A few weekends ago, we decided to head to the old village of Valbonne, one of the many charming ones on the Côte d’Azur. It’s a village we regularly cycle through, particularly during the winter. Situated in a basin along the Braque River, its name means ‘good valley’ in French.
Valbonne’s old village originally consisted of ten grids, planned by the Abbot of Lerins, following the layout of Roman cities. It has long since expanded, making Valbonne rather different from other villages in the South of France. It’s one of the places I always recommend to visitors.
Its 16th century central square, la Place des Arcades, is now surrounded on all four sides by picturesque arcades – added a century later – café terraces and little shops. The arcade at the Hotel Les Armoiries is engraved with a date “1628”. It’s a very colourful spot; the wonderful Sardinian red, dark orchre or pale yellow façades of the village houses serve as a wonderful backdrop to the bougainvillea, plumbago and jasmine plants that scramble over old brick walls and arches adding a distinct fragrance to an already charming village.
Purely by chance, we’d chosen to go during one of the village’s many festivals. This one was not only celebrating its 500th anniversary but also that of Saint Blaise (local grapes and products, a sort of mini-EKKA). As we were wandering round, I’d noticed that there were lots of old black and white photographs of folks on the front of many of the older houses. I stopped to chat with some locals who kindly explained their significance.
From 1895 to around 1920, some 30 families left their village of Marti Montopoli in Tuscany, fleeing the tyranny of Fascism, taking around six weeks to travel over 400kms to make their homes in Valbonne. I was fortunate to be talking to one of the descendants of those original families whose photos were adorning the buildings. She also told me all about the local Servan grapes which had been grown near the village since 1995 and which we could sample in the main square.
While I was chatting, my beloved wandered off and, largely thanks to the crowds, I couldn’t see him anywhere. I returned to the central square and was about to ask the mc for the award ceremony for all the wonderful local products if he could put out a call for him, when he reappeared. It was one of those rare occasions when he didn’t have his mobile with him. He’d wandered off to check out restaurants for lunch.
The village has plenty of small local restaurants and individual shops but I was unimpressed with my beloved’s suggestions. We ate lunch at a restaurant of my choosing which was excellent. You’d think that after all those years married to me that he would have gotten better at picking them!
The Fête de la St Blaise (there’s 12th century Eglise Saint Blaise at the base of the village) which was taking place over the entire weekend included trips to visit various local establishments, parades, a blessing, a local Servan wine tasting and cookery demonstrations from a number of notable local chefs. But my beloved, having been fed and watered, was ready to return home. As we walked back to the car, we passed an antiques shop where I had spotted a globe that I thought would please my beloved. It did and it’s now gracing the lounge.
When we returned home, I thought I’d look up the festival’s origins as many of our local villages have similarly named festivals which are held throughout the year. I discovered that Saint Blaise was born in what is now Turkey circa 300 and was apparently the patron saint of those suffering from sore throats! I assume this was because while in captivity, prior to being beheaded for his Christian beliefs, he miraculously cured a boy from fatally choking.
Subsequent legends, notably the apocryphal Acts of St. Blaise, claim that, before Blaise was made bishop, he was a physician possessed of wonderful healing powers. Numerous miracles were attributed to him, including the cure of diseased beasts during his refuge, thus accounting for his also being the patron saint of wild animals. He was venerated and, as his cult spread throughout Christendom from the 8th century, many churches, such as the one in Valbonne were dedicated to him. The French clearly have repurposed him and decided that he’s the patron saint of agricultural shows. I’m sure he doesn’t mind.