Thursday 7 March 2013

A Walk in Haute Provence & The First Signs of Spring

Wild Almond trees blossom in Provence
The Wild Almond trees are getting ready to blossom with the first flowers making an appearance despite the continued threat of frost.
For the last few weeks it has been cold, very cold which is normal, it's winter. We've had plenty of snow and temperatures well below freezing and although winter is very pretty, I would be happy if it lasted about a week and then moved into my favourite season Spring.   In 1943 the geographer André Siegfried said that Provence "was a cold country with a hot sun" and it is true that even when it is -10° C outside in the morning I turn off the heating in the house knowing that the sun will take over. It's a delight to be outside in the Provençal sunshine lounging like a lizard but add a bit of mistral to all of that (and winter is the season of the mistral wind) and suddenly the cold air slices through your clothes and freezes you from the inside out and the sun's only function is to remind you that it is daytime!
But today (2nd of March) the wind switched to the South and the temperatures went from -5°C in the morning to +16°C. This happens every year, one day it's winter and the next it's spring. (which also means that in the next few days the heavens will open and it will rain and rain).
So today I went for a nice long walk armed with my camera, and this is what I saw...

The Last traces of winter (I hope!) 
The wild lavender that grows in and around the old village of Ongles is abundant and even in this winter state still has a strong scent when you rub it in your hand.

A Walk in the Ruins of Ongles

My walk took me to the ruined village of Ongles in Haute Provence where the ancient streets and walls remain with the ruined church overlooking from the top of the hill. I have not been able to find any plans of what the original village looked like and it is always an interesting exercise to try and figure out where the houses were in relation to each other. The village was abandoned in the 17th century when being perched on a hill to see the next attack from your neighbouring lord's serfs became an obsolete activity, but the church was used up until the early 20th century albeit in its ruined state. Most of the village was pulled down to rebuild the new one at the bottom of the hill and as such the old village became a stone quarry for the new one. In my kitchen I have stone slabs on the floor which may have originated from the old church, stone sinks that definitely came from up the hill and if you know where to look in the village you can find evidence of stonework that was not originally intended for its present location.
One of the remaining stone walls that despite having been mostly torn down, still stands perfectly straight as a witness to the medieval stone mason's skill.

Alcoves in the wall are great places for games of hide and seek with my children

One of the narrow alleyways that run through the ruins
A window in the church outside looking out to the blue, blue Provence sky

The Story of Provence Olive Trees

Apart from the ever present pine forests in Provence which are like tinder in the summer, the other evergreen tree that epitomises the South of France and indeed the entire Mediterranean basin is the olive tree. In amongst the ruins of the village of Ongles the olive trees are still there hundreds of years on. Recently some of them have been pruned back for the production of olives once again for oil. In 1956 after a particularly balmy autumn and a mild start to the winter, during the month of February when the farmers were working in shirtsleeves, the cold arrived with a bang and the temperatures went from +10 to -20 overnight. The olive trees which can withstand the -20 conditions normally didn't this time because the sap in their branches was full due to the warm conditions and with the sudden change they were helpless and froze and a large percentage of the Provence olive trees disappeared overnight.
But olive trees never die.
Many years later from the seemingly dead stumps, new branches emerged and the trees came back to life! Unfortunately in the more rural areas in the Haute Provence olive oil production had been forgotten by many and the trees grew in a semi-wild state, but bit by bit they were cleared and have now been returned to their former glory in many cases producing award winning olive oils. Olivier Baussan, the founder of L'Occitane en Provence has created a museum on olive oil history and a has sourced the best olive oils in Provence which you can buy in his shops around France and soon probably around the world. Come and try them in Provence next time you are here. and have a delicious meal here whilst you're at it!
Olive trees are fascinating and I tend to photograph them from every angle. Here are a few shots taken on my walk of the survivors of the old village of Ongles.
One of the Ongle's old village Olive Trees, note the size of the tree's stump.

Some didn't survive, but this one was for its wood, what remains is still a beautiful object.

More of the olive grove, the pile of stones was probably a dry stone hut used for storing tools and getting away from the afternoon sun.

A close up of the evergreen leaves of the olive tree.

Looking out from the olive grove you can see more olive trees below and also spot any approaching marauders in the distance. Today there where none.  

Olive trees are beautiful from a distance as well as close up and their hard wood is prized for the making of salad bowls, spoons etc. 
Soon the warmth of the Provençal sun will turn the brown grass and plants and leafless trees into a riot of colour, but for the moment the rain is pouring down which is a good thing for the coming season. But Provence certainly doesn't lose its unique charm even in the winter because the sun often shines and the smells of the wild thyme and lavender never go away.

Having said that...bring on Summer!!!

See our related Blog posts :

Discover the ancient village of Ongles and  pick wild lavender on the L'Occitane en Provence  Lavender and Luberon Tour

Lunch at Les Petites Tables and a visit to the Eco Musée de L'Olivier in Volx (entrance is free if you have lunch there)

In the footsteps of the lavender pickers.

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