Saturday, 31 December 2016

A time to look forward

Place Général de Gaulle in mid-winter with the pollarded plane trees. Too cold for outdoor tables!
New Year’s Eve and we look forward, not just to some spectacular fireworks over Lake Wendouree in Ballarat, but to a fresh New Year where (we have to believe this!) anything is possible.

'Fireworks' on the donjon.
There is a lot of apprehension around 2017 on the world stage, but if we as individuals can do our part to spread some kindness, compassion and love among the circles around us, then we will hopefully create a ripple effect that will link with others doing the same - and perhaps help to ameliorate this worldwide anxiety.

I look over to our little village, Les Arcs-sur-Argens, in France and see that the Maire des Arcs, Alain Parlanti, will make a speech offering his best wishes for 2017 (and no doubt outline his plans for the year) – at a public presentation on January 3.

Several days later, one of the town's organisations is offering a dinner for the Galette des Rois (or Kings' Cake) celebrated on January 6, where the person receiving the piece of cake containing a fava bean or other small trinket, is crowned King or Queen for the day.

It is also our twelfth day of Christmas, when our trees are taken down and decorations stored for another year. I will miss the scent of the real pine tree through our house.

Then mid-month (back in Les Arcs) there will be a special Concert du Nouvel An (New Year's concert) at the town's main church, Saint Jean-Baptiste, a chorale to be presented by the choir from the neighbouring town of Lorgues.

Quiet, calm, no fuss and traditional.

Australia is traditional in its own way – and because our seasons are reversed, we embrace the outdoors to enjoy activities with friends and family. It generally means the beach or the bush or maybe botanic gardens, outdoor concerts, cricket, tennis and the laid-back holiday relaxation of summer.

And did anyone mention resolutions  . . . ?


Sunday, 11 December 2016

Mountain-top delight

Sainte-Agnès nestled below the peak of a mountain topped by a medieval chateau.
This little village in the far south-east corner of France is very dear to my heart.

Sainte-Agnès – the highest village In Europe which is also closest to the sea (‘le village du littoral le plus haut d’Europe’) – is listed as one of the country’s most beautiful.

It is also the ancestral village of my husband’s family on his mother’s side, with the plaque in the Chapelle de Saint-Sebastien carrying her family name, and the current Mayor of Sainte-Agnès also connected through family links.
You can just see the Hotel Righi - that marks Sainte-Agnès - near the cloud.
Just 11kms north of Menton, Sainte-Agnès sits high at the top of one of the mountain peaks that surround the town. Tucked away behind the main rocky outcrop, it is not visible from below.

Looking up, all you can see is the glowing white Hotel Righi , very popular in the 1920s, where you can still enjoy an English afternoon tea – together with a stunning view from Italy to Monaco and across the Mediterranean as far as Corsica.

The village is believed to have been named in honour of Sainte-Agnès who protected a young Roman princess who was forced to shelter there in a grotto during a thunderstorm. Having been saved, she built a chapel, naming it after her patron saint.

One of the ruelles in Sainte-Agnès.
Although I relay this legend, I have no explanation as to why a young Roman princess would be on the top of a mountain in southern France! Or whether it is true, because there is a second legend that a Sarrasin pirate, Haroun, renounced his Muslim religion to marry a local girl called Anna, ergo Sainte-Agnès.

Believe what you wish, but I do love these legendary – and possibly wildly inaccurate – histories.

Not only does Sainte-Agnès have links to medieval times, but it also marks the start of the Maginot Line – mistakenly thought to deter the enemy in wartime – but now a fascinating museum, where you can join nocturnal guided tours in July and August that explain its strategic capability, its armaments and the history of the Occupation of this part of France during World War Two.
One of the streets in the village.
When our children were small, we actually walked up to the town from Menton – each of us pushing a child in a push-chair – much to the amusement of the villagers when we finally arrived!

Although it is just two kilometres inland from the coast, Sainte-Agnès is 750 metres above sea level, which meant the 11km walk was quite a hike.

The village itself has narrow pedestrianised streets, known as ruelles. If you drive up, there is a big communal parking area just outside.

Many of the houses are set into the rocky outcrop at the top of this mountain with vaulted ceilings and rough stones forming their interiors.

Today the village is geared almost exclusively for tourism, but my husband remembers it just after the war, when hessian sacks were used as coverings instead of doors and windows. It was seen as a dilapidated and dying village as most of its occupants abandoned it to move to Menton.
From this already-high village a winding path leads up another 50 metres to the ruins of an old château which is slowly being restored. Inside the ramparts of this château, a beautiful medieval garden had already been replanted with olive trees, hedged flower beds and topiary trees.

Back in the town, there are a number of restaurants that offer both great food and stunning views.

Wandering the streets you experience the heady scents of lavender and lemon – and it is impossible to resist the locally-made perfumes.

The walk up to the chateau currently under restoration.
If you visit the village towards the end of July, you can catch La fete de la lavande (the Lavender festival), which centres on the locally-grown lavender, its distillation, products - including food as well as perfumes, soaps and sachets, plus artisans at work and various performances.

Just a note – you won’t see vast fields of lavender, for which Provence in renowned, around this mountain-top village. The lavender here is on a much smaller scale and not always grown at Sainte-Agnès.

There are lots of walking tracks leading from here – one of which takes you to another small hillside village called Gorbio, just two kilometres away. A good way to walk off that lunch.




Sunday, 27 November 2016

Tu es belle, Saint-Raphaël !

Looking across the new marina at Saint Raphael.
That is not an original headline, but as a former sub-editor, I wish it were. It appeared in our daily newspaper – the Var-Matin.

I am probably digressing here, but the Var-Matin brings news of not only the Var department, France, and the world; it also has very local news, depending on where you live.
Var is not a large department by any means, but the Var-Matin prints seven editions – each one based on a different town within the department. Ours is the Draguignan edition.
The sandy beach at St Raphael.
The summer lift-out, ‘Le Jounal de l’été’ contains lists of festivals, music concerts, art exhibitions, theatrical performances and leisure activities  in the Var for its holidaymakers.
And the headline above announced a feature on Saint Raphaël.

Saint Raphael is a 20-minute train journey from Les Arcs. It is the best place to go to swim, browse the shops and boutiques, eat, soak up the sun and just enjoy – and it’s so easy to get to, particularly if you don’t have your own transport.
The main beach is sandy – and while it can get pretty crowded at the height of the summer season, there is always the possibility of walking further around the coast – east towards the Estérel and its tiny, rocky bays – or west towards Fréjus plage (beach at Fréjus).

One of the small coves along the Estérel coast.
The convenience of the beachfront at Saint Raphaël comes when you decide it’s time for something to eat or drink.

Just across the road above the beach is a strip of restaurants – or you can take a leisurely stroll a little further around past the newly-rebuilt marina to an amazing strip of shops and even more restaurants where you really are spoilt for choice.

I love the partly faded elegance of Saint Raphaël. It was once the sojourn of choice for writers and artists of the immediate post-World War One period of the 1920s – think Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald. You can see the grand old decorative seafront hotels still holding their own among the newer holiday apartments.

If you ask at the tourist office, you can take a tour to see the various individual mansions of this period.

Saint Raphaël is also a centre for deep sea diving and there are many boat trips you can take around the coast or day trips to other places such as St Tropez.

Aerial photograph of the town showing beachfront and marina. From Var-Matin.
Just off the coast – you can see them from the beach – are the ‘monster’ rocks. Their shapes resemble a monster with the head of a lion and the body of a crocodile, known as ‘lion de terre et lion de mer’ (the lion of the earth and the lion of the sea).  Legend has it that they were once living monsters guarding a sleeping princess, who were turned to stone (rocks) by the prince charming who came to wake her!

A sort-of Sleeping Beauty – French style.
Not being one for diving myself, I prefer to visit the ‘l’histoire sous-marin’ (underwater history) museum – called the Musée archéologique (Archeology Museum) – where some amazing antiquities have been brought to the surface from the many ancient shipwrecks that occurred on the rocks just offshore.

An ancient anchor from one of the shipwrecks.
There you can see ancient anchors, rows of amphoras, used to transport oil from the eastern Mediterranean, plates, bowls and goblets that have been salvaged from the seabed.
Another part of the museum is dedicated to the pioneers of deep sea diving, and includes the first heavy independent diving suit that was constructed at Saint Raphaël in 1928.

It is also at this museum where you can climb the 129 steps to the top of a fortified tower and look out over not only Saint Raphaël itself, but the panoramic view back east to the red rocks of the Estérel mountains, and west towards Fréjus and the coastline that takes you past the coastal towns of St Aygulf and Les Issambres to Sainte Maxime and the Maures mountains below Les Arcs.

A row of the salvaged amphoras on display at the Archeological Museum.
And the wonderful thing is that the railway station is right in the centre of town, which means you only need to stroll two blocks to the beach or, alternatively, cross under the railway line in the other direction to climb to the old town where the museum is located.

  • Enjoy a visit to Saint Raphaël – and many other interesting places in the Var and further afield  – by basing yourself in the heart of Provence, at Maison Les Arcs.






Sunday, 13 November 2016

Weaving our stories

The Lady and the Unicorn - A mon Seul Désir
For me, a visit to Paris would not be complete without calling in at the Musée National de Moyen Age – or as it was formerly known, the Musée Cluny – to view one of my favourite works of art, ‘La dame et la licorne’ (The Lady and the Unicorn) tapestries.

Detail from 'sight'.
I have always loved textiles and as a result of a mid-life decision to study tapestry weaving, I am also a tapestry weaver.

Tapestry is one of the oldest forms of woven textiles, dating way back to shreds of Coptic weaving found among the wrappings of mummies within the pyramids in Egypt.

It is a very slow and meditative form of art, where you sit at a loom and weave with bobbins or threads wrapped together, known as ‘butterflies’.

Like other tapestry weavers, we often find our work is confused with canvas embroidery which is done with needles on a prepared canvas.

For me, tapestry weaving reached its zenith in the Middle Ages, when this stunning series of six tapestries, finely woven in silk and wool, were designed for Jean Le Viste, in the 15th century.

Detail from 'taste'.

Each of the six panels that make up the work represents one of the senses –sight, hearing, taste, touch, smell – with the final one, ‘A Mon Seul Désir’ (To my one desire), representíng love.

At the museum, located in the Sorbonne district of Paris, the works are displayed in a circular room, low-lit to preserve the colours. I love to sit quietly in front of each one in turn to take in the glowing colours, and absorb the detailed images and intricate weaving .

The tapestries are elegant and truly beautiful and every time I see them, I find there is something more to discover.

The patterning of the background – known as Milles Fleurs (thousand flowers) – has been inspired by flowers, herbs, leaves and trees commonly found in France.

But as well as the flowers, the background also contains small animals which include exotic representations of monkeys, lions, panthers, leopards, parrots as well as familiar ones like rabbits, foxes, dogs, goats and sheep.
The Lady, now believed to be the daughter of Jean Le Viste, is dressed differently in each panel. In ‘sight’ she holds a mirror that partly reflects the Unicorn; in ‘hearing’ she plays a small organ; in ‘taste’ she takes a small sweet from a dish; in ‘smell’ she is making a circlet of carnations; in ‘touch’ she is touching the Unicorn’s horn; and in ‘A mon seul Désir’ she is replacing her necklace (from an admirer?) in a casket.
Inside the Australian Tapestry Workshop in Melbourne.
One of the reasons I am writing about this tapestry now, is that the curator of the Lady and the Unicorn tapestries, Dr Elisabeth Taburet-Delahaye, of the Musée Cluny, will be in Melbourne later this month as part of the 40th anniversary of the former Victorian – now Australian Tapestry Workshop – to present a lecture on these works.

My own interpretation of a medieval design.
It will be a wonderful opportunity for anyone interested in France, the medieval period and in tapestries themselves, to learn more about them. To find out more about her lecture, contact the Australian Tapestry Workshop.
The workshop is also an excellent place to visit to see how the art of tapestry weaving is evolving in contemporary times and watch artist-weavers at work.

While I have not yet discovered any tapestries in Les Arcs-sur-Argens, just 70km west of the town, in Aix-en-Provence, you can find two magnificent Unicorn tapestries in the Cathédrale Saint-Saveur.

One of my figure studies.
They include ‘Assaut contre la licorne’ featuring a hunt for the Unicorn with hunters attacking the beast with spears; and the other ‘Résistance de la licorne’ is of the Unicorn fighting back, kicking out with its hind legs and spearing a dog with its horn. 

The final reason for writing about tapestries this week, is that I have six of my own small tapestries on show in in a joint exhibition of the Soldiers Hill Artist Collective in Ballarat.

These tapestries, which are simple figure studies, were influenced by an exhibition I saw in Musée Fabre at Montpellier two years ago. It was a retrospective of works created over the past 50 years by artist Claude Viallat. Some very early works showed abstract figures he had painted on pieces of wood.

The exhibition is at the Fairbanks Eye Gallery in Sturt St, Ballarat.
To discover more tapestries and artworks in France, why not enjoy a stay in Maison Les Arcs, in Les Arcs-sur-Argens in Provence in 2017.
  • French tapestry pictures from The Lady and the Unicorn by Alain Erlande-Brandenburg 1989.


Sunday, 30 October 2016

Mountains to Sea - the Argens River

The River Argens at Les Arcs in mid-summer.
Les Arcs-sur-Argens is distinguished by its location - 'on the Argens' river - and occupies the river's wide, fertile valley - ideal for the surrounding vineyards.

The river, officially 116 kilometres long, is completely contained within the Var department, which it bisects with Toulon, the Maures and the coast to the south and the high inland, perched villages and gorges to the north.
The hills above Seillons-Source-d'Argens where the river begins.
Known in French as 'un fleuve' the Argens is a river that empties into the sea. Rivers known as 'une rivière' do not empty into the sea, instead they are tributaries of larger flows.

The Argens begins near Sainte Maximin La Baume, west of Les Arcs - almost to Aix-en-Provence - and starts as a 'source' or spring in the hills west of the tiny village of Seillons-Source-d'Argens.

We had driven past there before and I had seen the tiny roadside sign that read 'Source d'Argens' but traffic and narrow roads prevented me from pulling over to investigate.
Kayaking near Correns.

I realise now that the sign does not mean the spring is beside the road, but  suggests the general direction of the start of the Argens River.

This year, I was more determined. After a twisty drive up a steep hill to the little village, we parked and explored on foot.

We never did find the source. I think we would have needed hiking boots and probably permission to go trekking through the bush.

However we were able to stand right at the top of the town where an explanatory sign indicted the direction and informed us that the river actually did start its journey somewhere in the depressions of the hills in front of us.

Companies run kayaking tours along the Argens.
I had to be satisfied with that - until perhaps a more organised expedition in the future.

The Argens flows through fertile valleys chock full of vineyards growing the prized rosé varieties.

Further downstream it becomes the flatland ideal for the motorway from Aix-en-Provence through to Nice - and the railway.

Although water levels do fall in the summer, the river is a boating and fishing paradise.

There are any number of kayaks for hire. Two of the towns along the way - Vidauban and Roquebrune-sur-Argens are veritable water sports meccas.

The river flows through tiny hamlets like Correns and Montfort-sur-Argens, Carcès to Vidauban, along the southern edge of Les Arcs, through Le Muy - where it is joined by the Nartuby (from Chateaudouble) - then Roquebrune-sur-Argens, where it has been dammed into a large recreatuional lake, and finally to the sea at Fréjus.
The recreational lake near Roquebrune-sur-Argens - with the Red Rock in the background.
A friend of our tried fishing there with no luck, and we haven't yet tried kayaking - but the river near Les Arcs is cool and peaceful on a hot summer's day, with its large shady trees.
The Argens River meets the sea at Frejus. (Google Maps)

There is a good restaurant by the bridge over the Argens where you can sit on the outdoor deck and enjoy lunch beside the river.

And just a little further upstream is the Maison des Vins, which brings together wines from the Cotes de Provence appellation with around 800 different wines available at cost price. You can also enjoy a delicious gourmet degustation meal.

The Argens is an important part of the Var - bisecting it and bringing a delicious and refreshing body of water to the centre of the department.

Monday, 17 October 2016

Chateaudouble - well worth the climb

The village is perched high above the rocky summits of the Gorge du Chateaudouble.
One of my favourite perched villages in La Dracenie is Châteaudouble.
Looking down at the road below.
I am not sure why exactly, but it ticks all the boxes – described as resembling a nid d’aigle (eagle’s nest), its houses huddle against a cliff edge, with the narrow, winding streets that I love exploring, a line of restaurants overlooking the 130-metre drop into the gorge below, and a fair amount of ancient history.

This is not to mention the unexpected beauty of tiny gardens or window boxes found in little crevices, or the amazing direction pointer high above the village that doesn’t point out far-distant towns – instead it points to the directions of the 32 winds of Provence!

Châteaudouble (very roughly, ‘double castles’) was named after its two medieval châteaux – one perched high above the village and the other nestled along the banks of the Nartuby River far below – perhaps for those unable to climb the massive boulders!

It guards, in fact, one of the oldest prehistoric sites in Provence – the Grotto chauvre-souris (or the bat cave. I have to admit I prefer its description in French). There are two other similar grottos nearby – the Grotto des chèvres (goat cave) and the Grotto du Mouret.

One of the restaurants that overlook the gorge on the other side of the far wall.

These are hidden, outside the village among the steep sided gorge cut by the Nartuby River which flows down through Draguignan to meet the Argens east of Les Arcs-sur-Argens.

The gorge is bordered by thickly forested hills, with rocky outcrops like those at Châteaudouble, often bolted together to bind them in place and prevent rock falls.

Meander up the steps toward the tower.
Legend has it that a dragon once lived in the Gorges of Châteaudouble and would venture downstream to terrorise the villagers in the small settlements below. The Bishop of Draguignan – now Saint Hermantaire – fought the dragon and slew it, saving the village. The town (not sure if it is named after that dragon) now uses the dragon as its symbol.
I had been through Châteaudouble twice before on my way to the Gorges of Verdon – the high, winding road became a detour around landslides following the 2010 inondations (floods) – but on both occasions my eyes were fixed in front as I navigated the twisting road with its sheer drops, so I did have a chance to glance upwards as I passed below this little village.

A bright little corner with flowers.
This time it was my destination. I took the more direct route, bypassing Draguignan – the road is wide and easy to navigate through Provenҫal garrigue (bushland) and takes you directly to the turn-off beside the river below the village.

Look up from here and you do a double take – high above is the medieval tower and between you and the tower it is almost perpendicular. Of course the road, with its twists and turns, is more gentle but you still have sheer rock on one side and sheer drop on the other. At one point it disappears into the darkness of a tunnel straight through the middle of a massive boulder.

But on the other side, we emerged into dazzling sunlight – and a convenient little parking area right below the village itself. Cars are not permitted into the village centre, so we were glad to alight to explore more slowly.
Steps lead up between houses to the main street and a square shaded by plane trees with restaurants and bars located at the very edge of the high rocky shelf that supports the village.

We meandered through archways where we came out into tiny patches of land planted with colourful flowers – some with a convenient seat for weary climbers; but ever upwards.

Heading for the tower we had seen from below, we found it guarding the entrance to the cemetery, the highest point in the village – no doubt allowing the departed souls closer access to the heavens.
Flowers enhance every little nook and cranny around the village.
We felt on top of the world and could see for miles, the heavily wooded hills surrounding us that stretched out as far as the eye could see, and the deep gorge cut through by the Nartuby River.

Right at the summit is a lookout with a direction marker on top. We expected to see notations telling us the direction and mileage to various surrounding towns and sites. Instead, written in Provenҫal, it named the 32 different winds of Provence, the direction they blew from and the time of year when they were dominant.
The direction sign pointing our the 32 winds of Provence.
It was unexpected and fascinating. We tried to work out which wind was blowing at that time and to imagine how windy it must be during the colder months.

We dined in a vine-covered restaurant overlooking the gorge, visited ‘Za Sculpteur’ – who makes sculptures of found metal objects (and who I have written about previously) and enjoyed the ambience of this village with its flowers, tiny vegetable gardens, and wildflowers humming with bees beneath the straggly olive trees.

The 26-kilometre drive home was easy and meant that Châteaudouble is fixed on my calendar as a village to visit for itself – and its restaurants.  


Monday, 3 October 2016

Beautiful Nice - Nissa La Bella

Nice seafront at sunset.
Every time I fly into France, I am caught by the beauty of the Cote d’Azur – the high mountains, sometimes snow-capped, fading into the pale blue distance, the apricot roofs strung out along the coastline and the buzz of the Baie des Anges (Bay of the Angels) when we touch down on reclaimed land by the River Var.
Overlooking Nice Old Town from the Colline de Chateau.
Nice is our nearest ‘big city’, just an hour from Les Arcs by car along the ‘Provenҫale’ (Autoroute 8) that sweeps across southern Provence from Aix en Provence.

It is a strong and proud place – once part of Piedmont-Sardinia – and much of their food has an Italian flavour to it.

There are also historic Greek and Roman influences - it was named by the ancient Greeks after Nike, the Goddess of Victory. The North Africans brought even more delicious dishes and a wonderful multi-cultural feel.

Not to leave out the benign invasion from the north – meaning of course the English, who not only holidayed here, but many took up residence – like Queen Victoria who stayed at the Régina during the summer months.
Nice Port on the other side of the Colline de Chateau.
And after the Russian revolution, there was an influx of ‘white’ Russians, who built opulent palaces and churches in their distinctive style.

If you only take in the Promenade des Anglais and the seafront, Nice will feel lightweight and hedonistic.

People pack the stony beach soaking up the sun, while others make use of the promenade itself for cycling, skateboarding, roller-blading or just ‘balade’ -ing (strolling).

Vieux Nice (Nice Old Town) is a real treat – a maze of winding streets where it is fun to allow yourself to get lost and explore.

Getting lost in the narrow streets of Nice Old Town.
The restaurant-lined  Cours Saleya – where they hold daily flower markets (and sell everything else besides) must not be missed for the sheer abundance of colour, variety of goods and delicious scents wafting from the nearby restaurant kitchens.

I particularly love the elegant boulevards and ornate apartment buildings that line them, as you move north into Nice 'proper'.

The enormous Place Masséna where you can enjoy the ever-changing colour of the 'pole sitters' each evening. There is always something happening here - whether it is hip hop dancing, jazz bands, the Nice Carnival in February or the annual Jazz Festival  in July.
Catch a bus to Cimiez where you can enjoy the gardens in the Parc des Arénes, the deliciously pink Musée Matisse – not to mention the Musée Marc Chagall, located a little lower down the hill.

Then of course, there is the promontory high above the town, the Colline du Chateau, where a  12th century castle is slowly being uncovered by archaeologists. This hill separates Nice's Port Lympia from the town and Baie des Anges, providing the best views over both.

It is impossible to go into depth in this overall description of Nice, but suffice it to say that it is well worth spending some time here, getting to know its distinctively southern personality. I will explore parts of it more closely in future blogs.
People quickly returned to the beach to enjoy the delights Nice offers.
But sadly, Nice, as ‘our’ gateway to France, with its casual glamour and joie de vivre, was sorely tried this year with the terrorist attack during the Fête Nationale on July 14. Such a despicable act left both horror and outrage in its wake.

Yet the people of Nice were determined not to allow it to affect the way they live their lives.

Yes, there are armed soldiers on the streets, as in other major centres, and certainly there were fewer tourists roaming freely in the weeks after the attack.

The back page of Var Matin the day after the attack on Nice.
But at the same time, the people sunning themselves on the beaches were still there, others were wandering the old town, dining under the stars, splashing in the water jets in the Place Masséna. It’s just that it was all done with a consciousness of people looking out for each other.
In fact, I felt like saying – in true Nissart style – ‘Sieu Nissa’ .

And for anyone who loves France and would like to visit my favourite parts of Provence, why not think about renting Maison Les Arcs in 2017?

Note: I will be publishing my blog fortnightly for a while, as I have a number of other projects demanding my attention.




Sunday, 18 September 2016

An unpretentious beauty

View over Flayosc from behind the church.
Nestled into the hills and bordering on the Haut Var is an exquisite little village that, despite its beauty – is easy to miss.
The archway through which we entered Flayosc.

Located just off the main road between Draguignan and Brignoles (where cyclists in the Tour de France sped by in 2011), it is a quiet village with a surprising amount of activity.

The road just above the vieille ville in Les Arcs-sur-Argens takes you directly there, but it is a narrow road that winds up and around the hills and I always feel a bit nervous driving because there is no ‘shoulder’ and the road falls away steeply at the edge of the bitumen. However you can take a bus via Draguignan for a more relaxed journey.

We parked on a bit of rough ground just outside the village and took the first street we could find that led upwards into the town.

The great thing about small villages is that you really can’t get lost – even though the streets are narrow and winding and you can’t always see too far ahead.

Flayosc is dominated by the unpretentious Church of St Laurent, crowning the hilltop and forming the village centre.

The Church of St Laurent located on a rocky outcrop above the village centre.
It is a beautiful little building, surrounded by pencil pines and ancient olive trees and you can choose a winding pathway or a series of steps to reach it.
Inside there is a wealth of artistry – from a brilliant mosaic of St Michael slaying a dragon, to some exquisite tile patterns – almost Middle Eastern in design – that line alcoves behind religious statues.

A more recent set of stained glass windows has been built into a wall where earlier ones were broken. 

But that is not all. The streets are attractive with small artisanal shops selling all kinds of traditional Provencal handcrafts.
Flowers dominate the village centre.
Strolling through the village on a warm summer afternoon, you can plunge your arms into the deliciously cool waters of the town’s lavoir – where people once came to do their communal washing.
And it seems that almost every corner reveals a tiny square, complete with small café or bar-restaurant – some with colourful bunting strung overhead, others with cool, trickling fountains.
It is also a gloriously floral village. Pots of all species of summer flowers adorn several florists and many of the balconies and doorways.

We arrived in the sleepy après-midi and the town was quiet, with shutters up on many of the businesses and we could hear soft murmurs from dark interiors as we wandered by.

Fountain in one of the small squares.
Sadly, because we needed to telephone in advance, we were not able to visit several places that I have put on my list for our next visit: 
The ‘ébénisterie’ – a woodworker who makes furniture using the traditional methods of two centuries ago; the ‘Maroquinerie’ – a family of leather workers who make the traditional ‘gibecières des chasseurs’ (gamebags used by the hunters in Provence); and the ‘Rideaux en perles de bois’ – the strip curtains that traditionally cover open doorways in Provence which are made of hand-carved ‘beads’ from the local olive wood.

And we came on the wrong day for a trip to see the Moulins à Huile (olive oil mills) at work. There is a special one, the ‘Moulin du Flayosquet’ run by Max Doleatto in an authentic 13th century mill where he creates a range of oils from the olives using the traditional methods.

But just meandering around the village, stopping for a cool glass of the local rosé, and discovering the beauty of the town itself, its flowers and the stunning fields of olive trees surrounding it, was an afternoon very well spent.

Sunday, 11 September 2016

The Art of Living Well

Avenue Lazare Carnot where Baron Haussmann practised his deigns before moving to Paris to transform that city.

What I love about France is the artistry that invades every aspect of their life – from the preparation and presentation of food, to the art of combining a limited wardrobe into a variety of casually elegant outfits and for the time taken for small courtesies as in greeting and farewelling people – friends and strangers alike.
The elegant Eglise Paroissiale Saint-Etienne.
While this is no doubt a learned aspect, I think living amongst beauty - both natural and built - also plays a part.

In particular this applies to our architectural surroundings. You can choose not to look at artworks you don’t particularly like, but architecture is always there, in our faces, every time we venture outside.

I'm sure that if you live in a place that is agreeable to look at, is loved, elegant and kind on the eyes, you can’t help but absorb this into your psyche.

The decoration of early buildings –  the care that went into making them not just a structure, but a work of art in themselves - is one of the reasons we enjoy of wandering through towns and cities in all parts of the world.

Street overlooked by the clocktower.
In France – some of the buildings may be magnificent edifaces, others more humble – but in the vast majority, you can see that the builder was also a craftsman who was proud of creating something both useful and beautiful.

A mural decorates the side of a building.

Just to the north of Les Arcs-sur-Argens is the former capital of Var - the town of Draguignan - where Baron Haussmann first practised his ideas for the grand boulevards and elegant buildings that later became the beauty of Paris.

Avenue Lazare Carnot that leads into town from Les Arcs is well worth a stroll, just to uncover the restrained beauty of Haussmann's early designs with a Provencal twist.

When its status as the departmental capital was transferred south to Toulon, and Draguignan’s rail link to the rest of France was closed (with buses running to and from the station at les Arcs), the town suffered and was in danger of being forgotten.

The Place Comtes de Provence.

Yet it is rebuilding itself as a centre of both art and history with grand murals enhancing plain walls and the development of an Art Walk.

Each summer the town hosts the ’L’Eté Contemporain’ exhibitions that fill various spaces throughout the town creating a summer art exploration on its own.

Draguignan has become the centre of the 'La Dracénie' region and as such is developing an exciting tourist circuit through the tiny 'perched' villages that surround it.

Multi-archway that is part of the Art Walk.
But for now it is enough to walk – exploring the alleyways and narrow streets, finding the unexpected delight of a quirky shop front; a hidden gallery; the sudden view of the church spire or the distinctive wrought iron dome housing for the bell above the clock tower.
The ‘Musée d’Art et Tradition’ is a ‘must’ to get the feel of the town and the region in days gone by. It also has a shop selling beautifully made local crafts and a signature exhibition that changes regularly.

Although it isn't mentioned in France’s ‘most beautiful towns’ category (there is a lot of commercial development on its edges), many of the small towns in La Dracénie do.
And Draguignan is a great place to start your exploration.


Sunday, 4 September 2016

Shrine to the other Mary

The Basilica Sainte-Madeleine stands high above the town of Saint-Maximin-la-Sainte-Baume in eastern Var.
If you have ever visited Florence, the Il Duomo, standing head and shoulders above the town, is what catches your eye, creating a magnificent focal point and vying for the most important building around.

And it is the same for visitors as they arrive in the town of Saint-Maximin-la-Sainte Baume (known as ‘St Maximin’ for short), where the large semi-Gothic Basilica Sainte-Madeleine, stands proudly above the town and is visible for miles across the verdant valley.
A statue of Mary Magdalene outside the crypt in the basilica.
I love a story about a place and St Maximin is rich with many, the prime one being that this is the resting place of the ‘sinner’ saint, Mary Magdalene.

According to the story - disputed in other parts of France - St Mary Magdalene arrived in Provence with her three companions, travelling from the Holy Land in a boat with no helmsman.

She made her way inland to the Massif Sainte Baume (just south of the town), where she climbed to a hidden cave high in the mountains. There she lived a 30-year penance for her sins. Her Holy Grotto, now a monastery, is more than 800 metres up among a forest which has been protected for centuries.

Eventually, near her death, she was brought down to St Maximin and after she died her body was buried in the place where the basilica stands today.
The niche where Mary Magdalene's skull rests behind the grille.
Later excavations found her bones, but just her skull is now on display in a crypt below the nave of the church.

And as well as her skull, in a separate reliquary is a shred of tissue from her forehead where Christ is supposed to have placed his fingers the morning of the Resurrection. It has been sealed in a crystal tube and known as ‘Noli Me Tangere’ (Do not touch me).

I find these stories quite exciting. In Les Arcs-sur-Argens, we have the preserved body of Sainte Roseline lying in a glass casket for all to see, and here, just 50km away, is the skull of Mary Magdalene. One can’t help but be impressed!

The beautiful, soaring Gothic interior of the Basilica Sainte-Madeleine.
So an ‘enormous temple’ was built in the 14th century – though not finished until the 16th – to house all the pilgrims the church authorities expected to descend on the town.
The unfinished exterior of the basilica.

It is a magnificent church – though the bell tower and main entrance have never been finished. The front still looks like the back of the lathe and plaster wall with mortar oozing out between the rough stones.

Even so, the architecture is amazing with 10 flying buttresses each side and celestial ceilings inside. I always thought Gothic churches were distinguished by their spires. This has no spire, but when you are inside, it feels as though there must be one.
There are paintings, mosaics, statues, low-relief carvings in wood and breath-taking beauty that make it well worth a visit. The seven-sided apse with its ‘La Gloire’ (glory) window, is stunning, as is the sculpted walnut choir with its 94 stalls.

The historic 1773 organ, known as the ‘Grandes Orgues’ with its 2,960 pipes, is known the world over. I can’t imagine the impact of its music reverberating through the high stone arches.

The skull.
The crypt, housing Mary Magdalene’s skull, is located in the centre of the building. It is still basically as it was in 1279 with steps leading down into it. As you descend into the  barrel-vaulted cave, there is a beautiful statue of the ‘sinner’ saint facing the relic.
The crypt actually houses four sarcophagi – Mary Magdalene, her companions Maximin and Sidonius and her servant Marcella.

Of course the people of the town of Vézelay in Burgundy, would dispute all this. They feel they have a claim on St Mary Magdalene.

However a lot of political wheeling and dealing in the 13th century by Charles I of Anjou (who became Duke of Provence), wrested the Mary Magdalene story from the northerners and had her relics confirmed as genuine by Pope Boniface VIII.

And even if the story doesn’t capture your imagination, the basilica is something not to miss while in Provence.
* To enjoy the hidden parts of inland Provence, why not stay at Maison Les Arcs in the central Var town of les Arcs-sur-Argens.