Thursday, May 31, 2018

An Aqueduct to bridge Time and Space.... Roquefavour

 As I was staying in the countryside just along from Aix and Les Milles in Provence, a modest road sign indicating a nearby aqueduct kept catching my eye. Towards the end of a very wet Sunday afternoon, we went to investigate...

Even in the dull light, the sight from a distance was impressive, with the aqueduct spanning the whole valley, towering over the green fields and road below in the commune of Ventabren. One can only imagine the awe and wonder it inspired at the time of its construction in the mid 19th century.

In fact, this is an aqueduct that is remarkable on several counts. This is indeed the largest stone aqueduct in the world - it is an incredible feat of engineering and aesthetic beauty - from afar or up close.

Despite being even more ambitious in dimension than the Pont du Gard, Roquefavour is frequently overlooked, seemingly overshadowed by the renown of its ancient Roman predecessor. Both are set out in a three-tier design with rows of arcades that stand out so dramatically against the skyline. Roquefavour measures almost 400 metres in length and 82 metres in height, compared to Pont du Gard's 270 metres by 47... Both naturally serve the same practical function as the very first aqueducts of ancient Rome; the supply of water.

The Pont du Gard was built to cross the gorge of the Gardon river in order to convey spring water from Uzès to the Roman colony that would later become Nîmes. Some 18 centuries later, the Roquefavour aqueduct was constructed along similar lines. It successfully bridged the flanks of  the Arc river valley, carrying much-needed water from the Durance river, along the Canal de Marseille, to the city some 80 kilometres away. Marseille was continually blighted by drought, having suffered the same fate for centuries and was furthermore beset by a cholera epidemic in the 1830s. An adequate water supply was vital and the Pont du Gard served as inspiration in the solution to this problem, thus spanning the centuries between the ancient site and that of the 19th century with the creation of the aqueduct of Roquefavour.

 As the plaque on the aqueduct's pillar indicates, the watercourse was completed in a mere five-year stretch, with the project led by a young engineer (Franz Mayor de Montricher) who was but 26 years old in 1842! The  Canal de Marseille was virtually the city's sole source of water until the 1970s.

Visitors can climb up a path to reach the top of the aqueduct and then gaze across the Provençal landscape. Any plans for this were scuppered by the rainy weather that day, but even the darkest, wettest spells might lead to magic, in the form of a rainbow. And this indeed was the case, when I was treated to a perfect arc above the mountain of Sainte Victoire!

Saturday, May 26, 2018

A Pocket of Provence...

I headed South a few weeks ago, and arrived in the Provence region to find fields of poppies in a vegetation that was surprisingly green this year.

This was in fact down to the uncharacteristically wet weather in the region - the torrential rain I experienced when there certainly swept away any doubts I may have harboured on that theory!

Once the sun has disappeared, and the clouds settle, the temperatures drop... Fortunately, that doesn't last too long!

My friends' house is in the countryside outside Aix-en-Provence, surrounded by old platane trees, scrub and woodland, corn fields, olive groves and woodland.

The smell of the earth and the pine trees is everywhere... Everything seems heightened as time seems to go at a slower pace away from city life...

We literally follow the sleeping habits of the roosting hens - and get woken to the call the very proud and protective cockerel.

You sleep and rise to the sound of birdsong that goes from the familiar to the weird and wonderful, to the point that you even wonder where you actually are...

This all certainly makes a change from the constant hum of car traffic and the regular rumble and clanking of the trams below my flat, here in the north-east.

In fact, the intrusive noise of cars is thankfully minimal - although this time I didn't hear the song of any cigales either - probably too cold still.

 All kinds of insects are drawn to nearby hedgerows that are generally full of wild flowers...

Whilst more formal varieties grow in the garden, attracting their own collection of creatures, great and small.

Just beyond the bushes lie the pig enclosures, set in scrubland that leaves these fine black specimens - le Noir de Bigorre - free to roam.

The sows grub about in the undergrowth, amongst the tree roots, wade around in the muddy puddles and bask in the sun, surrounded by a throng of piglets (thirty at the last count!).

The boar resides in a very boggy, wild part of the scrubland and waddles around in an imposing manner due to his impressive male appendages! I couldn't cross the mud to photograph him, sadly...

And here is the most recent arrival to the menagerie, Oscar. This was his first day in his new surroundings with his new mistress! His huge paws, densely-tufted nose and beard, golden-brown eyes and white-flecked coat are characteristic of Czech gun dog breed to which he belongs - le Barbu Tchèque. 

However he shares the same traits as any other puppy, with his burning desire to gnaw at any kind of footwear, an insatiable appetite for any remaining food scraps, and steely determination to settle on any soft furnishings. And of course, the skill for getting himself into all kinds of scrapes...

My favourite moments of the day are perhaps as dusk grew closer, or in the early morning, when all the sights, sounds and smells seem to grow in intensity and the mountain backdrop stands out more than ever.

 Who would have thought that a penpal scheme from secondary-school French classes would lead to over forty years of friendship?!!

Friday, May 4, 2018

Thieving Magpies....

As I was travelling along a very humdrum bus route to an equally uninspiring shopping centre, this striking magpie mural caught my eye. Painted on an otherwise unremarkable wall at the end of a street of samey detached houses, this is the kind of creative gesture that I love coming across. Placed high up this plain expanse of wall, it might not initially be visible to all - certainly not car-drivers, but there it is, a discreet little gem that seems to have been 'stolen' from somewhere else. Almost as if a thieving magpie had lifted it from its rightful home....

It is a pleasure to see something that has emerged from the simple desire to leave a curious trace of beauty in a place where it is least expected. Art for art's sake, serving no other purpose other than that of marking aesthetic interest without any form of gain, sometimes seems rare indeed. Apparently this was painted in 1997, in which case it is standing the test of time very well and did remind me a great deal of the colourful façades in Rue Crémieux, Paris.

This in turn reminded me of one of my favourite groups in the 80s - Marillion - with their The Thieving Magpie album. The overture of the opera La Gazza Ladra by Rossini (1792–1868) was used at the opening of their concerts during the Clutching at Straws tour 1987–1988. The group was introduced to me as a logical step-up from Genesis (with Peter Gabriel) but I thought, and still do, that Marillion was generally better in terms of lyrical content... I did see them at Hammersmith when Fish was still lead singer, but I can't even remember the year now which is quite weird. However, listening to the tracks today teleports me back to that whole period... which actually feels even weirder still because it brings back everything - the social settings and circumstances, sounds, sights, smells - the lot!