Monday, 28 July 2014

The island by bicycle

“No cars were permitted on the island and most people who passed were on bicycles: dented, clicking, cumbersome machines of uncertain vintage, used by countless people on countless holidays.”                                            The Sea Garden

Hiring a bicycle on Porquerolles is a must. It allows you to cover so much more ground than if you walk everywhere, and adds to the sense of childhood adventure that includes rocky coves, forts on tiny bay islands and shaded paths that always lead to another vista of the sea. You could take a boat, of course, but then you'd miss out on one of the most sensuous aspects of this lovely place: the fragrance.

“Scrubby evergreen bushes released a strong scent of resin and honey; forests of pine gave way to gentle south-facing vineyards. The path was quiet, disturbed only by the ululation of early summer cicadas.”

 “The bicycle tyres crunched on small sandy stones as she followed the trail between green oak and pines: the Aleppo and the parasol pine. She spotted an arquebusier, a strawberry tree, and pulled off the path to have a closer look.”

As Laurent de Fayols writes to Ellie in the novel, the island has a wild and romantic quality. It was bought at the beginning of the twentieth centuty as a wedding gift to his wife by a man who had made his fortune in the silver mines of Mexico. It was one of three small specks in the Mediterranean known as the Golden Isles, after the oranges, lemons and grapefruit that glowed like lamps in their citrus groves.

There are few reference works in English that offer information beyond superficial facts about the island, and those I did manage to find were old. The best was published in 1880, by a journalist called Adolphe Smith. Here is his ‘description of the most Southern Point of the French Riviera’:

“The island is divided into seven ranges of small hills, and in the numerous valleys thus created are walks sheltered from every wind, where the umbrella pines throw their deep shade over the path and mingle their balsamic odour with the scent of the thyme, myrtle and the tamarisk.”

It's not all easy going along the cycle paths. They start easily enough, then you find yourself pushing through carpets of pine needles, then sand and rock. There are some vicious inclines, and exhilarating descents, with the wheels sticking in ruts and slithering on smooth stone. But it's worth it to emerge in quiet, lonely places like the Calanque Oustaou de Diou on the south side, below.

No one was there, and we decided against a swim because when we looked carefully, the shallows were full of small mauve jellyfish - meduses, as the French call them: Medusas, after the Greek Gorgon monster with the face of a woman and hideous hair of snakes.

We hopped back on our bikes and pushed on, until we found a lovely beach for swimming and snorkelling within sight of the Fort du Petit Langoustier.

Though this is the place where I'd really love to swim - though how you get down to it safely is another matter. It's a sharp drop off the cycle path, and probably really is one for reaching by boat. Next time!

Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Auberge des Glycines

Welcome to Porquerolles! The pink oleander blossoms tangle with palm fronds on the dockside. It's hot - very hot. And it's crowded in high summer, but many of the throngs of people in the lane are making their way back to the mainland after a day on the island. There are only a certain number of hotel beds, and if you're not staying in one of them, or in a private house or apartment, then it's back on the ferry for you.
We made our way to the far corner of the Place d'Armes, where the Auberge des Glycines (The Wisteria Inn, isn't that lovely?) sits in a quiet shade-dappled spot. It's an old-fashioned hotel in the very best sense: three-star, not grand luxe but country stylish and atmospheric. The kind of place I remember as a child, on long car journeys down through France. To get to our room we went through the courtyard, set for dinner that evening.

We definitely struck lucky with our room: cool and very spacious, with lovely touches of Provencal style.

We headed out, the temptation round every corner before we even got out of the Auberge. Who wouldn't want to take a seat here in the shade and try a Kir à la Figue?

We did have dinner here on the first evening, and it was delicious, full of imaginatively presented seasonal vegetables and beautifully cooked fish. The local Porquerolles rosé was excellent too: pale and fruity, sunshine in a glass.

Sunday, 20 July 2014

Crossing to Porquerolles

Here it is, the ferry to Porquerolles island. Forgive me if I'm hopelessly enamoured of the South of France, but isn't this quite the most glamorous ferry boat you are ever likely to see? The light scintillates even on the dock at La Tour Fondue (the melted tower) at the end of the Giens peninsula, a narrow spit of land that dangles from Hyeres.
   "A hundred years ago the ferry boat was summoned to the mainland by smoke signal – the fire of resinous leaves and twigs lit in a brazier outside the café at the end of the Presqu’île de Giens."

                                                                           from The Sea Garden

The tower itself, one of the many old forts that dot the landscape, looks golden in the afternoon sunlight as the ferry eases out into the blue, blue sea.
   "The engines thrummed and the boat nosed out into sea glitter and salt spray, then powered up to full speed."  

The crossing only takes fifteen minutes, and the boat really does go fast once it gets underway. Yachts and sail boats skim across the blue alongside, and anticipation rises. I love islands, the way they are cut off and self-contained, and Porquerolles, with its paths through pine forests and beaches in rocky coves, seems the perfect size for exploration.

     "Oleanders and palms waved a sub-tropical greeting from the quayside"

"The white and steel needles of the marina extended out to the ferry dock. A warm breeze rang with clinks of metal rigging. This shore felt far more foreign than the one they had left, as if the sea voyage had crossed much more than the few miles of the strait."

 "From the dock she could see pale beaches and low verdant hills berried with red roofs. The fort above the harbour punched up a fist of stone through green trees." 

Friday, 18 July 2014

Just a taster

A glimpse of the magically lovely island of Porquerolles, off the South of France, setting for the first section of The Sea Garden - there will be more to come!

Saturday, 12 July 2014

A grand town house in Bourges

A grand shuttered house caught my imagination in the town of Bourges. Set behind wrought-iron gates and a small courtyard on a medieval street, it encapsulated for me all that is alluring about French buildings. Elegant, certainly, but with an air of faded grandeur. A house built for an aristocrat, perhaps, as an abode in town close to the theatre and the palace built by merchant, banker and diplomat Jacques Coeur (below).

The stone is ornately carved, weathered now and cracked in places. The paint on the iron is that particular soft grey that looks sophisticated, never dull; it's flaking, and rust shows through. All was quiet the night we stayed at the excellent Hotel Angleterre across the street. No carriages drove in through those gates, nor even a car.

The only sign of life was a dove's - or pigeon's nest - on the pediment above an upper window.

But if houses can have an alluring, intriguing presence, this one certainly does...

Tuesday, 1 July 2014


 "The sea nibbled at bone-white sand. She stood alone, lost in thought, where shallow ripples nudged shells into lace patterns across the beach."
from The Sea Garden

I am so looking forward to going back to Porquerolles for a few days this summer. The island insinuated itself into my imagination when I discovered its beauties a few years ago, and forms the backdrop of The Sea Garden. This time I want to take far more photographs than I did last time, and sail over to the other Golden Isles - and swim in turquoise sea again. In the meantime, here are a few illustrated extracts from the book. 

   "It was a wide, dusty square dominated by a church with a distinctly Spanish look. Three sides were edged with eucalyptus and the canopies of restaurants and shops. She made her way round, moving slowly from pool to pool of harsh light and shadow, towards what looked like a hotel at the far end." 

"In the morning sun, the Place d’Armes was an empty white expanse. Activity was confined to the shops and cafés under the trees. Ellie bought a guide book and a large scale map from the nearest tabac and sat on a low wall in the shade to open out the map. When she couldn’t locate the Domaine de Fayols immediately, an unwarranted spike of panic rose. But there it was, marked on the southern rim of the island, close to a cove and a lighthouse. Until then she had had only the word of Laurent de Fayols that the place would exist when she arrived." 

    "By ten o’clock she was waiting outside the hotel. No cars were permitted on the island and most people who passed were on bicycles: dented, clicking, cumbersome machines of uncertain vintage."

  "Where the path split, the beach was signposted, Plage d’Argent. The scent of pines, intensified by a dense heat, mingled with the unmistakably salty tang of the shore." 

  "Neither of them spoke. The driver kept his eyes ahead. Scrubby evergreen bushes released a strong scent of resin and honey; forests of pine gave way to gentle south-facing vineyards. The path was quiet, disturbed only by the ululation of early summer cicadas. She craned around eagerly to see what plants thrived naturally, sitting up tall on the seat.

   "It was a wild and romantic place, Laurent de Fayols had written, the whole island once bought as a wedding gift to his wife by a man who had made his fortune in the silver mines of Mexico. One of three small specks in the Mediterranean known as the Golden Isles, after the oranges, lemons and grapefruit that glowed like lamps in their citrus groves."

Thursday, 26 June 2014

A Night at the Opera

It was just a coincidence, as tickets are booked many months in advance, but I celebrated publication day with an evening at Glyndebourne with Rob and old friends. For those of you in America who don't know our English ways, Glyndebourne is a country house in Sussex where a summer season of opera is held each year. To say it's a gloriously eccentric occasion is an understatement: we all dress up in formal eveningwear in the middle of the afternoon and hurtle towards the South Downs with picnic hampers and bottles of champagne.
If you're lucky, the weather is wonderful - and so it was when we arrived at four o'clock to set our table in the garden. (This being England, the sun is never taken for granted, and so when it does shine on a special occasion it is all the more magical.) The sublime gardens at Glyndebourne are all part of the experience; tended to a pitch of perfection, they roll down from the old mansion and the modern theatre to the fabled ha-ha which keeps the sheep in the distance, picturesquely separate from the lawn. 

For an hour or so before curtain up at around five o'clock, the spectacle is of the great and the good, rather self-consciously at play. Famous faces drift past, champagne glasses in hand. Camping chairs and rugs on the grass are eclipsed by white linen tablecloths and candelabra here and there among the peonies and roses. The wine is left to cool in ice buckets while we take our seats in the theatre for the opening act of the opera.

The point about Glyndebourne is that it may be deep in the countryside, but the productions are world class. This time, we were seeing Eugene Onegin by Tchaikovsky. The wide open spaces of Russian provincial life in the 1820s were rendered by sky and thicket fence, light and shadow, stunningly subtly. The music and singing tugged on the heartstrings, and every scene was beautiful lit to give the impression of a painting. It was quite breathtakingly beautiful.

As Tatyana, Ekaterina Scherbachenko (Cardiff Singer of the World in 2009) captured the yearning of an inexperienced teenager, and Onegin was played by Andrei Bondarenko as a posturing popinjay - a "Prinny", the Prince Regent, thought Felicia.

Most of the cast were, aptly, Eastern European, leading to some mischievous speculation over dinner during the long interval that there was some moonlighting going on, with quite a few also playing at Wimbledon. "Ah," said Rob, "That would explain the wailing and other noises on court - vocal exercises!"

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