Friday Fun: Literary Villas in France

It’s been roughly a century since the French riviera and countryside were discovered by foreign writers. Here are a few of their villas and chateaux for your envious gazes…

Chateau de Charry, patrimoines.
Chateau de Charry, patrimoines.

After his separation from Angelica Bell, Bunny Garnett (former lover of Angelica’s father Duncan Grant) spent the rest of his days at this chateau in the south-west of France.

La Bergere, Cassis. Painting by Vanessa Bell.
La Bergere, Cassis. Painting by Vanessa Bell.

Vanessa and her family spent every summer in Cassis in the south of France. Virginia Woolf also visited them there.

Villa Mauresque, Cap Ferrat.
Villa Mauresque, Cap Ferrat.

Somerset Maugham lived in this spectacular villa near Cap Ferrat for over thirty years, until his death in 1965. It was remodelled and renovated for him by American architect Barry Dierks. Everyone who was anyone visited Maugham here: writers such as T.S. Eliot, Noel Coward, Ian Fleming but also political figures, including Winston Churchill. It is now a boutique hotel.

Vila Picolette, from
Vila Picolette, from

The villa where F. Scott Fitzgerald allegedly wrote ‘The Great Gatsby’ was up for sale in 2012. Although the Fitzgeralds moved in and out of several villas on the Mediterranean, the “price upon request” (read: an arm, a leg, and your first born) property in Cap d’Antibes boasts those delightful unnecessaries found in 19th-century homes: staff accommodations, pool terraces, a sauna, portholes, and “immaculate” gardens.


Above, the kind of hotel Rosemary might have stopped at on the French Riviera in the first part of Tender Is the Night.

And finally, this little treasure below. I could not establish any literary connections for it, but it’s in Provence near Avignon, it looks fabulous and it’s available for rent. When I have my next $9000 or so to throw away spend, I will stay a night or two there, invite all of you writer friends over and then it will have us as its literary connection!

Chateau Ventoux, from
Chateau Ventoux, from

Friday Fun: Converted Barns

Barn conversions are very popular not just in France, but all over the world. Here are some examples:

Farmhouse annexe in Switzerland.
Farmhouse annexe in Switzerland.
Typical Gessien barn, France.
Typical Gessien barn, France.
Traditional farmhouse in Ain, from Ain Tourisme.
Traditional farmhouse in Ain, from Ain Tourisme.
English barn, from Spirit Architecture.
English barn, from Spirit Architecture.
American barn with a modern twist, Pop Sugar.
American barn with a modern twist, Pop Sugar.
Traditional barn conversion, from The Telegraph.
Traditional barn conversion, from The Telegraph.
Renovated stables, from Le Bon Oeil.
Renovated stables, from Le Bon Oeil.

I can’t help hearing my grandmother’s voice, clucking somewhere above my shoulder: ‘Tsk, tsk, why would people want to live with cows and pigs?’

Cleaning the Palate with Two Unusual Books

lesignorantsÉtienne Davodeau: Les ignorants. Récit d’une initiation croisée

Davodeau is a French author/illustrator of BD, Richard Leroy is a small-scale producer of dry white chenin in the Anjou region of the Loire valley. The project is very simple: they spend a year together, learning from each other about vineyards, grapes, the soil, but also about books, writing and drawing, storytelling. Wise and witty words and illustrations ensue about the world of publishing and bandes dessinées, and a down-to-earth view of the wine-making world. We find a vivacious exchange of ideas (sometimes confrontational), two adorable strong-headed main characters and simple drawings that give you room to breathe and enjoy.

The 'real' Richard Leroy in his vineyards, from
The ‘real’ Richard Leroy in his vineyards, from

A complete surprise and a delightful book that left me with a long TBR list of graphic novels and an even longer list of wines to try! I also like the humble premise of ‘ignorance’ about each other’s profession, with both friends eager to learn from each other.

The book has been translated into English under the title ‘The Initiates’ by Joe Johnson, published by NBM Publishing.

Wendy Cope (ed.): The Funny Side

This is, as the editor explains, a very personal selection of 101 humorous poems – not funny poems, not light verse, no long essays about definitions, simply poems that have amused Wendy Cope at some point in her reading and writing life. Some of them are laugh-out-loud funny, some are more droll or curious. Some are very well-known indeed (such as the limerick ‘There was a young bard of Japan’ or Dorothy Parker’s summary of suicide methods), others are a pleasant new discovery. Finally, there is a third category, those that leave me with an ‘Oh, is that all?’ feeling of disappointment. But that’s fine, because we all find different things amusing.

funnypoemsMy personal favourites are (unsurprisingly perhaps) on gender themes or mocking the life of organisations: May Swenson on ‘The James Bond Movie’, Liz Lochhead’s ‘Men Talk’ and Simon Armitage’s ‘Very Simply Topping Up the Brake Fluid’ (anyone who’s been patronised at a garage will love that one) for the first, Julie O’Callaghan’s ‘Managing the Common Herd’, Hugo Williams’ Desk Duty’ and Gavin Ewart’s ‘The Meeting’ for the second.

But, for a taster, I’ll share two very different poems in their entirety. Facetious? Perhaps, but they brightened up my day.

Scintillate by Roger McGough
I have outlived
my youthfulness
so a quiet life for me

where once
I used to

now I sin
till ten
past three.

Alma Denny: Mrs Hobson’s Choice

What shall a woman
Do with her ego,
Faced with the choice
That it go, or he go?



Friday Fun: Chateaux from the Haute-Savoie

I found a lovely book at the library about the castles of the Haute-Savoie area around Geneva, each with a photo, a brief description and its often troubled history. Here are a few favourites – maybe I need to start a To Be Seen pile to go with my To Be Read pile.

Château de Coudrée on Lake Geneva, From website.
Château de Coudrée on Lake Geneva, From website.

Château de Coudrée

Formerly accessible only by boat, this chateau was of strategic importance in the long-lasting battle for dominance in the area between the Duke of Savoy and the Counts of Geneva and Faucigny. It has a literary connection too. In the 18th century, the Italian poet and dramatist Vittorio Alfieri was a guest here, together with his mistress, the Duchess of Albany (wife of Bonnie Prince Charlie).

Chateau de Ripaille, from
Chateau de Ripaille, near Thonon, from

Chateau de Ripaille

The initial settlement here dates from the Bronze Age. Then, turn by turn, this spectacular natural setting became the site for a Roman villa, a medieval hunting pavilion, the preferred residence of the Dukes of Savoy, a priory, a battleground between the Bernese army and the Savoyard, a chartreuse monastery and the prize given to one of Napoleon’s general for years of faithful service.

Chateau de Thuset, near Thonon. From website.
Chateau de Thuyset, near Thonon. From website.

Chateau de Thuyset

Well hidden from the main road by the trees and parkland surrounding it, this fortified mansion dates from the 15th century and has been inhabited continuously by the same family, the de Foras, since 1688. It also houses a rich collection of heraldic documents.

Chateau de Thorens, from website.
Chateau de Thorens, from website.

Chateau de Thorens

Just to the north of Annecy lies this beautiful castle, which is sometimes mistaken with the Chateau de Sales (which belonged to the same family and was situated only a few hundred metres further). Sales was destroyed by Louis XIII in 1630, but this castle has remained in the possession of the Sales family (who boasts a number of bishops and even a Saint Francis of Sales within its ranks) ever since. It was actually considered a hotbed of intrigue, abuses and betrayal back in the 15th century, so it was seized from its original owners by the Duke of Savoy and given to the Prince of Luxembourg instead. The Sales family were vassals of the Luxembourgeois princes.

I hope this has given you a taste for the complicated and often bloody history of this region, plus a feel for its magnificent landscapes and architecture. Myself, I am surprised that quite a few chateaux still seem to be privately owned (all of the above except the first one, which is now a hotel/restaurant) – surely they cost a bomb to maintain! And they are not even all open to seasonal visitors to make ends meet, as many English palaces are.

As for me, well, you know I’d be content with a simple little gatehouse, such as this at Chateau de Nacqueville (not in my region, unfortunately):



There Goes the Neighbourhood…

fete_des_voisinsFriday 29th May was the Fête des Voisins here in France – an initiative designed to help everyone get to know their neighbours better. In our little close we already know each other quite well (the children play together in and out of our gardens all the time), so we decided to avoid the large-scale affair organised by the Mairie and take out tables, chairs and the BBQs just in front of our houses. We had a lovely time eating, drinking and chatting. And for my family of relative newcomers to the area, we also discovered a little more about local history.

For this crime fiction fan here, I was fascinated (and slightly queasy) to discover that one of the most notorious murderers in France had lived (and killed) in our neighbourhood.

OMSJean-Claude Romand is an impostor and murderer, born in 1954 in the Jura mountains. Having failed to pass his second year exams at medical school in Lyon, he began to lie to everybody around him (including his parents and his wife). He never qualified as a doctor but pretended to be a specialist at the World Health Organisation in Geneva, participated in the local (admittedly, transient) community in this area and spent his days studying medical journals and travel guides to maintain his deception. He lived a luxurious lifestyle as befits somebody working for an international organisation by convincing friends and relatives to entrust their savings for him to ‘invest’ in Switzerland.

Romand and his family,
Romand and his family,

He kept up this double life for nearly 20 years but, when he was in danger of being exposed in 1993, he killed his wife, their two young children, his parents and their dog, and also tried to kill his mistress (who was asking for her ‘investments’ back). She managed to escape. He set fire to his house – which is on the corner just at the end of our road – to make it look like a suicide attempt, but was arrested and finally sentenced to life imprisonment in 1996. However, he has been so well-behaved in prison, impressing his fellow prisoners, guards and parole board with his sober, mature ‘doctoral’ manner, that he will be released some time this year.

French author Emmanuel Carrere corresponded with Romand in prison and wrote a book based on the case, L’Adversaire (The Adversary). There has also been a film adaptation of it, with actor Daniel Auteuil playing the main character.  It’s a story that continues to fascinate with its sheer audacity: one other French film and a Spanish film were also loosely based on his life, while some UK and US TV crime series have also used his story in a couple of episodes.

What was interesting, however, was seeing how the local neighbourhood is still traumatised by the event, after more than 20 years. His former friends and neighbours still cannot believe that they never suspected a thing. His wife was working at the local pharmacy and was well liked, the children went to the Catholic school nearby. Romand himself participated in meetings of medical associations (except when there was any WHO involvement). A friend once tried to contact him at the WHO but was told there was no such name on their phone list: he put it down to the fact that he was a specialist, possibly working on a short-term or freelance contract.

What people cannot understand is why he put in so much work and effort to maintain a deception, when he could have just as easily worked for real. Yet in an area where so many people stay on short-term contracts and then move on, where luxury can seem to be the norm, where you are on the border between two countries and their respective legislations and taxation systems, it was so easy to succumb to the temptation of a life of ease and to slip through the cracks.

RomandhouseThere was some talk initially of pulling down the cursed house where those events took place, but it has been rebuilt and there is a family living there who are the descendents of the original landlord. (Romand was renting the property and was not always able or willing to pay the rent. The landlord himself died in a suspicious fire in the caravan where he was living, but it has never been proven that Romand was involved.)

Of course there are conspiracy theories that say it’s too unbelievable for Romand to have duped so many people for so long, and that he did in fact work for the WHO and know many high-level politicians, as he claimed. He knew too much, so he had to be silenced. Although, in that case, surely it would have been easier to just kill him instead of everybody around him?

So, yes, get to know your neighbours, but can we ever really see beyond the carefully painted façade?


Friday Fun: Provence in the Spring

Just back from a business trip to the South of France. I didn’t have much time to stop and smell the flowers or take pictures, but I couldn’t resist a few images of sun-bathed bliss and mountainscapes along the way.



Relais du Grand Logis, Mirabeau.
Relais du Grand Logis, Mirabeau.

The hotel where I stayed is a former coaching inn dating from the 17th century in the small village of Mirabeau on the Durance river, on the outskirts of Aix-en-Provence.

I sat and read on a bench  under the plane trees, with a waterfall sussurating in the background.
I sat and read on a bench under the plane trees, with a waterfall sussurating in the background.
Too early to use the swimming pool, but plenty of sun...
Too early to use the swimming pool, but plenty of sun…
You can walk for miles among the vineyards and hills.
You can walk for miles among the vineyards and hills.

Now I dream of returning there for a holiday… or maybe organising a writing retreat?

Comparing Reading Cultures

Every three years or so the literary magazine Livres Hebdo  in France does an IPSOS survey of not just its readers, but the wider French reading public. The latest edition of this survey (April 2014) reveals that reading remains the second favourite leisure activity of the French (after ‘going out with friends’). 7 out of 10 French read at least one book a month and about half of them claim to read every day.

However, e-readers have not made that much of an inroad yet into French reading habits. Its popularity has grown only by 3% in the last three years.

And what are the favourite genres? Crime fiction (known as ‘polars’) tops the list, unsurprisingly, followed by spy thrillers, self-help books and historical essays/biographies.

So, are there any causes for concern? Well, the French admit that reading does seem to be a pastime associated with the middle classes, the better-educated and economically better off. This finding holds true in the survey of reading habits in England commissioned by Booktrust UK. In fact, there has been talk in Britain of a ‘class division’ in reading culture, with a clear link between deprivation and lack of reading enjoyment.

But perhaps the English are further down the road of using digital media to do their reading. In England 18% of people never read any physical books, while 71% never read any e-books. A quarter prefer internet and social media to books, nearly half prefer TV and DVDs to books. Only 28% of people in England (and I think it’s important to point out that this data is only for England, not for the UK as a whole) read books nearly every day, so considerably lower than in France. Fitting in nicely with the stereotype of ‘highbrow French’ reading books with boring covers and impenetrable titles?

DSCN6650Worldwide surveys of reading habits do tend to confirm somewhat national stereotypes. Self-help books are popular in the US, while in the UK there is a marked preference for celebrity autobiographies and TV chefs. The Germans, meanwhile, prefer travel/outdoor/environmental books, while the French, Romanians, Italians seem to prefer fiction.

But the most interesting result may be found in Spain. Once the nation that read fewer books than any other in Europe, since the recession hit the country so hard, it seems that books have become that affordable luxury and has led to 57% of the population reading regularly. It has also become one of the biggest book-producing nations, bucking all the publishing trends. And what do they prefer reading? A very interesting mix of Spanish-speaking writers (including South Americans) and translations from other languages.

And what are we to make of a 2011 study from the University of Gothenburg showing that increased use of computers in children’s homes in the US and Sweden have led to poorer reading skills as well as less pleasure derived from reading?

At the risk of preaching to the converted, I leave you with a conclusion which has been replicated in multiple studies around the world and which refers to leisure-time reading (of whatever description):

People who read books are significantly more likely to be happy and content with their life.