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.