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21 September 2011

The Alpes Maritimes, and Haute Provence.

Sunday at Embrun in the Province des Alpes Maritimes, high in the alps near the Italian border, for La Journée de Patrimoine, or national heritage day in France. The French take great advantage of this annual heritage day, there are special openings of historic buildings, places, conferences - all about their country steeped in history, and they love it and are proud of it.

Its pouring rain, so we hope it clears a bit for our tour of the town this morning.
The journey south was quite easy, with the new Lyon airport road towards Grenoble making a huge difference. Not too much traffic, except passing Grenoble. That is when dramatic country appears. Sharp, very high mountains and twisting climbs and dips. Very slow driving this part. We were in fact, following the route of Napoleon for some of the way. Apparently he passed through Gap on his way through the alps.

Embrun itself is an ancient town high on a cliff, very near the Italian border and divided from Italy by very high mountains.
After checking in to this little old fashioned hotel, we assembled at the Tourist Bureau and followed a street theatre group wandering the narrow streets. They portrayed a story about Clovis Hugues a writer, poet and activist, a comedy and very entertaining. We ended up by a sculpture made by his wife soon after his death in 1902, with a bust of him and a gorgeous sculpture of his grandchildren reading his poems.
This was in a park at the edge of the cliff, near the very splendid cathedral (Lombard architecture of course) looking out across towards Italy. We tried to work out the direction and the valley where the invading Lombard barbarian tribe would have come from in 575, when they invaded and devastated this town.
After that it was an organ recital in the cathedral,
on a magnificent 15th century organ, -the photo is a carving at the base of the organ - before wandering back here for an apero and dinner. This morning, despite the awful weather we joined a tour of the town concentrating on its military history.
The Romans were here up to the end of the 5th century. The region was declared Catholic by Emperor Constantine resulting in a bishop being appointed at Embrun. The first bishop recorded was Marcellin in the years 365-374. He was eventually made a saint for his evangelism in the province of Alpes Maritimes, making many converts. There is a square and a fountain and streets named after him.

We are particularly interested in the Lombard invasion and the local hero who eventually managed to chase the Lombards back into Lombardy. It is a town of nine fountains,
each important as a water source for the inhabitants in days gone by. We had a very good guide, who pointed out fortifications, and covered a wide range of history at the same time. This afternoon a tour of the cathedral and the treasury and at 5pm a seminar on Lombard art and architecture. Hopefully it should be interesting and contribute to John’s history of the Lombards.
Weather is pretty awful for photographs, see how I go – luckily we brought rain coats and umbrella!
We had been struggling around all day in driving rain, feeling very cold, and were happy to have a break in our cosy room.
After half an hour’s rest, we went out again to the tour of the Treasury in the Cathedral. We lined up at a door inside the cathedral, and fortunately managed to get into the tour of the first 50. We were ushered into a treasure cave, the treasures are stored in what is an old secret chapel of the cathedral, no windows, no doors, beautiful but for me claustrophobic. It was unbelievable, the clerical vestments embroidered in silver and gold, several hundred years old, the silver and gold vessels of the mass, the extraordinary relics of some saint or other, the paintings, the altar of walnut intricately carved, the ancient small organ – a present from the dauphin of the time, beautiful. The treasures were held in two rooms, part of an old secret chapel. The first room had glass cabinets with embroidered vestments, gold and silver accessories of the mass, and the second was a small chapel with a magnificent altar. I had to step back into the main part, as just couldn’t cope with the feeling of claustrophobia. Packed in with 50 others, no windows or doors, just one small escape door, I just couldn’t manage it.
However, the whole tour was magnificent, and the guide excellent, she obviously loved her work and was passionate about it all.
After that exhausting and exhilarating dose of history, we returned again briefly to our room before setting out again for the Lombard conference. What a shock – the rain had cleared and the mountains all around us were topped in snow!!!
No wonder the temperature had plunged. After taking some pics, we went into the hall, and the presenter was great. She was an architect, and fascinated and passionate about the Lombard influence on the art and architecture of the region. We were able to record her talk and although she used many of the resources that John already had, its always interesting to see another approach. She did an illustrated computer presentation, and many of the churches she showed us are in Italy. It was all good information, and can only add to our interest.
Monday we set off from Embrun, and had a spectacular drive down from the mountains to the road around Lac Serre Poncet. We then climbed up again taking a corkscrew road – stopping now and again to look at the view. There is a huge dam at the end of the lake which provides electricity for the region.
Headed over past Sisteron towards Apt – for the meeting with Kathy and Valentine Morozoff, the Russian Americans who found me through my book. Their grandfather knew Kathleen ffrench - he grew up in Terenga where Kathleen inherited her great uncle’s estate. Their family escaped during the revolution through Harbin for a short while, but ended up near Kobe in Japan and started a confectionery business, specialising in chocolate. The business is still going, but they are gradually getting out of it as they are ready to retire now. Val is the third generation to run the business, but his sons live in the USA and are not interested in continuing.
We had a great and very lively evening, non-stop talking!!!
Tuesday saw us on the road home – the auto route was busy, so we had a few breaks, but got back here in the afternoon, in time to harvest tomatoes, beans, raspberries, figs and spinach.

16 September 2011

Autumn arrives in Chateau

We have had an enjoyable few days with visitors, Trevor and Penny Fishlock. Both former journalists and friends from our Moscow days. They live in Wales and Trevor mostly writes books connected with Wales.


We went for some glorious long walks when they were here, the countryside looking so beautiful. The first day we walked along the country lanes to the other side of the valley, to the goat cheese farm. Made our purchases and walked back along the road. The second day we went for a much longer walk. Climbed the road at the top of the valley, curved around high up along a forest walk, came out at the Woodcutters’ house, back down into the valley, checking out the fruits on the trees. That includes the eating kind of chestnuts, walnuts, lots of apples and pears – with fruit falling off everywhere into ditches and unto the road. The countryside is still very green, but dotted here and there with autumn colours. The sky is very clear and light blue, the afternoons very hot, just for a couple of hours. In the late afternoon the temperature drops dramatically, fluffy clouds soon break up the sun shine and overnight it is really cool. It is still rather dry, and the farmers are again complaining about the drought.


Yesterday I pruned the dead raspberry stakes, and the pile for the bonfire is mounting. There are still raspberries on the young stakes, and shortly I will go out and pick a supply for today and tomorrow morning’s breakfast.

The hunting season starts on Sunday, so I am glad we won’t be here!

11 September 2011

Sunday - time for the Vendange

11th September

I think the peculiar weather is global - we can never work out what is going to happen here, and the leaves are definitely changing colour. The garden is still producing madly which we are enjoying of course, but John groans when I bring in another bowl of green beans.... However, he likes much better the wonderful bowls of fresh raspberries for breakfast!
Last night we had dinner at a next door hamlet, 10 mins walk away. We decided to walk as the weather was so beautiful with a full moon. Walking home was stunning, the light extraordinary. We were walking the quiet country roads sometimes under overhanging trees with very little light filtering through, then out into full moonlight again. We sat on our gallerie with a whiskey nightcap when we came home, we couldn't bear to go indoors for a while.

All of the country around us is covered in vineyards and at the moment it is abuzz from morning to night with the grape pickers working - the vendange has started and it looks fabulous. Huge trailer loads of grapes pulled by tractors going to the wineries for pressing or to the co-op. Guys with huge baskets on their backs groaning with grapes as they stagger up the hills to tip the grapes into the trailers. A neighbour's family own a vineyard in the Maconnais and she is helping to produce 3 meals a day for the pickers 7 days a week!!

I will continue to work on my village writing project in Australia, that is if I get a minute to do so - sometimes its good to write while stepping away from it.

As part of my French village story I have started to look at wild plants for eating, ordered a few books and now I am trying out some plants in salads. Fascinating stuff, I now know how all the pilgrims ate when they trekked all over Europe long ago - there was always something to eat, perhaps harder in winter. But I expect they rested in winter for a lot of the time. I will be interested to try out some Aussie plants when I get back.

John is glued to the TV at odd hours watching the Rugby World cup - this morning he was up at 5.30am... he enjoys it a lot. Today, Sunday is the "vide grenier" in this village. literally translated means empty your attics - so a kind of village fair or sale of second hand goods, or flea market. We will walk down at lunch time, buy a hot dog and glass of wine to support it. Probably all good things for sale will have gone by then, but even so we will put in an appearance and show our support.

We are expecting some friends from Wales to arrive Tuesday - some former colleagues from our Moscow days. Both retired journalists, but continuing to write books. They will be here for a few days, and then on Saturday we leave for a trip south to the Alps Maritimes - near the Italian border, to a town called Embrun. It is National Heritage day on Sunday, and there will be a guided tour of the cathedral and treasury and in the evening a conference on the Lombards in the Alps region. The barbarian Lombards invaded Embrun in the 6th century and destroyed it – it is a fabulous fortified town high up in the alps.

The local historians are delighted to have a true Lombard attending the conference!! After that we go a little bit south to Apt, to meet up with some Russian/Americans - they found me through my book, as their grandfather used to live at Terenga in the Simbirsk region near Kathleen ffrench and knew her!!! They come to France twice a year on holidays, so a great chance to meet them.

After that we have some friends from Aus coming for a few days, then my flying visit to Ireland on 30th, back on 5th and we leave here on 10th!! Time will fly by and I have so much to do. Lots of pruning in the garden and my annual bonfire!!!

I can now genuinely say to Aussie friends 'see you soon'.