Trip to Cap d’Antibes

I’ve written about Antibes and Juan-les-Pins but it would be remiss of me not to include the bit in between, Cap d’Antibes. Long-time followers know that this is one of my winter training grounds, which is surprisingly hilly. I cycle regularly around the area, criss-crossing all its roads, particularly in the quieter winter months when all that spectacular property porn is shuttered or undergoing renovation.

1.Port de la Salis

On the west coast, at the start of Cap d’Antibes, is a small renovated harbour called Port de la Salis, a natural harbour for boats. First built in 1911, followed by a breakwater ten years later. Over the next 50 years, the breakwater was enlarged three times, and two wooden wharfs and a harbour master’s office were added. In 1979, everything was destroyed by a tidal wave. In 1995, both the port and the harbour master’s office were refurbished, and then fully renovated again in 2011. The port covers an area of around half an acre and has moorings for 220 small boats not exceeding 6m.

2. Garoupe

Opposite the harbour is the start of the Chemin du Calvaire which leads to the Garoupe woods, 9 hectares of dense, unspoilt vegetation. Property of the Conservatoire du Littoral, it’s great for a stroll. Beyond it is the Garoupe plateau, which is also accessible by two and four wheels via Route du Phare, where you’ll find the French navy’s lighthouse and the semaphore, the Peynet oratory, and the beautiful Garoupe chapel, which is a listed building.

3. Hiking Path

A little further south, still to the west, Garoupe bay, with its small private beaches, is one of the starting points of the protected coastal hiking path,  Sentier de Tirepoil. The path, a 5km loop, is readily accessible with the right footwear.

4. Villa Eilenroc

Built in 1867 to the plans of Charles Garnier, who had just built the famous opera houses in Paris and Monte-Carlo, the Eilenroc villa was commissioned by the former Governor of the Dutch East Indies, Mr. Hugh Hope Loudon. Its name is an anagram of his wife’s name, Cornélie.

The new owner in 1873, Scottish philanthropist James Wyllie, surrounded himself with talented gardeners who transformed the rocky terrain and scrubland around the Villa into 11 hectares of gardens with traditional Mediterranean species.

The villa was subsequently owned by Louis and Hélène Beaumont who hosted fabulous parties with guests such as Zelda and F Scott Fitzgerald. In the 1980s, their descendents donated the property and its gardens to the town of Antibes which has subsequently renovated and updated both, plus added a rose garden (open to the public seasonally) and an olive grove with 54 olive trees symbolising the number of new Antibes residents born in the first month of the new millenium.

5. Villa Les Chênes Verts

Travelling – or should that be riding – east on the right-hand side of boulevard John Fitzgerald Kennedy is this magnificent place which hosted writer Jules Verne, who spent six winters there turning his novels into plays for the theatre. The three-storey property was built in 1865 by Adolpe d’Ennery, a theatre playwright and impressario, who’d been introduced to the area by his friend who owned the villa below.

In 1905, the villa was bought by Sophie Desplans, the daughter of Napoleon III’s private doctor and the villa remained in the family for the next thirty years. In 1953, it was purchased by local doctor Jean Joannon who died in 2013 whereupon the villa changed hands and been faithfully renovated.

Hôtel du Cap-Eden-Roc

Not numbered on the map, but further along on the left-hand side, in the middle of a large park, stands the majestic luxury hotel: Hôtel du Cap-Eden-Roc. Previously called Villa Soleil, it was built in 1869 by Hippolyte de Villemessant (owner of the French newspaper Figaro) who typically used the place for convalescing artists and writers. Sold in 1887 to Antoine Sella who transformed it into a luxury hotel, though it was his son, André, who from 1914 established its mythical fame.

It’s a popular filming location and has featured in a number of films, including the 1971 Bond movie ‘Diamonds are Forever.’ Stars flock here during the Cannes Film Festival and the regular gala events. It is one of the finest examples of luxury hotels on the French Riviera and it’s now part of the Oetker Collection.

6. Batterie du Graillon

On a 2.2 hectares natural site belonging to the Conservatoire du Littoral, its coastal fringe is classified as a Natura 2000 site. It hosts the Espace Mer et Littoral (Sea and Coastal Area) which aims to make the natural riches of the Mediterranean Sea and in particular  Cap d’Antibes known more widely. Open to the public from 15 June to 15 September, it presents numerous exhibits and eco-tourist events.

7. Villa Aujourd’hui

Villa Aujourd’hui was built in 1938 for a wealthy American, Audrey Chadwick, by the American architect Barry Dierks (1899-1960) who spent his entire career on the French Riviera. The villa follows the curve of the road, and is situated next to Port de l’Olivette, a small harbour that berths traditional fishing boats.

It is one of the most beautiful modern houses in the region with simple forms and minimal lines, The house was bought just before 1950 by Jack Warner, co-founder and chairman of Warner Bros, and guests included a host of Hollywood notables such as Charlie Chaplin and Ava Gardner.

8. Villa Thuret Gardens

In 1857, the botanist Gustave Adolphe Thuret bought a small piece of land on which he built a villa and planted then unknown plant species in its gardens. Now owned by the State, the  botanic gardens house a study and plant centre. Listed in 2007, the Thuret gardens have long fascinated. For example,  Georges Sand wrote in 1868 that it was “the most beautiful garden that she had ever seen in her entire life.”

But that’s not all! There are other places of interest which are not numbered on the above map.

Villa La Calade

The distinguishing feature of this villa is its vivid colour. It was built in 1937 by the Cannes architect César Cavallin. It was built on principles of functionalism favoured by the architects at the time and was inspired by the ocean liner style: portholes, tubular hand rails, masts, etc.

Villa Hier

Designed by Barry Dierks for Anthony Edgar Somers in the first half of 20th century. Villa Hier was used as Michael Caine’s character’s house in the movie “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels”. Quite appropriate given the scandal surrounding its current ownership.


This 12-hectare property located on Cap d’Antibes is at the heart of a money laundering scandal. Acquired by a Swiss businessman, Alexander Studhalter, the residence is said to be owned by a Russian oligarch and senator, Sulayman Kerimov who allegedly used nominees to buy four villas on the Côte d’Azur – Hier, Medy Roc, Lexa and Florella – or more than 90,000 m² in total . Villa Hier has since been seized the Nice courts.

Château de la Croe

This exceptional Victorian château was built in 1927 for English aristocrat Sir William Pomeroy Burton to the plans of architect and interior designer Armand Albert Rateau. It was later leased in 1938 to the Duke of Windsor (King Edward VIII of England) who had abdicated his throne in 1936 in order to marry Wallace Simpson. It was sunsequently owned by shipping magnates Aristotle Onassis and Stavros Niarchos.

In the 1980s, the chateau suffered from a fire that damaged the house and surrounding trees and it was left as a derelict shell. It’s currently owned by the Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich, who carried out a four-year long, large scale programme of renovations. The property now has a roof-top pool with garden and sea views, an underground restaurant, gym and cinema room.

I could go on…………………….but I won’t. Suffice to say, it’s pretty much property porn heaven, as well as  fabulous place to ride around in the quieter winter months.

(Images courtesy of Antibes Tourist Office)

Visit to Chateau de l’Aiguetta

We were recently invited to a BBQ in the grounds of a partly-restored historic property in Eze. Friends were keeping an eye on the property to avoid further dereliction while the owner was back home. As you all know, I love a spot of property porn and while this particular Chateau falls well short of my standards, it’s in a great location and was worthy of further investigation.

This huge baronial, faux-Scottish castle in Eze was built by the nephew of the famed Victorian poet Alfred Lord Tennyson. He acquired the fourteen hectares of cultivated land on which stood a house, a shed and a bread oven from lawyer Etienne Bermondi. After Tennyson’s nephew sold it to pay off his gambling debts, the original building underwent a couple of transformations turning it into a fortified castle.

At the beginning of 20th century, a floor was added to the original house and the facade was transformed by the installation of molded cement slabs imitating freestone. But it was during its second expansion that the villa took on the appearance of a fortified castle when a rectangular two-storey wing was added plus round and square turrets.

The estate was sold successively in 1926, then in 1928 to the Monagesque Société des Bains de Mer, which planned to create a golf course there. The residence was however quickly abandoned and suffered much damage over time with its interiors being stripped by looters. In 1993, it was bought by the SCI du Château de l’Aiguetta. The company undertook work but the site remained under construction for several years.

In 2013, the owner of the estate, was the subject of bankruptcy proceedings, forcing it to sell this exceptional property. Initially listed at some US$ 59 milllion it was eventually sold at auction in March 2016 for just over US$10 million to a Russian oligarch who plans to turn it into a home for his family. Fortunately, he has deep enough pockets to turn this carbuncle into a fairytale castle.

It’s undeniably situated on 40 lush, prime acres, located in the village of Eze off the Grand Corniche, just five minutes drive from the Principality of Monaco. It boasts stunning views of the sea and the medieval village. The 15-bedroom castle has more than 4,000 sq m (40,000 sq ft) of interior space, making it the largest such property on the Cote d’Azur. The dramatic edifice is said to have been the inspiration for Walt Disney’s castle in his animated film Sleeping Beauty, following one of his stays in Eze.


Trip to Grasse: Part II

In Part I of my trip, I showed you around the town. Now, let’s turn our attention to that which has made Grasse famous: perfume. Trade with the Moors in 16th century brought jasmine to Grasse, which is perfectly placed to grow these fragrant flowers. It enjoys year-round warm conditions, is far enough inland to protect the plants from the sea air and is well irrigated from the surrounding hills.

By 1747 the oldest parfumerie in France, and the third oldest in Europe, Galimard had been established, first selling scented leather gloves – using scent to hide the smell of the leather. And it was to be the scents and not the tanning that eventually made Grasse so famous.


Perfume put this town on the map and there are plenty of places where you can find out about its illustrious past. There are three historic perfumeries, open to the public, that still operate in Grasse: Galimard, Molinard and Fragonard, though there are many other less well known perfumers all over town.


The third oldest European perfumery, after Johann Maria Farina gegenüber dem Jülichs-Platz (1709) and Floris of London (1730), launched its Studio des Fragrances in 1997.


Founded in 1849, Molinard caught everybody’s eye because it used beautiful Lalique glass and Baccarat crystal bottles for its products. You can visit the Molinard perfume factory and learn about this perfumery’s history, discover the raw materials for which it is famous and check out their savonnerie (soap workshop) where they’ve been producing beautifully perfumed soap since the 1920s. In addition, its collection of glass and crystalware is impressive.


My personal favourite, even though it was founded later than the others, Fragonard was named after the famous French painter Jean-Honoré Fragonard, a native of Grasse.

I always enjoy a tour of their Grasse Fragonard Perfume Factory (and museum), set in the oldest factory in town. Once an 18th century mansion, the International Perfume Museum opened in 1989. Around ten years ago it underwent significant renovations and doubled in size. Dedicated, of course, to all things perfume, it takes you on a 5,000-year journey through the history of perfume, including sections on how Grasse and the surrounding area has made an impact on that history.

Another thing I like about Fragonard is that it’s still a family concern. Started in 1926 by Eugène Fuchs based on the then novel concept of selling perfumery products directly to the tourists who were beginning to discover the French Rivera’s charms. However, it grew under the tenure of Jean-Francois Costa through rapid expansion and modernisation. As an avid art collector, during the 1970’s he amassed a large and unique collection of antique perfume-related items now on show in the museum. Today, Jean-François Costa’s daughters, Agnès and Françoise preside over the perfumery’s destiny.

The importance of Grasse and its flowers cannot be understated. In fact, the jasmine and May roses that go into making the world famous Chanel No. 5 only ever come from Grasse, no flowers from anywhere else in the world are allowed.

Jasmine, rather than lavender, is the much celebrated flower of the town. So much so that every year, for three days in summer, the town puts on the Fete Jasmin or La Jasminade, symbolic of the traditional beginning of the plucking of this fragranced flower.

Up until only a few decades ago picking jasmine was a labour-intensive process. The flowers had to be picked at dawn and immediately treated in cold enfleurage (odourless fat used for capturing and preserving scents).

It’s well-worth visiting one of the factories to learn more about the fascinating history of perfume and its production processes. Plus, you get to sample some of their wonderful products!

Trip to Grasse: Part I

Situated just north of the French Riviera’s playground of Cannes, the inland town of Grasse is most famous for one thing and one thing only: perfume. It is internationally renowned as the world’s perfume capital, an industry for which the town rose to prominence in 18th century.

While perfume is the main reason many visitors head to the town, there are lots of other things to do in Grasse that make a day trip there from Cannes or Nice worthwhile, including the views.

Let’s put aside Grasse’s involvement in perfume for Part II of my trip and look at what else the town has to offer. Being an old town, Grasse has many other sights that display the grandeur of its ages gone by, including plenty of small, delightful museums.

Villa musée Fragonard

This elegant late seventeenth century country house, enhanced by a magnificent garden, houses the frescoes and twelve canvases of the famous Grasse painter Jean-Honoré Fragonard (1732-1806), plus those of his son Alexandre-évariste,, grandson Théophile and sister-in-law Marguerite Gérard.

A painter of romantic love scenes, Jean-Honoré was commissioned by the Comtesse du Barry, the mistress of Louis XV, to paint a series of paintings for her new lodge in the Chateau of Louveciennes. Today, replicas of these paintings adorn the halls here. In addition, in the stairwell there is an amazing trompe-l’oeil decoration, painted by Jean-Honoré Fragonard during his stay in Grasse in 1791.

Musée d’Art et d’Histoire de Provence

On the Boulevard du Jeu de Ballon – walking along which is a destination in itself with all the beautiful historical buildings on show – this museum is also set in an 18th century building, built by one of the oldest families of medieval Provençal nobility, the Grasse family (which gives the town its name).

Revolutionary events forced the family to flee to Italy and a library was established in their home which sadly underwent several unsympathetic renovations in the subsequent centuries. Finally, in 1918 Francis Carnot revived it, sadly without being able to replace what was destroyed and sold during the previous century such as the wood panels from the lounges and bedrooms, the chimneys, some of the furniture and the parquet floors in the apartments.

The museum has been owned by the City of Grasse since 1952 and houses a collection of objects from throughout the ages, including everyday items, luxury items, musical instruments etc to illustrate the history of this fascinating area of France, including a large collection of traditional Provencal costumes. (Unfortunately this is one museum which doesn’t allow you to take photographs.)

Cathedrale Notre Dame du Puy Grasse

Built in 12th century, this former cathedral, is a stunning example of Romanesque architecture, with the relatively plain stone of its exterior betraying an extravagant baroque interior. A beautiful chapel was later added in 1740. Inside there are three paintings by Rubens, as well as one by the famous Grasse painter, Fragonard. Attached to the cathedral is the 30 metre Saracen tower, an iconic city landmark, visible from some distance.

Palais des Congrès de Grasse

The Grasse Convention Centre isn’t like any convention centre you’ve ever seen, probably because it only has been used for conventions and events since 1950. Colloquially known as the ancien casino (old casino), it was originally built in 1895, designed by Nice native Alban Gaillandre who was inspired by the richly ornamental Belle Époque style of the time. It has previously housed a casino, a concert hall, private party rooms, a restaurant and a café. Converted into a hotel in 1908 and abandoned some years after, it was reborn thanks to the opening of a Baccarat room in 1919 and a 600-seat cinema in 1927. No matter the history, this building is a true stunner.

Vieille Ville

Grasse ramparts

Most of the sites mentioned above are located in  Grasse’s Old Town, but really there are so many more things to see and do in Grasse’s historical quarter which has been much improved in the last 10 years.

Start by wandering around, and up and down, the tiny ancient backstreets, marvel at the multi-storeyed buildings, sit outside a café and enjoy the feeling of going back in time. Check out some of its interesting stores, particularly those of Fragonard. Also, don’t miss the Place aux Herbes, a square featuring market stalls, the Hôtel de Ville (Town Hall) with an exquisite entrance gate and, in its courtyard, an equally lovely fountain by Grasse-born sculptor Camille Rabuis.

It’s best to wander around the old Town with no time limit or schedule – just walk and admire the opulence that was afforded this town by its perfume industry.

Revisit Fondation Maeght: Jacques Monory

There’s nothing I enjoy more than wandering around an empty museum or gallery, particularly to see an exhibition of an artist with whom I am not familiar. So, after a fine Sunday lunch at quite possibly my favourite restaurant, I popped into the nearby Fondation Maeght to check out their exhibition of Jacques Monory.

Now, I had to do some research on the relatively recently deceased Monsieur Monory (1924-2018) who was a fully paid-up Narrative Figuration (Pop Art) painter. The enigmatic scenes that he painted and juxtaposed form the haunted diary of a painter who regularly questioned the world’s reality. The shade of blue he used made him famous and his signature Monory blue is now a specific colour produced by Marin Beaux-Arts.

Monory’s work was first shown to the public when he was 40 in 1964. The artist was a contributor to the Mythologies quotidiennes exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art (Paris). The exhibition marked the birth of a new French artistic movement, Narrative Figuration, in which Monory was one of its most active members.

In 1968, a first series of paintings revealed the singularity of his talent. It was a series of ‘Murder’ paintings, reflecting an obsession with death and a passion for the underworld. The early major works from this ensemble are the most sought after by collectors.

Monory was passionately interested in the spectacular world, with its fictions and its incessant flow of lurid news. His romanesque world was largely composed of existing images and photos he took himself, after having worked for 10 years with Robert Delpire, a publisher specialising in photography. With his keen eye, he amassed a whole repertoire of images, particularly during his travels in the United States.

Monory’s paintings have that frozen-action look… fictions on canvas inspired by Hollywood films, comics and noir fiction. The artist developed an iconography with acknowledged references, similar to the principal players in the Pop Art movement at the same time, but in another vein. His work was a reflection of his era and its major influences, of interest in everyday life and its flow of images, but also a reaction against the Abstract art (which Monory himself tried in his early days before destroying his works) that dominated the art scene in the 1950s and 60s. The artist’s favourite themes also reflect an acute awareness of the world’s violence.

The painter questions himself and he questions us: how do we live in a violent, unreasonable, illogical, surprising and often fake world? This exhibition pays homage to Monory and his work where the scenes he depicts appear to be “narrative” and the composition is said to be “cinematographic.“

The paintings, drawn from photographs, form a collage. The artist explains how and why he manipulates images:

The principle is to take two images, to put them together and to mentally create a third.

I am not seeking painting for the sake of painting, or painting that wants to become crazy about photographic realism. I think that it’s the interaction that interests me.

He elaborates that his use of the colour blue:

When I paint in blue, I enjoy it. It’s blue, it takes me away from what I’m doing. It’s like covering myself in a blue veil. Behind the blue window, a massacre is taking place, and I’m bulletproof. For me, blue is not the colour of fear. It’s the colour of dreams.

All the works in the exhibition are based on photographs taken by the artist though he never considered himself one as such and it was only late in his career, and somewhat reluctantly, that he agreed to an exhibition and a book of his photographs in 2011. He used photography almost instinctively and saw himself more as a painter-filmmaker with a strong penchant for producing situations.

It was a thought provoking exhibition but I’m still undecided as to whether i’d hang one of his works on my living room wall – always the acid test.


Trip to Fréjus: Part III

This is the third and last part of our recent trip to Fréjus where we wandered around its lovely Medieval Old Town. I’ve already covered its Roman heritage in Part I, so what happened to it after the fall of the Roman empire?

Its history is very similar to many places in Provence. It was destroyed many times in spite of the presence of the Roman Legions. After the Roman emperor, Julius Cesar gave the port its prosperity it went on to become one of the most important ports in the Mediterranean, however the decay of Rome led to similar decay of the great Roman cities, including Frejus.

Between 7th and 9th centuries, Muslim invaders repeatedly raided the city leaving many monuments in ruins, while the sea was encroaching more and more on the land eroding the coastline. By 10th century there was very little left of the colony, and sea-borne silt clogged up the port and led to the formation of a huge swampy plain, which then separated the village from the sea.

In more recent times, Napoleon Bonaparte landed at Frejus in October, 1799 on his return from Egypt to ostensibly defend the French Directory in Paris. During WW1, Fréjus became the main centre for hivernage (wintering) for the Senegalese Tirailleurs, (French Army infantry who were largely recruited from Senegal).

Fréjus has more than just Roman ruins, it has an impressive Episcopal complex that includes the Cathédrale Saint-Léonce de Fréjus which was the seat of the Bishop of Fréjus from 5th until 20th century. The church is part of a larger fortified complex of medieval religious buildings dating from between 5th and 13th centuries, when Fréjus was an important religious and commercial centre of Provence.

The cathedral contains two naves, probably built at different times, one of which belonged to the bishop, and the other to the local parish, side by side under the same roof, separated by arches. This arrangement was not unique in Provence; it is also found in the Aix and Apt Cathedrals. An earlier church stood on the same site, some vestiges of which, including a mosaic floor, have been found under the old bell tower and nave of the present church.

The Cathedral’s Baptistry was built in 5th century, making not only the oldest in the Provence region but one of the oldest in France. The state of conservation of this baptistery is remarkable. Up to the level of the high windows, the structure is original. The walls are red sandstone and green sandstone from the Esterel Massif, and brick, mainly decorative.

The Cloister, which served as a place of meditation for the bishop and the dozen canons who served him, was built in 13th century on the north side of the cathedral. It consists of pointed arches resting on double Corinthian columns. The decoration of the capitals of the columns features the key, the symbol of the bishops of Fréjus, and the fleur-de-lis, the symbol of Charles I of Anjou, the brother of Louis IX of France, (Saint Louis), who had become the Count of Provence in 1246.

An upper level was added to the cloister between 1350 and 1360, reached by a monumental stairway. The builders added a wooden ceiling to the lower level and decorated the brightly painted panels with biblical scenes, fantastic animals and scenes of daily life. Only half of the paintings remain today, and the bright colours have been faded by oxidation, but they provide a remarkable look at medieval life.

A residence for the bishop apparently existed in the 5th century, just south of the cathedral but a more imposing palace was built in the 11th and 12th centuries, which housed the bishop, the dozen canons and a dozen beneficiers. The Bishop’s Palace was relatively small and was probably part of the massive wall of the city, three metres thick at its base.

For many centuries the bishops were from local aristocratic families, but from 13th century onwards they were appointees sent from the Papal Court at Avignon. These new, wealthier incumbents transformed the residence from a fortress to a palace, greatly enlarging the space, building large halls and chapels. These works continued from 15th to 17th centuries, largely destroying the medieval residence, and replacing it with a Renaissance style  palace.

In 18th century, as the city went into economic decline, the bishops of Fréjus began to neglect their residence, spending more and more time in Draguignan, the new seat of the bishopric. The palace was abandonned after the French Revolution and while most of it was subsequently demolished, part of what remained became the present Hôtel de Ville in 1912.

That’s not all. In 1965 the Cocteau Chapel was built to represent the Passion and Resurrection of Christ. Work began in 1961, in collaboration with the architect Jean Triquenot, when Jean Cocteau drew up the plans and specifications for the decoration of the chapel. After the poet’s death in 1963, Edward Dermit created the paintings and frescoes based upon the sketches of Cocteau. Ceramics were produced by Roger Pelissier. The chapel itself was designated an historic monument in 1989.

Unsurprisingly given its huge historical legacy, since 1987 Fréjus has been known as a “City of Art and History“. This designation shows it has demonstrated a commitment to preserve its archaeological and architectural heritage. Moreover, the local community and its leadership are recognized for their awareness and sensitivity to their architectural treasures.

Here’s a little reminder:-


Trip to Fréjus: Part II

On a recent trip to Fréjus, we visited its Roman ruins. In the gardens in front of the remains of the arena is a monument to the collapse of the Malpasset Dam, considered France’s greatest civil disaster. Malpasset was an arch dam on the Reyran River, about 7 km (under 5 miles) north of Fréjus which collapsed on 2 December, 1959 and, in the resulting flood, 423 people lost their lives. It was very moving reading the names of the deceased on the memorial, particularly those where entire families had been wiped out, including many children.

The five monumental stainless steel columns and row of desks bearing the names of the 423 identified victims were designed by local artist Michel Mourier and inaugurated 50 years after the Malpasset dam burst.

I’d never heard of this disaster, and knowing how often the Var experiences flooding, I was keen to learn more about how it happened, and what lessons had been learned to prevent it occurring again. Apologies that some of this is a bit technical but it’s something which I found interesting.

I learned that the Andre Coyne designed dam was completed in 1954 and heralded as being the thinnest arch dam for its height.  It was equipped with one gated, notched spillway at the centre of its long crest wall. Because the planned valley-side left abutement of the dam (from an upstream perspective) was higher than site topography, a large dihedral thrust block was placed below the dam to raise it to the necessary height, and spread the pressure.

Construction of the dam began in 1952 with filling of the reservoir starting in April, 1954. Approximately five years later, when the debut filling was almost complete, Malpasset Dam failed after the area experienced several days of heavy rain and high winds. The sudden failure of the dam resulted in the death of many people when emergency rescue attempts were thwarted due to the inaccessibility of the town’s flooded roadways and access routes.

Post-disaster studies revealed that a series of foundation deficiencies and human oversight led to the instability issues at the Malpasset Dam. Prior to construction, insufficient effort had been devoted to analysing the geology of the foundation on which the dam was to be located. Geological investigations that took place after the dam’s failure revealed that it had been built on a gneiss formation (banded rock) with a foliation structure (repetitive layering) exhibiting a slope of thirty to fifty degrees in the downstream direction of the dam. In addition, a fault oriented perpendicular to the river was discovered just downstream of the dam.

The foliation pattern of the foundation in combination with the presence of the fault and the forces associated with the water accumulating behind the dam caused the gneiss along the left abutment to enter a compressive state in which the permeability of the formation decreased with the increasing pressure behind the dam. Uplift pressure at the abutment caused by this phenomenon increased with the filling of the reservoir until it was great enough to dislodge the thrust block. Failure of the left abutment led to the ultimate failure of Malpasset Dam as cracks resulting from the uplift pressures that moved the thrust block propagated quickly across the dam face.

Today only bits of the Malpasset Dam remain but the memorial ensures that the devastating tragedy will never be forgotten and, importantly a lot has been learned. Specifically:-

  • Three-dimensional computer analyses were developed to study the cause of failure; these types of analyses are now used to design new arches under new standards.
  • Greater testing of foundations tested for different qualities.
  • Further development of the study of rock mechanics.
  • Recognition of the need for safety monitoring of arch dams.

If the Malpasset dam were designed today, almost no changes in the shape of the arch would have to be made: in other words, the design of the dam itself was not to blame.

One from the vaults: Another Trip down Memory Lane

Of course, at this time of year, we’d normally be watching the Vuelta a Espana and consequently we’re heading back to Marbella for the opening stages of the 2015 race. It’s an area which holds many fond memories for us, as I explain below.

We’ve just returned from a few days in Marbella, one of our old stomping grounds, where we were watching the initial stages of this year’s Vuelta a Espana. It’s an area we first visited almost 40 years ago when my parents bought an apartment there. As newly-weds with little money, we spent many a happy fortnight in the sun, exploring the surrounding area. My younger sisters spent all summer there prompting me to speculate why my parents hadn’t invested earlier. Two words – dollar premium.

In the early 1980s, we spent a month there over Xmas and New Year, taking the ferry to Santander and driving to Marbella via Madrid and Toledo. At the time, it was our longest holiday ever and truly relaxing apart from my beloved, a noted swimmer, getting swept out to sea on his windsurfer. He managed to paddle his way back to shore, albeit several kilometres down the coast, without the assistance of the Spanish coastguard, although it was touch and go.

Puerto Banus has mushroomed in size
Puerto Banus has mushroomed in size

As the years rolled by, we typically spent a week in Marbella either in May or September when the weather was warm but not so hot as to prevent us playing tennis for several hours. Retirement beckoned for my father and my parents decided to sell the flat, preferring to use the proceeds to holiday elsewhere. We however continued to spend a week there most years, often over the late May Bank Holiday.

From time to time my parents accompanied us, as did their closest friends. On my parent’s 50th wedding anniversary, we spent what was to be our final family holiday together at one of our favourite hotels, courtesy of my Dad, and we’ve not been back largely due to our move to France.

Family favourite: Marbella Club
Family favourite: Marbella Club



When we saw that the Vuelta was kicking off there this year, my beloved and I decided to take a trip down memory lane. In the intervening years, much has changed but our old haunts are still there and happily flourishing. The trip bought back many happy memories, particularly of times spent with my parents who are no longer with us. We’re not going to leave it quite so long before paying the area another visit.

Trip to Fréjus: Part I

After an enjoyable lunch at the Clos des Roses vineyard, we decided to explore Fréjus. We’ve cycled past it many a time but have not previously visited either its Roman ruins or its Old Town. Now, if you’ve read any of my earlier trip articles about the Provence-Alpes-Cote d’Azur (PACA) area, you’ll know the Romans were all over it like a bad rash in 1st century BC. Consequently PACA is heir to an impressive Roman architectural legacy which forms an intrinsic part of the local culture.

Fréjus, lying south of the Estérel Massif and equi-distant between Cannes and St Tropez, has a rich historical and architectural heritage. The city is filled with monuments. These include one of the largest amphitheaters from Gallic times (1st or 2nd century), a Roman theatre, the Porte Doree (a golden door), ruins of baths from 3rd century, the Porte des Gaules, the aqueduct which carried the water from Signole for 40 km (25 miles) and the Cocteau Chapel conceived by Jean Cocteau In 1961 and finished by E. Dermit in 1965.

In 1837 at the request of the then Inspector General of Historical Monuments, Prosper Mérimée, a list of each departments’ monuments was drawn up. In 1840, the first list of its kind in France was completed and the amphitheatre in Fréjus was included. It is one of the oldest in Gaul (of the thirty listed).

While it has proved difficult to date the monument, it was most certainly built after the Coliseum in Rome, probably toward the end of 1st century AD. It’s outside the town, backing into the side of the hill, a popular material-saving device.

In its heyday the amphitheatre’s capacity was 12,000 spectators, as against 5,000 today. Its exterior dimensions were 112.75 m (370 ft) by 82.65 m ( 272 ft) and the arena itself was  69.37m (226 ft) by 39.17 m (128 ft), height 21 m (69 ft) which makes it smaller than Nîmes’ but larger than Nice’s.

The monument would have been faced in green sandstone from the Estérel but, unfortunately, the facade has completely disappeared, as well as its upper tiers. The galleries’ arches are based on 2 rows of bricks (many are marked “CASTORIS”, the name of the manufacturer). Some of the arcade walls and radiating walls in sandstone still remain. Two large openings on its main axis and a small lateral one open onto the arena (“arena” in Latin means “sand”).

During excavations a cruciform pit in the centre of the arena whose function has not been determined, was found. To protect spectators from the sun, a “velarium” – a sort of awning attached to a series of supports, often made of wood – was stretched above the seating area. Under the seating are the entrances from the “carceres” (cells) – hence the word “incarceration”- which were used to hold the gladiators.

The entertainment included gladiator fights, hunting and killing of wild animals, and fighting between gladiators and animals, or just between animals. The Romans were a blood-thirsty lot.

The ruins were celebrated by Victor Hugo during his visit to Fréjus in 1839 – (En Voyage, Volume 2). He writes:

I was in the same place where 2000 years ago lions, gladiators and tigers writhed. Now the tall grass around me is grazed peacefully by a herd of lean horses…

Subsequently, the monument gradually deteriorated, being used as a bastion, stone quarry, and even a rubbish dump, which partly explains the multiple restorations visible today. After further archaeological excavations (2005 – 2008), Francesco Flavigny, chief architect of the Historical Monuments, decided to give the building back its coherence and return it to its original function as a place of entertainment. Many events and corridas take place here, although since 2010 killing has been forbidden in the Fréjus arena. I’m assuming this refers to the killing of animals but you never know…………….

Trip to Gorges du Verdon: Part II

As you know, sightseeing is thirsty work and no day out would be complete without lunch, or at least a picnic. I had opted for the former and booked lunch at La Bastide de Moustiers which is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year.

But first, a quick look around the village of Moustiers Sainte Marie, since 1981 listed as one of the most beautiful in France, which is settled into a notch at the base of a limestone cliff at 630 metres (2,000 feet). The village, built like an amphitheatre, was named after the monastery founded there in 5th century. It’s famous for its pottery and its chain with a silver star suspended high across the valley, which was once owned by a knight who had returned unharmed from the crusades.

Unsurprisingly, given its location, water is plentiful in Moustiers, combined with the clay soil and nearby woods, it has given birth to a long-standing pottery tradition at the village. During the reign of Louis XIV, the secret of pure white enamel is said to have been passed down by a monk from Faenza to the Clérissy brothers, this transformed the village’s already successful business into a Manufacture Royale. I suspect the artisans were inspired by the colours in the Provençal landscape: the emerald green of the Verdon river, the purple of the lavender, the blue of the sky and the yellow of the sun that shines for more than 300 days a year.

Over the years, linking back to its formation, Moustiers has become an important place of pilgrimage, particularly the 12th century Chapel of Notre Dame de Beauvoir, built on the same spot as a 470 AD Marial temple, which overlooks the village. To reach it you have to climb the 262 steps of the Way of the Cross. The seven oratories which previously marked the path were replaced in 1860 by the fourteen Stations of the Cross, decorated with ceramics by Simone Garnier. It was listed as a historical monument in 1921.

Aside from the lovely and many fountains, there’s also its local parish church which was listed as a historical monument in 1913 on account of its unusual old Lombard bell tower, one of the most beautiful in Provence. But now, time for lunch………………………