Monday, October 20, 2008



I would like to show you something that I appreciated about the towns & cities in France. I have no qualification to talk about this topic. I end with a few comments about South Africa.

This is Avignon where we started our French holiday. Notice that all the roofs are the same colour. The roof tiles vary from area to area in France but each area sticks to what is endemic locally so you have this uniformity. It is so different to the garish and clashing roofs that we have in RSA nowadays. I am going to try & show you how there are local traditions in France and they have been maintained. This gives each area and community an identity which persists from birth to death. Notice in the photos that follow that there is very little that could have changed in a lifetime. A great consistency throughout a lifetime.

I grew up in Somerset West. The town that is there is absolutely different to what it was in the 50s when I was a school boy and that applies to most towns in South Africa unless you get into the backveldt (boondocks).

A much smaller town, Sauveterre in the Bordeaux wine region right the other side of France. The tiles are more yellow here but they are all the same. Notice too that there are no modern tall buildings spoiling the harmony of the place.

Here is Roussillon in Provence where we walked. This is the place where red and yellow ochre was quarried for paint colour; you can see the colour of the cliffs below the town. And those are the colours they have used on their buildings so the town blends with the countryside. That is what struck me in France; how their buildings blended into the countryside.

This is the walk into the town with the natural colour of the earth there.

Closer view of the cellar burrowed into the red ochre.

This is inside the town. Just the colours of the countryside. Lovely.

In Lourmarin. The clay is different this side of the Luberon hills so the roofs are browner but they are all the same throughout the town and the walls are all painted the same colour. Notice how the Protestant ‘temple’ in the foreground matches the colour of the earth.

Another town close to Lourmarin.

Here we are right the other side of France in Segre. Here they have got slate for the roofs and pink walls are popular but pastel coloured shutters, windows and doors are not used whereas that was the norm in Provence. These things give the places an identity and it also gives the people and the communities an identity. We completely lack that here in our formal buildings and also in the RDP slums that are being built. The traditional tribal buildings in South Africa have wonderful community identities.

This is much further north in Brittany but it is still slate roof country. Here I would like you to notice how there are no huge names of the shops on the buildings. It is all low stated and sympathetic to the buildings. Notice too the flowers on the ‘street furniture’ (lamp posts and other hardware built into the streets), I was struck by this in France as you see them in all the towns and villages.

Check the plants here, Avignon down in the south.

Lourmarin in the south. Look at the plants but these are placed here by the owners of the buildings; they are not municipal plants. The residents are in harmony with the authorities.

Lourmarin again.

Lourmarin. Here is an outside restaurant. All over in Provence it was like this, sit outside and have your meal. Nice and warm down here. Avignon (and Lourmarin) is 44 degrees north whereas Cape Town is 34 degrees south so Avignon is quite a bit further from the equator. The wind does not blow like it does in Cape Town so this outside eating is very pleasant. But what this does is keep the people in touch with each other, you have not disappeared from view when you go for a cup of coffee or a beer or glass of wine; you are still with the general community while having your drink or food.

Tables & chairs outside again; in Uzes which is not far from Avignon. The start of our drive across country.

Another part of Uzes. We are out of Provence and it is noticeable that the windows and shutters are painted grey whereas in Provence pastel green and blue predominated.

This is Uzes again. In fact we had supper here later this evening. It is a creperie (pancake place but French pancakes which are thinner).

People having supper in the creperie. We were going to sit at the empty table on the right but it looked as if it was about to rain so we went inside.

And it did rain. Look at it pouring off the sunshade behind the young couple. But notice the public lifestyle. You are members of the community while having a meal like that.

We had supper in this Pizzeria in Sauveterre which is in the Bordeaux area. Notice how the buildings blend into a harmonious set because they are of similar height and colour and that name for the restaurant is about the biggest we saw in France. This is so different to what we are used to where the town center (this is a small village but it is the town square which is the major commercial part of the village) is an assault on visual restraint. Think of Bellville where the shops are in competition to see who can have the biggest and most garish advertising on the front. What does a resident identify with in Bellville, Solly Kramer’s bright sign? Compare that to what we found in France where the villages & towns are built for people and the shops are there to serve the people not treat them like product to be lured into their commercial traps.

This is something we saw all over Avignon but I don’t remember seeing anywhere else. The blanked off window has a picture of somebody significant associated with the building. Many closed up windows & doors or blank pieces of unimportant walls had them. Something about civic pride.

This is Nant near Millau. That is the Mayor’s office (town hall) on the right and the market building to the left of it. That market was built in the 1600s but is still there. The town, like so much of France comprises buildings built in the 1700s or early 1800s immediately after the French Revolution. Since then those buildings have been retained and are still in use. This is so different to what has happened here where old (Victorian) buildings are removed to make way for redevelopment. Doing that obliterates the links with your past. Not so in France; there is continuity and a heritage for all to associate themselves with. But they did in the 1700s & early 1800s what we are doing now for there is very little from before that period that remains in France. That market building is unusual. Forts and churches do remain but not much else.

This is Pauillac on the Gironde estuary downstream from Bordeaux. This is like Blouberg for Bordeaux but retains its original river frontage. The locals care about it and defend it; something that very few do for our towns.

This is Fort St Andre on the far side of the Rhone River from Avignon (you can just see the water through the trees growing on the island in the river). I want to show the defensive walls that are still to be found in many French towns.

Here is the wall in St Emilion. Avignon has almost the entire wall around the old city still there. (Part of it shows on the map of Pont d’Avignon & I mentioned it there.)

This is a Duke’s castle in Uzes. This particular town has preserved its medieval center and it is now protected as an historical sector. Notice the coat of arms of the duke painted on the roof. Besides the churches very little from before the 1700s remains, French towns were almost completely rebuilt in the 1700s and, particularly, after the revolution at the end of the 1700s. But since then they have preserved what was built then (I have not been to Paris or the other big cities).

This remains. That is an old public laundry trough. Water comes out the spout on the wall onto the flat scrubbing shelf underneath then drains into the rinsing tank and then flows into the soaking tank and out into the drain on the ground in front. Just something from a bygone age but retained to add continuity and a link with the past. Lourmarin.

An old water pump. No longer in use but retained as part of the heritage of the place. (Near Cancon)

Simpler one in Roussillon

Uzes. A decorative fountain. Bronze; that would be gone in a flash here. For example, three big brass plaques recording Darwin’s visit to the end of Sea Point were recently removed. Most countries are developing their infrastructure but we are doing the opposite – our infrastructure is being dismantled. Infrastructure is what our national savings (taxes) are invested in. We dug up the gold, sold it and built up this country. Now we are witnessing the reverse. The destruction.

An old canal still in use but now by pleasure craft as against barges. There is an entire inland waterway system, like the public footpaths, that can be used. Of no commercial use but a big asset to the public. Segre

A lot of what remains originated from the days of animal transport (and walking). There had to be paths linking all the villages and towns for people to move about and that public right of way would have been the basis for the system of paths that go everywhere in France today. With the advent of cars the larger roads used by carriages would become the basis of the roads but the old footpaths & bridle tracks have remained up until today. Here is one of those in a town (St Emilion).

Uzes at night. No cars, a people friendly place; which is what a town is supposed to be but our city fathers seem to think they should be car friendly at the expense of people’s convenience. Look at Strand Street right through the middle of Cape Town upgraded to a main throughway in the 60s.

But in France there is also the decline of rural towns. All of those houses are unoccupied and falling into disrepair (near Cancon). Below is a chart I came across while looking for information about Nant for this write up. See how the population peaked in 1846 at 3445 but with the Industrial Revolution really making a difference to society by then the population started a steady decline so that there were only 916 residents in 2007. That is also part of the reason French towns have remained unchanged since they were rebuilt during the Industrial Revolution (late 1700s & early 1800s) – there has been a migration of people to the big industrialised towns (which we did not go to).

Table of the population of Nant France from the French edition of Wikipedia.

Just because I have it here is a picture from Chelsea in London taken on this same trip.

Very different to what we saw in France. Is it? Not really, the materials used are different but the preservation of the original fabric here is just what they do in France. This place too is being husbanded.
There is another terrible violence that is inflicted on our towns – malls. The town centre of Somerset West (for example) is now dead because a large shopping mall has been built outside town. The shops, restaurants and cinemas etc have moved there leaving the hopeless cases to occupy the buildings on the main road. That a civic violence like that is permitted is astounding. In France there is the continuity of place and society but here we permit our heritage to be obliterated at the altar to commercial greed. The wellbeing of businesses is deemed more important than the good of the people. Cape Town had a thriving city centre in the 50s & 60s but now it has been overtaken by Tygerberg Centre and Centaury City.
The best laid out place that I have lived in will probably surprise you. It is Sasolburg.

That is Sasolburg. Why I rate it so highly is I think it was laid out with people in mind and not shops or cars. Essentially it is like a tros (bunch) of grapes; circles touching each other. The yellow roads are the ones to get around town and none are boring straight roads. The houses are along the white roads. Notice that you can’t take a shortcut through the white roads; this means that only the people who live on one of the white groups will be using those roads so the locals get to know the locals and notice when they change their cars or strangers are in the area. That is the important thing – the locals know what is going on and when strangers are there. Again there are no boring straight white roads. In each of the yellow circles there is a blank grey area. That is public open land with walkways and bicycle tracks. The dark buildings shown are schools and churches –notice that they are in the public open spaces. The children can ride to school through on those cycle tracks without going on the yellow roads (except where the cycle tracks join between the circles & there there are traffic lights for them and marshals when the schools open and close each day). On Sundays the churchgoers can also walk to church. I don’t know how the sewers, water supply, electric supply and telephone system is arranged but that could all be run through the public open space so the roads would not need to be dug up each time something needed to be done to them.

Why the Sasolburg plan has not been duplicated is a mystery to me. That the RDP housing is being done in such a terrible regimented way is tragic. If it just had the short local roads like Sasolburg – or even better dead-end roads so only the residents of each road would use it their communities would be vastly safer than they are in the current designs. The town planning of the RDP developments is the grimmest imaginable. To me it seems that the squatter camps have better social structure than the RDP stuff.


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