Of aerial views and roofs

We were in the UK visiting family last week and you really don’t want to see any photographs from there. Almost everything was in what might be called 30 shades of grey.

We did however get some excellent views as we took off from Nice. Now Nice is one of  Europe’s more interesting airports. The problem is that the Maritime Alps begin a mere 8 or 10 km to the north with a east-west wall of limestone that rises within a couple of kilometres to 1500 m. So given that most flights in and out are are heading either north or south this poses a problem. The only solution on take off from the east-west runways is to immediately turn southwards, head out to sea and to gain height in a great loop before heading north and clearing the first peaks. Landing is the reverse procedure: overshoot the coast, lose height over the sea and then come swinging in over the waves. The fact the Var Valley can channel cross-winds across the runway only adds to the fun. We have been on one flight where the landing was aborted just a few metres above the ground.

There is however a plus point of this; the gaining or losing height over the sea can give wonderful views. This is certainly what happened this time. 

There were first rate views eastwards along the coast towards Villefranche and Cap St Ferrat. We also got a brief glimpse of the incredibly dense (and absurdly rich) conurbation that is Monaco.  Swinging round over the sea we then gained height over Cannes before flying over the rising ranges of the Alps. It was cloud from then on until Liverpool.

Monaco with mountains behind

Cannes Bay is on the right; the famous (or notorious) Croisette, and our church, is where the paler water is. This is due to coastal engineering intended to replenish the beaches with sand.

Whenever we fly we live in hope that we are going to get some good photographable views of Courmettes, but in fact flights are normally directly over it. Nevertheless, here is a rather blurry one from September.

At Courmettes itself there is considerable excitement because at long last the roof of the chateau, or grande maison, as it is more modestly referred to, is finally being renewed. It’s very much a key action restoration because there’s never been a lot of point in doing interior work with a roof that was notoriously prone to leaking. The intention is that with the new roof in place, various interior refurbishments will now be able to go ahead. You can read more about it in a recent newsletter here.

Photo: Ellen Teurlings (click here to visit her website)

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The ghost of Tourtour

Almost everybody who comes to stay with us gets taken up to the village of Tourtour about half an hour away to the north of us. No one ever complains: indeed almost everybody falls in love with the place. It is one of those little Provencal hilltop villages that has somehow escaped the building blight of the last fifty years and where it is still possible to imagine that you are in the long vanished old France of the Citroen 2CV, the onion seller, old men with black berets and even the horse and cart.

Tourtour from a distance taken in early autumn

There are magnificent views all the way from the coastal range to the south across a vast expanse of hills and forests to the isolated peak of Mount Ventoux to the north.

Being on the way to precisely nowhere Tourtour gets little traffic and such as there is has been largely diverted around the village leaving it effectively pedestrianised. And where many old French villages have acquired a drab and anonymous outskirts of villas and supermarkets, Tourtour remains largely unchanged; a cluster of tight-knit terraced houses, twisting narrow streets and tiny passageways set among fields and woods. It is a village that rejects the straight line and the right angle: walls curve, roads meander, roofs undulate and doorways sag; the result is that no two houses are the same. Whenever we have been there the sun has always seemed to shine, making the café au lait coloured stone and orange tiles come alive with warmth.

Tourtour is the archetypal French village with everything that imagination demands: remains of turreted towers, old olive presses, a washing place, flowing springs, a main square shaded by great plane trees. It is an organic settlement on a human scale that seems to model the sort of place we would all like to live in; it has appeared on these pages before and probably will again. Tourtour bills itself as “Le village dans le ciel”, ‘the village in the sky’, which has an appropriately celestial overtone; after all “le village du ciel” would be ‘the village of heaven’. It’s a phrase that even in mid-January one would be reluctant to argue with.

However, recently we have become aware of something about the history of Tourtour that is a chilling reminder that even here, you cannot escape from evil. Wandering beyond the main church the visitor will notice the small primary school which now bears a new sign Ecole Nelly Ovadia. Reading the sign carefully you will notice the dates 1942-44 but no other information is given. The story, which we only came across by accident, is appalling and heart-wrenching. In January 1944 the Germans took over Provence from the collapsing Italians who had been running it and immediately began rounding up the Jewish population. Some members of a Jewish family in Tourtour were denounced by the Nazi-appointed mayor and were arrested by the Gestapo. One of the family, the young Annette Barbut, fled with her niece, 15-month-old Nelly Ovadia, into the woods. Some locals found her and told her that unless she surrendered the Nazis would kill the ten hostages they had taken. She returned to the village trying unsuccessfully to give the baby away: “I knocked on all the doors to have the baby taken from me … everyone was afraid…” The entire family were then taken away and put on a train (which would have passed within earshot of where our house is) to Marseille. They were then shipped to Auschwitz-Birkenau. Somehow the aunt survived to tell the tale but the rest of the family including Nelly were gassed, shortly after their arrival, on 27 March 1944.

So nearly three quarters of a century later in the presence of Annette Barbut, now in her nineties, the school was renamed after the infant. It was a courageous decision: it’s not exactly a selling point for tourists and there are many in the south of France who would prefer to forget the way that at least some French people were involved in the Holocaust. Indeed there are those who would prefer to forget all about it. Here we simply note the story not to pass judgment but to note the lesson (sadly apt for these troubled times) that however sunlit a place, evil is never far away and to offer the challenge to make sure that such things never happen again. Ever.

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January weather

As we’ve mentioned frequently in passing, the lack of rainfall over the last twelve months has been a real source of concern in the Mediterranean margin of France. In fact rainfall figures in this area have been declining for a number of years, presumably due to climate change. Over the last couple of months it’s been particularly frustrating to see the weather forecasts confidently predict rain for a several days ahead but, as the day of the forecast rainfall progressively approached, the predicted Heavy Rain faded to merely Rain and then Showers and, finally as the day arrived, all we actually had was a few unproductive cloud patches.

This belongs to the commune of Les Arcs sur Argens

A reminder of the necessity of water and the ever present risk of fire are the frequent water cisterns found throughout the countryside for the fire brigade: all neatly labelled and located with the Commune and their number. Quietly, it seems they’ve been putting new ones in, in preparation for what could easily be an inflammatory summer.

One effect of the shortage of rain has been that the ground is still largely brown and sheep farmers have been concerned that there isn’t the fresh grass for the ewes and their lambs. Certainly the flock of sheep we saw the other day were struggling to find anything to eat.

Finally however in the last week we have had some precipitation. Nothing like the heavy snowfalls seen in the Alps but fairly heavy rain and very welcome. Here to commemorate it is a picture of rain in our swimming pool. It is actually very appropriate because if we don’t get enough rain the most obvious way of cutting the demand for water is to ban the refilling of swimming pools.

As a number of our visitors and contacts have observed, for people who spent years in Swansea lamenting the perpetual rain, to now wish that we had more of it is to have undergone an enormous mental shift. True, but there has been a refreshing novelty about seeing stormy seascapes and fiery sunsets.

With the weather turning wintry and the Christmas season over, the coast is enjoying a short-lived period of quietness. The seafront at Cannes normally, full of those anxious to see and be seen, has been almost deserted. Even the Carlton Hotel’s pier – in summer exclusively occupied by those who give the air of being unconcerned about any financial figure below a million – has been deserted and reclaimed by the gulls.



And finally on Thursday we celebrated an enormous victory. After three years of battling with Orange and every other telecommunications company in France we finally had fibre-optic installed. There is no exaggeration to say that the speeds of upload and download are now between fifty and even a hundred times faster than they were. On the old system it was perfectly possible to pick up the binoculars and do some birdwatching while a webpage loaded: not any more. What are we going to do with our spare time?

Connecting the cables.

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Food and festivities

First of all, we know we have already said this, but for the first post of 2018 can we wish everybody a happy New Year where ever you are.

We had family down for Christmas – Mark, Alice, Thomas and Phoebe – and with one or two reservations (a teething infant and a wide range of coughs and splutters) it went well. Winter is a slightly tricky time for hosting a visiting family. In summer we have space and we can eat outside on the patio and, of course, a swimming pool can absorb a very large amount of children’s time and energy. But a winter visit worked and although we had some sub-zero nights we had a some very pleasant days out at the coast. Thomas and Mark were even seen paddling.

Yes, that is St Tropez in the distance

We had a visit to Cannes on Christmas Eve for the church service. There was the most dramatic stylised Christmas tree which was even more extraordinary when you went inside it and looked up. As is routine across much of France and elsewhere security remains at a high level.





The tree from outside and inside.


One particular feature of this time of year is the foodstuff on sale. In the secular West no one is sure what Christmas is all about and the French are even more unsure than most but of one thing they are certain: it is a period that is about food, not in fact just for Christmas Eve, but for that all important Réveillon du Nouvel An (New Year’s Eve).

And what better way to celebrate than with macaroons?

Our own food contribution was a fun Christmas lunch. Mark cooked Beef Wellington with all the trappings.

Finally, Chris has completed his final essay on the Anglican Readership course. So, although there are a few bits of paperwork that need doing, there is no reason why he shouldn’t be licensed as a Reader at some point in the next few months. It’s been a lot of hard work!

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Happy New Year

We’ve very much appreciated the positive comments about our blog which many of you have sent over this Christmas period. Thank you!

To all our readers, all best wishes for the new year, or as they say round here: Meilleurs voeux pour la nouvelle année.

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Joyeux Noël !

We thought we’d post some Christmas pictures, in no particular order.

There’s a long tradition in France of local fire units coming round and giving you a rather amateur calendar in return for a donation: fair enough, the death and injury toll amongst French fire​​men ​(and firewomen?) ​is pretty high. This ​however ​was spotted in the local supermarket and suggests that an era of professionalism of some kind is under way in the area of calendars.​ We hope the profits do go to the Fire​ Brigade.


Cyclamens are everywhere and make a splendid show.




Good taste tends to be parked at Christmas time and anything is acceptable as long as it is covered with synthetic snow.

Chris spotted this in a shop window in Cannes and careful examination reveals that there is no mistake in the price and a decimal point has not been displaced: it really is €23,450. Does it come with a car?  He is not getting it for a present.





We have had family with us in the run-up to Christmas and the weather has obliged. This was Mark and Thomas paddling at St Raphael on 21 December. They enjoyed it: we just watched.

At the Lorgues fellowship carol service (at which Chris spoke), it was warm enough to stand around outside afterwards for drinks and nibbles.

And the final picture brings us down to earth. Since the appalling lorry attack in Nice on 14 July 2016, it has become customary in France to fence off almost every area of social gathering with large concrete blocks. The challenge – and it’s far from easy – is to try to make them as attractive as possible. Well it’s a reminder ​that ​the world we live in is a fallen and broken place and that’s exactly why we need Christmas.

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Christmas preparations, a death and a president

Rather to our surprise we suddenly find ourselves less than a dozen days to Christmas. No less surprising is the fact that, at the end of December, we will have been in our house here in Taradeau for three years. We will probably post a brief blog just before Christmas and then not again until 6 January.  So in the meantime this is a bit of a miscellany.

First of all many thanks for all the emails, newsletters and other contacts we have had at this time of the year. It was quite interesting how many people have said how they keep track of our doings on our blog. We keep thinking we are not going to have enough to write about but each week there always seems to be something that has caught our attention that we want to share.

First, a seasonal picture.  Our favourite mountain, Mount Sainte Victoire, in a telephoto shot just after the snow from the oppidum above Taradeau.

The supermarkets clearly demonstrate the proximity of Christmas and the aisles are almost blocked by special food and drink. Smoked salmon rather than turkey is the preferred French Christmas dish and there is plenty of that but apparently it’s been a very bad year for Pate de foie gras. However as we refuse to eat the diseased livers of tortured ducks that’s not too much of a concern for us.




The big national event in the last two weeks has been the death of Johnny Hallyday, France’s premier singer of every decade from the 1950s onwards. What was surprising was not that he died but that, given a lifestyle of an excess of excesses, he hadn’t died decades earlier. Our observations to one or two locals that he was totally unknown outside France have been treated with bemusement if not incredulity: surely, they say, he must have been a global figure? Sorry. Anyway the French media – who did very well out of his life – certainly did him proud with his death: our local paper – le Var-Matin – carried a 22 page supplement overflowing with photographs of the star, often at St Tropez, and generally with a beautiful woman and always with a cigarette. For days after his death it was hard to find anything else other than Johnny Hallyday retrospectives on television. The reflective and indeed emotional mood over his death was not simply because Johnny was a particularly great musical star. Much of it seems to have been simply due to the fact that throughout five turbulent decades, Johnny was always there. Governments came and went, crises erupted, the influence of the Catholic Church melted away, France modernised itself beyond recognition but somehow, amid all the swirling turmoil of national life, Johnny was reassuringly present. In times of turmoil nations need people or institutions that continue without change: for Britain it is the Queen, for France it was Johnny Hallyday.

At the great farewell for Johnny that seem to bring the whole of Paris to a halt M. Macron gave a passionate and eloquent eulogy that caught the mood of the nation and didn’t do him any harm. And indeed it wouldn’t be right to end a year of blogging on France without a nod of appreciation to Président Macron. Yes, he has his critics – and few people beat the French in terms of their cynicism about politicians –  and he has made a few missteps but it’s hard not to be impressed by him. He has rebuked Netanyahu, told Putin to mind his own business, defused a major political crisis in Lebanon, taken up the mantle of the fight against climate change, appointed a genuine environmentalist to run the environment, is working hard to get French labour law simplified (good luck on that!) and is trying to see the EU restructured. It’s early days and we may yet be disappointed but Monsieur le Président continues to radiate decency, intelligence, charm, learning and energy. If you should somehow feel that this list of virtues sounds like the exact and complete opposite of the very public vices possessed by another president elsewhere on the planet, well who are we to argue?

Have a good Christmas!

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