the ‘back country’: a world away from nice

The Côte d’Azur draws thousands of tourists every year to its famous seaside resorts of Nice, St Tropez or Cannes. However, just a short drive inland, a much emptier South of France awaits. Behind the French Riviera, the ‘arrière-pays‘ [‘back country’] offers a different vibe entirely to the ‘bling’ of the coast. The country rises sharply up to meet the Alps and isolated medieval villages pepper the hilltops of this stark landscape. One such village, only 30 km from Nice, is Gilette. The maire [mayor] commissioned me as photographer last summer to refresh the village’s collection of images and it was a pleasure to change down to a slower gear for this quiet, reflective reportage.

Photograph of cyclist leaving the village
Rush hour doesn’t hold great significance in Gilette

A slower pace

Photograph of a village house with orange rug hanging out of window
A splash of colour
Slowing down, in fact, begins as soon as one enters Gilette – literally. An important traffic light, invariably red, keeps people from rushing down the one-direction-at-a-time main street (the only navigable road by car). The enforced pause gives drivers ample time to admire the view, or chew the cud with friends and relatives sat smoking on the pavement terrace of the only bar, positioned conveniently beside the traffic lights.

Gilette may today have its fair share of commuters who head down to Nice daily to work, but this is a village that considers itself, according to the maire, to be a family. Annual village events such as the communal cook-up of ‘Soupe au Pistou‘ [a regional summer vegetable soup] and the firemen’s ball on Bastille Day are definitely highlights for the 1,500 locals, not designed with tourists in mind. As I roamed the quiet streets and alleyways, populated apparently by a greater number of cats than humans, I could nonetheless sense, from within shaded doorways and windows, eyes tracking the progress of this stranger-photographer.

balancing atop a TV arial

Landscape photographers tend to get up early, and for good reason. While the crack of dawn is not my hour of choice, it was unavoidable in preparation for a panoramic photograph of Gilette. The village boasts a history dating back to 1000 BC and its position, straddled on top of an impregnable mountain pass, smacks indeed of medieval cunning. I, however, needed to get higher still for a bird’s eye view and had spied my ideal vantage point, a steep rocky bluff just north of the village. I couldn’t see any paths leading to the summit on the map and the plot was surrounded by heavy duty chain-link fencing, so I knew I’d need a little extra morning contingency to get up there in time to catch the best light.

A little after dawn, well before an acceptable hour for house calls, I got as close as I could to the summit, parked up on the lane in front of a nearby farmhouse and waited. I had barely sunk my teeth into a croissant when, as I expected, a curious inhabitant came out to ask what I was doing. Her suspicions were apparently allayed by the news that I was a photographer working for the mairie and she happily invited me through the gate. However, Madame looked dubious about my making it to the top. “There’s no path – you’ll need to rock climb to get up there. The only things growing on the way up are big thorn bushes”“.

Panoramic photograph of the village of Gilette taken from above
Waves of vertigo slightly spoiled the view for me

I can’t say the climb was pleasant or that I didn’t feel twinges of vertigo as, high above the circling hawks, I struggled to keep my balance astride a conveniently-positioned TV arial tower on the summit and waited for the sun to illuminate the village. But the view was indeed breathtaking.

an impromptu facial

Far down in the valley below, the area around ‘le Pont de la Cerise‘ [‘Cherry Bridge’] is a hidden gem of which the Gilettois are justifiably proud. No need for locals to drive down to the Côte d’Azur in summer for a swim or sunbathe – they have something much better on their doorstep. ‘Le Pont de la Cerise‘ is neither signposted nor advertised and those in the know apparently prefer to keep it that way.

Photograph of two women sitting at a riverside with their hands covered in mud
Along the river bank, people were lazily coating themselves in mud

Lured with tales of turquoise water and armed with an enormous pan bagnat (a hefty niçois sandwich of tuna, vegetables, eggs and olives), I set off with a hand-drawn map to see for myself. [As an addendum, don’t expect to see Gilette’s fine pan bagnat on display or openly mentioned on a menu in the village bar – they apparently need to be bought ‘under the counter’. Upon utterance of the magic words “un pan bagnat s’il vous plaît“, the barman nods, takes one’s money in a rather cloak-and-dagger manner, disappears through a door and then reappears 5 minutes later with the goods in an unmarked paper bag…]

Selfie of photographer with face covered in river mud
When in Rome…
After a long, hot walk down a steep, dusty track, I was suitably impressed by the stretch of river at the Pont de la Cerise. A succession of beautiful pools gouged smoothly out of the rock by swift, clear river-water are an open invitation to swim. Happy-looking people were quietly sunbathing, bobbing aroud in the water or munching on olives and cheese.

But the best discovery at le Pont de la Cerise for me was the mud. As I walked upriver, I noticed several people lounging in the sun, with various parts of their bodies caked in clay. After taking photographs and safely stashing away my camera, I decided to try it for myself. Happy childhood memories of mud-pie-making flooded back to me as I covered myself in gooey river mud. The ‘treatment’ was a far cry from a French Riviera spa experience and yet, as my soft skin that evening proved, wholly effective…

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