Cotignac – an Unusual Provençal Village

In my desire to rediscover Provence, one of the first places I wished to see was Cotignac. Slightly off the tourist beaten track it occupies a striking position at the foot of a 80 metre high and 400 metre wide cliff called ‘Le Rocher’.
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The main reason for my visit was ‘Paulette’, a very photogenic Droguerie/Quincaillerie (hardware) shop just oozing with old Provençal charm.

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I first visited Cotignac in 2006 when researching material for my other website, AMB-Cote d’Azur. I’d fallen in love with the shop and taken several photos of it. Unfortunately computer gremlins being what they are, I managed to lose the lot. So this Saturday was my first chance to return and photograph it again.

It was shut when I arrived so I walked up and down the main street for a while. But it was still closed when I returned. And then I saw the notice. Café Paulette was closed until April. My heart sank. It wasn’t just closed. It was gone. As I discovered, after an absence of five long years from my beloved South of France, things change. They disappear. And so it was sadly with ‘Paulette’. It too had moved on. It was now a café and snack bar.

Disappointed at ‘my’ loss and with only an hour to spare, I decided to stroll around a little more before returning to my car. Cotignac is an old town with pretty, winding narrow streets. I passed several old stone houses with elegant wrought iron railings, some still dating back to the 16th and 17th century. And everywhere I looked – shutters. Lots of pretty shutters painted in that soft Provençal blue so much admired and imitated.

The town’s main street is Cours Gambetta, inspired by the Cours Mirabeau in Aix-en-Provence. The narrow houses sit cheek-to-jowl and are painted in the gorgeous colours of Provence. The ground floors have been turned into either small shops, estate agents, banks, cafés, delicatessens or restaurants. Particularly attractive are the wooden Art Nouveau frontage signs.

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One side of the Cours has a very pleasant and quite wide pedestrian promenade that rises above the traffic. Two rows of towering plane trees stand like sentinels. In summer these majestic trees offer welcome shade from the hot Provençal sun but now, devoid of all leaves, they were dressed with strings of Christmas lights. A colourful quintessential French market takes place every Tuesday morning along Cours Gambetta. Like so many Provençal markets you’ll find a great selection of fresh local produce as well as honey, baskets, olive oil and clothing.

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The Fountains

Cotignac has several very pretty fountains. There are two on Cours Gambetta. A particularly fine 18th-century fountain representing the Four Seasons sits in front of the old droguerie but I thought the one on Place de la Mairie, the prettiest of all.

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There are others dotted around the town. This one dates from 1702.

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Place de la Mairie has, as you’d expect, the Town Hall. Its clock-tower looked in pristine condition but quite dominated by the all embracing cliffs.

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Pockmarked with caves, lined with steps, the rocky face is also broken up by a number of fortified troglodyte dwellings. Still visible today they were once used as refuges in times of war. You can visit them from a path starting at the back of the town hall or by following the road signposted to ‘Les Tours Sarrasins’. At the summit of the cliff are two towers. They are all that remain of an ancient feudal castle, built in the 17th-century and used as a refuge against the invading Sarrasines.

A Bit of History

It is generally thought that Cotignac was first populated by Celto-Ligurian tribes, who named it after the Celtic word for rock. Taken over by the Romans and then abandoned, it was resettled after the 5th century A.D. by Jews. The town became popular in the 17th-century through the combined effect of apparitions made by the Virgin Mary (in 1519) and Saint Joseph (in 1660) which then led to much money and favour bestowed upon it by both church and royalty. Further prosperity was gained through thriving tanning and silk industries until the end of the 19th-century when cheap imports dominated the market.

Return Visit in Spring

I plan to return to Cotignac in Spring to take a closer look at the caves and the nearby waterfall. By then ‘Paulette’ will be open and I’ll take some photos of its make-over and a few more of the village en fleurs. However there is much to be said to see places in winter. With less tourists and luxuriant foliage everywhere you get to see the architecture better. I think I would have missed this pretty door otherwise.

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If you’re in the area I suggest you pop into Cotignac’s Tourist Office, located at the foot of the village, for a map. Alternatively check their website for opening times and other useful information. Parking is relatively sparse. There is a parking area before you enter the village which means a little walk into town but you’ll pass the Tourist Office as you do so. The other (much smaller) parking area is located at the other end of Cotignac with a short walk back to town.

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I hope you find this blog fun to read and of interest. Please feel free to comment below and share your thoughts with me … I hope you enjoy Treasures of Provence and all that it offers …