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 ‘’ 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.