A most sublime day, Part Two

Trip Start Sep 25, 2012
Trip End Oct 16, 2012

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Flag of France  , Provence,
Monday, October 8, 2012

The hike was just as we remembered. We walked up a steep rocky path, occasionally smoothed by fragments of ancient paving stones.  Trickly streams cut diagonally across the trail, which was framed by drooping oak branches.  Soon the climb grew steeper, and the path veered to the right.  We walked up an old, crumbling stairway to the Chapelle St.Raphaël, a sweet little 200 year-old church at the top of the hill.  From the church grounds was a stunning view up and down a deep valley: to the north were the just-visible tips of the chalky cliffs of the Col de Vence, and to the south we could see all the way to the Mediterranean. 

In all the times we had walked up to the church the doors had never been open.  So we never saw details of the gloomy interior through the small window openings.  There were hints of a mural, but we weren't quite sure.  But now we had a digital flash camera; astoundingly, when we lived in France they barely existed.  So for the first time we were able to get some photos of the murals by putting the lens through a hole in the mesh wire that stretched across the windows.  See the pictures below for the idiosyncratic paintings.

From the Chapelle we walked through brambles and steep rock hillsides to the ruins of the formidable Château de la Reine Jeanne—Queen Jane’s castle.  When we lived here the locals told us that it was built 700 years ago to imprison poor Queen Jane, though no one could tell us who she was, or the nature of her offense.  So, using the principle of retrospective tourism, I looked her up.  La Reine Jeanne was born in 1326 in what is now Italy.  Her sovereignty was extensive: she was Queen of Naples, Sicily and Jerusalem, and Comtesse of Provence, Forcalquier, and Piedmont.  Her court was "notable for its extravagant collection of exotic animals and servants of various origins, including Turkish, Saracen, and African." I take that to mean that both her animal and servant collections were quite international.

At the tender age of eight, “for reasons of state,” Queen Jane was married to her cousin, Andrew of Hungary.  Andrew’s age was even more tender—he was six!  Because these were treacherous times, Andrew’s mother gave him a magic ring to protect him from death “by blade or poison.” But despite the ring, Andrew was eventually murdered by Louis of Taranto, who according to the web site was “a violent and cruel man.”  Cleverly, Andrew was “strangled by a cord and flung from a window,” thereby circumventing the ring’s protective powers.  Thus Jane became a widow as the age of nineteen. 

Very quickly thereafter Queen Jane married Louis himself, perhaps in self-defense.  Perhaps fortuitously, Louis died in short order, though my sources don’t specify the  mode of death.  “Still beautiful and insatiable for the pleasures of love,” Jeanne married yet again.  Hubby number three was another cousin, James III of Mallorca, who was twelve years her junior.  When, in turn, James died La Reine Jeanne tried once more. This time the betrothed was Otto of Brunswick, a German prince “who was devoted to her.”  That must have been a refreshing change.  Alas, despite what seemed like a happy marriage, Queen Jane was “endlessly pursued by her enemies,” including Louis of Hungary, the brother of Andrew (husband number one).  Louis arranged for her murder, at age 56, by having her smothered with pillows “in the sombre castle of Muro, in the Apennines.” 

La Reine Jeanne was a Queen without honor in her own country—she was said to be very poorly regarded in her native Naples.  In other parts of her realm, however, the populace felt quite differently.  Though she apparently visited Provence only a single time (she went to Avignon), there she was said to be “the incarnation of a dream, a living symbol of beauty and poetry.”  Thus, many Provençal castles, chapels, palaces, gardens, and roads were built for her.  Very sadly, “she doubtless never visited any of them.”  Clearly the Château de la Reine Jeanne here in Vence falls into that category.  But to look on the positive side, that means she was never really held prisoner there. 

Though perhaps not quite as sombre as the castle of Muro, the Château de la Reine Jeanne is still not particularly uplifting.  There is no roof, and the walls are crumbling.  It looks like one minor earthquake, or even a good mistral, could completely finish it off.  But, like Queen Jane herself, it does have a certain grandeur.

Annie and I were particularly eager to revisit the Château, and introduce Manfred and Carole to it.  On the lowest level, near a corner of the room, was a mysterious sketch that someone had grafittied on the rock wall.  We called it “Jesus and the aliens.” It was a strange and evocative depiction of Jesus, in black silhouette, on the cross with a cluster of large-headed creatures, also in black, below the cross beneath a big blue dome.  We were eager to see if, after a decade, it was still there. 

Well, it was.  And by our memories it was remarkably unchanged, except for one very disturbing thing: although the cross itself was largely still intact, the figure of Jesus had been mostly scratched out.  Besides the immediately obvious question of why anyone would have done such a desecration, a host of other questions were raised in my mind.  Could my memory of ten years ago been wrong, and Jesus had always been scratched out?  As I was learning on this trip to the past, memory is not reliable—especially at my age!  But I gave myself the benefit of the doubt and assumed that the scratching out had indeed occurred after we last saw it.  When might it have happened?  As opposed to most types of change with the passage of time, which involve a slow fading of structure or function, this had obviously been an abrupt event.  Had it happened the day after we last saw the drawing ten years ago? Or was it done just two weeks ago?  Absolutely no way of knowing.  Somehow the fact that this horrible change was a discrete event rather than a slow and more or less inevitable change made it even more disturbing.  [After returning home I resurrected the photos we took 10 years ago—see the comparisons below.]

 As dusk approached we walked back down the path to the pedestal-formerly-occupied- by-César’s-thumb and drove to Tourrettes-sur-Loup.  This was the little hill town just to the west of where we lived, notable for our extravagant purchase of an olive-wood salad bowl that we gave each other as an anniversary present just before we returned to the US.  After a lot of searching, we found Restaurant Chez Grand mère, Granny’s Place, which specialized in couscous.  With some trepidation we asked the server if they had vegetarian couscous.  “Bien sûr!”  he said.  We were in like a flash.  We ordered a huge earthenware bowl of couscous with all the fixin’s, along with the requisite sparkling mineral water and wine.  Then Annie, who craves real French French fries, timidly asked if she could order some frites as well.  The server reeled back in mock horror: “Frites avec couscous, Madame!!  Ce n’est pas possible!!”  He was scandalized that anyone would dare order such disparate dishes together—it just wasn’t done--and wasn’t shy about telling her so.  But it was done with such good humor; we all laughed, even poor frites-less Annie.  This is one thing we love about the French; they are so engaged in everything they do.  The server scrutinized us carefully as we ate, not in any spying way, but to be sure all was well, that we had all we needed, and that we were properly consuming and enjoying his food. He knew how good it was, and wanted to make sure that we did too.  Indeed we did
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Carole on

A lovely and poignant entry- a perfect walk down memory lane on a winters night.....

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