Friday, February 25, 2011

The Salt Flats of Salin de Giraud and the Camargue de Provence

I was bored last Sunday morning. My car had finally been repaired by a local atelier de carrosserie after a late-night crash at New Year and was sitting peacefully and intact outside among the pine trees. Did I have the confidence to go for a long drive?


So I called a friend and we headed off to the Camargue in his car. One of the wonderful-fabulous-life-enhancing things about living in Provence is that more or less whatever countryside you want to get out into - barring glaciers and volcanic ash - is out there. Hills, mountains, sea, canals, garrigue, plains, vineyards, limestone caves, rivers are all within about an hour's drive. And the Camargue adds a unique wetland or marsh, stuffed with black bulls, white horses, pure-white egrets and pink flamingoes. Not forgetting the salt flats.

I've never found the lunar landscape of the saltflats terribly attractive but for some reason I decided they might be worth another look. I quickly packed up a picnic of a pain pavé, a large camembert, tomatoes, saucisson, rosé wine, ham, plus a hunting knife to cut everything up and we set off.

It was a warm sunny day (20th of Feb.) and the roads were clear down through Arles and into the Camargue. The marshy ground turns into salt flats or salins - saltworks - at Salin de Giraud and the sea water is kind of marshalled into shallow lakes by a system of old wooden locks with great metal nuts and screws that turn to let water in or keep it out.

There are huge hills of solid white salt along the coast with Mad-Max-style machinery, able to scale the salt and scrape it into containers I suppose. The machines are like angular insects, fragile-looking against the apparently lunar landscape. You can walk up to a viewing point and look out over these weird salt flats which appear blood red in certain light. On Sunday they were a wine red colour, looking in one direction, and glowed strangely yellow in another.

We left and went along to the long, very exposed beach nearby, to eat our picnic. The sun was strong and glancing off the Med right into our faces. A few couples were out walking their dogs, enjoying the February sunlight. Suddenly a couple on horseback arrived and hammered all the way down the beach, then returned. As they galloped, I saw the riders were two young women and they were obviously voltigeuses - acrobats who perform in circuses or other shows - as they swung themselves on and off their mounts, touching the sand then jumping back on, or balancing on one side of their horses with legs outstretched and an arm high in the air. One of the women performed a manoeuvre a bit like a handstand, and all this as the horses galloped hell for leather down the beach and back. It was beautiful to see.

For coffee, we went into Salin de Giraud. It's much more intriguing than I'd realised in the past. There are rows and rows of large terraces - identical houses which were built in the nineteenth century I'd say, for the workers in a local facory which used (and still uses) salt to make various household and industrial products. I guess originally the men also scratched up the salt from the salt flats - work now done by the stick-insect-y machines. I'll find out a bit more about the history though as it's not clear. I got talking to a young woman in the large bar/café there and she said that the houses were all built for factory workers not the saltworks. She was very young though and may not know the history. The bar/café itself was like a UK miners' welfare club - large, obviously built to take dozens of customers, with a long bar and - these days - a huge telly showing sport.

We walked around the village and it was interesting to see these rows and rows of homes, all identical. It showed very clearly that for the saltwork owners, or factory owners, the workers were just an undifferentiated bunch of Provencal guys. Not seen as individuals, there was no attemmpt to give them individual houses. Each house had a small identically-shaped shed in front of it and I guess that was for their tools. I had rather foolishly imagined that the salt flats' main purpose was to produce salt for people's dinner tables. Of course, most of the salt is used in the Alps, against the snow, and to produce industrial products. Only a tiny percentage ends up as refined salt to sprinkle in Provencal recipes.

There was also a large building from the same period which has been renovated but retains part of an entrance which still displays, almost obliterated, the words ecole ménagère. A school for maids. Presumably while the men were digging out salt or working in the factory their wives and daughters were learning to be maids, seamstresses, cooks and cleaners for the factory owner and managers. Certainly, on the edge of the village, by a pretty park, there are large houses with pleasant gardens which may once have belonged to the employers and foremen.

Returning home we decided to cross the Rhone by the little bac or ferry which takes a couple of minutes and costs 5 euros. The Rhone's not so wide here so I don't know why a bridge hasn't been built. It must be annoying for residents on the west side who need to cross every weekday for work in Istres, Martigues, Marseille or at Marignane airport. Or the petrol works in the Golfe de Fos. Again, I'm guessing but I think it may be to allow boats to pass to and from Port-St-Louis-du-Rhone. Otherwise, perhaps the guy making money from the bac is the local mayor's brother!

On the return journey we stopped for a while to look at the impossibly fragile flamants roses picking their way fastidiously through shallow water, dipping their curved beaks into the sea to fish out food. Some creatures just hark back to prehistory in their shape and form and flamingoes are among them. Cats feel very contemporary. So do sheep. They're animals man has manipulated and cross-bred for centuries. But tortoises, rhinos, elephants, lizards - they're creatures which are obviously as old as the hills and flamingoes have the same vibe. Their quirky movements, long curved necks and stick-thin legs seem to have evolved as slowly as the Camargue itself. As the sun set, they waded slowly into the distance, glowing pink, beaks bending to the water, legs making sharp angles to their feather-light bodies.

In the impressive terrain of Provence it was no surprise to see an immediate contrast in the heavy, solid black bulls which grazed nearby. Strange to think that these animals, so much more powerful than the flamingoes, are far more exploited. They're chased around the bull rings in Arles and end up in Intermarché, and then on Provençal dinner tables as saucisse served with aperitifs or as Gardianne de Taureau.

Yet even the flamingoes are used by the thrifty and industrious Provençaux, on cartes postales and to draw tourists. There is not much in Provence that isn't used to help people make a living. In the Camargue, from the black bulls to the pink flamingoes and from the white horses to the salt flats and the bac, pretty much everything is seen as a resource. Even the sand can be used to grow grapes. And the grapes are used for a light rosé wine which is perfect on a spring or summer's day whether you're sitting in a bar in Arles, watching voltigeuses on the beach or having a last look at the flamingoes as the sun goes down over the Camargue.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Tree Felling In Provence

I'm just watching a huge mature pine tree tumble outside my window. There - it's down. It's lying right across the dirt track which leads down to the village, barring the way for any vehicle that may turn up and need to pass.

On the other side of the dirt track, a friend's workman just moved his tractor forward a little to tug the tree away from the house as the tronconneuse or chainsaw severed its trunk.

Four tall pines will be chopped down today. I've been worrying about these trees for a few years now. On New Year's Day 2008 I woke up to find a massive pine had fallen across the driveway of the house. There'd been high winds in the night and I vaguely remembered stirring when I heard a loud thud. The pine could easily have hit the house but instead it lay dead on the gravel, inches away from my car - which it could easily have crushed - and completely barring my way off the property. Alone, with no chainsaw and no idea how to use one, I was pretty non-plussed. Luckily, a neighbour soon passed, on his way to his olive grove, and hopped out of his 4x4 with a chainsaw to hand. He buzzed the whole tree into firewood in about three minutes flat and asked for nothing more than a smile and a hug for his work.

After that, I began to worry from time to time about the trees around the house. Some are too young to pose a problem but a few are tall and mature and pose a threat. Several right outside my bedroom looked to me as if they could end up on my bed in a real storm. I got to the point where every time the mistral blew hard in the night I'd pick up my duvet and pillow and go and sleep on the sofa.

A couple of summers ago I asked my neighbour, Gregory, if he could chop them down. He has an elegage business which takes care of all the plane trees in town so he was equipped with all the necessary ropes, pulleys, machines, men and expertise - but he was too expensive. His quote for the work was over 1000 euros and I didn't have that to spare at the time.

So I carried on worrying and relocating to the living room during storms and high winds.

Today though, the work's finally being done. The men are sawing away as I write and although I dislike the idea of felling trees it's more disturbing to worry about them falling naturally and smashing through the roof...

There goes the second one. The first has already been sawn up and dragged aside. It'll make good firewood once it's seasoned, in the winter of 2012. When the men go this evening, I'll start to pile it up bit by bit, behind the winter 2011 pile. (Using properly seasoned wood is important - it gives out more heat and less smoke than wood that's unseasoned. And unseasoned wood, especially resinous wood like pine, creates sticky residue in the chimney. It's best to mix even well-seasoned pine with oak, beech, cherry and olive.)

Work stopped at midday, naturally, for lunch. We ate outside, just black olives from Nyons, bread, cheese, saucisson and red wine from Sablet. Eric, who's helping out, is from Frejus on the coast and told me how he regrets having to move inland. "For lunch I used to just catch a fish or baby squid" he said. "We'd eat outside all year round." It's February as I write and we're eating outside now but, for Eric, the cold months of November, December and January are hard to take. He left the Cote d'Azur because his wife wanted to live inland but they're now going through a divorce. He's about to take up a job looking after the animals in a large garden centre. "Cats" he said, "dogs. Fish, birds, rabbits, guinea pigs.." "No women?" my neighbour asked, jokingly. Eric shook his head vehemently. "I've had enough of women to last me a lifetime" he said. "I'd rather live with a bunch of tigers than a wife."

After eating, and drinking rather a lot of red wine (I was dubious about mixing alcohol with chainsaws but the men brushed that aside) the work started again. I'm now watching (and hearing - it's loud...) the two men sawing the third tree. My Siamese cat Coco has hopped onto the tractor seat and is looking at the men with disinterest. He loves vehicles of all kinds and always jumps onto or into any car, motorbike, van, tractor or trailer that arrives. The police called round a while ago to tell me my gipsy neighbours had been using my address as part of a tax dodge. I have no idea why they called really because they refused to give me any real information and left with a cheery au revoir, telling me not to worry. A minute after they drove off in their little van they returned to turf Coco out of the back seat. The same happened with the electrician who was halfway home when Coco stepped onto his shoulder from the backseat.

One or possibly two more pines to go and after that I'll be able to thumb my nose at high winds in the middle of the night. Well, I wouldn't do that - far too much respect for (or fear of) nature - but you know what I mean. I'll be able to sleep without being terrified of being crushed before dawn. The guys just gave me a thumbs up sign about the largest tree. They walked around it, had a bit of a confab, then attached ropes to it. Now the sawing is re-starting. Looks like the tree will soon be firewood.

Provence is like that very often. Locals take a problem, circle it, give it some thought and then put a rope round it and turn it to their advantage. 'That's not a tree waiting to smash through your roof' they'll say. 'That's a stock of firewood for winter.'
Not a bad approach.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Choosing Vines for Soil in the Vaucluse

So I have two vines that aren't growing well. They're on each side of my terrace and have struggled since 2004. One grows and produces plenty of leaf but few grapes; the other is stunted and won't grow at all.

I was given the address of a pépiniériste (nurseryman) at Caromb and decided to go and talk to him. He specialises in vines. A neighbour who wants to expand his little plantation of 20 vines decided to go with me. When we arrived on a Saturday afternoon the pépiniériste was trundling about tinkering with a small tractor, accompanied by a vast white Pyrenean mountain dog, the type used to chase wolves away from sheep.

We got talking and as the dog beat its tail against our legs and woofed a bit, I explained the problem. What variety of vine did I have, he asked? I didn't know. Behind him were rows of small, healthy looking vines and a large poly-tunnel with the door open. Another little army of vines was growing inside.

Never mind, he said. The issue was to find vines that would grow. Presumably I wanted raisins de table? Not much point having grapes that make wine if you only grow 2 vines. But did I want grapes at all? A sterile vine wold be pretty but wouldn't produce grapes so I wouldn't be bothered about wasps in late summer. Mmmm, I thought I wanted grapes.

OK, he said. What type of soil do you have? Well, I replied, it's in pine forest, it's rocky. Limestone.
Ah. If it's calcaire he said, it's necessary to know whether it's actif or not? I had no idea.

Vines are apparently sensitive to calcaire actif and, if you have it, you need to grow vine varieties that can cope with it.

My neighbour wasn't sure if the soil in the hamlet near my home had active limestone or not. He had a note of the vines that currently grow fairly well on his land and, looking at those, the pépiniériste said it was unlikely there was calcaire actif
in the soil. He wasn't prepared to recommend vines without knowing more about the soil though and we agreed to find out. A proper soil analysis would be too expensive he advised us but we could talk to local agriculteurs who would be sure to know. At this point an old chap wondered over to us. He had just about the most French look I've ever seen in my life - huge white handlebar moustache, wispy white hair, a weathered and crinkled face, kind twinkly eyes and a great big smile.

Papa, the guy asked him, is there calcaire actif in the soil at Velleron?

Papa didn't skip a beat. He shook his head and gave us a concise discourse on the soil composition of pretty much the whole of the Vaucluse. (He added a short digression on cultivating truffles.) Anyway, it turns out that where I live, there's no calcaire actif to worry about.

That cleared up one aspect of the discussion. Things then got a little more complicated as we discussed planting, pruning and the months when different varieties produce their grapes.

My neighbour had quite a lot of questions and the last one was whether the pépiniériste could note down a few suitable varieties for his land? He still had several things to think about and decide he said, but in the meantime he'd like a list to consider. The chap laughed and said that in his house he had a book around 500 pages long on vine varieties. My neighbour had to make a few decisions about the type of vine and grape he wanted and then, when he came back with the answers, he'd get the recommendations he needed.

We chatted a bit longer and found out that this nurseryman provides vines (grafted, but that's a whole other discussion) to vignobles growing vines across hectare after hectare. He's used to supplying hundreds and thousands of plants at a time and yet here he was taking time to inform and advise us when he stood to sell a few vines for 5 euros apiece!

That's one of the things I love about Provence, and France in general - the care and pride and attention that go into so many activities whether agricultural, culinary or purely social.

We thanked the chap and set off for Velleron, stopping briefly in Caromb for a coffee. The little café was in darkness but a woman was sitting outside and welcomed us. "It's the crisis" she announced cheerily. "I didn't have any customers so I turned the lights off."

"Well you can turn them on again now we're here" we said.

As we sat in the weak February sunshine drinking rather bitter coffee, two workmen arrived and had coffees too. They jumped back in their van to leave and reversed casually into the car behind them as people quite often do here. They gave it quite a bump. The driver beamed at us and signalled "It's OK isn't it?" Yes, we nodded. It's OK.
He'd only hit the bumpers.

I got home pondering the expertise of the pépiniériste. He supplies fig trees too - naturally, since Caromb is the home of the popular Caromb fig variety. And almond trees. I bet he knows as much about growing figs and almonds as he knows about growing vines and grapes. Having a magpie brain that flits too easily from one subject to another, I find that mastery of fields of knowledge really admirable. And, to me anyway, knowledge of the natural world is far more seductive than knowledge of, say, law or economics. There is something very substantial about knowing the land, the climate and vegetation. Which is partly why we use the term grounding, I suppose, to mean steadying or stabilising.

I'll probably never gain the really thorough understanding or experience that people here have of vines or figs, truffles or oysters, olives or olive oil - but I have come to understand how much complexity and richness there is in each aspect of nature in the Mediterranean. It's pretty overwhelming sometimes but certainly fascinating. And while it's sometimes frustrating to realise how little you know about a subject under discussion it's often a joy to discuss, listen and learn. And to admire the knowledge of people here who really know their stuff.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Provence - The Dark Side. Part 1: Suicide in Provence

People who holiday in Provence are often - understandably - seduced by its obvious charms. Particularly in summer, visitors to the region will find that almost an overkill of sensual pleasure is easily available. The markets, the cafés and restaurants, the olive groves, the bees humming drowsily in the lavender.... Add a two or three month dollop of hot sun and a swimming pool and it's clear to see why Pagnol's Jean de Florette spoke of finding Zola's paradise.

I'm all for that view of Provence. That's why I live here. I regard Provence in the way you regard a lover in those first dazzled months, except that the feeling has lasted over 30 years.

It was before I lived here though that I began to see a bit of the dark side of this area. And like anywhere populated by human beings, there is a dark side.

My first glimpse came a couple of decades ago when I witnessed friends break up. The husband ran a business converting clapped out old farmhouses into luxurious second homes for Brits. He and his wife had the clichéd "all" - beautiful children, beautiful home, beautiful bank balance, beautiful life. But having it all didn't stop him running off with another man's wife and destroying his family. Not long after, his wife committed suicide. (Never try this with paracetamol, or doliprane, by the way. You don't drift off to a dreamless sleep with a paracetamol overdose. You languish in hospital for a week or more, as she did, wracked with pain while your liver collapses.)

Now, divorce and/or suicide happen. Anywhere. But my impression is that there's quite a bit of both knocking around these parts. In posts to follow, I'll talk about local divorces, about prostitution in Provence and about inter-racial tensions between the indigenous French, gipsies and North Africans (or maghrébins.) I'll give alcoholism a shot too. For now, I'll stick with suicide.

Some time ago I mentioned to a friend that, as I live on my own in the countryside, it might be an idea to keep a gun in the house. Guns are all over the place here - every guy in the village seems to have one, for hunting - and I frequently come across cheery men with guns wondering around in the forest around the house.

"Only thing is" I told my friend "I don't know where to get one."

He threw up his hands, said "Come with me", and led me to a great wooden cupboard. Throwing it open he carefully lifted out four shotguns wapped in blankets, just as you see in turn-of-the-century films about the mafia. One had belonged to his father, for hunting. One was his own. Can't remember the history of the third and he acquired the fourth when a girl friend called him in distress one day because her father had committed suicide. Some time after arriving at her home to help deal with police and pompiers, my friend was handed the shotgun. "Please get it out of the house" the bereaved daughter said. "He shot himself in the head with it."

Last summer, an old chap arrived in the little hamlet near my home and stood looking at the houses for a while. There's a canal just below the hamlet and he trundled down to it, looking sadly into the water. One of my neighbours wandered over to chat to him and heard that his father had worked at the old gypse quarry before it was abandoned long ago. He'd lived in the hamlet where my neighbours now live. The chap recounted a short history of disappointment and sadness in his father's life and added: "I've never been back here but I wanted to see the place. He drowned himself in this canal."

Last winter when we were collecting our olives round here, we got news that a couple most of us know had not only broken up but that the woman involved had promptly killed herself.

And some time before that I had my own little brush with suicide on the dirt track by my home.

This is what happened. I was going through a divorce (as you do in midlife....) My much-loved partner of 19 years had a spectacular midlife crisis, became cruel and violent and ran off to Scotland with another man's wife. For a time I had to live in the unpleasant chaos he generated. One day I drove down the track to town and noticed a smart white car parked off to one side in the forest. When I returned hours later I noticed it was still there. Since clandestine lovers sometimes park there I didn't think much of it. The next morning though, I went into town again and the car was still there. I instinctively knew what that meant. Someone had hanged, gassed or shot themselves. For a second I thought of stopping. But knowing what I'd find, I drove on. I had enough to deal with and simply thought "That's the job of the pompiers. Someone will find him or her today but it's not going to be me." I felt sure it was already too late to help. In fact, I didn't even think of reporting it.

Later I drove home and the car was still there. A couple of hours later a neighbour came dashing round and thumped at the door. When I answered, he took a deep breath and said "So it's not you." The pompiers had found the person hanging from a pine tree but when they were stopped (naturally) as they went down the track with the body in the ambulance, all they would tell the neighbours was that 'a person' had hanged themselves. The neighbours concluded my divorce might have done for me. In fact, it was a man in his sixties. We never found out what drove him to kill himself. But clearly he'd found that even the beauty and light of Provence were not enough to make life worth living.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Time Travel: A Visit to the Archives in The Palais des Papes at Avignon

The Vaucluse here in Provence is an area, like many others I suppose, with a rich history when it comes to industry and agriculture.

When I first bought my home near L'Isle sur Sorgue, I realised there was a long history of olive cultivation on the land around the property. Everywhere in the surrounding pine forest there were young, untended olive trees that had struggled out of the roots and mattes of olive trees ruined by frost in the hard winter of 1956. The ruined olive trees are at even distances from each other and there are often straggly lavender plants nearby which, like the oliviers, have been wild for years. Presumably at some point after '56 the people growing olives and making olive oil left this hillside forest and abandoned their olive tree and lavender cultivation. But the story wasn't, and still isn't, clear to me.

The other part of the puzzle is that this is also an area which was quarried by Provencal people for centuries, for gypsum, to make plaster.

Near my house is an old gypse quarry which, like the olive groves, has been reclaimed by nature. Where local men once burned logs against the rocky quarry walls before scratching at powdered gypse to collect it, there are now just trees, song birds, wild flowers and mushrooms. And near the quarry is a small hamlet, the Hameau de la Parisienne, which once belonged to the quarry company or its workers and was rebuilt with incredible energy, and no formal knowledge of construction, by my (then-hippy) neighbours in the late 70s after it had fallen into ruin.

Now - I've tried to investigate this puzzle before without much success. It seems Provencal families have grown olive trees here for over 2000 years. The vast pine forest around my home, mixed with oak and other trees, grew up in recent decades. The land was once studded with healthy olive trees and pretty lavender bushes tended by people who - I assume - lived here rather than in the village and - I guess - kept sheep and goats and cats and dogs around them and carefully pruned their olive trees under the blue spring skies and collected their olives in winter just as I do with neighbours today. The wonderful exhibition at Arles in 2010 - Cesar - Le Rhone Pour Memoire had a map of ancient Provence which showed that people around here were busy growing olives and grapes 2000 years ago. (Not much change there then). A wonderful thrill ran down my spine when I saw that map in the Musée des Antiquités. It was in the room just next to the 2000 year old bust of a majestic Caesar (despite a chipped nose) which archaeologists had recovered from the Rhone riverbed along with hundreds of other Romans' possessions. On a spot more or less where my home is, there were quirky little drawings of grapes and olives, bringing home the sturdy continuity in human activity here since and before Roman times.

But. I've also read, in a book on the history of industry in the Vaucluse, that local people have 'quarried' gypse here for 9000 years, individual hands scraping it painstakingly out of the land to use in building.

So I wonder how, in recent times, in the 19th and 20th century, did the olive growers interact with the gypse quarriers? Were the olive growers put out of business by the killing frost in 1956? Did they just leave the area when irrigation made agriculture easier down on the plain by Isle sur Sorgue? Were olive growers families simultaneously involved in olive oil and gypse production? Or did the quarry company that eventually turned individual gypse and plaster production into a business in the 19th century somehow force the agricultural families out?

This week I went to the Archives at the Palais des Papes in Avignon to see if old documents would shed any light. It was an experience fairly typical of Provence - part charm, part beauty, part eccentricity.

If you know the Palais des Papes you may have seen the discreet little entrance to the Archives. You go up the stone steps towards the park and almost pass the door before you notice it. Inside, I climbed more steps and entered the ante-room to the Salle de Lecture. Apart from a couple of computer screens it was more or less Name of the Rose territory. A first-floor balcony runs round the room, packed with bookshelves and dusty books. Access is by a spiral staircase. The ceiling is made of huge old wooden beams. I was immediately conscious of my boots clicking loudly on the old traditional floor tiles. An ancient-looking archivist greeted me and asked what documents I was after. We had a long discussion about my topic... She then got me to fill out a long form, writing down most of what I'd already told her. Then she asked me to check the archive indexes and note the documents I wanted to read and gave me a crayon. "Thankyou" I said, pushing it back at her. "I've got a pen. I don't need a crayon". Gently, she pushed the crayon back at me. With a sweet smile she said: "It would be terrible if a pen leaked ink onto a unique historical record, don't you think?" I took the crayon.

I sat at the only table with the only other researcher. He was a very old man with wildly straggly white hair and a neatly clipped white beard. He sat in a wheelchair, gravely regarding a vast medieval book supported on one of those wooden book stands. It was hand-written, with dense writing and symbols and the pages were crumbling at the edges. I felt a bit envious - his book looked fascinating and I wanted to ask it was. Instead, I noted the documents I wanted to see and noticed he was glancing across at me. Then he leant forward and spoke in a calm voice: "You know it's nearly lunchtime?" he said. "You'll have to wait 2 hours for those."

Later, after lunch, I was ushered into the reading room. Here, you look down into one of the Palais's medieval courtyards, framed by buttery-yellow stone arches and columns. Another archivist took the note I'd made and brought my documents. He deposited them one after another - thumping great piles of paper tied up with string. I started to read.

In front of me at another table there was a couple leafing through old documents. The woman was silent but every so often the man, who looked like an old paysan, thumped the table or cursed - putain!
in a booming voice. The reading room 'invigilator' went over after a while and said politely: "Monsieur, I would just remind you that we are always quiet in the reading room. Silence aids concentration wonderfully. You have a marvellous voice but it carries!"

The old chap beamed at him and said proudly: "This voice is the result of wine, tobacco and a life spent in the open air with my goats." He promised to shut up.

I read offical and personal letters and legal documents from the 19th century which didn't contain the answers I was looking for. I found out that the old quarry close to home had been functioning as a business since at least 1850. There was no information on the buildings in the hamlet. Were they built when a plaster factory was added to the quarry? Were they originally farm buildings, bought by the quarry company to house workers?

An elderly archivist tried to guide me to an ancient map of the area. Scanned into the archive database, she was unable to find it. "I do hate this new technology" she said. "How does it work?" How it worked was immaterial really - when I displayed the image it was so faded that it could just as easily have been a diagram of someone's heart and lungs as a map of an old olive grove and quarry.

I learned a frustrating amount about the history of gypse and olive production in the Vaucluse that afternoon - enough to make me more curious but not enough to solve the puzzle. I'll now try the Isle sur Sorgue archives and possibly talk to Lafarge, the big French company which gradually swallowed up Provencal quarries in the 20th century.

As I left the fabulous archive at the Palais des Papes, the old goatherd looked up at me. I was struggling to re-tie the string round my fat bundles of paper. Somehow the string seemed shorter than when I'd un-tied it. I cursed quietly under my breath. The old chap beamed and nodded. Then he put a finger to his lips and whispered: 'Sssh!'