Hamlet of Camp de la Suyere

October 13, 2011 in Postings from the Mountain

Building Paradise Found

View from the south east end of the hamlet, left Mayke's studio with its enclosed rose garden, center main house constituted of two buildings, to the right behind the tall green oaks the "cabanon", a stand alone stone building I use as a woodshed until ... the Pigeonnier

View from the south east end of the hamlet, left Mayke’s studio with its enclosed rose garden, center main house constituted of two buildings, to the right behind the tall green oaks the “cabanon”, a stand alone stone building I use as a woodshed until … the Pigeonnier

Our adventures continue with the buildout and rehabilitation of our new home lost in the Maures mountain range that towers above the Gulf of Saint Tropez. We are early in 2006 yet it felt like my landing in the Canebiers Bay of that same gulf after my first solo Atlantic crossing ten years earlier, another paradise found after five weeks of blue water, a safe haven where I had spent many adolescent years discovering my passion for sailing. Now we were free at last from the Auberge, the toil I had long equated as a sacerdoce, a bearing of the robe. It had taken its toll and it would take a while for this new reality to sink in.

Mayke had left that other mountain early that morning to manage the arrival of the movers while I stayed behind to close out the last details with the new owners become innkeepers, fill the trailer and car with loose ends and catch up.
Mayke had assumed many more moves in her previous lives than I, but perhaps not movers almost as apprehensive of reaching destination as managing their way home after delivery. It was the same team had moved us from the house in Port Grimaud to the Luberon mountain village of Saignon, so I suspect somewhere they imagined a similar scenario. I had told them to take small trucks as negotiating the passage through Val Daubert, the hamlet before ours, would be difficult, but it never dawned upon me they would panic with our single carriage dirt road, one carved into the mountain to one side with a precipice to the other. If they had found the means to turn about they may not have delivered. luckily for us they were beyond the point of no return on the two kilometer trek and would accomplish their mission. It was April and the days were still short, they wanted to finish and clear our road with daylight.

The house had been closed for at least two years and, emerging out of winter its three foot walls bore the cold of a bare igloo. Radiators could not fight the cold dampness and the fireplaces refused to draw. I dare say if the closing of the Auberge sale had been in the fall we would have moved elsewhere until summer. Of the three levels the house comprised only the living was bearable, the upstairs bedrooms were too small to accommodate our bed, the downstairs, like half-rambler buried into the slope of the mountain too cold. We elected to use those left behind until I would tear out the partitions. But if the nights were hardly bearable the sight of morning would erase the pain.

The barn soon to become Mayke's studio

The barn soon to become Mayke’s studio

Mayke calls it our castle. From the road ten foot stone retaining walls keep intruders at bay, above it the house dominates from the height of its three levels; before it another wall of tall evergreen oaks hides us from the outside world. Behind the house sprawling up the slope of the mountain that protects us from the northerlies lays an orchard of centuries old chestnut trees and cork-oaks with their burly bark that had not been stripped for many decades. On the north side of the house lies the torrent, more often a stream. It emerges out the ground close to the top of our mountain at two thousand feet then flows down beside the house before reaching the waterfall by our fortification wall.

the torrent that gushes before mayke's studio

The Suyere Torrent flowing from under the bridge by Mayke’s studio

From there the water runs towards the valley flowing successively through the green oaks, a forest of black bamboo a local smuggled back from Viet Nam half a century before, then to a nearby pasture where our deep well captures from below its source.

The stream continues down the mountain to feed the Giscle river flowing into our favorite harbor, ferrying the soils that will silt Seanee’ future berth, her absence (his for Mayke) like the song of Bonnie, the lone dark star of our Paradise Found.

The hamlet is the end of the road, or perhaps track cut into the side of the mountain, beyond is the heart of the wild Massif des Maures mountain range that hides centuries of history past to the Sarasin and before. Now it is the wild domain of the boar that creep close at night in quest of chestnuts from the grove and acorns from our green and white oak trees.
The history of our almost abandoned hamlet is still to be revealed. The only marker found in our house is a sealed cast iron plate in one of the hearths, founded in 1781, likely from a past rehabilitation as the four old structures that constitute the main house well predate the marker.
Perhaps as old as the Chartreuse de la Verne established in the 11th century, a flourishing monastery before the revolution that may have created the hamlet. In much of medieval Europe, when the monk populations grew they would establish peripheral farms and grazing areas where they found fertile grounds with water and protection from the most aggressive forces of nature.

First a Home for Mayke’s Passion

With the closing on the sale of the Auberge occupying my mind until mid April I had little time to prepare any plans for our paradise found. I knew building Mayke’ future studio would be my first priority. It was a stone garage that in a previous life had been a barn. It would need to be fully built out, openings created, light engineered.

It did not need to be oriented north as it was smothered under the green oaks towering above. I needed help here to build the iron beam grid in support of a mezzanine. Jean Marie, the mason who had finished the Le Bourget extension at the Auberge came for two months as we labored to build out the two levels I had planned. Only once I had provided Mayke a haven away from the hammers and dust could I start to renovate the house.

With quicklime and fine sand we jointed the stones for centuries assembled with clay, insulated the ceiling, built the mezzanine, opened windows to the soft shade of the green oak umbrella. A lighting engineer designed the array of different colors of fluorescent light ramps to recreate a constant daylight environment for Mayke to work in. The wood stove, last piece of the puzzle, would await the summer months and my first forays into the forest for firewood. It was time. A storm brewing from her frustration was about to explode; she needed to get back to work, to organize her private world where

studio finished with its mezzanine

The studio finished with its mezzanine. On the wall the painting Bonifacio in Corsica used in the header of this page

only Bastine, our not quite Flanders Bouvier, now christened Bouvier Fraxinois would have permanent access.

Summer was advancing and I needed to capture its warmth in our old walls before fall would begin to drain it away. All the windows needed replacing as wood rot has set it. The masonic lodge carpenter Patrick who had done all the Auberge doors and windows had come the winter before to measure the existent and help me imagine the new perspectives. He would be on time with double glazing everywhere while saving the old fashioned “espagnolette” fixtures and inner shutters I will later learn after stripping generations of paint were pitchpine.

Meanwhile I had gutted the third floor spewing rubble out the windows; here I would be building out our bedroom, bath and a smaller bedroom. There had been almost as much space dedicated to halls as there was for rooms, the old flow meandered around the forged steel railing of the circular staircase that spiraled the extent of three floors before continuing up to the attic. There were two windows on each side of this volume, oak forest to portside chestnut grove to starboard, and off the bow, illuminated by the west facing arched window, a lighthouse dominating the staircase.
Mayke loved the empty volume that looked out to the mountain and chestnut grove on one side, the valley barely visible behind the curtain of green oaks to the other,  between the rounded flow of the staircase coming and going. I would suspect she preferred to suspend this image in time and avoid the irritation of further handiwork. She would soon take refuge in her studio and I would build the volume out to her final joy.


Mayke's domain

Mayke before her domain, the broom to drive away…

Winter was now around the corner and I had three wood stoves to feed as our chosen means of warmth. I was a year behind amassing the seasoned wood I would need, but the forest was also in need of cure. For that first year I would find enough to complement the natural insulation of our walls. I was to discover that the uniqueness of our green oasis, lost in the midst of lower growth traditional “garrigue”, was not solely due to the water resurgences. The early inhabitants had also chosen this location for the protection provided by the southern slope of our mountain and the circus in which the hamlet would be built.

birdseye view of the hamlet

Birdseye of the hamlet

It lies under the dominant winds that carry the cold of winter and fan the cauterizing forest fires of summer. Both these factors contribute to creating a microclimate that mellows the temperature amplitudes. On the coldest mornings near freezing beside the house, I would walk our dog Bastine up the eastern slope in quest of a few pine cones; there I would soon encounter frost and ice. In summer after a scorching day with our shutters closed, at dusk all would be opened and a cool breeze would drop down the mountain, flowing through the house to the valley below. The elders knew.

I had years of work ahead of me, the essentials had been accomplished for our everyday comfort. With winter upon us I needed to take advantage of the dormant season for pruning and planting. Jean, our predecessor gone to heaven had a passion for roses but in the absence of his caretaking they had become wild and overabundant. Cutting them back and composing with other essences to provide diversity in all seasons was another challenge. I would ferry up from the nursery trees, shrubs, plants and different soils to meet their needs; creating diversity that enables us to watch as the gardens change through the seasons.

But we were still in winter and through the leafless branches the call of the sea stretching below reminds me that the missing link to this was Seanee, birthed on the Saint Johns river upstream of Jacksonville Florida. It was also a call to reality for tuition bills abounded at a regular pace. In our new life perspective, one in which the dream of circumnavigation had been set aside, we had decided to sell Sean Seamour II and downsize to a smaller sailboat. I had bought my freedom from the Auberge and the Family clan by the abandon of a substantial share of my assets in the sale of the Auberge. With the ten years invested totaling less than a year of revenue in my prior life, Marie’s tuition was to be found in my share of Seanee, by now we knew she would not sell in Florida. It was time for her to come back to France.

Bringing SSII back to France was to be my last great adventure before disarming her and finding a new owner to take up his or her dream. We had secured her berth in Port Cogolin in the same slip where Sean Seamour I made her début many years prior, I now needed to get back into the preparation fever, a state kept alive in me throughout the trials and travails of the past three years.


Further reading : The Extraordinary Course of Our Lives
and :             As the woodshed becomes cottage

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