Bonjour from the French Riviera.
On our car journey through southern France, we travelled from Vichy to the coast via a long straight road aptly named Le Meridienne. The landscape was mostly rural and occasionally spectacular. Like Italy, France has quite a sizeable proportion of land which remains uncleared; not merely that which is too steep to cultivate either.
Our modest accommodation in French Catalonia was a renovated castle, very close to the Spanish border. This was a very adroitly retrofitted medieval chateau with restaurant and pool and 9-foot doors to the rooms. It rests in the foothills of the Pyrennees, which form the border for much of the distance.
The castle is in a village which claims Pablo Casals, the renowned Spanish violinist, as their own. (As Frank Hyde, rugby league radio commentator used to say, he’s a local product.) Of course, being cognisant of the way small towns claim famous people – test cricketer Mark Taylor lived in Wagga for 18 months as a teenager, but he’s still claimed as a local – we take such information with healthy grains of salt.
The castle guards a steep valley enclosing the village. Seeing such urban settlements begs the obvious question for a historian: why did the serfs tolerate such inequality for so long? They seem to have exchanged dubious prospects of affluence for frugal certainty. Why people tolerate subservience for such long periods of time is naturally one of the big questions of historical study, isn’t it?
Fortifications of Vauban
The most significant element of the urban landscape in the valley is the village of Villefranche de Conflent, otherwise known as the Fortifications of Vauban. Villefranche de Conflent is a fascinating walled town preserved in perfect condition – including the massive drawbridge – and providing an insight into the bastion defence techniques of the 11th century and later. It appears the tax-free status promoted boom times in the 13th century and Sebastian La Preste di Vauban greatly enhanced the fortifications in the 1600s. Vauban was under instructions from the Marshal of France to fortify France and each corner of the country contains relics of his work. (Some land was in fact ceded in the interests of security.)
The Spanish influence grows the closer one gets to the border. It was probably best illustrated in the name of the chap who proudly showed me his cave (as proprietor). “My big name is Castillo and my little name is Bernard,” he told me. In the cave were quite a few examples of imprints of dinosaurs such as Le Triceratops and Stegasaurus, which were also there in life-size fibreglass, along with sound effects. Monsieur Bernard also advised me to see a second cave, Les Grande Cannelettes. The third cave was closed: “It is dangerous – not for the man but for the cave!” Les Grand Cannelettes was well worth the visit. It is an active limestone cave with a lot of exquisite formations and reflective lakes, and also some judicious Pavarotti and Caruso in the end chamber.
the Costa Brava
We stayed that night on the Costa Brava near Barcelona, in readiness for our embarkation on the Mediterranean cruise the following day. This is a much-vaunted coastline and draws lots of visitors. The long coastal strip appears to be heavily populated in the summer months. It sometimes helps to visit such places to learn how over-rated they actually are. Recent news informs us that some local tourism firm has been found to have used a photo of an Australian beach in their marketing. It says it all.
In Barcelona we boarded the cruise ship called “Brilliance of the Seas”. One of the first impressions was that the ship is very plush. And the guest list is evenly divided between Americans and Spaniards. The ship’s manoeuvre out of Barcelona port was an interesting sight to behold: a 3-point turn!! After negotiating the giant gantry cranes we sped off after the even larger ship which was also leaving at that time. The cruise promises to be a relaxing time with stops almost every day.
Apparently Europe is experiencing a bad drought at the moment. There’s been a 13% drop in production of the French wheat crop which could potentially lead to a 5 c rise in the price of the daily baguette! France had its driest March to May in 50 years and the warmest since 1900. England’s spring was the driest since 1910 and the warmest since 1659!! Germany’s drought is the worst since they began recording rainfall. Of course, with everything pretty green nevertheless, it’s tempting to say, “You call that a drought . . .”
Anyway, from sunny Nice,