Thursday, 30 July 2015

Port Grimaud - The Venice of Provence

At the far eastern end of the Golfe de Saint-Tropez is a town that is quite different from the usual Provencal towns that have grown up over the centuries. Although at first glance, you might imagine it's a small, Mediterranean fishing village - all is not what it seems.

This is Port Grimaud - a town that grew out of nothing and is just over 50 years old. But in that time, it has become known as the 'Venise provencal' or the Venice of Provence.

Port Grimaud is situated on what was once a marshy estuary of the river, La Giscle, its waters boosted by the tributary, La Garde, which flows down from the high Massif des Maures. This river now forms the southern boundary of the town as its fresh waters mingle with the sea.

The village was conceived by the architect, Francois Spoerry, as recently as the 1960s.

Being constructed only 50 years or so ago, I had visions of it being another modern resort built for people who like sailing.

Happily, I was wrong.

The estuary had been deepened to create the canals and land was reclaimed for building the town itself.

It is now a picturesque town of canals and bridges, many designed to emulate those in Venice.

Port Grimaud is almost fully pedestrianised with large car parks to the north and east - just off the RD559 - and within easy walking distance.

A lot of care has been taken with the construction of the houses, keeping as close as possible to the original design of buildings in this part of Provence, but with a few whimsical Venetian touches.

Statistically, it is located almost exactly halfway between Sainte Maxime and St Tropez. It has seven kilometres of canals, 12 quays and each year is visited by around half a million people.

The town thrives almost exclusively on tourism.

There are all the facilities of a regular town - shops, banks, pharmacies - and a daily market in the central Place du Marche. You can climb to the top of the church tower in the Place d'Eglise for an excellent overall view of the town. There is even an Ile des Pins (though not on an island as in Nouvelle Caledonie), and excellent little cafes plus quality restaurants.

The best way to explore this town is by boat. Either take an organised tour through the town via the canals or hire a boat, take your own time and see it for yourself.

It you are a sea lover, and want to get some pretty impressive views along the coast - and on the water - from the Golfe de Saint-Tropez, why not drive (or take a bus from Les Arcs-Draguignan railway station) to Sainte Maxime. There you can catch one of les Bateaux Verts (small green ferries) across the bay to St Tropez, where you can transfer to another Bateau Vert for the journey along the length of the gulf to Port Grimaud.

Friday, 24 July 2015

15 ways to keep cool in a Var summer

These geese have the right idea.
1. Stand under a cold shower or lie in a cold bath all day. Note: Water wastage is frowned on.

2. Find a shady place and sleep. If it is outside, you may have to move with the shade.

3. Take an early morning walk (when it's still under 30'C) to the nearest grand surface (hypermarket) and stay in air- conditioned comfort until closing time. Warning: This can be expensive.

4. Bring a good supply of reading matter and stay indoors with the shutters closed. This can weigh your suitcase down if you plan to stay a while - and read in English - and not get out and see what you travelled half a world away for.

5. Reserve a flight to a cooler clime - like the Arctic.

Children instinctively know what to do.
6. Go to the nearest fountain or lavoir (communal wash trough), plunge your arms into the cool water right up to your shoulders and hang there for a while. Maybe stand in it to counter those swollen ankles.

Why not go the whole hog and get right in?
7. Soak a scarf in the cold water from a fountain (every town has one) Let it drip down into your clothes and enjoy the frisson of those little runnels of cold on your skin. Find another fountain when your scarf dries out - which will be within the hour.

8. Buy an ice cream and eat it VERY quickly - otherwise you will be drinking it.

Café life in summer.
9. Go to a café and sit in the shade of the plane trees with an ice cold rosé. Pack it with ice blocks and nurse it until all the ice blocks in the accompanying bowl have melted. PS: That doesn't take long, so you may have to have several.

10. Avoid coffee - however much you are hanging out for one. Or just sneak a quick short express and pretend you didn't.

11. Always, always, always wear a hat with a wide brim. Tie it on in windy weather. Or pin it with a swizzle stick like I do.

12. Pretend you like going everywhere with no make-up. It's better than having your mascara melt down your face. Besides you can cover up with sunglasses.

13. Wear clothes that don't change colour with sweat stains.

14. Accept the sweat. Don't fight it; that only makes you hotter. Allow your face and body to drip, if you keep moving you will set up an air disturbance and might even feel cooler.

15.  Go to the beach and swim in the clear blue waters of the Mediterranean ALL DAY.


Wednesday, 22 July 2015

The leading medieval festival in Provence

The challenge of the towns in the amphitheatre.
Les Festes du Castrum d'Arcus - the four-day medieval festival in Les Arcs-sur-Argens - has certainly earned its 'Qualite France' title awarded by the 'Federation Francoise des Fetes et Spectacles Historiques', making it the leading medieval festival in Provence.

Staged in July on every odd-numbered year, the festival - which attracts around 30,000 visitors to the town of 6,000 over the four days - is the brainchild of its current president, and former Nice Matin journalist, Georges Yevadian.

Georges Yevadian (front right) and members of his committee. Photo: Var Matin.
It was back in 1985, when he was reporting on the declining interest by young people in the Festival of St John, that he was inspired by the town's own medieval history to create a different type of festival. Medieval festivals were not often seen in France at that time.

The town's saint, Ste Roseline, whose mummified body rests in a glass case in the chapel bearing her name just outside Les Arcs, became the basis for the original performance, which took place beside the chateau where her first 'Miracle of the Roses' occurred.

Since then, the festival has grown exponentially, with a committee of volunteers who work throughout the two years leading up to each son et lumiere - creating the storyline, writing the play - and music if required, crafting the scenery, designing and sewing the costumes, designing the lighting, the sound effects, the special effects - such as animated animals, and this year's giant griffins and mythical beasts, also practising jousts, sword fights, dances, designing labyrinths and so much more.

One of the twice-daily parades along Boulevard Gambetta.
It is a total coming together of the townsfolk, plus others from the Dracenie region, and today there are more than 200 members of the association. Not only do they prepare each festival almost from scratch, but the artisans are also often the actors - showing pure professionalism and a total dedication to the crafts of the Middle Ages.

The baker was kept busy using traditional ingredients and methods.
Of course the committee is responsible for much more than the spectacle; the organisers must also plan the medieval market in the town centre, where this year there were more than 60 stalls, including a working bakery.

There are art exhibitions, demonstrations of medieval illumination, displays of paints and pigments, plays and stories for children, 13th century marionettes, and medieval board games to try as well as ropes to ply and the pillori - stocks - for anyone misbehaving.

A giant animated dragon, called 'Dragonium' - patron of Draguignan, the large town just north of Les Arcs - breathes real fire at various times.

Even swordsmen have to rest between bouts.
Nearby is the Camp de Vie - showing how life was lived in medieval times - it is an encampment of tents complete with embroiderers, weavers, people creating chain mail, soothsayers, washerwomen, leatherworkers - and occasionally where disputes are settled with sword fights.

Beside this is a village where the animals - sheep and geese - are kept, blacksmiths work on creating spears, arrows and lances, while lepers and those afflicted with the plague are quarantined.

The fox, the lion, the cat, the wolf and the chicken.

Amongst all this are the wandering minstrels - some dressed as animals acting out a farmyard fable, others incorporating jugglers, dancers, all playing medieval instruments, singing bawdy and sometimes wistful songs.

Preparing to fire the engin de guerre.
Beside the Real river, is a massive 'engin de guerre' (catapault) which is fired several times each day and consists of a man-sized treadmill which is turned to tighten the ropes as the arm winds back to fire the cannon high into the air and land several hundred metres away.

Then there are the horseback challenges in the amphitheatre where surrounding towns pit their skills against Les Arcs to roars of excitement from the crowd.

Each day of the festival - in the morning and afternoon - the participants parade through the town creating music, mayhem and excitement.

The committee works hard to make sure all bases are covered - that there is always something happening in the town centre, by the Real river, in the medieval camps, in Place Paul Simon and high up in the Parage, overlooking the town. Festivities start at 10am and continue through to midnight.

Musicians and a juggler entertain in the square.
The festival is a credit to its founder and every Arcois - the shop keepers, business people and restaurants enter the spirit of the event by dressing in medieval costumes and redecorating their shop fronts. Not only does it attract locals, but thousands of holidaymakers - and their children - from all over France and internationally.

This year's was the 28th festival staged in the town - so make sure you don't miss the next one. Pencil in the 29th Les Festes du Castrum D'Arcus on your calendar for July 2017.

* Once again apologies to French speakers for the lack of accents on French words.

Friday, 17 July 2015

Medieval designs from the cloisters

Accompanying this weekend's Medieval Festival (Les Festes du Castrum d'Arcus) in Les Arcs-sur-Argens is a very special exhibition in the Chapelle Saint Pierre, near the top of Le Parage.

It is called 'L'imagier Fantastique du Cloitre de Frejus' and features reproductions of medieval paintings found in the cloisters of the Cathedrale Saint Leonce in Frejus, 15km east of Les Arcs.

The display is particularly interesting to me as a tapestry weaver. The images of strange medieval beasts have always intrigued me.

Three wonderful women are sitting the exhibition - they are artists who work in the medieval style with original materials - and are wearing medieval costumes in the cool depths of the chapel.
I spoke to Madame, who assured me she was 'not creative', just a copyist. Then she showed me her beautiful and intricate work! I was fascinated as well by her meticulously-kept visual diary with its colour and design notes and tiny painted copies of originals.
The upper level of the cloister at Frejus Cathedral, has a wooden ceiling and the beams were decorated with painted panels featuring biblical scenes, mythical beasts and scenes of daily life in the 13th century.
These demons, angels, centaurs, mermaids, dragons, imaginary exotic and domestic animals - and people from ordinary life - have been reproduced on a series of wooden panels displayed in the Les Arcs chapel.

Some of the original paintings and copies on display.
But Madame and her two colleagues are painting on parchment, not wood, with the finest-tipped brushes.

Madame explained that they were using earth (mineral) pigments in the traditional medieval way mixed with blanc d'oeuf - egg white, gomme d'arabia - gum Arabic; and l'eau de miel - honey water.

The egg white is generally used for painting on parchment, while tempera - using the yolk - was for wood. The humidifying effects of the gum Arabic and honey water allow the parchment to remain flexible.

I told her I had visited the town of Rousillon in the Luberon - where the colours were mined from vast ochre pits.

The artists were using red and yellow ochres, umber, lime white, as well as the highly-prized terre verte - green earth - found at Verona, Italy, or taken from malachite or verdigris, and the rare blue ultramarine - which was brought from outre mer - 'overseas', along the ancient Silk Road from Persia and Afghanistan.

Earth pigments ready to be mixed.
The Biblical Apocalypse was instrumental in influencing the medieval artisans - and accounts for the fantastic beasts, described by Saint John in his Book of Revelations (Apocalypse).

I told her that every beast I'd seen looked different.
'Saint Jean described the beasts, but the artists interpreted them,' Madame told me.

She showed me a copy she had made of the seven-headed beast, described in Revelations.

'All the medieval artists followed the saint's description of seven heads,' she continued, 'but the design of the beast itself varies from artist to artist.'

Madame and her two colleagues are also exhibiting their own work - both copies of original illustrated documents or paintings, and  individual designs they have created based on medieval art.

I have already visited the exhibition twice and I know I will return before it ends.

* Once again apologies for lack of accents on French words. Blogger does not seem to support this.

Wednesday, 15 July 2015

Take a walk around Le Parage

Following the celebrations for 'le 14 juillet' the final rehearsals begin for Les Medievales des Arcs the biennial festival that celebrates the town's medieval origins. Les Festes du Castrum d'Arcus (literally translated as 'the festivities of the fort of Les Arcs').

Each major son et lumiere performance is based on a different aspect of that history. This year it is called Le Seigneur des Songes, loosely 'The Prince of Dreams'.

The scenery being constructed in the amphitheatre at Les Arcs-sur-Argens.
Already the scenery is being moved into place. We are going to the Saturday night performance. Despite visiting Les Arcs each year since 2008, we have somehow missed this performance, which takes place every odd-numbered year.
Although there were earlier settlements here, Les Arcs-sur-Argens began life as a fortified village with the construction of the castrum - or fort (today called the chateau) on a rocky outcrop above the wide river plain of the Argens, in the 13th century.
A tiny statue of Sainte Roseline built into a niche on a wall.
The fort became the seat of the Villeneuve family, which reigned over Les Arcs for five centuries - the most famous family members being Romee de Villeneuve - advisor to Raimond Berenger V, the Count of Provence; Helion de Villeneuve - the grand master of the Order of the Knights Hospitallier of Jerusalem; and Roseline de Villeneuve - whose miracles earned her Sainthood and whose 750-year-old body still lies in a glass case in the Chapelle Sainte Roseline just outside Les Arcs.
Wandering through Le Parage.
The village in the fort's immediate surrounds, is known as Le Parage. The name comes from that for the original district where the nobles lived, as opposed to the lower lands that were reserved for the peasants. Restored in the 1960s, it has become a tourist attraction for French and international visitors alike.
The chateau and tower of the donjon dominated the landscape - and still do. The village was surrounded by high ramparts, broken by only four gates, The Basse Porte (low gate), the Haute Porte (high gate), the Real Porte (east gate on the side of the Real river) and the Milante Porte (to the west).
The 1662 bell tower photographed from the Jardin des Oliviers.
Located beside the Basse Porte is the clock tower, which gives its name to our street and is topped by an intricate wrought-iron bell tower, added much later in 1662. You will see many of these bell towers in this part of Provence.
Near the top of the village is the Chapelle Saint Pierre, which houses a wonderful scale model of the medieval village as it was in the 14th century, created by Alain Durdu - plus the interior workings of the clock tower. The chapelle also houses art exhibitions and classical music soirees from time-to-time.
The gateway at the chateau where Sainte Roseline's first miracle is believed to have occurred.
Take a walk through Le Parage. It is easy to get lost in the maze of narrow, stepped streets where no cars are permitted. Drink in the history among the austere, stone buildings. Enjoy the expansive view from the top, the fountains, the low relief sculptures set into the walls, the carved or wrought iron doorways, the secret Jardin des Oliviers.
Each small town in Provence houses so much history, much of it in ruins - but thanks to the restoration and habitation of Le Parage, you can experience the working village as it might have once existed.
* Apologies to French speakers for lack of accents on French words.

Wednesday, 8 July 2015

Les Moulins - the water mills of Les Arcs

Coursing through the western half of Les Arcs-sur-Argens is a gravity-fed channel taking water down the hillside, beneath houses and under streets – in order to power the old water wheels once attached to a series of moulins – or mills.

The moulins mostly produced olive oil, though some ground flour. I am not sure whether the silk spinning mill, which operated until 1789, was part of this string of moulins. The silk mill closed after the French Revolution because without royalty, there was no need for silk fabric! The building later became a grape sugar factory, but that, too, has since disappeared.

If you walk along any of the streets leading west, there is a point at which you become aware of the sound of running water, and if you look down, you will probably be standing on a grate in the road where you can see the water flowing past beneath your feet.

Crossing rue Lucien Fabre
The most interesting of these streets is rue Pierre Renaudel which leads up the steep hill behind La Terrasse restaurant. Keep to the right where it divides into rue Lucien Fabre and you will see a large vine-clad house, the former moulin, and hear the sound of a waterfall.
Here are the ruins of the old ‘double wheel’ olive mill.

The last remaining water wheel in Les Arcs-sur-Argens.
Only one wheel remains - in an increasingly fragile but picturesque state of repair.

Outside the former double-wheel mill.
Beside it is an eight-metre high stone tower which once housed the second wheel. From the top, a steady stream of water cascades down. Although it is currently fenced off – no doubt for safety reasons – it is still quite spectacular.

Water spills over an eight-metre drop in search of a wheel.

The cool rush of air from the water is also refreshing on a hot day after a steep climb!
The channel crosses the road and is carried over the street below in a concrete channel high above the traffic. After this it disappears into a private dwelling.

This painting on the gate post acknowledges the former moulin.
The next time you locate the water, it is running alongside a former moulin, now a private house, its water wheel long since lost to time. Known as Le Petit Moulin, the house has a painted design on its gate portal acknowledging its history.
From there, the water continues beside a rough footpath flanked by a decaying arched aqueduct which originally transported the water down to the ruins of what was possibly known as Le Gros Moulin which operated in the 16th century.

The former Roman 'colobarium' later the become 'Le Gros Moulin'.
Here history becomes a little hazy. This ancient ruin is actually part of a Roman ‘colobarium’ – and according to the Mairie’s official website, no-one is sure if it was used for ‘urnes cineraires’ (the storage of cremation urns) or as a moulin.

The channel then moves into private property where the landscape flattens out towards the chemin de fer - railway. I have not found whether it peters out entirely or more probably, continues on to the Argens River on the southern side of Les Arcs.

There is only one moulin d’huile operating in Les Arcs today, Le Thélon, at the top of the town, on the route de Flayosc. It is open to visitors and the oil produced is delicious and of high quality.

Friday, 3 July 2015

Plus ca change

The square below our house - Place Paul Simon - has undergone big changes following the devastating flood of 2010.

The new-look Place Paul Simon with its water flow from the fountain to the circular pool below.
Last year they replaced the medieval bridge (on one side of the square) that had been washed away and carried out major works to prevent future blockages at the point where the river flows underground across the main town square.
This year, they have modified Place Paul Simon. The image of Federation Square in Melbourne keeps springing to mind - even though this is nothing like it. I think it is because they removed all the beautiful, mature, shady trees that filled the space (and buckled the surface of the square).
We arrived here at the start of a canicule or heatwave. Today it will reach 35'C and that will soar progressively each day, to top 40'C-plus on Monday. Difficult to cope with after leaving on a sparkling, frosty, but sunny morning.
We need those shady trees!

Looking up Rue de l'Horloge towards the clocktower.
However, apart from the tree loss, the square is a vast improvement, with a water-flow from the original fountain down to a circular, (reflective?) pool. I am sure this is some sort of allegory on the flood - but I have yet to find out if I am right.
There is a mini-amphitheatre with semi-circular seating (again harking back to Federation Square) for outdoor concerts, and the three restaurants in the square are well placed to share the entertainment. And there are only temporary parking places outside the boulangerie, so it has removed the constant negotiation with cars that used to happen as you crossed the square.
I still miss the trees.

Overlooking the town from the Place du Chateau.
But everything else is the same - the market, the inspiring view across the town, the friendliness of the locals, and the sheer delight of being back in France!

Getting into the swing of things at the Thursday market in the town centre.
The flower stand.

Every variety of delicious, vine-ripened tomato is snapped up early.

And no, we are no longer prepared to accept doggie poops on the street.
Impasse de l'Horloge and not 'Impasse de la Merde'.