Reader, I think you know the story by now but just in case, I offer a brief summary:
A 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.
Eventually, 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.
Sarah (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.
The 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?
Of 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.
Why 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.
I 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.
Aha! 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.
Want 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’.