Ester Laushway (February 2004)

In winter, the Riviera is not as hot and crowded as in the high season, and in Bormes-les Mimosas, you can even find some solid sunshine, in flower form. The mimosa trees that flourish in the gardens of the village and in the forest surrounding it, shimmer with clusters of fluffy, incandescent yellow blooms from mid-January to mid-March, and are at their showy best in February.

Bormes added “les-Mimosas” to its name in 1968, in tribute to its signature flower, but has been a beauty spot, draped in all manner of greenery and bright cascades of flowers, for much longer than that. Already designated France’s most beautiful village in bloom in 2000, it expanded that distinction last year, when it earned a gold medal in the European-wide competition, “Villages in Bloom”.

With its medieval quarter perched on a hilltop and spilling down the steep slope, Bormes-les-Mimosas (or just Bormes to its friends) looks like a Provençal crèche brought to life. Its covered passageways, known as cuberts, its quaint lanes, tiny squares and frequent fountains make for a delightful wander and offer one Kodak moment after another.

Its diminutive appearance notwithstanding, Bormes is one of the largest communes in the Var, covering 24,000 acres from the wooded Maures mountains at its back, all the way down to the Mediterranean coast, with some outstanding sandy beaches, a fertile plain, pine groves and vineyards forming the local landscape.

In time, Bormes stretches a long way too, all the way back to 400 BC, when a tribe of Ligurian fishermen migrated from Italy and settled along the coast. Pirates and Saracens rampaged regularly along the seashore in the early centuries AD and the locals finally retreated up into the hills, from where they could see the marauders coming.

The old village was built in the 12th century, crowned by the obligatory château, which was inhabited by five dynasties of local seigneurs. It then became a monastery (17th C), Republican army barracks (18th C) and gradually fell into picturesque ruin (19th). Its latest incarnation is as a private home, with the owners leaving the exterior romantically crumbled and only restoring the interior.

Down on the coast stands the other stronghold of the ruling seigneurs of Bormes, the Fort of Brégançon. Built in the 11th C, on a rocky promontory that makes an excellent lookout and defense point, the fortress was a pirate hideaway before becoming the property of the local seigneurs. An underground tunnel, high enough for a man on a horse, used to connect the fort to the château, so that news of an enemy sighting could be sent at a gallop up the hill.

Lusted and fought over by a succession of power-hungry royal lords for several centuries, right down to Napoleon Bonaparte, the Fort of Brégancon has been the official summer residence of the Presidents of France since 1968. Jacques Chirac and his wife stay there several times a year, and this was where Chirac was photographed on the balcony, wearing nothing but a smile. He and Bernadette, suitably clothed, participate regularly in village life in Bormes. She is the honorary president of the Corso Fleuri, which has been an annual tradition for over 80 years. On the 3rd weekend in February, a floral procession winds its way up to the old town. Not just mimosa, but carnations, calendulas, scented stock and many other blossoms, each one stuck in by hand, completely cover the 12 – 15 floats and are a spectacular sight. Not just the whole village turns out, but about 15,000 visitors, too. A flower fight, with brass bands and folk dancing groups, normally brings the day to a riotous close.

Last year, it did not quite happen that way. Bormes was hit by hail, and even some melted snow, and no one bothered to chuck sodden flowers at each other before heading off to find a hot drink! But Bernadette was there, under her umbrella, not a hair out of place.

This year’s Corso Fleuri takes place on 22 February, and the weather gods will surely not be that mean twice in a row!

For details, contact the Tourist Office of Bormes les Mimosas at 04 94 01 38 38

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