283LA VIE EN FRANCE / LIFE IN FRANCE: HOLIDAY / LES VACANCES
France is big. Surprisingly big, you might say. It’s the largest country in the EU and over twice as big as England. Which is perhaps just as well, because France is also the most visited country on Earth; over 82m people come each year to sample its delights.
And, being so big, its delights are many. Its coasts are buffeted in the north by the refreshingly bracing waters of the English Channel, in the west by the treacherous currents of the Atlantic and in the south by the effete and tepid Mediterranean, which washes the scented skin of Nice, Cannes and Monaco.
France’s great rivers - Seine, Loire, Rhone - are long and languorous. They are broad and deep and dangerous long before they reach the sea. And her mountains are high - if you were so inclined, you could fit our own beloved Scafell Pike into Mont Blanc (Europe’s highest mountain) five times.
The Alps, the Jura and the Pyrenees are as adorned with ski-slopes as France’s interior is with vineyards, orchards, forests and farms.
So where to visit?
England has its well-worn tourist trails; you are much more likely to find camera-clad visitors ooohing and ahhhing in, say, Bath or Chester or York than in Wolverhampton, Middlesbrough or Plymouth (God forbid). Narrow country lanes are much more likely to be clogged with sightseeing tour coaches in, say, Gloucestershire or Devon than they are in County Durham or Essex.
France, too, has its historic honey-traps. Languedoc, the Loire Valley, Brittany, Normandy - and its mountainous borders with Germany, Spain and Italy. They are visited by so many, I suppose, because of their dramatic and uplifting scenery, much as the Lake District or the Cotswolds are here at home.
And - again, just as here at home - this leaves vast, empty stretches of landscape free for the rest of us. We have the windswept loneliness of the Wash or the Northumberland coast to escape to; the French have long, low, level Biscay sands - as well as the area we headed for on this third day of our holiday: the Camargue.
Even though I only caught a glimpse of it, I know already that I want to go back to the Camargue to explore its vast, windy emptiness. 360 square miles of salty, marshy swampland straddling - indeed, forming - the delta of the River Rhone, which divides into two broad, sluggish streams to make its way to the sea.
The Camargue is, then, the largest river-delta in Europe; a horizonless plain of salty lagoons, cut off from the sea by sandbars and encircled by reed-covered marshes. All of which forms a habitat for three wildly differing types of animal…
Camargue bulls are bred here, mostly for export to Spain’s bullrings but many for use more locally in the bullfights at Nimes and Arles.
And our own local wild cattle are mirrored in the Camargue, too. Its wild, white horses have roamed this lonely area for millennia; the ancient Greeks, Phoenicians and Romans all appreciated the hardy and fearless qualities of these mysterious and intelligent animals - and they have been painted, to full dramatic effect, many times (as you can see).
Finally, the Camargue is home to more than 400 species of bird. Its brine ponds provide one of the few European habitats for the greater flamingo. I’m not sure if I was meant to be surprised by this, but I was. To me, flamingoes are far too exotic and tropical to be native European birds. You learn something every day.
If you’re not careful, you will also learn that the Camargue is also home to the most vicious mosquitoes in France. They are, apparently, even more vindictive than their Highland Scottish counterparts, which means they must be positively murderous. A good reason for me not to venture too far into the Camargue and to head instead to its ‘capital’, the lovely old city of Arles.
Once again, we found ourselves wandering along narrow lanes and through the tight squares of an ancient and well-preserved French city - with yet another Roman amphitheatre standing to its full height and still in use for theatre and (non-lethal) bullfights.
I spent quite some time in Arles just sitting doing nothing. This wasn’t an expression of my genetic indolence but rather of serious artistic research.
For a start, French composer Bizet - he of Carmen fame - wrote the incidental music for a play called L’Arlesienne (‘The Woman of Arles’). The play was awful and the music was damned by association. This is a very great pity, as it’s as happily tuneful as Bizet’s other ‘greatest hits’.
It was rediscovered by Sir Thomas Beecham about 70 years ago and is now, thankfully, back in the popular repertoire. I’ve loved it for years and sat respectfully in the town square quietly humming it to myself and remembering the unrecognised genius of M Bizet.
But that wasn’t the only artistic endeavour in which I was engaged as I sat in the sunshine.
Van Gogh painted what many regard as his finest pictures here in Arles, including many of his famous sunflowers and the beguiling painting of the interior of his lodgings.
By mid-afternoon, the heat in the city was becoming a little oppressive (as they say in all the best Victorian novels) so we pointed the car east, drove out of town and onto the autoroute. After all, for the first and only time on this holiday, we had a date…
We had arranged to spend the night with a ‘friend of a friend’ - who lived in a very special village far over in the east of Provence, in the hinterland of St Tropez.
The village is called Le Vieux Cannet and if you Google it for ‘images’, you’ll see lots and lots of pictures - not only of the village but of our host, too.
Yvon Kergal is a painter and sculptor of international repute. He is also the only person I have ever known - or am likely to know - who lives in a converted monastery. Over the decades, Yvon has transformed it into a sumptuous dwelling-house on at least three floors, full of his artwork - paintings, sculpture and wall-decor. There wasn’t a square inch of it that I didn’t like.
(You can find out more about Yvon from his website: yvon-kergal.com)
The chief glory of the house for me, though, lay outside. The wide open views of the valley far below us were framed in one of the most luxuriant gardens I’ve ever seen. This was no cleverly and carefully manicured English garden. This was riotous French gardening gone mad. Arboreal alleyways, tunnels, turns, steps. Rises and falls, dead-ends, quiet corners, shady terraces - even the remains of the cloisters.
And all of it festooned with the green lushness afforded by the Provencal climate. And inhabited by at least one ageing cat and 27 enormous aspidistras.
I’d never seen anything quite like them. In my experience, it was the most awe-inspiring collection of aspidistras in private hands anywhere in the world. (The best collection in public ownership must be the one I saw in the grounds of the Alcazar in Seville.) I wanted to get lost amongst them; to finally indulge my lifelong affection for this neglected, mocked and forgotten element of Victorian houseplantery.
Each plant was 100 leaves strong and thriving. No sign of the dusty, fly-blown and sad examples that once languished in draughty English parlours; here, their dark green, spear-shaped leaves grew and arched with grace, vigour and profusion. They knew they were loved.
Anyone who loves aspidistras this much gets my vote. Yvon - paintings and sculpture notwithstanding - gets my vote.
In a shady bower of ivy and vines, we ate tapanade, a traditional Provençal dish made of finely- chopped olives, capers, anchovies and olive oil which you spread on toasted baguette slices. This was followed by the tastiest, home-made ratatouille in the entire history of cuisine.
And all of it washed gently down with the delicately refreshing Spring-like taste of good, local Provencal Rose, to which I am now hopelessly addicted.
If I told you that this dream-like evening was rounded off when, for the first time in my addled life, I slept in a four-poster bed, you just wouldn’t believe me, would you?
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