A reading

An unexpectedly warm day sees quite a few folk gathered at the local library where I am to offer a reading of my last book, The Road That Runs. Once again, it’s set in that fruit growing area of Provence where one can expect something meteorologically consistent. So much so, in fact, that it’s easy to write against a backdrop of the seasons: the almond blossom of spring; the seemingly endless heat of high summer; the chilly winds of autumn and the sudden arrival and even more speedy departure of Christmas.

An age ago, I stayed in Provence during what passes for winter. The only thing that marks this temporary hiatus between the end of one level of warmth and the beginning of another is the somewhat fabular Mistral. Emulating the hand of Satan, it shuts down the electricity, the internet and sometimes the water supply. Depending on its strength, it closes the motorway or, at the very least, forces mad truckers to travel more slowly than they would like. It makes ladies’ hair stand on end, literally. And people seeking refuge in Avignon, where the wind reaches a climax alongside the Rhône, down which it has hurtled, are accosted by flying placards. But this is a picture of Dorset!

On that long-ago sojourn, having succumbed and adjusted to the nuances of what they like to call winter, I was appalled to wake to snow on the morning I’d planned to go home for Christmas. It won’t last, they said. And it didn’t.

Inevitably, having given a reading, folk always ask whether I have a house in Provence; and if not, would I like one. Well, no actually. Of course, if I was a rich woman, I would. Who wouldn’t? That instantly reviving warmth, the vibrant Provençal markets, the lost-in-time antiquities, the never-ending aperitif and, naturally, all those eclectic friends made over the years. It’s all so – reliable. But I wouldn’t stay all year in that hypothetical house because what’s even more reliable, and more demanding, is home. Some folk seek a warmer winter but I can understand those who hurry home to the grey dampness of England.

Global warming may have led to the English seasons being less discernible than those of childhood but, regardless of temperamental weather, they still exist. The Provençal autumn is marked by gunshot: the onset of the hunting season where anything moving is fair game. The English autumn is signalled by the sight of random berry collectors along the hedgerows. In my books, Madame Martin and Madame Lapin become entrepreneurs selling confiture and pickle made from the goods that Monsieur Martin grows. In my real world, everyone is making crumbles, jam and chutney. Those of us devoid of sterilised jars and inherited know-how, shovel their sloes and blackberries and damsons into brandy and gin.

In France, no-one talks about Yuletide until about half an hour before the Christmas Eve celebrations. In England, we’ve started purchasing gifts in October. Because, largely, we love it. In France, there are beautiful crêches to be seen in December but the nativity comprises a tiny part of the scene which depicts the year-round culture of Provence. In England, which, for me, is Dorset, there is story-telling, Dickens and the Bournemouth Symphony and Chorus performing The Messiah. As I said, it’s all so wonderfully predictable.

I read my stories of Provence aloud and they always say, ‘it’s so evocative; I must go’. Maybe I should write more about Dorset. And maybe you should stay.

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French style

Ten years ago, whilst staying up in Valence, Katy took me to what was my first French car-boot sale in a nearby village. She bought a crate of melons for a very good price in response to allowing the vendeur a glimpse of her own melons; I purchased an old photograph of a group of even older men outside some sort of small factory for one euro. Madame, who was selling the photo, demanded, ‘what does she want that for?’ ‘She’s English’, said Katy with that infamous French shrug. Madame was disdainful which makes me wonder why she had the photograph there in the first place. I gave my dad that photo and he had it on his desk for some years – an unusual souvenir.

I don’t even think that sale had a name.The French have since caught up and things have moved on, although now there’s nomenclature. Largely, the difference is between Brocantes, Vide Greniers and Marchés aux Puce. In translation, they all mean much the same – flea markets. The reality, however, doesn’t really reflect this.

I would say that a Marché des Puces falls at the bottom end of the scale and might well be avoided. In Avignon, for example, you can find a Marché des Puces almost any day of the week, especially in the square nearest to Les Halles. The goods on sale are of a poor quality, at ridiculous prices, just for the prestige of being slap bang in the centre of antiquity. I’ve never seen anything that I wanted to purchase and have moved on quickly to lunch.

On the other hand, the Brocantes are well worth a visit. These are more up-market and are the haunts of those UK programmes that centre on the benefits of buying abroad. However, the French have caught on. In my humble opinion, one of the most famous – Ilse sur la Sorgue – is to be avoided at all costs on a Sunday if you’re from the UK. There are permanent antique businesses here which predominately target Americans. They even arrange for goods to be shipped which says something about the price. Ok: the town is really pretty but it’s a crush. Far better, after church, to head on over to Carpentras. Settled just underneath the Ventoux, it means you have the opportunity to drive through vine-ridden villages and seek a more authentic venue for your Sunday lunch. Further, the sale doesn’t commence until 10am so there’s no anxiety-inducing need to get up at stupid-o-clock after Saturday night exertions.

Even so, the stall-holders in Carpentras are increasingly canny and you have to be prepared to barter; and for them to know the game. Along with a variety of friends, I’ve found good deals on things ranging from ostrich feather fans to model wooden horse-driven carts. But my very favourite Brocante is the Saturday morning show at Villeneuve-les-Avignon. The English programmes, such as French Collection, will tell you that this is the best in the South.

What makes it particularly interesting is the buvette in the far corner. A buvette is a small establishment, such as a shed or a caravan, selling liquid refreshment. Options are generally limited: tiny paper cups of the strongest expresso you’re ever likely to taste aimed, presumably, at the stall-holders who’ve arrived at une bonne heure; Pastis for the next stage; beer to keep them going and Orangina for the lightweight tourists. If you go to the counter to purchase a drink, etiquette is maintained and one is told brusquely to find a table and wait to be served. And photographs are frowned upon.

The other week, Elle and I came across a bunch of really interesting looking stuff laid out on the ground. A youth of indeterminate description sat in the back of a nearby truck studying his phone. ‘Monsieur’, I ventured, ‘how much for this?’ He looked up and tried to focus but, having forgotten how to speak, stumbled away to return with an older man in a very sad state of affairs. Stumbling is a good word. The new ‘monsieur’ was having trouble standing, although seemed adept at keeping his beer in the glass. He mentioned a price and I mentioned one lower. Evidently, he’d forgotten how the game works as he then gave an even lower price. Reader, this isn’t normal but who cares? We got some fine bargains and he seemed delighted. Much winking and shaking of hands ensued.

The brocante is done and dusted by 1pm in Villeneuve which enables us to wander up into the little town for lunch in the square. This isn’t a piece on where to eat – however, you could do worse than Aubergine which has tables inside and out, a clean toilet and great food at very reasonable prices. Just saying.

Vide Greniers have come a long way in the last ten years. There’s even a website to tell you when and where but, in practice, it’s easy to find them in the summer as advertising signs are placed on nearby roadsides. Inevitably, as in the UK, they’re held on a Sunday but, unlike the UK, they last all day. Close to the Bricomarché in Tarasçon, you’ll find a weekly one which is still quite unusual. Tarasçon is, unfairly, a much derided town. Sadly, I feel that part of the reason is the preponderance of Arabs… France is a pretty racist type of place. Up in Pierrelatte, there’s a predominately Arab market every Friday and it’s vibrant with colour, high quality material being prime stock in trade. I thoroughly recommend a jaunt north just for the experience.

However, Tarasçon on a Sunday isn’t a market: it’s a boot sale. Nonetheless, it’s interesting as all things Provençal are sold alongside old and new goods of Arab origin… a veritable mix of cultures. But if you want French goods, go to a village vide grenier. I’d say pick a wealthy village such as Mausanne but even the lesser known places have good finds. Don’t go for traditional stuff such as French lace or so-called ‘shabby-chic’ furniture because prices are extortionate; look for the things that the sellers haven’t yet cottoned on to. Happy bargain hunting.

Flying in style

So, another sojourn in Provence is over. Leaving is always difficult but this morning it’s particularly tricky. My billet is fifteen minutes’ drive from the tiny airport: generally, one rocks up about half an hour before the plane leaves. Today, however, it’s Avignon Air Show and I receive a text saying I must be there two and a half hours before the flight. Et pourquoi?

Friends advise me traffic may be heavy so I’m duty bound. There is absolutely no traffic on the road but, on arrival, the way is barred by copious numbers of gendarmes and security folk. No entry. I have a rental car to dispose of, I explain. Sorry, says the first officer, no idea what you’re talking about. The second gendarme says I may enter but the third, in charge of the barrier, is not in agreement. If Paul Russell was here, he’d be in a state of ragged disrepair by now. Anyway, he’s not so I press on and eventually gates are temporarily dragged aside.

I dump the car. Of course, there’s no-one to take the keys so I dump them also. I’m shocked to find the check-in open. Normally, they also appear at the last moment. The bag is given over, a seat number is allocated, and it’s back outside in the sunshine with Northanger Abbey. And a prime bench from which to watch the aerial activities. Is this the best thing to see when one is about to take to the skies?

Jane Austen is rudely interrupted by two jets from the French air force doing inexplicable things directly in front of me. Over the loudspeaker comes a pre-recorded speech relating to how they won WW2 and every other thing since, even if, like the Brits, no-one asked them to. Then, the band plays La Marseillaise and two people on the next bench down dutifully stand up. I return to the Bath Pump Rooms but Madame from the check-in ventures outside with news for folk travelling to Southampton: you must go to ‘departures’ toute de suite because the customs people are going home.

We trundle inside dispiritedly but it’s not too bad. The transport has arrived early and the crowds have flocked to the perimeter to watch the idiots who intend to fly away on a prop plane in the middle of the loop de loops.

 

When I arose this morning, I put my coffee on and went down to the village to purchase croissants. Now, I’m back in Blighty looking at my overgrown grass and, having visited my parents, I’m contemplating a proper curry. A couple of hours on the plane and another life. But, if you look closely, you might see one of my dream catchers hanging in the summer house at Mas Sainte Antoine conjoining my two homes.

 

 

Le déluge

I took this photo eight or nine years ago in Vaison la Romaine, up in the Vauclause. I was a little worried about the darkness under his eyes and the potential poverty he depicts. Vaison is an attractive, quite ‘up-market’ place, famous for its Roman remains.

 

Another picture of the same place which I didn’t take ( source:’Watts up with that’). Down in my village today, my attention was drawn to a special edition of the local newspaper commemorating twenty five years since the devastating flood in Vaison that killed forty two people and destroyed huge parts of the town.

By 22 September, 1992, Provence had witnessed four years of virtual drought but  it had been raining for days, although there was no sense of impending doom. In the afternoon of this catastrophic day, an alert was issued warning of rare violent pluvio-orageux, rain storms, and the security forces were put on alert. However, the campsite upstream from the Roman bridge, situated next to a normally small stream, wasn’t evacuated because no-one realised the  impending danger. Similarly, inhabitants of a small housing estate on the opposite bank of the river remained oblivious.

Nonetheless, by mid-afternoon, the town was cut off from all communications with the outside world. Just after 4pm, the rain stopped but too late in the day to forestall tragedy. An enormous wave, more than 15 metres high, swept onto the campsite causing death and devastation. As it proceeded towards the Roman bridge, it grew in height and speed. The 2000 years old bridge had, uniquely, withstood German bombardment in WW2 and somehow managed to survive this onslaught.

In Vaison, however, not everything was as strong or fortified. The security forces rescued hundreds of people trapped on roofs or struggling in the waves. Bodies were discovered for the next fifteen days and it took years to remove all traces of the deluge.

This link should take you to extraordinary footage of the river in full force on the 22nd September: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a9o3tvuN5pQ

On this current sojourn, the weather has been, as we say in England, ‘up and down’, and often ‘unseasonable’. Nonetheless, today I’ve been swimming in the open air and I write this on my terrace in the late sunshine. Over in Vaison, they’re holding a service to remember the lost of another 22 September.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Over the hills and far away

There’s a prevalent view that the English always talk (and moan) about nothing except the weather. I’m here to tell you that it’s no different in Provence: I remember one spring-time when I was told ‘this is the wettest May on record’. This June, they said ‘it’s never been as hot’. Now it’s September and all are agreed ‘it’s unseasonably cold’. One thing is as certain as death and taxes: the wind! Today, however, despite the ravages of the mistral, we three set off in glorious sunshine to walk in the hills behind Aramon.

This is no ordinary walk: this is the Sentier des Capitelles d’Aramon. We have crossed the mighty Rhône to be here, thus we are officially in the region known as the Gard. No big deal you might think but, the very words remind you that, until the beginning of the twentieth century, there was no such language as French. For example, the capitelles are small dry stone buildings once used for shelter by shepherds. Twenty minutes from here, they’re known as bories but we are in another country. This photo, taken by my hostess, Keryn, shows the route we’re about to take. I might have been astute enough to take my own snap but I was preoccupied with the birds. I don’t know the difference between swallows and swifts but there they all were, skirting the vivid blue skyline, contemplating a move even further south.

The French are economically sparing with paint. The sign shows the yellow path and we follow this and the subsequent yellow arrow. After this, the decorators have lost the will and we must look for yellow blobs on movable stones to ensure we might be, literally, on the right track.

 

 

 

 

 

 

It doesn’t really matter: we regularly come across capitelles in various conditions which we duly enter and inspect as we climb higher and higher. The wind is not so bad – maybe we’re sheltered by the little mountains. There was an initial plan to leave the struggler (me) behind at an appropriate spot. There isn’t an appropriate spot: the garrigue is stunningly beautiful, but relentless. Leave me here and I’ll be lost forever. But then, I look back and see the river which inspires me to climb higher.

At one point, I see something brown crossing the track. No-one else is looking and when I mention this apparition, I am, as usual, ignored. ‘Perhaps it was a boar’, some comedian comments. And the next minute, everyone sees five or six unidentifiable birds scurrying along the path. Told you so. They were too quick for the cameras but even I know they weren’t swallows.

 

Eventually, we reach the heights which is well worth the climb. From here, we can see, in a 360 degrees turn, the Ventoux, the Alpilles, the Montagnette, Tarasçon and beyond. We’re on the top of the world, under the bluest of skies and the sunshine of the South.

 

We begin our descent. ‘Here’s another capitelle’, exclaims the kiwi. Haven’t we been to this one before, I query? What I like about being with Keryn and Eleanor is, no matter where we are, we never stop talking. And I don’t mean talking about nothing, for we don’t know each other that well to engage in the quotidian. At this particular point, I am minded of the chapter in Three Men and a Boat whereby the intrepid triumvate, with a crowd of followers, deny being lost in the maze at Hampton Court. Someone says, ‘didn’t we pass that bun half an hour ago?’ This, naturally, leads on to an explanation of Longleat and a discussion about PD James and Pride and Prejudice.

And then we are back at the car. And, of course, lunch beckons. Sadly, Aramon doesn’t boast a plethora of eateries. Nonetheless, we manage to secure a spot on the terrace of an apparently non-descript joint where, as Keryn reports, we enjoy ‘a five star meal for the price of a two star restaurant’. Fish for my compatriots and mignon of porc for me… a million miles from the damp offerings in Avignon yesterday.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A few holes in the ground

At yesterday’s vide grenière (empty attic =boot sale), I purchase a book about Fontvielle because it has some old pictures and news about the shell altar of which I’ve previously written. However, it also contains a lot of information about les puits which, it transpires, means wells. Apparently, Fontvielle is famous for them. So, with an hour to spare, I decide that today’s mission is to search for the wells of which, my book informs me, there are over fifty. A sort of watery treasure hunt.

 

Firstly, I look for the two oratories which are also supposed to be famous. I find the one dedicated to St Victoire easily but upset the owners of the only car that has passed this way in years by parking over the entrance to their house.

 

 

 

The second, dedicated to St Roch, is equally easy to locate but not very accessible as it’s on the side of a roundabout. I doubt whether poor old Roch gets many votive offerings.

 

 

Then it’s off to look for wells. I’d say you need about three weeks to find them all. At one point, a man comes out of his house to see what I’m up to. ‘Puits’ is quite a hard word to pronounce and I am unsuccessful. I show him my book. Oh, you mean the wells, he says in perfect English. Anyway, it turns out that he used to live in Zurich but now lives in Berne, and comes to his little house in Fontvielle every six weeks. Sorry, did I ask for your life story? He shows me a well that I’ve just walked past and would never have noticed in a month of Sundays.

 

 

 

 

 

Looking for wells is an unusual pastime: I must look over walls and sneak into people’s gardens and run away like a naughty child that’s just rang the doorbell.

 

 


It’s fun though and I got to see some bits of the village that I hadn’t seen before. I never knew LeLee was here. My dad and I have some of his pictures at home – sadly, not originals but some rare ones which we like.

 

 

 

 

 

 

It’s a pretty village and worth a wander.

 

More open doors

On the second of the Journées de Patrimone, I visit the Jewish cemetery in St Rémy de Provence and, before I proceed with this account, I’d like to say that, whilst I learned a lot today, I must apologise in advance to those of the Jewish faith who are familiar with what follows.

 

 

This serene and tranquil cemetery finally closed its doors in 1977 and it’s only thanks to European Heritage Days and the ‘friends’ that we can get in once a year, rather than never. Today, the oldest visible tomb was erected in 1821 and the most recent dates from 1915. However, the cemetery was first mentioned in 1400 and was founded much earlier; indeed, it was built on the site of another medieval burial ground.

There is evidence of a large Jewish community in St Rémy forever, probably since Roman times. Records show that in 1339 all meat sold in the town was ritually slaughtered (Kosher) and the locals made a formal complaint of it being tasteless. St Rémy’s famous son, Nostradamus, was born of Jewish ancestry although his family later converted to Catholicism. The Jews were expelled from Provence in 1500 by Louis X11 and they had to wait until the French Revolution of 1789 for official recognition of their right to return and confirmation of their equality with everyone else.

Back in the cemetery, I see a couple placing a stone on a tomb. Actually, I’d noticed that several of the tombs have stones randomly placed upon them. I gave this half a thought: in Provence, you can see rooftops adorned with stones but this is a practical solution against the whims of the Mistral. Surely this can’t be true for long-ago graves.

I pluck up courage and ask Madame from ‘the friends’. I don’t mean I need courage to ask, but I do need some extended vocabulary to understand the answer. Actually, it’s not too tricky: she gives me some alternative explanations which I later research and find her perspective the best. In no particular order that I know of, they are as follows:

 

Before the time of caskets and coffins, the deceased was buried in a shroud in the ground so the stones acted as protection against the ravages of wild beasts. Par contre, the stones, which are placed with the left hand, keep the souls in place, thus preventing a haunting. And yet another alternative is the view that placing a stone is a symbol of sending the dead on a safe journey (because the stone represents strength) and a reminder of the resurrection.

I was a bit confused by the latter. Pragmatically, it makes sense: if the stone is removed, then the soul can escape – hence the rolling back the stone from the place of Jesus’ burial. But I didn’t think that this religion believed in the resurrection; what do I know?

 

 

Anyway, Madame is on a roll with her audience of one and begins to tell me about the Germans. It’s true that the German army requisitioned St Paul de Mausole in WW2 but trying to confirm her story is a non-starter. Nonetheless, I’ve no reason to disbelieve her. Weasel readers will be familiar with St Paul de Mausole which is where Van Gogh placed himself after the episode in Arles. And where he produced 150 works of art including Starry Nights. So, the Germans threw out all the patients and closed down the cemetery. Just as contextualisation, this little part of the world was, in 1940, ordained as part of the Free Zone under the protectorate of the dubious Vichy government. By 1942, the Germans had moved in and begun a systematic round-up of French Jews.

Everything she passionately recounts begs another question but now more French people have arrived and the discourse is too speedy for yours truly. Still, it’s another piece of local history and culture for me from yet another true representative of Heritage Days.