Showing posts with label Provence. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Provence. Show all posts

Friday, February 13, 2009

A lord and his lady

The name Shaftesbury might not ring a bell with many people. It's a small town on a hill in the southern English county of Dorset.

In 1973, Shaftesbury's steep street was made famous by a TV ad for a brand of bread named Hovis:



Curiously, the commentator speaks with a North Country rather than a Dorset accent. This publicity was followed by a funny spoof [which seems to have sadly disappeared from our Internet world]:



In my articles written in August 2007 entitled End of English excursion [display] and Dorset ancestral anecdotes [display], I described my genealogical pilgrimage to Blandford, which is not far away from Shaftesbury.

I've often been intrigued by the fact that the names Skeffington and Shaftesbury have almost identical etymologies. Let me explain. The remote ancestors from whom I acquired my Skyvington surname were Normans who sailed across the English Channel with William and usurped a Saxon settlement (tun) in Leicestershire whose patriarch was called Sceaft, meaning shaft. Maybe this Saxon elder had earned this name through his skills in spear-throwing. In any case, this fellow was not an ancestor of the Norman invaders who chased the Saxons away. The Anglicized name of the place where my Norman ancestors settled down, Skeffington, was simply a reminder of the original Saxon name. I have no reason to imagine that any of the original Saxons mated with the Normans invaders, giving rise to offspring with genuine Sceaft genes... because I'm a lousy spear-thrower. In the case of Shaftesbury, too, the Norman invaders appear to have usurped a Saxon stronghold (burg) created by a patriarch called Sceaft.

Apart from that, whenever Shaftesbury and Dorset are mentioned, I think immediately of the beautiful face of Nastassja Kinski in the film Tess [1979] by Roman Polanski. In fact, although the novelist Thomas Hardy [1840-1928] located Tess of the d'Urbervilles in Dorset, Polanski's movie was actually shot in the north of France. Now, I'm letting myself get led astray...







In the 17th century, a Dorset fellow named Anthony Cooper, with no outstanding qualities or world-shaking talents, nevertheless persuaded the king to name him the Earl of Shaftesbury. Later, his descendants left the town with the steep hill and moved to a tiny place in Dorset named Wimborne St Giles, where they erected a red-brick mansion, and transformed themselves into posh aristocrats.


The Shaftesbury earldom still exists. As in all old families, some peers were fine men, whereas others were nincompoops. [Young readers might need to look that word up in an old English dictionary.]

In France today, we're hearing a lot about the 10th Earl of Shaftesbury, Lord Anthony Ashley-Cooper, whose decomposed body was found in April 2005 at the bottom of a rubbish-strewn ravine on the French Riviera. He had been strangled in November 2004 by his brother-in-law, Mohamed M'Barek, now serving a 25-year jail sentence.



Last night, at the end of an appeals trial in the splendid Provençal city of Aix, the late lord's third wife, Jamila [shown in the above photo with her barrister, at her first court appearance, in May 2007], was sentenced to 20 years for complicity in this crime.

Getting back to etymology, we might say that the outcome of the appeals process in Aix-en-Provence confirms that—as they say in the classics—Shaftesbury got shafted. The ingredients of this sordid affair [wealth, sex, cupidity, stupidity, crime... themes that you can look up on the web] form a more dramatic cocktail than anything the Dorset novelist Hardy would have ever imagined. Polanski, on the other hand, would surely be capable of tackling such powerful stuff.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Salagon: a magnificent site in Provence

On the third day of my recent excursion in Provence, Natacha and Alain took me to a fabulous site in the Alpes de Haute-Provence: a simple stone structure in the middle of the fields, once a Benedictine priory, named Salagon, which was recently transformed into an ethnological museum. The buildings are surrounded by a set of thematic gardens, including a conservatorium of cereals and a medieval garden.

I was stunned by the beauty of the place, and impressed by the efforts of the various public authorities who have reinjected a cultural and pedagogical purpose into this site. Natacha [who took the above photo with the flowers] caught me in a pensive mood:

She also caught me taking photos, but my shots don't do justice to this splendid place... which was surprisingly free of tourists.

I was intrigued by the following external stone staircase, in a part of the priory that once housed farm animals:

Apparently the steps were deliberately designed in such a way that a monk and his donkey could walk up the stairs together: the man on the narrow steps to the left, and the donkey on the wider steps to the right.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Ordinary village, extraordinary bookshop

When you arrive in Banon, in the Alpes-de-Haute-Provence, it looks like a rather ordinary village, which hasn't yet been beautified by wealthy outsiders. It's not crowded with tourists, and there's a delightful bistrot in the middle of the village where you can sit in the sun and watch people and vehicles going past... which is surely a perfectly honorable occupation for a lazy visitor such as me.

But Banon has an extraordinary bookshop, called Le Bleuet. It's charming and enormous, with every kind of book you could imagine.

My children would surely appreciate the Banon bookshop, because the first thing I noticed upon entering Le Bleuet was the moped book created by François and Emmanuelle.

[Click here to visit the French-language website on this book. You might also like to click here to visit my son's emerging photographic website. For the moment, only the billiards theme has been completed.]

In the fabulous Banon bookshop, I bought a little book full of recipes for making herbal tea and infusions.

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...

Saturday, June 2, 2007

Different lands

The chilly damp weather has continued at Gamone, and I've spent most of the afternoon and evening reading in front of a log fire. Meanwhile, Natacha phoned to let me know that she and Alain had visited a fabulous botanic park, the Domaine du Rayol, on the edge of the sea in the Var département. Then she emailed me this photo of a eucalyptus tree at Rayol:

Although the Mediterranean coast is less than an hour away by train, I often have the impression that, climate-wise and weather-wise, Natacha and I live in two totally different lands. Her land is called Provence. Mine is the Dauphiné. I'm always amazed by the fact that the geography of France is so varied, often over quite short distances.

Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Provençal excursion

A few weeks ago, my friends Natacha and Alain in Marseilles invited me and my dog Sophia for a three-day excursion in Provence. They drove us to magnificent places such as Aix-en-Provence, Arles, Les Baux-de-Provence, Gordes and Roussillon. I think the latter place impressed me most of all. Colorado in Provence. Not only do you encounter the unique pastel images of Provence. You also come upon the geology and chemistry of these pink and ocher hues. For the visitor, it's impossible to say where the landscape ends and art takes over. You turn your head and you have the impression that you're confronted with the colors of Van Gogh and Gauguin, not to mention Cézanne. Everything at Roussillon is a magic global fusion of Nature and Humanity. While Alain was taking care of Sophia, Natacha took this photo of me in this Provençal wonderland:

Click here to find my photos of this fabulous three-day excursion.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Sharing life together

During my recent excursion to Provence, my friends Natacha and Alain took me (and my dog) to the ancient Cistercian abbey of Sénanque, which functions today as a priory whose monks earn their living by growing lavender in a magnificent site near the splendid Provençal village of Gordes. In their excellent store, I bought a book about the crusades (a subject that has always interested me), a big book about lavender (containing recipes that I intend to try out, using lavender that grows at Gamone) and a guidebook on Sénanque. I was also attracted by a small monograph with a striking red cover on the subject of Athanasius [293-373], but I'm already sufficiently informed concerning this Alexandrian figure [to whom I shall return].

The Cistercians have always been engaged in worldly affairs. In the UK, the organizational prowess of the monks of this 11th-century order can be admired in the ruins of the great Yorkshire abbeys of Rievaulx and Fountains. The so-called "white monks" are perfect examples of a style of monasticism known as cenobitic, which means literally in Greek that monks "share life" together. In other words, Cistercian monks work and dine together, as opposed to the eremitic style of Carthusian monks, for example, who spend most of their time confined to their cells.

In the Sénanque guidebook, the Cistercians trace their history to a fourth-century Egyptian desert hermit named Pachomius, who can be truly considered as the inventor of cenobitic monasticism. Initially, Pachomius was a pagan (who surely didn't look anything like the saintly personage depicted in this modern stylized Greek icon), and he had a hard job trying to persuade his initial Christian companions to behave correctly like a brotherhood of monks. One day, for example, when members of his community were working out in the fields, Pachomius loaded a donkey with food and cooking equipment, and set out to nourish his brethren. These allegedly Christian fellows, having eaten, decided to abandon their "abbot", steal his donkey and set out in search of greener pastures. Pachomius, disabused, had to carry his cooking equipment back to his home base of Faw Qibli, located in the Nag Hammadi region in Upper Egypt, 600 kilometers south of Cairo and 125 kilometers north of Luxor. This was the precise sun-drenched spot, near the frontier between Egypt's fertile Nile land and the desert, at the foot of a rocky mountain, Jabal al-Tarif, at which our great European traditions of Benedictine-inspired monasteries came into being.

That was the source of Sénanque. In later posts, I intend to return to the all-important domain of Nag Hammadi (ancient documents found in 1945), Pachomius, Athanasius and modern Christianity as proclaimed at Sénanque and elsewhere.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Latest Provençal fashion garment

When I arrived in Marseilles last Saturday morning, Natacha and Alain gave me an unexpected gift: a high-fashion T-shirt.

A closeup view of the front reveals lovely portraits of three animals (Moshé, Gamone and Sophia) on a background composed of postage stamps forming a map of Australia:

The back of the T-shirt is composed of home pages of various websites:

Highly topical graphics, to say the least. After all, we're in France. And avant-garde fashion keeps in touch with major current happenings, n'est-ce pas...

Monday, April 16, 2007

Return to Gamone

At the end of my third splendid day in Provence, Sophia and I got the train from Marseilles to Valence, where I picked up my car and drove back to Gamone. Today, Natacha and Alain introduced me to Gordes, Sénanque Abbey, St Saturnin, Roussillon and Lacoste. I've just been looking at today's photos. It's too late in the evening to start talking about these exceptional places. I'll have more to say about these three marvelous days in Provence. Sophia, exhausted, is already sleeping soundly in her big wicker basket in the kitchen. I wonder whether she might be dreaming about the extraordinary places we've visited.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Les Baux, Arles and back to Marseilles

We spent the morning in the magnificent rocky environment of Les Baux de Provence:

Then we picnicked in a nearby grove of olive trees:

On the road to Arles, the ancient Montmajour Abbey was the source of Catholicism in the Royans (my homeplace):

Stately Arles:

In Arles, I saw for the first time a Rugby World Cup poster:


Back in Marseilles, Natacha led me into the mysterious basilica of St Victor, near the Vieux Port, where I saw the celebrated Black Virgin.

To wind up a dense day, we were invited to dinner by Natacha's parents. In the middle of our pizza meal, my dog Sophia decided to piss on the fine dining-room carpet. Then Natacha's father invited me to use Flight Simulator on his computer to fly a plane from Grafton to Yamba and back. An exhausting day! And I missed out on seeing O'Grady winning the Paris-Roubaix cycling race. But it was a truly splendid day for me.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Provençal excursion

This morning, I drove to Valence, accompanied by my dog Sophia, we jumped aboard a TGV (high-speed train), and an hour later we were in Marseilles, where we were picked up by Natacha and Alain. I admired for the first time their delightful new flat in a quiet neighborhood of the city. For a cold lunch, Natacha had prepared an excellent Provençal dish whose name, aïoli, I would not attempt to translate: vegetables (potatoes, carrots, beans, etc) accompanied by thick mayonnaise mixed with garlic crushed in a marble mortar.

We then spent the afternoon strolling through the sunny streets of Aix-en-Provence. Posters in the Provençal capital remind us that a major French election is just around the corner. On the Cours Mirabeau, a grand statue of Good King René identifies the ancient but eternal chief of this magnificent city. With such a monarch bestowing his grace upon them, one wonders if the people of Aix really need to elect a president.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Books about Provence and the French Riviera

I don't wish to appear foolishly pretentious, but I still believe that the most readable English-language book about Provence and the French Riviera is the one by Jean Hureau that I translated for his French publishing house back in 1977. Over the thirty years since then, in my (biased) opinion, this tourist guide has hardly—as they say in French—developed a face wrinkle.

That book was a funny writing affair. When I first browsed through the original, after having signed a well-paid translation contract, I was horrified. Jean Hureau's French was excessively syrupy and mushy. I had the impression that he was so overwhelmed by the beauty of the places about which he was writing that he had abandoned all sobriety and constraint. As we used to say in vulgar and misogynous Aussie parlance, his written expression was all over the road like a mad woman's shit. I quickly concluded that there was no way in the world that I could simply translate literally Huleau's descriptions dozens of cities, towns and villages. I could generally understand what he was trying to say, but he wasn't using the kind of words and phrases that would go down well in English. So, I decided to do the only thing possible. Instead of attempting to carry out an almost impossible task of translation, I would carefully read the multiple elements of Hureau's text—which had the merit of being well documented—and then I would simply rewrite each description from scratch, in my own words.

When I finally submitted my "translation" to the publisher, they gave it immediately to somebody whose job consisted of evaluating my work. He/she apparently read through my typescript, found it not only readable but well-written, and told the publisher that I was indeed a good "translator". That's why they then gave me a contract to write a tourist guide on Great Britain.

Since 1989, most English-speaking visitors arrive in Provence with a copy of Peter Mayle's book in their luggage. Over half a million copies sold! The observations are informative and thorough, but it's superficial writing, like articles in a weekly magazine. He describes a gay and quaint Provence inhabited by stereotypic French individuals who belong to a sun-drenched lavender-scented adult fairy tale. I guess it's great if you're a tourist or a newcomer, and you like and believe that kind of story.

By far the most profound treatment of Provence I've encountered (thanks to Natacha) is Caesar's Vast Ghost by Lawrence Durrell. It's a mixture of poetry and history, with a little madness thrown in for good measure. At times, I had the impression that Durrell might have been half-drunk when he was writing, particularly in the final chapter, whose heroine is a full-sized latex doll named Cunégonde with the features of a sexy Provençale. I recall that, when I dropped in at Sommières long ago in the hope of finding Durrell at home (which was not the case), the village people all warned me that he was more often drunk than sober. The best-written sections of his monograph take up the theme, introduced by Denis de Rougement, of the invention of courtly love in Provence. Durrell talks of Avignon, Arles and Aix as if these magic places transmitted aphrodisiac waves, or exuded a vaporous love potion. Ever since running into the great novelist/poet in Nîmes in 1963, and hearing him talk about Provence, I've never doubted his words on this subject.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Gifts from Provence

Whenever Natacha and Alain drive up here to Gamone to see me, they always bring along gifts. In an earlier post, I mentioned the sexy religious biscuits. They also supply me regularly with fine Marseilles olive-oil soap from the famous Le Sérail manufacturer founded in 1949.

On Sunday, they also brought me a lovely bonsai fig tree, grown by Natacha, which I've placed on the kitchen window sill between a pair of tiny jacaranda trees (also grown from seeds from Provence).

Like Christine and my daughter, Natacha knows exactly the kind of reading material that is sure to interest me. In other words, I'm fortunate in that these close friends from Marseilles take care of me.

Mediterranean Bondi

There's an article in the Australian press about a pair of promoters who would like to transform Bondi into a Riviera-style place like Nice or St Tropez. I'm reminded of a joke. An American tourist is admiring the green lawns of Oxford University. He asks a gardener: "What's the secret for having lawns like that?" The gardener replies that there's no great secret. "You simply water the grass regularly, then you mow it from time to time and you run over it with a roller. You simply keep on doing that for a few centuries."

Antique Nice was founded by the Greeks half a millennium before Jesus Christ, and developed by the Romans. Today, it has become the fifth largest city in France. It's crazy to imagine that a couple of hotel-owners could magically transform Bondi into an ersatz Nice. Paraphrasing the words about a drink that's supposed to imitate whisky, you might say: It looks nice, it tastes nice, but it just ain't Nice.

As for St Tropez, that's a different kettle of fish. It used to be a quaint fishing village until celebrities such as Picasso, Françoise Sagan and Brigitte Bardot moved in there. Unfortunately, apart from the blue water, the physical setting of Bondi doesn't look anything like that of St Tropez. I really don't believe that people can suddenly decide to invest money with a view to making such-and-such a place look and feel like another famous place... unless, of course, we're talking of Disneyland creations. [On French TV, I recently saw a copy of an English village reconstructed in China, God only knows why.]

There's saying in French that probably exists too in English: "If my aunt had balls, she would be my uncle." If Bondi could suddenly acquire a Mediterranean look, charm and sophistication, it would indeed be a Riviera resort.