Wednesday, 26 August 2015

Sanary - so not St Tropez

I've been away the past week, a working break on the Côte d'Azur, if that doesn't sound too implausible. An old fishing village on the shores of the Mediterranean is such an old cliché that these days it almost always means millionaires on yachts and bronzed stick insects dripping in bling. But not always. Sanary-sur-Mer is still a working fishing town as well as a jolly holiday place for the more down-to-earth French.

I really was working. The page proofs of the new novel, 300 Days of Sun, had to be painstakingly checked, mistakes hunted down and sentences forensically assessed. With the house full of visitors again, I couldn't see how it would get done, so this was my answer. Work in the morning, sun in the afternoon.

It was great! I've never been away specifically to work on my own before, and I like it. Rather too much, perhaps. Previous brief visits to Sanary had intrigued me. It seemed friendly, with a lovely atmosphere, and is pretty as a picture. It has some lively literary connections, too, which are always interesting. Thomas Mann lived here in the 1930s, and Aldous Huxley wrote Brave New World just out of town along the coast. D H Lawrence found some easing of his tuberculosis here, and Sybille Bedford - a wonderful writer who deserves to be better known - wrote Jigsaw, her "unsentimental education" among the wild and eccentric bohemians in the twenties and thirties in Sanary.

A short walk down a tree-lined, almost suburban, street to the west of the port was the pretty Portissol beach, where the water can change colour from pale grey-green to deep blue.
I even took the train along the coast to La Ciotat one day, as I've had the glimmering of an idea for yet another novel and wanted to do some research. Another afternoon, I took a boat trip to the calanques at Cassis and beyond.
At night, there were unpretentious restaurants along harbour where I felt perfectly happy eating on my own, watching the world go by and the night market being set up. After that, there were various bands and other free entertainments that sprang up along the esplanade. As I told the family when I got back, having completed my list of changes to the proofs and sent them off to New York yesterday morning before I left: it was a full week's work!

Thursday, 13 August 2015


Heavy rain at sunset in the Luberon. After weeks of searing sunshine and sweltering heat, it's perfect. The ground soaks it up and plants revive. And the cloudbursts damp down any remaining danger from the embers of forest fires. The hotter the summer, the more welcome the grey and the showers - always in the knowledge that tomorrow will almost bring the return of cerulean blue skies.

Sunday, 2 August 2015

Château la Verrerie – wine and art

The pale peachy rosé wine from the Château la Verrerie at Puget-sur-Durance has been a summer favourite chez nous for some years. We almost certainly tried it first in one of the many restaurants in these parts, and starting calling it Château Ver-rer-y Good to distinguish it from the Château Verrière, which is also good but not our preferred choice. For special dinners, we normally buy a half-case at the excellent V Comme Vin shop in Apt rather than do what the Provenҫaux do, which is to buy direct from the producer.

But we finally made it to the Château la Verrerie the other day because, as part of the celebrations for its 30 years in the trade (a blink of an eye compared to the grand vignerons of France) an art exhibition was showing the work of one of the first local artists I featured when I first started this blog and I couldn't resist the chance to meet him. 

I first saw Olivier Boissinot's vibrant paintings of the calanques while trawling the internet looking for an illustration for an excerpt from The Lantern. When I found his website, I found he had captured exactly what had been in my head when I wrote - the searing brightness of the sea against the grey cliffs and the consequent sharpening of sight:

I sent him an email asking for permission to reproduce some of his work, he replied, and - thanks to the wonders of the internet - contact was made. Each time he had an exhibition, he would let me know, but until now, I hadn't been here at the right time.

As I walked into the Château la Verrerie, there was no mistaking I was in the right place!
And then I found the artist himself, enjoying a glass of excellent rosé, naturellement. Here he is, in front of one of the paintings in another of his subjects: the jazz clubs of New Orleans. He and I and Rob were soon chatting away like old friends, or as he put it: an artist, a writer and a musician - why wouldn't we have lots of interesting thoughts in common?

We didn't come away empty-handed, either. A case of wine, of course. And a painting, too. I owed Rob a birthday present, and we'd vaguely talked about a picture. And suddenly, there it was, just perfect for his music room here in France - The Jazz Group.

We both loved the reds, yellows and oranges, which seem to be the colours of jazz, and the thick, slick quality of the paint on the canvas, as well as the composition. As it turned out, we are so delighted with it that we decided to hang it where we can look at it all the time in our living room. It's a big canvas, and makes quite a statement, but perfect for the kind of music we like to play here.
And the music room still has its Boissinot - one of many posters that Olivier generously gave us:

You can see more of Olivier Boissinot's work by visiting his website Olivier Boissinot.
And for more information about the wine and the château, here is the site: Château la Verrerie. 

Tuesday, 28 July 2015

Quintessential Provence

After sweltering heat, a cool breeze is playing and the days are rolling by. I will try to write something more interesting soon, I promise, but for now I have been pottering around the garden. This pot of very fragrant lavender from Roussillon is perfect on the table under the olive tree in the courtyard.

In years gone by, the glossy-leaved Diamantina, with its never-ending profusion of white bell flowers has always done well up sunny walls here, and so I have high hopes for this one. On evenings when we have guests for dinner, I'll light the lanterns in the courtyard. It makes a magical setting.

One day, I fantasize, I will have a garden beyond as luxuriant as this one at the Chateau La Verrerie at Puget-sur-Durance.

Sunday, 12 July 2015

Two for the Road, driving through France

Driving south through France in summer. For a certain kind of British holidaymaker - Francophile, wine-drinking, book-sun-and-food-loving (I am all of these) - the popping of the car, like a cork, from the ferry or tunnel terminal onto the northern French autoroute is the start of another adventure.

And every year, as Rob and I barrel through Amiens, or Rouen and have the inevitable "Are we going to avoid Paris?" debate (we usually end up doing battle with one or other of the capital's gridlocked ring roads because he says the road to Chartres and Orleans is "too boring" and too far to the west to have any chance of finding a perfect hotel for the night in Burgundy) we recall other journeys, other years.

When was that first disastrous stay in Versailles? It was 1997; our daughter was one year old; and I don't know why, but I just don't like the atmosphere at Versailles, no matter how grand the hotel we stayed at. But wasn't there another time there? Yes, in 2005. We'd had a tyre blow-out, in the faithful old silver BMW convertible we kept for sentimental reasons, viz: 1991 (Dordogne, Aveyron and down into Spain), and 1994 (unforgettable stay at the Chateau Eza above Cap Ferrat, followed by a farmhouse in the Tarn). Which was the year we drove down with my old friend Chris, stayed in a weird old hotel in Tonnerre and spent rather longer than intended tasting wine at the Chateau de Pommard? (Answer: 1986, and a wine-themed relais is beginning to emerge.)

Remember that old film, Two for the Road (1967), in which the married couple drive from England to St Tropez, remembering other trips over the same ground, other stages in their marriage? Well, we're getting to be a regular Albert Finney and Audrey Hepburn (in an ever so slightly less Hollywood great, elfin beauty way) bickering our way through the dull northern fields and industrial estates.

But it's actually quite useful, having the marital spats about, for example, which hotel it was where our friend Richard reduced us to tears of helpless laughter at breakfast with his observations about his sleepless night in a room next to two antique dealers. Several kilometres pass as I persuade Rob that it was the Hotel de la Gare near Macon, and I remember the name of the hotel because Richard began his account, with ominous pomposity, "I realise that, as this is the Hotel de la Gare, one should be prepared for a certain amount of noise, let us assume of shunting on the tracks..."

I should make it clear, just in case anyone wants to be over-sensitive, that the source of our hilarity was not so much Richard's ever more lurid tale but his Victorian Englishman abroad delivery of it, as he calmly spread jam on his croissant, having expressed disappointment at the lack of Oxford marmalade. We were all about 24 at the time. The good news is that Richard is one of the few people I know who has become less pompous with age.

Actually, I have an authentic memory of being driven the Dijon-Lyon-Montelimar-Avignon route more or less contemporaneously with the making of Two for the Road. The Sixties may have been swinging for Audrey and Albert on their drive south, but my family on the road from Brussels to the Costa Brava in Spain cut an altogether less fashionable picture.

We were Four for the Road: Mum, Dad, younger sister Helen and I, in a Ford Cortina with suitcases lashed to the roof-rack. It was May 1968, and while students were manning the barricades for the Paris revolution and strikers disrupted the rest of France, the imperturbable Lawrensons of the British Embassy were setting off for Spain come hell or high water. Dad had done some calculations and worked out how much fuel we'd need to get to Spain if no service stations were open in France. The jerry cans full of petrol were in the boot. As a concession, Dad took the hard decision to stop smoking his customary Rothmans while he was behind the wheel and we set forth at dawn smelling like an oil refinery. My sister and I were both sick before we crossed the border. No doubt, these days, our parents would have been arrested - on any of several counts - but we made it in one piece, though rather green around the gills.

What all this accumulated experience - Rob has his own decades of family trips in camper vans and back-up tales of horror - means is that we have quite of directory of tried and trusted hotels and stopping places for the first night of the journey.

Sometimes, the joy is in booking a treat for ourselves, like the Chateau de Vault de Lugny, in which case there will have been pleasurable discussions beforehand and a reservation made. But this time, we decided to take pot luck, like we always used to. It was getting fairly late, when we arrived at the town of Auxerre in Burgundy, one of those time-honoured halts for the British hurling themselves south from Calais. We weren't particularly hopeful - we've stayed in Auxerre before, and neither time was a great success. But we were later than normal, as we'd taken the four-hour Newhaven-Dieppe ferry due to all the disruption at Calais. It was past eight o'clock, and even the chain hotels on the outskirts had packed car parks.
The first hotel we saw close to the centre was the Hotel Normandie, a solid, ivy-clad hotel, of the kind you always hope to find. I went in. Not only was the welcome warm, but we were lucky: they had had a cancellation. Up the staircase, just like the staircases always used to be in French hotels, we were shown a spacious room overlooking a quiet garden.
There was no restaurant, so we walked out into the town for dinner. We could have gone into the main square, but - perhaps because of Two for the Road - we noticed the Bistrot du Palais, in what was once a cinema.

It was our second piece of luck. Not only was the interior a cinema-lover's delight, with what looked like original movie posters all over the walls, but the food was fantastic: again very traditional French, the kind that makes you wonder whether you haven't just walked into a dream. (If you go, try the tarte poireaux et chevre - it's heavenly.)


After dinner, feeling replete and slightly tipsy - Auxerre is very close to Chablis - we wandered around the town for a while, lingering under the fifteenth-century clock tower, originally built on the Gallo-Roman town walls.

It hardly needs saying, given that this was one of those times when everything worked out beautifully, that we slept like logs, and woke relaxed for another day on the road, heading into the sun. Definitely an evening for the archive, to be recalled in the future - and to be revisited.

Monday, 29 June 2015

A sense of place

Not a French garden but a very English one, on a midsummer evening in Kent. I was lucky enough to be invited to a gathering at Long Barn in Weald near Sevenoaks, the former home of novelist, poet and gardener Vita Sackville-West. This is where she lived from 1915 to 1930 with her husband Harold Nicolson, and laid out the garden, learning as she went along, before moving to Sissinghurst Castle to create the famous gardens there.
The house dates from the 14th century - the attached barn is a couple of centuries younger - and on a quiet evening in slanting sunshine, it is possible to feel the history in every stone and slate. The garden wraps around it, crammed with border plants, divided into lawns and hedged outdoor rooms. It is a private property, and the gardens are not open to the public except on special occasions.
This was a very special occasion, on several levels. It was organised to celebrate the amazing work of the Haller Foundation in Kenya, originally in regenerating cement quarries there, and showing what can be achieved by restoring a scarred landscape. Led by UNEP Global Laureate Dr Rene Haller and my friend Louise Piper, the foundation has pioneered a model of environmental regeneration that aims to bring economic security to poor, smallholder farmers living on inhospitable land.

The Haller Foundation offers integrated education programmes in water, farming, education, health, alternative energy and nano-enterprise. Not quick fixes, but long term, life-skills training which empower farmers and their children to lead self-sufficient and sustainable lives. And although the work done by the Haller Foundation is thousands of miles away, there are still natural connections with a garden in Kent. The garden at  Long Barn was once a dull field. Its beauty is the result of Vita Sackville-West's vision, passion and determination.

The landscape architect and lecturer Marian Boswall stood on the terrace overlooking the main lawn and spoke about Sackville-West's aristocratic, rather bohemian background: she was born at grand Knole House at Sevenoaks, the only child of Lord and Lady Sackville; the property and title could not be inherited by a female, and so went to a male cousin. She was only in her early twenties when she arrived at Long Barn with her new husband. She and Harold had an open marriage, with relationships with their friends in the Bloomsbury Group - famously, Vita's affair with Virginia Woolf.

Marian also painted a glorious picture, supported by Vita's own writing, of the practicalities and joys of finding a way to achieve the garden she had in her imagination.

As the sun began to drop behind the hill, the poet and novelist Sarah Salway reminded us that the British have always been travellers and collectors from foreign shores, especially of plants and seeds that were brought back to our small island. The plants we think of as mainstays of English "cottage gardens" are settlers from more exotic countries. Sarah read some of her poems, and I thought this one was particularly appropriate:


Down in the root ball of the ship
the plant collector is making a nest.

He counts his catch, tucks each seed
up in its own handwritten box, an ebony

cabinet ticking with paused hearts.
He dreams of growing a fresh desert

one day, of these dried moments
in the old land coming back to life.

His bones ache as he waters
the dust, while on the deck above,

sailors sleep, the wooden mast dances
again in perfect tune with the winds,

until reaching for water, it leans
too far, loses balance. White sails,

like baby gowns, christen the sea.

As a former Canterbury Laureate, Sarah Salway visited some of the most intriguing gardens of Kent with poetry in mind, and explores what she found in her book Digging up Paradise. More gardens, poetry and photographs can be found on her website The Writer in the Garden.

For more wonderful gardens, you can click on Marian Boswall's website.

And for true inspiration, to see what can be achieved from a starting point of an old cement quarry in Kenya, not only in the landscape but making a difference on the ground for the lives of people who work hard for themselves, please do visit The Haller Foundation and the Bustani Urban Garden.

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