Having packed up and bid farewell to Soja, the blue-eyed dog who had become our friend, we left Saint-Maximin and set out on a northerly drive that would not turn out as expected. Weather was marginal and when we reached the beautiful Lac de Sainte-Croix through which flows the Verdon river, gusts were so strong that simply standing outside on a beach to take a picture felt like a circus act. Strengthened by a venturi effect through the famous Gorges du Verdon, a fifteen-mile-long, deeply convoluted chasm that rivals South Africa’s Mpumalanga Blyde River Canyon, the wind erupted into the lake area with amazing violence, creating mini water spouts. At a bridge over the river, a steadying hand on the parapet was required in order to take a shot with the other hand, or else be blown back onto the road.

Gusty day on Lac de Sainte-Croix

From there, we climbed up the northern flank of the canyon and drove east on a vertiginously high road. Poor Marie was on the precipice side and alternated between staring briefly in awe and mentally retreating away from the void. I drove slowly and methodically, very grateful for almost non-existent traffic. The road is wide enough for two cars to meet head on, barely, but the exposure is such I basically never had a chance to look at the view.

I was humbled at the thought of our family having done this and worse in our old Peugeot, back in the days. Before we got a VW Kombi, my dad drove an antique black Peugeot 203. Even in the early- to mid-seventies, the 203 was a thing of the past and production had ended before I was born. It had the quirky looks of old war-time traction avant although it was a rear-wheel drive. Its front doors opened forward, the wipers met at the center, a crank could be fitted into the engine for a manual start if needed, and the four-speed transmission gear change lever was mounted on the steering-wheel column. If I remember correctly from agonizingly slow steep climbs in the Alps, shifting down required a proper double-clutch which would mean our model was non-synchromesh and at least twenty years old then. 

We criss-crossed the South and the Alps in that Peugeot. I am still puzzled by the efficiency our parents would have shown packing for those trips, fitting up to two small tents, four sleeping bags, backpacks, clothes, food, walking sticks and whatever else was needed for days on the road, into the very limited cabin space and a tiny rear trunk partially occupied by the spare tire. Our departure on vacation road trips to Italy and Austria would take place well before dawn, my sister and I being carried straight from our beds to the tiny backseat where we would curl up and lay until we groggily woke up, somewhere around the Italian border, where a doganiere once said to my beaming dad about our Peugeot: “Ma che bella macchina!”

The Peugeot 2023 and our tents

When the Kombi arrived, nickname Télémaque (Telemachus), the space and luxury it provided were almost too much to fathom. As mentioned in this story years ago, it had a homemade rear seat arrangement that could be turned into a wide sleeping platform. A net could be installed across the open side door and—on small rural roads and long before the time of rear seatbelt laws—we children would enjoy the view kneeling at the door with the wind in our face, like happy dogs picking up a million messages from the world’s scents all around.

Having vanquished the gorges, Marie and I stopped by the stunning river after a long switchbacking descent and walked around its bed for a while. I found a set of fresh canine foot prints on the sand which I am pretty sure were that of a wolf. The paw size was enormous by any dog standards, the recent prints were no older than that very morning as it had rained hard in the night, no accompanying human feet could be found anywhere and upon reading about it online, wolves have indeed made a come back in the area.

Verdon

At that point we reassessed the weather. We would have to branch east again pushing on towards Mount Cheiron and Coursegoules, but menacing storm clouds were drenching those peaks in heavy rain and the temperature was hovering around four degrees Celsius, threatening to cause icing or snow as we climbed higher. Google reported at least one road closure, possibly because of heavy snow fall. I decided that narrow and winding up-and-down mountain roads in an unfamiliar car with questionable all-season tires and in heavy storm weather was not my idea of a good time–Côte d’Azur or not–and executed a graceful retreat towards the south, an enormous detour in the name of safety.

After torrential downpour on the A8 highway, bypassing Antibes once again and bifurcating north in Cagnes-sur-Mer, we eventually arrived in Vence and navigated through the suburbs towards our Airbnb. It was located a few kilometers away from the old town, on an amphitheater of sparse residential neighborhood. We picked up our key and drove, once again, up a steep alley, parking up against the main two-level house. Our space was on the lower level and decently private, and it opened up towards Vence and the nearby Baou des Noirs and Baou des Blancs peaks.

Baous des Noirs and Saint-Jeannet

A baou is a hilltop with a somewhat flat summit. Four such baous towered over my youth. They are a first continental hiccup beyond the shoreline, prelude to the magnificent rise of the mighty Alps far behind them. Mere bumps in the landscape, the baous have guarded Côte d’Azur through the ages. Baude, Saint-Jeannet, Noirs, Blancs, the last two are named after opposing brotherhoods of penitents, the whites and the blacks–referring to the color of their robe–and this might go as far back as the Middle Ages.

We spent the next rainy day in the vicinity, and here I will stray away from chronological accuracy slightly for the sake of homogeneity. We explored the old Vence and also nearby Saint-Paul-de-Vence, where I had a rendez-vous with a cannon. One of my favorite childhood pictures, scanned from the yellowing photo album our mom has kept for all these years, is that of yours truly, diaper-aged, sitting on an authentic enormous cannon in what had been transmitted through oral tradition to be Saint-Paul-de-Vence, and I had every intention of finding it.

Saint-Paul-de-Vence

Saint-Paul-de-Vence is an idyllic village in l’arrière pays, nested on a promontoire which  juts out past the hill Vence sits on, towards the sea. The escarpment it is perched on is so sheer, no expansion was possible and like most small French villages, Saint-Paul has not changed much–although it now seems to have become a highly touristic hot-spot for art galleries.

The small villages of Côte d’Azur are extremely picturesque with their narrow streets, cobblestones, old and low doors, wooden window blinds and the alternance of light and shadow. Remnant of another age, the alleyways are incredibly tight, often closed to vehicles and the houses are so old, it is tricky finding a true vertical line to balance a shot or correct it in post-processing.

Old Vence street

We zigzagged through the maze of tiny passages under light rain, peering down the open view to a cemetery where painter Chagall rests on the easternmost lower step, but no cannon came forth. As we were leaving, Marie mentioned “the small one” by the entrance, which we had walked past and I had not even paid attention to. In a last-ditch, I circled back, found the minuscule cannon in a dead end pointing at nothing, stared, scratched my head, then whipped out my phone where I accessed Google Photos to check on the original. My jaw dropped. The arch above, the shape, stones in the wall below, all features matched. I had found my cannon.

Except it was so much smaller than I had imagined. Of course, being just over a year old in the original shot, I had been able to ride the improvised horse in total glory while it seemed gargantuan. It also turns out the photographer–my mom or dad–had cleverly picked a judiciously low angle, not so easy to do as a side wall was in the way, making my perch look higher. I defiantly hoisted myself up, posed and asked Marie to record an “after” for posterity, and I still crack up looking at that image.

Yours truly with a cannon, then and now

The relocated Lacan cannon, it turns out, goes back to the fourteenth century before our barbaric twenty-first, when a certain François 1er, King of France, battled Emperor Charles Quaint in Italy. The French won that battle and the cannon is named after a Saint-Paul captain. There is also a rather hilarious story about a group of Vençois attempting, much later, to steal the cannon as theirs and being fired at by said weapon loaded with cherries by the defending Saint-Paul owners.

The following morning, Marie had a writing deadline and I did a recon’ into Antibes, but I will save this for last. For a few days we then dealt with temperamental weather the best we could and risked a short hike near the Col de Vence. A col is a pass, this one over the baou range. Coming from the coast at a steep angle, the road culminates at the col and drops back down into a momentary plain before rising again towards the next mountain Cheiron at the foot of which, nestled high on a slope, is tucked the deserted hamlet of Coursegoules. We picnicked on a village bench there in light drizzle, watching cows graze on the steep slope across from us. My family tales recall a night when we had planned on hiking up the Cheiron after dusk to bivouac in the open, but someone saw a very strange light zoom across the night high above us, and with UFO’s being on everyone’s mind in those days, we conservatively decided to sleep in the Kombi. 

Coursegoules

Only one objective remained, and it would be the culmination of that trip: visiting Antibes after half a century and the subsequent unavoidable drift and morphing of my childhood memories. Of all the questions that haunted me, one stood at the forefront of my travelling consciousness: what would remain? Of the memories. Of the places I had known and called mine. Of the magic. Of the timelessness. Of the beauty I had somewhat appreciated even as a child. Of the person I had been then. Of me now, after the rain.

To be continued.

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