In all the years I’ve been coming to Provence, I’ve never been to Boulbon, which is strange as it’s a mere twenty minute drive from where I’m staying. Looking in my notebook to see what can be said about today’s visit, I see that the first thing I wrote was ‘there’s a good view from the cemetery’. Fortunately, there’s a bit more to the place.

To begin with, Boulbon is worth a visit just to wander around the labyrinth of ancient streets and lanes


Eventually, you’ll come across this fourteenth century carving. Most of the depictions of saints in this tiny part of the world are either of St Eloi or St Roch. This, however, is St Christopher with his feet submerged as he carries the Christ child across the Rhone. As we know, folk round here are keen on the story of Jesus being born in Provence, so maybe this is somehow related.


Probably the main reason for a visit to the village is to see the eleventh century feudal fortress come chateau. It’s been added to and updated over the centuries, to accommodate the vagaries of the war machine but, today, is largely ruined. A quick perusal of any relevant literature will inform tourists that you can’t get in due to private ownership and the instability of the joint. That doesn’t mean you can’t try.






I find a street that turns into a path which becomes a track and make a torturous ascent. I say torturous not because I don’t like hills or the way is both stony and slippery, but because of the crowds. Down in the village, with high noon approaching, there was barely a living soul to be seen. Up here, just as I was negotiating a particularly difficult step past the last tumble-down house in near-civilisation, I suddenly find a man with a small child in one arm close on my tail.

Bonjour, I say, clinging onto a tree in order that he can pass. Bonjour, he replies. I stagger upwards behind him only to hear the snapping of twigs behind. Turning round, I see a woman who’s even older than me virtually on all fours. Bonjour, I say. Bonjour, she replies and begins to speak some impenetrable language that she clearly thinks is French and I know isn’t. She’s trying to ask if I’m with the man and the baby.

Now, we seem to have formed some sort of rambling troupe in which no-one knows where they’re going. No sooner have we re-grouped than two more climbers appear. Bonjour, we all say politely to each other and make suggestive noises and grunts regarding the castle.

I forgot to mention an ancient woman had emerged from the shack with two bin-bags full of dead foliage and weeds. She looks up the path. Bonjour, we all say but she glares at us. She doesn’t seem overly happy at so many idiots passing by her house, all of whom, it transpires, have English as their first language despite coming from a variety of countries. Of course, none of us get anywhere near the castle: some of us realise broken ankles are in the offing and others just get fed up with it all and lose the will to live. I begin my descent and pass the withered old crone again with two more bags of weeds that she’s surreptitiously dumping somewhere or other. I don’t speak.

Once I get back down, I wander across to the other side of the village and begin climbing another hill. This one leads to the cemetery via St Marcellin’s Chapel to which it’s adjoined. It’s difficult to find anything about St Marcellin that doesn’t involve cheese so I don’t know who he was. His twelfth century chapel is built on the site of an earlier edifice and is, of course, shut. It’s a mystery to me why all the interesting chapels are never open whilst all the boring churches never seem to close their doors.

Close to hand, I can see the windmill but it’s not THE windmill, renovated and complete with sails, that can be seen from the road below the village. That windmill has completely disappeared so I make my way to the second best option


This involves another climb through the terraced cemetery where the grandest tombs are right at the top, nearer to God. They remind me of a row of ornate beach huts.







Finally, I reach the top and see the ‘proper’ windmill in the distance. The views up here are amazing and worth the climb. But now it’s surely time for lunch. In the Café du Commerce, where all the local workmen are eating, I join them in a chicken curry which is dish of the day. It bears little resemblance to the curry at home but it’s very tasty.



Eagle Road(s) in no order

grand ducI saw Le Grand Duc the other day. Had I been in a position to pull over and take a photo, this is exactly what it would have looked like. This is because, as I was driving in the direction of Tarascon, the eagle decided to land beside the road that veered off into the rocky outcrop known as La Montagnette. I couldn’t believe my luck – good in seeing it so closely and bad in being the only place in Provence where it’s impossible to stop. Joyous, nonetheless.

The day before, I’d decided to post a weasel called ‘Eagle Highway’. I’d been driving along the road to Arles with both eyes in the sky and none on the tarmac because this is where you see the big birds. Last year, travelling down the same route with Peter towards the museum of antiquities, we’d seen an eagle high in the deep blue sky. Eagles are not ten a penny in these parts. In fact, you can pay someone locally quite a lot of money to take you to where they hang out on the understanding that they might not appear. Bit like the Northern Lights. And you can’t do that in August because it’s so damn hot, most of the mountain tracks have been closed by the fire-fighters.

DSCF0609This year, I was travelling Eagle Highway with a view to visiting the Abbey Montmajour again. This is NOT a picture of it. This is the Chapel of the Holy Cross which is just down the road from the abbey and which I was making yet another unsuccessful attempt to enter. How can these joints be private property? The chapel was built in the twelfth century for those making a pilgrimage to the adjacent abbey. Over at Montmajour, they were more than happy to dispense a pardon for whatever sins the pilgrims had committed; which, if they were anything like that lot on the way to Canterbury, would’ve been significant in number and seriousness.

DSCF0617Pardons abounded but the hierarchy over at the abbey weren’t having any riff raff inside to start all that praying business. Hence, the chapel. And, to make the chapel more inviting, a relic of the ‘true cross’ was left inside. I’m happy with this. After all, the Palestinian diaspora had arrived with celebrities, saints and bloodlines so why not bring along a few choice pieces of wood.

DSCF0610I duly paid my 7 euro and visited the abbey again. I particularly enjoyed the new exhibition in which a bunch of happy monks walk us through the development of the abbey which was built over an ancient necropolis.


DSCF0618I also loved the view of the Chapel of the Holy (or true) cross, even though it made me sad that I couldn’t get closer than the earlier photo that I took through the bars. But what I really liked was the reproduction map I purchased in the abbey gift shop of the ancient route to Santiago de Compostela. The innocent that I am, I get so much pleasure from these few themes that seem, unexpectedly, to link my thoughts, my travels and my subsequent weasels.

DSCF0613Whilst in France, I read A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson, in which she brilliantly discards all sense of the linear and of chronology. I feel she’s subconsciously infiltrated my weasels. I didn’t see Le Grand Duc on the day I went to the abbey. Neither did I see an eagle on the road to Arles this year. On both days, I’d discarded the scallop shells, yet everything links.

Hidden secrets

DSCF0634Finally, I’m in my very favourite spot in – anywhere really: Chapelle Saint Gabriel.

Reader, I think you know the story by now but just in case, I offer a brief summary:


DSCF0643A bunch of people had a bad time of it and made themselves unpopular in Jerusalem. Accordingly, they were rounded up, put on a boat and pushed out to sea – an all too familiar tale. Anyway, amongst this particular group was Lazarus, some Marys (including the Magdalene), Martha and Sarah. It’s possible that Elizabeth might also have been aboard. All the usual suspects, including one who might have been pregnant.


mariesEventually, they got lucky and their boat ended up at a small fishing port on the south coast of France. This town was then re-named Saint Maries de la Mer. Most of the travellers went their own separate ways: Lazarus retired to Marseilles and the Magdalene – well that’s another story.


sarahSarah (this is she in the picture) stayed in town and became the patron saint of gypsies (and yes, I’m allowed to use that word).  Martha, meanwhile, travelled up the inhospitable Camargue where she not only had to deal with the interminable mosquito problem, but also had to overcome a man-eating monster called the Tarasque.


tarasqueThe Tarasque might or might not have been a disguised version of paganism or devil worship. Whatever, Martha killed the Tarasque and brought Christianity to the area. After this, she founded an educational establishment for women. And where was this?

DSCF0640Of course – on the site of Chapelle Saint Gabriel. It’s a bit like Stonehenge or Glastonbury – something built on something built on something else. There’s other important stuff but you can do your own research. You only need to know that, locally, this is regarded as a place of very important secrets, not least the true meanings of the images engraved on the façade.


DSCF0630Why is it my favourite place? Set amongst ancient olive groves, there’s a sense of mystery and timelessness which, strangely, makes me feel a part of something unique. I stand in front of this chapel, take a very deep breath and inhale something necessary. Something life affirming.


DSCF0639I walk between the dry grasses, stems covered in tiny white snail shells, and the natural world jumps or flies away from my footfall: faded blue moths, enormous pink butterflies, brown crickets and bright red dragonflies scatter in all directions. I arrange my borrowed picnic blanket on the ground, retrieve my notebook and look for some indication of sensibility to write about.


A family – one of each variety of adults and two small girls – arrive and completely ignore the chapel. The mother has what looks like a mobile phone in her hand. They go from tree to tree eventually stopping to stare intensely at one particular olive bearing specimen. It occurs to me that they might be geo-caching. My one and only experience of geo-caching was with B & J down by the canal at Hanwell. I vaguely understood that we were looking for a container of some sort or another and remember being rather disappointed to find, on discovering it, that it contained no sandwiches.

The French family look up and down and around the tree. Then they crouch on the ground. Fair play – this is a good venue to hide something: the place is positively reeking with secrets. I think they’ve found it but it’s not the grail because now they’re writing on a piece of paper and looking at me with great suspicion. I don’t think they believe that an elderly woman can sit all on her own on a green checked picnic blanket pretending to write in a notebook with an otter on the cover. They think I’m a geo-caching spy which, up until this moment, is the furthest thing from my mind. As it happens, I’ve got that tree marked and as soon as they clear off, I’ll be over there faster than you can say ‘bloodline’.

I once came to this place alone to find that someone had strung gossamer hammocks between the olives. Inside the hammocks shimmered golden olive oil which, as the sun struck, sent waves of colour and light throughout the grove. When I returned with a friend the following day, the art installation had been removed and it was as if it had all been a clichéd dream. To my great regret, I subsequently lost the photos that I took. On the other hand, the one time I looked at those images they gave no clue to the true beauty of Chapelle Saint Gabriel that day.

DSCF0636Aha! There’s a piece of loose olive bark at the foot of the tree. Behind that is a stone. I move the stone aside which I feel is apposite given my spiritual location. Inside the tree trunk is a green tube that looks as if it might contain something toxic. However, it says ‘official geo-cache’ on the outside so I open it. It’s stuffed with pieces of paper, all written in French. I don’t know what I’m supposed to do so I rip a page from my notebook, write a message and place it inside. Then I replace everything exactly as I found it.

I once started writing a story about something hidden at this place but never completed it. I’ve brought drawing paper with me today thinking I might attempt a sketch. I begin but it’s a bit half-hearted and I abandon it in place of the trusted notebook. I’m also a bit hungry and think I might go for a spot of lunch. My work’s done here for the day.

book coverWant to know what I wrote in that message? As that family had completely bypassed the glorious nature and spirituality of this special place in search of something more prosaic, I thought I’d give their followers something meaningful to look for. On the scrap of paper, in French, I wrote ‘Madame Verte was here. Buy my book – Chez Martin – on Amazon. Thank-you’.

Not all roads lead to Rome

santiago-shell-large-001Confused 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.

alpillesThis 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.

DSCF0593On 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.

chapelstetOn 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.

DSCF0496I 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.

DSCF0527I 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.

DSCF0529There’s an enigmatic inscription on the wall. I’ve tried to translate it but with little success. The furthest I got was :

Today I, Tomorrow ?, ? Requiem, Amen Loyally. Reader, if you can do better, please add a comment to this post.


DSCF0531I 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.

DSCF0532I go back down the lane. I look across at the factory and there in front is…

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:

Julie Mautner’s extraordinarily comprehensive blog can be found here: