Wed, Jan 12, 2005 - Page 16 News List

`Paradise protected from the ravages of time'

The Cote d'Azur has many charms but solitude is rarely one of them you might think -- but you would be wrong

THE GUARDIAN , Cote d'Azur, France

Enjoy a trip on the little yellow train crossing a bridge between Villefranche and Latour-de-Carol, in the Pyr.

PHOTO: AGENCIES

It's difficult to believe that, without being a close friend of a multi-millionaire, you can still find unspoilt corners of the Cote d'Azur. But they do exist, and they are accessible to those not in possession of their own chateau.

In 1925, the French painter Pierre Deval bought an 18th-century mansion with extensive grounds at the foot of a mountain in the Var region of Provence, outside Toulon. Domaine d'Orves, far from the metropolitan art scene, with its long drive lined with olives and an avenue of oleanders entwined like fingers, became an essential part of the painter's work, and a sanctuary for his friends, including the artist Albert Marquet and poet Henri Bosco, who often visited.

Deval's studio, a large, light room at the center of the house, looked out onto a walled garden, overhung with climbing roses and arbutus trees. A monograph on Deval's work reads, "Shut off from the outside world, the image emerges of a paradise protected from the ravages of time."

During the war, the artist's idyll was shattered when the house was taken over by Nazis. The family was thrown out and the soldiers set about turning house and garden into a secure military command, knocking down walls to make a war room, felling the 1,000-year-old olive grove, desecrating the little chapel in the walled garden and turning it into a bunker. To protect them from surprise attacks, they razed Deval's garden -- leaving only the plane trees and two soaring date palms to provide shade for their lunch parties on the terrace.

The family returned to Orves after the war, and set about restoring the house and garden. They borrowed German prisoners from the nearby camp and put them to work repairing the damage. One prisoner built a swimming pool from a water tank in the rocks above the house, fed by the spring and surrounded with flowering shrubs.

Seven years ago, Deval's daughter Francoise Darlington, a translator for the UN, took up residence to continue her father's mission. With a designer and two full-time gardeners, as well as volunteers who apparently love to spend their holidays weeding the flower beds, Darlington has restored the grounds, creating a terraced ornamental garden below the house with waterways and fountains, pomegranates and quinces, orange blossom and jasmine.

A cottage in the grounds, formerly occupied by the farmer who tended the olive groves and vegetables, has also been restored, and is available for rent. With a cool, spacious interior and its own shady stone porch, it makes a restful base (though with a platform bed and steep stairs, unsuitable for small children). Anyone staying in the cottage can enjoy the gardens and use the swimming pool.

When Deval first bought Orves it was surrounded by countryside almost unbroken between the house and the sea. He would trot along to St Tropez, about an hour away in his elderly motor, and stay with the wealthy denizens of the Cote d'Azur while he painted their portraits.

Since then, the village of la Vallette du Var, once half a mile away, has crept up to the gates. The wooded grounds of Orves remain a protected island amid the ravages of urban development, and the family has fought off developers who long to get their hands on some of this prime real estate.

The sprawling village has a wonderfully old-fashioned central square, its bar and patisserie shaded with plane trees. It also has a restaurant, La Vieille Fontaine, offering excellent, rich Provencal fare in an unpretentious setting.

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