Sunday, 31 July 2016

Medieval flames

The crowd gathers outside the lower gate to listen to the story of Le Parage.
Every second year in July, Les Arcs-sur-Argens holds a renowned medieval festival that takes place over several days. It is an incredible spectacle - and a 'must see' for visitors to the town arriving in the odd-numbered years.
But all is not forgotten in the intervening ‘even’ year, when the same actors present a smaller version of the town’s history in the ‘vieille ville’ – the medieval part of Les Arcs known as Le Parage.

Led by the enthusiastic ex-journalist, Georges Yvedian, who as MC, outlines the history of the old town, its people, and introduces the small scenes that are staged at various points along the way.

 Georges Yvedian explains the Miracle of the Roses to the crowd during one of the scenes.
Known as ‘Les Flambeaux d’Arcus’, the spectacle meanders up along the narrow stepped streets of the Parage and ends right at the top of the village with a display of dancing and medieval food and drinks served to the audience.

The crowd follows the actors up through the narrow streets.
We gather in Place Paul Simon, at the bottom of our street, where a scene is enacted at the former Hôpital St Jacques (now the Creperie). It is almost 9.30pm but still just light.

Then we follow the flaming beacons up the street (past our house) to the basse porte – or lower gate to the old village – where another scene takes place. Monsieur Yvédian also explains the restoration of the Parage in the 1960s, after it had fallen into grave disrepair.

It was mandated that the entire village remain pedestrianised; that there would be no commerce within its walls; and that those buying houses would be required to rebuild in the medieval style.

We move on to La Fontaine du Temps, where the main storyline emerges of a young girl falling in love.

This fountain, with its wall of water (a tiny version of the one at Melbourne’s National Gallery of Art) is situated in a small square which features a wall tiled with the story of Le Jardin d'Eden - the Garden of Eden - by artist Mary Dallos in 1968 and a painted sundial showing the meeting of the Knight of St John of Jerusalem, Helion de Villeneuve (1270-1346), who lived in the chateau above, and his sister, Roseline (1263-1329) - later Sainte Roseline, before she entered the convent.
Young Roseline's first 'miracle of the roses'.
On we climb, a long, moving snake of people, jostling together, chatting, children carried high on shoulders or edging forward between the grown-ups to better appreciate the show. It takes time to assemble and find good vantage points and Monsieur Yvédian waits patiently for us.

There is another scene at the Place du Collier, then at Place du Microcoulier, where we pause in front of the medieval Chapelle St Pierre. A lone tambourinaire beats a mournful pattern on his drum as penitents from the religious order carry a coffin out of the chapel to the cemetery.

We are told that the chapel once also housed a hospital – and the cemetery was next to it. Read into that what you may! But if you go inside the chapel when it is open, you can look down through a glass partition set into the floor and see several ancient skeletons lying below.

Next we move right up to the old donjon – the tower which soars squarely above the town. Just below it is the ‘La Porte du Miracle des Roses’ where the young Roseline Villeneuve produced her first miracle.

She would steal her father’s bread stores to feed the poor, and one day he caught her, demanding that she open her apron and reveal the bread. Miraculously, when she unfurled her apron, hundreds of roses tumbled out.
The betrothed couple after receiving her father's permission to marry.
We return to the Place Père Clinchard for the final scene.

By now, the original young girl’s father – a knight – has just returned from the crusades with news of the battles. But for him it is the news of the young man seeking his daughter’s hand in marriage that is most important.

Naturally his permission is granted and all ends happily.

There is medieval dancing and much merriment in the square – and when it finishes we all receive a delicious glass of a honeyed liqueur laced with some interesting herbs (I would really like the recipe for that one!) and a semi-circle of sweet bread to go with it.

We sit and listen to more of the music – medieval of course – before wending our way back down through the village by the light of an almost-full moon.

Medieval dancing in the Place Pere Clinchard.
 Les Flambeaux d’Arcus is performed every Friday night throughout July and August in Les Arcs.


Sunday, 24 July 2016

Les Arcs - by foot and pedal

The glorious countryside around Les Arcs-sur-Argens - something to enjoy on foot or by bicycle.

Walking and cycling are really the best ways for people to enjoy La France Profonde - the deep French countryside.

Cycling through the vines. Courtesy Caminan Les Arcs.
'Les poles Nordiques' - or Nordic pole walking - has caught on here with twice-weekly walking groups setting out from the Mairie - and returning for a coffee and chat under the plane trees in the main square.

Young lads on their BMX - known here as VTT - show off their style wherever there's enough space, while others parade regally on their old bicycles to the boulangerie  for their daily bread.
In the past year, the Ville des Arcs – our town council – has created a perfect cycle track for riders. In fact it has a vision for many more, in conjunction with the Dracénie region.

La Vigne a Velo. Courtesy Caminan Les Arcs.
The first track – a 4.7km stretch out past Ste Roseline chapel to the La Motte roundabout – was opened last December.
It will eventually link up with a larger, 40km track that will wend its way from Taradeau, through Les Arcs, taking in three more villages before finishing at Draguignan.
They are open for cyclists, roller bladers, joggers and walkers to enjoy the countryside without having to compete with cars on the roadways.
Known as ‘La Vigne à Velo’, the track meanders through the vineyards of the Côte de Provence appellation wines.

The new track follows the road from Les Arcs, with only one roundabout to negotiate before you’re in the country – and for the faint-hearted, there are pedestrian crossings.
It closely follows an old railway track (the former spur line to Draguignan) as far as the La Motte roundabout. 

A sign indicates the Ste Roseline chapel about two-thirds of the way along, if you would like to pay her a visit, or stop to sample the Chateau Ste Roseline vintage next door.

Former deputy Mayor of Les Arcs (2003-14), Max Carzoli.

Just after we arrived in Les Arcs this year, 'La Balade en Réal’- a walking track alongside the Réal river that trickles through Les Arcs - was officially opened.

The former ‘balade’ was washed away in the devastating flood of 2010 that deposited silt and rubbish all along the river banks leaving them overgrown and choked with weeds.

The idea for the walking (and cycling) track along the river bank came from the former deputy mayor of Les Arcs, Max Carzoli, a visionary man who sadly died before he could see the balade become a reality. It has been re-named ‘La Balade en Real Max Carzoli’ in his honour.

At almost one kilometre long, people jog, walk or just take an evening promenade ‘en famille’. There are seats placed along the length of it for reposing in the shade for a chat, to read a book, sketch or just gaze into the greenery. New trees have been planted that will provide future shade. 

The 'balade' takes you right down to the Avenue de la Gare - turn right and you are about 150m from the railway station; turn left, cross into the car park opposite, climb the overpass above the railway line, and you're five minutes from the giant hypermarket at the edge of town.
The Balade en Real Max Carzoli takes you right into the heart of Les Arcs-sur-Argens.
But Max Carzoli’s vision went even further than that. He wanted to see the balade extended past the railway line, past the giant supermarket at the edge of town, across (or under) not only the N7 highway, but the A8 autoroute, into the Massif des Maures.

The section of the Maures mountains south of Les Arcs is set aside as our town’s ‘communal forest’ with its own network of walking tracks. These tracks take people high up to the summit of the hills where you can find prehistoric monoliths, called dolmen.
Townsfolk walk the newly-opened 'balade' through the town.
It is a tribute to Max Carzoli – and the council that has carried on his vision – that both the inhabitants and visitors to Les Arcs-sur-Argens will sometime in future years, be able to access these tracks and footpaths directly from the town – on foot or by bicycle - to experience both the man-made and natural heritage of the area.




Sunday, 17 July 2016

The Iron Man of Chateaudouble

Bush duo - trumpet and drums. The only thing we don't have is the jazz.
Châteaudouble is a stunning little perched village 26kms north of Les Arcs-sur-Argens that overlooks steep gorges which once had a part to play in the mythological dragon that is thought to have once inhabited the area.
The Saracen tower high above the village.
Climbing the high, twisty road up to the village – and through a tunnel blasted out of a sheer rock wall – you are rewarded by an incredible view.

But even more incredible, is the one found hidden behind the square Saracen tower high above the village.

A hand-made sign points you along a short, overgrown track to a fantastical sculpture garden.

A blue milk churn – like the ones that delivered milk to the billy can my mother left on the front verandah each day when I was a child – marks the entrance and proclaims its welcome to visitors in a range of languages and an easily understandable ‘entrée libre’ that entices you inside.

Except you don’t go inside. This sculpture garden is totally ‘en plein air’. Even the sculptor – known by the single name as ‘Za’ – works outside.

As you walk up to the small, treed space on the St Anne plateau that is his studio, you become conscious of the weird personages around you – an old pair of pliers perched birdlike on a branch; a bicycle built for two with upturned flat irons for side-by-side seating; a female figure with overhead fan blades for a skirt and ancient keys forming her spread-out toes.

‘Za’ himself is a cross between a twinkling-eyed Father Christmas and a retired bikie, with his grey moustache drooping either side of his mouth, a long grey ponytail tumbling down his back, bright red braces and an oil-smeared white apron.
Monsieur 'Za' behind his workbench.

He is already addressing a group of French tourists, explaining his works and the reasons behind them. He looks up and calls out ‘Bonjour’ to us, but we don’t join in. He’s mid-spiel, so we explore his ‘park’ full of recycled metal objects from households, cars, factories, farms and gardens.
I spot an old Singer sewing machine and the drum of a washing machine.

Over there is a tractor seat, pieces of car engines, old pulley wheels, some garden trowels and a kitchen strainer – all re-fashioned into figures or objects completely divorced from their original purpose.

Monsieur Za finishes his explanation and the French tourists begin to look around his exhibition.

He comes over to us and finds out we are Australians. He calls out to everyone, ‘Attention ! Ils sont Australiens !’, and the rest of the browsers turn to us and smile.

I fall in love with his enthusiasm for his work. He is so passionate about it and enjoys creating works that gently make fun of our way of life. He points out a couple – basically pieces of rusting iron – sitting delicately on a bench, ‘They are discussing politics, religion,’ he tells us, and laughs.
Not sure what this is called - maybe two cats?
He makes us guess at some of his creations. We point out pieces of discarded metal that we recognise.

He tells us how much he admires the artwork of the Australian Aborigines.
'I taught myself to throw a boomerang from Youtube,’ he adds proudly. ‘I’ve been throwing a boomerang for six years now. They always come back.’

Monsieur Za enjoys giving a second life to abandoned metal objects. He says that he visited Cameroon some years ago and marvelled at the way they recycled metal, repaired and restored broken engines and implements. I don’t mention our television series on ‘Bush Mechanics’, but I understand his feelings are much the same.

He is also influenced by the ingenuity of master blacksmiths – the work of sculptor, Jean Tinguely, and the mobiles of Alexandre Calder.

A recycled bicycle complete with miniature cyclist.
We could have spoken to him a lot longer, but some new tourists were arriving and he started wiping his hands down his apron, as if preparing his next ‘introduction’.

We made our farewells, but will return to see him again one day.
His studio, ‘Za Sculpteur Métal’, is open all year apart from his own annual vacation (though I’d hate to make the drive up to Châteaudouble in winter with ice and snow on the roads).




Sunday, 10 July 2016

The Tiles of Salernes

Glazed tiles on show at Musee Terra Rossa.
Decorative tiles steal my heart.

I could spend hours in a tile showroom – or museum. I love the decorated ones, the plain ones, the ones that are put together in interesting ways in both subtle and bold colour or tonal combinations, and just the bare, beautiful, pared-back terracottas.

Even the roof tiles in the Midi are fascinating, particularly the older, curved tiles patterned with lichens.

So it was with great delight that I paid another visit (my third) to a special place, Salernes, just north-west of Les Arcs-sur-Argens.

Salernes is one of the 19 towns that makes up the Dracenie region in central Var, and is most famous for its deep red hexagonal tiles, known as ‘tomettes’.  

These tiles – made from the high quality clay found in the vicinity – decorate the floors in most of the older houses throughout the south of France. I’ve even seen them on staircases in Paris.

Ancient tomettes, many of them cracked and stained over time.
Once known as ‘la capitale de la tomette’, Salernes was well placed for tile-making with its vast deposits of clay, which had been used by potters since Neolithic times; an abundance of water from two rivers that meet just outside the town; and the tree-covered hills surrounding the valley, providing wood – mostly pine and some green oak - for the kilns.

Factories were already fashioning the curved roof tile and a form of terracotta brick when the hexagonal tiles were first introduced during the 18th century. They were both cool underfoot and easy to clean.

Stamps underneath the tiles show the maker.
Being porous and unglazed, the tiles have a significant advantage in that they can absorb moisture, which is then released when the weather is hot, helping to keep rooms cool.

It is believed the tomette was so named because it looked like a flat cheese, known as ‘toma’.

But its design also helped to solve production problems. The drying process is critical in the production of the earthenware tiles, with the corners of square tiles often drying faster than the centre, which makes the tile warp. Cutting off the corners to create the hexagonal shape helped eliminate that problem.

Tiles ready for the kiln.
Salernes became the epicentre of the tile-making industry, and in 1870, there were 45 factories operating in the town – with more throughout the region. I can’t imagine how polluted the air must have been. The kiln had to maintain steady temperatures for four days – burning pine (!).

But by 1950, the labour-intensive tomette factories were facing a crisis. They’d had a real advantage for more than a century, but new building methods, cheaper floor materials and changing tastes were making inroads, and the number of factories in Salernes dwindled drastically.

Decorated by Salvadore Dali.
However the downturn in the market for tomettes led directly to some creative thinking.

A ceramicist was brought in from Vallauris (think Picasso’s ceramics) – and he changed the face of tiles produced in the town.

Some of the glazed tile designs in the museum.
He added glazes to the original earthenware tiles and gradually a new industry emerged. The glazed tiles were hand coloured – beautiful deep greens, reds, yellow, blues and every tone and tint in between. Tiles of different sizes and shapes were also created.
Homewares such as plant pots, basins, baths – even the kitchen sink – were created by potters at their wheels, in moulds or by hand and were glazed.

Just to walk into one of the stunning showrooms located along the road into Salernes (when approaching from Les Arcs) will take your breath away. The way the display tiles are put together in subtle variations of colour, to totally new and sometimes ‘in-your-face’ colour combinations is worth a visit just for inspiration.

I have even bought some individual tiles – not to add to walls or floors, but for drink coasters (I couldn’t put them down). Never mind that they are very thick, much thicker than the tiles you generally see.

And if you’re still not satisfied after visiting the showrooms, take some time to browse through the Musée Terra Rossa ( which opened in its present form in 2012. Designed with rusted panels to tie in with the earth colours, it is built around a former tile factory and tells the story of tile making in the region from ancient times through its 19th century heyday to the present.

Birds on a wire - a quirky design in the ceramics exhibition.
There are regular exhibitions by ceramic artists, so it is well worth setting aside an hour or two to browse.

Of course there are many ceramic ateliers in the town open to the public, and in the surrounding villages of Villecroze and Tourtour, not to mention the annual Tile Festival held each year in late-May when all the factories, the museum and individual studios are open to the public.

So it’s quite likely you’ll end up overdosing on tiles – but believe me, it’s worth it!







Friday, 1 July 2016

Of rocks and stones

One of four gateways to Le Quartier Medieval - showing restoration stonework.

I am often struck by the synchronicity that occurs in life. It happened after I was walking back to the town from the supermarket the other day and noticed how the old town – Le Parage – looked so ‘settled’ in its environment.
The vieille ville blends with its background.
Its stones have weathered into their surrounds and in that light, the original town was barely distinguishable from its background, the tonal values being almost identical.

In contrast, the newer parts of Les Arcs stand out with their brighter tiled roofs, pale pastel and ochre walls – not yet so perfectly at home in their surrounds.

 A favourite visual for me is the effect of raking light an uneven wall, particularly the undulations of a stone wall.
 So I thought, why not look at the stones in Les Arcs? The medieval village, known here as Le Parage, is built of ancient and weathered sandstone. And this is where the synchronicity came in.
Stonework in the tower or donjon  from the 13th century.

In the local paper that same day, I saw there was an exhibition nearby based on the art of dry-stone walling across the Var.

There are thousands of  crumbling dry-stone terraces here which were once built on the hillsides for vineyards and olive groves.

Then four days ago, scaffolding went up around the arched entry to Le Parage at the end of our street so workers could clean and repoint the ancient stones.

So I think I was destined to write about stones.
Slanting light highlights the stonework.

I am not sure whether dry-stone was the original method of building when our medieval village was constructed. In some areas there is precious little mortar between the stones, but in others, there is almost all mortar, almost casually studded with stones.

The earliest buildings are constructed of large, square, softly-rounded and dressed stones, which must have been back-breaking to haul up onto the rocky outcrop where the village was established.

Stonework in the buildings renovated since the 1960s has been beautifully done with great care to keep the village as authentic as possible.
The rubble wall next door.

Yet in the village – generally hidden from view – there are walls of pure rubble, rocks that appear to be tipped together without a thought of setting them straight or balancing them.

There is a different type of stone that forms the shallow steps that wind up and through the village. They are studded with mica deposits and glitter underfoot. I have also noticed this in other villages.

Maybe this stone was mined in the Maures Mountains, which separate Les Arcs from the coast and are full of minerals, but that is another story!
The Place de la Rondourette where four of the small, pedestriansed  ruelles meet, showing the wide, shallow steps.

It is true that in summer, at midday, the reflected heat from the walls and the ground can be overwhelming, but it is countered by the high, narrow passages, which encourage cooler breezes to twist refreshingly through the streets.

Part of Le Parage before the decision to restore the medieval quarter.
The medieval quarter is pedestrianised, but workmen use little motorised wheelbarrows to negotiate the steps for large or heavy deliveries.

Over recent centuries, Le Parage fell into disuse and by the 1960s the townsfolk and some of the council were considering pulling it down entirely.

However one enterprising Mayor, M. Raoul Textoris (Mayor 1945-1971), initiated the restoration work .

A group, Les Amis du Parage, was formed to help save the village and preserve it for the future.

They were more than successful. Gradually the old town was restored – and there followed an influx of people wanting to buy cheaply and renovate (the view is spectacular) – and this contributed to the fully restored village you see today. 
The medieval Church of St Pierre du Parage showing its stonework. It remained largely intact through the centuries.

Now a tourist drawcard, it is one of the best preserved – and fully inhabited – medieval villages in Provence. It houses the starred Logis du Guetteur restaurant and accommodation, with regular art exhibitions and musical events in the Church of St Pierre du Parage.

Guided tours (in French), which tell the village’s history, the history of the Villeneuve family who lived in the chateau above and the story of its reconstruction – are offered regularly.

And I’m sure if the stones could speak they would have a lot more to add.