L’opus spicatum – is an ancient method of paving or bulding using stones and interleaving them in a zig-zag fashion. The joints go both horizontal and vertical.
The technique was developed during Roman times as a means of paving roads, but then in the Middle Ages, artisans tried the technique on walls with great success – particularly retaining walls as the interleaving of the stone created a strong structure.
Then, in Medieval times, the French artisans used to clad the outside of noble city houses with spicatum laid bricks and encased them in wooden frames – designs houses made famous in cities such as Carcassonne. Way down in the south-west in the Dordogne, there are many versions of spicatum clad homes.
An ancient art – sadly practiced no longer.
Our new BBQ has been finished and inaugurated. Situated at Maison Blanc, it boasts a wide grilling area and a cast metal baking oven – created by Master Blacksmith Kashief Booley in Prince Albert, Western Cape, South Africa. Hence, the name – Prins Albert.
Our maçon was excellent. There are two brothers in the Luberon who specialise in all things fire, fireplaces and chimneys. Jen-Yves Gaudin is the maçon; Jean-Pierre Gaudin is the master chimney sweep. They hail from Caseneuve.
The vast majority of Provençal villages have a ‘carriere’. A local quarry which supplies stone to builders, gardeners and local proprietors. It is always good to use ‘local’ stone when building!
We had to visit our local carriere last week and were reminded of this article which appeared in a South African magazine in 2013 –
Les Carrieres de Provence – the Quarries of Provence
The rolling vines, orchards, medieval villages, and spectacular scenery which dominate the world-renowned Provence/Cote dAzur region of Southern France have been a magnet for hundreds of thousands of tourists. However, these attractions are only part of the story. Dotted throughout the area are signs which probably only resonate with the locals but can be fascinating to the visitor.
The Carriere is the local quarry and each village or district has their own.
French law dictates that these enterprises are all family-owned and each family is given a one hundred year licence. The Provence/Cote d’Azur region spans from Mount Ventoux (famed for its King of the mountains leg in the Tour de France) in the west to the Italian border in the east. However, it is in the Vaucluse department comprising an area of approximately 300 square kilometers from Mount Ventoux to Aix-en-Provence where there is the greatest concentration.
There are over 30 quarries in this area all mining the local stone – limestone and the equally famous ocher. Many of the smaller quarries have been mined out over the centuries but still remain as processing points for the stone coming from the larger and more active quarries.
The processing quarry is the hub of all construction work in Provence. Stories are legendary, many movies and documentaries have been made about the challenges of renovating in building in this area – most of them true! Peter Mayle’s A Year in Provence is the best example of the hazards of dealing with French artisans. For the more romantic, the movie ‘A Good Year’ starring Russell Crowe is a reference.
The Carriere supplies all the stone work for construction. Whether it is paving materials, stone cladding, ornamental pieces or major construction blocks, all roads lead to the Carriere.
Local builders are careful to use the Carriere closest to the building site. Apart from being the most economical (transport is expensive), the local stone is more suited to adapt in the environment.
Provence is an area which ‘should’ be semi-desert – its climate is synonymous with this type of topography. However, superb water management pioneered centuries ago by the Romans and perfected over the years by the locals has ensured that this is a green oasis and water is in great abundance. When the winter strikes, there are great differences in temperature and consequent stress on the natural materials.
In summer, the limestone paving around the pool remains cool under the blazing sun and has the added advantage of being ‘non-slip’ – no additives required. Many locals will nod sagely when they hear their ex-pat neighbour lamenting the collapse or cracking of their precious fountain or pool paving during a particularly severe frost. “Ah yes, but you did not use the local Carriere!” is muttered from behind a large scarf and a wet, well-chewed home-rolled cigarette.
The Carriere too makes copious use of the water. Our Carriere, Serre Freres, maintain that by using large amounts of water, coupled with a firm steel saw driven at high speed by enormous turbines, “we cut through your stone like the knife in the butter”. As family owned businesses, the local carriere is typically managed by a husband, wife, children and parent team. There’s nothing they don’t know about the local stone and how to treat it. A typical discussion is ‘do you treat the beautiful stone staircase which has just cost you 6,000 euros’? No says our local Carriere’s wife, Yes says the Carriere who is 2km away on the other side of the Luberon valley.
Who do you believe? We listened to the local lady – we want to continue doing business with her! Serre Freres have had their licence since 1973 and work with 15 different types of limestone – their descendants have their careers mapped out for them as this licence only expires in 2073.
The products produced are numerous. Even Christmas decorations are created and produced from the limestone – tiny replica trees. Popular are gate posts and the quintessential Provencal fireplace. Each fireplace is cut by hand and then the exact proportions chiseled to perfection. An example of pricing is that a fireplace sells for an average of E4,600 plus a delivery charge of E600. At approximately R11 to the Euro, that’s a hefty price in South Africa but affordable by French standards.
Each person employed at the Carriere as an artisan is just that – an artist. Apart from limestone, the other major product mined in Provence is ocher. This area is the last remaining one in Europe and is situated in the areas of Gargas, Rustrel and Roussillion (a 15km enclave in the Luberon valley). These deposits have been registered by the French government as Strategic and Historical. Ochers are still used to dye the famous Provencal fabrics and clothing. The colours range from pale yellow to intense red.
Like the limestone open-cast mining and processing, ocher extraction at the Luberon quarries is a well-controlled mining process, paying strict attention to the environment. Air pollution is prevented by the use of dust removal devices installed in the factory’s chimneys to clean the smoke before it is released into the air. Once again, water plays a part. A high volume is necessary to clean the ocher. Running in closed circuits allows for cleaning and recycling of this water. The separated sand, when not sold for different purposes, is returned to its original site.
In both cases of mining, extraction is done by machine and employs the technique of terracing to maintain structural integrity. Mined sites are then rebuilt with their original top layer of soil. If you’re travelling in Provence, make a detour when you see those road signs “Carriere” – it’ll be worth it.
Simon and Lovonne Burrow have settled in Menerbes after living in Cape Town and Melbourne. Simon is a freelance writer and marketing consultant. Lovonne is a publisher. They have been renovating their property for the past two years and know their way around the local Carriere intimately. For more information on their property visit: www.bastidelesamis.com
There are many reasons why people like to live in Provence. The light, the sunshine, the people, the unhurried way of life. So it is when you visit – except in the pandemonium (relatively speaking!) of August. We like to call this time the ‘secret season’.
The tourists hand over the area to the locals. What can be nicer than popping down to one of the two friendly hostelries in Coustellet, greeting the patron at 13h30 and being waved to a table with a smile and a ‘Manger? Bien Sur!’ (Eat now? Of course, my pleasure!). Normallement, it would be a surly shrug at the thought of serving anyone after 13h15! Everyone smiles, everyone is revelling in the peace and quiet.
New Year’s celebrations tend to take the form of long dinners, private parties and a time for quiet reflection. The weather has chilled somewhat, the fires are lit, the stews bubble on the stove and general bonhomie pervades. The main sounds you hear are the chainsaws as the gardeners and farmers catch up, clip and prune, waiting for the sun and the new season.
And, of course, its great to watch the fireworks around the world – from the TV and your armchair.
Bon Anneé! Happy New Year everyone.
Those of us who live in the little Provençal villages that dot the landscape and give the unique character to the area, have always delighted in the rather quirky fact that we have no street numbers. The “Postie” knows everyone and the mail is delivered promptly and (usually) accurately.
However, some bureauocrat within the organization known as La Poste, has decided that this state of affairs can continue no longer – the residents must have street numbers. As we all know and have become used to, nothing is simple in France. A letter on official stationary, sets out ‘le parametre’…
* everyone must have the same type of number plaque – provided by the local Municipality
* the numbering system in not chronological – it is done on how many metres you are from the nearest intersection. This results in our next door neighbours having number 190 and we have 294!
* the plaque must be placed 1,8m from the ground; close to your letter box; on the right hand side of your entrance; in full view of the road.
What do you do in our case? Our wall is 1m high; our letter box is on the side of the wall; fortunately, our wall is on the right hand side and in full view of the road. So, we achieve 2/4. We wait to see if the are committed to excommunication for failing on two of the ‘parametres’.
We’ll let you know.
Hiking in Provence during early summer means that every trail is a garden of wild flowers.
We spotted some on a recent hike near Saint Saturnin-les-Apt.