Features: In this month's 'My Village', an English lady on why she loves this unpretentious little gem
No word for stranger in Gorbio
I have lived in Gorbio, just below the bridge, for 12 years. I look after dogs - Pension Milou; they live in the house, en famille, I don't have kennels or cages."
The Riviera Times has travelled up by bus to this medieval hilltop village above Menton to meet Jilly Bennett.
We are sitting at a table inside the village café on the square, enjoying a morning coffee. Having spent six years in Australia, Bennett wanted to return to Europe but not to England. She settled first in the Pyrenees then moved to the Alpes-Maritimes where she had friends who needed a caretaker to look after their house in Roquebrune.
Then her friends decided to sell. “What was I going to do? My father had left me a small amount of money, I mean enough to buy a loo down here really; I looked around for a year to buy something in the mountains where I could have the dogs.”
She was so surprised when she found the Gorbio property. “It's amazing; the man above me keeps pet sheep under the autoroute, and there you are 11 kilometres from Monaco! It's mind-blowing, really. And there's this lovely old village which I don't find spoiled.”
There are artists and artisans here, she continues, but it is not like Eze or Saint Paul de Vence. “I just love it; it's very much a lived-in village and our population goes up every year now with children being born here which is so unusual in hill villages.” Dogs may be her living but Bennett's great passion is photography. Village folk are used to seeing her wandering around with her camera, snapping away; she posts a picture daily on her Menton photography blog (http://www.mentondailyphoto.com/2011/03/mayor-et-moi.html).
Apart from the bar we are sitting in, which also serves food, there's a “brilliant” restaurant on the opposite side of the square, open from April till September, and a little épicerie. As we walk out past the ancient elm tree a young woman calls out to Bennett from a first floor window. “Frédérique Truchi runs the gift shop at the entrance to the village. She has lovely things, we'll pop in.”
Before we can, Bennett is embraced by Naila Bracco, the chef and wife of Yvan whose great-grandfather opened his popular restaurant here in 1924. We walk up to the large car park, above the primary school, where the annual flamenco festival is held in August. "It's very celebrated because it isn't corny Spanish flamenco, it's real gypsy flamenco; they give courses and demonstrations." Then we have the Fête de la Branda in October, she continues, when they distil the marc [grape skins]. That's a big event."
Artist and Gorbio Mayor Michel Isnard arrived in 34 years ago from the Var.
“Gorbio has a great facility to accept people from elsewhere,” he says. “The word stranger doesn't exist here; we say fourestier which I find lovely. The word captivated me; it simply means someone from outside.”
His main concern today is housing for the young. To help resolve the issue, the commune has decided that building projects on the largest blocks of land must include 30 per cent for social housing.
The mayor confesses to being somewhat overcome by the success of his flamenco festival, which he started with just one evening in the square in 2001. This year it will run from the 12th to 15th of August, on the Feast of the Assumption with a moving gypsy Mass in the church. “In the evening, c'est la fête, quoi, tables with candles in the large square, a giant paella and up to a thousand people; it is always packed.”
He talks about the important art donation made to Gorbio by Raza, the great contemporary Indian artist who has a studio in the village. The works, together with other Indian and French artists, are displayed in the tower, converted into a gallery, from June to mid-October.
“I'm still the foreigner, you know how it is in a French village,” says Bennett. “But having said that, they all know that I take the photographs and they're all terribly nice to me. What I think has made me fall in love with the village and the whole area is my photography. You see things through the eyes of a camera."