Saturday, 22 July 2017

Provence light in mid-winter

Overlooking 'Domaine Les Clarettes', just outside Les Arcs-sur-Argens.
This weekend marks the final days of my husband's exhibition of paintings of Provence. Painted over the past eight years, the works brought a little bit of Provencal sunshine to the chilly city of Ballarat.
Painting a scene in a Les Arcs street.
Alan, who has French ancestry, has been painting France since he made his first sketch from the balcony of his mother's house in Menton (Alpes-Maritimes) at the age of five.

He studied at art school in England, and has exhibited in southern England (including having three works selected for the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition in London). Since moving to Australia his work has been shown in galleries in Victoria and Melbourne.

On our first ever visit to Les Arcs-sur-Argens in 2008, he said, quite casually: 'I could paint here for the rest of my life.'

I was already sold on the village and its lovely ambience, but that comment probably sealed it. We were vaguely looking at houses anyway - and we eventually bought a tiny 18th century terraced house in the village centre.

Alan paints from life - landscapes, townscapes, still lifes - and loves being in an area where he has ready access to wonderful little galleries like L'Annociade at Saint-Tropez and Musée Bonnard at Le Cannet, not to mention Cezanne's studio in Aix-en-Provence, Musée Matisse in Nice and all the art at St Paul de Vence, Grasse and Antibes - everywhere actually!
Alan painting on the rooftop in Les Arcs.

His plein air studio is set up on the roof terrace, where he paints small oil sketches of drawings he has made on his travels in various parts of Provence.

These sketches return with us to Australia, where he enlarges them in his studio, according to colour notes he has made.

And this year he put them all together for an exhibition at Backspace Gallery in Ballarat during the month when we  avidly watch the Tour de France and celebrate the Fete Nationale (Bastille Day) on July 14.

It was incredible to see them all in one space and to experience that brilliant Provencal light in the middle of a chilly Ballarat winter.
'The Argens in flood.' Looking back over the town, showing the medieval castle tower.

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.





Monday, 6 March 2017

These feet are made for walking

There's nothing comparable to walking the fragrant hills of Provence.
Walking is for me, the best way to see and learn about your surrounds, whether is it the bush, city streets – or the narrow sentiers (walking tracks) that criss-cross the fragrant hills of Provence.

One of the first things I do when I arrive at a place – anywhere new, really – is walk around and familiarise myself in the sights, scents, sounds of it.

But wandering through the countryside is a serious business for the French, particularly those in the south who have been walking the hillsides for centuries. Known as ‘La Randonnée’ – probably the best English translation is the very British ‘Rambling’ – it is akin to hiking.
Wandering beside olive groves.
In the Var, there are numerous paths throughout the region and our local council in Les Arcs-sur-Argens is planning to extend the tracks from our village into the Massif des Maures to the south as well as across the hills to our neighbouring villages.

One of my favourite walks – which I prefer to do in cooler weather because of the summer fire danger – is to the top of the Forêt des Arcs, located in the Maures.

The goal is to reach the highest point, where you have a treat in store – not only the expansive view across central Var, but because of its links to pre-historic times with its rocks, placed in strategic positions by former inhabitants.

Tracks take you deep into the Gorges du Verdon.
Known as Terriers, Menhirs or Dolmen, these sharp, cylindrical rocks are found often arranged on end in strange circles reminiscent of tiny Stonehenges, or lying one across two uprights like a door jamb.
The tourist office in Les Arcs has maps of the area and you can choose to take the main balade (walk) of 14 kilometres or the short one of 9.2km. With any of these longer walks it is essential that you take in enough water and probably something to eat to sustain you.

The guide also explains the coloured markings and symbols painted on rocks or attached to trees as you ascend, marking your way – yellow and white for the ‘Promenade and Randonnée’ here. There are other colours for regional and national 'grande randonnées'.

Starting by the Argens River, the track slowly rises through the forest, past ancient cork oaks, whose bark has once been used for wine corks by the local vintners. It also passes some of the early mines, now abandoned, where they once extracted precious minerals from deep within the Maures.

There are two other paths that I have not yet investigated and plan to ‘one of these days’.

They are the Grande Randonnée up and over what we call the ‘Red Rock’ but is locally known as ‘Roquebrune’.  The rich red earth of the rock and the way it glows in the setting sun remind us so much of central Australia. We have already mapped our start – and are looking forward to ending up at one of our favourite restaurants on the other side at Roquebrune-sur-Argens.

Sometimes you find other 'randonneurs' on your walk!
The second is more a series of paths, deep within the Canyon of Verdon in northern Var. I have climbed down to the river bed from the cliffs above, but have not yet taken one of the trails that lead both up and downstream – as well as up the other side of the canyon!

Finally there is our own familiar sentier that links Les Arcs with the neighbouring village of Taradeau. It is strenuous enough so you know you have done some exercise, but not so far that you wind up exhausted.  And it’s always good to be able to stop for a refreshing drink in the main street of Taradeau before the homeward journey (on foot or by bus).




Sunday, 29 January 2017

Empty Attics

The Vide Grenier at les Arcs-sur-Argens.
The summer months in Les Arcs-sur-Argens are hot, dry and dusty, but the warm summer nights with music and dancing in the street make the days worthwhile.

Another way to counteract the heat is just to ignore it.
Musical instruments to haggle over.
One way to do that is to get absorbed in something else – like fossicking through other people’s ‘stuff’.

So once a month we walk out to the edge of town – near the ‘Rond point deux chypres’  - the roundabout on the way to ‘La chapelle de Sainte Roseline’  (which has more than two cypress pines, by the way) – where the huge Vide grenier is held.

Now a ‘Vide Grenier’ – literally ‘empty attic’ is like a car boot sale. People figuratively clean out their attics and unwanted, but still saleable good are spread out on rugs, tables, tarpaulins and sold for incredibly cheap prices.

It’s the best way to furnish a house.

It’s also the best way to over-fill your suitcase for the journey home.

For me, it is almost impossible to resist buying something – and I have to be very disciplined not to buy everything that takes my eye – whether I have a use for it or not.
Shoes anyone?
Most towns throughout France stage Vide greniers from time-to-time and if you have a chance to go to one, please do.
You can browse for hours.
Sometimes you will find real treasures. Other times you will come home with an item and wonder what on earth you were thinking.

I imagine that feeling is the same the world over.

The Vide Grenier at Les Arcs-sur-Argens is dotted around an enormous paddock with rows and rows of good laid out for browsing.
It's located at the roundabout - the junction of roads that take you to Draguignan in the north, south to the N7 (route nationale) and east (past Sainte-Roseline) towards La Motte.

It gets full of people and cars very early so we tend to walk out from the town - a kilometre or so, but remember to bring large shopping bags for the inevitable purchases!

Something to decorate the house and garden.
It is hot and dusty and noisy and busy and happy. There are places where you can chill out with food, a coffee or an ice cream in the dappled shade of the native pines.

The view is amazing towards the blue outlines of Les Maures to the south. The traders are fun, cheeky and expect you to haggle.

Take some sun cream, a large hat, your camera, a bottle of water and a sense of humour.

Pumpkins - for decoration only.
You can make the rounds again and again as new wares come out to replace those bought earlier in the day. But by late afternoon, the clouds of dust gather at the bottom of the paddock as cars make their way back home.
It’s time to gather up that lamp, the outrageous pair of shoes, that funny little figurine and broken-but-pretty musical instrument you have just bought, and make your way back into town.

Once you have showered off the dust and admired your purchases (or planned who you might pass them on to), it’s time for your evening apéro.

The shadows lengthen and the town centre fills up with diners, most of whom are and satisfied shoppers and sellers, a band begins to play in the kiosk and you realise that despite the summer heat, you’ve just had a magnificent day.
Rows and rows of goods laid out for you to bargain for.




Sunday, 15 January 2017

A day in Saint-Tropez

'Saint-Tropez, le port 1905' by Albert Marquet. Musée de l'Annonciade, Saint-Tropez. 
Once a sleepy fishing village and artists’ haven, the town of Saint-Tropez – one of the best known in the Var – now conjures up glamour, luxury yachts and beautiful people.

The change came in the 1950s when movie stars like Brigitte Bardot moved in. Artists, actors, models , musicians and the ’jet set’ all followed, putting Saint-Tropez on the map and changing it forever.
Saint-Tropez from la navette (the ferry).
Yet despite these changes – the up-market restaurants, the luxury boutiques, the beautiful people – the town has somehow managed to retain a genuine attraction, for me anyway.

I love nothing better than to catch one of the Bateaux Verts (water taxis) from Sainte-Maxime and speed across the Golfe de Saint-Tropez towards the town.
There is a feeling of exhilaration about cutting through the waves and weaving through the yachts 
as you approach the little pink-and-ochre town that grew up around its fishing fleet.

Drawing closer you can make out the familiar rounded church tower that has marked the town through the ages, the Citadelle – high on the promontory – and the breakwater that creates a safe harbour for both the enormous luxury yachts and the smaller, working fishing vessels.
Senequier - a landmark café on the port. 
You arrive portside to recognise so many landmarks made famous in posters, works of art and photographs.

It is always overcrowded with tourists in summer, yet there is a sense of fun and anticipation as you turn for a stroll around the port. Each year the town hosts an outdoor sculpture exhibition there, and regular artists set up side-by-side to ply their trade like a sunny southern Place du Tertre.

But the true finds are when you start exploring the narrow walkways and passages that take you into the heart of the town.  I could spend all my time wandering up and down these lanes – seeking out tiny galleries, restaurants hidden behind high bougainvillea-covered walls, arcades of Haute Couture boutiques and others where the usual range of soft, flowing cotton summer dresses and scarves fill the entrances.
Playing petanque in the dappled shade of the platanes (plane trees).
Push a little further and you come to the amazing Place des Lices – where the morning markets under the spreading plane trees really are something else. There are food stalls, but mostly there is an array of antique stalls – old clothes, mirrors, kitchen utensils, farm items, clocks, wrought iron candelabra, clothing, perfumes – you can spend the entire morning enveloped in the rows and rows of ‘stuff’.

Walking through the old town.
It finishes at lunchtime – everyone has to eat – and the stall-holders are like worker ants, quickly and efficiently packing everything up and clearing the entire square for the post-prandial petanque players to while away their afternoons in the dappled shade.

Meanwhile, encircling the square are restaurants of all kinds, where you can enjoy a leisurely half-pizza and salad, some locally-caught seafood or one of the special ( and extra healthy) Mediterranean dishes. Washed down, of course with some chilled local rosé.

Feeling relaxed enough to stretch those legs afterwards, you can make your way through the old town as it meanders up the hillside to the Citadelle. Warning: While the view is breathtaking, so are the many steps you have to climb to reach it.

It has been substantially renovated since we first visited it and really should be a ‘must’ on any visitor’s see-and-do list.
You learn not only about the history of St Tropez – named after the monk, St Torpès of Pisa, whose headless body was washed up in a boat on the shore of the present-day town – but also about its sea-faring pursuits and the Citadelle's own role in guarding the village below. You can even lie back on special seats and watch your own sea voyage unfold on the ceiling!

One of the giant sculptures outside l'Annonciade.
And if you’re not up to the hilly walk, my absolute favourite place to go is ‘le Musée de l’Annonciade’ – the beautiful gallery on the far edge of the port that houses a sublime collection of post-Impressionist art. Here you can see original paintings by Bonnard, Signac, Derain, Vuillard, Camoin, among so many others.
These were the early artists who colonised the small Provenҫal village, attracted by the magnificent Mediterranean light.

I sometimes return to St Tropez a second time during my stay.  It is a quick and easy day trip from Les Arcs-sur-Argens by bus to Sainte-Maxime. The Bateaux Verts that leave every 20 minutes for Saint-Tropez are just 10 minutes’ walk from the Office du Tourisme bus stop. So much easier on public transport than negotiating the Cote d’Azur in summer traffic!

It’s always a fascinating day out, even if you just want to laze in one of the café-bars lining the port and people-watch.