Al Weiwei has used ancient Chinese techniques for kite making, string, bamboo rods and glue to fashion his sculptures.

Chateau la Coste, near Le Puy Sainte Reparade in Provence is know for wine, art, scultpture and music. For the next year they are hosting an Al Weiwei exhibition, and also have a permanent exhibit by this celebrated Chinese sculptor.

Ai Weiwei  born 28 August 1957 in Beijing) is a Chinese Contemporary artist and activist.  Ai collaborated with Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron as the artistic consultant on the Beijing National Stadium for the 2008 Olympics. As a political activist, he has been highly and openly critical of the Chinese Government’s  stance on democracy and human rights. He has investigated government corruption and cover-ups, in particular the Sichuan schools corruption scandal following the collapse of so-called “tofu-dreg schools” in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. In 2011, following his arrest at Beijing Capital International Airport on 3 April, he was held for 81 days without any official charges being filed; officials alluded to their allegations of “economic crimes”.

Straight from ‘Pillars of the Earth’. The Notre Dame basilica.

Since 1133, monks have been living at the Abbey Frigolet, close to Tarascon in the Bouches-Rhone Department of Provence.

Originally from the north of France the ‘Chimoine’ monks have been practicing a devout form of Catholicsm. They are distinguished by their cream cassocks and large hoods. Saint Norbert was their founder. The present Abbey was built from 1400 and today houses a large complex with two beautiful chapels; a school; two restaurants; wonderful gardens and… a craft brewery run by the monks themselves. The beer and other agricultural products are on sale at the Abbey shop.

Some of the Monks’ Brew!

Their beer recipes have been handed down over the years from the Middle Ages when they started to brew their own libation, characterised by rich and aromatic flavours. The Blonde beer is 4.5% alcohol but some go as high as 6%.

For more information and to visit the Abbey, click here.

Medieval watch towers along the road to the entrance.

The train at a station en route – Arnot.

 

Each day a ‘vintage’ (built in 1977) train ploughs its way down narrow guage railway tracks between Digne-les-Bains and Nice and back – four times to be exact. Tourists and locals flock to use the service. A full trip takes 4 hours but we like to stop off at Entrevaux a medieval village at the half-way mark; have a lunch in the village square and then re-board to get back to Digne by sunset.

The price is 16.50€ per person for this trip and WELL worth it. It’s great fun and the scenery is,well, spectacular.

Chugging along the tracks – the view from the driver’s cabin.

Spring and Autumn are great times to do this trip when the scenery, foliage and weather are at their best. The trains are not air-conditioned!

Something to do in Entrevaux – a vintage motorcycle museum.

For more information: click here.

 

Over the past three days, we’ve been showcasing a wonderful garden near Tarascan in the Bouches-Rhone Department of Provence. Just dow nthe road from this amazing spectacle is their provider of flower blooms and plants – when you consder the plant 10,000 narcissi in a year, they have big needs!

We’re indebted to Julie Mautner of Provence Post (www.provencepost.blogspot.fr) for this article:

There’s no shortage of beautiful flowers in Provence…or places to buy them. Just about every outdoor market has a vendor selling brilliant blooms at reasonable prices. But there’s something very special about buying them at the farm where they were grown…and meeting the people who grew them. And wholesale prices don’t hurt either!

Ferme Fleurie, located halfway between Tarascon and Graveson, is a large flower farm that exports 95 percent of its harvest to Holland. Yep, a big truck comes anywhere from two to seven times a week and carries away massive containers of flowers, all of them measured, clipped, bunched, refrigerated…and ready to be sold at auction. But a certain number of stems are always held back for local sale…and anyone who wants to can pop in to shop.  For export the flowers are cut “green,” which means the buds have yet to open, but for local sale the flowers are ready to be enjoyed tout suite!

The flowers available each day are scribbled in chalk on a sign out on the road…just like the flavor of the day at your favorite ice cream stand. Many top hotels and restaurants in the region buy direct from the farm regularly.
Back in the day, you just pulled into the parking lot and if no one came out to greet you, you honked. But now that Marcel and Debbie van Eenennaam have opened their sweet new boutique on the property, there are convenient set hours…and a Facebook page where you can see what’s in season before you head over. The shop opened in early April.
So how is it that this charming Englishwoman and her Dutch husband came to be among the largest flower producers in Provence?
Born in a small town near Amsterdam, Marcel and his late wife Julie came down to Provence and established the farm in 1999. Julie lost her battle with cancer in 2013.
The following year, Debbie—who comes originally from Whitstable in Kent, England but was living in Istanbul at the time—arrived in Provence to visit friends. Among their guests at dinner one night was the charming flower farmer who lived just next door. And over that long, laughter-filled meal, Marcel and Debbie connected.  They stayed in touch and before too long, Debbie had chucked her life in Turkey, moved to France and moved in. The couple married on the farm in September 2015.
Ferme Fleurie operates year round. What can’t be grown reliably in the ground is raised in one of 27 greenhouses, some of which are climate and humidity controlled.  To help get everything picked, packaged and shipped off on time, Debbie and Marcel have a fantastic team of Moroccan workers, a group that swells to 35 people in the height of the “short and intense” six-week peony season.
While anemones constitute a large part of their production, it’s the peonies for which the farm is best known: gorgeous fluffy blooms in colors including Bowl of Cream, Sara Bernhardt, Duchesse de Nemours, Pink Sunset and many more…in both “single” and “double” varieties. The farm’s 130,000 stabilized peony bushes will produce roughly one million pretty stems this year.  Normally available until the end of May, the peony harvest started two weeks early this year and the flowers are being picked, at a frantic pace, right now. So if you want ‘em, come and get ‘em…they’ll be gone, most likely, by mid May.
Debbie and Marcel also grow daffodils, lilies, roses (600 bushes), tulips (20 varieties), allium, glads, viburnum, sedum, lavender (6000 bushes) and more.
“Marcel is Dutch and likes to plant things,” Debbie says with a laugh.
If you come for flowers, you’re welcome to stroll around the 14-hectare farm where you’re likely to be followed by two sweet, inseparable black dogs named Poppy and Zazoo.  Poppy likes to swim every day, year round, in a small pond out back, while Zazoo runs back and forth on the shore.
You’re also likely to see geese and chickens; on a recent visit I spied a funny looking chicken that Debbie explained was a bit of a breeding mistake.  “I wanted to buy Silkie chickens but they were €45 each!,” she says, “so I decided to make them myself.  But I bred a furry one with a regular one by mistake. He’s ugly but we really love him.” In the barn the day I visited, a huge pig named Adele was crashed out in the hay, snoring loudly.
The Boutique at Ferme Fleurie is normally open from 10 am to 12:30 and 3 pm to 6 pm (weekdays) and from 9 am to 12:30 (Saturday).
During peony (pivoine) season, the hours are extended, as shown in the photo above. As of Monday May 15, they’ll be back on normal hours.
In summer, the boutique is likely to open just one morning and one afternoon a week…so check the Facebook page.
The farm is a bit tricky to find and you’re likely to miss it on your first try. You’ll know you’re on the right path when you see the large blackboard telling you the fleur du jour; turn right just before it or left just after. (If you’re coming from Graveson, you’ll turn left right after a small bridge; from Tarascon look for a cross on a pedestal on your left and then turn right immediately.) After the turn you’ll see a sign for the Mas d’Avieux…then just follow that road along the white fence, through three gentle curves, and you’re there. The farm and its GPS coordinates can also be found on Google Maps (as Ferme Fleurie SCEA Tarascon).
Ferme Fleurie, 4583 Route d’Avignon, 13150 Tarascon, France.

Madame fell hopelessly for this cherub.

Part of the manor house fronted by Plantane trees

Simply beautiful.

Statues abound

Not a bad place to have lunch!

A view from inside the manor house out towards the front garden

The impressive driveway

Over 10,000 irises on display

Two huge ponds teeming with goldfish

Boxed hedges, maintained by four full time gardeners

Clipped to perfection. The stone mushrooms are medieval and used to prevent insects etc climbing up them.

A little ‘sticky beak’ inside the manor house

Lunch is served!

We were privileged to visit a private garden, near to the the Bouches-Rhone village of Tarascon.

A preview …..

This is a simple French solution when you do not want someone to park on your neighbour’s property when she won’t allow you to park there….. two scraggly plants to block the road for everybody..

 

One enters from the village street through a lovely old wooden gate with rusted iron hardware: the unveiling begins as an inner courtyard, paved in brick and stone, greets the visitor. Tall columns of Italian cypress (Cupressus sempervirens) and antique Anduze pots holding topiary balls of boxwood (Buxus) serve as focal points. A small walkway edged in boxwood leads to a balcony over the village street, with seating ideal for sunset views. The main path leads to the front door or, continuing further, towards the cliff-side parterre garden with its marvellous views over the Cavalon Plain.

The parterre garden is perfection: its lines and scale define the space in such a way that it would be difficult to imagine a better layout. The white Iceberg roses and, in autumn, the white blooms of Japanese anemone (Anemone × hybrida) coolly and calmly soften the boxwood beds, adding floral interest without distracting from the main show: the incredible view across the Cavalon Plain all the way to Mount Ventoux.

It was initially quite difficult to reach the lower levels of the hillside complex. There were no connecting stairs; to reach the pool, it was necessary to exit the property on to the village street, circle below the church, exit the old medieval fortified section of the village, and re-enter the property through a small wooden doorway. By “listening to the stones,” a passageway to the lower level was eventually discovered by Cédric Lafaye, the gardener. Rappelling down the rampart wall to prune the ivy, he discovered an old archway in the stonework. The owners realised that the stones had indeed spoken and had revealed the ideal place to build a stairway. The arch was reopened and a stone tower with spiral stairs was built to connect the two levels of the garden, eliminating the inconvenient walk. The tower was carefully constructed to look as though it had always been part of the castle complex.

The pool with stair tower to upper level
Drawing – John Jefferis

The lower levels are less formal than the upper garden, but they have a loose rhythm to their layout. One walks easily through hillside rooms, connected by pathways and stone steps. The pool area, with its ancient grotto used as a secret gathering place for spiritual cults (circa 6th or 7th century), is laid out somewhat formally; beyond, one is free to meander and discover the hillside levels as they unfold. The large boulder, split in two by its fall from the ramparts, lies just beyond the swimming pool in sculptural repose. A small circular water feature nestles above the massive stones and empties into a runnel between them.

The lower garden is a fantasy land for adults and children alike. Newly planted olive trees grace the hillside, as does a two- hundred-year-old cherry orchard. There are numerous spots to have a picnic lunch, sit and read a book, or lie in a hammock suspended from a cherry tree. A large cobblestone oval of wild thyme kept low, with a fossilised ammonite at its centre, provides a meditative spot. A small gazebo with red and white striped curtains provides a place for intimate conversation or, when numerous family members are present, a focal spot for gatherings. There is a potager used by the owner and her staff for vegetables and cut- flowers. There is even an area for playing pétanque, a French lawn game that has evolved from ancient Roman traditions.

Aux pieds, le jardin de La Carmejane, au loin le Ventoux

From its setting in the relaxed sophistication of the village, to the warm formality of the upper level garden and castle, to the meandering paths and rooms of the lower hillside, La Carmejane has become a well-loved and beautifully restored home. In a mutual stroke of luck, the village gained a wonderful expatriate family, committed to learning the mysteries of the castle and bringing it back to life, while the owners were presented with an opportunity to create a deeply soulful residence in which to live out their “third act” happily.

This is the third and final extract from n article that appeared in The Mediterranean Garden, published in 2014.

Garden Development

La Carmejane was bought using a real estate transaction known as viager. Popular in France, the arrangement allows home owners to sell their property for an initial “down payment” followed by monthly payments for the life of the home owner, who remains in the home until death. Upon the death of the home owner, the buyer takes possession. The arrangement is starkly realistic: viager property listings in France typically include the age of the owner along with the price.

Before they took possession of their new home, the owners had to deal with many stumbling blocks between them and the resident owners still living in the house. One incident, in particular, was of disastrous proportions. After a long dry spell, on May 12 1993 torrential rain soaked the earth of the central garden on the property’s upper level. The water dislodged a boulder below weighing over 1,000 tons. As the boulder fell away, the ramparts it was supporting collapsed. A third of the upper garden washed down the hillside! It took five years and a major engineering feat to repair the damage while retaining the traditional appearance of the wall.

If there was a silver lining to the destruction, it was the opportunity to begin with a blank slate for the new upper- level garden. The couple first retained the services of Nicole de Vésian, a stylish woman who had worked in the Parisian design industry for most of her adult life. After moving to Provence in 1986, she began a second career as a garden designer – a tribute to her prodigious creativity and life energy. After designing her own garden masterpiece, La Louve, she was asked to design several other gardens in the region. Sadly, Nicole took ill before completing her work at La Carmejane. She passed away in 1996, a year before the new owners finally took possession. Though she did not get to work her magic on La Carmejane, her advice was invaluable: “Listen to the stones, and they will speak.”

The new owners brought in a series of creative minds to help with the garden plan. English designers John Brookes and Tim Rees helped with initial ideas about what the garden might become, but it was the magical talent of a local Frenchman, interior designer Michel Biehn, that carried the day. Extraordinarily gifted, Michel was already helping the owners with the interior of the home and, at their request, stepped into the role of garden designer, bringing his talents to the challenging hillside. Working alongside the owners, nurseryman Jean-Claude Appy, plant sculptor and de Vésian protégé Marc Nucera, and mason Max Ellena, Michel transformed La Carmejane into a series of beautiful garden spaces. The various garden “rooms” tucked into the hillside are simple in their impact, never fussy. The ancient history of the site is respected, yet the garden design feels fresh.

This is an extract of an article from The Mediterranean Garden first published in 2014.

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