Monthly Archives: January 2014

St Tropez – Playground of the Rich and Famous

DSCF4058The first thing I notice about St Tropez is that fuel is at least 20c more expensive than anywhere else. The second thing I notice is the gigantic speedboats parked up in the port. It’s very tempting to climb on board and have a nose around, and I doubt anyone would actually stop me, but I’m not brave enough to try. The third thing I notice is the builders. There is work going on in every street, up every alley and even in the surrounding areas. All this leads me to believe that a lot of money is being spent in St Tropez.

As I’m not a millionaire, I have to settle for less expensive pleasures. I’m always happy just wandering the streets and taking in the scenery and atmosphere. In a way, I’m not unlike the first celebrity guests who visited this small fishing port more than a hundred years ago. The main difference is that I arrived by land while they arrived by sea.

DSCF4059In AD68, Torpes, a Christian officer of Nero, arrived in a small boat, minus his head, which is still in Pisa where he was killed for his religious beliefs. Legend has it that the town was renamed after this new Christian saint, having previously been called Athenopolis. Then in the 1892, the post-impressionist painter Paul Signac, who was sailing along the coast, put into the port during bad weather. He fell in love with the small town and bought a villa there, inviting his artistic friends, including Matisse. Thanks to very generous donations and the deep pockets of the Town of St Tropez, I am able to see some of the famous works of such artists in the Annonciade Museum. A former 17th century chapel, the whitewashed walls and curving arches are the perfect setting for the great works of art housed within.

I love the pointillist paintings Seurat and Signac, but I am also intrigued by two paintings that could be used in a magazine’s ‘spot the difference’ competition. They are both called ‘La Procession a St Tropez’, both painted in 1907 by Auguste Pegurier. The differences are subtle – a change in the shadows created by the sunlight, drapes across the shop fronts and minor details of the clothing. At first, I wonder if one is a fake. Then I think that perhaps he was unhappy with the realistic light and shadow of the first one and decided to create an improved, but impossible, second. I’ve yet to find any other suggestions for these two, almost identical, paintings.

Pegurier 1

Pegurier 2

 

 

 

 

 

DSCF4061Outside, in the afternoon sunlight, I wander down the same street where the St Tropez Procession took place all those years ago and try to imagine Pergurier sitting in a third storey window with his paints and palette. I also try to decide which painting illustrates the true shadows but it’s all too much for my brain and my stomach, which is screaming to be fed. On the Place des Lices the restaurants which are open are doing a brisk trade in salad and tapas – well the lovely young ladies have to stay in shape, even in the winter. But it’s hard to find a restaurant with a menu under €50 and even the individual dishes are well outside my budget. Instead I pop into the local Spar and pick up some camembert and nachos for an impromptu picnic in the park. From my sunny bench under the bare plane trees, I can watch the world go by and keep an eye out for the free local bus that will take me back to the Aire 3kms out of town.

DSCF4089The Aire is close to Canebiers Beach and I’m told that Bridget Bardot’s house is also nearby. I’m disappointed on both counts. The beach is a disgusting pile of dried out seaweed and unsavoury detritus from the floods (I guess they only bother to clean the beaches in the summer) and I have no idea what Bridgette Bardot’s house looks like, though there are some very nice houses along the beach path around the point. Would I like to live in St Tropez – playground of the rich and famous? Construction site in winter, and one long traffic jam in summer. I think I’ll leave it to Joan Collins, George Michael and Bridgette Bardot.

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The Flood – One Week On

It’s a week since I found myself next to the flooded River Rhone in Avignon and I am now travelling further south, along the coast of the Var region. When I reach the beach town of Le Lavandou, the devastation of the floods in this area become all too apparent. I park up on a road that runs just behind the beachfront apartments, between the ports of Le Lavandou and Bormes-les-Mimosas, where several other motorhomes seem to have settled. Only one week ago, they would have been submerged under a few feet of water and the car I’m parked next to is evidence of that. The small black Renault is covered in dark brown mud both inside and out.

Le Lavandou 19/1/14

Le Lavandou 19/1/14

Le Lavandou 26/1/14

Le Lavandou 26/1/14

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When I try to take a walk along the beachfront boardwalk and promenade I find most of it blocked by metal barriers and candy-striped tape. Cafés have been crushed by the wooden boards, now looking more like a roller coaster spiral, and wrought iron benches have been ripped from their concrete bases an upturned in a pile of broken pavement and sand. DSCF4034The beach itself is littered with reeds and branches and the apartment car parks are filled with piles of muddy gravel and damaged furniture. I find that the town hall is open, extremely unusual as it is a Sunday. However, a notice in the front window explains that they are open to assist those who need help and financial compensation for the flood damage. Next to it, a newspaper article praises the local services and volunteers who have helped in the clean-up operation of the town.

DSCF4045On the way back I am wondering how many people are unaware of the damage to their properties. So many of the houses and apartments in this area are only used as holiday homes and their owners, who are possibly back in Paris, may be oblivious to the events that have occurred in the small town of Le Lavandou. After all, the journalists have been more interested in the extra-marital activities of the leader of the country. Sadly, I discover a large bin filled with soggy paperback novels and this really breaks my heart. I can’t imagine what it must be like to lose such possessions in such a way and I hope I never have to find out.

Who is Paul Ricard?

ricardThe name Ricard may ring a few bells if you like to try the more unusual spirits at the back of the bar. Pastis is an aniseed flavoured aperitif which Ricard, the son of a wine merchant, reinvented after he was offered some by an old shepherd. Although it was originally prohibited during WWI for fears it would undermine the war effort, the ban was eventually lifted and Ricard set up his own company, selling more than 2.4 million litres of his “authentic pastis of Marseilles”, a secret recipe containing star anise, fennel seeds, liquorice and local Provençal herbs. [When drinking pastis – 2 cl should be served with 10cl of chilled water and finally ice cubes should be added for this will release the full aroma of the anise.]

Despite another ban during WWII, business was good and everyone was benefitting as the workers were given profit shares in the company each year as a bonus. In 1968, Paul Ricard decided to retire and handed the company over to his son, Patrick. It was later merged with Pernod (a former rival).

As part of an advertising promotion, Ricard started to sponser sporting events, such as the Tour de France in 1948, and in 1970 he built a racing circuit in the hilltop village of Le Castellet which hosted the French Grand Prix between 1971 and 1990. I came across it completely by accident as I drove from the Luberon Valley to the coast at Toulon. At first, I wondered why there was a huge concrete hotel built seemingly in the middle of nowhere and with the unusual name of ‘Grand Prix’, but then I saw the flags, and the grand entrance gates, and the private airfield.

paul ricardRicard was also involved in films, producing the first French colour movie of ‘La Maison du Printemps’ in 1950. About the same time he started to buy islands off the South of France. First the uninhabited island of Bendor, and then Embiez island. On Bendor he established the Universal Exposition of Wines and Spirits (a kind of living encyclopaedia of wine and spirits) and the Museum of Ricard Advertising Objects. Tourism enterprises have also popped up around the shores, such as a diving and windsurfing school, a yacht club and hotels. While on Embiez he founded the Observatoire de la Mer (now the Paul Ricard Oceanographic Institute) which carries out research on the effects of industrial pollution and raises public awareness of marine issues. There is also an aquarium with over 100 different species of fish.

Although retired, Ricard was busy with his islands, painting the local landscapes and acting as mayor of Signes (1980-1988), a small town near the racing circuit. Sadly he died there in 1997, aged 88 and was buried on Embiez, his grave facing the sea.

Who is Albert Camus?

Albert CamusAll over the South of France I’ve been bombarded with information about famous artists (Matisse, Cezanne, Picasso and Van Gogh) and authors (Hugo, Moliere, R L Stevenson and Peter Mayle) but, before I visited the small town of Lourmarin, I had never heard of Albert Camus. He’s hailed as their famous son, though he was actually born in Algeria in 1913.

At university, he studied philosophy and enjoyed playing football until he contracted tuberculosis. During the 1930s he joined the Communist Party and the Algerian People’s Party and during WWII he became editor of ‘Combat’ an underground newspaper for the French Resistance. However, when ‘Combat’ became a commercial paper at the end of the war, he resigned and started to hang out with Jean-Paul Sartre and other writers. While in seclusion following a reoccurrence of his TB, he wrote ‘The Rebel’, about rebellion and revolution.

DSCF3910In the 1950’s he devoted himself to human rights issues around the world and spoke out against capital punishment. It was his essay on this subject, ‘Reflections on the Guillotine’, that led to him being awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1957. Unfortunately, only a few years later, he died in an automobile accident. He was buried in the cemetery of Lourmarin, where he had been living, the spot marked by a simple marble plaque.

The Hilltop Villages of the Luberon

DSCF3747When Peter Mayle spent his year in Provence, he lived in the hilltop village of Menerbes and it is here that I start my tour of the Luberon Valley. I understand that during the summer months it can be crowded with tourists but today the car parks are empty and so are the streets. I do meet an elegant French couple who are also visiting the area and enthuse about the other villages. “You must see Gordes……..don’t miss Roussillon………..Rustrel is amazing……..” I begin to feel as though I may need a week to do justice to the region.

I find a fantastic fresh maize loaf in the local bakery and gorge myself on bread and nefle jam for afternoon tea. The friendly owner confirms that it will be quite safe to stay overnight in the empty car park and a white-haired old local man agrees that I will be undisturbed. They are both absolutely right.

DSCF3765The next morning the sun rises above the tall trees and I look out across the valley below me. In the distance, Mont Ventoux is covered with snow, and the greens and browns of the forest below, dotted with stone villages, reminds me of an iced fruitcake.

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It’s only 7 kms to the ruined hilltop village of Oppede-le-Vieux, though really it’s only the highest medieval part that is in ruins. The lower part, outside the ancient walls, was restored in the 1960s by a community of artists and is now focused firmly on tourism, though the cafes and gites are closed for the winter. I am the only soul who is wandering around the cobbled streets and alleys. The castle itself is sealed off for health and safety reasons and a notice states the intent of the local community to raise money and have it restored but I believe that some things should be left in their abandoned state as a reminder of our once bloody history.

DSCF3807On the way back to the car park, I stumble into the village cemetery quite by accident but find an amazing assembly of family tombs adorned with ceramic votive offerings in memory of loved ones since departed.

corkscrew museum

On the road between Menerbes and Oppede is the Domaine de la Citadelle. A vineyard that has the unusual attraction of a corkscrew museum. I never knew that there were so many different kinds of implements for opening a bottle of wine but here you have hundreds. From simple metal screws with handles made of wood, bone, horn, ivory, gold, steel and even brass bullets to complex gas injectors and ornamental souvenirs. My favourites are the small picnic corkscrews and those which have clearly been appropriated from high class hotels.

DSCF3826Next on the route is the much larger hilltop town of Gordes. It’s supposed to be market day and even though I arrive late, there’s little evidence that there has been one. I suspect that there are so few residents during the winter months that it is not worth the effort. I bump into an Italian coach party of Japanese tourists trying to squeeze into a tiny creperie, one of only two restaurants actually open in the town. In the only open souvenir shop I buy some lavender honey with the expectation of creating an interesting lavender infused meal.

I move on to the nearby Village des Bories, known for its dome-shaped, dry-stone huts. However the parking for motorhomes is 1.5km from the site and the thought of a 3km round trip on foot to pay to see a few houses made of stone hardly seems worth it. Perhaps I missed out on something special, though I rather doubt it.

DSCF3874My final stop is Roussillon, a ‘red’ village on top of a pine and oak clad hill, created by the quarrying of the local ochre rock. The colour ochre is a main theme for this village, which has little else going for it other than the lovely views across the valley, and all the houses are painted in varying hues of ochre. The small church of St Michel has some interesting alters and a wonderful frieze above the font. Just around the corner, the viewpoint offers some stunning vistas towards the north and I can just make out the town of Gordes. DSCF3854The chilly morning has turned into a glorious sunny day so I sit outside on the terrace of Le Bistro enjoying a coffee while soaking up the late afternoon rays and gazing at the views across the village and beyond.

Some people may not enjoy visiting this region in winter and I am disappointed when I pass the bare, snarly vines and the dark, flowerless clumps of lavender. However, I do enjoy exploring the villages in peace and the fact that the restaurants and souvenir shops are closed means I don’t spend much money. The parking is free; wandering the streets is free; soaking up the atmosphere is free. In fact, my only expense has been fuel and a couple of overpriced cups of coffee.

The Flood and The Source

When I arrived in Avignon it was raining. In fact it had been raining heavily all night and I suspected it would continue for another. So, in the gloom of the afternoon, having followed a veritable maze of busy roads, I crossed the Daladier Bridge and drove into Bagatelle Campsite on Barthelasse Island. It wasn’t until I went for a walk during a break in the rain that I realised my mistake.

DSCF3646“Sur le pont d’Avignon, l’on y danse, l’on y danse…….” Most people agree that the words to the original 16th century song should be “Sous le pont….”, meaning under the bridge and not on it. However, today nobody would want to be dancing under it or on it as the river is in full flood. Only half of the bridge remains, a reminder of the forces of nature and the strength of the might DSCF3658Rhone River. As I stand in front of the campsite entrance gazing across at the famous St Benezet Bridge and the huge fortified walls of the Pope’s Palace (cunningly built on the highest ground of the city), I watch the river water creep up and over the pavement. By 8pm the wooden benches have disappeared and the adjacent car park is flooded. Many cars arrive with people coming to witness all the excitement, as if it is a new local attraction created for their entertainment. But this is serious stuff. In 2003 Barthelasse was completely flooded so that only the tree tops were still visible.

DSCF3703“Don’t worry,” says the young receptionist, who doesn’t seem old enough to remember the last big flood. “If there is a problem, the night guardian will evacuate the campsite.” I don’t find this very comforting and the sign which instructs me to “Get to high ground. DON’T WAIT!” is equally disturbing. Luckily, thanks to the wonders of modern technology I can monitor the water level from the comfort of my motorhome. The water company website provides 15 minute updates of the river levels at points throughout the country, while another page lists flood alerts for different regions. Avignon remains on “Yellow Alert” and by 11pm the rate of rising water has at least reduced, if not stopped.

Avignon water levelNext morning, I peek outside the windows and discover, with relief, that I am not surrounded by water. The website tells me the water level peaked at 4.9m around 4am in the morning and the level has now stabilised.  The fact that the rain has stopped is also a bonus and I decide to walk into the city, hopeful that Trixie will be safe without me.

The walled city of Avignon is a UNESCO World Heritage site and was designated as European City of Culture in 2000. Unfortunately, this has resulted in ridiculously high entrance fees for the local monuments and museums, of which there are many. The Tourist Office does try to help out by offering a special 15 day pass, giving reduced rates (10%), but it is still too much for me and a visit to the enormous Pope’s Palace would probably take a whole day in itself. Also, it is Monday and many of the museums are closed, specifically the rare free ones. To be honest, I’m finding it rather hard to concentrate on anything other than the height the Rhone anyway.

DSCF3735By midday I am on the road in search of higher ground. The Vaucluse Plateau seems like a good bet so, after a circuitous drive around Avignon as several roads are closed due to the risk of flooding, I head for the village of Fontaine-de-Vaucluse. The entrance to the village is dominated by a huge Roman aqueduct which spans the Sorgue River. This river is also in flood and it steams past like a herd of wild Camargue horses, leaping over barrages and galloping down weirs. Am I surprised to find the car park is next to the river? Not really, it’s probably a lovely place to picnic in the summer.

 

 

DSCF3731The village is quite a tourist trap, even in winter. Restaurants and souvenir shops line the square and the route to the source of the Sorgue. The footpath follows the river, which is a writhing snake of white water that even the bravest kayaker wouldn’t want to face. When I reach the pool beneath the 230m cliff face it is strangely calm. I expected it to be exploding like a shaken bottle of coca DSCF3722cola, but there is not even a ripple on the surface. The true source lies deep underground. Many scientists and even the famous Jaques Cousteau have explored its underwater caverns, but it was miniature submersible probes which finally confirmed its depth at 308m. The main thing that strikes me is how clear and blue the water is, unlike the muddy-brown, branch-littered Rhone flowing through Avignon.

DSCF3648When I see the news in the evening, I realise how lucky I am. Two people died, hundreds were evacuated from their homes and thousands were left without electricity in the Var region, which is not far away and on my route to Italy. It’s just a reminder that nature is a powerful and sometimes dangerous beast that must be respected at all times. Needless to say, I didn’t spend the night in the riverside car park.

Colours of the Camargue

For me, the Camargue is all about colour. Here are some of the colours that I think make the region come alive:

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Black for the longhorn bulls that take part in the Course Camarguaise and for the annoying mosquitoes that buzz incessantly around your head in the heat of the summer.
Brown for the eagle-eyed buzzards that perch on the telegraph poles and tall cypress trees, for the rich soil and for the little wooden boats that sail the rivers and lakes.
flamingoPink for the elegant flamingos, the flowers of the tamarisk trees, the evening sunsets and the bare skin of the free-spirited naturists who flock to the beaches.
Blue for the clear spring skies, the Mediterranean Sea, the life-giving lakes and the rivers.
Green for the pine trees, the grape vines and the lush grass meadows.
Red for the rosettes of the bulls, the sashes of the raseteurs and the blood spilt during the Hundred Years War.
saltWhite for horses that roam wild, the majestic swans and the cattle chasing egrets, the rice growing in the wet marshland, the salt collected from the pans and the bones of the Saint Marys who arrived by boat from the holy land.