To return to a place is something that I do not normally do. It’s like when people say ‘Oh, I’ve read that book like five times.’ No, I never, well, almost never, re-read a book. There are too many great tomes in the world to gobble up and too many sparkling places in the world that I need to go to before I die to afford doubling up. To spend money going to somewhere I’ve already been sometimes seems like a simple waste. I could have gone to x, but instead I went back to y. This is my answer to the questions about why I don’t want to go home to the UK that much.
There are always places that grab the soul or yank those heartstrings so fiercely that it would seem folly to not return to them. Outside of Spain a few places jump immediately to mind: Porto, Cuba, St Petersburg, Marrackech, Cervo. The list goes on the more I think about it. But in general a place has to earn its rank in my list of returnables. They are often tied with a specific moment or specific people. More than just a jaunt abroad. One of these places is Montauroux.
2014 was when I first fell under its parochial and sleepy spell (http://www.lukedarracott.com/lukemadrid/2014/10/1/trois-villages), and in 2015 the idea of going back was a no brainer. Friends, French people and the Mediterranean way of life all absorbed from an eagle’s nest position at a beautiful Provençal farm house with a vast swimming pool and a view to the Maritime Alps.
The days at the house would be spent lazing in the spongy summer heat down by the limpid waters of the pool as fluffy clouds slowly paraded through cyan. We would sup Aperol spritz and rosé wine whilst reading books and writing whatever came to mind. Or we would curl up on the sofas and have siestas after eating hams, cheeses, tomatoes and local bread. The art of doing nothing was not one of my fortes but I was able to dabble and enjoy. My curiosity got the better of me however, and my soles started to itch. So, one morning, I got up and left.
Callian, a classically pretty southern French village, sat, posing sensually on the nearby ridge opposite Montauroux; a honey coloured strip across the greenest of greens. I had it seen the last time, yet it had remained tentatively out of reach. Too close to earn interest for a day trip when Fayence and Grasse were less than an hour away by car. I’d walk there. The day was hot and the air was moist and thick with the cloying smells of tree sap and warm soil. To get there was down and up and the result was a t-shirt that had darkened in colour as sweat blotches spread out from my arms and chest, and my face was red.
Any feelings of self-consciousness in front of the few prim tourists who sat having coffees in the cute square or wandered about, leaving their touring car for a few moments, disappeared as soon as I got lost in the hilltop town’s web of cobble streets. For no more than half an hour I wandered like that lonely cloud through claustrophobic alleys and lanes that seemed to have been ripped from a Romantic novel. Cats dragged themselves along flower pots and walls - ochres and pinks and browns set off those ubiquitous shutters of the south: duck eggs blue, yellow, teal, burgundy. Little wine bars and eateries snuck about and occasionally found a window to the view: Montauroux, over the gully, strung out along its ridge where villas dripped down to the valley floor.
Another day the impossibility of cabin fever even struck our most diligent of relaxers. We took the car, minus a wing mirror and with windows that didn’t work, and headed for the Gorge du Verdon: the largest canyon in Europe. At up to 700m deep and around 25km long it proved a temptation too strong even for the pull of alcoholic inactivity to resist. After an hour and a half of terrifying mountain roads - with a brief breathing spot to gasp at the village of Mons perching out to the nothingness - we arrived at Castellane: gateway to the gorge.
Castellane itself was worthy of a stop. A little buzzing town seemingly populated with tourers and hikers, it sat with its churches and towers and tricolours in the shadow of a 200m tall granite tower that was topped with an 18th century chapel. The town was cute if unremarkable but its location was somewhat dramatic. Yet it teased greater things. Once more we entered our beaten up car and flung it round more corners and passes to finally arrive at the gorge proper.
As we entered the land slowly started to rise around the car. Giant maws of curled up and twisted mountain began to form grand corridors of rock. Then the road would slip through a towering alley barely fifty metres wide before rising and jetting out onto higher levels. This European Grand Canyon was all hulking cliffs and verdant peaks. Green and white. Ancient looking, like some Jurassic behemoth it soared and sunk and in its belly was the river - turquoise and surreal.
Le sentier des pecheurs - the fishermen’s route - took us down into the sweaty depths of the gorge until the river appeared. We stripped to our underwear and swam and jumped in the freezing waters, skimming stones and leaping off rocks. Walkers had removed their steaming shoes and sat on the pebble banks whilst dogs barked at each other from either side. There was something pure and secret yet at the same time jovial about it.
Tracing the river on a ridge-walk, the route headed towards the business end of the waters; flotillas of pedalos and dinghies passing each other languorously like some lazy aquatic highway. The smell of hot pine and ferns mingled with the smell of my own sweat as the path decided to slash steeply up the hillside back to the carpark. Then the drive back. Ice cream in Castellane. And home.
Before leaving Montauroux there was time enough for more exultant inactivity as I lay back by the pool, clutching a wine in my right hand and scribbling short stories with my left. The sunset threw embarrassed peaches and coy pinks over the landscape and street lamps down below twinkled into life. Dinner in Montauroux: foie gras, steak with snail sauce, chocolate fondant, Burgundy wine. This was life. This was the whole point. Good food with great friends in a perfect place. To return somewhere is something that I do not normally do. But in this case not to would be the definition of stupid. Life is too short to forgo a return to paradise.