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.