APRIL 2010 – PROVENCE
April 7 Journey to Aix
Our wedding anniversary! Early start for train to Ashford, and no trouble getting tickets for Gill and I from the automatic dispenser. Uneventful journey to Paris Gare du Nord. Not so for the RER Metro experience! An hour was hopelessly inadequate for buying metro tickets and finding the right platform. The right Metro train never seemed to arrive. Felt like chaos. No station staff to ask, only fellow-passengers. We finally the Metro to Chatelat des Halles and changed for Gare du Lyon, to find our train was cancelled owing to an SNCF rail strike! We took the next TGV to arrive. Although a heavily overcrowded train, we managed to find two seats together in Coach 8. Three hours to Aix, stopping only twice, at Lyon Airport TGV (soul-less as all these stops are, including those in England) and Avignon.
The countryside changed rapidly as we dropped south-east from Paris, ranging from vast, flat breadbasket country to hilly hamlets and hills dotted with sheep. We did not see any church on the horizon until nearly in Lyon. Mountain ranges kept appearing, but to the west rather than the east (and the French Alps) as I would have expected. We thundered down the Rhone Valley, not as mountainous or as gorge-like as I had imagined, until finally we swept into the broad plain that signals Provence. Our train coasted down to Avignon, a few hills suddenly appearing on what otherwise was a vast open plain, curtains of mist and rain settling-in. By 7.30pm it was dusk; we arrived in Aix in the dark. Steady, heavy rain was falling, not torrential, merely soaking, as Provence has a high rainfall in Spring, and we had our fair share on day one.
The kindness of strangers! Someone helpful always seemed to turn up when we needed them most. A woman fellow-passenger at Aix TGV led the way up and down and across lifts and stairs and gangways to arrive at the bus station beneath the station complex. By now it was both dark and freezing cold. An automatic door out to the road kept opening and closing as we waited in the small vestibule, letting in drafts of freezing cold air. We arrived at Aix by bus, still in the pouring rain, and now completely disorientated. The map seemed to make no sense. After the taxi dropped us, a young man delivering Pizza from a roadside van took us to the very door where our host’s partner, Christian, was waiting for us at the large iron pedestrian gate to our accommodation in the eastern suburbs of Aix.
Silver haired, oozing Gallic charm, Christian showed us to the studio flat next to their remodelled farmhouse. We had a bath, finished the nuts we’d been chewing on all day, made a cuppa, and passed out till after nine in the next morning. I guess Gill and I would have chosen a less dramatic day for our wedding anniversary, but despite our best-laid plans, that’s the day we were grateful to have had.
Thurs 8 April Aix
Went grocery shopping in the morning to the nearby local supermarket. Road workers were digging a trench in the street to lay a new pipe. We passed the place where the pizza van of the night before had been parked, but the scene was quite different in the daytime – now several vehicles and stalls, ranging from fresh fruit and veg to cheeses.
Headed in the direction of the town centre around noon and about 20 minutes’ walk past a technical school, Paul Cezanne, and passed by avenues of high walls and tall trees. Once inside the old town, we made our way through a colourful outdoor market selling mostly soap, a major tourist item, as Belgian chocolate is in Bruges. Aix was once renowned for its soap, and the prevailing smell of Aix is still soap; but now it is all made in Marseilles. At the Information Office we were given a map of the city and walked down Victor Hugo street to the SNCF station. A clerk gave us a timetable to Marseille and printed out the timetable to Cannes. Another giant road project was in progress outside the station.
Aix feels like a Mediterranean city; not just the palms and other Mediterranean trees, or the laid-back pace of life, but the ubiquitous ochre colour of so many domestic and public buildings. The same is true of the Malbos’ home and our little annexe – right down to the light blue window shutters (though, as Gill pointed out, the neighbours have green).
From the station, we made our way up to the centre of the city and the café area near the Hotel de Ville for a hot chocolate, and time to read the map and guidebook before pressing on. The station is towards the lower (south-west) end of town; the ground slopes gently upward in the direction of the large, dominating Mont Ste Victoire several miles north of the city (though not visible from within it) and features in almost every landscape painting of Aix. Several smaller hills rise to the east and north-east, including the one on which the Malbos’ house is built (delightfully styled Villa Jeannette).
The old Jewish Quarter is diagonally opposite the northwest corner of the Hotel de Ville. Intriguing to speculate whether there were Jewish merchants resident in Aix in the late C6th? (probably yes), and if so, how they were regarded, and whether their financial and commercial contacts played any part in the success of Augustine’s mission? (probably no). Pope Gregory the Great was unusually sympathetic for his time towards Jewish communities, the people from whom – and for whom – Jesus Christ had come.
It was nearly 2pm when we arrived at St Saviour’s Cathedral.
The basilica was built at the heart of Gallo-Roman Aquae Sextiae (the Roman baths of Sextius, Aix’s founder), occupying the top north-east corner of the original Gallo-Roman forum. The cathedral runs traditionally on an east-west axis, with an impressive colonnaded font at the west end. A later (possibly C12th) cathedral extension joins the Gallo-Roman basilica on the north side. I found the older building more inspiring, and certainly of the period most relevant to Augustine of Canterbury.
The high-walled, colonnaded baptistery is deeply impressive, as are the neighbouring cloisters (appropriately, for northern Europe, located on the south and therefore sunny side; but unlike Canterbury Cathedral or St Augustine’s abbey, where both cloisters are on the north). We waited for ten minutes for a tour party to assemble, taking photographs of the cloisters through the iron gate. A missing piece of information or perspective sometimes emerges in cathedrals. Here in Aix, on the cloister wall (and we somehow found ourselves standing right next to it), was a notice board with a sketch map of the early cathedral as it related to the Roman Forum. The usual guidebooks don’t provide this kind of priceless local knowledge, and most of the paper publications one comes across in cathedrals and churches are not published on the web.
Our guide to the cloisters, an animated woman clearly not afraid to speak evangelistically about the symbols carved on many of the cloister pillars, spent at east half an hour explaining the carvings representing St Matthew, Balaam’s ass, the anointing of Jesus, his 12 disciples, St Mark, St Peter, St John, and lastly St Luke (squeezed in half way down one side of the cloister). Ancient beams covered the ceilings of the cloister. The floor has the appearance of Roman tile, and probably was. An ancient wood and iron door barred the exit to the street (and more of the ancient Gallo-Roman forum) beyond.
This had been an Augustinian Priory, and the monks who once lived here had adopted the Augustinian Rule. It also meant (in Aix at least) that the monastic community lived in a number of houses around the town, unlike St Andrew’s in Rome. I later learned – from a monk Fr Christopher at St Wandrille near Rouen – that none of the French cathedrals were associated with monastic communities or priories; they always had clergy or lay clerks, living sometimes in the cloisters, as in Aix or Arles. This throws considerable light on Augustine of Canterbury’s question to Pope Gregory – should the bishop live separately from his monks (as the Frankish clergy did), or should he live with his monks, as was the practice in Rome?
St Matthew’s carving in the cloister is particularly interesting. Matthew is shown lifting his garment, apparently entering the waters of baptism (or of death). His left hand is drawn across his chest, the long index finger pointing beyond his shoulder, to the north. Did Augustine perhaps take comfort in this, strengthened in his conviction that going to the barbarous people of the north (Kent) was where God wanted him and his monks to be? (Unfortunately not; the cloister was built much later, in the C11th or C12th).
Aix was a turning-point in Augustine’s personal life, as well as for the mission. It was here that his monks and lay brothers learned of the terrible Anglo-Saxons they were going to preach to, whose language they could not speak, and whose reputation, reaching as far south as Provence, turned their legs to water.
It must have been here, too, that Augustine realised how ill-equipped he was to fulfil Gregory’s desire to convert the English. He was a monk among peers who came with him from Rome, and not their prior, so they could question his authority. He was also a monk but not a bishop, and Bishop Protasius may well have pointed out that Queen Bertha of Kent had left the city of Tours with a chaplainwho was a bishop! How was he going to look arriving in Canterbury, with no status and no credentials, to mount the most significant mission since the conversion of Spain? And most crucial of all, he would need the support of at least one if not both of the dowager queens who ruled Francia – Brunhild of Austrasia (stretching from Metz in the east to Tour in the west, and Provence in the south); and Fredegund, regent of Neustia, the remainder of Frankia, stretching from Paris to the north-east coast of France. Without letters of introduction from Pope Gregory, without suitable presents for these two women, the mission would never leave the shores of France.
It was clearly imperative for Augustine to return to Rome and make up what was lacking, and time was now pressing. Safe sailing times to avoid bad weather only stretched from May 27th to September 14th. More hardy risk-takers (mainly independent traders) would risk sailing as early as March and as late as November, but this would not be an option for Augustine. Leaving his monks and lay brothers with Protadius in Aix, Augustine left in haste for Marseille, and the uncertain sea journey back to Rome.
The Baths of Sextius. Did the baths built by Sextius (C1st BC) also play a part in developing the missionary skills of the monks? Did the local (and highly regarded) archbishop Protasius (or even Augustine) frequent the baths and develop their social and business contacts in this way?
This is not likely. Ferdinand Mount, Full Circle: how the classical world came back to us, Simon & Schuster UK Ltd, 2010, p.37:
“But the worst enemy [in the decline and disappearance of public Roman baths across the Roman Empire] was not nature or human incompetence. It was the new faith. Christians used water for baptism, not for bathing. Baptisma, in Latin as in Greek, meant a ‘dipping into’, and the dipping was a consecration. A bath might be used but only for God’s purposes, and not for the purposes of hygiene and certainly not for pleasure. Cleanliness was not next to godliness. It was irrelevant, if not actually harmful”. Pope Leo I (390-461) inscribed over the fountain in the atrium of San Paolo Fuori le Mura: “Water removes dirt from the body, but faith, purer than any spring, cleanses sin and washes souls”.
Interestingly, Gregory the Great (540-604), who sent Augustine on the mission to England, permitted baths for the needs of the body but “not for the titillation of the mind and for sensuous pleasure”.
For Jerome and Augustine (of Hippo Regis) bathing for pleasure simply stirred up lustful thoughts and practices. Some Christian ascetics went further, and praised alousia, “the state of being unwashed”.
A good local bookshop advised on texts dealing with Roman Provence. Only one had what I was looking for, a map of Roman Aix. By the 1st century AD, Aix had roughly 25,000 citizens living in typical Roman houses laid out in a grid shape set within a large square, more or less corresponding to the area occupied by the centre of Aix today. And the two ancient major roads linking the city with the outside world are still recognisable – the road to Marseille ( Avenue des Belges), and the road to Nice (appropriately, the Rue d’Italie).
After lunch at a small and inexpensive panini at a salad bar, we made our way south-east again, through some expensive shopping areas (e.g. Tag-Heuer and Breitling watches) and on to the old Roman road to Nice. It is still narrow (much like the medieval streets of Canterbury) and still looking like a marginally upgraded Roman double-track road (the width of a modern railway track, which is borrowed from the Roman cart axle width). We turned off towards St John of Malta (from whom comes St John’s Ambulance), an attractive church both inside and outside, set at the east end of a small place, with the Musee Garnet (formerly Priory of the Knights of Malta) all along one end of the square.
For four euros entrance fee, this wasn’t a bad little museum, housing some Cezannes, a late Rembrandt self-portrait, sculptures (including a striking black Bedouin head surrounded by white marble head-dress), French C17-19th, paintings many pen and ink sketches of someone’s visit to decaying Rome and Italy. But especially pour moi the amphora from central Italy, Carthage, Spain and Asia that carried wine and oil to Gaul, almost identical in their standardisation, two millennia before the Common Market. The tools on display were instantly recognisable. Finally, the most desired and expensive black glazed plate with manufacturer’s small flower and petals symbol at the base, (and some Marseille copies) of the C1st BC to AD, also from central Italy. This marked the high-tide of Roman pottery manufacture before the introduction of gold plate from the east, and the invasions of Goths and Vandals disrupted if not ended Rome’s trading, cultural, military and political relationship with Romanized Provence.
We made our way back to the Villa. I took a few photos of the ancient road that once stretched all the way to Rome, the Rue d’Italie, now thronged with tourists. It was after 6pm. We hadn’t noticed the time owing to daylight saving clock-changes, and within 20 minutes passed the same pizza van in the same place, manned by the person who had rescued us the night before. He had refused any money for his kindness and trouble, so buying a pizza was the least we could do. Gill said thank you again, and negotiated the purchase of the pizza.
The roadworks outside Villa Jeannette that had marked the noisy beginning of our day were now complete. Hardly a sign was left that new piping had been laid at our doorstep. We brought home our pizza (delicious, 8 euros) and sat outside the delightful studio sipping down a glass or two of local red and white wine, while the Malbos’ spaniel Nina made illegal forays out of the house to greet us. Christian came out to fetch the spaniel, and seeing our wine, insisted that we must taste the local product before we left.
And so, exhausted, to bed.
Friday 9 Marseille
Left Villa Jeannette around 11am, and arrived at Aix Gare to discover the trains had been cancelled and a bus service was in operation. The journey however proved smooth and uneventful. The 30 km journey went through hilly country the whole way. Marseille train station was crowded with coaches and vehicles dropping off passengers. Magnificent views over the city from the top of impressive steps reminiscent of Sacre Coeur in Paris. This is, clearly, the second city after Paris.
We walked down to the Old Port, surprised to pass C&A on the way – hardly in evidence in England. A sunny, hot day, with crowds of tourists around the harbour area, cafes, pizzerias and hotel restaurants all doing great business. The small harbour inlet was crowded with boats, though only the tourist leisure boats moved on the waters. We lunched at around 1 pm at a moules/mussels brasserie (for Gill –I had turkey escalope) under half a sun umbrella. An accordion player serenaded the guests; various vendors (watches, etc) plied their trade among the tables along the quayside eateries. We wandered around the bay to the abbey church of St Victor, which enjoys a magnificent view across the bay, taking in both forts, St Nicolas on the south side, and St Jean on the north side. Neither of these existed when Augustine landed at Marseille, either on his first or his second journey to Aix.
Abbey St Victor, Marseille
The first layer of building on this site (the crypt) was constructed in the 5th century, containing (it is said) the bones of the first martyrs in Marsala. Gregory of Tours mentions (before AD 590 – before Augustine’s missionary journey commenced in AD 596) a large basilica, consecrated to the martyr Victor, that attracted pilgrims, and numerous miracles occurred here.
We spent more than an hour in and below the basilica, and bought a guide book in English for 6 euros, plus a further 4 to enter the crypt. What an experience! It is magnificent! Whatever the church that stood above it, the crypt, with the bones of the Gallic Christian martyrs, would unquestionably have been a place of pilgrimage for the party from St Andrew’s monastery, Rome.
The monastic cloister and buildings once lay to the immediate south of the basilica, now traversed by a road and a block of flats rising up the hillside.
Was this possibly where Augustine and his monastic party stayed briefly in Marseille? Assuming they landed here on Augustine’s first journey to Francia. This is not certain; the missionaries could equally have taken the ancient Roman road that runs from Nice to Narbonne, connecting Italy with Spain and passing through Provence. This would have by-passed Marseille and take them directly to Aix. Augustine would, however, have gone directly to and through Marseille on his return to Rome as the quickest and shortest route.
We tried to find an entrance to fort St Nicolas, but this is a military establishment closed to the public (and everyone else, judging from the sign.) We made our way back to the north quay, found a restaurant that sold both crepes and glaces (Gill settle for a cool beer instead of crepes). We called in at C& A, but no luck, then on to the station. The trains were now running, and we caught a delayed 5pm train back to Aix. I had my first glimpse of Mt St Victor, immortalised by more than one of Cezanne’s paintings.
A sore-footed return through town, calling in at our local supermarket for inner soles for Gill, a coke, lettuce and some bread for supper. Christian not home when we returned about 7pm, and still not back as I write at 9.40 pm, as Nina’s almost constant barking has testified!
Saturday 10th – Aix
Today we collected a hire car. (In retrospect, we could have managed without one and used the train to Cannes, which would have provided a magnificent view of the coast; likewise, a bus to Arles, and saved ourselves both the cost, the aggro, and the parking problems.)
I plotted a route across town to Europcar, but with small map print and fast pace across town, we eventually needed to enlist a local woman who very obligingly told us where we were on the map. Arrived at Europcar at 10 am. Miles of paper and 20 signatures later and we were examining the Citroen Clio in some detail – unwashed but clean inside; however no vests and triangle (soon supplied); no ‘bombe’ to inflate a flat tyre (but then spare wheel discovered). Set the SatNav for Villa Jeanette and off we went! Arrived home with no trouble, but nowhere to park! Every space taken for miles.
We packed a picnic and set off for a small village where Picasso had once stayed. An attractive hillside village, but no stamps for Gill to send postcards home, Picasso’s house was closed, so was St Victor’s chapel, then the Spar shop closed. We drove on to a mountain view, risking steep climbs and drops on narrow roads, Gill a constant reminder that the Cleo is significantly wider than my Suzuki Jimny back home.
Returned to Aix for groceries. I prayed for a parking space outside the villa for the first time in decades, but nothing opened up. I dropped Gill off at the studio and headed back to a Parking area we’d passed several times walking to town. I found a parking space, but could find NO place to buy a ticket! Returned to the house, where Christian (I now call ‘Constantine’, because he is fairly imperial and not much help with the parking!) who says, Non, there must be a place to buy a ticket, there are no free parking in Aix! So Gill and I return to the parking to check again. A car pulled in while we were looking around, and we asked where we should pay. The young couple assure us it is free; this parking lot belongs to the Lycee (grammar school), and they are on holiday!
There’s something about abundance in this – I asked for a single parking space, and we found probably twenty free spaces, and an entire parking area!
Home tired, for afternoon coffee and pastry around the pool, followed by supper, some French language television, and quiet reading in bed.
Low Sunday: 11 April – Arles
Early start at 6.40, and finally left Villa Jeannette after 8am, the car still safe and sound in the car park. An uneventful drive to Arles, through a peage, arriving before 9.30am. Found free parking and headed for the Tourist Office. Friendly staff gave us a map of Arles and we bought Euros 13.50 for tickets to all museums and historic sites in the city. Bright, clear day, but a strong and very cold wind, a taste of the Mistral, blowing until lunch time.
Hard to believe this small centre was once the Roman provincial capital of Provence. The Old Town a delight of rambling streets and shabby-chic houses. The ancient monuments completely impressive, the view from the amphitheatre stunning. The ancient monuments museum a sheer delight, with amazing models, carvings, mosaic floors, maps, pottery and other artefacts. If there is a gap, it is between early Christianity (say C4th) and the C8th in Arles.
Augustine in Arles
By the time of Augustine’s arrival in the summer of 596, Arelate had witnessed, with the whole of Provence, two centuries of decline in Roman imperial influence and military supremacy. A string of invaders had come and gone (or integrated into the life of the city) – the Celts in the C5th, Ostrogoths, Visigoths and Burgundians. Arles finally ceded loyalty to the Franks sixty years before Augustine’s arrival. Arles remained a key commercial centre, and the city was a polyglot of travellers, merchants and traders from northern Europe, the Mediterranean, Spain and the east.
The missionaries travelled overland from Aix to Arles on the Roman-built Via Aurelia. Quite apart from the necessity to have Augustine consecrated as bishop in France (which would serve to cement Frankish ecclesiastical and royal support for the mission), and in Arles (acknowledging the ancient arch-episcopal oversight exercised by Arles over former Britannia), the city built on the Rhone was the obvious place to begin their river passage to the north.
An aqueduct, bringing clear water to Arles, stretched 50km from the Alpilles hills to the Augustus Gate, located perhaps 200 meters or so east of the Theatre. Theodoric, king of the Ostrogoths, had besieged and sacked the city in the C5th, then restored the walls and rebuilt the town. The Via Aurelia entered the city at the Augustus Gate, continued towards the Forum, then turned north, leaving the city to cross the Rhone over a uniquely engineered floating bridge.
The shortest route for the missionary party on entering the city was to follow the ancient road as it passed between the arena and the theatre, both then derelict, then continuing towards the Forum. The Temple (to Venus or Diana?) in the Forum, if still standing, was no longer in use once Christianity became the only recognised religion in the Roman world, from AD 400. Perhaps much of Arles’ political and religious significance had gone too, but its commercial significance would have remained strong.
The Forum itself, situated on a low hillside, was undergirded by a series of three sloping underground galleries, each gallery buttressed with a series of massive pillars. The walls of these galleries, each called a ‘cryptoporticus’, are half buried in the south and exposed in the north, so enabling the construction of a flat surface of approximately 3,000 square meters. The galleries were empty and unused for any purpose until the 8th century.
To the north of the Forum, overlooking the Rhone, stood the impressive Constantinian (early 4th century) public baths, offering a good place to remove the dust, heat and grime of the 50 mile journey on foot from Aix. But again, this is unlikely. The baths were built with materials characteristic of Roman technology, alternating rows of bricks and stones. Underground galleries circulated hot and cold water through the baths.
This complex is the likely place for the missionaries to be billeted until their departure for Lyon. The archbishop’s residence and the monastic cloister lay immediately on the south side of the ancient basilica. Augustine probably lodged with the archbishop. This may have been the reason behind his question to Gregory after he reached Canterbury, whether he ought to live with or separate from his monks. Gregory strongly favoured the former. The tableware at the bishop’s dinners would have included clay items such as vases, dishes, varnished and decorated bowls; silver and bronze items such as flat dishes, and saucepans and frying pans for the bishop’s kitchen, and glass bottles, beakers and vials.
The basilica of St Etienne was certainly the site of Augustine’s consecration as bishop en route to England, once we are agreed that he was consecrated at Arles not Lyon. (See footnotes to the confusion occasioned in Bede’s account of this in his Ecclesiastical History.) The arch-diocese had held jurisdiction over the Church in Roman Britannia until 410 or later, making it the strongest and obvious contender of all the possible alternatives (including Marsala, Vienne and Lyon).
Burying the dead (as opposed to cremation) became commonplace by the beginning of the 2nd century, and a Roman practice that became law under Justinian was to bury outside the city walls. This practice was also adopted in Roman Canterbury. The bones of St Trophimus (the first martyr of Arles) were originally buried in the C4th church of the early Christian martyr St Genest, in the Alyscamps necropolis just south-east of the city. In the 12th century the bones of St Trophimus were taken to St Etienne, and the church renamed after this saint.
The Alyscamps, was initially a pagan burial site, but from the fourth century onwards Christians were also buried in the necropolis. This city of the dead stretched over the whole southern plain, ending at the marshes, and contained chapels and nineteen churches. The necropolis grew to an area as large as Arles itself, and followed the Aurelian Way right to the Augustan Gate. Burying the dead in the Alyscamps must have been a major ministry for local clergy.
St Genest was important to early Christians, even to those as far away as Lyon, where the bodies of the deceased were placed in barrels and floated down the Rhone, with the money for their burial attached. Funerary workers would intercept the casks at Arles, and dispose of the dead close to St Genest tomb. ‘Sarcophagus Avenue’ is testimony to the huge significance of the burial site, and no less the industry of inhumation that accompanied it.
Today the Eglise St Trophime is no longer a cathedra – it is now a (very large) parish church, and looks to Aix for Episcopal oversight. Nor did the Archdiocese of Arles ever regain its former position of oversight over the church in England, or even in Kent. So history turns.
What seems quite clear is that there is no memory in Arles or in Aix – even amongst the official church guides – of Augustine of Canterbury passing through, nor his journey, nor an awareness that these French churches may have had anything to contribute to his mission. In reality, they had a major role to play at the outset that made the mission possible, and in no small measure provided the practical support necessary for a successful launch of the mission to England.
Augustine of Canterbury is also invariably confused with St Augustine of Hippo. In Aix the name evokes mention of the early monks living under the Augustinian Rule, and in separate houses.
n Arles, at least two other churches existed within the city walls – the Eglise de la Major, with a raised plaza overlooking the amphitheatre, and St Blaise, also within the city wall, and on the south-east corner.
Much of the spread of 6th century Christianity in Arles was to the credit of bishop Caesarius. His ivory belt-buckle is housed in the stunning Arles Museum of Archaeology. With the death of Caesarius, the history of Arles as an ancient city comes to an end. The city is firmly under Frankish rule (principally from Austrasia) from AD 536.
The Forum was still in operation at this time, and given the prominent location of Arles at the intersection of the Rhone and the Via Aurelia, as well as upstream of Marsala, it would continue as a major trading place for some centuries to come. There is little evidence or likelihood that Christianity ever completely banished other religious practices – Gregory the Great was constantly in correspondence with bishops and clergy about stamping out paganism and nature worship in their areas of oversight. However the long-standing and long-tolerated religious habits of the empire would be particularly hard to eliminate in a major trading centre such as Arles. While the official religion of the main Roman gods and emperor worship had officially given way to Christianity, private and family religion was another matter. Arles bears evidence of worship to Minerva, Medea and the bronze faun. Soldiers continued to adopt Mithras (a Persian cult), and Cybele (a Phyrigian cult) was also worshipped The spread of eastern religions to Arles was made easier by its cosmopolitan role as a major trading centre at the nexus of road, river and sea traffic. This was to be expected amongst those who regularly traded at Arles’ port.
Monday 12 April – Aix
Overcast, rainy and cold! Went to town to book a tour on Tuesday, visited Monoprix (Gill bought Alison B a dragonfly linen cloth) and had lunch at the equivalent of a French McDonald’s; crammed with parents and their offspring consuming fries and Pizza! Came home around lunchtime, had lunch and went to bed.
Tuesday 13 April – Aix Historic Tour
Walked down through the old market and saw our Raster who helped us on Saturday with suggestions for parking – use the out of town park & Ride which closes at 9pm, opens at 6am, and one could use buses either way to and from town. Some lovely silk pashminas, and lots more Marseille soap. The Tour started at Tourist Information Centre with our young guide Marie (who also runs Le Jardin Marie, if anyone is looking for central accommodation). We started at the fountain outside the Information Centre, Marie explaining the three figures on top of the Fountain – one looking towards the Mazarin district and the law-courts (Aix is an Appeal Court centre) and also towards Italy and the grain basket of Provence; another figure looks south towards Marseille (and industry, technology, etc); while the third looks towards Avignon and the Arts. We visited the Cardinal’s palace in the Mazarin district, learned of the demolition of the city walls (which followed the roads that encompass the Old Town) and the creation of a new, aspiring bourgeoisie centred on the parliament and the law (both practising and learning of) until the French Revolution.
We worked our way up through narrow streets past a lawyer’s amazing town house and privately commissioned public square (previously the sole prerogative of the king) to the Hotel de Ville, made out of local stone. We passed through a produce market and a flower market, and on to St Saviour’s cathedral.
The Romanesque St Saviour’s is 11th century, but as the practice is to extend or rebuild over existing sites, the baptistry must have been linked to a much earlier church on this site. This would be the church of Augustine’s two visits to Aix in the summer of 596. what seems remarkable, after having visited Arles two days ago, is the different ways that the Episcopal church related to the Forum. In Arles, the Forum and the cathedral complex are quite separate; in Aix, the basilica, cloisters and monastic buildings, and the archbishop’s palace are all built on the former Roman Forum.
We finished the tour of the cathedral and retraced our steps, entering the former Jewish Quarter. After a double expresso to keep out the cold, we headed back home for lunch. Clouds had started to gather, dropping the temperature noticeably as we took lunch on the patio outside.
We dressed more warmly and headed off to Cezanne’s studio. The road north winds steeply uphill, so that the views over Aix and miles beyond are quite stunning. It is an amazing place. Our guide for the studio was truly excellent – knowledgeable and passionate, able to make connections and speak off the cuff, a good sense of humour (“Drawing is not allowed!”). I did a couple of sketches. What was most impressive was the account of Cezanne rising at 5am in his lodgings in Aix, and arriving in his studio to start painting again by 6am to catch the pure early morning Provencal light. He sold scarcely more than 14 paintings during these last five years, and his son found the downstairs rooms crammed with his canvasses and sketches. The guide, excellent in his knowledge, passion and fluency, described Cezanne working alone day by day as a mystical experience, a sense of sacred time and space, like the silence of a cathedral (partly my words). Just the sense of this man doing what he had to do, without the need to make a living from it, or to debase it in any way, so that ultimately viewers would receive precisely what he had and wanted to give, is nothing less than profound.
Wednesday 14 April Cannes – St Honorat Monastery
For satnav purposes, one needs to know that the destination for the ferry to Lerins is Boulevard Jean Hibert, Cannes. This will take drivers to Parking for the boat trips to Lerins, both St Marguerite and St Honorat, currently Euros 12 pp. The rate for parking is reasonable for Cannes, about Eu 3.70 an hour, reducing per hour the longer one stays. The ticket must be inserted in the Casse machine near to the entrance and exit to obtain the exit ticket before you leave. Visa and MasterCard are both accepted. The boat trip is about 25 minutes start to finish, and the boat leaves on the hour every hour from April through to September.
After our return, we took a walk around the harbour where the super-rich park their floating hardware, and corporate sponsors tout for business. The tourist Office was hard to find, the signs misleading (and I have to say that, over a period of more than 30 years, there remains a chronic inability to position signs in ways that are unambiguous to the traveller).
Gill bought bread and two chocolate pastries at a boulangere a couple of streets up from the main road that runs around and past the harbour (Charles de Gaulle/ Le Croissette).
Isles de Lerins
This refers to two islands, St Marguerite which is closer to Cannes, and St Lerins which lies a mile or so beyond it. Lerins is a Mediterranean-tropical island that is one of the most paradisical, lush and peaceful places I’ve experienced in years. Azure blue water, light coloured rocks, palm trees and pine trees in abundance, huge cactus plants and other cacti with bright orange flowers, reminiscent of red-hot pokers. Gauguin and Rousseau could have saved themselves the bother of travel had they chosen Lerins for their primitive nature paintings. Everything is so utterly photogenic.
A pheasant appeared in the woods, and we heard birds in the trees, but strangely no sound or sight of seagulls outside of Cannes. Midges waited for us in swarms as we walked around the eastern end of the island. A geko climbed the sea wall near the abbey in search of sun or a snack.
From the northern shore of St Honorat the French Alps ( particularly the Montagne de Cheiron range) are clearly visible over the tops of St Marguerite’s shoreline, high snow-capped mountains brooding behind the coastal range of hills. It was from these mountains that the afternoon cloud arose, thick and dark beneath, another layer of clouds reaching out towards the bay like giant cats’ claws grasping for something or someone to consume. An awesome sight.
Leaving the boat and the throng behind, we walked to the main gate of the monastery and continued up the broad pathway past a field of several acres being tended by lay brothers or volunteers, backs bent to the task of tending the vines.
I’m glad and grateful that we made our first stop the monastic church at the southern end of the island. A mass was in progress, the twenty or so monks in white in the choir, all beautifully sung in beautiful French, a mixed congregation of the committed and the tourist, including some staying at the guest house at the entrance of the monastic complex. The mass set the tone for the day, and established Lerins firmly as a place of disciplined work and worship in the Spirit of Benedict and latter-day Carthusians. The list of hours in the modern-day monk’s life looks no different from his fourth century counterpart in Egypt, or sixth century in Italy.
Whatever it was that drew Pope Gregory’s criticism of Abbot Stephen appears to have been reversed by these more serious-minded Cistercians. The official guidebook begins with “It was the beginning of the 5th century that St Honoratus … found the desert that he had sought for…” following the death of his brother Venantius.
Honorius was a Gaul by birth, born into a pagan family, and a convert to Christianity at a young age. After the death of Venantius, Honorius and his former spiritual teacher and guide, the hermit Caprasius, sought permission from bishop Frejus to pursue an eremitic life on the Island of Lerins. They weren’t alone for long. New disciples came to join them on the island, both monks who lived the life of hermits and those who came to share a common life. This structure made it possible both for hermits to pursue a solitary life in cells grouped round the seven chapels scattered around the island, and for beginners to receive the instruction they needed to advance in the monastic life. Honorius provided his community with the first version of a Rule, the Rule of the Four Fathers, the first of its kind in Gaul. At the end of his life he was called to Arles to be bishop in AD 428, and died two years later.
Augustine and his monks landed on Insula Sancti Honoratus in July 596, right in the middle of the safe sailing season from May to September. The Mistral has wrecked many ships on the Cote d’Azur, and Lerins was accustomed to shipwrecked sailors cast upon its shores. After several days at sea, the island must have seemed like paradise – a welcome from a fellow monastic community, safety from raiders and bandits at sea, reconnecting with a familiar daily routine, the tranquillity of the island itself. The midges, however, would have been a constant irritant to anyone venturing down to the shore, and the prickly heat of a Mediterranean summer would make work outdoors more arduous.
How long they remained with Abbot Stephen and his community is not recorded, but long enough to recoup, make preparations for the onward journey to Aix. By common tradition amongst monasteries, after three days guests would be required to take on their share of the daily work that sustains the life of community, ranging from working the land to work in the scriptorium, according to individual skills and abilities. On their departure, Augustine carried spoons and plate as a gift from the abbot to Gregory for the support of the poor.
The journey of 150km from Cannes to Aix-en-Provence is less than two hours on the motorway. On foot, with twenty companions, and possibly a couple of donkey-drawn carts to carry their impedimenta, they might have covered the distance in two weeks. The Via Aurelia follows the Mediterranean coastline, with the Massif de l’Esterel looming to the north.
This particular stretch, seen clearly from St Honorat, is very evocative of the mountain range that rings False Bay below the Cape Peninsula in South Africa, a region that also enjoys a Mediterranean climate (hot and dry in summer, wet and cool in winter). The Spring rain in April tends to build up slowly in the afternoon, following a hot and sunny morning. By mid-afternoon, occasional light flecks of rain can be felt on one’s face and hands. By evening, a downpour might develop, heavy drops, almost tropical. This is different from English drizzle, which is lighter but no less irritating!
The red porphyry rock of the Esterel tumbles down to the sea in a dramatic sweep of hills and ravines. This was excellent country for highwaymen, robbers and outlaws, making the journey hazardous. It is unlikely that the monks would have travelled alone; caravans of travellers would be more common, bivouacing together every evening, possibly joined by groups travelling east towards Italy. This would provide an invaluable opportunity to glean news of conditions and problems on the road ahead. A few villas outside the villages would dot the hillside. East of St Raphael, the Cap du Dramont has lovely stretches of coast path with forested pines, cork oak, juniper, rosemary and ‘strawberry trees’.
At Frejus, squeezed between the massifs of the Maures and l’Esterel, the road turns north-west and away from the coast some 20 or so miles from Cannes. Located on the Via Aurelia, the Roman port dates back to Julius Caesar in 49 BC, and developed into a naval base under emperor Augustus as an alternative to the more unruly Marseille. One of the two Augustan towers that guarded the harbour entrance still survives, but the Roman harbour has long since silted up and is used as a marina. A tower once part of the Roman ramparts still remains, and also marks the end of a 25-mile long aqueduct.
From Frejus, the Via Aurelia cuts inland towards the north-west, passing under the A8 (peage) road after about 8 miles. The area north of the A8 is the inland Vars region, beyond le Muy (10+miles for Frejus) and rises in a series of tiers. The vineyards on the wide plain and the lower valleys rise to olive groves. Further up these give way to densely forested hills, in turn opening on to the sparse expanses of the high mountain plateau of the Grand Plan de Canjeurs. A further 12 miles west brings the traveller to Le Vieu Cannet – Old Cannet – with remnants of Forum Voconi, a halt on the Via Aurelia.
Three miles further west is Le Luc, a small market town at the intersection of the A8 and N7 motorways. This is the heart of the central Var region, and has a rich history as a Roman spa town,
Travelling 15 miles into the western Var leads to Brignoles, once famed for bauxite mining, which sits at the heart of La Provence Vert (green Provence) because of the verdant landscape watered by several rivers and underground springs. (The town of Barjols, 15 miles up a winding road to the north, was once a prosperous community based on its tanneries, but is still known for the manufacture of the traditional Provencal instruments, the three-holed flute, and a narrow drum, which are played simultaneously be a single musician.)
St-Maximin lies 10 miles west of Brignoles, on the western edge of the Var. Pilgrims have poured into this town since the 5th century to view one of the greatest Christian relics, the presumed bones of Mary Magdalene, which had been discovered here in an ancient crypt, after the Boat of Bethany carrying Mary Magdalene, Martha and Lazarus landed at St Maries de la Mer (on the Camargue coast), Mary is said to have made her way to the Massif de la St-Baume, where she lived in a cave for more than 30 years. She died in St-Maximin, where her remains were jealously gauarded by the Cassianites.
The Massif lies a few miles to the south of St-Maximin. Inhabited for a thousands of years, the massif was used for sheep rearing, as well as a number of small industries, including charcoal, slake-lime and ice production.
Aix-en-Provence lies 20 or more miles further west-north-west of St Maximin, following a broad and fertile plain, with the Mt St Victoire range clearly visible a few miles to the north.