Ever the intrepid explorer, I have, this year, invested in the latest ‘must-haves’ necessary for successful travelling in Provence: I now own two large scale maps of the region which are the nearest thing to the holy Ordnance Survey that France boasts. Do I mean large scale? I’ve never quite got the hang of that large/small scale thing. These are large maps that cover small areas in miniscule detail with lots of interesting and helpful symbols. Today, I intend to visit two new (to me) locations and one old (Roman actually).
Here be olives and chapels. It doesn’t take long to become lost on a hardly-existing road whilst in search of another undiscovered chapel. Well, undiscovered to me although the Kiwi, who’s been living here for seven years, also has no inkling of its whereabouts. Far from religious, my very favourite place in Provence is a chapel so I’m always on the lookout for similar inspiring edifices.
In the usual vogue of French appreciation of heritage, someone has made an informative cardboard arrow and tied it to a lonely pole in the middle of nowhere. I’m driving down one of those optimistically named ‘roads’ that are about three feet wide with deep ditches on either side. I’ve just had a close encounter of the third kind with an ancient being coming in the opposite direction when I notice the home-made sign. It seems to have folded itself in two so the tail is facing one direction whilst the arrow head is bent at right angles and is pointing down another road. I pull over, park, exit the car, then return faster than the speed of light to halt the vehicle’s downward tract. Note to oneself: remember the handbrake.
Sometime later, I stop to examine the placard pictured above which informs me that I’m now on the Route de l’Olivier. Further to identifying all the possible vendors of olive oil in the locale, I’m hoping said placard will inform me of the location of Chapelle St Jean. As it happens, there’s no need. Having spent so much time ensuring I’ve stopped on a verge free from ditches, and that the handbrake is suitably employed, I’ve failed to notice that I’m parked right outside the missing chapel.
It’s a disparaging affair. For a start, there are two red signs proclaiming this to be private property. Whose? God? St Jean? Obviously, I ignore these and press on despite the immediate unattractiveness of the joint. The small wooden door is locked and there’s no handy key hole to look through.
Some of these provencal chapels embody a sense of calm and well-being. Conversely, the 11th century Chapelle St Jean is wrapped in an aura of anxiety. Even the olive groves to the rear seem faded, jaded and generally unwelcoming. A solitary lizard scuttles away as if embarrassed at being the only living thing here besides me. It’s one of those places where constantly looking over one’s shoulder is de rigeur.
I move on to Fontvielle where I spend some time hanging around in the Spar shop just to take advantage of their air conditioning. They have nothing I wish to purchase so I find a sheltered spot in the square where I devour a very rare steak in preparation for the next stage of today’s excursion.
I want to journey back in time to the Barbegal Aqueduct that, in the last couple of years, has become a new favourite place to hang out. Today, I had thought I might attempt a little sketching. Sounds simple enough even if I’m a writer of sorts and an artist of none.
Clutching a plastic BHS carrier bag which contains sketch book, colours, pencil, notebook, camera and so on, I leave the car for the silent ruins. Actually, that should be ruined silence. I hadn’t even reached the first arch before I heard them: oh, wow, that’s awesome. Americans. Not gentle Americans like my friend from New York. Disturbing tourist types who had somehow found their way here. Or maybe lost their way. The whole point of the Barbegal Aqueduct is that hardly anyone knows of its existence. But, here they are. On bicycles. Naked apart from shorts.
Did I mention the temperature? Hot enough to fry a lizard. Pushing 37C. Stay out in this too long and we’ll all be mistaken for lizards. The BHS plastic bag is weeping but I press on. The aqueduct took the water from the Alpilles across the plain and into the Roman city of Arles – a prestigious venue inhabited by rich immigrants; the forerunners of those who make Provence a fashionable place to live in today. Roman soldiers who served the empire successfully were also offered a retirement villa in the city as a reward.
Part of the channel that carried the water across the plain still exists. However, at a point in the cliff face it disappears as do all the dogs that run gleefully along the path and into antiquarian oblivion. There are no dogs today. Only Americans on bicycles. I climb to the edge of the cliff and look out over the ancient topography. And wait. I can hear them. I hear no remembered Italian, Latin, French, Occitane, Provencal; only the bloody Americans who are racing their way onwards on their super duper bicycles. Racing along the channel that once carried the water of life. Racing along the channel that ends in a sheer drop.
They work it out right at the last moment. They seem suitably shocked. There is silence, followed by shouting, followed by embarrassed laughter, followed by angry discussion. I’ve had enough.
Off I trundle down overgrown lanes where the ditches, amazingly, still hold water. I’m now on a quest of Tolkien-like dimensions: my trusty map has thrown up the Towers of Castillon. How gloriously enigmatic they sound. Will there be dragons and rings of gold? Will I ever find them as I plunge down tinier and tinier roads?
Actually, the roads might be small but the property around here isn’t. The rich do not live here: the exceptionally rich and famous inhabit these parts. I see domains bigger than palaces with designer ponies and immaculately kept driveways – GO AWAY! Then, I do my well-practised trick of suddenly pulling off the road to examine a handy placard. And the handy placard informs me, of course, that I’ve arrived in the region of the Towers of Castillon.
No sign of them though. I thought, being towers, they might be a bit more visible. More sort of towering if you know what I mean. I study the placard more closely. There are no dragons but there are pictures of dinosaurs. I also note there’s a three hour walk that involves the towers. I don’t think so. Not in this heat.
A few minutes later, I eventually locate a tower or two (there are three) and yet again pull off the road to take a snap. Then I make a silly decision: having come this far, I might as well climb up to the first tower. It doesn’t seem too far but I later discover it’s 134 feet high. It’s pushing 40C and I’m very isolated.
The towers mark the boundaries of a village that was inhabited between the eleventh and fifteenth centuries. After this, everyone cleared off and went to live in nearby Paradou. This seems an inordinately sensible idea. In Paradou, for example, they have two GPs who speak English. There is also a charming santon museum which is a delightful way to learn the social history of Provence. In contrast, there’s nothing left of Castillon as all other remains have been destroyed by time. I’m feeling a bit that way myself.