Friday, August 17, 2007

Juxtaposed excursions

It was weird to visit England and then Provence in the space of a fortnight. For those who are used to packing a lot of varied tourism into short periods (as in the case of Australian visitors, for example, on a global tour of the Old World), I suppose there's nothing unusual in visiting several countries in rapid succession. I was struck by an experience of this kind during my initial voyage to Europe, when our Greek liner Bretagne brought us into brief contact with Singapore, the Suez Canal and Athens, before dropping us off in Southampton. But, since then, I had lost the habit of changing almost overnight from one society and culture to another. To be more explicit, I've been leading an isolated lifestyle at Gamone for such a long time [with the exception of last year's Australian interlude] that I was unprepared for the shock of returning to noisy crowded London. Then, this shock was rapidly attenuated—like cold water poured onto a pressure cooker—by the relaxed three days down in Provence with Natacha and Alain. I should mention, though, that I didn't actually plan to juxtapose these two excursions, so that they might produce a counterpoint effect. It was simply the chance outcome of available dates.

On Tuesday, 7 August 2007, I was thrilled to find myself traveling down to meet up once again with my friends in Marseille. The following words, dashed off on my portable computer, reveal my excitement: "I'm writing this article in the high-speed train from Valence to Marseille, at eight o'clock on a sunny morning, with Sophia stretched out on the carpet at my feet. There's only one other passenger in the luxurious first-class carriage: a young woman seated on the other side of the aisle, who's also working on a portable computer. The train is speeding along through a dark-green wonderland of wooded hills, vineyards, agricultural fields, orchards, timber forests, streams, rocky ridges, silvery scrubs and low hills. The sun is still low in the eastern sky, which is pale blue and cloudy. From time to time, we pass alongside a Provençal village. At the moment I was writing that last sentence, the train crossed over the broad Rhône, and the conductor announced that we were about to stop for three minutes at Avignon. What a crazily frustrating idea: three minutes at Avignon! In fact, the modern train station is far out in the Provençal wilderness, several kilometers away from the celebrated bridge and the Palace of Popes."

Natacha and Alain took me first to an amazing cave in the mountains near Marseille, one of the holiest sites in Christendom: the Sainte-Baume, associated with an ancient legend according to which the New Testament personage known as Mary Magdalene once lived in the Marseille region.

She would have traveled from the Holy Land to southern France—accompanied by others, including her brother Lazarus and a saintly friend named Maximin—in a miraculous boat with neither a sail nor a rudder. After evangelizing the people of Marseille, Mary lived as a hermit in a cave on the face of a cliff of the nearby mountain range that is now known as the Sainte-Baume. And that's the place we visited last week, with my pilgrim dog Sophia leading the way up the ancient stony pathway.

After a strenuous climb, terminating in countless stone steps, we reached the vast cave, which has been transformed into a sanctuary, with a splendid panoramic view out over the surrounding flat countryside.

In the context of local legends concerning this venerated site, relics still have a role to play, even today. Here, inside the cave, is a large bone alleged to have belonged to Mary Magdalene:

When Natacha and I reached the cave, leaving Alain to stay with Sophia at the foot of the steps, the place was swarming with pilgrims, accompanied by members of the clergy, getting prepared for some kind of a service. A little girl in ribbons and bows pointed to the relic and asked Natacha what it was.

Natacha: "It's a bone of Mary Magdalene."

Little girl: "C'est dégueulasse ! " [How disgusting! That's the slang adjective made famous by Jean-Paul Belmondo and Jean Seberg at the end of Godard's 1959 New Wave film Breathless.]

After scrambling back down the rocky path, we drove to the nearby basilica that honors both saints, Mary Magdalene and Maximin, whose façade looks as if it might have been hit by a bomb.

This is where the alleged sarcophagus of Mary Magdalene was discovered in the 13th century, and her skull is displayed in the crypt.

The legends of Mary Magdalene in Provence might not be particularly plausible from a historical viewpoint, but they are rich and profound. As somebody said, the most convenient attitude consists of "accepting" these legends, at least while you're in Provence, even if this means discarding temporarily the notion that more than one Biblical individual might be concealed behind the generic name of Mary Magdalene, that her bones might have been transferred to Vézelay, or maybe that her tomb(s) might in fact be located in the Holy Land...

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