A friend of ours spent his primary and middle school days in a small village in the Provence called Barjols. From his high-school days and after, he has lived elsewhere in France and abroad. He and his wife invited us to join them on a visit back to Barjols. He wanted to reconnect with a few of his school friends from 40 years ago. And he wanted to show his wife and us his old haunts and some of the villages and towns in the area. Including a more well-known village about 15 minutes from Barjols: Cotignac. The heritage of these two villages is in general similar; however, recent years have transformed one — for the better? for the worse? — and left the other untouched.
Barjols lies about 20 minutes inland from Aix-en-Provence and the main east-west highway between Marseille and Nice. The speed and development of that corridor evaporates as you drive north through quiet forests, fields, and vineyards to Barjols. We were surprised about how lush and verdant and hilly this territory is; it’s not as exposed and sun-baked as the lavender-field parts of Provence that we’d visited previously (past post).
Barjols is home to only about 3,100 people. There’s one block-long shopping street, a long triangular parking-lot / central “square,” and a few meandering narrow stone streets. And lots of little cars squeezed in every nook possible.
One of Barjol’s claims to fame is it very many public fountains. Barjols goes back to the Ligurians, who preceded the Romans. During most of the village’s history, up until very recently, everyone used these fountains for all their domestic-water needs. As our friend noted, these were places where you ran into your neighbors, and stayed caught up on all the local happenings; gossip, perhaps? The region around Barjols boasts many streams and water sources. From the 16th century to the early 1980s, the village was a renowned leather tanning center, thanks largely to its abundant water supply. Some of the fountains, and their associated laundry basins, go back at least 700 years.
Here are few glimpses of Barjols of the past:
You can go down the rabbit hole — or rabbit well? — of Barjols’ fountains and lavoirs (wash basins) if you wish. Or skip on ahead if you aren’t thirsty.
We arrived in Barjols a little before our friends, late on a September Tuesday afternoon. We sat ourselves at an outdoor table at one of the two cafés that face the parking-lot square. The plane trees overhead still held all their leaves; the air was cool and the sun clear. A large group of local folks, mostly men, were playing pétanque (or boules) nearby. While the buildings around us weren’t as colorful as what you’d expect from coffee-table books about Provence, the atmosphere was relaxed and simple.
Soon, our friends joined us. And then a few minutes later, and old friend of theirs from our friend’s primary school days also joined us. She has lived in Barjols her entire life. She had generously offered us her family apartment in the center of the village for our stay. As soon as they all arrived, various Barjols folks started passing by, saying hello, exchanging a word or two. A few times our friend recognized someone from his childhood; he jumped up, introduced himself, and we watched the light dawn on these 50-year-olds as they connected the dots. A couple mimed falling over from surprise. Charming.
During each of our three mornings in Barjols, we had morning espressos at a little outdoor café-bar on a smaller square. Each morning, there were three or four older local folks sitting, having coffees, chatting loudly, and greeting neighbors who passed by. Each morning a younger man with his little bulldog came by: “Bonjour” to and from everyone. The bulldog firmly halted at the front of the café and wouldn’t budge until his human let him run into say hello to the café hostess. Such is the rhythm of life in the village.
The village has all the ingredients of charm: quirky old buildings, irregularly shaped squares shaded by grand plane trees, little shops, hidden squares with unassuming fountains.
But it is evident that Barjols isn’t a rich place. Stains from years of humidity, heat and cold drape many walls. There isn’t much color; it’s mostly grey and muddy tan. A few of the shops on the main street — which is quite narrow despite it’s being the only way through the village for regional trucks, cars and tractors — date back to when our friend was 10 years old. There are a couple hair salons, a boulangerie, a convenience store, and a few real-estate offices. There’s a little Asian-food restaurant across from a little sushi restaurant; a bit of modernity has crept in. We had supper at the sushi restaurant with our friends’ friend on our first night. The owner / chef is a lively young gay man who is not Asian, and who prepares maki rolls to the local taste — with cream cheese, cucumber, chives, and occasionally a bit of fresh fish. It turns out that the young man with the bulldog is a local artist and the sushi chef’s partner. The village is small! Apparently everyone knows everyone else. A bit of a time warp, largely untouched by the international tourism of other parts of Provence.
Which leads us to Cotignac. Cotignac is about 17 km from Barjols, with a population of about 2,300. A bit larger than Barjols, it nestles at the base of some remarkable cliffs. Originally, even in prehistoric times, the village sat atop the cliffs, and the rivier La Cassole cascades down and through the cliffs. The villagers succeeded in redirecting the river to the side of the upper village. They then started using the water-carved caverns of the cliff for storage, defense and residence.
Today’s charming village of stone buildings spreads from the base of the cliff, with welcoming squares, plane trees and fountains in the little valley. From the first moment we arrived in Cotignac, we remarked at how tidy everything looks. The facades of the buildings seem a bit fresher and brighter that those of Barjols. The shops are more upscale and many are obviously geared toward visitors like us. There is more evidence of artsy, even post-hippy residents. When Mike and I commented on this, our friends grimaced and said, yes, it’s quite “bobo.” That’s bourgeois-bohemian; this doesn’t have a positive connotation. It’s about artsy — or feigned artsy — people, probably with a bit or quite a bit of money, who may lack authenticity, and who don’t lack pretension. That’s a bit harsh, but you get the idea.
Sounds like gentrification to us. Money — French and foreign — arrives because outsiders fall in love with the region and their idea of the lifestyle. Renovations start. Prices rise. More outsiders see photos on Instagram. Some locals become part of the new economy; some locals get priced out, and lose the close-knit community that they and their forebears had enjoyed.
We see a pretty village from the coffee-table books. We enjoy a tasty meal of local dishes beneath a tree canopy. Everything is comfortable — for us. Then we think of Barjols. Thanks to our visiting with friends who have ties to the village, we get to glimpse of community. The physical village is less attractive and shiny than gentrified Cotignac. Is Barjols more “authentic”? Or unable to “modernize” because it’s not (yet?) a tourist stop? Is Cotignac just as “authentic” because it’s a manifestation of today’s international experience-focused world?
We enjoyed meeting a few of our friends’ friends, and witnessing them savor memories and connections. And we enjoyed having lunch outside in the polished Cotignac square, and buying a few bottles of local rosé. Santé! That’s the toast, “To your health!” — wherever you are.
Our friends’ friend, who lent us her apartment, invited us all to a home-made traditional local dinner. The center of the meal was a fresh bowl of aïoli, which is a creamy garlicky mayonnaise. Her partner prepares meals for a few of the primary schools in the region, so he cooked up a huge array of vegetables, as well as some cod and sea snails. You dip whatever vegetable or fish that you like into the aïoli and enjoy; and don’t think about the calories. A feast!