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.

 

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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.

 

A postcard from the seaside

Hoorah! In this, the final card I’m sending from France, you’ll be pleased to learn that we’re finally off to the seaside. It was a close run thing: first he wanted to go, then he didn’t, but now he wants to see the Camargue so, Saints Marie de la Mer, here we come. Of course, there’s some academic, rambling, preambling debate regarding the positioning of the apostrophe on the word ‘Maries’ to get out of the way before proceedings can commence. I point out that it’s the ‘saintes’ that are plural and not the ‘maries’; something I’m happy to do since he recently observed that I put the question mark in the wrong place in my literary attempts. What fun we two share.

There’s also another minor contretemps when, even before we’ve left Arles, – yes, we’re there again – the navigator is so busy talking, probably about the differences between English English and what he dares to call American English, that he fails to direct me to the relevant turn-off and we’re trapped on the auto-route to Nimes. He’s desperate to visit Nimes but I know his game and I find a hasty exit towards the swampland that is the Camargue.

I’ve already warned him about the mosquitoes and the fact that we’ll be safe as long as we’re out of the place before five o clock. Before then, there are flamingos and bulls and white horses to look for. Once, under some considerable pressure, I went horse riding in the Camargue with Barbara. Actually, the full Trowbridge contingent was present, along with my son and a pal of his. In the event, people kept dropping out, preferring, for some inexplicable reason, to sit in the bar at the stables. I asked for a horse that was on tranquilisers and some old nag was dragged out of the abattoir for me to sit on to the huge amusement of everyone, including the cowboys. How they roared. Well, if I can make someone happy … it was one of the best things I’ve ever done. I ask Russell if he fancies a spot of pony trekking. He looks as if he’s going to be ill and doesn’t even bother to answer me.

To my knowledge, there are no cloisters and no Roman ruins in Saintes Marie de la Mer. There is, however, a church and as we enter the town, I remark on the people on the church roof. What’s happening there then, I demand. He seems a bit perturbed but there’s no time to worry about it as I’ve spotted that it’s Market Day. We’re going to the market, I state with some force. He capitulates and I wander around happily examining the fridge magnets of the Maries. He’s covered the ground in about ten seconds and is heading for the church. I don’t mind going to this church. For a start, I’ve never been before. Further, this is the church built to commemorate the arrival of the Maries, and allegedly seventy others belonging to the entourage of Jesus, on the shores of Provence. However, before we can get inside, there’s an altercation.

Now, I don’t think Russell will be offended if I mention men’s jobs. Mostly, I like to think of myself as gender neutral when it comes to taking one’s turn. Nonetheless, on this holiday, there have been a few occasions when I’ve informed him he’ll have to deal with something or other because ‘it’s a man’s job’. In my lexicon, this refers to the repair of something that’s broken that I can’t be arsed to deal with. The first time it happened – probably a broken corkscrew – he said he’d never undertaken a ‘man’s job’ in his life. Well, you’re sixty now and you’re travelling with me; get over it. Anyway, outside the church, I was accosted by a particularly vicious looking gypsy who pinned a brooch of St Sarah on my dress which seemed immovable. Try as I might, I couldn’t remove the bloody thing. Russell moved forward, exhibiting a surprising display of macho threat, and she immediately tore off the emblem and scurried away. I don’t know which of us was the most embarrassed.

The church was fabulous. Wait, did I just say that? Icons to the left, icons to the right. A fantastic display of paintings that folk had presented over the centuries with the Maries in a floating boat saving the day. And downstairs, a full-sized model of St Sarah who’s the patron saint of gypsies. I loved it all so much that I was happy to accompany him up to the roof.

 

Pardon? I don’t know how this happened. One minute I’d parted with three euro, the next, I was overlooking the sea and the town. I took a snap of him and he took a snap of me. I sat down and watched as he slithered over the tiles. Then, he cleared off and I realised that I had to crawl the length of the roof alone in order to get back down again. I think this was the most upset I’d been with him on the whole holiday. I was rewarded with an absolutely superb lunch of seafood and pasta – possibly the best meal I ate in the whole two weeks. We were the only tourists in the joint which was full of French workmen. Even the chef came out to see whether we’d enjoyed our food. Russell – you’re forgiven.

On the way back, there was an opportunity to visit a nature reserve. I sort of wanted to and kind of didn’t: I was so hot and, yet again, full of molluscs. It was an absolute treat – flamingos and storks and egrets and, the best thing ever,

the ragondin. By the end of this day, we weren’t in the best of spirits having experienced way too much sun. But a dip in the pool and yet another bottle of the pink stuff, and all is well with the world.

 

I’m not doing any more of these postcards. But if you think our holiday was not what it might have been, I’d like to put you right. We are the original ‘odd couple’ but we had fun. We danced around each other a bit but I never wanted to be alone, nor wished for alternate company. It was a joy. (He doesn’t smile much).

 

 

 

 

A postcard from the past

There’s an interesting triangle of places to visit just outside St Remy, all within easy walking distance of each other. My American friend is beside himself with anticipation – we’re going to Glanum, a fortified town taken over by the Romans in 27BCE. I park under a tree on the lane that leads to the local sanatorium whereby Russell disembarks to study a pictorial sign which disturbs him greatly. He particularly dislikes the image of a fist clenching a hammer which is about to enter someone’s rear window. I am advised to move the car to somewhere less dangerous. He’ll wait in the shade. To be fair, he has a point: this looks like the very same hammer that smashed the rear window of last year’s hire car. The chauffeur moves the car and trudges back along the sweltering, dusty track to re-join the seasoned passenger.

First, we visit the mausoleum and triumphal arch – the latter being the oldest in France – which are situated on the other side of the road. Established Donald followers know this story only too well: local folk wandering up and down the road for eons, never bothering to question why these two antiquities might be thus situated. Poor old Vincent, busy painting views of Les Alpilles from the point where I originally tried to leave the car, without the slightest inkling that there was a whole Roman town between him and the mountains; let alone any idea that folk would soon be passing by with hammers. Even my companion, who knows everything about anything, and whom I’d previously primed like one of Vincent’s blank canvases, was astounded: ‘didn’t they think the arch was the entrance to somewhere?’ Je te l’ai dit mon ami, je te l’ai dit.

Following my astute advice, Glanum is our next port of call; in this searing heat, I don’t think it will be possible to remain standing in the place much later in the day. As it happens, the woman who collects the tickets we purchased three steps before advises us that the place will close for the remainder of the day at noon. Strange, I think, and think no more. Russell views the ruins and is positively orgasmic. Nice to have it to ourselves, I remark. Just then a crowd of three hundred schoolchildren appear noisily around the corner and he’s off; pushing and shoving his way through the unwelcome intruders. The stride has practically evolved into a sprint. But I thought you were an educationalist. Russell, I screech, you’re missing the well, but he’s gone, leaving only a cloud of Roman dust.

 

 

 

 

 

I love this place, probably for all the wrong reasons, and decide to try a few botanical snaps: random poppies juxtaposed against the ancient stones; that type of thing. Sometimes, I catch a fleeting glance of him, knocking children to the ground, but largely he’s lost in the midst of time. Eventually, I catch up with him by the sacred spring where he’s muttering about sewers. Then he’s off up the hill and I’m gasping for breath in his wake. Finally, we get back to the entrance to find the place crawling with gendarmes and a variety of police vehicles. Do you think there’s been a murder, I ask excitedly. He has lunch on his mind and, as usual, no interest in the quotidian. These academics are clever types but I sometimes feel a whole layer of life passes them by. Me, I’m just plain nosey and have to ask someone what’s occurring. A crime of passion, apparently. They’re filming the one and only episode of NCIS St Remy. Lovely.

We take our luncheon on the terrace of Villa Glanum, another old favourite of mine. Today, it’s a somewhat tired but, nonetheless, enchanting hotel. Once, it was the home of Alphonse Daudet, who sometimes pretended he was writing letters from a windmill in Fontvielle. Back in Blighty, I gave Russell a choice of bedtime reading: Daudet or Mistral. He chose the latter but I think he missed a trick. To my simple mind, Mistral is too arrogant whereas you learn a lot of social history from Daudet. But what do I know? Another time …

And so to St Paul Mausole, the sanatorium where Vincent placed himself after the disaster that was Arles and where he painted many of his most famous pictures. When I first came to these parts, I had little knowledge of or interest in Van Gogh, but you don’t have to be here long to realise how he captured the very essence of Provence. I’m pleased to report that my travelling companion has, at last, noticed this and threatens to return home and study the paintings of the genius. Personally, I’m just thrilled to be in Vincent’s garden with the lavender.