Un Automne en Pays de Fayence Captures the Heart of Provence
With non-essential travel to France restricted due to Covid-19, soulmates Catherine Karnow (National Geographic photographer) and Gilles Portaz (geography and history professor) spent a year apart. Finally, thanks to the “love visa,” a compassionate entry permit for non-married couples, they were reunited in Provence in November 2020. They got reacquainted while touring the Pays de Fayence, the Alpes de Haute Provence’s foothills, and capturing the hilltop villages in text and images. The result is a stunning 185-page book filled with 127 photographs – Un Automne en Pays de Fayence, a love letter to this unspoilt region.
While too many regions of Europe have lost their sense of authenticity, the Pays de Fayence, a string of ten hilltop villages in Provence, maintain a faithful sense of tradition. And no one could capture that feel of a quintessential pocket of France better than long-time National Geographic photographer Catherine Karnow. Her photos, always aiming at deeper truths, capture the area’s pastel-washed perched villages, silver olive groves and sensual beauty, but also a parallel universe of intrepid locals: the cobbler who has been repairing the villagers’ shoes for decades; the market vendors and artists; the winemakers and the families who have made the region their home for generations. Local native and writer Gilles Portaz complements Karnow’s photos, and together they take us on a journey through a classic gallic landscape.” – Raphael Kadushin, writer-editor, National Geographic.
Let’s Roam the Hills
Catherine Karnow met Gilles Portaz while he was teaching at Lycée Français de San Francisco. With shared passions for photography, history, and France, it was clear that destiny had brought them together after only three dates. Born in Hong Kong, Catherine retains strong personal and professional connections to Asia and Vietnam (see her bio below). Gilles Portaz grew up in Mons en Provence, one of the hilltop villages in the Pays de Fayence. Although he has travelled and worked internationally, at his core, he is a Monsois (see his bio below).
Perhaps the Pays de Fayence is the balm that every couple needs after many months apart. Life slows down in a place where ancient stone buildings have withstood centuries of change. The rolling hills forested with pine and oak trees are a natural backdrop for a succession of perched villages. In the text, Gilles shares some childhood memories of this part of Provence. Catherine’s photos reveal a place where little has changed with time. Officially there are nine (9) villages in the Pays de Fayence, plus Brovès, an abandoned town that is only accessible with military approval. The couple visited these ten (10) villages several times during a month, capturing each one’s essence.
About the Book
Un Automne en Pays de Fayence, written in English and French, bonds the two cultures in words. This book is as much for the people who live in the region as visitors from near and far.
I would describe the Pays de Fayence as a hidden treasure of Provence. Under-visited, lesser-known, it nonetheless has all the charm of classic Provence: perched hill villages, terraced olive orchards, cultivated and manicured areas, as well as very wild places, like the mountains north of Mons. ~ Catherine Karnow
The perfect gift for any Francophile or armchair traveller, buy a copy of Un Automne en Pays de Fayence here.
Discover the Pays de Fayence
Only a 30-minute drive from Saint-Raphaël, the Pays de Fayence is a calm contrast to the busy Mediterranean coast. With its perched villages and unspoilt natural setting, this region of Provence remains anchored to the past. There are nine (9) hilltop villages in the foothills of the southern Alpes (in alphabetical order below):
Bagnols-en-Forêt, as the name suggests, this village is surrounded by oak and pine forest. Near Fréjus, there is much to see, including an oppidum dating before Caesar arrived in 45 BC.
On a hillside at 325 metres, Callian has sweeping views of the sea in the distance. The streets wind around a feudal castle where some of the buildings are 1000+ years old. Worth visiting are the traces of a Roman-era aqueduct and several chapels.
The village of Fayence meanders up the slope of a hill towards a castle. Enter through the Saracen Gate in the old ramparts and explore the charming streets. Surrounded by forest and olive groves, the village is home to roughly 6000 inhabitants. Like its neighbours, Fayence’s history dates back to the Neolithic period. Don’t miss the Notre-Dame-des-Cyprès chapel, the Saint-Jean-Baptiste church, and the Saint-Roch chapel. Walk up the clock tower for a panoramic view stretching to the sea. A local association has preserved the Four du Mitan, an old communal oven dating from 1522. Market days in Fayence are Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays.
Sitting at 814 metres on a rocky outcrop of Mont Lachens, Mons en Provence is at the highest altitude of all these villages. Home to about 800 people, the town’s narrow alleys date from the 10th and 13th centuries. Catch a glimpse of the sea from the Saint-Sébastien square. Hike from Mons to the gorges of the Siagnole and the Roman aqueduct.
Considered the jewel of the eastern Var, the village of Montauroux dates from the 11th century. A stone clock tower rises above the town’s streets, squares and fountains. Do not miss the Saint Barthélemy chapel with its barrel vault roof and painted panel walls. The church was donated to the town by Christian Dior in 1953 and designated as a historical monument in 1958. A waterfall, lush valleys, and the ancient Pont des Tuves await hikers in the Gorges de la Haute Siagne.
Encircled by the mountainous peaks of Mont Lachens and the Massif de l’Estérel, the 1700+ inhabitants of Saint-Paul-en-Forêt enjoy a pastoral setting. Surrounded by forest and near lac du Rioutard, there are plenty of options for hikers.
Seillans earns its badge as one of the Plus Beaux Villages de France. Surrounded by ramparts, this perched village radiates charm. An old medieval centre with 2,600+ residents today, the streets and tiny alleys ascend steeply to a castle and church at the top. Walking in this town requires a bit of stamina and suitable footwear. Stop for a drink or bite to eat in la place du Thouron. Discover the bouries near the village. These dry-stone structures provided shelter for shepherds centuries ago and remain intact. Catherine shared that her favourite village is Seillans, as it feels a bit like Tuscany surrounded by expansive green meadows and stately cypress trees.
Tanneron sits at the eastern edge of the Pays de Fayence on the border of the Alpes Maritimes. Part of the 130-kilometre Route du Mimosa leading to Grasse, the perfume capital, many visitors come to see the mimosas in bloom in the winter months. This agricultural-focused village is a series of hamlets joined together by a roadway.
Tourrettes is roughly 20 kilometres from the sea, near Cannes and Saint-Raphaël. Like its neighbours, this village has a long history, beautiful vistas, and plenty of charm. Discover the street art created by 70 artists on facades, doorways, and shutters in the old village. Don’t miss the Château du Puy constructed in 1830 under Jacques Alexandre Fabre’s direction. The castle is a replica of the Naval Cadet Corps in St-Petersburg, Russia. Fabre had worked for Tsar Alexander I, as a civil engineer, tracing roads in the Russian Empire. Home to the International Gliding Centre in Fayence – Tourrettes and the Terre Blanche golf courses, there is plenty to do near this town.
Catherine Karnow (website)
Based in San Francisco and Provence, National Geographic photographer Catherine Karnow has enjoyed a 35-year career, shooting for a wide variety of international publications.
Catherine’s history with France goes back to her parents. Her father, renowned journalist Stanley Karnow, lived in Paris for a decade, writing for Life magazine. His book, Paris in the Fifties, was published in 1999. Her mother, Annette Karnow, modelled for Dior in the 50s.
Catherine has worked in France for over three decades. For her first assignment as a professional photographer, in 1984, she spent three months photographing the entire country of France. Her photo book on Provence was published in 1991.
A notable life project for Karnow has been her 30 years of photographing Vietnam. Her deeply personal photo book, Vietnam 25 Years Documenting a Changing Country, is available in bookstores worldwide.
Catherine’s passion for photography carries into her love for teaching. She gives private workshops and teaching seminars all over the world. Her own highly acclaimed Photo Workshops in Italy, Vietnam-Cambodia and South India are unique in the roster of workshops.
Gilles Portaz (website)
Gilles Portaz has been a history and geography professor for over twenty-five years, teaching in lycées in Provence, Paris and San Francisco. He grew up in Mons en Provence and Nice and is the father of two teenage boys.
In addition to being a teacher, Gilles has launched a successful business in the resurfacing of swimming pools in Provence and the Cote d’Azur. He is also involved in developing the family olive oil business with Frédéric Verbrugghe, a horticulturist and family friend.
Gilles’ blog is widely read; he writes on the events unfolding today from the perspective of an intellectual deeply versed in world history.
Image credits: all photos were provided by and published with the permission of Catherine Karnow.