Its been a slow start to the winter, the initial cold snap was replaced by the usual rainy darkness of November, the time when Swedes withdraw to their living rooms and watch TV. Its been hard to think of Christmas, life’s too busy, its dark and wet outside and there is this pre-occupation with escape, to anywhere where its warm and sunny… I dream of Provence last summer. We even sat and watched My Father’s Glory (La Gloire de mon père) last weekend, but that didn’t exactly help, even if it brought back happy memories. Of course we dream of Australia too, the beaches and the sunshine, despite the news of bush fires and shark attacks that have hit the Swedish headlines the last few weeks.
Yesterday a storm blew in and now our world is covered with snow, though the forecast is for warmer weather next week, so I suppose it will change to slush. But today is white and calm, the storm has passed, the sky is blue, and the skeletal black of the trees outside my window have lost their harshness and just add to the beauty. I’ll drive Sam to off to innebandy (floor ball) in a few minutes, for a game. Maria’s at work at the hospital, Hanna and Isak are still lying in bed.
Saturday morning, two weeks before Christmas, in middle (lagom) Sweden.
The idea of a holiday in the south of France was to swim. Some time back I found a book on Amazon called Wild Swimming France, a companion volume to a book I had earlier bought about wild swimming in Britain. Wild swimming refers to swimming in rivers and lakes: neither of the books focuses much attention on coastal swimming. It is what the Swedes so delightfully call “sweet water” swimming, as opposed to the salty sea. The wonderful pictures in the French edition caught my imagination and the seed of an idea for a swimming holiday began to germinate in my mind. Traditionally, the south of France evokes thoughts of lavender fields and vineyards and mediaeval villages; swimming is usually thought of in terms of bikini clad girls basking on the crowded beaches of the Cote d’Azur (remember the Cannes scene from Mr Bean’s Holiday). But as I waited through the Scandinavian winter and spring I dreamed not of these but of little rivers gurgling through wooded mountains, and deep blue lakes lying peacefully between the hills.
Maria found a beautiful place to stay in the hilltop village of St-Julien-le-Montagnier. Some of the swimming spots in the book, we thought, must surely be around there. We discovered that the Verdon river runs from east to west just north of St Julien, which is in the Var region of Provence. The Verdon has carved out a spectacular gorge system, the so called Grand Canyon of Europe. In the seventies the French government decided to dam the Verdon in several places, for hydroelectricity and a reliable water supply for the region. One of the resulting lakes is Lac d’Esparron, close to St Julien. A little further to the east is a much bigger lake called Lac de Saint Croix, backed up behind another huge dam.
Midway between the two lakes on the Verdon is a little town called Quinson, and it was there we had our first swim. It was late in the afternoon when we jumped into the deep waters of the river, far below the soaring peaks of the canyon. The water is an extraordinary milky blue, as it is all along the Verdon river system, pleasantly cool, but not the shocking cold of our Swedish lakes. The kids jumped from the rock walls. We swam downstream, into the canyon. The water is still, backed up from the Lac d’Esparron at the other end of the gorge. By the time we climbed out of the water, the river was in deepening shadow, lying as it does at the bottom of a deep canyon.
Our next lake swim was a few days later at Bauduen, on the bigger Lac de Sainte Croix. It was hot on the beach by the village, and a dip was welcome. There was a high rock beside a rocky promontory there too; it was becoming clear that for the kids jumping was the biggest attraction of “wild” swimming, the higher the rock, the better. Later we drove and walked along a dusty road that followed the lake shore away from the town. After perhaps a kilometer we threw our stuff on a small stony beach with still, cool water, and swam delightedly out into the lake, the water clear down to four or five meters. Refreshed we continued along the road to its end another kilometer into the wilderness, and from there we followed a narrow track through the forest. We had read about a great jumping rock called Le Défens, and eventually it came into view around a headland, a rocky outcrop to which we could wade just off shore. On the lake side the water was apparently bottomless, clear, deep blue, and we spent a lovely hour swimming around and leaping from its heights before hiking back to the car.
Pont de Galetas is a bridge over the Verdon River where it flows into Lac de Sainte Croix. The river backs up into the spectacular Gorges du Verdon, with its soaring crags and old forest ledges. Far above there is a narrow road that twists and turns along the canyon wall. Downstream from the bridge, on the shores where river widens into lake, a motley collection of hire companies offer canoes and pedal boats and even electric motor boats (“bateau electrique”), so we hired a one big enough for five and pedaled away, under the bridge and up into the gorge. There were lots of jumping spots, but we were determined to get as far up the gorge as possible, so the swimming was short. There was a downpour shortly after we entered the gorge, and the whole two hours we were pedaling clouds scudded across the sky, threatening more rain. We huddled at one stage with several other boats under a rocky overhang as the rain fell. There was a waterfall on the left side of the gorge under which the kids swam on the way back. We made it to a point where the water had become too shallow to navigate further and there we turned and pedaled back. It was raining and late when we arrived back at the beach, all the other boats were tied up. We gathered our wet belongings, bundled into the car and drove home.
Our only other wild swim was in a narrow wooded valley with a high waterfall at its head and cascades of milky blue water falling through the forest at its base. The water was cold and there were lots of people on the trail, though few in the water. We swam and rock hopped and climbed the rapids. The nearby town, a delightful medieval stone village, is called Sillans-la-Cascade.
We had decided to visit the coast at least once while we were in France, and dreamed of snorkeling in the Calanques between Marseilles and Cassis. So on our final day we drove to Cassis, glimpsing the picturesque harbor from far above as we came down from the coastal mountains. But a stop there and a boat to the Calanques was not to be. There was, quite simply, nowhere to park. After driving around for half an hour we gave up and drove on, eastward to La Ciotat. We managed to find a place for the car, and we had lunch in a beachside cafe, but there was no space on the beach for us, the sand was covered with a sea of humanity and the water was uninspiring. Eventually we drove on, even hoping for a place to stop in Saint-Cyr-sur-Mer, another delightful little seaside village, but even there we were unsuccessful. So we went home, aborting our plans for a dip in the Mediterranean. Home for our last three days was a 17th century coaching inn near Mirabeau, north of Aix-en-Provence; the old stone structure, on the land of a local wine grower, who lived in a chateau nearby, had been rebuilt and converted into a holiday apartment complex. In the beautifully landscaped gardens there was a lovely pool, and it was to there we retreated after our day at the coast. It was quiet and peaceful, cool and refreshing. That was our last swim in France, not wild perhaps, but wonderful nevertheless. The next day we drove to Nice for the flight home to Sweden.
A few days back we returned from our summer holiday in France, in Provence. We stayed a week in St Julien-le-Montagnier which is a quaint little hilltop village not far from Aix-en-Provence. Maria had tracked down a beautiful apartment owned by a Swedish family which we could rent for a week. We flew to Nice and drove a hire-car the few hours from the frenetic Cote d’Azur up into the peaceful countryside. St Julien is quiet and peaceful with a beautiful view over the surrounding wooded countryside. It was exactly what we needed: a complete change from everyday life, in warm sunny Mediterranean climes. We have returned refreshed and ready (almost) for a Swedish autumn. I wrote the following on the last day:
The morning is beautiful, the sky is clear, a cool breeze drifts in. Beyond the windows is the narrow street, but it is below my line of sight and is only evident by the occasional passing car or pedestrian. I look over the street to crooked houses of stone and render, with orange roofs of terra-cotta tiles and random chimney stacks. Pencil pines are scattered around the village, which like much of the vegetation and the climate, remind of Tamworth and northern NSW.
St Julien le Montagnier is set on a hill and our little cottage, joined in a ragged row with the others in the street, is close to the top. So from our windows we look over the rooftops of the houses on the other side of the street, which are lower down, and beyond we see the valleys and ridges of Provence. Far off in the distant valley of the Verdon River a collection of houses marks the town of Vinon-sur-Verdon, where we have shopped for supplies during our week here. There is a new Carrafour supermarket there. The river itself is shallow and wide, running over stones, a stark contrast to its dammed majesty in the lakes where we have swum these past days.
This region of France is called the Var, and is the part of Provence which reaches down to the Mediterranean coast. To our west but invisible to us is a big road running north from the coastal strip of the Cote dAzur to Aix-en-Provence and onward up to Avignon. To our north is the Verdon River, which has been our recreation this last week. The dam closest to here, directly north of our little village, makes the Lac d’Esparron, which backs up into the Gorges du Verdon at Quinson, to the east, where we swam the first day after we arrived. The much bigger Lac de La Croix is further to the north east, formed by another huge dam. It backs up into the Gorges at Port de Galetas, near Moustiers Saint Marie, where we hired our paddle boat a few days back to explore the spectacular gorge.
The village itself has a church crowning the hill, with a tower and a bell which rings on the hour, and once at the half hour. There is a restaurant and a little square where serious looking groups of Frenchman gather to play boules. There are spectacular views on every side. There is a sister village at the bottom of the hill called St Pierre which has a school and some shops and a public swimming pool. It is reached by a stony zigzagging footpath down the terraced slopes on the northern side of our hill. Distant in the forested valley on the southern side is a little stone chapel, Chapelle de la Trinité. Catholicism runs deep in the veins of these hills and valleys.
There are lots of villages and towns called St-Julien in France. Exactly who they are named for I am not sure. I don’t know why he features so frequently in town names. One website mentions an Italian saint, Sanctus Julianus Montanarius from the 12th century, but exactly who he was I don’t know. The le Montagnier suffix helps differentiate this St Julien from the others in the immediate region, which can be readily identified on a map of the Var region. It is fitting for a city set on a hill, Julien the mountaineer. St Julien is visible from miles around, and we saw it long before we drove up the steep narrow road. It raises expectations and attracts the eye. It is a pretty place and brought joy and rest to us.
You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden… In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven. (Jesus)