Monday, August 04, 2003
The look of the land
The shape of the land
Many Brits come on holiday here. Around this time, you can hear little but English in old Antibes. Many more know the area by its famous bits: the Cannes Film Festival, the Promenade des Anglais in Nice, and so on. I admit it, before I came here, my idea of the area was set by Elton John’s I’m Still Standing video. Bizarre.
This is the eastern part of the south coast of France. It is not Italy - but is near it. It is most certainly not Provence but the souvenir shops pretend it is (nobody knows why). It is not the Alpes - but we can see them. It is a narrow strip of land some twenty kilometres wide along a coast facing Corsica and Italy. It is not straight: although you might think of it as mainly east-west (as I used to), it kinks and bends, has capes and bays and where we are it even faces due east for a stretch.
Being coastal, it follows a distinctly coastal shape but history and technology have played their part.
Our bit of the Côte d’Azur
If you take a section through our bit of coastline from the sea to our house and onwards and upwards, you get a pretty typical picture of the French southern coast - for good and bad.
First there’s the sea. The Mediterranean. It is not polluted as we Brits were told. It is not tidal, that much is true. It is not always calm: in winter it can rain rocks and whole trees down on the coast road and break the cafes that occupy the beach all summer. It is, most of the time, as blue as you would hope.
Then there’s the beach. Here it is stones, generally about 2 to 3 cms, grey, fairly uniform, clean. Southern French beaches are remarkably clean and tidy: bins are provided and the residents and (thank you!) the tourists take considerable care. The beach, fronting on to a non-tidal sea, tends to be short, permanently dry in the summer, fairly steep and have cars parked on it.
Next comes the Bord de Mer, the coastal road, for a long time our manically preferred way of getting anywhere. Always a good view, in winter a stormy thrill, in summer a topless treat.
Next comes the railway. SNCF’s southern TGV route along with the two types of train régional, the cool double-decker and the grotty orange old stock. Coming to Nice by train wins you over if you took the trip as we did to decide whether you want to live here.
Next comes a bit of scrubland that nobody wants, occasionally occupied by second-hand car lots and near-the-beach restaurants. Then the RN7, the national, non-toll-paid road (and therefore naturally a tad bumpy). Next comes the commercial sector, some handsome like Antibesland, our seaside funfair (mostly closed) and Marineland (orcas, dolphins, seals and associated wonders), some intensely, heart-freezingly ugly like the region with the Pizza Hut, the cheap shoe shops, the closed bread shops, the DIY stores. This bit is ghastly: truly the backside of the sea front.
It does have nestling in it one of the typical-for-the-region wild parks, Vaugrenier, which is a small blessing and a cool delight.
Next comes the autoroute (English: motorway), the lovely A8, a toll-paid six-laner which joins the Italian border with Lyon via a broad sweep past Nice, Cannes, Aix, Marseille, Valence and then on northwards.
Next comes a lowland section mysteriously occupied by practice golf courses, plant nurseries, potteries, glass-blowers’ shops and suchlike. One of the strangest parts of our landscape and filled mostly with tourists who are lost.
Then variously the land rises to a series of real, ancient towns. These are the genuine historical human reality of the landscape. Towns like Biot, Cagnes, Vence, St Paul, Valbonne, Mougins. Generally they occupy a hill or a rise at least and are old, well looked after, loved. A hill which was not occupied from olden times now groans under the weight of Sophia-Antipolis, the great science park of the south-east which includes on one of its highest points our little lotissement, our modern village.
Behind the old villages are older smaller villages, clinging rather grandly to the edges of the pre-Alpes. Mountain eyries like Gourdon, Tourette, superb places with good food, good views and exciting roads.
After that we’re up to the Alpes.
The famous coast
There’s an irony in the geography here. The ancient towns like Biot, on the map, seem to extend their domains from their hill-top perches right down to the sea like spilled pots of paint dribbling down the landscape to the water. Apart from the major cities such as Antibes, Cannes and Nice, the coast-line has no identity of its own and borrows its names from the inland towns. So, since they must be on the railway line, the stations of Biot and Villeneuve-Loubet are indeed on the coast, just behind the beach, but Biot and Villeneuve-Loubet are several kilometres away up the hill. Getting off at Biot station was until the very recent provision of a bus, a very, very bad way to reach Biot.
Even when the beach itself has a very famous, even prestigious, name such as Juan-les-Pins, it is still part of an inland borough, in this case, Vallauris (a small, modest, rather troubled little community some way behind the monied beach restaurants).
It seems that this might be all the fault of the Brits. The coast used to be more-or-less ignored by the French, occupied by fishermen and itinerants. Even the Romans when they conquered the region, considered the beach not very useful (you can’t really imagine Roman matrons letting slip the toga for a bask on the pebbles, can you?). Then the Brits decided that spending vast amounts of cash to rent a grave-sized patch of shingle on a daily basis at Juan-les-Pins was just the ticket. Just as they got the French road-builders to build a ‘prom’ just like Brighton’s along the ‘Promenade des Anglais’ in Nice; so they prompted the expansion, consolidation and exploitation of the beaches between the cities. The fishermen who owned the huts that now were luxury hotels called for local government protection and the ancient establishments reached out their nurturing hands and took the beach. So now we have Villeneuve-Loubet-plage where Villeneuve-Loubet for centuries couldn’t have given less thought.