Confused by signs, symbols, harbingers and portents, I set out to look for something of significance. The half suns have, of course, turned out to be scallop shells. And the scallop shells, littered like beach debris across my map of the Alpilles, are waypoints on one of the many routes to Santiago de Compostela. But who in their right mind would climb up and down and round and about with so much distance yet to cover? Other folk desperately seeking something I suppose.
This particular route appears to be one that begins in Italy and heads off towards the ‘second Rome’ – Arles, before moving on to Nimes and the Spanish border. There’s another road that does this – the Via Aurelia whose construction commenced in 12BC. It makes you wonder why the pilgrims didn’t stick with the main road. The probable reason is that it fell into disrepair and currently seems to be the sole responsibility of a French archaeologist called Bruno Tassan.
On the other hand, the Via Domitia, signs of which my knowledgeable friend, Julie Mautner, alerted me to, was constructed in 118BC and is well maintained today. And if that’s still not enough roads, consider the many and hidden ways that were used in WW2 to transport all types of wanted people from the so-called free zone into Spain via Nimes.
Today, despite pilgrimages to Santiago de Compostela being a compulsory part of everyone’s bucket list, there’s nothing to explain the position of the various waypoints in the Alpilles: no obvious accommodation facilities and no places of prayer. And because the shells on my map seems to be of a different size to other symbols, it’s not even possible to ascertain their precise location and, subsequently, whether an obligatory (but unlikely) brass shell embellishing some random stone or wall is in place. This is exactly why the decline in oral history is such a sadness of which many are unaware: if it’s not on Google, it can’t be real.
On the day of the Assumption of Mary, I consider a trip to St Etienne du Gres. My now infamous map informs me that the Chapel of Notre Dame du Chateau sits at the top of a hill behind the village. Next to the sign for the chapel is a star – the symbol for a site of unusual interest. Also in this village is La Mourgue. It’s an old stone – more of this later.
I head off via one of those scallop shells: the one where the earlier road sign proclaiming the Via Domitia sits. Or I think I do. No matter, I soon find myself on the Vieux Chemin d’ Arles and that makes me happy – non of these modern roads for your intrepid explorer. When I mention this later, no-one else admits to knowing where this road is. Well, no-one except Julie and I told you she knows everything. And half way along this ancient road, I have to do one of my sudden stops to look at this most beautiful display of flowers. I’m in serious olive country but someone’s taken the trouble to plant this little roadside garden.
I never get to the chapel even though I reach St Etienne du Gres. Not a lot goes on in this village. On Assumption day, it dies. I drive around looking for people. Looking for La Mourgue. It’s a tall, wide statue. Shouldn’t be difficult to find. The one and only bar in the village is open and full of men. Loins girded, I enter and ask for directions feeling I’ve no chance. A man, who looks, smells and walks as one who’s been ensconced within for some weeks, draws me a simple map. There are only two roundabouts involved.
I end up on an industrial park. The simple map that the drunk drew indicates La Mourgue should be opposite. Needless to say, it isn’t. I turn up a tiny lane and am confounded by a beautiful chapel – the chapel of St Thomas de Laurade. It’s a Templar edifice dating from 1196 and thus one of the oldest in the area.
Today I, Tomorrow ?, ? Requiem, Amen Loyally. Reader, if you can do better, please add a comment to this post.
I want to go inside but when I get round the corner, it seems to have turned into a house called Le Presbytere. It has a charming garden and one of those cardboard arrows so loved by the French. This one says ‘reception’ so I enter and knock on the door. Marie answers. She looks cross. I ask whether she knows where La Mourgue is. ‘At the end of the road’, she replies. I ask whether the chapel is private. ‘Down the end of the road’, she replies. I hazard a guess that I might not be the first to end up in her garden asking these questions.
No-one knows what it is. No-one I’ve spoken to, apart from the drunk in the bar, even knows it’s there. This includes Julie. The chap in the bar said it was a woman. Google says it’s a pre-Roman fertility symbol of a man. Well, tell me I’m wrong but this looks like more than one person to me. I feel I’ve found, at last, something of significance.
Bruno Tassan’s extremely interesting work on Via Aurelia can be found here: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/via-aurelia-the-roman-empires-lost-highway-133706383/?no-ist
Julie Mautner’s extraordinarily comprehensive blog can be found here: http://theprovencepost.blogspot.fr/2015_08_01_archive.html