Friday, 29 January 2016

Contemporary Art in Var

This haunting image was used on the 2015 exhibition poster.
The South of France has always attracted artists - the light, clear and bright in summer, pale and muted in winter; the countryside, the villages, the spectacular coastline.

The resulting drawings, paintings or photographs provide delicious images that lure people to the area.

But there is also contemporary art, some serious, some less so, and though they don't specifically reflect the landscape, the works are in many ways inspired by the region, its lifestyle - and its underbelly.

Our major town - Draguignan - in the 'Dracénie' region of the Var, hosts an amazing exhibition each summer, known as 'L'Eté Contemporain Dracénois'  or Contemporary Summer in Dracénie.

The main part of the exhibition is housed in a former church in central Draguignan, now a large and cavernous gallery.

These speared apples eventually fall.
The installation at the left is of apples impaled on arrows. As the apples dried and withered during the exhibition, they fell to the floor below.

The meaning behind it? I have no idea, but I found it both quirky and somewhat amusing - and also a little dark. Perhaps also a waste of good apples!

The exhibition is not just confined to the 'Musée' - it ranges far more widely than that.

You can spend several days exploring the town as well as the exhibition venues, such as the square clock tower in central Draguignan where large paintings are displayed on each of the landings as you climb towards the bell - and an excellent view - at the top.

Inside the tower, it is hard to know whether to look at the steep steps below your feet or whether to remain poised in mid-air while you study the painting right in front of you!

Painted sketch on a watercolour rosebud.

Then there are the bookshops and cafes which each display a component of the exhibition.

I do not know enough about the event to know whether the artists are all from the Var department (or the Dracénie region within the department) but there is always something thought-provoking to see.

Two years ago I was blown away by a series of beautifully woven and sewn head-dresses made of found objects including skulls of dead animals, feathers, sequins from bottle tops.

Not all entries have titles and there is no specific catalogue for the exhibition.

I also find it hard to go to all the cafes just to look at the artwork, without eating/drinking something in each one out of politeness!

I would like to know more about each artist, but it is enough for now just to see the work of modern, contemporary artists in France today. 'L'Eté Contemporain Dracénois'  will celebrate its 25th anniversary this year. It runs from late July through to the end of September.

Thursday, 21 January 2016

Red carpet Cannes

The international village at the Cannes Film Festival.
I always thought I'd love the glamour of the Cannes Film Festival, the famous La Croisette promenade, the celebrities and the sheer buzz of international activity.

Unfortunately when I visited - just a short train-ride from Les Arcs-sur-Argens - it was crowded, hot and humid, noisy and not a celeb in sight.

People were already waiting patiently - filling the five tiers of hard wooden seats opposite the main entrance at 11am in the bright May sunshine (and through a couple of sudden showers!), their sandwiches and cameras at their sides.

Photographers had already bagged their spot with dangerous looking tripods and hefty boxes of equipment - and the festivities were not due to start for another seven or eight hours!

But, like meandering through Hollywood (although there you have to meander with a vehicle), it is fun picking out the stars' hand prints in the pavement, gathering information on the latest films that have been nominated, or checking out the giant launches in the harbour while sitting at an outdoor café along La Croisette enjoying the delicious wines of the region.
Plenty of weird street performers among the crowds.

There is always something happening on the streets - street performers, musicians, protest marches, giant multi-coloured bubbles wobbling precariously as people pass, street vendors and so much more - so it can be great fun to stop and watch the action.

But the sea-level crowds, the noise and traffic, drove us higher into Cannes old town on the promontory at the western end of the bay.

It is cooler up there, catching the sea breeze, with less traffic and fewer people.

It is also very much worth a wander, particularly through the narrow streets on the slopes of the hill below where tiny boutiques are tucked in alongside equally small restaurants set at rakish angles, which serve every delicacy of the Mediterranean.
A steep climb, but well worth the view.
If you do manage to end up in Cannes during the film festival, go a little later in the day than we did. There is a open air cinema on the beach during the balmy evenings. That is the time, too, when you may - if you're lucky - see a celebrity glide by in a limousine.

But don't forget to take an umbrella - the festival often blows up a storm.

Tuesday, 12 January 2016

Views of Grimaud

Overlooking Grimaud from the château showing part of a restored round tower on the far left.
I have already written about Var’s ‘Little Venice’ - the modern 20th century town of Port Grimaud, but just a few kilometres further inland, is the original medieval town of Grimaud.
Framing the church of St Michel through a slit window.
This village is dominated by the 11th century Château de Grimaud, which originally had a round tower at each of the four corners of the fortifications.

The château was strategically situated above the narrow pass along the Garde river valley, which takes you across the Massif des Maures to inland Provence.
It is high enough to command marvellous views over the surrounding countryside and across to the Mediterranean.

Unfortunately, in the 17th century, the château was torn down on the orders of Cardinal Richlieu, and today only the ruins remain, dominating the town below.

It is not a difficult climb to the château and the effort is certainly worth it for the fantastic views.

Take time to wander through the ruins and try to imagine what it might have once looked like.
The views across the countryside from the slit openings in the towers are like paintings framed in stone.

The last surviving moulin beside the Garde river.
Fortunately part of the château has been rebuilt, including some of the towers, archways and walkways.
The château is surrounded by crenelated battlements that measure up to seven metres high, and were once part of a triple-walled enclosure.
There is a section along here where outdoor performances are held in summer.

From the château, you can look northwards towards the Maures and see below the last surviving 17th century windmill of St Roch, once called the Moulin de la Gardiolle. 

There were once a number of such mills built along the waterway.
The old stone tower and blades were renovated in the 1990s which today gives you a good idea of what the original string of windmills along the banks of the Garde river must have looked like.

If you climb high enough  on the other side of the château, you can take in the view over the terracotta-roofed town of Grimaud below, dominated by the 12th century church of St Michel with its square clock tower.

The crenelated battlements that surround the château with the blue Mediterranean in the distance.
Grimaud has some good restaurants, a bakery (the patissier used to live just a few doors down from us in Les Arcs), and some lovely streets to wander through and explore, including low vaulted passageways and extra-narrow medieval streets.
There are two ways to reach the town from Les Arcs-sur-Argens. You can travel to Grimaud from Ste Maxime around the gulf.
I prefer to go over the Maures from Les Arcs, via the beautiful little inland town of La Garde-Freinet, travelling high up along a winding road through the hills covered in cork oak, chestnut and pine trees.

Wednesday, 6 January 2016

Cricket in the Var

La Motte already shares its street produce.
Actually the headline should read ‘crickets’ but I like the play on words.

Yes, in our neighbouring town of La Motte, a woman called Fanny Marchal is diversifying her wine growing business into raising crickets - and not just ordinary crickets - these are destined for eating.

She is also planning to raise vers de farine (meal worms) for food as well. I am not sure if these are what we know as weevils, but these worms are edible when cooked.
Cédric Auriol shows a tray of meal worms he is raising.
Eating insects and worms is a bit confronting and I can’t see myself ever doing it, but I understand the point, particularly in finding new ways of obtaining protein.

Along with edible algae, insects can be seen as a solution to providing food for the planet, particularly in drought-stricken areas. And it is mainly for ecological reasons that people are looking at this way of eating – after all the French already happily eat snails!

There are almost 1,500 species of edible insects, with crickets the most popular. They are low in fat and calories, but high in protein. Beef of course contains much more protein, but is also high in fat. And it can be a profitable diversification as when they are dehydrated, crickets are even more expensive than truffles, at around 1300 Euros a kilo!
Some of the products made from insects.
Already there is a restaurant in Nice – the Aphrodite - that serves the insects, together with other delicacies, like worms – on its ‘Alternative Food’ menu.

Known as les gourmets ecolos (ecological gourmets), the insects and worms are served as aperos (aperitives).

The worms, which apparently have a flavour similar to hazelnuts, can replace nuts, raisins – even chcocolate chips – in pastries.

Fanny Marchal and husband. Photo: Var Matin.
The chef, who is determined to continue his ‘engagement with the planet’ in working with these alternative ingredients, has paid a high price for his decision to include insects and worms on his menu.
Michelin removed its star from his restaurant, despite it still offering classical ingredients on the principal menu.
Meanwhile, in La Motte, just seven kilometres from Les Arcs, Mme Marchal is confident about her new venture to raise both crickets and worms alongside her vines.

Just two or three pairs of vers de farine can multiply rapidly. The female can lay 200 eggs every two or three weeks, so you can imagine how many you would have by the end of a year, she said.

’I already have a hangar – and I have the space to plant beans to feed them.’