I love walking round our hillside, well, its not really “our” hillside, just the one behind where we live. I’ve mentioned it before, the cone of a former volcano with a chapel right at the top which can be seen for miles around, including from the A9 autoroute a few kilometres distant. In past years when we used to come on holiday here I would point to the chapel excitedly, marvelling at its situation on the one hand (who would ever climb up there?) and on the other by the sheer beauty of the scene, with the warm peachy yellow building of the church surrounded by a forest of green trees standing out against a perfect blue sky. From the path that winds round the hillside the view is of farmland, of fields of wheat and vines with an isolated farmhouse or two.
Today I was reminded of some of Cézanne’s paintings of the countryside near Aix-en-Provence, 80 kilometres from here. John Rewald writes in “Cézanne a biography” (1986)
“What was most precious was the solitude which was indispensable to him, and which was filled with memories linked to the rhythm of the seasons, the bare branches, forming complicated designs across the sky swept by the wind of winter, the trees cloaked in a tender green veil in the springtime, the stillness of the vibrant heat accentuated by the incessant stridulations of the cicadas in summer, the bunches of violet grapes on a background of rustling dead leaves in autumn.”
At the moment I am short of canvases, but like Cézanne, I feel the countryside here offers everything, is an endless source of inspiration.
One of my favourite place to visit in the Var department of Provence is the beautiful little hilltop village of Bormes les Mimosas. The steep old streets, many with steps, are lined with pastel coloured houses in shades of pink, cream and terracotta, overflowing with tubs and baskets of flowers. The main street , pedestrianised, is full of enticing little shops selling jewellery, clothes, bags, antique style items for the home, precious stones and an assortment of local crafts. The main road which skirts the village, never overly busy unlike on the coast only a few kilometres distant, is bordered by magnificent tall palm trees and pavement cafes, from which there is a wonderful view of the Mediterranean.
I think what makes Bormes special for me is the combination of colours, from the orange and cream of the buildings to the dark green of the palms and cypresses, from the bright sparkling blue of the Mediterranean to the duskier blue greens of olives. vines, and chestnut trees on the surrounding hillsides.
Yesterday was a fête day in Vidauban, celebrating the liberation of the town by the Americans on 16th August 1944 following occupation by the Italians and then the Germans during the Second World War. A parade of old military vehicles took place in the afternoon, followed by commemorative services at different spots around the town, and the handing out of flags and sweets to children. In the evening a “grand bal” took place in the central square in front of the mairie. The cafés and restaurants surrounding the square were thronged with people eating and drinking, whilst on the temporary stage a band of 7 musicians and 4 singers performed music spanning the decades. A stall, gay with pink awning, was selling candy floss and brightly coloured sweets to queues of children, in the centre of the square people were dancing; old men and women, families, teenagers, children, couples. Everyone moved or swayed to the music, with a rhythm that seems to come naturally to most French people. Particularly popular as always at these occasions was that old favourite, the Madison.
On my way down to the bal I walked past a boules court, floodlit and full of players. The lamps seemed to be surrounded by halos, and I was reminded of the Van Gogh painting “Starry Night over the Rhone”. Van Gogh was fascinated by the night sky and the effects of light at night and he preferred to paint them out-of-doors under gas lamp, which was new to that era. I hope to attempt these subjects myself, at some point in the future.
At the moment we do not have a car and so we are having to make our way around on foot and by bus. This feels exhausting in the heat of August, especially carrying 4 litres of milk daily uphill from our nearest Intermarché supermarket (a chore we usually reserve for early evening when the sun is just starting to go down a little).
However, when on the bus you do see more of the countryside than in a car and you can get to meet people this way. I have a favourite bus driver, a lady with fair hair and huge sunglasses who is extremely chatty. When she is driving I make a point of sitting in the front seat, and so far we have discussed the weather (always sunny), electricity bills (she only had her heating on for 3 weeks last winter), house renting, cars, washing machines, furniture, neighbours (her’s) and so on. She drives the same route every day – between Vidauban, where we live, and Le Muy, where our bank is, a distance of about 12 kilometres. As I usually make the trip about once a week, we have got to know each other quite well and she sends a cheery wave when driving past if I am on foot.
Another plus of not having a car is not being caught up in traffic jams! Vidauban itself is a quiet little town, but the A9 motorway stretching from the Italian to the Spanish border is just a few kilometres away. In August it can often reach a standstill (although not as often as a few years ago now that France has prohibited the driving of lorries on motorways at the weekends during the summer holidays). Anyway, the other evening we were making our way back from Intermarché as usual, laden with carrier bags, and were surprised to see our route through the pink and cream housing estates, with colourful gardens of purple and red bougainvillaea ,clogged up with cars crawling along at a snail’s pace. We found ourselves constantly being beckoned over by the anxious occupants, asking where they were and “how long did the queue stretch for” (which was right through the town). It transpired that there had been either a fire or a major accident on the motorway – accounts varied. But the funniest question, asked by a middle aged French lady on holiday, which had us laughing all the way home thereby considerably the lightening the load of the shopping bags, was “Have we arrived at Nice now?”… Nice only being the 5th largest city in France and some 100 kilometres distant!
There was a forest fire here yesterday – right behind our apartment. The hillside with path leading up to the chapel is covered in old olive trees, scented pines, and scrub, and there are lovely views looking down onto farms and vineyards below. However, with little rain and scorching sunshine for months now, the vegetation is tinder dry and late afternoon yesterday the hillside was enveloped in billowing clouds of smoke. We were first alerted to it by a neighbour knocking on our door and telling us to pack all our papers, in case we had to evacuate. This was followed seconds later by a deafening roar of helicopters and aircrafts zooming by overhead and causing the windows to shake. I sent my two sons out to reconnoitre while I panicked as to what to do. We have no furniture yet, just plastic garden chairs rescued from the roadside, my concern was the paintings I had set out to dry all around walls of the room. After hurriedly packing them into some large boxes and reassuring our puzzled, but thankfully not frightened, cat I went out to see what was happening for myself. Small crowds of people were gathered watching, wondering what to do, as the aircraft sprayed what appeared to be red dust (in fact a mixture of fire retardant chemicals) on the blaze.
Amazingly, it only took minutes – well, about ten – for the rescue services to get the situation under control. But then, forest fires unfortunately are a regular occurrence in the Var in summer, and the fire services here are on constant alert and well rehearsed as to what action to take. A striking contrast after moving over from Cornwall, England where in recent summers flood damage has been a major problem!
In the evening I climbed up through the terraces of olive trees to the chapel on top, and saw the full extent of the fire damage. It was sad to see the trees and shrubs blackened and the ground covered in ash – probably caused by a cigarette butt.
From the age of 15 I dreamed of living in France even though I had never been there, inspired perhaps by pictures of a storybook countryside full of chateaux and markets and by my father’s enthusiasm of the kindness of the French people he had met when in hospital in Amiens during the First World War. Years later, married and with children my family and I would go over to France on holiday every Summer, always to campsites, and during the rest of the year I would produce paintings as often as time allowed based on holiday snapshots and sketches. I guess through painting I was reliving the magic of the holidays, the bright sunlight and the vivid colours that I missed so much back in rainy England.
And now that I have retired I have at long last managed to make the move, and in spite of existing on a shoestring and difficulties in getting established, living in France is every bit as wonderful as I could have hoped for. To begin with we were staying in a holiday cottage in the Vaucluse, in an area known as the Luberon. The cottage was surrounded by fields of lavender, vineyards and orchards, and from the garden the view was of the hilltop villages of Bonnieux and Lacoste, which face one another on opposite slopes of the Luberon mountain range. However, the cottage was rented out over the summer months and so we needed to find a more permanent home.
This proved to be very difficult. The South, or ‘Midi’ as it is called, is very expensive and very sought after, making it difficult for someone in a slightly unusual situation and with limited funds. However, we eventually found a very understanding landlord with a lovely apartment and a wonderful view overlooking the small Var town of Vidauban. The Var is relatively undeveloped and unspoilt, and encompasses a long sandy coastline on the Mediterranean which is backed by the thickly wooded mountain range of the Maures, as well as rivers and gorges inland and a wealth of ancient villages. Vidauban itself is in the heart of a wine growing region and is surrounded by hills of either oak or scented pine. Our appartment, which overlooks the town, is built on the lower slopes of a rocky spur, the cone of an ancient volcano, at the top of which is the Chapel of Sainte Brigitte. We moved in during July to what feels like an artist’s dream!