Eastern Provence, France
AROUND THE WORLD PART II EASTERN PROVENCE, FRANCE
By Nicole Toesca
Picturesque Saorge is dramatically perched amphitheatre style on a mountain slope high above the Roya. It is at almost 1900 feet of altitude and is surrounded by much higher mountains. Saorge is classified as one of the forty most beautiful villages in France, a country with many cute villages. Visitors are quite impressed by the sight as they drive north from the coast on the national road, N204. Road and Track magazine once named this route “the best drive in Europe”, noteworthy for its irregular width and steep curves painstakingly built by carving into and dynamiting out parts of the base of cliffs along the river. This drive is about forty-five minutes from the French and Italian Rivieras and about thirty minutes from Monaco. Don’t worry too much about surviving the drive, because most of the “best” one-way curves and tunnels were replaced with larger tunnels and bridges. Drive defensively to avoid Italians who tend to drive in the middle of the road and pass slower vehicles in blind turns. Daily trains from Nice provide service to this valley and others in the area.
First mentioned in historical 10th century documents as Saurgio, this name for Saorge is not from the French and Italian languages, but is from dialect. Saorge’s history is one of varying allegiances to the counts of Ventimiglia, to Provence, and then became part of the Kingdom of Savoy and Sardinia. On behalf of the counts of Nice, General Massena attacked Saorge in the 18th century.
Nice, Saorge, and a few other villages voted to become part of France in 1860, rather than become part of the new nation of Italy in 1861. Quite a few families had some members who became either French or Italian depending upon the village. My great-grandmother Catherina Ascheri, who married my great-grandfather Charles Toesca, was born in Dolcedo around the time of the formation of Italy. We recently visited there and found Piedmontese village set amongst many olive groves with views of the Mediterranean and famous for its olive oil. Mixtures of Saorgien and dialects labeled Piedmontese (people in the coastal mountains were able to converse in these dialects in order to trade, work, or graze their animals) were commonly heard until recently because there are very few of the older generation left.
The oldest part of Saorge has foundations originating from the 11th and 12th centuries. It was well placed by its founders because it was practically impregnable with its thick walled cliff top fortresses and ramparts. Because of its strategic importance on the salt trading route from the coast to European populations far from the sea, salt vital for health and food preservation, Saorge’s prosperous population swelled to over 4,000 inhabitants at its peak and included important lawyers and sent a few advisors (consiglieres) to the heads of important city states. By the 19th century the “new” houses and buildings that form the eastern side of the village were built, giving Saorge its present look. The main fort, Fort St. Georges, is in ruins visible above the elementary school and festival plaza, but the village has survived from Mother Nature’s temper tantrums. Its location protects from falling limestone rocks and boulders that occasionally occur with heavy rains. The eastern parking lot, built by modern man without regard to old rules, was not so lucky a few years ago when large chunks of rock crushed cars and trucks, effectively closing the lot until an expensive giant net of steel cables and poles was put in across the slope above.
WWI had a horrific effect on the population of Saorge and other villages whose population had leaving agrarian life to move to cities for industrial work. Only three out of every ten males fighting in WWI returned in various states of mental and physical disrepair. Our family was one of the lucky ones, despite my grandfather having fought for nearly six years in trenches, including the Balkans, while surviving mustard gas attacks. During the 1960’s and 1970’s, I saw WWI widows dressed entirely in black. Some of them were relatives or close friends of my grandparents and aunts, so we often went to visit them and addressed them as “aunts”.
WWII took also a toll on the Saorgiens. Many were deported to work in Italy. All were starving, as the roads and bridges were blown up by design and daily life had been taken over by the enemy. The Italians, at least, were somewhat tolerable, as some were from nearby villages. They were lax when compared to the Germans who followed and strictly enforced curfews with gunshots. Angele, who is in her 80’s and is my family’s elder cousin by marriage, recalled how she gave birth to her first son on the floor of a small building where a neighbor let her stay after she and her mother were evicted from their house by the Germans who were pursuing her husband in the mountains. She recounted other worse stories. After the end of WWII, borders were redrawn in 1947 placing Tende and Saorge’s neighbor village, La Brigue, in France.
Our medieval townhouse, like many others in Saorge, has rooms with walls that form more or less than conventional angles of ninety degrees. Because of France’s inheritance laws, property gets divided equally to siblings upon a parent’s death. This results in cemented over doorways and windows that are sometimes visible, as well as in new openings and never ending renovations accompanying each generation. The inheritance problem is the reason why our master bedroom is accessible only from the outside stairway on our wonderful patio forming the roof of the townhouse containing apartments that have entrances from the street below.
As part of a building with several stories of apartments and balconies above it, our townhouse has its entrance on the main street, the Rue Jeanne D’Arc. We use this popular name, the second name of at least three names. The regular mailman has had to memorize three names for every street and knows at which each point the longer streets change into another set of names, as the signage is often incomplete. Also, family names may be listed by the maiden name in a couple, no name, no numbers or a combination of these. In addition, there is the problem caused by the thirty-five hour workweek imposed on government workers such that our brave mailman actually has to work forty-two hours a week over several consecutive weeks in order to complete his job of delivering the mail. Because he is regularly exceeding thirty-five hours a week, he is required to take a vacation of at least two weeks or so every quarter to reach the yearly average of the thirty-five hour workweek. His frustration and that of the residents ignites upon his return, because young substitutes incorrectly deliver the mail.
We benefit from our location below the church of Saint Sauveur, built in the 15th century and decorated lavishly in the baroque style of the 18th century. The church’s main altar was made of solid marble in 1732. The interior contains wooden candlesticks and oil paintings framed with gilded wood. The interior is covered by frescoes and quite a bit of trompe l’oeil. We frequently listen to master organists playing the treasured baroque organ built in Italy in 1847 and placed on a ship to the port of Nice. It was then lugged to the village by donkey. The now automated church bells chime on the hour and half hour, so watches aren’t necessary. On special occasions such as funerals, weddings and celebrations, the bells are rung by hand to form the same melody I heard when I was a child.
I love to watch the groups of European tourists, brought in by tour bus, who walk past our house on their way to the church and its plaza. Many of them stop and turn to peek inside our open door for a look at the natives. Until television became popular in the late 1970’s, the church plaza served as the news transmitter and meeting place. Villagers sat on stone benches built into the church and nearby building walls. Some of us still meet there, and it continues to be a popular playground for children riding small bikes or scooters or those kicking soccer balls that sometimes land on the heads of unsuspecting pedestrians walking in the cobblestone street below the church.
Saorge’s multistory houses are made of stone, a plentiful building material. Many received white, ochre, gray, and rose color facades in the 15th through 17th centuries. Some have little bridges known as poutins connecting them to another street level or house. Most of the roofs are made of large flat irregular pieces of beautiful varying hues of purple slate called “lauzes” unique to eastern Provence.
Because Saorge is a designated national monument, no new buildings are permitted. One can build up from ruins only, and modifications are strictly controlled except the satellite dishes that have popped out like mushrooms after a rain. I would love to stop sanding and repainting all of our wooden shutters by replacing them with aluminum ones, but the laws forbid doing so. The streets are narrow and paved with cobblestones. Most have steps. Cars are not allowed in the village. Tourists and residents park their cars in lots at the ends of the village and walk into the village on uphill paths. It’s not unusual to be huffing and puffing when first arriving.
We enjoy superb vistas from our south-facing patio. We eat outside whenever possible. We watch swallows at dusk that seem to transform into bats. I have taken some beautiful photographs of the churches and other parts the village from the patio. Our wide angled view is possible because of the stadium layout of the village. The master bedroom window has view of the beautiful Romanesque church of the Madone del Poggio (Madonna of the Hill) and its tall steeple. It was built sometime in the 11th century, and sits on a ridge that ends above the Roya and is dwarfed by the imposing Mont Aigu behind it. At night we listen to the calls of owls in the forest and songs of other night birds before the echoing rush of the river lulls us to sleep.
We also have a lovely view of the peach colored 17th century Franciscan monastery, which is classified as a national monument itself. Visitors can tour it for a small fee. Writers and artists often rent the former rooms of monks. The monks lived here on and off until the early 1980’s. This summer the monastery’s administrators hosted a slide show on the flora and fauna found in the national park and Saorge. We sat in the open courtyard beneath a navy blue sky with billions and billions of stars clearly visible. The lighting of the exterior frescoes, arches and painted sundials made this an unforgettable event. We also went to a concert in the main monastery church illuminated by strong lights. I was able to photograph objects made with gilded wood, intricately carved floor to ceiling wood panels, and centuries old oil paintings.
Don’t miss “Around the World” Part 3 on our up coming MPM Spring issue. MPM