Monday, 26 June 2017

Medieval mysteries

One of the strange beasts to be found high above your heads in the cloisters of the Fréjus Cathedral.
One of the wondrous things that has inspired me in France is living with its history. There is no escaping. Les Arcs-sur-Argens was originally a medieval settlement. Provence was invaded by the Romans, the Catalans, the Piedmontese - all of whom have left their mark.
I was fascinated by Stonehenge, the white horse on Salisbury plain, the castles and ancient Roman ruins when I lived in UK in the 1970s and 80s, but probably because I was younger then, they didn’t create the ‘frisson’ they do today.

This is a fresco from a chateau in Puy-de-Dome.
Perhaps it is since my return to Australia, as I studied tapestry weaving and the beautiful medieval tapestries that graced so many castles and chateaux in Europe, that my interest has grown.

Les Arcs stages one of Provence’s leading medieval festivals – taking place next month – called ‘Castrum d’Arcus’, where the entire village ‘becomes’ medieval with stalls, dances, jugglers, strolling minstrels, re-enactments, a grand spectacle and street parades – not to mention medieval food and drink!
But just a short trip from Les Arcs-sur-Argens is the ancient Roman town of Fréjus. Originally located on the sea front, the mouth of the adjacent River Argens has silted up over the centuries so that the centre of Fréjus is now three kilometres inland!
The ceiling of the cloisters showing the tiny paintings.
In the centre of the town is the Cathédrale de Fréjus - and its magnificent cloisters, the wooden ceilings of which have been delicately painted by medieval artists. It is one of the most fascinating cloisters I have ever seen. Hidden in niches between the wooden beams that support the floor above, are hundreds of tiny paintings. 

The figures and mythical beasts were painted  directly onto the raw wood with earth pigments,  by unknown medieval artists. Although many are faded - and some were destroyed during revolutions and wars - around 300 have been preserved out of an original 1200. Many were saved because of their position, away from the bleaching effects of strong sunlight.
Known as ‘bestiaries mythiques’ or mythical beasts, these figures are intriguing. They originate (I think) with the fantastical beasts described in the Book of Revelations as well as myths and legends of weird sea creatures and stories of exotic animals from other lands.
Some are half-human, half-animal, they show the daily life of the times as well as the strange world of gothic imagination. They include a range of themes from wars, religion, music, animals, daily life and work. I find them mesmerising and surprisingly modern. In fact I visit the cloisters every time I am in France, just to refresh my memory and perhaps get another perspective on them.
'La reine'- one of my tiny tapestries in medieval style.
During your visit, you can gather more information on how these tiny works of art were put together with a film documentary that shows modern artisans replicating the ancient works, plus displays showing the earth colours used and how they would be mixed, the brushes used and how the wood was prepared.
There are many other churches throughout France with similar depictions in tapestries and frescoes - not to mention the gargoyles guarding the rooftops!
I knew that one day I would have to weave them, if only to ‘feel’ how they could be recreated in woven tapestry. So I have taken some of the basic designs and modernised them and am showing them - together with artwork from 25 other women artists of Ballarat - in an exhibition called ‘Sheilas Reclaimed’ which opens this Friday evening (June 30) at the Fairbanks Eye Gallery.


Sunday, 7 May 2017

Our next-door village

The ancient double arched bridge that crosses the Nartuby River and links both side of the village.
I have written before about Trans-en-Provence, its puits arien and some general views over the town.
Fountain in the main square.
Located just five kilometres north of Les Arcs, it is perfectly walkable, if you don’t mind hills! In any case, it’s just a short bus-ride halfway to Draguignan.
But unless you turn into the town itself, you will miss a real gem. Trans-en-Provence is divided – twice. Firstly it is bisected by the busy D555 road from the autoroute to Draguignan and secondly by the Nartuby River that flows down from the north along steep gorges cut into the softer limestone rock.

It is here, beside the river that the town takes its shape, and presumably originated as there are old mills located along its shores, mostly as ruins.

In summer, the river is a fast-flowing, but softer, gurgling stream that refreshes. There is nothing nicer that to find a space on the wall beside the stream shaded by of one of the larger trees and watch a relaxed game of pétanque played on the beaten earth courts that run alongside the river.

The memorial to those who died - one name missing.
Looking towards the single-arched bridge in the distance.
But the river can also prove a threat to the town as in June 2010 when steady, heavy rain filled the narrow gorges and swept down like a raging torrent, killing almost 30 people – five in Trans-en-Provence alone – and creating millions of euros’ worth of damage to the towns and villages along the way.

Les Arcs-sur-Argens’ bill for the grande inondation came to €5 million alone and reparations are still being undertaken in the village.
There are few marks remaining on the town itself, but a sign recognises the flood – and a previous one on July 6, 1827 – both floods occurring in the stormy early summer months.

The river glides away further south in the gorge far below the village.
But strolling through Trans-en Provence is an eye-opener. The town does not look particularly spectacular from first view, so you have to make an effort to come in close. When you do, you are well rewarded with lovely little alleyways and impasses, the grand river that tumbles over rocks through the town, then falls steeply into a valley over a series of cascades to the river valley below.
There are a few cafes, but they are set on streets so narrow that your only views are parked cars. The main street is one-way. There is definitely no room for two cars to pass here – there is barely enough room for the bus as it lumbers along. I truly admire the way the drivers are able to negotiate the turns and badly parked cars without hitting anything.
Trans-en-Provence is located near a commercial hub about 500 metres north of the town, where there are giant stores like Carrefours, Maison du Monde (my favourite) and Mr Bricolage, as well a ‘Bio’ store that sells organic food – and a few too many car showrooms!
Although there is not a lot to ‘do’ in Trans, there is a feast of things to ‘see’ so it is an ideal half-day stop to see how this village has grown up around a natural feature such as this amazing river with its spectacular rocks, ruins and drop down to a leafy green river valley.