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.