For as long as anyone can remember the village has been known for it’s production of ‘Faïence’… glazed earthenware or pottery, especially a fine variety with highly coloured designs.
Mention the name of the village to anyone in the south east of France and they will tell you that they, or perhaps more particularly their parents, have visited and bought their tableware there.
At one time there were seventeen faïence factories of varying sizes in the village, many of whom used the flow of water from the village source (see below). In the village museum there is a map which shows the location of the factories and the two main channels of water. The map also lists the names of the factory proprietors and most of them still have descendants in the village.
Of the seventeen producers of Faïence, the oldest of which was established in 1695, there is one that continues to thrive, ‘La Belle Epoque’. It is owned by William Offner and his wife who have their workshop and shop on the Place (Square) right next door to ‘La Maison du Faiencier’. They specialise in a niche market in style and colour and they have the equipment and room for the entire process in their workshop / shop where they design, mould, decorate and ‘fire’ their produce in their own kiln (No 15 on the map in the gallery). William is the village authority for all things ‘pottery’ and President of the Museum of Faiencie which is opposite the property on the other side of the Place (square).
You come across evidence of the long-term presence of pottery production everywhere around the village. When renovating the property it was common to find holes in a wall filled not with builder’s rubble but discarded bits of pottery – some of which are now on display in the Museum. Or when planting a tree in the garden or digging in certain parts you get the impression that the ‘soil’ is fifty – fifty earth and pottery bits. And even the pot holes in the forest dirt tracks are filled with shiny multicoloured pottery bits rather than with black tarmac, as is common elsewhere
Apparently pottery production requires a lot of running water. So it is easy to understand why the industry thrived in Varages. The village has it’s own water source.
The water surfaces a five minute walk from the centre of the village and gently filters through the earth, thereby creating a very unspectacular looking ‘pond’ which has a surface area no bigger than a double garage. Apparently, as the water leaves the ground, it’s temperature never varies more than one degree, be it during the hottest summer (+40c) or the coldest winter (-12c): an indication of the depth from which the water rises. No one has ever pinpointed it’s origins, but it’s presumed that it comes from the snowy peaks of the Alps which are, as the crow flies, only two hours or so away. The source has amply supplied the needs of the village inhabitants and its 14 fountains for centuries.
The story goes that many years ago the landowner on whose property the water surfaces fell on hard times and that his difficulties gave the villagers the opportunity to negotiate the rights to the source. As a result there is now a spider’s web of water channels that distribute, mostly above ground, water throughout the village by way of a system of metal plates that open and shut as needed. Once they’ve circumvented the village the separate channels flow together to create an impressive waterfall at the base of the cliff on which the village is perched.
After acquiring the rights to the source, various properties in Varages were given permission to draw off water from their nearest channel for their own personal use. There is a hand written letter addressed to the owner of ‘La Maison du Faiencier’ from the Director of the Association Syndicale Autorisée des Arrosants de Varages (Trade union association of Varages’ Irrigators) re-affirming permission to benefit from the source that passes (underground in this case) in front of the property. The letter states that each Sunday, at 8h55 for 13 minutes before the Spring celebration of ‘Saint Pothin’ and at 10h22 for 19 minutes after the Spring celebration, the owner has the right to draw from the source (as long as it’s shared with the neighbour Mrs Roussett)!
For collective village use there were 14 fountains and two Laveuses (wash-houses) where every household could go to wash clothes.
Nowadays, the water source still sustains all the village water needs and the channels still flow, but most of the water is distributed to each household through a modern mains system.
The name of the village Place (Square) has not always been ‘Place de la Liberation’; it was previously known as ‘Place Gassendi’.
It was named after General Jean-Jacques-Basilien Gassendi (1748-1828) who once established his family home in the Place opposite the property. He was apparently a lifelong friend of Napoleon Bonaparte, who often visited him in the village, and a highly decorated leader in his army.
As well as the house on the Place he owned a huge domain outside the village and, it is said, was very keen on experimental farming. He was also known as a generous benefactor to the peasant villagers and his one time family home is now the village ‘Museum of Faïence’ and the gardens that once belonged to the house, the village park. Though the name of the Place has changed, the general’s sculptured bust adorning the main village fountain a few metres from the property means his presence has not been forgotten.
General Gassendi’s nearest neighbours, those living at ‘La Maison du Faiencier’, were not military heroes but were, all the same, amongst the most wealthy and important members of the community.
Several of them were elected Mayor of the village (a position that holds significant influence to this day) and at the same time were Maitre Faïencier (Master Potters).
The tile conjures up the image of a person sitting at a wheel fashioning pots and pans from the local clay but it meant far more than that. The Maitre Faiencier would be in charge of large units of production in the village.
For example Monsieur Gustave Pascal (1824-1897), whilst living at ‘La Masion’, introduced a certain type of clay to the village industry called La Terre blanche de Uzes (the white earth of Uzes). It enabled the production of faïence or Porcelaine Opaque and it became very popular throughout France.
As a consequence, Mr Pascal became a very wealthy man and owned, it is said, a third of all the village properties, including the two properties to the right of ‘La Maison du Faiencier’. During the renovation work, five communicating doors were uncovered between two of the adjoining properties. One of the properties is shown on the map image in this page as factory ‘No 12’ and today it is used as a garage, with the original open kiln still intact.
In 1926 part of the garden belonging to ‘La Maison’ was sold to a consortium of vineyard owners so they could build their own Co-operative Vinicole (wine processing plant). This they did erecting as part of the co-operative the exceptionally high and solid stone wall which makes up one side of the garden at ‘La Maison’. In 2010 the co-operative was demolished, though not the garden wall, making way for parking for 30 vehicles.
There are several existing photos of the village dating back to around 1880. Three of them feature the property as well as a horse drawn stage coach delivering post, an empty hay cart and an iron ‘portable distillery’ which would be pulled by horse from village to village to produce Eau de Vie for the locals (an alcoholic drink made from fermenting fruit of the season). There are also photos of different sides of the Place and one of the village water source.
‘Place Gassendi’ took on a new name at the conclusion of the second world war in honour and remembrance of the American liberating forces. The whole area was occupied by German forces at one time and just outside the village, close to the road, there is a monument to three men; A 36 year old local Frenchman, and two Americans, 20 and 30 years old. They fought and died together at that same spot in August 1944.
There are also several monuments in the area to the members of the French Resistance. For example, fixed to the wall of a house in the village is a little ceramic plaque which explains that its basement had been used to hide those fearing German deportation. The property was used as a guesthouse and restaurant. Daily, clients would arrive for lunch or supper, but on occasions some would not leave.