Saint Roseline

Whenever one of our local vineyards holds an open day, we find that it’s always worth going along. Not, we hasten to add, particularly to taste the wine, but because almost always the vineyard is based around some old château or other historic building that is normally closed to the public. So when last month we saw that Château Sainte Roseline,  just twenty minutes away and on our way back from church, had an open day, we thought we’d turn up.

Actually even though it was an open day, we found out we weren’t supposed to be in this garden!

There’s a lot of history here. The Château Sainte Roseline, near Les Arcs sur Argens, is part of a complex of buildings which started as a hermitage in the early Middle Ages and developed into a monastery. A 12th century chapel and cloisters still remain. The cloisters are usually reserved for private events, but were accessible as part of the open day, as were the cellars where the wine is matured in barrels. Like most of these places you can rent it for weddings but be prepared to pay a lot of money.

 

But who was Saint Roseline? Her father was lord of Les Arcs in the late 13th century. The legend goes that during a time of famine Roseline took some of the family’s food to feed the starving peasantry, but was discovered by her stern father who demanded to know what she had in her basket. When she opened the basket, it was full of flowers – angels having transformed the food to protect her from her father’s anger. Less apocryphal is the fact that Roseline became a nun and then the prioress of the abbey in the early 14th century. She was known for her piety and charitable works and is said to have done other miracles. Her body is still preserved in the chapel in a glass casket to be gawked at by the faithful and the curious.

Apart from this, the chapel is well worth a visit as it contains some fine early 16th century art, plus a large mosaic by Marc Chagall and a small bas-relief by Diego Giacometti. We were less enthused by the massive steel sculptures that had sprouted around the gardens although the giant rabbits were a wry touch.

Château Sainte Roseline is a charming spot with splendid views southwards across the rolling fields of the valley of the Argens to the high range of the Maures. The wine we tasted seemed distinctly superior but it seems hard to find a bad rosé round here.

Wine tasting. To make it a real family event, the jugs contain grape juice.

There is also an interesting reference here to a historical episode which is still, just about, within living memory. In the planning of Operation Dragoon, the D-Day equivalent in the south of France, the smooth open fields of this part of the Var were deemed suitable spots for parachute and glider landings that would leapfrog the German coastal forces. So, just before dawn on the morning of 15 August,  the first Allied soldiers landed little more than walking distance away from the chateaux and a plaque on the wall of the cloisters offers an eyewitness comment that the chapel was liberated not simply on 15 August but “at 4 in the morning”.  We hope the residents of the château offered their liberators a good wine for breakfast.

 

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Harvest services

Last week we explained at length how we managed to get a high-voltage surge through the house. The repercussions of that have continued throughout the week with the completion of seemingly endless insurance forms and the acquisition of estimates for repairs of things. Mind you, we also had the power company fit us a new and hopefully tamperproof box and the neighbourhood “character” who caused the problem seems to have disappeared. In this case we will avoid saying “Au revoir” but instead wish him “Adieu” or “goodbye”.

By way of contrast, we thought we’d note some recent events in our church at Cannes and a rather fun and interesting harvest service nearby.

Although numbers fluctuate with holidaymakers, retirees and people who are just at a loose end for something to do in Cannes on a Sunday morning, Holy Trinity Cannes is actually doing well.  In fact our attendance numbers are up seven percent in a year; a figure that we are very happy about.

Another encouragement came with the baptism of two adults and their confirmation along with five other adults and three teenagers in September. (Some of you who are nonconformists may mutter that there is no scriptural sanction for confirmation. True, but the score is levelled by the fact that there is no scriptural sanction for infant dedication either.)

In order to do the confirmation we needed a bishop. Given that the diocese of Europe stretches east-west from Gibraltar to Moscow and north-south from Helsinki to the Greek islands, and there are just two bishops for the whole area, getting a bishop is not quite as simple as it is in the UK. Nevertheless Bishop Robert Innes was “passing through” and presided – if that’s the word – over matters. Somehow everybody managed to find parking and we had a packed service followed by a lunch for around seventy people. It was joyful and encouraging.

A few Sundays later we had harvest celebrations, marked in our case by donations of food for a local charity Bras Ouverts, a food bank which also provides hot meals during the winter months. It’s much needed in our area where we have considerable numbers of the filthy rich and sadly, the filthy. We also raised over €1,000 for Christians in Syria. Yes, we are a long way from the rural landscape that is echoed in so many harvest hymns but it’s no bad thing to remember on one hand God’s provision of good things for us and on the other the needs of those who have very little.

Last Sunday, we were at another if somewhat contrasted harvest service. Fifteen minutes drive just inland of us is the picturesque town of Lorgues, which despite a degree of urban sprawl, still sits gently cradled by vineyards. Here there is a small Anglican fellowship and Chris had been asked to speak at their harvest service. We met at a charming old farmhouse in the middle of acres of vines, now stripped of grapes and beginning to turn to autumnal yellows and reds.

There were about twenty of us and it felt like the perfect British summer day: sunlight streaming about us and everybody stripped to short sleeves. Chris preached on the duty of giving thanks from the first verse of Psalm 136: “Give thanks to the LORD for he is good, his love endures forever.” It’s not hard to give thanks under such circumstances although the French army did inject a note of reality by carrying out artillery practice 20 or so kilometres away on the Plateau de Canjuers.

 

We certainly enjoyed ourselves not least because afterwards there was a leisurely meal under the trees around the farmhouse that, in the best French tradition, gave everyone enough time to talk to each other.

One other reason that we enjoyed ourselves was that we were able to leave our house at 10:30 as opposed to the 8:15 which is our normal departure time for Cannes. It’s early days but we may yet be more involved in the Lorgues fellowship as and when we can.

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Fun with fuses

Over the last week we have had some spectacular excitement with the electrics. Now we can’t reveal all the details because it involves illegality and incompetence (not, we think, ours!) and it is now part of a sizeable insurance claim. However it is an account that may be of interest and possible help to anyone who either lives in France or is thinking of living in France. The rest of you can just sympathise…

The disjuncteur

One of the problems with buying French houses is that they do not come with manuals so there are all sorts of traps which you only uncover over time by trial and (mostly) error. Our electrical system is a case in point. So there is a standard fuse box with the usual stacked array of fused switches: matters here were complicated because although these were conveniently labelled – in microscopic bad writing – it was in Dutch! But in another corner, easy to overlook, is a curious sombre box with a single red lever switch on it. This we have learnt is called a disjuncteur: a circuit-breaker.

Why is there a circuit-breaker? Well because France is a larger country than Britain and because it’s more efficient to send electricity at a higher rather than the lower voltage, some aspects of the French electrical system are at 440 volts rather than 220. (For the uninitiated 440 volts is often fatal for man or beast.) For reasons that elude even Chris (who has a doctorate in science) those 440 volts come to us in what is called a three-phase system. This enters the property from a distribution box (le coffret) in a side road by the house. This box is the property and responsibility of EDF (Electricité de France) and there are all sorts of penalties for tampering with it.

Now Taradeau generally, and our part particularly, is tranquil and respectable. The worst problems in our area are the excessive number of dogs apparently been bought on the basis of the maximum bark per kilogram and the way that some people drive down past our house simultaneously talking into their mobile phones and putting their seat belts on. There is however “a character” who is clearly rather struggling with life and who has not paid his electricity bills. The standard EDF response to this is to remove a fuse from the distribution box. We have learned that, nationwide, when this happens it’s all too common for the individual concerned to simply help themselves to a fuse from someone else.

Inside the distribution box: boxes for fuses and the meter. EDF have just upgraded it.

Alison was away last week in London “babysitting” but in her absence Chris had a conversation with our neighbour who, in passing, complained that she had her fuses stolen. So when he arrived back at 11:30 on a Friday night after a church meeting in Cannes and found no electricity in the house he had a pretty good idea what had happened. Armed with a torch, a screwdriver and a certain amount of trepidation he opened up the distribution box to find that a thumb-sized fuse was indeed missing. He returned to the house, found an EDF invoice with our account number, got the emergency number for EDF (smartphones are useful!) and gave them a call. Given that this was now nearly midnight he was gratified to get through to a technician and was able to explain what had happened. (Note incidentally that this requires distinctly more than O-Level French vocabulary.) He was instructed that in order “to verify this” he had to go to the disjuncteur and push the red lever to the on position. The result was simultaneously good and bad news. The good news was the power came back on: the bad news was that it was clearly not at 220 volts. All sorts of lights suddenly went into dazzling supernova mode and there were ominous popping and cracking noises throughout the house. More worrying still was the column of smoke rising from behind the television. Amid a distinctly animated conversation with the distant technician Chris switched the power off again and began to wonder where the fire extinguisher was. Deciding that he had neither the energy nor the French to protest that the technician had just blown up the television and lots of other things too, he simply accepted the reassurance that a repairman would be on his way and the call ended.

Having satisfied himself that the smoke was waning, Chris then spend half an hour sitting outside on the patio listening to the noises of the night and hoping the repairman would turn up. Which he did at around 12:30 (full marks here EDF!). Protected by ominously heavy rubber gloves the repairman opened the distribution box and with Chris holding the torch carried out some delicate screwdriver work on the fuse array. Eventually the fuse was replaced and power restored. With an eye to the insurance liability, Chris got repairman to confirm in writing that the neutral fuse had been stolen and the result had been over 400 volts surtension in the house, and also to give us the repair code number.

We have posted a (polite) notice on the outside of our distribution box for any possible robbers

Saturday began with a provisional listing of damaged things and then a trip to the office of our friendly insurance agent where the boss speaks excellent English. (There are some things in life such as surgery and house purchase where you need more than normal fluency in French: insurance claims is another.) Alison came back on Saturday evening and Sunday afternoon was spent verifying the damage which turned out to be not as bad as we had thought (for instance it was the surge protector that went up in smoke, not the television itself). Nevertheless we have an air conditioning unit that is now very firmly dead: they aren’t cheap to replace. A formal letter, overflowing with French politeness, to the mayor was then drafted asking that steps be taken to avoid a recurrence.

Anyway, dropping the letter in Monday morning to the Mairie we bumped into the mayor in person and the result was a long and thoughtful conversation in his office in which he was very kind about our contribution to the community. He also – and here’s the interesting point – was aware in some detail of “the character” and problems that beset him and his family and explained them. What was evident throughout the conversation was his sense of struggle of how, as Le Maire, he was to deal with this matter with justice and sympathy. We parted after half an hour with warm pleasantries. It was a fascinating insight into French village life at its best. No calling up of distant social services, no application of one-size-fits-all regulations, no passing of the buck to someone else. Whether it will help us at all we do not know, but we felt reassured that the matter would be dealt with in the best and wisest possible way. Well we will see what happens.

There are however some obvious lessons for those who are thinking of staying in France.

1) If you do move here, keep working at the French. You may need to call the emergency services at midnight when there aren’t any bilingual neighbours around to help you. And French can be tricky: for instance don’t call the fuse la fusée, which is a rocket and is going to make you sound silly; it’s la fusible.

2) Get involved in the community. You may find that it repays dividends when you most need it.

3) Be prepared for oddities occurring at the most unwelcome times. The whole combination of three-phase electricity, 440 volts and stolen fuses is a novelty and at midnight on Friday, not a welcome one.

4) Have an insurance policy that covers everything including earthquake, fire, termite invasion and sabotaged fuse boxes. A nice local agent with good English is not a bad idea.

5) Have a big torch ready.

But in case that sounds negative and off-putting about the French experience,  it’s worth remembering that at the moment we have pure blue skies, midday temperatures in the high 20s and are eating lunch on the patio in shirt sleeves.

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Walking the Gorges du Verdon

We posted a number of photos of the spectacular Martel walk along the floor of Gorges du Verdon last year (see that blog by clicking this link). Doing just a bit of it gave us a taste to do more. So when a friend of ours who likes walking came to stay, we took the opportunity to do just that!

The walk is named after Édouard-Alfred Martel, leader of the first party to go down the length of the gorge (as recently as 1905). It wasn’t until 1928 that the current path was built – it incorporates two tunnels (from an abandoned hydro-electric project) and a series of six ladders (a total of 252 steps!). If you do the whole length, it’s about 15 km – we only did half, but as we walked there and back, we still did about that distance.

There are many parts of the path that go through woods

Its a great walk, after all this is Europe’s deepest gorge, but a demanding one. Strictly speaking you need to park your car at one end and either take a bus to the other end and walk back, or walk it and get a bus or taxi back. Organising this has so far proved beyond our abilities. Two other features of the walk should be noted. The first is that it’s hot and dry. There is one point where you can drop down to the river and cool off, but even in September we found ourselves going through a lot of water.

Someone offered to take this photo: yes we were all rather hot and sweaty!

The second feature is, as we have mentioned before, that the French concept of health and safety has only the faintest resemblance to the British one. So, quite suddenly, and without  any warning, you find yourself traversing along a path less than a metre wide with a hundred metre drop on one side. It is not for the faint-hearted, those who suffer from vertigo or the chronically unfit.

If you do the trail the ‘right’ way round you descend these, but we had to go up them!

It’s also worth bearing in mind that if you do have a problem at the bottom of the gorge, it’s not going to be an easy matter extracting you. The last two times we’ve been there the mountain rescue unit has been practicing dealing with accidents with a helicopter. One suspects they are a pretty regular occurrence. There is also now a very large population of vultures drifting lazily and contentedly around the gorge. We presume they dine off dead deer and boar, but we do wonder if, now and then, there isn’t a human element to their diet.

Moon and vulture: this photo hasn’t been photoshopped!

Anyway, some day before we are sentenced to zimmer frames we hope to get the logistics together and do the whole Martel Trail. It’s a great walk, and heartily recommended.

But if you find walking boring, you can always try climbing the cliffs instead.

 

 

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Of grapes and the environment

The high point of the agricultural year in our part of France is the vendage, the grape harvest. Other than a few olive trees, not much else is grown. So from late August into September it’s not uncommon to be woken up at 4 o’clock in the morning by the sound of heavy machinery in the fields round us. The grapes are best harvested when temperatures at their lowest, and the days when they were picked by back-breaking hand labour are now largely absent, at least round here. The harvesting is done by monstrous machines which nevertheless are capable of an extraordinary delicacy. Almost all vineyards now are laid out with a mathematical precision that allows their use. (It’s something of a mystery where these machines go for the remaining 11 months of the year.)

One widely commented phenomenon this year is that it’s going to be an unusual grape harvest. Quantity is very definitely down (the worst since 1945 according to Le Figaro), although quality, at least round here, is supposed to be good. The harvest has also been unusually early, by up to two weeks in the south of France. (Interestingly enough, there is an almost uninterrupted record of the start of the vendage from 1370 (!) to the present day in Burgundy). There seems to be general agreement that the much earlier date this year does reflect increasing temperatures, presumably to do with climate change.

Chris Wright

Climate change was one of a number of topics discussed at the conference “Creation Care and the Gospel” held at Courmettes at the beginning of this month, organised by the Lausanne Movement and the World Evangelical Alliance in partnership with A Rocha. We didn’t go for the whole event, but Chris Wright, the Old Testament scholar and International Ministries Director of the Langham Partnership, gave an excellent public lecture on the Monday on “The Uniqueness of Christ”, which we did attend.

On the Tuesday, Chris led his walk around the western part of the domain, pointing out the remarkable archaeology, natural history and geology. It was a particularly large group (at least 40 people) and, as usual, was well received. It’s good to see Courmettes being used for conferences like this, something that is very much part of the long-term vision for the site.

The long history of Courmettes: At the dolmen, and near the ancient castle

Time for lunch before continuing the walk

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Late summer miscellany

We often find that we start to think of a new blog and realise we’ve got lots of good photos which don’t really fit into one particular theme. So here are some sights of the later summer.

The level of terrorist threat meant that armed soldiers on the beach didn’t surprise anyone.

Parking is always slightly crazy in the summer but this was a little excessive…

An amazing caterpillar in our garden (no, we don’t know what it turns into). A friend says she thinks its a Swallowtail caterpillar and she’s right! See her comment below.

It was warm enough at the end of August for Alison to try a night swim.

Flying back from a family visit to the UK, you could see the coast road all along the Esterel. And more from the air below:

Cap d’Antibes has some of the most expensive real estate along the Côte d’Azur and here’s some multi-millionaire’s idea of a luxury estate with a tree-lined avenue leading from the partly underground house to the swimming pool. Meanwhile, ordinary people seem to be perfectly happy with the Mediterranean.

And finally, no, not a French naval vessel but Roman Abramovich’s yacht The Eclipse. It has its own Wikipedia page, it’s worth $340 million and has two helicopter pads.

 

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Celebrating all things organic in Correns

We blogged on a visit to Correns last November. It’s not only a charming village in a lovely setting, but a “village bio” (i.e. it tries to be organic as possible). So when we discovered they were holding an organic festival (Fête Bio) last month, we decided to visit. We should say that we were influenced by a couple of really excellent and cheap meals we’d had at the Auberge de Correns, and we made a point of calling the night before to reserve a table for lunchtime. (A good move: it was justifiably full.)

The festival took up large sections of the village, closing the main street to traffic. As you’d expect from a festival celebrating the organic, there were lots of stalls selling organic food and drink: cheese, sausages, wine, olive oil, fruit and vegetables. You could buy handmade woven baskets, clothes made from organic linen or cotton, leather shoes, belts or bags. A few stalls promoted nature associations. More esoteric offerings were bat guano and snails, plus bags made from cork or certain types of leaves. Then there were all the health products: powdered juniper wood, natural oils, herbal remedies.

Handbags made from cork

Bois de cade = juniper wood

What we found particularly interesting is the link there appears to be between ‘organic’ and ‘spiritual’ in the New Age sense. There were a number of stalls selling various kinds of polished stones and crystals and Chris was unsurprised to see that this was not geology or mineralogy. No, this was ‘lithotherapy’, the New Age use of certain kinds of stones and crystals to mysteriously bring ‘well-being’. And there was more superstition and mysticism elsewhere.  One such stall had a Feng Shui section for “Good luck” and “Prosperity”; another was selling tarot cards and books on ‘connecting to the power of the universe’. France may have got rid of the church but its departure has left a void which is being filled by everything and anything.

“Lithotherapy”

Interestingly enough, just a day before had been the announcement that George Lucas of Star Wars fame was buying up one of the chateau/vineyard complexes near Correns. He clearly feels that the Force is very strong here. Maybe!

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