Tuesday, 30 April 2013

The Old Salt Route

There are not many level places here – there's the road of course, way down below in the Roya valley, there's the cultivated terraces that people have hewn out of the slopes, and there's the high road in the village, quaintly called Repentia

Looking down from Repentia

which leads to the cemetery (there seems to be a tradition here of making the last resting place one that has a spectacular view). 
But for those of us who want to walk any distance, you have to be prepared to climb.

Looking out from the road to Saorge, part of the old salt route is just visible on the opposite hillside, in the middle of the picture, snaking up above the train track.

I discovered the trail that forms part of the old salt route by chance, walking near the road down at the level of the river. Rocky but not stony, it snakes up and up, in those bends called lacets like laced up boots because of the way they go in one direction then the next, hairpin bends we might call them, except these are smaller, more intimate paths up the rocky slope. It is not bordered by trees, so the view unfolds beneath you all the time. 

The ground falls away immediately at the edge of the path so there were times when I just had to look at where I placed my feet and not look down... 


The weather changed, everything started to sprout and blossom, pear trees, cherry trees, the quince tree which became my 'spot' in the garden to work, where I parked my table and chair in its shade, drifting flower scents, the humming of insects, birdsong...I once caught sight of an enormous bird hovering motionless above the valley.

To find a level walk, but also to visit the famous church of Notre Dame des Fontaines, we took a bus to la Brigue, and walked from the village to the church, and back. La Brigue is another ancient village, with decorated lintels above doorways.

 The walls of Notre Dame des Fontaines are covered in frescos, dating from the end of XV century, depicting the life of Christ.

La Brigue is even higher up than Saorge and the path through the woods gives a clear view of the mountains that form the border between France and Italy.

After a few glorious days the weather changed again and it's back to lowering clouds, and intermittent rain showers. But 'showers' are really when the clouds envelop the mountains and massive drops of rain fall like stones straight down on the earth and its inhabitants and as well as the rain there are the even bigger drops that fall from the edge of the roof overhanging my cell window.
One day when it was not actually raining but there was a light covering of cloud, I took another walk heading to the ruins of Chateau Malmort but I didn't actually reach it. 

Fontan train station on the right, village of Fontan to the left


This path is even steeper than the old salt route, and goes through strangely silent woods. It finally opens up, giving a tremendous view, and showing Saorge from a different angle. 

But just after that, the path passes under some huge overhanging rocks, with fallen stones lying on it and I decide I've gone far enough. I'd felt uneasy about the name of the castle anyway (mal meaning bad and mort meaning death!) Coming down was almost as hard as going up, your knees get quite wobbly because of the steepness of the path.

I'll soon be heading to somewhere very different, where the terrain is completely flat. And from an ex monastery to Le Diable Vauvert (the phrase au diable Vauvert in French means in the middle of nowhere), but Vauvert is a real place, and the building is in the remote marshlands of La Petite Camargue. And Les Avocats du Diable is the name of the publishing house who hosts the residency.

Thursday, 18 April 2013

Cloister Time

View of monastery from the village

The passage of time is displayed on the cloister walls in a variety of colourful painted sundials of different types, classic, Italian and Babylonian. With sundials on three walls, the hour can be calculated from the shadows in morning, afternoon and evening.

Babylonian sundial

The Babylonian sundials count the day as beginning from sunrise, the Italian from sunset on the day before. The zodiac glyphs mark the points of solstices and equinoxes. Nowadays we have to add an hour because of summer time and a further half hour because we are in the Paris time zone but in the past time was local.

Seasons of course, keep their own time, sometimes spurred on by precocious dollops of sunshine, sometimes as this year, delayed by the cold weather sweeping so they say, down from the Arctic. Here, the cherry, apple and pear blossom is just beginning to flower, leaves starting to throw faint pollen yellow and light green auras around the trees. 
Under the quince tree

While this place is crammed with depictions of passing time, there does not seem to be any more of the actual stuff of it than you find anywhere else, even supposing that time was made of anything which of course it is not, despite being a dominating force in our lives, it slips and slides, scatters and disperses all quite invisibly while we chase after it, throw imprecations at it, to adjust its rhythm to our desires, to speed up or slow down according to our expectations of something we want to arrive quickly, or something we don't ever want to end.
We, the residents in the monastery, have 'all the time in the world' which roughly translates as – not having to attend to many of the quotidian demands that 'normal' life makes on one, and so having plenty of time to write, and also to explore these truly breathtaking surroundings. All of which I am very grateful for, as well as the glorious view of mountains I see every morning from my window, the garden just outside, with its blossoming pear, cherry, quince and apricot trees, the birdsong..... but while ideas and projects burgeon, and it's true that some writing does get done, the possibilities to explore and look around are too tempting to be denied.

The sea, for example, is only a short bus ride away. But to reach the bus stop I have to walk through the village, then climb down one of these hairpin paths to the road and walk on to Fontan –

or walk through the tunnel then take another path - which is less pleasant but quicker if you have a bus to catch.

The bus takes you to Menton, on the French riviera,

Menton market

View of the Mediterranean

or to the Riviera Ligure at Ventimiglia

Thursday, 4 April 2013

In the Monastery

View from my window onto the monastery garden

Early evening, before dark. Such peace reigns here, only a few sounds. There's the background noise of water from a mountain spring or fontana running into an open tank, where goldfish dart and circulate or rest near motionless, perhaps feeling, this morning anyway, the warmth of sunlight on the water. Snatches of birdsong, the occasional yap of a dog, the yowl of a cat, possibly our own cat unnamed as yet and who shall simply be called Bella, at least by me. Though it is unlikely to be her, as she yowls infrequently, usually when I come out of the kitchen door onto the patio in front of the tended garden. A mixture of greeting and hope that she might be fed.

A cloud has drifted down now onto the snow capped mountain I can see from the window of my cell, but this morning for the first time, the sun came out, wreathing all the mountains in light.

This place is impossibly picturesque.

Yesterday's walk was to my local train station

then on to the village of Fontan. 

To reach the station you have to walk through a dark and dripping tunnel, one of many cut into the mountainsides to let road and rail traffic pass through. I walked back from Fontan along the main road, and then climbed – slowly – up the steep slope back to the village. Wherever you go here, you have to toil up steep slopes, or descend steep slopes. That's how it is. It will either make me very fit, or – incline me to take the train quite frequently.

Today's walk was up the GR 52A (grande randonnée – hiking trail) which starts just behind the monastery, and goes on for several kilometres. I don't know how far I walked, it seemed like a long way, but then it was uphill!

This is a little closer to the snow-covered mountain visible in the first photograph

The strangest thing is that in 2011 I was on a train from Torino to Ventimiglia. This train wanders briefly into France, as it passes through the valley of the Roya, before returning to Italy. Going through this spectacular mountain scenery on a sunny morning, clear blue sky, it made a brief stop close to a medieval village of cream, yellow and ochre buildings, topped with purple roof tiles, and built in layers into the side of a mountain. I wished I'd taken a photograph of it, but its image stayed in my mind, as somewhere I had to visit one day.

When I applied for this residency I had no idea that it was in this same village I passed through a couple of years ago, for I had not remembered its name. But I recognized it as soon as I saw it, despite the grey skies, despite it being much higher up than I thought, for the train track runs almost half way up the mountain, with the road far below in the valley, skirting the river Roya. So here I am, in a building where Franciscan monks have lived, off and on, from 1662 to 1988. And which is still as it says in the guide book un lieu de retraite, a place of retreat. The curved archways and vaulted ceilings – even the ceiling of my cell is vaulted like a chapel - give a sense of gentle enclosure. The stone corridors of the cloisters echo with the slightest sound.