Sunday, 30 August 2015

Towns around Les Arcs-sur-Argens

Draguignan - capital of Dracenie and former capital of the Var.

 I thought in this blog, I would give a round-up of all the little towns near Les Arcs-sur-Argens.

Draguignan (above) is not so small. Its population is around 45,000 and it's the former departmental capital (now Toulon). The houses are typical of 'Provence profonde'. There is a daily market in the square, museums, cinema, bookshops and it's great just to browse around the back streets of the central vieille ville.

Trans-en-Provence, halfway between Les Arcs and Draguignan, straddles the Nartuby River gorge.

Trans-en-Provence is a secret delight, cut in two by the rushing water of the Nartuby River over cascades and waterfalls, past former mills and under ancient stone arched bridges.

Main square at La Motte.

La Motte, also on the Nartuby River, is a little further south of Trans-en-Provence.
Set on a steep hillside, it is riddled with steep alleyways and fun to explore.
The river continues along its gorge south of the town.
La Motte is the scene of the Liberation of Provence on 15 August 1944, when Allied troops parachuted into the town on their way to Draguignan.

Still following the Nartuby River, you reach Le Muy.
Street leading toward the fortified Church of St Joseph in the main square of Le Muy.

Le Muy is located on the junction of the Argens and Nartuby Rivers and has been designed with a wide and graceful main street. There are plenty of restaurants and from here you can get good views of Roquebrune - better than from the town of Roquebrune-sur-Argens (below).

The summit of the rock barely peeps over the new development opposite the vieille ville of Roquebrune-sur-Argens.

The town is lively and art-filled with many exhibitions filling the main square with art and easels and there are regular marches nocturnes - night markets - with excellent craft stalls lining the narrow streets that meander around the centre. Lots of superb restaurants here. Also a lake for a variety of water sports.

And lastly, back to Les Arcs and the Milenta Porte - the high entrance to Les Arcs' Parage at the top of the town centre. Our house is located by the lower arched entrance.

The high entrance to Le Parage was restored during restoration of the entire medieval village in the 1960s.


Tuesday, 25 August 2015

The hills are alive - with Cork Oaks

Between Les Arcs-sur-Argens and the Mediterranean is a range of high, tree-covered hills - Le Massif des Maures - so named for their dark, shadowy shape to the south.

To the east is another range of hills - great jagged red-earth peaks and valleys reminiscent of central Australia - called the Esterel.

A cork oak in the Maures with scars from bark removal.
Together these areas - wooded with thousands cork oaks - played a key role in the region's thriving Cotes de Provence wine industry.

They allowed wine to be matured in bottles by providing corks to seal them.

Known as le joyau des forets - the joy of the forests - the trees supported a major cork industry from the 18th century, turning out between 1000 and 2500 tonnes of cork a year.

The thick cork oak bark is harvested between June and August each year.

If you go for a walk in any of the hills near Les Arcs, you can spot where the bark has been lifted.

Once removed, the bark is scraped to get rid of knots and bumps, then boiled for around one and a half hours to soften it, before being stored in a damp cellar, ready for working.

The square corks are rounded on this lathe-like machine before being stamped with the winery's logo.

In time the cork is flattened and cut into cork-sized rectangles before being clamped onto a machine that looks like a wood-turning lathe where the corners are pared away.

Finished corks awaiting stamping and bagging for distribution.

The corks are then cleaned, bleached and stamped as required by the various wineries.

The Var was once the largest producer of corks in the whole of France - and it was second only to Portugal across the globe for the number of cork oak trees.

By 1874 there were 74 cork-making industries across the Var employing 1200 people.

But with foreign competition and  since the mid 20th century, the growing use of plastic corks  - not to mention the more recent screw-tops - the industry has declined to such an extent that only two factories now remain in Var.

The cork from a delicious 2011 Mouton Cadet from Bordeaux.
In France, the lower-priced range of wines tend to come sealed with plastic corks.

However the more exclusive domaines and more expensive wines are still sealed with their own specially-stamped corks.

For me, the pleasure of hearing a bottle uncorked with its distinctive 'pop' adds to the sensual delight of a good meal.

* In Ballarat, Victoria, there is a single cork oak growing on a raised bank at the end of the street where I live. It bears a plaque, naming it as a 'significant tree' on the city's historic tree register.

* Information courtesy of the Musee des Arts et Traditions Populaires (Musee ATP) at Draguignan.

Wednesday, 19 August 2015

Slow and Steady in Var

I've never owned a tortoise - but if I did I think I would call it 'Gonfaron' - a name that sounds like something from deep Middle Earth.

But Gonfaron is actually a small town in the Var.

Its claim to fame is that it's known as the 'Village des Tortues' - village of tortoises - and it's the only one of its kind in France.

About 30 kilometres from Les Arcs, it is a refuge and breeding area for tortoises before they are released back into the wild.
A damaged Hermann tortoise recently brought in to the clinic.

The Hermann tortoise - Testudo Hermanni Hermann - is the most endangered of all French reptiles.

It used to live along the Mediterranean coast, but with urbanisation, bushfires, removal of habitat and plunder of its eggs, it has retreated to the Massif des Maures (the mountains between Les Arcs and the coast) and Corsica.
The village, established in 1985 by the non-profit organisation SOPTOM, receives about 1000 tortoises a year from individuals, police and customs officers.

Many are brought in with injuries caused by dog bites, being hit by cars or lawn mowers, with various diseases or malnutrition. Around 300 of these need treatment in the clinic.
Madagascan tortoises with their distinctive starburst shells.
There is also a breeding program and so far about 8000 tortoises have been returned to the wild.

The village covers two hectares of maquis provencal - native scrub - made up of cork oaks, wild lavender, rock roses, strawberry trees and chestnuts. There is a clinic, laboratory, a quarantine area, reproduction enclosure, hatchery and nursery as well as a conference and study centre.
Our guide, Armandine, describes the care and rehabilitation of tortoises.
The best way to see the village is with a guided tour. Our guide, Armandine, told us at there were 2500 tortoises at the village at any one time being cared for, raised and studied. And there are many other breeds beside the Hermann tortoise.

The Cistudes or freshwater tortoises of Provence.
We walked along shady wooden walkways between the various enclosures holding tortoises from the Balkans, Russia, Madagascar, Senegal, East Africa and the local 'Cistudes' - or freshwater tortoises - from Provence. The exotic tortoises are not released in France.

Armandine said the tortoises were intelligent and responded to humans, but they were not pets and should not be kept in captivity.

They have been around for 230 million years - long before dinosaurs - and are the earliest vertebrates.

Ideally, they would like to live among abandoned terraces or ancient olive groves, with stone walls for warmth in winter and south-facing slopes for egg-laying. They are not so keen on undergrowth, which restricts movement and is susceptible to fires.

Every visit assists with the protection of the species and sponsorship can even include naming your own tortoise (though I imagine 'Gonfaron' or 'Herman' have already gone).

*SOPTOM - Station d'Observation et de Protection des Tortues et de leur Milieu.

Saturday, 15 August 2015

The Liberation of Provence began in the Var

The date - August 15 - has a number of reasons for celebration in Provence.

For the main part, it is a fete nationale - national holiday - to mark the Assumption of the Virgin Mary. It is also the anniversary of the birth of Napoleon Bonaparte on August 15, 1769. But that public celebration did not last much past 1815, for obvious reasons.

In Provence - and most importantly, the Department of Var - it is the anniversary of the Allied landings in the south, which led to the Liberation of Provence on August 15, 1944.
The sign on the Hotel de Ville at La Motte.

At 3am that day, hundreds of paratroopers - mostly Americans and Canadians - were dropped in the forest beside the tiny village of La Motte, about seven kilometres from Les Arcs-sur-Argens.

They quickly spread out, advancing to Le Muy and Les Arcs - liberating each town as they continued through Trans-en-Provence towards Draguignan, where the Nazi forces were headquartered.

The GIs had planned to bomb Draguignan - at that time still the Capital of Var - which would have destroyed much of the ancient town centre, but it was saved due to the bravery of a young woman called Helene Vidal.

Book of Peace by Patrick Beck outside the Helene Vidal Primary School.
Helene, aged 26, lived in Draguignan, and was one of only a few people in the Resistance who was fluent in English.

She was instructed to ride her bicycle from Draguignan to La Motte to plead with the Americans not to destroy her town.

It would have been a difficult ride - 20km of hills, at night and probably without lights, all the while trying to avoid German road blocks and sentries.

I drove that road earlier this week and today it is a dual carriageway sweeping through steeply wooded hills. But in 1944 it would have been a dark, winding country road.

When she arrived, she successfully persuaded the commander of Operation Frederick to save the town.

Today Helene Vidal is recognised for her bravery with streets and schools named in her honour, including a primary school in Les Arcs, near the station.

Nevertheless the battle to liberate Provence was a fierce and bloody one. The American Military Cemetery in Draguignan has more than 2,000 crosses marking fallen Allies and French nationals.

Every year a number of Americans and Canadians return to the Var to take part in the many ceremonies of remembrance and thanksgiving.
The memorial at the Les Arcs railway overpass that reads: In homage to Allied parachutists of Division Frederick and to the
French Interior Forces (FFI) who, on the 15 and 16 August 1944 liberated the village.

There was also a strong network of Resistance operating through this region - many hiding out in the thickly forested mountains to the north - who were not only able to guide the Allies to their goal, but to sabotage any Nazi retaliation.
The Hotel de Ville at Les Arcs-sur-Argens prepares for the commemoration.
Today, August 15, there will be special ceremonies in Les Arcs, La Motte and Le Muy - as well as other towns - to mark their liberation from Occupation.

Draguignan will hold a number of remembrances in town and at the military cemetery on the 71st anniversary of its liberation tomorrow.

So here in Les Arcs-sur-Argens, we will be marking the public holiday with a solemn ceremony at the monument on the railway overpass.

Then people will move on up into the town centre, where the forecourt at the Hotel de Ville has been strung with French, US, Canadian and British flags.
After solemnity - a celebration.

The Place General de Gaulle is already decorated in blue, red and white - a mix of stars, stripes, diagonals and maple leaves.

There will also be people arriving in original Jeeps from the war years - I saw one, complete with US visitors, in the town centre yesterday.

So after the solemnity, the celebration.

All the restaurants and bars around the square will be open until late for good food and wine and a grand concert of jazz-rock followed by big band nostalgia, singing and dancing in the town square.

The Var is happy to mark all three connections to August 15 - religion, leadership and liberation - what better reason to party through to the early hours?

Tuesday, 11 August 2015

Street art in Les Arcs-sur-Argens

One thing I love about wandering around the streets of Les Arcs-sur-Argens, is the amount of art that exists. Some of it is deliberate - as in the murals and trompe-l'oeil - some is a personal statement and some is almost careless beauty.

This is a trompe-l'oeil above the public toilets just off the Place General de Gaulle in Les Arcs.

The building is flat-fronted, even though it appears 3D.

This building was partially destroyed in the inondations - floods - of 15 June 2010, so it is great to see the way it has been brightened up.

It always brings a smile to my face.

This is the most photographed doorway in our street.

It is a scene of medieval Les Arcs, also painted as a tromp-l'oeil by the cousin (I think) of my next door neighbour.

It is actually the double door of a cave - cellar - and brightens the end of our street.

The painting shows the castle and the tower with the yellow and red striped flag of Provence flying above it.

My neighbour told me that he paints scenes like this in many of the towns he visits.

I have always loved this little 'family' sculpture on the gate post of a house high up in Le Parage.

I know nothing about it, but they appear serene and protected and it is one of my favourites.

Then there is this fellow, hiding out high above the footpath in a hidden corner of the maze of streets below the medieval quartier.

He gazes out from his 'window' - a bored king or price - on the crowds below.

I first thought of him as a gargoyle, but I imagine he just feels trapped by his awkward position.

He now overlooks the Creperie at the lower end of our street, so he must get tired of watching everyone else enjoying themselves.

And finally, the unexpected 'art' that you find even when you're not looking for it.

Wandering up the stone steps behind the church one hot afternoon, the shadow of the wrought-iron support for the street lamp made an interesting spill across the building behind with its faded ochre wall.

I would have liked it visually a lot more without the drainpipe and tangle of wiring, but that is part of the reality of the town.

You find beauty where you can - it doesn't have to be perfect.

It's all part of the art of looking.

Wednesday, 5 August 2015

The Sleeping Beauty of Les Arcs-sur-Argens

The story of Les Arcs-sur-Argens' very own saint has always fascinated me, the more so because her mummified body lies in state - in a glass coffin, like the Sleeping Beauty - in her very own chapel.
Ste Roseline's body encased in the glass coffin inside the Chapelle Ste Roseline outside Les Arcs-sur-Argens.
Hers is the only mummified saint's body on display in the whole of France, which makes it very special, and to see someone who died nearly 700 years ago, preserved like this is really quite unique.

Three years ago, I attended a special service in the Eglise Saint Jean-Baptiste to commemorate her birth 750 years ago, on January 27, 1263. And recently, there was a pellerinage - pilgrimage - and service to bless the renovations recently completed at the Chapelle Sainte Roseline, which uncovered a series of frescos hidden beneath the plastered walls.
The gate where the 'Miracle of the Roses' occurred.

Roseline de Villeneuve grew up in the castle overlooking Les Arcs, eldest child of the fourth lord, Giraud II de Villeneuve and his wife, Agline de Sabran d'Uzes.

She was generous to the poor who crowded the castle gates and would ransack her father's provisions to give bread to those seeking alms. Although her father forbade it, she defied him and when she was just 12, he caught her with her apron full of bread rolls. But when he ordered her to tip them out, she let her apron drop and out fell an armful of roses.

It was to be her first miracle - and the Miracle of the Roses is commemorated on a plaque beside the gate where it is said to have occurred. St Roseline has always been associated with roses.

Le Repas des Anges - the 4-metre high mosaic by Chagall.
At 15 she entered a convent near Mt Ventoux and it was there when she was supposed to be preparing a meal for the other novices, that a second miracle took place.

She felt the presence of God with her and began praying - neglecting the meal preparation.

When the nuns arrived there was no food. As she begged their forgiveness, a group of angels came to her aid, laid the table and set out the meal.

The community was fed by the bread of angels.

This miracle is featured in a four-metre high mosaic, by the artist Marc Chagall in 1975, called Le Repas des Anges - The Angels' Meal - and I love to sit in front of it and contemplate the inter-weaving of colours - so much like a tapestry.

In 1285, she returned to the Monastery of Celle Roubard at Les Arcs where her aunt, Jeanne de Villeneuve was prioress. She would remain there for the rest of her life and eventually become prioress herself in 1300.

Sainte Roseline died on January 17, 1329, aged 65. She was buried in the convent grounds wrapped only in a shroud. A strong scent of roses began to emanate from her burial site.

Sainte Roseline's eyes.
Miracles occurred after her death and her body did not deteriorate.

Five years later, her body was exhumed to be reburied in the convent chapel - and they found her remains were in the same perfect condition as the day she died, in particular, her eyes.

Roseline's nephew, the Bishop of Digne, had her eyes removed and placed in a reliquary. But Louis XIV's doctor, hearing the story, doubted the eyes - still bright - were real, and pierced one of them to test it, causing it to immediately cloud over.

Her eyes can be seen today in a reliquary designed by artist Diego Giacometti, at the far end of the chapel - one visible but faded, the other occluded.

With the decline and closure of monasteries and wars of religion, Sainte Roseline's relics were 'lost' for 280 years, but re-appeared in 1614, still perfectly preserved.

Her body was put on display in a glass cabinet in the chapel beside her former convent, now the Chapelle Ste Roseline.

The abbey went into private hands in 1750 then was put up for sale in 1792, when the municipality of Les Arcs-sur-Argens was able to buy it with subscriptions raised by the town's inhabitants.

The chapel was then handed back for religious worship and in 1980 became officially a national Historic Monument.

St Roseline with her apron of roses.
However, her body, which has been kept in its consecrated chapel since 1894, has not stood the test of modern times. In 1994 the local priest noticed alarming deterioration.

Her remains were entrusted to the laboratory at the Centre Archeologique de Draguignan for testing, where it underwent reinforcement and restoration. It was returned to its place in the chapel in 1996.

Today the people of Les Arcs and surrounds make five pilgrimages a year - one of January 17 (the anniversary of her death); on the fifth Sunday in Lent; on Trinity Sunday (the anniversary of her body's exhumation); the first Sunday in August (in memory of the caretaking of the Franciscans from 1504 to1795) and on the nearest Sunday to October 16 (the old Grand Chartreuse celebration). They carry with them the gold-painted statue of their saint.

Set in a shady grove of century old chestnut trees, the Chapelle Ste Roseline is well worth a visit, especially if you are interested in history, stories of miracles and art.

Next to the chapel is the vineyard, Chateau Ste Roseline, set among acres of vines, where you can sample some top quality wines. In summer, you can also enjoy the domaine's annual sculpture exhibition - and classical music concerts in the large reception area.