Provence in the spring – wild flowers in profusion along the roadsides, fabulous displays of climbing roses around ancient doors and windows, coffee in a square under plane trees with swifts screaming overhead, blue skies, warm sunshine – the best time to be there.
We’ve just returned from a short break, taking advantage of cheap flights offered by Ryanair on a new route from Liverpool to Toulon-Hyeres airport, a convenient jumping-off point for forays into the hinterland of this first Roman province. Our base was Aups, the small town truffle-capital in the first foothills of the Alps, up in the northeast corner of the département of Var.
We stayed at the Auberge De La Tour, a building with a long history. In 1000 AD, then lying outside the walls of the fortified village, it was a leper colony. Later, and up until 1665, it was a Royal hospital. At that point the building was sold and first became an inn. On our first evening we dined in the courtyard, under chestnut trees that are 300 years old.
Although the hotel was comfortable, we were not that impressed with the food, so for the next two evenings we ate at Le Caillou, an excellent Moroccan restaurant we discovered on the main street. With swifts screaming overhead as darkness fell, we enjoyed their delicious tagine, couscous and Moroccan pastries. Just next door was a boulangerie where we bought our morning croissants (their almond croissants were, we all agreed, the best we;d ever tasted) before taking them to a cafe over the road where we drank coffee.
Just off the main square is the 15th century church of St Pancras (top), named after the young Roman Christian martyred in 302, whose precious relic (a piece of bone from the hand) has been here since the 15th century. You enter the church by descending seven steps – an indication of the scale of alluvial deposits left by the Grave torrent after centuries of winter storms. All the towns and villages we visited grew up around rivers or streams, whose waters were channeled into lavoirs (washouses) and fountains which are still a prominent feature of these settlements. The Grave is now culverted through part of the town, but the alley that runs parallel to the main street follows the path of the stream, and is named the Torrent de la Grave.
Perhaps the most remarkable feature of the church is the Republican motto ‘Liberty Equality Fraternity’ inscribed over the main door on the occasion of the separation of Church and State in 1905. Anti-church, anti-monarchical sentiment has been strong in Aups for more than two centuries. The town was the centre of the Var Republican insurgency in 1851 against the coup d’état of Napoleon III, and there is a monument to those who died during the insurrection in the main square. Dozens of local insurgents were killed in battle or executed, while 3000 others were imprisoned or deported to Algeria. After the last war, the names of dead resistance fighters from Aups were added to the monument – Aups was an important centre of resistance during World War II, and the local group sheltered those fleeing the militia and the Gestapo.
Not far from Aups is the village of Sillans-la-Cascade, where we lunched on enormous baguettes filled with local ham and Camembert with fresh salad on our first day, before setting off on the pleasant walk of about a kilometre through meadows of wild flowers (above) and woods of century-old plane trees to the waterfall (below). It’s about 42 metres high and, though the local council has restricted access to the pool at the foot of the fall due the danger of falling boulders, you can sit peacefully by the succession of pools were the water of the Bresque is rendered turquoise green by the underlying limestone rock.
A short drive north from Aups brings you to Moustiers-Sainte-Marie, an immaculate village that lies at the western entrance to the Gorges du Verdon. The village has been a centre of pottery-making for centuries, but is now heavily dependent on tourism. We were lucky to be there in the early morning and out of season, before the summer crowds descend. The houses cling to the foot of a limestone cliff, from which flows a stream that runs through the centre of the village. Above the village, a gold painted star hangs on a chain suspended between two cliffs. According to legend its origin goes back to the 10th century, although the original star and chain have been replaced several times since then.
An eagle soared above us as we drove along the rim of the Gorge du Verdon (below), which must be one of the most awe-inspiring sites in Europe. The river flows 700 metres in the canyon below, cutting a deep swathe through the high limestone plateau of Haute Provence and is named for its turquoise green colour (verdon being derived from the French for green).
We returned via Aiguines, an attractive village that overlooks the Lac de Sante Croix. This magnificent lake wasn’t here when we last travelled through this region in 1981. It was formed by the Barrage de Ste. Croix, built on the Verdon in 1975. On a high point overlooking the lake stands Aiguines chateau (below), built in the 17th century with a round tower at each corner finished with brilliantly coloured enamel roof tiles.
It was in Aiguines, after having lunched on another fine sandwich from the splendidly named Terre de Saveurs petit magasin, that I noticed a stall selling the elongated Gariguette strawberries that are native to this region. The produce was presided over by a weatherbeaten guy in a check shirt playing the mouth organ to himself. I bought a punnet and asked if I could photograph him, at which he summoned his dog which immediately grabbed a dummy and jumped on the chair. Having ascertained I was British he (man, not dog) played me the national anthem, followed by La Marseillaise. There was more local produce for sale – olive oil, sprays of lavender and so on.
The village is pretty, with houses clustered tightly together on the side of the rocky hill. The houses are old, mostly nicely restored with Provencal pastel colours and contrasting windows and shutters. In the main square is an attractive lavoir decorated with frescoes (below).
Later we drove on to 12th century Tourtours (‘le village dans le ciel’) , perhaps the prettiest of the hilltop towns that we visited (there’s a branch of Provence Verte, Sotheby’s International Realty on the main street, which tells you something). There we relaxed at one of the cafes on the main square shaded by enormous olive trees, before setting out on a walk to Les Moulieres, the site of a ruined village and water mill. The path led out of the village past the imposing 16th-century château with massive round towers at each corner, one dating back to the 12th century (below). The château is restored and in use, accommodating the Mairie and the post office.
The path took us out through typical Provencal garrigue, the roadside verges splashed with the bright colours of spring flowers – poppies, valerian, rosemary, thyme, and two different species of broom, one with extra-large blooms. It was here that we heard the liquid notes of a nightingale, a series of rattling whistles and long, melodious notes, loud and sustained, seeming to meander on endlessly – until we spoke and it stopped. For Keats it was the ‘light-winged Dryad of the trees/ In some melodious plot /Of beechen green and shadows numberless’, that sang ‘of summer in full-throated ease’.
Next day we left for the coast, to stay the night in Hyeres before our flight home the following morning. Our road took us through Salernes (above), a small town in the Bresque valley, dominated by the ruins of a 13th century château, and famous for its ceramics.
As in every town and village we explore, the swifts swoop and scream in squadrons above our heads – magical birds that pair bond for life and spend the whole of their lives in flight, covering at least 500 miles a day or 3.65 million in a twenty year lifetime, and soaring thousands of feet to sleep on the wing.
For Ted Hughes, swifts ‘materialise at the tip of a long scream/of needle … a controlled scream of skid’. They:
… swat past, hard fletched,
Veer on the hard air, toss up over the roof,
And are gone again. Their mole-dark labouring,
Their lunatic limber-scramming frenzy
And their whirling blades
Sparkle out into the blue –
Not ours any more.
I think, too, of Olivier Messiaen, whose music was inspired by ‘the sovereign liberty of birdsong’ who wrote: ‘they are our desire for light, for stars, for rainbows, and for jubilant songs. … The bird is the symbol of freedom. We walk, he flies. We make war, he sings…’
We paused in the hills one more time to explore Entrecasteaux. The château in the centre of the village (below) was built in the 16th century on the ruins of an 11th century fort and was transformed in the 17th and 18th centuries.
The château, which was the residence of many Provençal nobles, has been restored on several occasions. A plaque records that it is one of Var’s most important historical monuments with serious connections to the Provencal rich and powerful. It was the residence of many Provençal nobles, including a Lieutenant-General of Provence who married the daughter of the Treasurer-General of France and Jean-Baptiste d’Entrecasteaux, chairman of the Provence Parliament. Below the château is a formal garden designed by Le Notre, the French landscape architect and the principal gardener of Louis XIV. In the garden stands a statue of Admiral Bruni d’Entrecasteaux, a French navigator who explored the Australian coast in 1792, and who also lived in the château.
The whole village, with its 16th century houses, decorated lintels and vaulted passages has been classified a historical monument. The best part – easily missed – lies below and to the rear of the château, where two 16th century bridges, an 18th century olive mill and a medieval farm are clustered.
There’s a very old sundial on a wall (above), while the wall of the olive mill was ablaze with the most stunning climbing rose I think I’ve ever seen (below).
That was the most outstanding of the climbing roses we saw in every town and village. The slideshow below captures some of the rest.
And so, finally, we arrived at the coast. Leaving our bags at our hotel in Hyeres old town it seemed fitting to round off the holiday with a Mediterranean coastal walk. We drove south from Hyeres past the extensive salt pans (salines) that for 2000 years contributed to the importance of Hyères, and which were in use until the 1990s. Today they are home to migrant and resident water birds – we saw flamingos, stilt, terns and white egret.
Then it was on to the peninsula of Giens, once an island until the coastal currents threw up two parallel sandbars linking it to the mainland. We walked a coastal path out to the headland, past small bays and beaches, to the cliffs and abandoned World War II fortifications at La Madrague. The way was splashed with the colours of valerian, mallow, broom and bird’s-foot trefoil and shaded by wind-tossed pines and evergreen oaks.
We return by way of the western sandbar and stop to watch the aerial displays of birds and wind surfers (below). On the magnificent west-facing beach I catch sight of notice placed there by the local council. It’s a curious message: the detritus you see on the beach isn’t pollution, but rather a sign of a very healthy ecosystem. I soon realise that the sand is, indeed, littered with round, brown fibrous discs. They are from the foliage of Posidonia oceanica (commonly known as Neptune Grass), a type of seagrass common around the Mediterranean. It forms large underwater meadows that are an important part of the ecosystem. The fruit is free floating and these balls of fibrous material from its foliage wash up on nearby shorelines.
Then it’s a last evening meal on the Place Massillon, with its 13th century Knights’ Templars tower, in Hyeres old town before the flight home to Liverpool.
I’m writing this six days later, and the sun has just come out for the first time since we landed.
O, for a draught of vintage! that hath been
Cool’d a long age in the deep-delved earth,
Tasting of Flora and the country green,
Dance, and Provençal song, and sunburnt mirth!
O for a beaker full of the warm South,
Full of the true, the blushful Hippocrene,
With beaded bubbles winking at the brim,
And purple-stained mouth;
That I might drink, and leave the world unseen,
And with thee fade away into the forest dim…
– John Keats, Ode To A Nightingale