Haro (La Rioja), Spain August 2022

La Rioja, with it’s 600 wineries and 250 square miles of vines, is Spain’s most famous wine region and the town of Haro is considered the wine capital of La Rioja. There’s reason enough for us to visit Haro but, it also came recommended by a friend.

The drive from Berceo on the LR 206 and the LR207 via Alesanco and Ollauri to our Haro campsite by the River Tiron would have taken well under an hour were it not for the fact that I kept stopping to take photographs on the way. These are country roads with very little traffic (a few tractors is all) and it was too easy to just pull in to the side of the road and start taking photos of the beautiful scenery. The La Rioja Region is about wine and grain and at this time of the year the area is a giant patchwork quilt of gently rolling fields with dark green vines and straw coloured stubble set against a backdrop of the Basque Mountains and a bright blue sky. Not quite Prosecco Hills but, nevertheless, awe inspiring.

Almost everything about Haro is to do with wine. Wineries (known as bodegas in Spain) are all over the place. There is a wine museum, countless wine shops and even the statues and street art throughout the city are linked to wine.

There is also a three day wine festival in the town which includes a wine fight (La Batalla de Vino). The fight is generally a good natured event which takes place between 28 to 30 June, during the feast of St Pedro. There is a big party on the 28th June; the fight takes place immediately after mass on 29 June and; there’s another party (which includes traditional dancing) which takes place on 30 June. During the wine fight everyone wears white and throws red wine over each other using buckets, bottles, jugs, water pistols or anything else that holds wine. Thousands of litres of wine are used in the fight every year. The inaugural wine fight is said to have started in the 13th century after an argument between Haro and the neighbouring town of Miranda de Ebro.

After arriving in Hora, I did my usual preliminary exploration while Vanya stayed with the Van and practised her Spanish. The first place I made for was the Plaza de la Paz (in the old part of the town, of course) to find a suitable place to eat in the evening. Job done; there are plenty of places on the square but she would probably prefer to walk the lanes for tapas.

The most impressive building in any Spanish town is more often than not the church and the 16th/17th century Church of Santo Tomas is certainly the most striking building in Haro. It was declared a National Historic Artistic Monument in 1931. The oldest and most celebrated part of the church is it’s front entrance but I was also struck by it’s magnificent Baroque altarpiece which dates from 1740.

And so to the wine. If you want to tour one of the bodegas in the town (and there are some impressive tours to be had), you have to make appointment but; if it’s just a tasting session that you want, many of the larger bodegas in the Barrio de la Estacion area operate an open door policy where you can just walk in off the streets. Some, such as Balbainas, CVNE, La Rioja Alta and Muga have pleasant seating areas, inside and out, and have food to complement their wine list. It’s like being in an up market Austrian heurige.

I made my way to the Bodegas Muga which is currently open for tasting from noon onwards. I settled down in the very pleasant courtyard at the side entrance to their premises and was immediately presented with a wine list and snack menu. You pay for each wine you try but the prices are reasonable and the measures are very generous. What I particularly liked about the Muga is that the waiters (or are they cellar masters?) all seemed very knowledgeable about the dozen or so wines available and were more than happy to share that knowledge. There were red, white and rose Riojas available at prices between 3 and 12 euros per glass but most wines were 3 or 4 euros. There was even a fizzy Rioja. I tried a ‘couple’ of reds and my favourite by a long way was the Muga Seleccion Especial 2018 at 6 euros for a very large glass (which got even bigger after I ordered a second). I’m no expert wine taster but – intense cherry colour, long, smooth, red berries. I added the “intense” for effect lol. I promised to introduce Vanya to the Muga at the earliest opportunity.

Vanya and I made it to the Muga the very next day for the noon opening. After I had reminded myself as to how good the red wine is, I sampled the white riojas, including the fizzy. Not fussed about that one (I’ve been spoiled by Prosecco) but the other white wines were good.

Of course, Vanya enjoyed the visit to Bodegas Muga as much as me and we had to try another. We moved on to Bodegas Bilbainas for a Vina Pomal. Vanya didn’t like the Pomal and so I had to drink both but she very much enjoyed the fizzy Rioja Lumen Reserva 2019; so much so she bought some to take back to the UK. Given the price, I probably would have liked it too. As it was, I felt rather sleepy for the remainder of the afternoon.

We spent a couple of pleasant evenings during our stay on the Plaza de la Paz people watching but tended to eat at the tapas bars. It wasn’t bad food but it was a poor substitute for Calle Laurel in Logrono. It was time to move on. A waiter advised us to call in on the small town of Laguardia before going to Logrono and we promised we would.

Haro is well worth a visit and we will definitely return. As it is we were only going to stay the one day but stayed two. Next stop Logrono but via Laguardia.

Ezcaray (La Rioja), Spain August 2022

Ezcaray was described to us as the most beautiful town in La Rioja and a ‘must see’ place to visit. It sits on the edge of the Sierra de la Demanda mountains on the banks of the River Oja and is just 30 kms west of Berceo. It was an easy decision to stay on at the campsite in Berceo another night and travel to Ezcaray for the day.

With just over 2,000 inhabitants Ezcaray is not a large town but, it attracts a great many tourists throughout the year. Summer and winter, it is particularly popular with visitors from the Basque Country.

Parking up was easy. There is a motorhome aire at the edge of the town next to the pretty 18th century Hermitage of Nuestra Senora de Allende.

The resident hermit in the hermitage accommodation adjoining the chapel let me in for a look and it is as pretty inside as outside. There’s a magnificent altar piece but an attractive and unusual feature inside is the collection of paintings on the side walls by the artist Arcabuceros Angeles.

We carried on towards the old town and soon encountered the Iglesia Parroquial de Santa Maria la Mayor, which is a fortress like church put together in several phases between the 12th and 16th centuries. It looks more like a small castle than a church and, as we arrived, was locked as tight as any fortress could be. I was having to settle for a couple of photos of the outside of the church but as I readied myself with the camera, I was distracted.

The hotel opposite the church houses the El Portal de Echaurren restaurant, the first ever Michelin Star restaurant in La Rioja and, what’s more, it now has two Michelin Stars. The restaurant’s menu was posted outside the entrance. It claims to showcase the flavours of the Al Rioja region and looks both exciting and reasonably priced. They were charging between 22 and 32 euros for a meat main course and between 29 and 60 euros for a fish main although, no one in their right mind would settle for just a main course in this restaurant. Eating in El Portal de Echaurren is apparently almost theatre. The appetizers are served in the garden, then; guests are shown the kitchens where an entree is produced and then; the principal course is delivered to the guest’s table in the restaurant area. Personally I would like to try their tasting menu with appropriate local wines and Vanya and I have promised ourselves we will return for such an experience. Only issue is that, with a visit to the kitchens being part of the eating experience, I don’t think we’ll be able to take the dogs with us. They have what looks like a sister restaurant almost next door, El Cuartito. Perhaps El Cuartito will be more accommodating?

Promising that we would soon return, we moved on into the old town and with the help of Google Maps quickly found the centre, the Plaza del Conde de Torremuzquiz (the Square of the Earl Torremuzquiz). In fact, the Square is better known as the Plaza del Quiosco (Square of the Kiosk). It is an ancient and picturesque square of half timbered three story buildings in the middle of which is a very odd looking but very pretty bandstand set on a stone foundation. It is this bandstand which has given the square it’s nickname, Plaza del Quiosco. Most of the buildings surrounding the square have been converted into cafe bars and craft shops. It was mid morning; the square was fairly full and there was a great atmosphere about the place. We settled outside one of the cafe-bars and took a pintxos brunch. I mentioned earlier that Ezcaray is very popular with visitors from the Basque Country and that is reflected in the cafe bar menus in the town. What would ordinarily be called tapas across most of Spain and in much of Castile y Leon is termed pintxos in Ezcaray.

I’ve not mentioned that Ezcaray is good for shopping; woollens in particular. Vanya had noticed this almost immediately upon entering the town and it wasn’t long before we were retracing our steps to another square we had crossed earlier in morning, the Plaza de la Verdura. I remember it because the town’s tourist office is to be found on that square. Vanya had seen an admittedly pretty full length woollen jumper. It’s now in the back of the Van.

Ezcaray has long been famous for the production of cloth (particularly woollen clothes and blankets) and at it’s peak in the 19th century had 29 textile factories employing 1,000 workers. That’s almost all gone now with most of the old mills having been demolished but one in particular has been saved. The Royal Cloth Factory of Santa Barbara has been converted into the Ayuntamiento (town hall), a Theatre and a Hotel. It is a striking building full of character.

A part of the Royal Cloth Factory of Santa Barbara

Textile production has given way to tourism all year round in Ezcaray. The ski resort of Valdezcaray is only 14kms up the road. Valdezcaray was built in 1974 and has a skiable area of 22kms; service stations at three heights (1550m, 1620m and 1850m) and; 6 lifts capable of carrying 15,000 skiers an hour to a total 24 ski runs (including 4 green pistes, 6 blue, 10 red, 2 black and 2 yellow). I didn’t know that they had skiing in this part of the world.

We had a pleasant day in Ezcaray but, while it is a pretty little town, I wouldn’t describe it as the prettiest in the La Rioja region. I think we’ve yet to discover that place. No matter, we’ll be back if only to try one of those restaurants I wrote about. For now, it is back to Berceo and then on to another town which has been recommended by a friend: the wine capital of La Rioja, Haro.

Berceo (La Rioja), Spain August 2022

Our next stop was to be in the La Rioja Region of Spain. The plan was to spend a couple of nights in Logrono (a favourite city of ours) but we thought also to visit a few other places in this most underrated part of Spain.

Vanya identified a suitable stop over just inside the La Rioja region by the name of Berceo; programmed the Sat-Nav and off we set … to the end of a dirt track road nearer Burgos than Logrono! Whoops! No problem. An hour or so later we arrived at Berceo and there was still sufficient time for me to check out the town (although with just two bars this is more of a village than a town).

I found a small bar in the town for a drink or two that evening (there’s very little else to see or do) and then started to follow a pilgrimage route, the Ruta de Gonzalo de Berceo, out of town.

Gonzalo de Berceo was a local 13th century religious poet. I cannot tell you any more about him except that his route took me up and then down through some beautiful countryside to the Monasterio de Yuso. I subsequently learned from our waiter where we ate that evening that the Spanish language was first developed by the monks at this monastery. Who am I to argue with him?

I was late getting back from the monastery and we decided to leave the village bar for another time. Instead, we ate in the camp site bar restaurant and the food was fine. The drinks (Estrella beer and a La Rioja Crianza) were excellent.

The friendly local waiter who told us about the Spanish language having been developed at the Monasterio de Yuso was a mine of local information and, while we were eating, he urged us to visit the village of Ezcaray if we were staying on in La Rioja. That settled it, we told the campsite we would be staying on another night so as to both visit Ezcaray and visit the local bar in Berceo.

Our visit to Ezcaray is told in the next blog. This blog ends with me reporting that we visited the local bar in Berceo and that we were well received by the locals and we drank lots of the ‘local’ wine. It came from the Bodegas Berceo in Haro. More about Haro later.

Saint Gaudens (Occitaine), France August 2022

Camped up in Montrejeu and I somehow broke the Van’s fly screen. There’s no way you can spend Summer in a van in the south of France or Spain (our next port of call) without a fly screen so; we drove to the nearest (larger) town of Saint Gaudens to find the French equivalent of B&Q – Mr Bricolage.

Saint Gaudens is not the prettiest town in France but we arrived on a market day and we love local markets. So with the fly screen temporarily sorted via the purchase of a Moustiquaire Magnetique (just 12 euros), we wandered around the market; Vanya sourced a supply of ‘cbd’ in a local shop and; best of all we sat at the edge of the market and nursed a coffee and watched the world go by for a while.

Oh, and there’s one more thing worth knowing about Saint Gaudens. Dominique Bouchait, one of the great French cheese masters, is based in Montrejeau and, while his cheese factory is in his home town (alongside Camping Paradis), he has an impressive store in Saint Gaudens (Les Fromagers du Mont Royal).

It was a lazy four days in Montrjeu.

Montrejeau (Occitanie), France August 2022

I last visited in Montrejeau in July 2019 (during Tour 2) but I never kept a blog that Tour, choosing instead to simply post brief details on Facebook. I recall I wasn’t very complimentary about the town in my FB entry. That was perhaps unfair because I didn’t get a good look at Montrejeau. My focus then was more towards the excellent camp site I stayed at (Camping du Paradis) and my trip to ‘le plus beau village’ of Saint Bertrand de Comminges where a medieval festival was under way. That was a great day but, it is time to put the record straight about Montrejeux.

Once again I chose to stay at Camping du Paradis and once again it was brilliant (nice pitch, facilities and people) although it is now three times more expensive than it was in July 2019. No matter, it was good enough for us to stay 4 days.

As for Montrejeau it’s a small town with no more than 3,000 people but, it has a couple of real plus points and it has some history. On balance I was a little unfair about the place and while Montrejeau is unlikely to set the world alight in my lifetime, it is a reasonable base from which to explore the Haute-Garonne.

So what did I see this time that I never saw before? Well, for a starter I missed the town’s main street. Instead I made my way from the campsite down along the Boulevard Bertrand de Lassusand then onto and over the town bridge to Saint Bertrand de Comminges. I returned the same way and as such missed the Marie (the town hall), the war memorial (it’s really quite unique), the Eglise de St Jean Baptiste (beautiful plain inside) and L’hotel de Lassus (the town’s most impressive mansion).

The church, L’Eglise de St Jean Baptiste, has an unusual octagonal shape tower but is otherwise unimpressive, until you get inside. The arched dark wooden roof and the roughly hewn cream coloured stone walls complement each other wonderfully well and the church isn’t full of garish furniture that might detract from what amounts to a beautifully simple interior. I like it.

L’Hotel de Lassus is not, nor ever was, a hotel. It’s a mansion (many French mansions are referred to as l’hotels), dating from the late 18th century and it belonged to the same Lassus family whose progeny subsequently built the 1892 Chateau de Valmirande. Nowadays it is used as a reception hall and there is a small space museum inside it.

Chateau Valmirande

One other attraction I sought out during this more recent visit to Montrjeau is it’s leisure centre and lake. The lake was developed out of a former gravel pit and extends over thirty hectares. To one side of the lake is a ‘Blue Flag’ water park complete with water slides and a bouncy obstacle course (I had to restrain Vanya from the obstacle course on the water) and the other side of the lake is for fishing.

So, Montréjeau does have more to it than I first thought after my visit in 2019.

I mentioned too that it has some history. Well, it was the scene of one of the last battles between Republicans and Royalists during the French Revolution. In the summer of 1799, anti-revolutionary insurrection broke out in the area which threatened even the city of Toulouse. The Paris Directory quickly sent an army to the area and the rebels were crushed at Montrejeau in August 1799.

Moureze (Occitanie), France August 2022

The next day, I was more than a little surprised that Vanya remained keen to visit the Cirque de Moureze, especially after she had seen the photos taken by our dinner companions of the previous evening. This simply wasn’t her thing but, then again, she has surprised me in the past and, hey, life is for living. It never occured to me that she wasn’t wearing her glasses the night before and couldn’t actually see the photos she was being shown.

And so we made the short drive to the tiny village of Moureze. We paid our 5 Euros to park in the car park by the visitor centre at the edge of the village, grabbed the dogs and set off on one of the shorter trails through the Cirque de Moureze…

We were in the 300 hectare park which is the Cirque de Moureze for about an hour and I certainly enjoyed our time there. The views are sensational. There are a number of well marked trails through the park which are of between one and three hours duration and they take you through a strange and spectacular landscape full of ‘Dolomites’. Dolomites are large limestone rocks which have been weathered by wind and water erosion over thousands of years into tall columns and all kinds of weird shapes. Put simply,the softer limestone is washed away to leave the harder rock sculptures, some of which are up to 500 metres high, and they make for great scrambling.

Looking back over the village of Moureze
Looking forward to some of the scrambles

We retraced our steps to the village and found a small cafe bar. Moureze is a peaceful little village centred around the 12th century Gothic church of Sainte Marie. There is the ruin of a castle at the top of a rock above the village but I couldn’t get to it. I think that access is across private land. The village has a couple of cafe bars (one has crepes on it’s menu), a couple of small craft shops, an antique shop and an interesting little cemetery which has been designated a Commonwealth War Cemetery because it is the last resting place of a young Captain Peter Seymour Fowler who was murdered by the German SS in August 1944.

We enjoyed our drink, had a quick wander around the village and then returned to the Van. We had a long drive ahead of us to Montrejeau where I stayed almost 5 years ago.

Pezenas (Occitaine), France August 2022

Pezenas was one of the first towns in France to be protected as a historic monument. It also one of the most beautiful towns in the Languedoc Roussillon area and, without a doubt, one of my favourite towns in France.

Situated between Beziers and Montpelier, Pezenas is a small town of some 9,000 inhabitants but it has a sizeable and almost wholly pedestrianised medieval centre. It is a great place to explore.

We were parked at Camping Castelsec, a pleasant municipal campsite within easy walking distance of the old centre. It took no more than 15 minutes to walk to the town and my route brought me on to a wide avenue, the Cours Jean Joures, near the Place de la Republique. One side of the Cours Jean Joures backs on to the old town.

The buildings on this avenue are for the most part large houses; some may even qualify as mansions or ‘Hotels Particuliers’ as they are referred to in Pezenas. I walked the length of the avenue to Place Ledru Rollin where there is a gateway into the old town. What a find! It’s a maze of narrow winding streets and alleys. Almost all of the buildings in this warren are constructed of the same attractive honey coloured stone but they come in all shapes and sizes and no two buildings or even two doors are the same. It is enchanting. I spent hours wandering and marvelling at the place.

The old town is a real mix of different commercial and residential buildings; many with unique features, be they ornaments or carvings or simply special window dressings and, as often as not, the real curios are to be found up on high. You need eyes in the top of your head if you want to see everything in Pezenas.

One building on Rue Alfred Sabatier has a statue of Saint Roch carved into an upper corner. Quite why there should be such a statue on this particular house, I don’t know. Saint Roch is, among other things, the Patron Saint of Dogs. It is said he contracted the plague whilst helping others with the disease and was then shunned and would have died except; a dog brought him bread every day and licked his wounds until he recovered. Because of this, Saint Roch is often depicted with a dog by his side and pointing at a lesion (caused by the plague) on his thigh.

The town is home to a wide range of craftsmen; those working with iron or wood being particularly prevalent and; as a result, there are plenty of unusual art and craft shops in evidence throughout the old town (and some fabulous window displays). You could spend a lot of money here.

The town’s population swelled in 1298 with the arrival of a number of Jewish refugees from Spain, Portugal and Italy and this influx added to the range of craftsmen in the town as silversmiths and jewellers figured prominently amongst them. The Jewish population was to prosper in Pezenas for the next 100 years, most living in either Rue Juiverie or Rue des Litanies (which, it is said, had been reserved for them) until 1394 when the French King Charles VI decreed that all Jews should be expelled from France. As a consequence of this action the area of the town which comprises Rue Juiverie and Rue des Litanies is now referred to as the Jewish Ghetto but it is most unlikely it was deemed a ghetto at the time. It now contains a few artisan shops and bijou restaurants and is as integral a part of the old town as it ever was.

Pezenas’ most famous “adopted” son is Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, better known as Moliere, France’s 17th century answer to our very own William Shakespeare. Moliere lived in Pezenas for a while (some say up to four years) and he is wholly revered. Everywhere you go in the town there are references to Moliere – there are shops, restaurants and hotels named after him. There is a monument and museum dedicated to him. The town has even retrieved the chair that Moliere is said to have sat on outside his barber friend’s salon. The list goes on and on.

To my mind, however, the most striking memorial to Moliere is the Monument carved from Carrara Marble on the Avenue Francois Hue. It takes the form of a bust of Moliere and two other more complete figures; the first being a female character, Lucette, from his comedy “Monsieur de Pourceaugnac” and the second being what looks like a satyr. It is presumed that Lucette was included in the monument because the character makes frequent positive remarks about Pezenas. One can only assume the satyr relates to the more exotic or licentious behaviour that supposedly characterised Moliere.

I could go on about Pezenas for a while yet but it will suffice to say that we liked the place so much we decided to stay on an extra day. These extensions are becoming a feature of this particular tour.

The second day was more about eating and drinking in the town and again we were blessed. On this our second night in Pezenas we stumbled upon a Grand Wine Festival on the Cours Jean Joures (Les Estivales de Pezenas). Every Monday, the local wine producers set up stalls along the length of the avenue. You buy a wine glass and off you go tasting the different local wines. The town provides tables and chairs (benches) and there are a handful of food stalls – I saw one serving oysters! That is a great way to spend a Monday night and it looked as if the town’s whole population thinks so too because the place was teeming with people.

We couldn’t make a full night of it at the festival. I had booked us into a highly recommended restaurant called “Le Duplex de la Maman des Poissons” on Rue Conti but, once again, what a result! We had a marvellous evening.

We sat outside the front of the restaurant near an interesting couple from North Yorkshire and we got to talking (and sharing some Picpoul de Pinet) and, I for one, enjoyed the best tapas I have ever had outside of Logrono. Moreover, the couple we met told us about a place they had visited earlier in the week that we decided, there and then, should be our next destination – Cirque de Moureze. If Vanya hadn’t drunk quite so much Picpoul or, had paid a little more attention to what they had said about the Cirque de Mourez or, looked more closely at their photos, she may not have been so keen. lol.

I loved our time in Pezenas and look forward to returning. My only regret is that we weren’t there for the Saturday morning market which I understand is one of the largest and best in the region.

Next time!

Tourtour (Provence), France August 2022

Fifty miles inland from the Cote d’Azur and just a few miles northwest of Draguignan in the Haute Var is the village of Tourtour. It sits on top of a hill called Beau Soleil or Beautiful Sun (a 635 metre high hill in an otherwise flat plain) and; because of it’s location and incredible views over Provence, it is often referred to as the Village in the Sky.

It is perhaps the prettiest village I have seen in France and it came as no surprise to learn it is listed as one of Les Plus Beaux Villages De France.

We were up early to visit Tourtour and quickly found a spot to park the Van in the large car park to the east of the village next to the 11th century church of St Denise. The views towards the coast from this high spot are remarkable but I confess to having been somewhat distracted by a vintage sports car rally which was filling the car park as we arrived. Open top Porsches, Mercedes, Alfa Romeos, even an old open top Bentley, were all present but; the vehicles I was most drawn to were a couple of Morgans and, best of all, two really early MG’s. Sorry, I digress – back to Tourtour.

From St Denise’s it was no more than a two minute stroll down a slight slope into the village. One of first buildings to be encountered, on the left, is the Chateau de Raphelis which now doubles as the town hall and the tourist office. The post office may also be housed there? The panoramic views from the front of the Chateau over the lush green countryside below are even more spectacular than those back at the church but, there are distractions here too in the form of some interesting and unusual sculptures by Bernard Buffet. Buffet was a regular visitor to Tourtour.

The Chateau de Raphelis (now the Town Hall) and, to the right, a sculpture by Bernard Buffet.

Continuing on is the Place des Ormeaux . This shaded wholly pedestrianised square with it’s fountain, cafe-bars and craft shops is the heart of the village. This being France there is a large area set aside next to the square for Petanque and this is where the twice-weekly market is held (Wednesday & Saturday).

Then it was time to set off down any one of the winding cobbled lanes that help form this delightful medieval village.

There is nothing uniform about either the houses or streets in Tourtour. Almost everything is built with suitably sized boulders or individual hand carved blocks of stone hewn from the hill. Some houses are built against huge slabs of rock or a giant boulder which serves as a wall. Others are cut into the rock, cave houses. Most are free standing. All are one of a kind and the narrow cobbled streets twist and turn around these unique dwellings. There are few straight lines in Tourtour.

One unexpected feature of the village, given it’s height, is it’s many fountains. They are fed by a spring, the Saint Rosaire Spring, which also feeds the old washouse and even a 17th century olive oil mill which is still used.

Having walked the whole village at least twice (non uniform streets and cul de sacs make for longer walks) we found our way back to the Place des Ormeaux and paused for a quiet coffee and to reflect on some of the things we had seen in Tourtour but, our visit wasn’t over yet…

Space is always at a premium in such small villages and gardens are few and far between but some villagers will create the next best thing with next to nothing.

Tourtour has fewer than 500 inhabitants. No surprise, some of those people work full time in the wine sector – this is France. However, for much of the year the great majority of the village are involved with the tourist sector; whether it be working in the tourist office or museums or; organising and operating pony trekking or hiking, biking tours or; helping run the area’s cafes, bars, hotels & restaurants. A significant number of artists also now live in Tourtour (sculptors and painters mostly but there are also potters, basketmakers, etc) and these too support the tourist sector running artisan galleries and workshops. We found time to check out a couple…

I mentioned that a vintage car rally was underway as we arrived. We paused on the way back to the Van for a last look at some of my favourites and to take a few photos…

Tourtour is a great place to visit. I don’t know how I stumbled on that one but there is a real ‘feel good’ factor about the place and I’d certainly return. If or when I do I would be inclined to stay at one of the two hotels within walking distance of the village. My preference would be for the Hotel La Bastide de Tourtour, a 25 bedroom hotel and spa…

Next time.

Draguignan (Provence), France August 2022

Contrary to what has been said in certain blogs, there is a more to Draguignan than just shopping. It does have a sizeable collection of independent and unique boutique style shops and it also has a weekly street market with 100+ stalls selling a variety of goods but it is wrong to suggest there is little else about the place.

Some of the old medieval town was knocked down to accommodate a large increase in population (it went from just 11,000 in 185 to 13,402 in 1954 but in the last 68 years has burgeoned to well over 40,000) and, of course, more retail outlets have been built to meet the needs of this population explosion but a fair part of the old town still stands and it is a pretty part too.

Draguignan was originally a Roman fort. The town’s name is derived from the Latin word ‘draco’ (dragon); one of which, according to legend, was slain by a local hermit called Hermentaire and; dragons now feature everwhere across the town. The town was built on olives and grapes and while that is still very much the case in the surrounding areas, Draguignan has become more of a garrison town (being home to the Ecole Nationale d’Artillerie in 1976 and the Ecole Nationale de L’Infantrie in 2010) although it’s focus now is switching towards tourism and to a lesser extent textiles.

The town is dominated by an attractive 17th century clocktower on top of which is a wrought iron campanile. The tower provides great views of the town and surrounding countryside but was closed when I visited. At it’s foot is a tiny open air theatre which is used to host small concerts and recitals. Despite trying, I’ve been unable to discover anything about the origins of this theatre.

The old town isn’t large but it’s ‘comfortable’ with a mix of tree lined avenues, wide and narrow lanes and some old houses that just reek history. It also has some quite unusual street art.

I noticed there is a WWII US military cemetery in the town and went to pay my respects. This is the Rhone American Cemetery and Memorial and it contains the remains of more than 800 US soldiers who died during and after the allied invasion of Southern France (Operation Dragoon, initially named Operation Anvil) which commenced on 15 August 1944.

The cemetery is kept meticulously (and quite right too). It is divided into four plots which are grouped around an oval pool. A chapel overlooks the graves and between this chapel and the graves is an impressive bronze relief map detailing US military operations in the south of France. There is also a wall detailing the names of those whose bodies have never been recovered and there are a number of State Flags flying which I assume represent the individual States that the soldiers came from.

Trans-de-Provence (Provence), France August 2022

Trans de Provence appears an old fashioned ordinary sleepy French provincial town (and I mean nothing disparaging in that). The town used to be about olives and silk; there were more than 20 silk mills operating in the area just before WWI. The French tourist site ‘France-Voyage.com’ claims these industries have since given way to tourism and that there is much to see and do in the immediate area. I’m not so sure about that unless, of course, they are referring to cycling and/or hiking trails in the area.

Around the middle of August, the town holds a week long ‘Sant-Roch Festival’ with balls, concerts and petanque tournaments and, as we arrived, a stage was being set up in the small square outside the town hall. At the time I thought this was for a one off rock concert but, in hindsight, I suspect it was preparation for the festival. For a while I watched six locals playing petanque on a piece of dry flat land down by the river and I was amazed at how good they are. Three of the six were regularly throwing to within an inch or two of the jack; no matter whether they threw, lobbed or rolled the boule and, frequently, they were applying spin. My money would be on them to win the petanque tournament. As an aside, I believe Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones is a tolerable petanque player. He probably took the game up during his period of tax exile in France during the 60’s and 70’s (not that I’m having a dig or anything lol).

After watching the petanque for a half hour or so I wandered downstream along a path on the right bank of La Nartuby River. The river was very low (no surprise given the current drought conditions) but there was plenty of evidence to suggest that water levels can be considerably higher. Indeed, the river has cut a deep gorge through the town. It is a nice stroll down by the river and there are a number of bridges which, if the water were at normal levels, would facilitate some good photos. I didn’t go too far or my stroll would have become ‘canyoning’ but, instead, turned back into the town after reaching what I would term the Himalayan bridge (so named because it resembled those swing bridges we kept encountering in Nepal – gosh, was that really three years ago?).

Returning to the town, I made my way to the main square which is in the older part of Trans en Provence. It is a very pretty place but, unfortunately, there’s not enough of it.

Whilst in Trans de Provence, I spent a fair time looking for the remains of an “Air Well” designed by the Belgian engineer, Achille Knapen. I had read that his Air Well stands 14 metres high, has massive masonry walls (some 3 metres thick) and sits on top of a 600 metre high hill. Could I find it? Could I hell!

In case you don’t know (and assuming you are interested) an Air Well is a large stone structure which serves to convert warm air into drinking water. It takes the form of a long smooth concrete column, topped and surrounded by thick stone walls which are punctured with lots of holes. During the heat of the day, the holes let in warm moisture laden air which at night, as the temperatures drop, then condenses against the central column. The resulting condensation trickles down the column into a collecting basin as drinking water. Voila, water from warm air.

The Knapen ‘Air Well’ – obviously it isn’t my photo because I couldn’t find the bloody thing!

Knapen’s Air Well excited some public interest when it was being built but it had a disappointingly low yield; generating no more than few litres of water each day, as opposed to the thousands that Knapen hoped for. It was deemed a failure and, sadly, left to ruin.

Notwithstanding the above, Knapen’s concept holds true. Indeed, for some years many houses in India have had dew condensors on their roof and, more recently, some South American countries (Chile and Peru) have been developing the concept to collect drinking water. I suspect that ‘dew harvesting’, as it now seems to be called, will become more prevalent as the global climate changes and drought becomes more common.

Back to Trans-en-Provence. I did enjoy wandering around the town and I would recommend it as a place to stop by but; I would suggest the middle of August as a time to visit, when the Sant Roch Festival is on, and; I would advise getting a decent map if you want to find Knapen’s Air Well.