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.

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