Saturday, 20 December 2014

Pagnol Country

Santons by Daniel Scaturro
With Christmas coming up I think of Santons, those little characters you see all over France these days forming crèches or window displays, in shops and houses. Whilst they have kind of taken over the whole of the country, they are in fact from Provence and traditionally were made of the inside of a loaf of bread, squished between your fingers and rolled and prodded into shape, left to dry and then painted. The traditional Christmas characters are depicted but actually in the olden days it was more likely to be the butcher, baker and candlestick maker whose images were reproduced. Just looking at them and looking at the traditional Provencal scene created in the photo I found on the internet (from a blog of a Santon maker takes me back to our last holiday in Pagnol country.

Inside the church, then and now
I love Marcel Pagnol’s books, they are very easy to read, the stories are excellent and the images he invokes are so vivid. He was born and brought up in the heart of Provence, just north of Marseille and the sights and smells of Provence ooze out of almost every word he wrote. I have always thought of him as a novelist, but interestingly Pagnol was a film maker first. He didn’t write my favourite novels (Jean de Florette and Manon de Sources) until ten years after he had made the films of them, even though the most famous filmings of these books nowadays, are the Claude Berri versions made in the late 80s.

When we were in Provence in September, we decided to go on a Jean de Florette hunt. As this was a spur of the moment decision, sitting on a warm terrace, watching the sun go down behind the hills of the Luberon, we didn’t have time to do too much research. Out came the laptop and I put Google to work. The next day we were off to see the church and the fountain which were just down the road, the other locations were too far for a day trip.

Outside the church then and now 
Interestingly the inside and outside of the church are not in the same village, in fact the two churches are not anything like the same shape, which is rather bizarre. The inside is in Ansouis a lovely, attractive village perched over the planes and the outside is in a village called Vaugines, a rather boring but traditional village in the hills. When I saw the inside of the church, I had no sensation of being anywhere special, just another Provencal church and not a very nice one at that, but as soon as I saw the outside of the church in Vaugines it was obvious where we were, we were with César and Delphine as she told him the secret that had been kept from all those years. Who can ever forget that scene in the film as César’s world comes tumbling down round his ears as he finds out that his revengeful and narcissistic actions have destroyed the one thing that he always wanted. As I walked up to the front of that church, I was there.

The fountain then and now?
The other place I wanted to visit was the village square with its fountain, which according to Google was also in Vaugines. However, when I saw the fountain I was a bit surprised, it didn’t remind me of the film at all, the fountain had become horribly overgrown with moss and didn’t seem to be either the same shape or have the same number of spouts as I remembered, even the square didn’t look right, but I took the photo anyway, to show I had been there.

On arriving home, we watched the films again and sure enough the village didn’t look the slightest bit like Vaugines, mainly I suppose because it wasn’t Vaugines at all, it was a village just down the road from there called Mirabeau. Oh dear, looks like we will have to back to Provence again to get that fountain picture and while I’m there I will have to stock up on some Santons for next year’s Christmas display.

Sunday, 14 December 2014

Christmas nears

Cormatin decorations
Almost everywhere you go at the moment the build up to Christmas is evident. Every village and town has a Christmas market of local food goodies and handicrafts, all vying for your Christmas Euros. The supermarkets are stocking up on huge quantities of chocolate, foie gras, exotic fruit and vegetables along with the apparently unmissable shell fish and salmon.  Decorations are going up and the nativity scene in Taizé is working its way to the big day.

Rose in our front garden
But somehow it doesn’t feel at all like almost the end of the year. The weather is warmer than it should be. Last night the thermometer only dropped down to 8 degrees (Celsius for those Americans who might actually think that 8 degrees is cold!) and we would normally expect to be having frost at this time of year. I could not believe it when I saw some buds on the roses in our front garden the other day and even more so when one of them opened up this morning - in mid-December?

Our post box is filling up with cards from around the world - it is always nice to hear from friends far and near. All our cards are now in the post, there just remains the last one or two presents to sort. That’s this week’s job, along with preparing food for parties we are going to as well as making sure we are adequately stocked ourselves for the holiday season. So we are sort of on schedule.

Shepherds arrive
We took some time off from Christmas preparations to visit the Nativity scene in Taizé this afternoon and despite the donkey, it lacks something this year. It is all very static and the only change since last week is that some bland cut-out shepherds have arrived, but that is about it. I really liked the live chickens last year, they stayed all through Advent and kept the stable scene looking like a stable all week and the somewhat amateurish models of the main characters, really added some life to the whole scene.

Advent wreath
Sadly this year there are also no bible verses to contemplate and no changing scenes to mark the Christmas journey which is a real pity, as it is the only set of decorations that really mark the meaning of Christmas for miles around. Don’t get me wrong I love our village Smurfs and Snow White is always a welcome addition to the cold damp streets of Cormatin, but Christmas should be more than Walt Disney and other cartoons.

I think I should take a little contemplative pause in preparations as the pink candles of Joy are lit around the world.

Monday, 8 December 2014

All new in Cormatin

The Rêv'othèque
The beginning of December heralded the long awaited opening of the Rêv’othèque in Cormatin as well as the surprise opening of a new shop, a delicatessen.

I have heard stories of the Rêv’othèque since the owner was complaining about the plasterer failing to meet his promised timescales and the summer opening having to be delayed, but I had no idea what it would be. All that I could deduce was that the name itself is a play on words. In French a library is a biliothèque, a video library is a videothèque and so a Rêv’othèque is a place you can go to, to find your dreams - rêves.

This idea has been conjured up by a chap who has two old wooden gypsy-style caravans full of games, which he mans at local events. You can go into these lovely caravans and play with all the bits and pieces he has on offer. So I knew that the Rêv’othèque would be something along similar lines, but I couldn’t imagine what. When we were collecting our pre-ordered petit salé (lentils with meats) which were being sold for charity outside the church this Saturday (Téléthon day) we decide we would go and see what Christian had made of his dream. The inside of the building has been kitted out with games and “dreaming” areas where you can sit and read a book, or dream a few hours away, hanging chairs, hanging “rooms”, you name he has got it. I can’t really put into words what it is like and there is just so much in there you can’t take a decent photo, so you will just have to go and visit for yourself.

New deli in Cormatin
The new shop opening was a big surprise. When we went to the parade for 11th November, we saw that work was going on in a shop that has been vacant for a number of years. No one seemed to know what was happening, until the end of November when a notice appeared in the window saying that a delicatessen was going to open up on 1st December. After visiting the Rêv’othèque, we went to try them out. He still hasn’t got all his stock, but he had an interesting collection of deli-like things and he has a double length fridge counter full of cold meats, patés and pre-cooked meals. We knew that the butcher was to re-open in the spring also selling cold meats and ready meals along with more traditional butcher fare and the existing grocer is changing hands too in the spring, so Cormatin it becoming an interesting food shopping town. Let’s hope that there is enough clientele to go round. If this new deli keeps up with the quality of stuff he sold to us, he should have a good number of repeat customers.

Eyes of God
Marry and Joseph in the stable
Last but not least, December wouldn’t be December without the arrival of the nativity scene at Taizé. This year Mary and Joseph look rather orthodox and I must say Joseph looks a tad miserable, but it was rather cold up on the hill on Sunday, so I can see why. They have ditched the usual journey on a donkey and Mary and Joseph are already in situ. This year the theme seems to be American Indian with traditional “eyes of God” being hung up around the stall like stars in the sky. These “eyes of God” are found amongst the Huichol Indians in Mexico, the Aymara in Bolivia and the Navajo in North America and they are placed on altars in churches to protect the praying congregation - a Christian form of dream catchers. The chaps and chapesses, who have been busy making them, have done a lovely job, these “eyes” look very attractive as stars over the crèche scene.

I'm now looking forward to all the new things that next week will bring.

For information on holiday accommodation near the Taizé nativity scene click here.

Thursday, 4 December 2014

Train strikes and a weekend away

Bourges cathedral
When Cees’ son said he wanted to visit a guitar restorer in France, we were excited about the idea of meeting up with him for a weekend.  But things never go to plan do they? The weekend of our sortie was chosen and the accommodation almost booked, it was only our rather slow decision making that held that up. This delay was rather fortuitous, as just over a week before we were due to go, I heard on the radio that the French railways were holding a strike, the weekend of our trip. This would make Cees’ son’s journey from the airport in Paris impossible. A lot of quick work, on his part to change flights and on our part to find a new gîte, resulted in our trip to the Berry last weekend - all organised in one day, the day before our departure.

Monastery of Noirlac
Bourges was a real find. It has a beautiful cathedral with some stunning stained glass windows and porticos and the rest of this attractive town is well worth a wander round on a nice day, however, the cold and damp got the better of us there and after lunch we headed off to see the most intact of the Cistercian monasteries in France - we were not disappointed. . A cellist was making a recording in the Scriptorium and the music resonated around the whole Abbey while we were there.

Church at Le Menoux
The next day we had a list of Romanesque churches to visit, all of which were worth the visit and all of which were open, always a bonus. In amongst the church tour, I managed to slip in a visit to a church I had seen in the guide book, La Menoux. The church from the outside is not worth a photo, it is a boring neo-something, the guide book describes it as “banale” which summed it up for me. But when you open the door you are confronted with an assault on your visual senses. A resident of the village, Mr Carassco an artist originally from Bolivia, has painted the ceilings and I mean really painted them. A quote from him in the description of this stunning work of art “Art is love, love is life and life has to be lived not just gone through.” True to his own words, this work of art is not just there, is it really alive even though it was painted about forty years ago.

The ending of our weekend away had a nasty twist when our car started emitting smoke as we drove down the motorway. Fortunately I cut the engine immediately as we cruised to a holt and the fledgling fire put itself out otherwise things could have been an awful lot worse. It turned out that the motor to the windscreen washers had shorted and started to burn, very scary and not to be repeated. I could write a whole blog about the numerous telephone conversations I had to have before we could get someone to tow us off the motorway, if the car had been on fire it would have been a gonner before the emergency services had accepted that there was actually an exit number 23 and quite frankly whether we were in Saône-et-Loire or Allier (we were actually 200 meters from the border) didn’t seem awfully relevant to me at that moment in time. Maybe I should buy a Michelin map for the police in S-et-L, so that they can locate the next person with a burning car at exit 23 direction Macon on the N79, it really does exist!

Jamon Iberico de Bellota
So an inauspicious end to our weekend away with our car being towed to a breakers yard in Digoin. There is a however a happy ending, the car was relatively easily repaired and back on the road after a couple of days with only a slight trace of “eau-de-burned-plastic”.

We and our car are now back at home along with a lovely souvenir from Spain that Cees’ son had brought for us to enjoy chez-nous. So today for lunch we had artisanally dried ham, hand-cut from the bone, served on fresh French bread with ripe mini-tomatoes. La vie est belle!
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