From Toulon we drove east brushing the foothills of the Chaine de la Sainte Baume mountains, through one-street towns like La Valette, Soulies-Pont, Cuers and Pierrefeu.
I told Azure I really look forward to the day when I meet a Frenchman who says, “I’m from Toulon,” and I say, “Oh! We were in Toulon!” and he says, “Well, actually I’m from a really small town an hour outside Toulon that nobody’s ever heard of,” and I’ll say, “What’s the name of the town?” and he’ll say, “Les Mayons,” and I’ll say, “We’ve been there!” and he’ll buy me a pastis.
From those foothills we crossed a valley and entered a different mountain chain called the Massif des Maures and drove up a valley to Collobrieres, a town that’s crowned itself capitol of hazelnuts, I think. There were little pictures of nuts everywhere, stores sold nut butter and so on. It’s a small town on a small river with a small 12th century single-arch bridge that’s still used as the main road for cars. It’s a really small bridge.
We went into the local bar to grab a hot chocolate and it was about a dozen men and Azure and me. There was a guy at the table next to us looking at the horse racing schedule in the paper and once he’d made his choices he called rudely to the bartender to come over and place the bets electronically for him. The bartender did it, then the guy left the bar. Then he reappeared outside in the window next to me smoking a cigarette and watching the race on the TV above my head.
The room next door was a hopping restaurant (in these small towns there seems to be only one restaurant where everyone goes) and at about 2:00pm the waiter called in through the doors, “25 cafes!” The bartender gave a look – he only had one espresso machine. Someone in the bar chimed in with, “Make it 26!” which drew laughter.
We drove farther up into the mountains and followed a sign for “Notre Dame des Anges” (Our Lady of the Angels), and the road kept going up and up, riding the ridges of hills. Finally it looped around the highest hill and dropped us at the steps of a sanctuary built at the crest in 571 A.D.! From the sanctuary you could see both the Alps (which we actually couldn’t see because of trees) and the Mediterranean 20km away. The sun was SO bright, I was able to shoot pictures of Azure laying on the ground with her helmet on, exhausted from the ride, at 100 ISO on f22 with no problem.
The inside of the sanctuary had a little natural light from a (dirty) skylight and the blue walls were covered in relics and plaques that people had sent as thanks for their miracles. It was one of the odder churches I’ve seen and I’m glad I got some good pictures.
We walked from the dark sanctuary into the bright courtyard and I had to shade my eyes. A man walked right in front of me and I turned to look – he was a young black monk in a violet robe and he stopped in the shadows, his body curved in front of a wooden door. The top of the door was round and he was trying to unlock the door with his set of old keys. His skin was a beautiful smooth brown like hazlenut butter, like the color of the wooden door, and I decided I had to ask if I could take his picture. He hesitated, smiled and said, “I’m sorry, no.” Azure and I learned our lesson – never ask. It’s a picture I’ll remember, anyway.
From Notre Dame des Anges we descended the other side of the Massif des Maures and hit the town of Gonfaron, took an immediate right and went back into the mountains through Les Mayons. We had trouble finding the road to get back in, but once we did we were rewarded – the sun was getting low (it was about 4:30 and we were on the Northeast side of the mountains) so there was orange light to compliment the spectacular views of the valley. In addition, the road went from paved to dirt so suddenly there wasn’t even that gray-black strip of asphalt we usually have to tolerate, instead it was just many different shades of orange and brown leaves, dirt and wood.
The road got rougher and we kept climbing higher. Soon we could tell that the road was in such bad condition that either they had never paved it or it had been unrepaired for decades. We passed several private property signs and by the time we suspected we weren’t allowed to be where we were, we were too deep into the drive to turn around.
We kept driving and bumping and after half an hour my heart was racing some, I’ll admit. I was worried what would happen if we got a flat tire right before sunset when we hadn’t seen another car on the road, hadn’t seen another person for 10 kilometers and we weren’t convinced we were even going the right way. We came to a five-way intersection of dirt and torn-asphalt roads. The signs were all faded and I didn’t trust they were still pointing in the right direction. We decided which road to go on based mostly on where we figured we shouldn’t go, and we headed west.
The road remained dirt and we started seeing a house here, a fence there, and when we turned a corner there were two guys digging a rock out of a hillside.
“Hi, can you tell me which way to the D39?”
The guy didn’t want to give me a straight answer, then finally said, “You know, this road is forbidden to vehicle traffic, it’s private.”
“I know, I’m sorry, we’re honestly lost and we’re trying to leave, I’m sorry.”
“Where are you trying to go?”
“Toulon, eventually, but right now we’re going to Collom… Collombro…”
“Keep going straight, the road will take you to the D39.”
When we finally got back to the paved highway there was a sign facing anyone entering the dirt road, “This road is forbidden to vehicle traffic under penalty of lawsuit.” Yikes. I think the people back in those hills really tried to protect their privacy, to isolate themselves from everyone else. When I think of people like that I imagine them to be loners or Unabomber types… different. But these guys were completely personable and eventually kind. They looked normal. They could have been anyone we’d have met in Toulon or Nice.
We finally wound our way out of the mountains and back to Toulon. We hit a supermarket and made a picnic, then got in line at the ferry terminal for an overnight boat to Corsica.