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.