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.

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 the Var: Part II

Aged four and a half my first trip abroad had been camping in Cavalaire. Friends of my parents had long espoused the joys of holidaying under canvas and we were persuaded into joining them. My parents purchased an all-singing, all-dancing tent, piled it into their friends’ trailer and off the six of us went for our first adventure in the south of France. I say six because my younger sister Lynn had arrived the year before.

I remember little of what was probably a long car trip from Calais, well before the advent of the brilliant French motorway system. However, I do remember being traumatised by those shower tray-like toilets. I do have memories of my Auntie Marion expertly cooking a full English on a primus stove, lovely sandy beaches, pine trees and my mother rarely leaving the shelter of the tent awning as she nursed my sister. On our return, my father sold the tent and we never ever went camping again!

Back in 2013 when my late father visited unexpectedly, I decided to take a trip down memory lane and revisit Cavalaire. Of course, over 50 years had passed and pretty much everything had changed but it was still a lovely trip along the coast. I hadn’t booked anywhere for lunch, hoping that we would happen upon somewhere suitable, and we did. I found a lovely 5* boutique hotel with an excellent kitchen bestriding the sea shore. My father and I ate lunch on its terrace, overlooking the sea, and to the sounds of the sea lapping the shoreline, had a magnificent meal.

My ability to find great restaurants has been passed down to me by my father, that and years of rigorous training. Sadly, the gift seems to have passed by my two other sisters. So I was always pleased to find somewhere that delighted my father. Indeed, even now, when we find a great restaurant, my beloved and I look at one another and say:

You know who’d have enjoyed this!

I’d not since returned to that hotel but, having checked before we left for the Var that it was open, I decided that was where we would eat lunch. I didn’t think it necessary to ring and book a table, after all, how busy was it likely to be? Thankfully, as it turns out, I didn’t ring.

We drove to the hotel from our last tasting, parked the car and strode confidently through the hotel and bar to the exterior terrace restaurant where I politely requested a table for two. The head waiter asked for our room number and I replied that we weren’t staying in the hotel. He then explained that because of COVID, only residents were permitted to dine in the hotel.

I wasn’t about to have my luncheon plans thwarted. I explained that I’d eaten there with my late father and had promised to bring my husband to see where I had dined with him. It was an Oscar-winning performance. Conveying deep sadness, as if that had been our last meal together, I even managed to make my eyes water!

No Frenchman was going to resist me and we were swiftly seated at a table for two overlooking the sea. We enjoyed a magnificent and lazy seafood luncheon. It was too hot to be hurried and it was so nice watching everyone enjoying the beach while maintaining social distancing. It can be done.

We then drove home along the coast road which at this time of year is usually clogged with tourist traffic. Today it wasn’t, and it was heavenly!

Magical Mimosa

Sometimes I don’t think I bang the drum enough about the fabulous area where I live. This week it’s half-term (for two weeks) and it’s time for the Carnival in Nice, the Citrus Festival in Menton and Mimosa celebrations the length of the coast. Mimosa (or wattle as I understand it’s called in Australia) is the vibrant sunshine yellow symbol of winter in the south of France and a sure sign that spring is just around the corner.

The bright yellow flower of this scented plant grows prolifically in southern France, particularly in the Var region, where the Cote d’Azur and Provence meet. Between January and March, from Bormes-les-Mimosas to Grasse, eight villages offer a journey through the land of these gorgeous, scented, little, yellow flowers: artisan chocolate-makers and bakers, ‘corsos’ and other traditional festivals, greenhouses, garden centres, perfumers. This route provides 130km of magnificent countryside where the blue sea and sky mixes with the brilliant green and yellow of the Mimosa-covered hills.

With its roots in the Carnival, the Corso Fleuri are now a key part of Var festival traditions. On the Saturday, the floats are decorated with thousands of flowers, and on the Sunday, they are paraded through the streets of the village.

Part of the acacia family, Mimosa was originally found in tropical areas, and was imported to the French Riviera by the English during 19th century to decorate their gardens. The newly introduced plant loved the climate and the soil, and Mimosa growers proliferated. It’s now used exstensively in the perfume industry and, of course, in bouquets for its exquisite beauty and gorgeous vibrant colour. So where are the best spots to see Mimosa?

Bormes-les-Mimosa

One of the prettiest floral villages in France. This ancient town is home to 90 different species of mimosa and celebrates with an annual festival at the end of January. ‘Mimosalia’ is the first botanical event of the year. An event for plant-lovers, it brings together the biggest garden centre owners and collectors in France. There are over 80 exhibitors of rare and unusual varieties, decoration and garden furniture, as well as plant-related activities, such as workshops for all ages, visits to the Town gardens and exhibitions.

Mandelieu La Napoule

The principal area of Mimosa production on the Riviera is also famous for its annual Mimosa festival (19-26 Feb). Plus, local restauranteurs the Raimbault brothers created La Tarte Mimosée.

Grasse

Huge bunches of cut mimosa flowers in a shop near Grasse, Provence

Internationally famous for its place in the world’s perfume industry, the town boasts gorgeous architecture including a magnificent cathedral. The Perfume Museum shows the part Mimosa has played in the success of Grasse’s perfume industry.

Rayol Canadel

Take the staircase from the centre of the village down to the sea and enjoy the spectacular views over the mimosa forests.

Sainte-Maxime

Beautiful botanical gardens, an elegant seaside resort and a laid back vibe make this town well worth a visit.  Local chocolatier Jean-Louis Vaissaud (pictured above) has created mimosa-flavoured chocolates to honour the famous flower.

Saint-Raphael

The reddish coloured volcanic rock contrasts stunningly with the yellow Mimosa. Another famous local chocolate maker, Didier Carrie, has created a unique recipe called Le Mimosa d’Agay, a white truffle chocolate, flavoured with plant liquors and lemons, covered with mimosa powder.

Tanneron Massif

This crystalline rock mountain forms a link between the Var and the Alpes-Maritimes, and is almost entirely covered in Mimosa and eucalyptus forest. This is the largest area of Mimosa, with both cultivated and wild areas covering 200 hectares! A real riot of emerald green, azure blue and gold.

Mimosa flowers for sale, measured in weight on an old fashioned weighing machine, Provence

Keen gardeners will love this place which has the largest concentration of mimosa in the whole of France, forests of mimosa glow in winter. I confess I love riding around here solely because of the Mimosa.

Pégomas

Mimosa, olive trees and vines all grow here in abundance. But there’s also another edible, local speciality, La Mimosette, a cream-filled brioche from Pégomas, decorated with mimosa seeds which is only made during the Mimosa festival.