Volunteering in Provence

Conservation volunteers are breathing new life into some of France’s most beautiful regions. Alison Hughes rolls up her sleeves and gets to work on a bargain holiday in the sun

Sun, sea and the south of France. Mmm, sounds good. And dry-stone walling? Well, not something I had previously associated with the environs of Saint-Tropez, which for most people conjures up images of the halcyon days of the 1960s, Brigitte Bardot and the yachting fraternity. But after my sojourn chez APARE at Cavalaire-sur-Mer, these unlikely bedfellows will be forever entwined in my mind.

APARE (L’Association pour la Participation et l’Action Régionale) has similar aims to the BTCV (British Trust for Conservation Volunteers), offering low-cost working holidays in beautiful parts of France and further afield. Participants can help to restore châteaux and sheepfolds in Provence, repair cobbled streets in Corsica or help build an eco-museum in Morocco. Many of the projects are centred on the building or repairing of dry-stone walls which are commonly used in the terracing of the rich, red earth of Provence. It is a very hands-on experience but extremely rewarding. Board, lodging and a range of activities are all provided in exchange for around three weeks of hard labour (usually six hours a day) costing as little as €136 – which must make it one of the cheapest holidays on offer in France. But you do need stamina, a sense of humour and flexibility (not only in the joints!).

Perfect setting

The coastline between Toulon and Nice has some of the most stunning scenery in France. If you just stuck a pin in a map blindfolded and decided that’s where you would go, it would be difficult to be disappointed. This is really the setting for the perfect seaside holiday: to the south there is the turquoise Mediterranean Sea, small sandy coves and shady umbrella pines, and to the north a hinterland of forested hills and perched villages. This was the beautiful backdrop to my APARE experience.

I was involved in a project to build a dry-stone wall at the Domaine Foncin. Known locally as La Maison Blanche, it stands like a beacon on top of a cliff looking out to sea.

Originally owned by Pierre Foncin, an eminent geographer and one of the founders of the Alliance Française, the house and 15 hectares of grounds were bequeathed to the Conservatoire du Littoral (a body that protects the coastal environment in France, similar to the National Trust) in 1977 by Pierre Foncin’s daughter. Since her death in 1996 various projects have been mooted for the future of the property and it is most likely that the house will become a museum. The building of the wall is part of the plan for its future use.

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This particular project was in its first year of a five-year programme, but many have been running for a decade or so, such as the restoration of the citadel in Saint-Tropez which started in 2001. Relying on volunteers who work for two or three weeks each summer means that progress is relatively slow, but that is also part of the pleasure of taking part in a chantier.

We were staying on a campsite so had the luxury of shower-blocks, hot water and a kitchen under canvas complete with fridge. Sleeping accommodation was in two communal tents (one for boys, one for girls) with camp-beds provided. Becoming accustomed to shared sleeping arrangements can be tricky, but after a few days of hard labour, getting to sleep was no longer a problem and by then fellow volunteers were no longer strangers.

This turned out to be a truly international gathering, with volunteers from the Czech Republic, Turkey, Algeria, Florida, France, the UK and Singapore. And I haven’t mentioned our intrepid leader and experienced waller, the one and only Jean-Cosme (J-C). A French-Canadian by birth, he lives most of the year in the Alps. He’s an experienced bricklayer who has spent a lifetime restoring ancient chapels and monasteries in Provence and has been involved with APARE for the last eight years.

Our days began at 5.45am with a gentle shake of our camp-bed and a ‘bonjour’ from J-C, as we needed to be at the chantier by 7am before the heat of the day had set in. After a stumble to the shower-block, followed by strong coffee and hunks of baguette, we were off to the Maison Blanche.

The first day involved a lot of digging, finding suitably shaped stones and placing them in piles according to size – small, medium and large. J-C explained that we needed stones with a good flat surface which would make up the façade of the wall. Walling is a combination of technique and aesthetics – it has to look good as well as being solid enough to withstand the elements. This is the ‘shop window’ as he explained, the first thing a person sees as they approach and it needs to be pleasing to the eye.

Fragile schist

Dry-stone walls exist all over the world. They are ancient structures made up of local materials and the skill is all in the careful selection and placing of the stones. In the Cotswolds, for example, the stones are white-ish yellow limestone, quite solid, but here in the Massif des Maures the stones are a fragile schist, so it was important to avoid having vertical lines where splits could occur.

Around 10.30am we had a brief break for cold drinks and hopefully a home-baked cake, and then it was more walling until 1pm, when tools were downed and we returned to the campsite for lunch.

Every day, two people were tasked with preparing the day’s meals, including the snack for the following day. This required a certain amount of planning and ordering ingredients (via Agnès, the activities organiser). If you were on cooking duty it meant you had a bit of a lie-in and weren’t required at the site. If you were really organised and prepared all your meals in advance it meant that you could spend more time at the beach.

Depending on how quickly lunch was consumed and what was on the menu, trips to different nearby places were on offer in the afternoons. Being in such a beautiful area there was no shortage of destinations to explore. The nearby hilltop village of Gassin was stunning, with views across the Golfe de Saint-Tropez. The road led up through a forest of cork oaks with their distinctive spongy bark. Cork manufacturing was once a local industry but has now died out. The village, like so many in Provence, is sprinkled with oleander bushes in various shades of pink and white, complementing the ancient stones and the deep blues of the sea and sky.

Our second day saw the beginnings of the actual wall. First of all the foundation stones were put in place to form a solid base; then a plumb line was used and a guiding string rigged up between poles to keep the lines and edges straight. Walling is an art rather than a science, better suited to ‘intellectuals’ according to J-C, as it takes a leap of imagination to spot which particular stone will fit into a selected space and to have a vision of the overall pattern. This is definitely the most interesting and exciting part of walling, and the most rewarding. After the hard slog of the previous day we could begin to see the fruits of our labour and everyone was surprised by the progress made in just one morning.

Once the techniques had been learnt (some stones needed to be chipped into shape with a special hammer) we began to take pride in what we were doing and to gain a real sense of achievement.

Over the coming days I saw the group gelling, friendships forming and people relaxing in each other’s company. Long conversations after dinner, humorous linguistic misunderstandings and night-time bathing at the nearby cove had definitely helped this group bond. I left early but was pleased to hear that everyone whom I spoke to afterwards said the venture had exceeded their expectations. Many had chosen the holiday because it was a good way to practise French or a great way to stay in a beautiful part of France cheaply. But all of them told me how the social aspect of their stay had been the highlight.

One comment from the group said it all: “I was rather dubious when I realised that I was going to share a tent for three weeks, but by the end I’d made some amazing friends and spent three weeks doing something that I am extremely proud of. It was a fantastic experience.”