Godfather P wastes no time in going up to the youthful-looking stallholder to say he recognises him from a television programme. Local fruit farmer Nicolas Tron is, after all, partly responsible for our visit to Barcelonnette, the town in the Ubaye valley, in the Alpes de Haute Provence, famous for its so-called Mexican villas.
It’s market day and Mr Tron has set up his jams and pastries stall on the Place Manuel. He grows raspberries and currants in Méolans-Revel, a village a bit further down in the valley, but following a programme on Franco-German channel Arte a few years ago, he has become famous for his wild-berry jams. The summer that followed the programme, he says, he suddenly got orders from Germany and his stock went within weeks.
It was that programme, which we watched last summer, that prompted our curiosity about this seemingly lesser known part of the southern Alps. It was all that Dr K needed to start designing a little itinerary which has already taken us to Grenoble and will see us spend a fortnight in the Haute Provence.
We chat to Mr Tron – and naturally we buy a couple of jars of rose hip jam, along with elderberry and wild sour plum, locally known as affatou.
Today is Ascension Thursday and Godfather P is just back from church. The miscreants – Dr K and I – have been looking at the Mexican villas. There is nothing Mexican about them, other than the fact that they were built with the money made by local entrepreneurs who had moved to Mexico.
From the beginning of the 19th century, thousands of men left the rural upper Ubaye valley, which had a reasonably successful wool and textile industry, to export their skills to the newly independent country. Its government at the time was keen to encourage the import of technology and develop its own industry.
Many – although definitely not all – made fortunes at the helm of textile emporiums. Back in Barcelonnette they started building grand villas in the beaux arts style which was fashionable at the time. Such villas are not uncommon in the Nancy area in north-eastern France, where the movement originated, but they are unexpected in a small town at 1140m altitude where the nearby countryside is more about farmhouses and chalets.
There are still strong links with Mexico: a Mexican festival every summer, many streets with Mexican names, even an honorary consulate, in one of the former Mexican villas.
As to the villas themselves, they’ve had varying fates. Some have been turned into local authority buildings, one – La Sapinière, built by the Reynaud family, who gave France a government minister after the war – has become the local history museum, another is the local headquarters of the French forestry commission. A few have been turned into hotels. Many appear to still be in private hands but their shutters are shut, suggesting they may only be used a few weeks in the summer, and sometimes looking a little abandoned.
For all this, the place looks affluent enough, judging by the type and number of well-kept shops and restaurants. The summer season hasn’t really started but it’s the beginning of a long weekend in France and there are a few punters around despite the changeable weather. Not to mention groups of bikers who are travelling on the Route de Grandes Alpes, which runs from Lake Geneva to Nice along some of the highest passes in the Alps. In the evening the waiter at the restaurant says there are 30,000 visitors a week in the summer.
The next day we’re off to our next stop, Sisteron, in the Durance valley. We make a small detour via a village I have been keen to see, Saint Paul sur Ubaye, in a stunning site further up in the valley. As we drive off it starts raining. By the time we reach Saint Paul, at 1400m, the temperature has plummeted to 4C degrees. We walk to the church, romanesque, which is shut. I suggest walking to the other end of the village. Dr K and godfather P just want to go back to the car.
We drive on higher up towards Vars, to try and get a sense of the landscape. It’s a narrow road and soon the rain becomes snow. It’s 0C degrees outside. On 14th May. It’s unreal and spectacular. We’ll just have to come back. For now, it’s back down the hill to more clement weather.