Excursions d’été: La Transhumance

Years ago, preparing for my first trip to the Abruzzo region of Italy (home of paternal ancestors), I read about the annual Transhumance.  In the 1960s when the book had been written, the Transhumance involved many shepherds, tens of thousands of sheep and up to a week of walking 20 kilometers a day from winter lowland to summer mountain pastures. The author described waking in the dead of night to strange sounds, and, looking out his guest house window, being drowsily confused by the sight of of puffy white waves. They were the sheep passing through the village before the dawn, bleating, collar bells softly clanging.

Today, the Transhumance has largely died out. Sheep are still moved seasonally, but usually in truck convoys, for ease and convenience. But for some shepherds, the annual ritual along ancient tratturi, the paths beaten out by innumerable sheep hoofs over the centuries, has meaning worth preserving. Unesco has recognized the Transhumance as an intangible part of cultural patrimony thanks to their efforts.

So I was thrilled when I learned that a Transhumance took place in the Parc National du Mercantour not far from Nice, and that a small number of tourists could take part.

Transhumance

During the Transhumance, in the Mercantour National Park, France

The plan was for ten people to accompany a few shepherds, 1000 or so sheep and numerous dogs for two days as they made their way up a mountain. I was especially lured by the promise of sleeping in our mountain refuge to the sounds of sheep bleating in the nearby fields.

It didn’t work out that way. For whatever reason, 19 tourists were on the journey, not ten, and we didn’t encounter the herd until midday on the first day. The path, described to us as “easy” was certainly not.

About a half hour before sighting the first sheep, we could hear their bells and bleats, and the occasional dog barking. They arrived on the path like a rushing river, forcing us to get out of their way and not interfere with the hard work of the herding dogs. The three protector dogs, who had the job of keeping the wolves at bay, didn’t waste energy herding, keeping a silent-but-deadly lookout throughout.

shepherd dog

Great Pyrenees shepherd dog, protecting the herd

At night, they had moved on who knows where, but far away enough for us to not hear a baaa. At 6:00am the next morning, knees sore from the unexpectedly rough uphill path the day before, I and several others opted for the minivan ride to the top of the mountain where we waited under the early morning sun the arrival of the contingent.

What a beautiful mountain landscape it was.

Mercantour National Park, France

We hikers ate al fresco with the three shepherds and two guides before beginning our descent, ending at the train station home to Nice at day’s end. Was it all I expected? No, but there are other Transhumance journeys to consider for next summer.

father and daughter shepherds, Mercantour, France

father and daughter shepherds, Mercantour

 

 

 

 

 

Posted in Mercantour, Nice, France, sheep, shepherd, Transhumance | 9 Comments

Excursions d’été: Marseille

What comes to mind when you think of Marseille? Crime? In fact, in 2012, one third of all murders committed in France were in the city. Drugs? A short boat hop from North Africa means all the illegal hashish you might possibly want ends up in the streets of Marseille. A large poor population might be why thefts and vandalism are real problems.

Actually, it seemed to me that Marseille is the French city with the strongest New York City vibe. It’s an immigrant city of outsiders, hustlers and survivors, with a global cultural power. Iconic French films have been set there, such as “Fanny,” “Borsalino” and “The French Connection.” The city gave its name to the national anthem.

In the two days in June that I spent there with a friend, you couldn’t help but notice that compared to Nice it is a young, dynamic and vibrant city. It is noisy, grimy, covered in graffiti, and many of the grand 19th century buildings need a renovation, but it is a city of the future. A future very different from the past.

Marseille is an ancient city, founded by Greeks who were perhaps the first to see the site’s strategic advantage as a major port on the Mediterranean. They weren’t the last. Its economic fortunes rose and fell with regular sackings by invaders (including Nazis). Attacks of plague brought by sailors wiped out a large proportion of the population more than once. You can imagine that the descendants of inhabitants past are made of hardy, proud stuff.

One used to go to Marseille to eat bouillabaisse, and take the little boat to the Chateau d’If, the inspiration for Alexandre Dumas’ “The Count of Monte Cristo.” Or, to walk the Corniche out of the city towards the brilliantly hued “calanques” of La Ciotat or Cassis, where the French Riviera begins.

There’s even more than all that to draw tourists today. (who were notably absent on our trip due to the pandemic). Architecture by Norman Foster, Le Corbusier, Zaha Hadid, Kengo Kuma and Jean Nouvel modernize the 19th century cityscape. MuCem, a museum that was still closed “par nouvel ordre” of Covid-19 when we were there, is a draw in and of itself. North Africans have settled in the center and populate a large open air daily market dotted with inexpensive eateries offering Moroccan tagines, Tunisian briks and Algerian couscous.

Baker, Marseille

Some French refer to Marseille as “France’s first Arab city.” And that reveals another dimension to the place Marseille holds in the French mind today. As Europe diversifies, some see only problems. France needs the immigrant energy, in my opinion. By the way, those round loaves are great toasted, sprinkled with olive oil and a little oregano, topped with fresh creamy cheese, a la Marseillaise.

 

Posted in expat, expat life, France, Marseille, Nice, France, Provence, Travel | 13 Comments

Excursions d’été: L’Esterel

For a long while, we’ve wanted to visit L’Esterel, in the neighboring department of the Var,  westward along the Côte d’Azur. From the Promenade on most days one can see the outline of one of the massif’s biggest peaks jutting out in the distance, and it’s always called to us. We rented a car and took off to explore it for four days.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

It’s difficult to do it justice in photos. Plus, we had some cloudy skies. Nevertheless, we spent every dry, sunny (and windy) moment on a path high above the Mediterranean, alone except for the rare cyclist zooming by, enjoying the colorful contrasts of red rock and blue sea, the rustling of eucalyptus and cork oak tree leaves in the breeze, and the singing of ecstatic birds.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Just outside the Esterel park, pushing northwards, are a dozen or so villages, worthy of the hour-long drive through lush hills of olive trees and pine forest. In the towns, plane trees shade the sidewalks where fountains faintly gurgle, locals read their newspapers at café tables and neighbors hobnob.  A relaxing desultory air hands over it all and I get deliciously sleepy.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Seillans, Fayence, Bagnol-en-Forêt are not forgotten and dying towns. They’ve become bolt holes for second-home owners who want to preserve the landscape and traditional character of the area, while also having access to natural wine and great olive oil.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Notably, we did not see any tourists. So the timing looks good for a further exploration of the area in early July. No airports involved, zero crowds and open air markets for food to keep things safe, and that sleepiness can be indulged in a nap locally.

Posted in expat, expat life, France, L'Esterel, Le Var, Nice, France, Seillans, Travel | Tagged , , , | 4 Comments

Les Bestioles

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The “déconfinement” continues. Restaurants and cafes will open June 2nd. The retailer streets are choked with shoppers. Parks are filling up with walkers and picnickers.

My mind is on something else. The other day, inside the apartment, I spotted the first mosquito of the season. A few hours later, a small welt on the inside of my right ankle started to itch madly. The next day, my fingernails were digging at a much larger welt between my neck and left shoulder. Up and down, up and down, scratch, scratch.

Mosquitoes love me. If I am in a crowd, everyone else is safe from bites as I’ll attract them all. I detest the critters, and, for that matter, all bugs.

But the “moustiques” pose more than just a nuisance here on the French Riviera. We are one of the many regions in France on red alert for tiger mosquitoes. They are responsible for the small but growing number of cases in France of dengue fever and chikungunya, two deadly tropical diseases.

The heating planet is to blame, so this situation is unlikely to improve. In fact, by 2030, all of France is expected to be plagued by the large, striped insect. By then, the tiger mosquito won’t be the only warmer earth problem, but for now I am on vigilant guard against them.

There are other insects to ward off during this season, of course. Flies, ants, hornets, strange little things with wings that I can’t name. In some buildings, cockroaches. Let’s not talk about vermin.

Outside of the hot months of May through October, our tall French windows open to a lovely view over a garden. In early spring, they are open all day for the breeze and bird song. Starting now, the watered rose bushes, palm trees and linden plants become dangerous breeding grounds.

From now until the first drop in temperatures, long after the stunning heat waves of summer, those windows will remain shut. Soon, the air conditioning will be on — indispensable during a Nice summer. Sadly, we will probably not be going to mosquito-free Brittany this year due to coronavirus reasons (who wants to take a plane anywhere?) but we might take a road trip to the French Alps and escape all that for a short while.

That all depends. So far, we have been told we are free to travel within France for July and August. But anything could happen, couldn’t it?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

 

Posted in climate, expat, expat life, France, Nice, France, Tiger mosquitoes | 15 Comments

Le déconfinement

window at home

window, at home

The sea was shining brilliantly early this morning when I ventured down for a look. Under normal circumstances, there would be swimmers in the water, but, in this seventh week of confinement, the sea remained unperturbed. I crossed the street to the beach side, avoiding the forbidden area of the Promenade itself, and drank in the glorious unbroken sight. By the official arrival of summer, the joggers, walkers and circus acts certainly will be back. Already, a few brazen scofflaws were biking or walking, far out of sight of the police.

It’s summery hot outside. Oh yes, it will be punishingly hotter before long, but shorts, sandals and sunblock, for whatever part of your skin is not covered by a mask, are de rigeur already. Thoughts turn to summer travel, but the Interior Minister has advised everyone not to make reservations, at least not outside France.

From May 11 to June 2, the first déconfinement period begins, following the downward slide in new coronavirus cases, hospitalizations and fatalities. We will be allowed to travel 100 kilometers without the “attestation de déplacement” which means long walks will again be possible. Since our department of the Alpes-Maritime has just been designated a green zone, the safest of the three colored categories, the parks should re-open too. Soon, we’ll be walking regularly to our local favorite, the Estienne  d’Orves hilltop park filled with ancient olive trees and populated with wild boar.

School will resume, on a parental volunteer basis. We’ll see how successful that turns out to be. The two mothers with small children who I have spoken with have told me they will not risk their children returning for the rest of the school year. Elsewhere in France, mayors are asking for a delay.

Retail stores, hair salons, dry cleaners, small museums but not restaurants, cafes or cinemas, will open under restrictions guiding their operations. The government has published 48 different guides, covering as many professions, outlining their particular safety protocols for staff and visitors. I assume that will mean just a few people entering at a time, personnel wearing masks, plexiglass barriers at the checkout, hand cleansing gel dispensers, as is the case at grocery stores at present. The open-air markets will resume too, a welcome sign of life renewed.

The Promenade, for now, will remain off-limits.

Masks are appearing in pharmacies and grocery stores and selling out. We have a small stash, to save until the next lockdown. I’d say about half the people outside are wearing them, sometimes pulled down over their chins to expose their vulnerable mouths and noses. That makes it easier to smoke, though.

The government has extended the health state of emergency through July 24, meaning if there is a Covid-19 uptick after déconfinement a quarantine can be slapped back on quickly. Because it seems everyone believes there will be another one.

window, at home

window, at home

 

Posted in confinement, Coronavirus, COVID-19, déconfinement, expat, expat life, France, Nice, France, quarantine | 10 Comments