Leaving behind the layered hills of the Cevenne and carrying warm memories of time around Barjac exploring the streams & rivers, jumping off rocks in the Ceze, picnics amongst boulders and stones on the banks of the Silver River amongst the Fools Gold & the scrubby oak woods, learning to swim & dive & snorkle & jump from high places (adults & children), of families & friends that leave & arrive & leave again and it is time to make my way back through Provence to the district of Vars and a small hilltop town called Seillans, near to Grasse in the nice hills above Nice. In the space of a few hours the scenery changes from limestone scraggy outcrops & stunted oak trees protecting an agricultural landscape to a more developed, modernised panorama where the clean, hilltop towns peer out from tall cedars that spread over all the hills like a thick carpet of green spikey hair following the contours & undulations of the pointed scarps & ridges & newly built or renovated homes are scattered amongst their foliage just presenting a hint of affluence to any observers on the opposite slopes.
Seillans boasts itself as being ‘the most beautiful village in France’. It is hard to dispute this. From the approach by the main road, the village spreads upwards and its flat, cardboard box houses are attached to the hillside with mastic.
The road narrows to single file in the centre & from the little cafe opposite the pizzeria it is only possible to climb to the centre on foot. Narrow, cobbled streets are lined by tall townhouses with faint painted clues on their facades suggesting what business they might have housed in the past. One narrow set of cobbles & steps leads to the château dating from the 13th century, another leads up under arches & buttresses, past the Mairie’s office to the small square with seating for open air concerts & then through to the smart restaurant at the top of the village.
All paths seem to lead to and spread from the shade of the trees that cover the tables of the Restaurant du Glorie de Mon Pere. It seems it was the site of the village boulangerie and when the baker died his son converted it into a restaurant under the two huge plane trees and named it in memory of his father. He is still there supervising his young staff from the top of the slope as they scurry around the tables waiting on the punters with an excellent menu, good humoured banter & efficient service. Reservations are recommended!!
It feels like time has stopped, the world is at peace. Even the cicadas have gone on their holidays and the silence that then remains calms the soul & raises the spirit.
Uzes is literally a gem of a town about 30 minutes drive from Barjac. It is like one of those large graphites that look completely uninteresting from the outside until it is cracked open to reveal its hidden cave of coloured, glistening angles of sparkling delight. Around the nugget centre tree lined streets surround the old town walls. These house the ordinary day to day shops & offices with tabacconists rubbing shoulders with bars & banks & bakers & butchers & candlestick makers.
Narrow alleys duck under the stone work to enter the market place revealing a space filled with restaurants, cafes & milk shake bars, classy fashion shops and bustling tourists & locals going about their business. At night the lights in the trees & musical buskers add extra atmosphere to the smell of good food and the hum of happy conversations.
The Pont du Gard carried water for the Romans to Nimes to service their baths & villas. Amazing to think this aquaduct has settled here for two thousand years. It seems unbreakable as visitors scuttle around its pillars & arches which stand grand and proud between the tall banks of the Gard. Canoes like colonies of maggots wriggle their way along the river & under the clutches of the Roman guards as they make their way downstream scraping their bottoms on the stones & rocks of the near empty waters. It has been a long time since any rain fell in the region. Maybe they should resurrect the aquaduct & pipe it in from the north!!
Every Friday the market comes to Barjac. Colour & smell & shapes & sounds all come together to represent the nation in the eyes of the world, as they do in every French town & village. These images display the wealth of French life better than any words. I love the products, the sampling, the range of faces, the colour that is attached on every stall and the busy tempo as stall holders try to sell & the punters jockey for position around the stalls, handing over grubby notes & coins before placing their purchases in large shoulder bags & wicket baskets. Macho men & glamorous women & young tatooed mums & grizzled, aged grandma’s & large bellied, vested granddad’s balance baskets & baguetes & wraped salamis with wine bottles & leads of dogs of every shape & size. The siren sounds at 12.30 to mark the end of trading and the world returns to normal, the stalls are packed away, the vans leave for farms & studios before setting up again the following day in another town as has happened every week over the centuries.
The fun of the fair hits Barjac on our first weekend. They set up under the trees and gradually everything comes to life as dusk comes & darkness falls. The fairground families leave their Mercedes & motorhomes & Beamers & wander up and wind up the children’s dodgems, the candy floss, the shooting arcades, the octopus Whirler, the duck grab, the gentle plastic cars, the sexy chair rides. Excited children & bored mums & posing gigggling teenage girls showing off to nervous insecure boys & dads showing off with the mallets to be the strongest strong man all mingle together through the smell of chips & burgers & tomato sauce. Healthy living at its best!!! Enjoy life and bump & hoot & scream & munch together.
The potters’ market is held on the last Thursday in July. Now the classy artisans display their wares and a new type of more cultured buyer congregate amongst the leafy arches to ooh & arh & comment & appreciate.
The finale to our stay in Barjac is the bull run which is held over the first weekend in August. Large grids are positioned on either side of the main Street and the local cowboys & youths prepare to show off to the young girls & visitors. A few bulls are released from cattle trucks at the top of the town. Local cowboys herd them in to charge down the street & past waiting youths who time their run, grabbing onto tails to pull the beasts back or racing alongside the menacing horns. Everyone seems to enjoy it, except the bulls maybe. The Barjac Horns of Plenty accompany the proceedings keeping up a ratter tatter, ump pa pa, boom bang a bang the whole time.
Leaving Provence I cross the Rhône and drive to Barjac to spend two weeks with family & friends in the most amazing château dating from the 16th century. Monsieur Flemal welcomes me into the cool shuttered darkness of huge rooms & shaded stairways & corridors whilst the heat of the day tries to unsuccessfully batter its way in. In the gloom of the huge rooms Louis 14th cabinets & tables stand to attention around regal carpets. In two rooms of the top floor a skin of a large bear and one of a huge boar lie down in prayer to guard any sleeper who dares use the four poster bed in each. Only open windows/shutters manufacture a breeze to keep the heat at bay at night!
Barjac is a small market down where past memories are updated. Tall plane trees stretch out over the main street like the vast roof timbers of a ancient cathedrals, providing shade & shelter from the blazing sun, to the markets and fairs that settle beneath their imposing branches. A few cafes share the street with the haberdasher, the fishing tackle shop and the odd restaurant. Disappearing up the narrow lanes small eating places & pizzariers with countless tables crammed onto the narrow streets jostle for space & shade with the omnipresent tat shop, the up market pottery & gallery, the two aisle minute supermarket. Elegant townhouses hide their secrets behind shuttered windows in battered facades of plaster & brickwork. Occasionally an open shutter reveals the glass which act like golden mirrors reflecting back golden, distorted images from across the street. Old men clack their boules together as they decide on their next shot in the dust under the plane trees. Pedestrians squeeze past diners in the balmy evening as the clink of cutlery & glasses & muted conversations try to out-chatter the cicadas & roosting swallows & bats.. The sun sets, the temperature drops, slightly, the wine flows, the children yawn and all is at peace. Contentment spreads into the dusky silence of a town at peace with itself.
La belle France. It’s like being back in a warm bath of calm & quiet & peace. Driving along tree lined roads with the roof down and the wind blowing through my hair as the sun shines down from a blue, blue sky. Fields of sunflowers turn and bend their yellow heads as I pass, computer tracked combines precision harvest the wheat & barley leaving mohican cuts of the last rows of bumper crops, vines stretch in tangly lines on both sides of the road hiding their clumps of grape treasure amongst their grasping fingers. Further south this ripe farmland gives way to the rocky limestone outcrops & stunted oak woodland of Provence & the Cevenne where narrow ancient roads wind their way up & down crags & hills, following the courses of near dry rivers & streams as they link shuttered towns & villages & hamlets all locked away from the heat & the sun. Yes, la belle France.
My first taste of the Provençal life is spending a few days catching up with friends around their pool, enjoying with them the lifestyle, the culture, the vineyards, the towns & villages around Manosque, to the east of the Rhône in Provence. Together we sample evening meals & cold beers in balmy, leafed ceiled squares, enjoying warm temperatures and good company and excellent food & wine accompanied by local musicians hammering away at some dubious mid metal European pop, morning coffee to watch this small town wake up and visits to local vineyards to taste & purchase the best rosé and heaviest reds (not so good at 10.30 in the morning!!)!
Enjoy these images which I hope capture the heat, the colour, the smell, the sound, or lack of it, the peace of small town France. The accompanying soundtrack should include the cicadas sounding off at each other, the leaves & flags, gently rustling in the breeze and the occasional clink of cutlery around a hum of French voices. I am home!!!!