Gorge yourself in rural France


Last updated at 10:44 08 January 2001

We were an hour's drive north of the Riviera and it was not what you'd expect to see in the south of France.

We had been travelling for some miles across high plateau country, peaceful and green in the August sun but strangely deserted.

Suddenly an armoured personnel carrier loomed up at us on the side of the road and a soldier, face blackened with camouflage, looked down expressionlessly, toting his gun.

'Good camo,' came an appreciative voice from behind us.

We had set off that morning to visit Bargeme, an extraordinary settlement perched within a ruined castle on a hilltop, at 3,700ft the highest village in the Var region with a view to match. But for the two 17-year-olds in the back seat this was something else.

Two miles further on we came to something more extraordinary - a neat little village, clearly marked on our Michelin map as Broves, with its church, mairie (town hall), and houses clustering around a central square, which had been cordoned off and lay eerily deserted a hundred yards away from the main road.

The whole massif was controlled by the French military and Broves, with its empty windows and hanging shutters, was used for military exercises.

Signs reading 'Danger de mort' and 'Polygone de tir' (shooting-range) gently encouraged us not to linger, and we drove on, up the single-track hairpin-bends to Bargeme, which in its 700 years of history had seen more than enough of the warfare which was taking place below in make-believe.

We had decided to look for a villa for a week in the south of France, before one of the younger members of our party went on to stay with friends near Avignon.

Travel companies operating in Britain have several thousand such villas on their books, and our requirements seemed pretty modest to us.

All we wanted was a self-contained property on or near the Cote d'Azur, not overlooked, with its own swimming pool and enough room to sleep at least four people.

But by the time we started looking in early July, it appeared as if finding anywhere in southern France in August, not just in the east but in Provence, Gascony or Languedoc, was out of the question.

We trawled the internet and newspaper travel pages, and eventually contacted 16 travel companies ranging from Allez France to VFB.

All they had left were cramped homes with tiny pools, or, in two cases, attractive gites in the western Midi, many miles from what the young would regard as civilisation.

Eventually one of the bigger and most helpful of them found us exactly what we had been looking for, 35 minutes off an exit of the Autoroute Provencale.

We struck lucky. For August holiday-makers, France and Italy become more of a scrum with every year that passes. According to the local Var newspaper, about 18 million tourists had already crowded into Provence that summer, including what seemed like most of the population of Belgium, Holland and Northern France. British, too.

Booking six weeks ahead, we managed to get just about the last economy flights out of Stansted to Nice.

The rat-race faded into memory when we reached our villa. It was genuinely someone's second home, and its kitchen cupboards were stocked with provisions (we replaced what we used, but it was a welcome sight on our arrival).

From our terrace, we had an enchanting view over a dip of pine trees to the village of Claviers - a line of old stone houses, blue-painted shutters and orange-tiled roofs clinging to a ridge, encircled by dark green wooded hills scented with pine and juniper.

For a week we could play that familiar game of 'let's pretend we're second home owners', following the trail of old peasants and elegant housewives with baguettes under their arms to find the village boulangerie, nodding a greeting to Monsieur le Boucher standing in his overalls in the entrance to his shop, stocking up with Cokes and tomatoes at the alimentation, and peering in the window of the local estate agent to find out how much it would cost us to make the dream come true.

We took the boys to the Gorges du Verdon, one of the most spectacular gorges in Europe, and to the church I love more than any church in the world, the Cistercian Abbey of Le Thoronet.

But mostly we slept and read. The truth is that for teenagers, a pool, a TV and some musical entertainment contribute principally to the sum of happiness.

In the mornings, which the oldies had to themselves, we visited local markets, which have become increasingly tourist-oriented in recent years, with the stalls of sausages and smelly cheeses vying for space with displays of pottery, olivewood, terracotta, and tablecloths in bright Provencal patterns of yellow and blue.

Lunches on the terrace were of French bread, cheese, salami, tomato salad, peaches and wine.

Post- siesta swimming would be followed by dinner in neighbouring Bargemon, under the umbrellas in the square behind the church, with lights stringing the trees, and darkly pretty local girls sitting on the steps across the street, talking with studied casualness while Bargemon's teenage males revved their scooters hopefully.

It was an idyllic week, but we were from time to time reminded of the small but important things that anyone who rents a holiday home in France or Italy needs to check with their travel company before they leave Britain.

One is that there should be a memorandum for tenants, explaining how things operate, where to find switches, and where to visit or eat in the vicinity.

We found a few pages printed off the internet, which is not the same thing, although the internet did also provide a useful list of local markets (the local paper on Mondays usually gives one, too).

Even in the hills it is hot at night, and it is worth asking if the villa owners have fans for the bedrooms. Another valuable thing to check is that there is no building work going on nearby.

In fairness I should say that we were scarcely affected by this, except one day when workers arrived next door at 9am and began hammering away on the other side of the cypress fence.

Some 40 minutes later, they broke off, exhausted, until mid-afternoon, when another 20 minutes work resumed before silence fell for the rest of the week. It might have been very different.

At about ten francs to the pound, everything from restaurant menus to bric-a-brac remains wonderful value.

If you don't feel like cooking, your nearest small French town will almost certainly provide a traiteur where you can buy take-away delicacies. Failing that, local hotels will sometimes oblige.

But above all, if you are tied to the school summer holidays yet want to get away from the crowds, whether renting gites or booking hotels, driving over on the ferry or taking the plane, for goodness' sake book early.

I really don't expect to get that lucky, that late, again.

Travel Facts

Christopher Hudson travelled with Bowhills Farmhouse and Villa Holidays in France, Mayhill Farm, Swanmore, Southampton SO32 2QW. Tel: 01489 872700.

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