Retired and on the Move

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Location: BC, Canada

Friday, February 23, 2007

Covering the Same Ground

We are now back in Bormes-les-Mimosas and for about the next week we will be retracing our footsteps as we head west. Our blog posts will be a little further apart for the next little while as we get in position to head up the Atlantic coast. No doubt we will get sidetracked somewhere and that might mean a few more entries before we get to the Atlantic.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

La Garde-Freinet

19 February 2007

La Garde-Freinet (about 18 km. inland from St.-Tropez) is one of Provence’s best-preserved villages; its architecture has remained largely unchanged and almost each of the many stone buildings built without mortar is in perfect condition. Fort Freinet, at 450 m. elevation and now in ruins, is the original medieval village site inhabited from the late 12th century by people from the nearby villages of St.-Clément and Miremer. In the late 13th century the villagers progressively left this hilly abode and went down about 100 m. to what is today the site of the oldest part of La Garde-Freinet.

By the late 15th century Fort Freinet was completely abandoned and after the Religious Wars of the 1500’s it was destroyed in November 1589. Today the remnants of the houses and the fortifications of Fort Freinet can still be seen.

Being perched on a hill with cliffs or extremely steep slopes on every side made it a naturally defensive position. Some hand carving of the rock made it an even stronger fortified village.

With only one path to the top of the hill and an easily defended entry through the cliffs, this would have been a difficult fort to capture.

A cistern ensured a reasonable supply of water, and one side of the fort had a water-filled moat carved out of the rock.

Once inside the naturally defined defensive perimeter the inhabitants built individual family homes; the rock foundations of many are still visible. Marie-Claire plans the interior decorations.

Knowing that a round structure means no worries about square corners, Roger opts for a different home.

The site also had a chapel and a seigneurial residence. Today the old fort provides an excellent viewpoint for the “new” village site begun in the 13th century, the entire Mediterranean face of the Maures Hills, Argens plains and the lower Alpes.

As mentioned above the unique feature of this village is the high proportion of homes built with flat field stones without the use of mortar to hold them in place. Ingenious choice and placement of each individual stone has kept these homes intact for over 700 years.

While portions of the original streets have unfortunately been covered in asphalt, the original uncut stone “paving blocks” can still be seen.

The area has excellent hiking and biking trails.

Gassin and Ramatuelle

3 February 2007

There are no municipal places for motor homes for motor homes in the St.-Tropez region. We were lucky to fall on Camping la Pinède at Grimaud. Purchased in January by Thiery and his wife it has a number of permanent caravans (what ironically in France are called mobile homes) and a number of sites for campers and motor homes. Not officially open for temporary stays, we were able to stay there with electricity for 10 Euros/day – an excellent price for this area. In the countryside about 1 km from the Port de Grimaud, it was calm, quiet, and nice and dark at night. It was a rare treat walking here during a full moon with the bare branches of the plantains casting broad shadows.

We had started this post while here before going to Monaco. Back in this area a few weeks later we realized that it had not yet been published.

The tiny hill-top village of Gassin (meaning steep place), wrapped around its medieval church and remants of ramparts, is often referred to as the watchman of the bay. From its ramparts you can see all of the Gulf of St.-Tropez including Ste.-Maxime, Grimaud and Port Grimaud, Cogolin and the city of St.-Tropez.

This is a village built for pedestrians and the small carts of the medieval era. While you will see a few cars driven by locals on the very narrow streets, it is best viewed by foot. Ample parking lots at both ends of the village encourage the visitor to get out and enjoy the adventure at a walking pace.

The first written reference (as “Garcin”) appears in 1234-1235. The castle occupied much of the top and its ramparts form the foundations of many of today’s houses.

Nôtre Dame de l’Assomption church on the village square was completed in 1558. Its battlements were destroyed in 1793.

Gassin also boasts what is probably the narrowest alley in France. Not everyone would be able to get through here.

Despite the summer crowds, that is the best time to visit Gassin, when it is in full bloom. This promenade is filled with restaurant tables in summer and an evening meal just before sunset is a memorable event and a great way to “look down” on St.-Tropez, an over-rated destination.

On the way down from Gassin is to take the winding road to Ramatuelle. This sheltered village, at about ½ the elevation of Gassin, dates to an earlier period as a Celtic-Ligurian settlement. By the 9th century it was occupied by the Saraccens and “freed” by the Duke of Provence in the 10th century.

Its medieval architecture remains largely intact today as does ample evidence of its period as a walled town.

The wiring is strictly 20th century – let’s say 1950’s. Clothes dryers are very hard to find here – effective ones are even harder to find. This is still the more common way to dry laundry.

The 16th century Nôtre Dame church built against the ancient ramparts, includes gold-leafed wooden statuettes from that era and some nice frescoes.

Le Dramont and Agay

11-14 February 2007

Le Dramont and Agay are two Mediterranean towns that form part of the Commune de St.-Raphaël, about 50 km from St.-Tropez.

A brief and simplistic table of equivalency of government structures in Canada and France might help with understanding some terms.

Département = Province
Commune = Region or Metropolitan Government
Ville, Cité = City
Village = Town, village

The incredible, small, but beautiful campground we stayed in (Royal Camping) was located in Le Dramont and it was from that whistle stop train station what we took the train to Nice and To Cannes. This private campground was open only because the Northeastern Club of the Fédération Française des Associations et Clubs de Camping-Cars had booked it for the 6 weeks that cover the 2 week winter school vacations that are staggered throughout France in February and March (to ensure that the ski hills are not overwhelmed). This particular club covers the north-eastern region of France. While they would be using the entire campground (about 50 sites) by the 15th of February, we were able to get ocean-side spaces for the 4 nights leading up to then. After reading their literature and realizing that they had made organized motor-home trips to many parts of Europe and to Russia we joined their club as we were literally driving out of the campsite.

This clean, well run campsite is owned by a very nice young couple of Italian descent and they are very accommodating.

The major topographical features of the area are the amazing red mountains of l’Estérel and le Dramont and the bays of the Med.

For obvious reasons the area is known as the Red Rocks.

Above the campground on an ocean-side peak is an operational military radar site on the former site of a semaphore or signaling station. Different eras saw different methods of signalling, but its height and location at the edge of the sea made it a key lookout and signal center.

Looking more like a mountaintop, seaside villa this radar station can only be labelled "work with a view".

The beach at Le Dramont is also the landing site of American (36th Infantry Division – 7th American Army) and French troops (1st French Army) at 8 A.M. on 15 August 1944 as part of the invasion of Provence.

The landing is memorialized by a large park.

The commemoration plaque is the only one we have seen that uses the word “Nazi”.

In neighbouring Agay, the pre-landing bombing of the railway Viaduct d’Anthéor caused a number of civilian deaths and considerable property damage, so much of the physical infrastructure of Agay dates from the late 1940’s.

Like much of the rest of the Mediterranean coast there is an excellent coastal trail throughout this region. We sometimes have the impression that you could walk the entire coast on these trails.

This stranded sailboat attests to the ruggedness of much of the coast.
“BORDEL!” is apparently the name given to this boat after it was stranded – perhaps by the owners of the beach property, perhaps by the sailor who screwed up. Literally translated it means bordello, but in colloquial French it is just a slang explicative expressing anger.

Agay also has a Whistler-like village advertised as car-less. There are certainly many pedestrian trails and walks that give access to the more rugged trails of l’Estérel. The golf course was open but virtually deserted, as was most of the vacation village. There seems to be a deeply embedded belief that the only time the Mediterranean region of France is viable for tourists is July and August and perhaps the wings months of June and September. Even though the weather is good for at least another 6 months, at least ½ of the hotels, 90% of the campgrounds and 70% of the tourist-based businesses are closed. The campground owners were explaining that the villas, homes and apartments are owned by the well-to-do from northern France, Germany, England, Holland and Scandinavia, and that it is very difficult for the average family in the region to get above the poverty level.

This is tragic for these people. It is all the more tragic because it could be reversed or at least substantially improved by making this a vacation destination for at least 10 months of the year. All of the sites are here 24/7 year round. Why not use them?

We are writing this sitting in our motor home with 50 other motor homes on a gravel parking lot in Ste.-Maxime.

Certainly some are here because it is free and there is a sewage dump and water. But many are here because it is the only place they can find open. Last night in Fréjus we stayed in a similar place with 60 other motor homes for exactly the same reasons. Fréjus is part of the Commune of St.-Raphaël and actually abuts the city of St. Raphaël. The latter though much larger and with kilometers of empty water-front parking lots has no place for motor homes – no parking for them and no open campgrounds.

We’re not complaining that this place exists and that it accommodates that many motor homes in what seem to be crowded conditions. We’re glad that it exists and it is a safe, comfortable place to stay. But the irony is that it can be closed to motor homes at any time by putting the barrier on top of the two white posts and allowing only car access. It will be closed in summer. There is definitely something wrong with this tourism picture, especially for an area of such physical beauty.

Friday, February 16, 2007


13 February 2007

Ah Cannes , beautiful Cannes. Small enough to be absorbed by a visitor, large enough to generate a powerful pulse. While a lady down the coast told us that every time she went to Cannes it rained, and every time she had to buy an umbrella ending up with 20 of them, we had the benefit of a crystal clear day, sunny and windy in the morning and sunny and warm in the afternoon.

The added benefit for us was the organization and security for the 24th Annual Conference of the Heads of State of Africa and France.

With many streets blocked to vehicular traffic, it was a pedestrian’s heaven. And if you love BMW motorcycles you could get your money’s worth.

The waterfront conference center that hosts the Cannes Film Festival was used for a different purpose and the heightened security included police snipers on the roof , a French Navy ship and patrolling high speed inflatables on the bay.

Wondering how one anchored ship and a few inflatables could protect against a determined high speed vessel with shoulder launching missiles, our concerns were somewhat allayed when we saw the army on the end of a pier with their own radar controlled missile launchers.

The story of Cannes begins in 200 BC when the Oxybians quarrelled with their neighbours in Nice and Antibes and called in the Roman troops for support. The Romans referred to the area as Castrum di Marsellinum (the fort of the people from Marseilles). Canna in Latin means reeds and since there were many in the area and the local population preferred Castrum Canoΐs, which by 1619 had become Cannes. It is also possible that the name comes from the European root “kan” meaning summit or hilltop. The highest point in Cannes is the hill known as Mont Chevalier where the Abbots of Lérins built their castle of which a few elements remain and this where the historic part of the city can be found.

The hilltop tower affords a 360 panorama.

The French love their restaurant and this one is dedicated to Fernandel and his famous movie La Vache et Le Prisonnier (The Cow and the Prisoner) a dramatic comedy dealing with being a prisoner in WW II. (See our earlier blog on Carry-le-Rouet).

For her pre-Valentine’s lunch Marie-Claire enjoyed raw meat – what used to and is still sometimes known in France as “Steak américain” or now as “steak tartare”. Imagine a visiting American reading the menu and thinking -wow an American steak – that’s for me!

Small streets require unique solutions, like the world’s smallest garbage truck. No, no it has nothing to do with Marie-Claire's choice of lunch.

Cannes’ waterfront boast many beautiful hotels, the best known being the Carleton.

In 1910 the architect Mayère was asked to design a hotel. Apparently his fascination with the breasts of the famous courtesan La Belle Otéro inspired his design of the hotels two cupolas. Apocryphal or true, the design is part of a stunning building that helped to launch the belle époque and the Roaring Twenties in Cannes.

If the Carleton is full you can always choose another hotel de luxe.

The Med and the waterfront are an integral part of Cannes and while the security for the African Heads of State event prevented access to the port, the promenade and its restaurants left us with beautiful memories.

We did manage one marina shot that demonstrated that boaters here face the same seagull challenges as Vancouver.

Passenger trains in Europe are light years ahead of North America. They run on well regulated and full schedules, the cars are nice and many of the stations dramatic. At Cannes the platforms are open air.

This excellent train system carried us back to sunset at our ocean front campground in Le Dramont.