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May 2007
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July 2007

Grasse: International Marble Sculpture Symposium

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Stroll through the town of Grasse and you might come across white puffs of smoke and the grinding sound of tools slicing, cutting, edging and polishing stones. Between June 19 and July 5, 2007, nine artists carve big blocks of white Carrare marble, one block per artist. They carve, inspired by a theme at the heart of Grasse's heritage - flowers and fragrances.

It's Grasse's 2nd International Marble Sculpture Symposium from June 19 to July 5, 2007.

If you're more interested in seeing the end result of the sculpting, on July 6, the jury will review the sculptures amidst a little celebration. Grasse will get to keep the sculptures and exhibit them around the city.

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Best Beach: La Plage de La Tortue

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If you're looking for a tad of sandy seclusion around St Raphael, I'll let you in on a secret spot.

It's a stretch of golden sand next to a popular resort town where you can actually lay down your double-sized towel. As if painted as a backdrop to the beach, you see the reddish Cap du Dramont peninsula, its white semaphore and its crazy little island with a square tower. The beach is sheltered from the waves thanks to a reef of red lava flow that runs parallel to the beach and cordons off a shallow pool.

It's Plage de la Tortue by Boulouris.

To reach it, hop on the Route de La Corniche or N98, and stop between Saint-Raphael and Agay at the intersection with Boulevard de la Mer in Boulouris. On foot, head on down the path in front of the seafood restaurant l'Olympe and take 40 steps to the sea. You can also get there by train, stopping at the Boulouris station and heading straight down Blvd de la Mer to the beach.

The beach is all sand, of easy access even if not right into town, and yet not too crowded not even on a pipping hot day in late June.

The La Tortue Restaurant that's by the beach is well-known of those who enjoy a splurge of seafood while practically dipping their feet in the sea. Beach mattresses line up prettily on the restaurant's private beach. The private sand appears a little whiter than the one next door on the public beach. I'm not a fan of fenced out beaches with plush mattresses, but some folks prefer when the beach is watched over by a life guard - the private one here is and the public one isn't. Your choice. Either way, this turtle beach makes an excellent spot for slowing down.

La Tortue Restaurant: 04 94 83 60 50

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The Cork Oak Tree (Quercus suber)

It's easy to spot a cork oak tree with its thick and rubbery bark, its knotted branches, its dark green leaves spiked at the edges. In the siliceous soils of the Maures and the Esterel in the Var departement of southern France, the cork oak tree thrives especially on the sunny southern flanks of the mountains.

Cork has long been used by man. In antiquity, cork closed amphorae, lined fishing nets with buoys, enclosed bees in beehives.

Called "lou suvrier" in Provencal language, the cork oak tree once reigned over the region as a golden goose. In the 19C, cork extraction boomed in the Var region, propelled in part by a parallel boom in the production of glass-bottled wines and Champagne. Cork had all of the required qualities for fine bottle stoppers: elasticity, lightness, impermeability, resistance to rot. In the 19C, towns in the Maures such as La Garde Freinet bustled as centers of cork extraction.

But the Var, with its exploited land divided into small parcels, struggled to keep up with cork demand. Meanwhile, cork operations expanded in Portugal's expansive forests of cork oaks, in Spain, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Italy. Cork production began to dramatically drop off in the Var after World War II. Since the 1960's, alternative and less expensive bottle closures such as plastic stoppers and screw caps have further challenged the local as well as international cork industry.

Today, few cork oak trees are harvested in the Var. The art of cork harvesting is slowly dissipating. But cork is resilient. Economics or uses could change and cork bounce back to a new life here.


The Stoechas Lavender (Lavandula stoechas)

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Also called Spanish Lavender, this fragrant lavender plant blooms in late spring to early summer. Its violet petals or bracts appear like a silky purple butterfly sitting on top of the flower head.

While their tall, thin and famous cousin, the Lavendula angustifolia, is cultivated in large fields elsewhere in Provence, you will find the Stoechas Lavender growing wildly in small patches along the footpaths by the Cap du Dramont, in the Esterel Mountain Range, in the Maures, in the Golden Islands of Hyères. It thrives on their acid soils.


Best Beaches: Plage d'Argent, Porquerolles

As a nature-lover who's grown roots in the Var, visiting friends and relatives often ask me...

"Yes, nature is so... well nice and natural, but tell me - what is the best beach in the area?"

So here goes. Every once in a while, I'll scribble my personal views on a wonderful beach in the Var side of the French Cote d'Azur and post them on the Best Beaches category of AzurAlive.com. There are plenty, and they're not always the better known ones. And I'll speak my mind on the most heinous ones too. There are plenty of those as well.

  Best Beaches: Plage d'Argent  

  Best Beaches: Plage d'Argent  

It's a crowded beach in the summer, only a half-hour walk west from the one and only village in the island of Porquerolles, the largest of the four Golden Islands by Hyères.

But the sand on this beach is white like a Sea Daffodil and soft like sifted flour. The ends of its cove are made of schist rocks, layered and sharp edged, like the rocks of the Maures mountain to which the islands of Hyères belong, geologically. To the back, a forest of pine trees. At the entrance to the beach, a set of wooden bicycle racks for parking the nuisances cycles, the only authorized vehicles on the island. Note, in the summer, bikes outnumber cicadas.

You decide to lay your beach towel on the sifted flour.

Where the water meets the shore, your feel your feet dig into piles of brown strips of Posidonia, thin strips like tape. They smell of salt-crusted seashells. Kids kick them up in the air and giggle. Little strips stick to their feet. Seagulls join in with strings of strident mocking squeals. This is a family beach.

Beyond the brown carpet, wavelets gurgle and barely ripple the water. You walk into the sea, pulled in by its color - turquoise, like a touched-up postcard of an exotic sea. Walking out to sea down the gentle slope, it takes a while to immerse yourself with only neck and head above the water. You face the beach and its giant swimming pool. You think: "I'm inside a limpid mirage."

Could it be early afternoon? You feel like a bite to eat.

The snack bar at La Plage d'Argent's restaurant, the only one on this privately owned but open to the public beach, serves average half-stale snack food as per our latest visit there in 2007. You might have better luck with its full-fledged restaurant on the wooden deck facing the sea. Their local Rosé wine, a Domaine de l'Ile Cote de Provence, chilled and sipped on such a warm day, has you forgiving them. It's grapes are grown  and pressed in the wind-kissed plain down the footpath from the beach, towards the Pointe du Grand Langoustier. The Rosé is a delightful mix of grenache, cinsault, tibouren and mourvèdre. 

What more could you ask of a beach?

Your return to rest on the sifted flour. One of these days, you will lift off from Plage d'Argent and fly like a bird around the island.

  • Plage d'Argent restaurant opens from April to end of September. See http://www.plagedargent.com
  • Domaine de l'Ile, Cote de Provence Rosé, White and Red wine of Porquerolles. See http://www.domainedelile.com
  • For reservation to Porquerolles, check out La Maison du Tourisme in Hyères. They sell ferry boat tickets too.

And if you're interested in learning more about the island and hiking around it, take a look at the Golden Islands category on this web site.


Lake of Escarcets

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On a sunny Saturday like today, only a few visitors strolled around the Lac des Escarcets, this protected man-made lake craddled by the Maures plain. Where was everyone? Possibly stuck on the coastal road to St Tropez, fuming with frustration as a line-up of cars crawled and baked...

Meanwhile at Escarcets, we sat by the lake on a pink rock, flat, smooth and rounded at the edges like a giant mushroom hat. As it turns out (thanks to the explanations of expert geologist Jean Marchal), the rock is a volcanic rhyolite. We cracked a rock or two to observe its cement-like texture. In front of us, the low-lying expanse of the Maures mountain range hid the sea behind it.

Although it's June and hot, the Maures plain is lush with bright yellow Spanish broom (Spartium junceum).
The many cork oaks around the lake spread wide and healthy, likely invigorated by water. Small grasshoppers bounced everywhere around the lake.

In the Spring, the Plaine des Maures is wonderful for colorful flower hikes. You'll find orchids growing wild here, the Serapias neglecta being the most common. It flowers in March-May in purple blooms that look like tongues sticking out. Also in bloom in the spring at Escarcets are wild tulips and irises. After rainfalls, puddles of water attract gurgling amphibiens. Because of its bio-diversity, the land is protected and about 1000 hectares (2400 acres) of it are owned by Conservatoire du Littoral.

Escarcet makes for a pleasant stroll and picnic around its footpaths.

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Getting there: From the A8 highway interchange, at the roundabout, take the D558 road, heading towards La Garde Freinet. After about 6 km, a sign on the right indicates the Lac des Escarcets. Park there or head down the rough and bumpy dirt road all the way to the lake.


Parc Areca

It's a park to play hide and seek among islands of cork oaks and holm oaks, over wooden bridges by giant reeds and yellow-flowered Spanish broom, behind bamboos. It's also an exotic adventure. A stroll through the Palmeraie, part of the garden to the original house that existed here before 2000, and you travel through Argentina with the Blue Needle Palms, to Southern California with the towering Washingtonian palm trees, to the slender-stemmed Chinese windmill palms.

Snatched away from development by the commune of Fréjus, the Parc Aréca is 3.5 hectares of botanical delights in a form of a public park in the town of Saint-Aygulf. For kids, swings, slides and a wooden boat play area make for added fun after a stroll through the alleys that criss-cross the park.

Useful Info: Picnics not allowed in the park. For a picnic on the beach, head down to the coastal path at the end of the park and walk west by the coast to the sandy Calanque du Pont de Bois.

Keep dogs on leash in the park. Park is open 8AM to 8PM summers and 8AM to 6PM from October to end of April. Located on Avenue Alfred de Musset, Saint-Aygulf.