Monday, April 16, 2012

La Sabraneque

It’s Tuesday afternoon and I am sitting on a castle wall high above the tiny Provencal village of Saint-Victor La Coste. Below me I can hear the murmur of people talking as they work and the sharp almost metallic sound of stone hitting stone. Above me are the partially restored ruins of the castle; beneath me are the town walls, the small village and mile upon mile of olives and grapes stretching out into the distance.

My fingers ache from the stone I lifted this morning, my shoulders are sore from the unfamiliar exercise of the day. Building dry stone walls is not my usual idea of a holiday, but this is what I signed up for – two weeks of volunteer work at La Sabroneque; an organisation using traditional techniques to slowly restore the town of Saint-Victor La Coste.

Created in 1969, La Sabraneque preserves, restores and rebuilds historic sites. Its first task was the reconstruction of the old village of Saint-Victor La Coste. This was done using the traditional building techniques of the area. This recreated village is stunning; its thick walls and solid, grey stone construction keeping out the worst of the summer heat. It is home for the next two weeks.

I, as hundreds of people before me have also, had volunteered for a two week programme in Saint-Victor La-Coste. This means living and working in the reconstructed town. There are fifteen volunteers today, working on two different areas; one a terrace in the old village, another on a dry stone wall closer to town. Three of the volunteers have been here before; they are the experts, not too removed from their own first experience not to remember that we have just arrived.

Dry stone wall building is, as you would expect, hard work. It’s not so much the physical labour, though that is exhausting, but rather the effort of finding rocks that fit, that are stable, which look right. The morning had been about learning what needs to happen to make a wall stand up. Exhausted and frustrated we finished for lunch, meeting again on long tables under trees just outside the kitchen. This was to become a hub for the group, where we shared beautiful meals of aubergine and tomatoes, zucchini and beans. We discussed the inherent problems with dry stone walling (mainly a lack of patience and skill).

After lunch was the option of helping in the afternoon. I declined and walked up the hill to the peace of the castle. I had recently been in a hotel in elsewhere in Europe, unlike most of my experiences it was overrun by tourists, a nasty, humourless place where people fought over breakfast rolls and pushed to the front of queues. The area, one of outstanding natural beauty was infested by tourists, offending the locals and scaring off responsible tourists. I travel a lot, I love doing it, but I cannot help but think of the impact that I am having on the planet. The thought of giving something back, of treating a landscape with respect was one that greatly appealed.

There is nothing untouched or wild about this part of France. History lies lightly upon it though. Down the road in Avignon you can feel the weight of ages. At Saint Victor, the stone walls could be as old as time or built last week. For forty years the locals have been used to people arriving from around the world, staying a while, drinking pastis under the cooling leaves of the tree outside the local bar or practising school-girl French in the corner store. They stop occasionally to talk about the latest wall, to offer some pithy advice, to see how we are doing. They are used to it.  

On the weekend we escaped the cool, thick walls of our accomodation, into the Provencal countryside, eager for that slice of Peter Mayle idyll. The lavender had been picked, but the fragranced lingered. We visited markets thronged with people. The tomatoes were huge, straggly shaped and not even vaguely reminiscent of the tomatoes at home, lying in their plastic coffins, ripened somewhere between the plant and the shop and tasting of water. The sausages were dried with thyme and oregano. The peaches dripped juice down our arms. Hilltop villages glowered down at the tourists melting in the midsummer sun. We critiqued walls, scoffed icecream and downed litres of water, wine and beer. There is something restful about small Provencal villages. Once you are away from the crowds on the hilltops you are quite quickly somewhere rural and quiet – apart from the ever present ring of stone against stone; and the cacophony of curses in seven different languages as stones were dropped and fingers scraped.

As the days went by I got better at placing stones on the wall, or at least thinking about what might go where. Under the infinitely patient watch of Pascal Parres – a stonecutter who has worked at La Sabroneque for 10 years - it started to make more sense and amazingly, to look more beautiful. It started to be less about me and my ideas on sustainable tourism and more about the jigsaw puzzle of the wall. I have rarely been as happy as when Pascal pronounced one of my stone placements “perfect.” Time slipped away in the routine of the days, work in the morning, lunch, optional work in the afternoon, time at the local bar, dinner, wine, petonque...

I'm not much better at building walls than before, but I have an appreciation for the craft, for experts in obscure fields who love what they do, and for artistry in stone.  


  1. Deja vu!....for me July 97 and 99. Need to go back.... or keep on looking for photos of "my" section of wall!
    Sandra Meyer, CT.

  2. Beautiful write up and nice photos! Thank you for taking me down memory lane - I was there in the spring of 94 and loved it!