Friday, 26 June 2015

Au revoir Ballarat - Hello Les Arcs

Au revoir to beautiful, wintry Ballarat.

From Black Hill

Hello to warm and sunny Provence.
From Cap Dramont.

Saturday, 20 June 2015

Discovering Les Arcs-sur-Argens

Ten years ago I had never heard of Les Arcs-sur-Argens. It remained a sleepy little village in the centre of Var, generally overlooked by tourists whose gazes were fixed on the bright lights of the Côte d’Azur and Monaco.

I also loved the Côte d’Azur – the visceral appeal of its terracotta roof tiles, the dusky silver-green of the olive trees and the mouth-watering aqua-turquoise of the Mediterranean. But back in Victoria, as I wandered around a Melbourne bookshop, dipping into the ‘travel’ and ‘France’ sections, I chanced on a book that opened my eyes to other possibilities – and introduced me to Les Arcs-sur-Argens.

Overlooking Les Arcs-sur-Argens from the Place du Chateau above the town.
The book was a compilation of blogs written by an American woman, married to a Frenchman and living in Les Arcs-sur-Argens. She wrote of her trials and triumphs adjusting to the language and lifestyle of the small Provençal town.
I began to follow her blog and came across images and stories about the town and region that intrigued me. So when we were able to take another holiday in France, I was delighted to find a house to rent in Les Arcs-sur-Argens. The rest is history.

And history is taken quite seriously in Les Arcs.

The town began as a fortress, huddled on a rocky outcrop above the wide valley of the River Argens. The wide Argens valley provided an efficient east-west access the south of France.
In 1150, Les Arcs came under the domination of the Count of Provence, Raimond Béranger III and 50 years later it was gifted to the Catalan knight, Giraud de Villeneuve, for his faithful service. Giraud, was known as a seigneur – squire or Baron – was in charge of Les Arcs-sur-Argens and other small villages in the immediate region. The castle above the town became known as the Château Villeneuve and remained the family seat for around five centuries.

The early medieval village, Le Parage, grew up around the castle on the rocky outcrop above the Réal river. It is still enclosed by high, thick stone walls which are pierced by three arched gateways. One of them, the Porte Basse – lower gateway – is located at the top of our street. The main entrance to the Parage was reached by a road that approached from the north – invisible to invaders from the Argens plain.

The Porte Basse or lower gate to the medieval village.
The austere square stone château and tower – or donjon, are typical of the region and the times in which they were built. Now they house the up-market restaurant, the Logis du Guetteur, which also has luxury accommodation. The Place du Château is the perfect spot to gain a panoramic view over the town and distant mountains.
Within the walls, the village was complete in itself, with its own church – the Chapelle St Pierre, houses and store houses. The fertile plains of the river valley provided abundant food and wine and the hills were for livestock grazing and the region’s rugged little olive trees.

Sadly, with the modernisation of France in the early part of the 20th century, much of the old village was abandoned for new, larger homes built further out towards the valley and the new railway line – chemin de fer –that snaked along the Argens valley, linking Parisians to the hedonistic delights of the newly-discovered Riviera. The Parage fell into disrepair.

View from Place Paul Simon towards Le Parage at the turn of the 20th century.

Place Paul Simon today.
At one stage, there was even a proposal to raze many of the old buildings to ‘tidy it up’, but at the start of the 1960s, people began to look to their heritage and a movement to restore the medieval town began with the formation of a cultural association ‘Les Amis du Parage’ – Friends of the Parage – to undertake research and ensure the historic heritage of the town was both valued and protected.
Today a thriving town of 6,000, Les Arcs-sur-Argens boasts one of the best-restored and inhabited medieval villages in France and Le Parage attracts busloads of tourists – both French and foreigners – each year. And every second year, the town celebrates its history with a four-day medieval festival of animations and parades.

Acknowledgements: ‘Les Arcs-sur-Argens – Du passé au présent’ by the Association ‘Les Amis du Parage’ 2005.

Sunday, 14 June 2015

Travelling from Victoria to Var

The countdown has started. My suitcase sits on the floor like an open mouth waiting to be filled. By the end of this month we will silver bird it away from Victoria’s cold winter for a slice of sun in Provence.
The town of Les Arcs-sur-Argens in the Var
Travelling from Victoria to Var each year never loses its excitement. And the delightful part is that we are now welcomed back to Les Arcs-sur-Argens by our voisins – neighbours – like old friends. I was quite startled the first time Madame V next door took me in her arms, gave me three bisous and a great big smile as we arrived, giant suitcases in tow, for another sojourn.
This year we plan to spend all our time in the Midi, so I’ll be taking mainly casual clothes, together with perhaps something dressy for the warm evenings when the Place Général de Gaulle is filled with families eating, drinking and enjoying the summer soirées.

Summer afternoons in the main town square
Most evenings, a band is playing in the Kiosk Offenbach – the bandstand in the square – everything from French chansons to jazz, rock and blues. There is nothing better after a long, hot summer’s day, to sit in the shade of the sturdy platanes – plane trees, surrounded by the ambience of a noisy, joyful crowd of villagers and tourists together with food, music, a bit of people watching and yes, sometimes even dancing. This year we will also enjoy the celebrations of Bastille Day and the town’s four-day medieval festival, held every second year, in mid-July.
It is just over six years since we discovered a perfect little maison de village in the town of Les Arcs-sur-Argens located in the Provenҫal department of Var.

The Var is part of the PACA region (Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur) in south-eastern France. Its capital is Toulon, the main port of the French Navy. Although Var is highly forested – almost 60% – it also has 420kms of coastline, including offshore islands. Its population of just under one million is mainly centred on the urban area of Toulon.

Les Arcs-sur-Argens is part of a smaller region, called Dracenie, made up of 15 small towns plus the former capital of Draguignan, with its population of almost 40,000. The Dracenie region is agricultural – livestock such as sheep and goats, products such as olives, figs, honey and market gardens. But the main activity is viticulture. In fact there are around 450 domaines and co-operatives and four AOCs (appellation d’origine controllée) across the department.
The Var leads the world in the production of rosé wine. It is an absolute must to enjoy it chilled in summer. However, les Arcois only drink rosé between May and October, when the weather is hot and the wine is cold. There are at least seven small wineries within walking distance of Les Arcs-sur-Argens and the town boasts the famous Maison de Vins where you can enjoy a fantastic dégustation dinner. At the Cellier des Archers you can taste and buy a whole range of Provenҫal wines. 

Outside the little maison de village in 2008
So, back in October 2008 – just as the Global Financial Crisis began to swallow up the Western World – we decided to buy our little 17th century stone maison de village in Les Arcs-sur-Argens. It was a shaky start. We initially pulled out of negotiations when we realised the extent and the real cost of the crisis. But after this stop-start beginning, and a generous price reduction by the seller, we realised the purchase was meant to be. ‘C’est le destin’ – it is your destiny – Anita, our real estate agent told us. How could we resist?  With a lot of belt-tightening and bonne chance, we found ourselves both stunned and delighted to end up with our own little piece of Provence.