Wednesday, 30 December 2015

Happy New Year - Bonne Année

I have not yet spent New Year's Eve in Les Arcs-sur-Argens.
Fireworks at Les Arcs-sur-Argens.
The year I was about to, was also the year when it was Very Cheap to fly home over New Year.
So we caught a flight and landed at Tullamarine during a lightning storm where the plane made a slightly scary swerve down the runway in the wet.

Everyone started cheering as we emerged from customs and it was several seconds before I realised that it had just turned midnight and rather than welcoming us home, they were welcoming the New Year.

Le Nouvel An (New Year) in France takes on almost as much importance as Christmas. Most of the cards at this time carry good wishes for the New Year.

January 1 is also le jour de Saint-Sylvestre  (St Sylvester’s day) – he was a very early pope, dating back to around 335AD.

Food is important – foie gras, oysters, smoked salmon, crayfish (not unlike an Aussie Christmas).

And should you go out for the evening, you will enjoy a large meal accompanied by singing, dancing and even an orchestra.

The midnight embracing and celebrations are just as enthusiastic as they are in Australia, with people wishing each other health, happiness, love, success and the fulfilment of dreams.
So I wish everyone a very Happy New Year and may 2016 be the best yet.
Bonne Année !

Wednesday, 23 December 2015

Christmas in the Var

Looking down over the centre of Les Arcs-sur-Argens on Christmas Eve.
We have only spent one Christmas in Provence.

As an Aussie, I prefer the traditions we have carved out in the southern hemisphere. But having also lived in the UK, and putting aside the cold, I can appreciate the spectacle starting late afternoon as the lights come on illuminating the towns and streets and houses with sparkling decorations to cheer the darkness.
The snowfall was 'pretend'; it is actually sunny.
It wasn’t particularly cold for our Christmas in Les Arcs-sur-Argens, so the town got together and manufactured some snow that floated through the central square during the annual Christmas market.

The forecourt of the Mairie (Town Hall) was filled with tiny Christmas trees and Père Noël (Father Christmas) was set up to welcome delighted young children who each received a present.

Meanwhile the town’s band, all dressed in Father Christmas suits, played recognisable carols and others that I didn’t know, but have since learned are either distinctly French or Provenҫal.
Rue de la Republique with decorations.
The plane trees that grace the square with their leafy shade in the summer had all been pollarded and looked like fingers reaching to the sky.

The streets were illuminated and the donjon (castle keep) that towers above the town bore the words ‘Joyeuses Fêtes’ for the holiday season.  

Le gros souper or big supper (which is followed in Provence by the traditional 13 desserts) is still a strong provenҫal tradition on Christmas Eve and is a huge family affair before midnight mass.

The 13 desserts represent Jesus and the apostles (who actually were not around at the time of his birth!) and comprise dried fruit and nuts, quince paste, biscotti, nougat, bûche de Noël (Christmas log), pain d’épices (spiced bread), and other small delicacies.
Christmas wishes light the medieval tower.
Sadly the year we stayed for Christmas, we turned up at the church just before midnight – along with a Norwegian couple who also have a house in the town – to find it had taken place at 6pm! We still don’t know why.

Tradition has it that after the gros souper, the tablecloth is not entirely cleared of crumbs or leftovers following the meal.

It is left overnight and on Christmas Day, the four corners of the tablecloth are brought together and it is picked up (a bit like a sack) and the crumbs of the gros souper are then shaken out into the field to ensure a good harvest the following year.

Mind you, I didn’t see anyone do this – it’s more a rural tradition than a town one, I think!

Joyeux Noël à tous !  Happy Christmas to all.

Monday, 14 December 2015

Exploring further afield

The view from Villefranche across to St Jean-Cap Ferrat.
For this post, I am travelling outside Var - just a short trip from Les Arcs-sur-Argens, as my computer is undergoing repairs and it has taken all my recent photos with it.
Rue Obscrue,Villefranche.

Take a train from the Les Arcs-Draguignan station and you will travel through Cannes and Nice to Villefranche-sur-Mer.

I had always wanted to go to Villefranche for three reasons.

1. My cousin stayed there for an extended period and waxed lyrical about it.

2. Then a writer friend opened the first chapter of her book with the protagonist walking through a street called Rue Obscure. The way she described the street and its history - and of course the story she was writing - drew me in so not only did I want to visit Villefranche, but I wanted to walk the Rue Obscure.

View from the Villa Ephrussi
3. I read The Hare with the Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal, and became fascinated by the story of the Ephrussi family.

One of the family members, Beatrice Ephrussi de Rothschild, put together a fascinating house, now known as the Villa Ephrussi, surrounded by four acres of gardens.

It is located on the summit of St Jean-Cap Ferrat, the peninsula that can be seen along the eastern edge of the Villefranche bay.

The train from Les Arcs takes around 80 minutes to reach Villefranche-sur-Mer, and you can walk into the town from the station.

The French-style gardens that lead from the villa.
We found Rue Obscure by accident and it is every bit as mysterious as my friend described.

There was a market in town and we enjoyed lunch in the gardens above the port.

Then we walked around the semi-circle of blue Mediterranean to Cap Ferrat.

We even passed the house Keith Richards rented in the early 70s when the Rolling Stones were in 'exile', before finding signs directing us to the Villa Ephrussi.

It is fascinating and I really recommend a visit if anyone is visiting the Cote d'Azur.

The galleried entrance of the Villa Ephrussi.
The nine separate gardens are laid out in discrete areas (French, Spanish, Florentine, Japanese, Provencal etc) and feature a wide variety of plants and many sculptures with steps that lead up to the 'temple of love' at the far end of the French garden.

The long water feature in front of the villa has fountains that erupt at various times of day.

Just walking through the fabulously over-decorated house is mind-boggling.

The clothes, the artefacts, the furniture, carpets from the Palace of Versailles, the inlaid mosaic floors, the arched mezzanine, the rooms - and of course, the views from the huge windows - along the coast towards Monaco and back across the bay to Villefranche.

There is a small and elegant café (Restaurant Ephrussi) where you can look across to Villefranche.

You can spend a whole day wandering the house and gardens at your leisure or take a guided tour.

I know I will certainly go back - both to the mansion (now owned by France's heritage council) and Villefranche-sur-Mer.

Wednesday, 2 December 2015

Summer weddings

French village weddings are always delightful.

A wedding party and guests on their way to a photo shoot in Les Arcs-sur-Argens.
Often on an otherwise lazy Saturday afternoon, we are roused by the blaring of car horns as a wedding party weaves through the streets gaining maximum exposure.
Wedding couple and guests in Les Arcs.

Several cars filled with bride, groom, bridesmaids and best men, drive around making the most of car horns, cheering and waving to passers-by - and of course, we all wave back and offer 'Felicitations' - congratulations - to the newly-wed couple.

It's especially great fun to be by the Mairie  for the civil services, as quite often they are unusual and totally unlike the formal affairs I would have expected.

French couples marry in a civil service at the Town Hall or Mairie, to 'seal the deal' so to speak. They may then choose to marry in a more formal religious service, if they wish to have the union blessed by their church.

Often the wedding party will troop past our place on their way through the medieval village to the restaurant at the top of the town. There is no vehicular access from the square below which means the entire party, from grandparents to toddlers and all in between, will have to make the steep climb up to the celebration.

I took this picture from our balcony as the couple returned and just as they passed, the groom scooped his bride into his arms and carried her down the street. She was carrying her high-heeled sandals, so it may not have been entirely the romantic gesture I imagined!
Wedding party in Frejus.
Then walking around the neighbouring town of Frejus, we were startled by the roll-up of giant black motor bikes that revved through shoppers in the main square - one of which was carrying the bride - a complete with tulle veil - on the pillion.

The men took off their helmets and shrugged out of their leather jackets to reveal neat white shirts or T-shirts beneath, and the party with cheering guests, went into the Mairie for the civil ceremony.
The photographer (far left) poses a photo high above Nice.

After reassembling outside for photos, they roared off for several circuits of the narrow streets of the old Roman town - with bemused Saturday shoppers stopping to wave and cheer.

Outside of Var, up in the old Cimiez area of Nice, we were strolling through the gardens and found a photographer posing his bride and groom - the groom using the tourist viewer to angle in on his bride!

Back in Les Arcs, the bride took over the photo session at the amphitheatre just across the car park from the Mairie.

I watched from above as she gathered her skirts and climbed down the steps to take up position beside the photographer and issue loud instructions to the wedding party and all her guests about where to stand. He stepped aside and let her!

The bride hurries down the steps of Les Arcs' amphitheatre to organise her own wedding photos.

Eventually, after rearranging her hair and adding some lipstick, she took her place beside her husband for the camera. I'm sure the photos would have been memorable.