Le déluge

I took this photo eight or nine years ago in Vaison la Romaine, up in the Vauclause. I was a little worried about the darkness under his eyes and the potential poverty he depicts. Vaison is an attractive, quite ‘up-market’ place, famous for its Roman remains.

 

Another picture of the same place which I didn’t take ( source:’Watts up with that’). Down in my village today, my attention was drawn to a special edition of the local newspaper commemorating twenty five years since the devastating flood in Vaison that killed forty two people and destroyed huge parts of the town.

By 22 September, 1992, Provence had witnessed four years of virtual drought but  it had been raining for days, although there was no sense of impending doom. In the afternoon of this catastrophic day, an alert was issued warning of rare violent pluvio-orageux, rain storms, and the security forces were put on alert. However, the campsite upstream from the Roman bridge, situated next to a normally small stream, wasn’t evacuated because no-one realised the  impending danger. Similarly, inhabitants of a small housing estate on the opposite bank of the river remained oblivious.

Nonetheless, by mid-afternoon, the town was cut off from all communications with the outside world. Just after 4pm, the rain stopped but too late in the day to forestall tragedy. An enormous wave, more than 15 metres high, swept onto the campsite causing death and devastation. As it proceeded towards the Roman bridge, it grew in height and speed. The 2000 years old bridge had, uniquely, withstood German bombardment in WW2 and somehow managed to survive this onslaught.

In Vaison, however, not everything was as strong or fortified. The security forces rescued hundreds of people trapped on roofs or struggling in the waves. Bodies were discovered for the next fifteen days and it took years to remove all traces of the deluge.

This link should take you to extraordinary footage of the river in full force on the 22nd September: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a9o3tvuN5pQ

On this current sojourn, the weather has been, as we say in England, ‘up and down’, and often ‘unseasonable’. Nonetheless, today I’ve been swimming in the open air and I write this on my terrace in the late sunshine. Over in Vaison, they’re holding a service to remember the lost of another 22 September.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Over the hills and far away

There’s a prevalent view that the English always talk (and moan) about nothing except the weather. I’m here to tell you that it’s no different in Provence: I remember one spring-time when I was told ‘this is the wettest May on record’. This June, they said ‘it’s never been as hot’. Now it’s September and all are agreed ‘it’s unseasonably cold’. One thing is as certain as death and taxes: the wind! Today, however, despite the ravages of the mistral, we three set off in glorious sunshine to walk in the hills behind Aramon.

This is no ordinary walk: this is the Sentier des Capitelles d’Aramon. We have crossed the mighty Rhône to be here, thus we are officially in the region known as the Gard. No big deal you might think but, the very words remind you that, until the beginning of the twentieth century, there was no such language as French. For example, the capitelles are small dry stone buildings once used for shelter by shepherds. Twenty minutes from here, they’re known as bories but we are in another country. This photo, taken by my hostess, Keryn, shows the route we’re about to take. I might have been astute enough to take my own snap but I was preoccupied with the birds. I don’t know the difference between swallows and swifts but there they all were, skirting the vivid blue skyline, contemplating a move even further south.

The French are economically sparing with paint. The sign shows the yellow path and we follow this and the subsequent yellow arrow. After this, the decorators have lost the will and we must look for yellow blobs on movable stones to ensure we might be, literally, on the right track.

 

 

 

 

 

 

It doesn’t really matter: we regularly come across capitelles in various conditions which we duly enter and inspect as we climb higher and higher. The wind is not so bad – maybe we’re sheltered by the little mountains. There was an initial plan to leave the struggler (me) behind at an appropriate spot. There isn’t an appropriate spot: the garrigue is stunningly beautiful, but relentless. Leave me here and I’ll be lost forever. But then, I look back and see the river which inspires me to climb higher.

At one point, I see something brown crossing the track. No-one else is looking and when I mention this apparition, I am, as usual, ignored. ‘Perhaps it was a boar’, some comedian comments. And the next minute, everyone sees five or six unidentifiable birds scurrying along the path. Told you so. They were too quick for the cameras but even I know they weren’t swallows.

 

Eventually, we reach the heights which is well worth the climb. From here, we can see, in a 360 degrees turn, the Ventoux, the Alpilles, the Montagnette, Tarasçon and beyond. We’re on the top of the world, under the bluest of skies and the sunshine of the South.

 

We begin our descent. ‘Here’s another capitelle’, exclaims the kiwi. Haven’t we been to this one before, I query? What I like about being with Keryn and Eleanor is, no matter where we are, we never stop talking. And I don’t mean talking about nothing, for we don’t know each other that well to engage in the quotidian. At this particular point, I am minded of the chapter in Three Men and a Boat whereby the intrepid triumvate, with a crowd of followers, deny being lost in the maze at Hampton Court. Someone says, ‘didn’t we pass that bun half an hour ago?’ This, naturally, leads on to an explanation of Longleat and a discussion about PD James and Pride and Prejudice.

And then we are back at the car. And, of course, lunch beckons. Sadly, Aramon doesn’t boast a plethora of eateries. Nonetheless, we manage to secure a spot on the terrace of an apparently non-descript joint where, as Keryn reports, we enjoy ‘a five star meal for the price of a two star restaurant’. Fish for my compatriots and mignon of porc for me… a million miles from the damp offerings in Avignon yesterday.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A few holes in the ground

At yesterday’s vide grenière (empty attic =boot sale), I purchase a book about Fontvielle because it has some old pictures and news about the shell altar of which I’ve previously written. However, it also contains a lot of information about les puits which, it transpires, means wells. Apparently, Fontvielle is famous for them. So, with an hour to spare, I decide that today’s mission is to search for the wells of which, my book informs me, there are over fifty. A sort of watery treasure hunt.

 

Firstly, I look for the two oratories which are also supposed to be famous. I find the one dedicated to St Victoire easily but upset the owners of the only car that has passed this way in years by parking over the entrance to their house.

 

 

 

The second, dedicated to St Roch, is equally easy to locate but not very accessible as it’s on the side of a roundabout. I doubt whether poor old Roch gets many votive offerings.

 

 

Then it’s off to look for wells. I’d say you need about three weeks to find them all. At one point, a man comes out of his house to see what I’m up to. ‘Puits’ is quite a hard word to pronounce and I am unsuccessful. I show him my book. Oh, you mean the wells, he says in perfect English. Anyway, it turns out that he used to live in Zurich but now lives in Berne, and comes to his little house in Fontvielle every six weeks. Sorry, did I ask for your life story? He shows me a well that I’ve just walked past and would never have noticed in a month of Sundays.

 

 

 

 

 

Looking for wells is an unusual pastime: I must look over walls and sneak into people’s gardens and run away like a naughty child that’s just rang the doorbell.

 

 


It’s fun though and I got to see some bits of the village that I hadn’t seen before. I never knew LeLee was here. My dad and I have some of his pictures at home – sadly, not originals but some rare ones which we like.

 

 

 

 

 

 

It’s a pretty village and worth a wander.

 

More open doors

On the second of the Journées de Patrimone, I visit the Jewish cemetery in St Rémy de Provence and, before I proceed with this account, I’d like to say that, whilst I learned a lot today, I must apologise in advance to those of the Jewish faith who are familiar with what follows.

 

 

This serene and tranquil cemetery finally closed its doors in 1977 and it’s only thanks to European Heritage Days and the ‘friends’ that we can get in once a year, rather than never. Today, the oldest visible tomb was erected in 1821 and the most recent dates from 1915. However, the cemetery was first mentioned in 1400 and was founded much earlier; indeed, it was built on the site of another medieval burial ground.

There is evidence of a large Jewish community in St Rémy forever, probably since Roman times. Records show that in 1339 all meat sold in the town was ritually slaughtered (Kosher) and the locals made a formal complaint of it being tasteless. St Rémy’s famous son, Nostradamus, was born of Jewish ancestry although his family later converted to Catholicism. The Jews were expelled from Provence in 1500 by Louis X11 and they had to wait until the French Revolution of 1789 for official recognition of their right to return and confirmation of their equality with everyone else.

Back in the cemetery, I see a couple placing a stone on a tomb. Actually, I’d noticed that several of the tombs have stones randomly placed upon them. I gave this half a thought: in Provence, you can see rooftops adorned with stones but this is a practical solution against the whims of the Mistral. Surely this can’t be true for long-ago graves.

I pluck up courage and ask Madame from ‘the friends’. I don’t mean I need courage to ask, but I do need some extended vocabulary to understand the answer. Actually, it’s not too tricky: she gives me some alternative explanations which I later research and find her perspective the best. In no particular order that I know of, they are as follows:

 

Before the time of caskets and coffins, the deceased was buried in a shroud in the ground so the stones acted as protection against the ravages of wild beasts. Par contre, the stones, which are placed with the left hand, keep the souls in place, thus preventing a haunting. And yet another alternative is the view that placing a stone is a symbol of sending the dead on a safe journey (because the stone represents strength) and a reminder of the resurrection.

I was a bit confused by the latter. Pragmatically, it makes sense: if the stone is removed, then the soul can escape – hence the rolling back the stone from the place of Jesus’ burial. But I didn’t think that this religion believed in the resurrection; what do I know?

 

 

Anyway, Madame is on a roll with her audience of one and begins to tell me about the Germans. It’s true that the German army requisitioned St Paul de Mausole in WW2 but trying to confirm her story is a non-starter. Nonetheless, I’ve no reason to disbelieve her. Weasel readers will be familiar with St Paul de Mausole which is where Van Gogh placed himself after the episode in Arles. And where he produced 150 works of art including Starry Nights. So, the Germans threw out all the patients and closed down the cemetery. Just as contextualisation, this little part of the world was, in 1940, ordained as part of the Free Zone under the protectorate of the dubious Vichy government. By 1942, the Germans had moved in and begun a systematic round-up of French Jews.

Everything she passionately recounts begs another question but now more French people have arrived and the discourse is too speedy for yours truly. Still, it’s another piece of local history and culture for me from yet another true representative of Heritage Days.

Open doors

It’s the European Heritage Days today and tomorrow when, all over Europe, it’s possible to visit places that are mostly closed to the public. Well, all over Europe apart from England which, secretly, had its heritage days last weekend. I suppose the Brexiteers feel we’re already no longer part of Europe so why not be different?

And actually, the French may well feel the same: at my very favourite Chapelle St Gabriel, whose doors are rarely open, on asking the lady from the Association of the Friends of Gabriel if they had any literature in English, I was informed ‘non’, only French, German and Spanish. And pourquoi pas Anglais, I press her? She’s embarrassed, poor thing – ‘une erreur’, she tries with a question mark. You’re sure it’s not Brexit, I suggest?

What she does have, nonetheless, looks interesting even if it’s going to take me some time to translate. So, I continue, as a friend of Gabriel, do you know the secret? She hates me in a charming sort of way. I see blank confusion as she makes a mental note to ensure there’s something in written English next time. ‘Quel secret?’

I tell her I’ve read that St Gabriel’s Chapel embodies a secret hidden in plain sight. Perhaps Jesus was here? (any chance to get back on that overladen boat in a manner of speaking). Madame has not heard of this although, being a huge fan of conspiracy theories, I suspect the Association of the Friends of Gabriel won’t be owning up to anything in the near future.

 

Or possibly St Martha, I continue? Madame brightens up considerably at this suggestion and begins to tell me how Martha overcame the Tarasque. Yes, yes, I smile but I also read that this chapel was constructed on the site of a previous building that may have been a religious school for girls and women initiated by St Martha. We’re having this conversation in French and nobody like a know-it-all. But Madame, who hasn’t heard this story either, seems genuinely interested. Either that or she’s a pleasant but accomplished actor.

Do you come here often she asks without a hint of either irony or sarcasm? Because, she continues, you could join the Association, which I’ve now decided is a local branch of Opus Dei, and tell everyone else all these things. It was a joy to be in that place with her: she loves it as I do and I’m seriously thinking of signing up.

The Association was formed in 2009, with the aims of restoring and maintaining the chapel and enabling regular access. In 2013, they managed to get the state architect on board along with the national body for archaeological research whose study suggested that a provisional budget of 460,000 euro might get the renovations under way. Some minor building works have been carried out but, today, one of the most worrying problems comprises the parasitic vegetation which is erupting over the building. On the other hand, the Association successfully inaugurated the ‘Dimanches de St Gabriel’, so many of those who previously complained of the place never being open, have subsequently been able to visit. Voila, what began with a tiny group of people now has a membership of over 250.

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been to St Gabriel’s Chapel. However, my second visit on the first of the Journees du Patriome was to the Hôtel de Sade which I’ve never previously visited. Balthazar de Sade had a wonderful mansion erected in St Remy in the late fifteenth century. Baltahazar, by the way, was an ancestor of the infamous Marquis of the same name.

 

I suppose the main reason for its importance is that Balthazar had his house built around a bunch of much older constructions, most of which are a bit tricky for yours truly to comprehend. Where’s Paul Russell when you need him? Apparently, the new bits are constructed in the ‘flamboyant Gothic’ style whatever that is. However, pre WW2 excavations revealed a huge bath complex dating from the fourth century AD. Not mentioning any names, but it wasn’t that long ago that some Prof from the USA was dragging me round Constantine’s bathroom in temperatures of 40C after a particularly energetic lunch. If only we’d known what was lurking in the back streets of St Remy. I quote: ‘it’s exceptionally well-preserved state is comparable to the thermal baths of Constantine in Arles’.

Here, we have the well-preserved remains of the hypocaust, the palaestro, the pool, the sauna, the tepidarium and the frigidarium. Who knew, Russell? Don’t ask me ; I only take the photos and write a few words.

 

And if all of that isn’t sufficient, it turns out that the Hôtel de Sade is the repository of excavation findings from Glanum. They’ve got mosaics and sculptures; painted plasters, heads and torsos; tombs and carvings. They only had a few out on display today and they were ‘roped’ off by ugly red and white chains, so I didn’t take any photos. Sorry Prof.

Here’s a tip, though. If you’re interested in historical stuff that the public can’t normally see, visit Provence during les Jours du Patrimone.

The end of something

September in Provence can be charming with its late-in-the-year warmth, excepting the unexpected wind. Something purporting to be the mistral blows down the Rhône when one least desires its presence. But, today, the curse of the South is non-existent.

Market Day in St Remy de Provence and the place is flooded with Americans looking for end of season bargains. It’s like high summer has chosen to make a last-ditch reminder of its economic raison d’être. Those huge tomates anciennes are beckoning to be conjoined to a little picadon. The rennes claudes, sweet and juicy, don’t suffer the fears of their English counterparts: if a tree dies, so will its owner (or vice versa).

By the pool, we few cosmopolitan hangers-on lap up the globally warmed rays, intent on returning to colder climes with the hint of an envied tan. We dip in and dip out of the water and likewise of our undemanding novels; immersed in the care of nothing, to which we cling before reality hits on the next plane home. A solitary tree frog sings a lonely song from time to time.

Later, just before dark, the odd lost swallow flies overhead looking for its compatriots. I sit here quietly, reading of news from home wherein a son has just bought his first house and my parents are accompanied by decorators. It’s an hour and a half away by air and a million miles to another life. My hostess lends me a jacket to combat the sudden drop in temperature, but it’s still warm enough to take supper outside.

My picture is of the town hall at Tarascon, the place to be when celebrating Christmas in these parts. I won’t be there: I’ll be in Dorset with my family.Tomorrow, the temperature begins its downward slide, but Provence will still be here. Different, but still beckoning timelessly with a disregard of the seasons.

 

Re-inventing Arles

I’m reading a rather lovely travel book about the Midi at the moment which was published in the early 1960s. In some respects, rien ne change. In others …

… having just described the antiquities of Arles, the writer comments, ‘today it lies smiling and sleepy, full of memories’. Well, I’m here to tell you they’re rebuilding the joint, adding a new layer of architectural history and it’s so noisy, there’s little chance of a nap.

I’ve come to town to visit a major exhibition of the work of Annie Leibovitz: The First Years 1970 – 1983 which is being held in the new Parc des Ateliers. No-one I’ve spoken to knows where the Parc is so I’ve consulted a map. Thus, I know I must turn left at the traffic lights on the delightfully named Boulevard des Lices (look it up if you don’t know what it means – it’s worse than you think). The good news is that the Parc is signposted. The bad news is that the route is barred and, with a load of traffic behind me, I’m forced to push on and dump the car in some huge commerce place. Now on foot, I’m instructed to cross a make-shift bridge across the main railway line, negotiate two building sites and assorted dumper trucks and cranes, before collapsing at the first bar I find which is adjacent to the view in the above photo. They seem to be building on something old. What was here before, I ask the waiter? Nothing, comes the informative reply. Well, clearly there was something, I don’t say.

I walk for ages down the road to nowhere but, when I reach an entrance, I carry on for I think, unexpectedly, that I know where I am. It’s the canal which I believe borders the Roman necropolis, Les Alyscamps. I haven’t actually seen it before but I’ve felt the venom of its mosquitoes.

 

 

I’m right! Tracing the bank, I can just see the enigmatic church of St Honoratus through the trees, along with a couple of Roman sarcophagi. And here we have the ultimate juxtaposition of ancient and modern. On one side of the road, a necropolis so famous that bodies were floated down the Rhone just for the prestige of being buried there; a place where, more recently, Gauguin and Van Gogh wandered with their paint boxes. And on the other side …

… admittedly, behind a stone wall, the main exhibition galleries of the Parc des Ateliers. WOW. These are all past SNCF buildings which have been transformed into something amazing. I don’t know if I like it but they probably said the same about Constantine’s Baths at the beginning.

The Leibovitz collection is extraordinary. The photographs – and there are literally hundreds of them – manage to make the glamour of the USA look dirty and sordid. Here are Jagger, Springsteen, Dylan, and just about anyone you can think of from the 70s and 80s music scene, drunk, stoned, tired and ugly in their dingy dressing rooms and hotels, all looking in need of soap and water and sleep. Here are Warhol and Liberace, ridiculously disarmed and precarious as Leibowitz catches them off pose.

And here are the politics of America, as far removed from the sanitised House of Cards version as is humanly possible. Numerous stills show Ted Kennedy ever smiling and professional but with a less than attractive entourage. Badly dressed men, and always men, ‘doing the business’ on planes, in offices and generally behind the scenes, looking shady and untrustworthy. The placards pronounce, effectively, ‘the other two died for you so you’d better vote for Ted’. Leibovitz captures an interminable sense of squalor on so many levels. In the end, one is so overwhelmed by both the brilliance and ghastliness of it all that it’s just too demanding.

The Parc des Ateliers is sadly lacking in the eating department. There’s a sort of canteen where people queue up to purchase plastic food which is then consumed at long tables with a bunch of people you don’t know. I suppose they think it gives the place the modern look; actually, it reminds me of a motorway service station. Back up the long track there’s a burger joint which is equally disenchanting. However, across the road, on the building site, I manage to acquire a rather nice steak with Roquefort sauce. That’ll do nicely thank-you.

P.S. The book I’m reading is called West of the Rhone by Freda White.