Sunday, October 17, 2004

In the Eagle's Nest

These days it is a place of tourists, but for more than two thousand years it has served as a vantage point in wars, a haven from plunderers, and was once even a prize for services rendered.

Gourdon is perched on a mountainside more than seven hundred metres above Nice in the south of France. The Nid d'Aigle restaurant has to have the most extraordinary view of any place I have ever eaten in. Well worth the fairly scary last couple of kilometres driving a big van up the mountain to the village built around a medieval castle.

(What the heck: I've just found out this week that I'll be driving a truck up on Mount Etna in Sicily in a couple of weeks, so 'scary' will probably take on a whole new meaning.)

The number of little streets that manage to snuggle together on the outcrop is quite extraordinary and the buildings that they struggle through are beautifully maintained. There is a resident population, but the daily hordes of tourists must outnumber them by many multiples. Every day.

The first recorded 'tourists' were the incomers building their Provincia Romana, incorporating in it the 'Gordo' wasteland of which modern Gourdon was an eyrie overlooking the valley of the river Loup. Those especially keen of eye could watch for pirates or invaders in the foreign sea rolling into what is now the modern port of Nice. When the Romans finally departed they left behind the corruption of the area's name that became the Provence of today.

That there was a Gourdon chateau stronghold several centuries before Paris pulled itself out of its smelly gutters to become the beginnings of a cultural capital is probably a thought that modern France doesn't make much of. But it was long before then a place of refuge for the Loup valley residents from rampant Frankish kings and invading Saracens.

The basis of today's village and fortifications was set in the 12th century by the Counts of Provence. Later it was a place of conflict between Frenchmen in the Wars of Religion. Finally, as a reward for services as Attorney General to Henry IV, Louis de Lombard was granted titular ownership of the domain of Gourdon along with enough money to restore and maintain it.

In more recent centuries the castle and its surrounding houses survived through the French Revolution, the War of Austrian Succession, and two world wars (its dead in those latter well commemorated), and today all 'invaders' are welcomed.

It IS very touristy, with shops in virtually every building aimed at parting visitors from euros as quickly as possible in what I'm sure are pretty short 'occupations' by each coachload. Perfumes and glassware seem to the be key things for sale, one of which makes sense enough as the area of Grasse through which I had driven is the perfume capital of France.

Some visitors don't even set foot in the place, though. This is an area also much loved by those mad enough to hang from flimsy aluminium frames held in the air only by enough textile to perhaps make one woman's evening dress. In some versions, not a lot more than a miniskirt, even. The Nid d'Aigle restaurant appeared to hold a particular fascination for one such birdman as he swooped and soared on the updrafts only a score or so metres from where we quaffed carafes of local wine and munched on an excellent beef stew.

It is one of the downsides of my job that I only get a bare taste of the many interesting places I get to. And in turn can also only give tastes to my readers here. But I'm working on changing that. I'll be back down here in two weeks' time on another overnight gig, this time testing the new Golf GTi. But as I'm scheduled to go to Sicily three days later for my truck date on Mt Etna (which, by the way, has been on its third eruption of the millennium for the last six weeks), I'm going to stay in Provence over the weekend and get to know it a bit better than in the dozen hit-and-run visits I've done over the last half-decade.

I'll probably even get more work done than by flying home and out again. After all, with an AlphaSmart Dana laptop alternative and a bottle of the local wine in a harbour cafe terrace in the last of the autumn Mediterranean sun before winter chills down there, work is a different word.

There will probably be someone up in Gourdon looking out over the valley of the Loup, watching the sea roll in to rock the boats in front of me wrapped in tarpaulins and waiting for their owners to come back from wherever they migrate to until next year's heat returns to Provence.

Heading down from what is already a taste of the damp chill of an Irish winter, I'll be quite happy with whatever residual warmth I get down there. Besides, even for a day, I'll also have a Sicilian volcano to look forward to.

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