Alan and Beryl's Newsletter October 2003

Its taken me a long time to catch up with my Newsletter - the last one was done in March. As usual, summer was a busy period, busier than usual this year, for reasons that you will see later. Spring should have been a quiet time, but somehow there always things to be done, such as putting up some guttering over the front and kitchen side doors. We also took a few days off to go and visit Caroline and family in Ferrara - but we chose a bad time as all Italy seemed to be on the road both going and returning and we got stuck in some serious traffic jams on the autostrade.

Summer started effectively at the beginning of June, when our first visitors arrived and the temperature went up. From the second day of June until early September, the outside high temperature was above 30 degrees Celsius every day, with the nighttime lows around 20-25 C and sometimes as high as 29C! The highest high was 38C, achieved several times. We were *very* pleased we had had the bedrooms air conditioned last year, so at least we could sleep well, but the rest of the indoors was almost uninhabitable for much of the summer with temperatures in the mid to upper 30s. The pool got a lot of use, as it was the only way of cooling off (apart from going in an A/C room). While the warmth sounds attractive, it got to be too much, as clothing tended to stick to one and it was too hot to do anything or go anywhere. Another aspect of the summer was the lack of rain - from May 26 until the end of September there was no measurable rain here. As can be expected, the lack of rain meant everything got very dry, and this led to outbreaks of forest fires in July and August.

The first fire that was in our area started on the afternoom of July 4th - we were at a lunch with some American friends to celebrate July Fourth when we first saw the smoke and heard shortly afterwards the distinctive sound of the Canadair water bombers. The first fire burned a few hundred hectares of the forest to the north of Plan de la Tour but only affecting a few isolated houses. The second fire was a week later and was much more serious, tens of thousands of hectares being burned. It affected two of Plan de la Tour's hamlets and burned for some 30 km, until it reached the sea at Les Issambres where it burned out a camp site and several bungalows as well as a number of cars and caravans. On July 28, it was our turn to be concerned as the fire came within a few hundred metres before it was stopped at the main village outskirts by the combined efforts of the firemen. Despite their efforts, the fire jumped over their barrier and a road and ran down into the village, being stopped a mere 50 metres from our friends house. This fire got world attention as four people lost their lives, two being British holidaymakers, which made the UK papers and then TV and the world's media. This fire was battled largely by ground based firemen with a single helicopter water-dumper supporting, as well as spotter planes, but the Canadairs had been diverted to fight a fire at Frejus which was threatening a lot more people.

A week or so later the tell-tale pall of smoke appeared once again, this time on the western side of the village, and we learned later than the hamlet of Le Mourre in La Garde Freinet's commune was close to the action. The fire was stopped before it could spread too far or do much damage to homes. This fire marked the use by the firefighters of the large Russian Antonov helicopter as a water bomber - its single large bucket holds a reputed 24 tons of water! On August 31st we saw once again the pall of smoke on the western hills, this time on the western side of La Garde Freinet. This fire burned for three days before it was extinguished and the Canadairs, the Antonov helicopter and thousands of firemen were involved. Sadly, three of the firemen lost their lives when their engine was engulfed by the flames.

The series of fires has devastated the forest of the Massif des Maures, and has seriously spoilt one of our views, which is now blackened rocks and earth instead of the original green mountainside. But even in the parts which were heavily burned, there are signs of nature rejuvenating already, with some leaves returning to some of the cork oaks, and some of the shrubs pushing out from their blackened stumps. However, many people, including some of our friends, had their gardens completely burned, losing all the trees, shrubs, caravans, sheds, etc., which will require enormous effort to restore, even though they were lucky enough in that the houses escaped without serious damage. One advantage of the style of construction around here is that most places will withstand the passage of a forest fire provided somebody is around to put out fires started on external wooden beams, shutters, etc. As a sad footnote to this account, it appears that most of the fires I have described were deliberately set. Although some arrests have been made, the lack of proof positive (catching them in the act is difficult) may mean that the miscreants escape the penalties of the law, but they may have to move out of their community.

While the forest fires cast a shadow over the summer, we enjoyed our visitors, especially Caroline and family who spent a couple of weeks with us in July. Anna and Julia were very keen on the pool and made great strides during the period they were here - Anna in particular was quite capable at the end of swimming lengths, even under water, and took great delight in jumping in from the side or the deep end, doing a half turn at the same time. Julia got confidence in going in the water, jumping in and getting her head submerged, and with her floaties on was quite happy to paddle up and down the pool. The girls also enjoyed playing in and around the garden, picking bunches of wild flowers for grandma was a favourite. Not that there were many with the heat! During the stay of the girls Caroline and Francesco had to go to Geneva for a few days and left the girls with us - our first experience of sitting them. We had a great time and, thanks to the pool, no shortage of things of interest to them. Not to say that we weren't glad to see the parents return!

Beryl's sister Pamela (who lives in Florida) was 70 this summer and she decided to come over for the occasion with husband Bill, son Ian and spouse Anne-Marie, and daughter Sally, to join Beryl's other sister Kay and her partner who were spending a long weekend with us. It was quite a riotous occasion and we had a lot of fun. (they didn't all stay here, Ian and partner stayed in Ste Maxime, and Sally in the B&B down from us.)

The combination of the heat, forest fires and visitors made it a tiring summer and for once we were not sorry when September came and the temperature dropped to 25C and the visitors had all gone. When we had a whole day of rain, it was even better! We went to see Caroline and family again in mid-September, this time spending a couple of days in Ferrara and then going with them to the village in the mountains south of Bologna where they have been spending the summer - Castel del Rio, known as Castello. In Ferrara we went with Caroline to meet the girls in school: they both go off at 8 am and are picked up at 4.30pm. Anna, being 6 shortly, is in the first year of big school and is learning math, writing and reading (in Italian of course), music and other subjects. Julia, being 4 (just) is in the kindergarten, but she is there for the long day as well. They have lunch at school and a rest in the afternoon, and like it very much. When they get home, Anna has homework to do, and then she wants to play games on the computer, which Julia is beginning to do as well.

While we were there, we hit the markets and the various shopping areas including the malls, to stock up on wine, parmesan and other essentials! On Friday, we got the girls after their lunch at 1.30pm and set off for Castello, stopping on the way to get wine at the Cooperative Vinicole at Imola and a small private vineyard near Borgo Tossignano on the road up into the mountains. The valley leading up to Castello is very pretty, somewhat like Tuscany but very unspoilt - one hardly ever sees foreign cars or foreigners. Beryl and I stayed in an apartment belonging to the local doctor, but we only slept there, going across the square to the house that Caroline was renting for the rest. In the evening we all went to a pizza restaurant in Castello. We met Caroline and Julia in one of the local bars for breakfast: cappucino and croissants or pastries. On the Saturday Francesco and I went up the valley in the car, parked it, and then walked up to a ghost village perched on a hilltop and abandoned at the end of WW2. It was a lovely walk and very interesting to see the place, unfortunately now falling into ruins. We then went off to Borgo (next significant town down the valley) to a restaurant where we had an excellent lunch at a very good price (60 euros for the four of us and two children, wine and water included!), calling in at a park on the sides of the river which runs down the valley where Anna and Julia swim in the summer, but this time they enjoyed playing in the mud! Then we visited the local market to buy fruit and veg at incredibly low prices ( a whole crate of eggplants for 4 euros!), and back home for cups of tea. On the Sunday we went with the girls to the local playground and walked around the town a bit, then it was time for us to leave for Plan de la Tour.

Since we got back from Italy, it has been quiet and we have been taking it easy. The weather has gradually cooled off (nice!) but we are still using the pool. The season for dinner parties and aperitifs is getting under way here and we shall be glad to catch up with our local friends on all that has happened during the summer.