterwards they were up on the village’s website. An hour or so later the front page had been rewritten with one of the best pictures and a request that if anybody else had photographs to send them in. Nicely done guys.

Not the typical picture of vineyards in the warm south…

In many ways that typifies the charm of Taradeau. Yes, with its vineyard festival, its seemingly permanent boules contests and (we kid you not) its “St Hubert Mass for the Blessing of Hunting Dogs” (we absented ourselves on ecological and theological grounds) it does look backwards with affection. But it also works: and on the basis of the snow day, very efficiently.

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Winter lingers and the “Beast from the East” approaches

This time last year we wrote about the imminence of spring and warmer days. But this year has been different: the south of France has not been exempt from the cold weather that has gripped much of the western Europe . Yes, the almond blossom is out and the sun shines, but we have had a succession of cloudy days where, when the wind blows, we could think ourselves back in northern Europe.

Popular images of Provence and the Côte d’Azur are dominated by summer. They are  of blue skies, unblemished by clouds, of streets shaded from a baking sun by verdant plane trees, of grapes ripening on green vines and dazzling beaches. They are landscapes populated by bronzed figures wearing the minimum possible consistent with fashion and custom.

Winter is very different. The sun may shine, but it can give more light than heat. Everyone is walking around in scarves and padded jackets. The cyclists who speed down the road have balaclavas under their helmets, wear long sleeves and grip their handlebars in warm gloves. Those beautiful plane trees are bare of leaves, but may also have been trimmed into awkward, even grotesque, shapes, so that they’ll grow better. This is the time of year when the vines too are pruned of the long stems which bore the grapes last summer, and now resemble little stumps.

Instead of the cafes and restaurants spilling out across the pavements, any outdoor areas are deserted apart from some disparate and chilled smokers. Chairs and tables are covered up, or at least stacked away. Inside, however, the cafes are warm, crowded and the babble is in French rather than in the languages of northern Europe that dominate in summer. Restaurants, however are often shut entirely, so that in some small towns and villages it’s not uncommon to find that only one is left open for business.

Both shops and restaurants often bear a sign on their closed doors reading “Congés Annuel” . The owners are taking a well-earned break before the hectic spring and summer months. Some owners and staff migrate to the ski slopes for trade there  while others simply take a long holiday.

At the time of writing (23rd/24th Feb) we are awaiting, not the sun’s return but a savage cold spell from northern and eastern Europe. One weather forecast has, for us, the hitherto unseen symbols of snow. If we get it it’s going to be interesting to see how Taradeau, more at home with sun than snow, manages.

 

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