Friday, 22 August 2014

Liberation of Provence


Seventy years ago today, the American-led liberation of southern France reached the town of Apt. The previous day, the tanks and Jeeps had rolled into Aix-en-Provence (above), chasing the fleeing German army of occupation. But today is the day remembered in Apt, with a plaque on a small roundabout planted with cypresses and flowers where the main road, the old N100 now the D900, arrives from Céreste.


This plaque is no anniversary special; it has been here for as long as I can remember, passed daily by the locals as they go about their business, and the tourists who swell the town's life during the summer. It is a poignant reminder not only of the event itself, but that - contrary to myth - the French remember it with profound gratitude. In the villages and small towns of the Luberon, the wartime cooperation between the brave members of the resistance and the RAF is recalled with pride and enduring mutual respect. Should the war be discussed with visitors from Britain, the US and Canada, it is with a sense of shared history.

This was the starting point of my novel The Sea Garden, in which the story plays out against the background of the Liberation which began with the Allied invasion on the coast at St-Tropez. The settings in the book can be seen here: the island of Porquerolles just below Hyeres, and Manosque to the north-east of Pertuis.


For weeks, the local newspaper La Provence (from which this map is taken) has been telling the story day by day. Yesterday's page included a fascinating piece by Yves Reynaud about the day the Americans arrived in the village of Tour d'Aigues near Pertuis on the southern slopes of the Luberon mountains.

What the French noticed first of all was that the harsh sound of hobnailed Nazi boots had gone from the silent streets, to be replaced by the soundless rubber of the American footwear - and music! The "Yanks" chewed gum nonchalantly as they offered cigarettes and chocolate to the villagers - the French offered fruit in return. In the village centre, the whole population clamoured around the Jeeps and Dodges, vehicles so modern as to be curiosities in themselves. Upbeat tunes were playing from the Jeeps: songs they had never heard before.

The momentous day ended in the Café Innocenti - today, the Café du Chateau - with laughter, talk, drinking and dancing. One of the GIs sat down at the old piano and started pounding out Boogie-Woogie. Two days later the Americans had pushed on north, but the villagers continued the party by collecting eggs from every farm and smallholding. An immense celebratory omelette composed of more than a thousand eggs was cooked and shared by the whole community.

This evening in Apt, the town's liberation will be marked by two parades through the town with some of the original vehicles; the laying of wreaths and honouring of the dead; the unveiling of a new memorial plaque in the Place de la Mairie in the presence of Lieut-Col Tim Stoy and Captain Monika Stoy, representing the US Army; a showing of a newsreel film of the event; an aperitif outside the Hotel de Ville; and dancing under the trees to a swing band.



For more about the activities of the French resistance in this area, you can read more in these past blog posts about Céreste, and Samuel Beckett at Roussillon. More on Apt tomorrow.

Friday, 15 August 2014

Lazy days

 
Summer in Provence, and the days are just slipping by...and suddenly it's ten days since I last posted. To be fair, I'd always intended to recharge the batteries this month before diving back into the work-in-progress but this feels like true laziness. Not that life has been entirely idle, you understand. It's just that having friends over for lunch feels like a major event, planning what to eat and drink to consider, cooling the wine and laying up the table under the vine canopy...


There has been lots of reading and consequent thinking under the fig tree to factor in (I loved A Jane Austen Education by William Deresiewicz).


In July and August there are entertainments every night up and down the Luberon valley, from relaxed jazz concerts in the squares of hillside villages, to dancing at the fetes votives to the more formal performances at the castles of Lacoste and Gordes offering opera and famous names. This booklet has suggestions for every day of the week. And with it is my choice for an authentic Provencal scent for the warm evenings: L'Occitane's Ambre Santal, which is not nearly as heavy as it sounds, just sweet and spicy.


The lazy days that follow can be justified by a bit of heavy lifting in the garden, where there are always jobs to be done, like the clearing of ivy from the "secret" door to the old walnut wine cave that was starting to disappear again under a cloak of green. It was a tough task, that called for urgent rest and relaxation afterwards...


When we do rouse ourselves to go out and about, there are always brocante shops to be explored. These pots were outside one in Lourmarin.

 
And so the sun sets on another arduous day...I'm sure you can see why there's been no time for blogging... ;P
 

Tuesday, 5 August 2014

Painting in the sun

 
I'm having a break from writing at the moment, enjoying the sun, reading and working in the garden. But the other day, the mood came upon me to get my paints out. I wanted to try something colourful and abstract, inspired by a conversation with an artist friend of mine who said that sometimes she just gets her brushes out with no picture in her head, and just sees where it leads.
 
So I found a decent-sized canvas, 18 by 24 inches, and set to daubing outside in the courtyard - I make no claims to mastery of painting - and this is the result. After a while it seemed like flowers and fruit to me, so I deliberately gave it a recognisable fig and slice of watermelon. Quite pleased, actually.

Saturday, 2 August 2014

News of the lavender harvest

 
 
The lavender cutting has begun. When the wind catches the fields, warm gusts of scent rise into the air. And when the harvest is in, and distillation begins the other side of the hill from our terrace, the fragrance of lavender will get stronger.
 
I took these photos with a zoom lens from the track that leads to our property, when the crop was still blooming. We're not as close as it looks, but imagine what it would look and smell like to live in the hamlet with a vista like that sea of lavender!
"Marthe went to live with the Mussets at the farmhouse surrounded by lavender fields halfway between the plateau and the town." 
                       from The Lavender Field, part II of The Sea Garden

       "Iris pulled off the wrapping. It was a bottle of perfume: a voluptuous lavender scent with the label Distillerie Musset, Manosque.
          ‘Was there a message?’ she asked, desperately trying to damp down her hopes.
          ‘No card, Miss. But the gentleman who brought it did say something.’
          ‘Yes?’
         ‘This is from Xavier.’"
                               from A Shadow Life, part III of The Sea Garden
 
In the novel, the unexpected gift is wrapped in a tatty Francs-Tireurs propaganda sheet on which Iris’s name was scrawled. Today, the newspaper might be La Provence, on which the lavender harvest was front page news the other day: the "blue gold of Provence".
 
 
And the feature on the inside pages actually shows the present day harvest on the Valensole plateau, close to the location of my fictional farmhouse belonging to the Musset family. The rest of the caption reads: '...where the lavender fields spread out as far as the eye can see'. When there's such dreadful news in so many national newspapers, the sense of tradition and continuity is as comforting as the scent of lavender itself.
 
 
The industry is nothing like as large-scale around our way, but I wrote a post about the tiny Distillerie les Coulets, close by, a few years ago before The Lantern was published. You can find it here: The lavender distillery.


Monday, 28 July 2014

The island by bicycle


“No cars were permitted on the island and most people who passed were on bicycles: dented, clicking, cumbersome machines of uncertain vintage, used by countless people on countless holidays.”                                            The Sea Garden

Hiring a bicycle on Porquerolles is a must. It allows you to cover so much more ground than if you walk everywhere, and adds to the sense of childhood adventure that includes rocky coves, forts on tiny bay islands and shaded paths that always lead to another vista of the sea. You could take a boat, of course, but then you'd miss out on one of the most sensuous aspects of this lovely place: the fragrance.

“Scrubby evergreen bushes released a strong scent of resin and honey; forests of pine gave way to gentle south-facing vineyards. The path was quiet, disturbed only by the ululation of early summer cicadas.”
 


 “The bicycle tyres crunched on small sandy stones as she followed the trail between green oak and pines: the Aleppo and the parasol pine. She spotted an arquebusier, a strawberry tree, and pulled off the path to have a closer look.”

 
As Laurent de Fayols writes to Ellie in the novel, the island has a wild and romantic quality. It was bought at the beginning of the twentieth centuty as a wedding gift to his wife by a man who had made his fortune in the silver mines of Mexico. It was one of three small specks in the Mediterranean known as the Golden Isles, after the oranges, lemons and grapefruit that glowed like lamps in their citrus groves.

There are few reference works in English that offer information beyond superficial facts about the island, and those I did manage to find were old. The best was published in 1880, by a journalist called Adolphe Smith. Here is his ‘description of the most Southern Point of the French Riviera’:


“The island is divided into seven ranges of small hills, and in the numerous valleys thus created are walks sheltered from every wind, where the umbrella pines throw their deep shade over the path and mingle their balsamic odour with the scent of the thyme, myrtle and the tamarisk.”


 
It's not all easy going along the cycle paths. They start easily enough, then you find yourself pushing through carpets of pine needles, then sand and rock. There are some vicious inclines, and exhilarating descents, with the wheels sticking in ruts and slithering on smooth stone. But it's worth it to emerge in quiet, lonely places like the Calanque Oustaou de Diou on the south side, below.


No one was there, and we decided against a swim because when we looked carefully, the shallows were full of small mauve jellyfish - meduses, as the French call them: Medusas, after the Greek Gorgon monster with the face of a woman and hideous hair of snakes.


We hopped back on our bikes and pushed on, until we found a lovely beach for swimming and snorkelling within sight of the Fort du Petit Langoustier.

 
Though this is the place where I'd really love to swim - how you get down to it safely is another matter. It's a sharp drop off the cycle path, and probably really is one for reaching by boat. Next time!




Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Auberge des Glycines

 
Welcome to Porquerolles! The pink oleander blossoms tangle with palm fronds on the dockside. It's hot - very hot. And it's crowded in high summer, but many of the throngs of people in the lane are making their way back to the mainland after a day on the island. There are only a certain number of hotel beds, and if you're not staying in one of them, or in a private house or apartment, then it's back on the ferry for you.
 
We made our way to the far corner of the Place d'Armes, where the Auberge des Glycines (The Wisteria Inn, isn't that lovely?) sits in a quiet shade-dappled spot. It's an old-fashioned hotel in the very best sense: three-star, not grand luxe but country stylish and atmospheric. The kind of place I remember as a child, on long car journeys down through France. To get to our room we went through the courtyard, set for dinner that evening.



We definitely struck lucky with our room: cool and very spacious, with lovely touches of Provencal style.


We headed out, the temptation round every corner before we even got out of the Auberge. Who wouldn't want to take a seat here in the shade and try a Kir à la Figue?

 
 
We did have dinner here on the first evening, and it was delicious, full of imaginatively presented seasonal vegetables and beautifully cooked fish. The local Porquerolles rosé was excellent too: pale and fruity, sunshine in a glass.

Sunday, 20 July 2014

Crossing to Porquerolles

 
Here it is, the ferry to Porquerolles island. Forgive me if I'm hopelessly enamoured of the South of France, but isn't this quite the most glamorous ferry boat you are ever likely to see? The light scintillates even on the dock at La Tour Fondue (the melted tower) at the end of the Giens peninsula, a narrow spit of land that dangles from Hyeres.
 
   "A hundred years ago the ferry boat was summoned to the mainland by smoke signal – the fire of resinous leaves and twigs lit in a brazier outside the café at the end of the Presqu’île de Giens."

                                                                           from The Sea Garden

 
The tower itself, one of the many old forts that dot the landscape, looks golden in the afternoon sunlight as the ferry eases out into the blue, blue sea.
 
   "The engines thrummed and the boat nosed out into sea glitter and salt spray, then powered up to full speed."  



The crossing only takes fifteen minutes, and the boat really does go fast once it gets underway. Yachts and sail boats skim across the blue alongside, and anticipation rises. I love islands, the way they are cut off and self-contained, and Porquerolles, with its paths through pine forests and beaches in rocky coves, seems the perfect size for exploration.

     "Oleanders and palms waved a sub-tropical greeting from the quayside"


"The white and steel needles of the marina extended out to the ferry dock. A warm breeze rang with clinks of metal rigging. This shore felt far more foreign than the one they had left, as if the sea voyage had crossed much more than the few miles of the strait."

 
 "From the dock she could see pale beaches and low verdant hills berried with red roofs. The fort above the harbour punched up a fist of stone through green trees." 
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