From Bloemfontein to Bargème
The unmistakable rumble in the distance. A Free State thunderstorm brewing. Large white puffy clouds rolling and boiling. A spectacular mating dance drifting ever closer across the plain.
Lightning flashes, white, purple, and blinding against the dark blue sky. Every now and then a sharp crack echoes and continues rumbling among the hills all the way to where we are standing.
But this is not the Free State. These are the stark rocky hills of the Var department, just east of the Gorges du Verdon. One of France’s most beautiful valleys, a few hours’ walk from the incredible blue reflection of the Mediterranean Sea.
The rain hissing ever closer. The sharp smell of wet soil as we hastily take shelter in the ruins of the imposing medieval castle. Chateau de Sabran de Pontaves, built in the 13th century and the pivot around which the village, Bargéme, grew.
It requires a fertile imagination to believe that a few hundred years ago this isolated and remote town needed such invasive defenses, but that was the time of the Wars of Religion. The time when my ancestors’ beliefs convinced them that they had no alternative but to flee
Their current home suddenly transformed into a dangerous and unwelcoming place. How distant and unknown Africa must have been in their mind at the time.
Today it is just a small town with a fantastic view over the whole valley, according to experts one of the ‘plus beaux villages de France’.
My wife grew up in the area. Her brother and his wife live nearby in Frejus. When we visit, we often walk in these foothills of the Alps. It is not uncommon to experience such robust thunderstorms in late summer, almost like the ones I can remember from the Free State.
Bargème is one of our favorite places. A very old village at the foot of a Crusade castle and a family restaurant overlooking the whole valley. The Mistral wind is also sometimes very strong here, so the residents stack large stones on the ancient clay roof tiles!
One can easily get lost in the winding cobblestone paved streets. Sometimes a whole family and their friends visit as they eat at table and chairs in front of the old sandstone houses in the street. One can thus see in passing what is on their plates!
The clean air and long walk build an agreeable appetite and we rest our weary feet with a glass of cool white wine at the restaurant that overlooks the entire valley.
As we are quietly meditating on the menu, I think of the long winding routes I have meandered on over a charmed lifetime. I might not have been driven by the same convictions as my ancestors, but I also forsake a known home and crossed an ocean.
When people in Canada ask me where I come from, the answer is easy; Bloemfontein. Born there and raised in the Free State. A very flat part of the world and if you stand on a chair you can see quite far. Now I am among these steep hills, a long way away from the Free State, revisiting a part of the long road I have traveled from Bloemfontein to Bargème.
Then, thinking of it, if I go back far enough in my history, that path actually started here. The long eventful road from Bargème to Bloemfontein.
Read the book! Find “Once upon a time I lived in Africa” on Amazon and in SA via Malherbe Uitgewers.
Kobus de Villiers is a retired aeronautical engineer. He grew up in the Free State. After serving in the Bush War, he lived, worked, and studied in several countries around the world. He still does some consulting and builds contraptions in his workshop. He lives with his French wife in Vancouver, Canada. He shares his stories and photos with Howzit on this blog, aptly called “Slypsteen”
Kobus’ books can be ordered on Amazon.
In South Africa, you can find his books through Malherbe Uitgewers.