walkaweek jan.

January 2012 Walks

Walk 14 January 8

Foothills of Pain and Plague – A Theatrical Walk along the Sentier Historique du Mur de la Peste – from La Bastide Rouge in a circuit to Lagnes, visiting the Theatre de Plein Air and passing the cabane on the col Les Baumes

I have left my walking boots at home, and receive no sympathy from my children as we climb up the stony gorge, up over the craggy uneven path. It is steep, strewn with small sharp rocks, thrown down onto the narrow track by the wind, rain and gravity. Every time I step onto a sharp shard of stone it pierces the sole and a slow drubbing pain enters the feet and shudders up the knees towards my hips. This walk may turn out to be gentle torture, in a pulverisation of the feet, but I am remaining optimistic as I look at the sun drenching the other side of the gorge. For as we climb up in the shaded protection of the cliff, we look across at the other side of this small canyon, at the rock face opposite that is pitted with shallow caves and bathed in a beautiful shallow January sun. Pitched as it is, the low yet powerful glow creates an intricacy of pattern and wear that would be completely obliterated say, by the midday Summer sun with its fierce downward glare. Now the Winter sun plays across the surface of the landscape with a gentler more revealing eye, cutting into the surface of stone and creating shadows and reliefs that astonish the eye with their variety. The air is fresh and the atmosphere feels clean and crisp. I soon forget the ache in my legs and the jarring of the feet. We turn to look backwards, after only a short climb, and see framed in the ‘V’ of the gorge a magnificent panorama stretching out across the gentle plains to Cavaillon and the Alpilles behind.

It has taken us barely twenty minutes to reach the top of the steep ravine. We now turn onto a rain scarred track hemmed in by scrubby woodland, made up of small evergreen growth. My feet have become somewhat numb to the pounding, and it does appear that the ground leveling out has become less jagged, more dusty and flat. After a short distance we seem to be walking on a plateau, and as the trees thin, we can see views opening out onto the Monts de Vaucluse and across the Valley of Calavon. Here I can finally rest up, as we eat our sandwiches in the early afternoon, sitting on the concrete edge of a cistern, bathed in a glowing sun. London and its wintery skies seem far away.  We have just laid out the contents of our haversack,when from nowhere two dogs appear, sniffing and poking their noses into the contents. I am just able to save the last sandwich from their salivating jaws. Suddenly it seems, we are far from alone on this plateau. The dogs were just the advance party of a large group of late middle age walkers with bright coloured carbon fibre walking sticks. They are chatting with each other and hardly acknowledge are presence. With their specialized walking boots, rucksacks and paraphernalia there are the advanced guard of a growing phenomena – a self-contained cross-section of the retired baby-boomers – enjoying some leisure fitness together. They are taking their walking seriously. Examining their professional equipment I feel vaguely inadequate and ill equipped with my worn leather shoes – but at least I have a coat – both my son and daughter are running around in thin summer clothes having ‘forgot to bring’ their coats. Even though I had checked the forecast and told everybody a dozen times that it was going to be windy – the mistral was suddenly up – and none of us now seemed appropriately prepared for this walk. And yet the sun with the protection of the young trees, and now the wall, provide shelter from the rising wind, and trap the heat.

Before we start out again we take a moment to look at a large dark wood noticeboard, protected with its own pitched roof. It commemorates the replanting of the forest after a vicious fire in 1989 and reads:

“Des enfants, des arbres: demain une foret” (Children, Trees: Tomorrow a forest). In 1991 1200 children from schools in Avignon, L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue, Lagnes and Pernes les Fontaines planted four thousand saplings (Atlas Cedars, Arizona Cypresses, Olives and Oaks)….

Presumably it was this fire that revealed the full extent and remnants of the plague wall that runs from Cabrieres to Monieux. We could begin to make out its dilapidated form from across the trackway, and I went to explore what appeared like a collapsed hut structure straddling the fragmented wall. The so-called Mur de la Peste was built in 1720-1721 and manned for nearly 2 years by hundreds of guards, intent on letting no one in or out of the plague infested Comtat Venaissin. After its arrival in Marseille in May 1720 the disease had spread inexorably northwards, entering Avignon and the towns of the Vaucluse. Here at the outer limits of the Comtat, they built this protective wall, barely 1.90 metre high with dry-stone hurriedly, to contain the fearful outbreak.  On the edge of the tide of history, perched on the escarpment looking down and out on the passing ebb and flow, this lonely wall now preserved in its ruin – seemingly timeless (this is pure illusion) – serves as a reminder of man’s continuous struggle with and against nature. Who were they trying to keep in or out, in this giant quarantine prison? No doubt, apart from the wildlife, the rats and other rodents scrambling over its pointless walls, bands of smugglers made a good living disrupting the Pope’s dwindling authority. This stony Papal eruption in the landscape is somehow analogous to Artaud’s description of the Marseille Plague:

…just as volcanoes have their elected spots upon the earth, so bubos make their preferred appearances on the surface of the human body. Around the anus, in the armpits, in the precious places where the active glands faithfully perform their functions, the bubos appear, wherever the organism discharges either its internal rottenness or, according to the case, its life. In most cases a violent burning sensation, localized in one spot, indicates that the organism’s life has lost nothing of its force and that a remission of the disease or even its cure is possible. Like silent rage, the most terrible plague is the one that does not reveal its symptoms. (Artaud: 20)

Not long after the wall was built, Papal authority in the region began to crumble inextricably.  In 1791, after a plebiscite the Papal enclave was finally incorporated into France. One cannot help but think that this flimsy wall was a last futile attempt by the Papacy to hold onto their French territory. And now “tomorrow a forest”: after all the fire and all the plague, renewal, replanting, regrowth in a different form – nevertheless rebirth.

Here the limestone on the exposed mountain plateau is so dry one loses all sense of its age. The sharp stones piled carefully to form the Plague Wall have no mortar or glue to hold the whole together and it sags and bulges, but paradoxically in its uniformly grey weathering there is no sense of it being worn down or eroded. It appears as if it has always been here, exactly as we find it today, coloured with coppery tufts of dry moss and speckled with tiny growths of chalky bryophytes. Like the Pont Julian further down the Calavon Valley, with its great worn blocks of stone, this simple stone structure has an ageless quality as if it had always been here. There is something uncannily anachronistic about its presence; it is as if it exists only for us now, as a reason for the footpath, as if it never really functioned, and was always built to be a pleasant ruin, with its caved in guardhouses.

Once the plague is established in a city, the regular forms collapse. There is no maintenance of roads and sewers, no army, no police, no municipal administration. Pyres are lit at random to burn the dead…. The stench rises in the air like a flame. Entire streets are blocked by the piles of dead. Then the houses open and the delirious victims, their minds crowded with hideous visions, spread howling through the streets. The disease that ferments in their viscera and circulates throughout their entire organism discharges itself in tremendous cerebral explosions…strange personages pass, dressed in wax, with noses long as sausages and eyes of glass, mounted on a kind of Japanese sandal made of double wooden tablets, one horizontal, in the form of a sole, the other vertical, to keep them from the contaminated fluids, chanting absurd litanies that cannot prevent them from sinking into the furnace in their turn. These ignorant doctors betray only their fear and childishness.

The dregs of the population, apparently immunized by their frenzied greed, enter the open houses and pillage riches they know will serve no purpose or profit. And at that moment the theatre is born. (Artaud: 23-24)

Finally we come out from the woodland and leave behind the ruined wall, headed back down into Lagnes to visit the Theatre de Plein Air. Across from a strangely bright, green field of new growth, flattened from the slopes above the village, and around an unpromising concealed road that leaves the village we follow the signs toward the theatre. Here we come across a heavy padlocked chain barring the way into what looks like a gravel layby. The open-air theatre is concealed behind a small man made bank. Simply made, provisionally carved out from the side of a lightly quarried lump of rock that forms a protuberance above the village. From above the flattened area of the stage there are rough steps cut into the rock to the summit and from its height there are spectacular views across the rooftops into the flat valley below. In this stripped down theatre there are no seats to speak of, but a large exposed concrete bench to the right of the stage, at the back of an imaginary auditorium, where the lighting is presumably operated, completes the staging. For apart from that, and the roughed out gravelly stage there is little to distinguish this crude leveled cutting from a car park. But it is this simplicity that is most charming and powerful. You feel that to make theatre here must be particularly invigorating and hard, exposed to the vagaries of the sun and wind:

The contemporary theatre is decadent because it has lost the feeling on the one hand for seriousness and on the other for laughter; because it has broken away from gravity, from effects that are immediate and painful – in a word, from Danger…Because it has lost a sense of real humour, a sense of laughter’s power of physical and anarchic dissociation. (Artaud: 43)

We have one more unexpected find as we follow the path back over Les Baumes toward the car. It is beautifully preserved (repaired) cabane on the col made from interlocking stone built up round its curving walls to form a gently domed roof. Inside there are signs that someone may have been camping here, burnt paper and charring to the floor and wall. But it is hard to imagine now the temperature is dropping, how it is possible to live here let alone survive. It is noticeable that all the buildings, walls and structures here are made from the same small fractured stone that litters the hilltop – like scaled down versions of the Mur de la Peste they testify to the ingenuity and resilience of human culture. To make such structures from the fractured stone found at ones feet is inspiring, as invigorating as seeing it disintegrated, the building material once again slipping back into the landscape with little trace of any artificial contamination. But these fractured shards remind me piercingly of my poor footwear. How much further on this sharp gravelly stone?

Finally we are are at the end of the walk. Thankfully relieved to reach the car, I open up the boot and sit down to examine the soles of my shoes. They have two gashes right across the sole from one edge to the other of the leather upper, and splitting the inner sole: nothing between my feet and the earth except a thin sock. Not long ago many people walked like this here, with just their feet bound in cloth. Now we can get into the comfort of a car and drive barefoot home.

Walk 13 6th January

A little stroll round Carpentras’ Market – The Truffle Square

Having missed the marché aux truffes before Christmas I try my luck again on the first Friday after New Year. The day is clear, and as the sun rises just after 8pm, the clouds disperse under a strong cold wind. I drop the children at school and race along the dual carriageway of the D942 toward Carpentras hoping to see some thing of the ritual Michelle de La Pradelle describes in her chapter on the Truffle Circle. I am already late, as it’s now passed 8.30 in the morning and it is hard to find parking, but I manage to reach the open entrance area to the Hotel Dieu at around 8.40am where a group of mostly men, in various coats, hats, and boots mingle and chat amongst each other, occasionally moving between groups, shaking hands and greeting one another. By their demeanour and the casual nature of the groupings I feel a tinge of disappointment for it appears that they have just spilled out from the building’s courtyard just after the market has taken place. It appears I have gone and missed the Market again.

To make up for the disappointment I walk through the small crowd, divided by small tributaries of space, to catch some of the ambiance and spirit of this unique ritual. I feel a certain tension as I clutch the cloth bag I have brought with me. I hold it tight to my chest. It contains two or three slim books, a notebook and camera. Nevertheless despite its angular contents, it is the kind of soft white sack that might conceal some precious truffles.  I am being made very aware that I am not a part of this chosen knot of people. And yet there is no obvious odour and no sense that I am witness to anything but a small gathering of acquaintances meeting to chat on market day. The only difference, in this gathering, is the apparent uniformity of clothing and of age – most of the individuals are middle aged or a little older. I leave the throng and cross to the Place du 25 Aout 1944 to look at the stalls. Here I catch an overwhelming perfume of vanilla mixed with cooked chicken and decide I must use my nostrils today. But the mistral and the fresh winter air conspires against me, driving the scent quickly away and up into the clear blue sky. Maybe that is why the crowd outside the marché aux truffes was not infused with the conspicuous pungent smell of wild truffle. And maybe, just maybe the market has yet to take place…

I glance back and see that the crowd is thinning yet no one is coming away from the Hotel Dieu. In fact the throng in front of the building were made up of the rabassier just gathering prior to the market. Presumably not wanting to appear too eager or too craven they wait outside the market place in a show of nonchalance until nearly 9am, to enter the courtyard and prepare themselves for the trading. I follow them in and see that the square of tables surrounded by metal barricades that had appeared so empty on my last visit, like a stage set emptied of its actors, was now filled almost entirely along each side. The members of the crowd I had seen outside milling around now reveal small cloth bags or take from baskets, bags and place them in front of them so they face into the open space in the middle of the truffle square. This simple gesture almost certainly belies the heroic effort and careful preparation that each rabassier has taken in preparing their small offerings. But instead of the feverish anticipation that often accompanies the buildup to a market auction there is a strange reluctance to show interest in any sale before it actually commences, as if all the participants in the market are holding back. In this it recalls the rather cold auctioneering of say the contemporary fine art market stuffed full of smart agents bidding for anonymous superrich collectors. But here no one tries to look into the contents of the others bags – it is up to each individual seller how much or little they wish to reveal of their unburied treasure. It is nearly 9am and the rabassier seem suddenly  more alert. They ignore a late arrival who enters the square, a woman dressed in a bright green coat. Looking a little hurried and fatigued she searches the backs of her rivals for her place at the table. But they are looking to see where the buyers are.

This arena of exchange concerns a very peculiar commodity, displayed in almost perfunctory fashion (though the plastic bags and battered baskets de La Pradelle describes have now been largely replaced by small linen sacks some with Marché aux Truffes printed on the outside). Some sellers have folded down the sides of the sacks to reveal their finds while others simply place their bag on the table and wait with their ‘black diamonds’. Now, there is a flimsy moment of calm before the tables finally filled up, and latecomers trying to squeeze in to show their finds. The wind whips into the courtyard and kicks up leaves in a funneling swirl that rise over the courtyard. Then precisely on the stroke of 9am, as the clock chimes its last bell, the buyers come into the square from the right hand corner of the barrier. They enter the centre of the tables and start circulating quickly.

From a distance it appears that what is most important is not how this product looks but how they smell, how they feel and how much the seller is willing to hold onto his or her maximum price. For the buyer it is mostly a question of quality but also of trust. And yet for both the rabassier or his agent and the buyer or trader it is precisely how each nugget of truffe looks that really counts – in its utter authenticity, its nobbliness or dirtiness which distinguishes it from other products – for it is far too precious to have been scrubbed up and cleaned, or represented as a prime specimen, as all its precious juice, its essence and concentrated earthiness resides in its hidden interstices which quality must be reckoned only from its earthy outside. The buyers circle the tables at first almost nonchalantly, regarding the bags and their guardians with swift approval. Then slowly the activity draws closer and the traders start to look at the truffes, dipping their hands into the bags, feel and scrapping the produce. Some put their heads right into the sacks, sniffing and snuffling the contents as if they were a truffle pig or dog searching out these succulent bonbon of the terrain in the roots of oak trees. They sniff, poke, turn, touch, scrape and generally man handle the contents of the bags. But this must all be part of the game, that quick exchange of gestures that ripens the words that will clinch the deal. The sellers look on almost indifferently – they know that their finds are good, that they are ‘genuine’ truffles from the Ventoux and must be accorded the proper value. Some buyers can be seen talking briefly and intently to a seller; over 3 or 4 intense minutes all the trading is completed – up to 60 to 70 small sacks of truffes worth thousands of pounds will have changed hands in a series of precise conversations where how, when, and what you say, may seal or break the deal. Here it is a sellers market,  the trader/buyer merely competing with each other over how much if any of this luxury object they can obtain without overspending or inflating the already overpriced market. 

Walk 15: Shadow walk – Frozen Avignon.


Walk 16:  14 January/18 January

Apt Santon – Post Santon Fever

Visit of Apt (Market)

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After the deluge of Santons and all things Santon fever we have booked a trip to visit some local Provencal crèche, laid out, as tradition requires in the home. It is part of a tour of Santons organized by Carpentras Tourist Office. We meet on the outskirts of Carpentras by a nursery school L’ecole des amandiers – I can’t help reminding myself of the riots in the town that started after a nursery was burnt down.

We visit three houses and see three very different interpretations of the Santon ‘tradition’: The first display is housed in an old garage, the second in the hosts’ neat dining room, the third in a beautifully sunlit house, running from the hall through the living room and into the kitchen.

The first house we visit is in a suburb or outlying village of Carpentras itself, off the route de Serres. The next is in St Didier where the lady of the house keeps us waiting while she finishes getting dressed in her traditional costume. She sings to us, accompanied by a slightly embarrassed man playing the flute. Later she takes us out into the village to dance along the streets ‘as they used to do’. We are not able to perform the dance quite as well as she hoped. The last is in Venasque and has been constructed by a non-native northerner – it extends from his hall, where there is a desert stretching to the coast of Provence in the living room and up into the hinterland of mountains that spills into the kitchen. It is a tour de force of ingenuity and patience – made from stones, crystals, vegetation etc. found in Provence and further afield  (including rocks and pieces of twisted wood brought back from exotic holidays). Miniature olive trees have been made from upturned roots. He hands us a dossier that describes the whole complex scene, including all the crafts people involved in making the models and the miniature figures. This landscape is inhabited by a particular type of santon – the smallest santon puces – hardly bigger than a thumbnail.

All three are extraordinary, testifying to the individuals’ obsessions and love of this popular art form. They have a real desire to share their passion in three entirely different ways. But it is the first and least pretentious that is the most enjoyable. In the garage they have set up a son et lumiere and with the lights turned down our host makes a petit spectacle with flashing lights and the soundtrack from Manon des Sources. The affects include the sound of thunder, lightening and explosions of light that illuminate the fabricated landscape with a strange childlike enthusiasm.

Like the Christmas fairs – consuming/producing the mythic figures, and of Santon, with their bears, their gypsy peddlers, the jolly gendarme etc.

The practices that may be observed at a stallholder market like that of Carpentras may stand as a national model in that they evoke a perhaps ill-defined but in any case vanished world, a dominantly rural France which Carpentras, like any small city in the Midi with its plane-tree-shaded squares and boule players, is living testimony of. This is of course an illusion… the Friday market is not a miraculously preserved fragment of history a few minutes drive from the Autoroute A6…But the fact that “the Provençal market” is a mere copie d’ancien does not preclude it from serving as a model. Reproducing the signs of it, “making Provençal” in the nineteenth arrondissement of Paris, amounts to producing imitations of imitations… (Pradelle: 236)

Every stallholder tries to give itself a rural touch. In Carpentras as elsewhere, the market is a temple where ‘nature” is celebrated – nature as divinity of the modern world, an entity presumed immutable that we owe it to ourselves to maintain or reestablish our founding connection with…The presentation of products in bulk, untreated; sellers with peasant appearances; gritty bunches of radishes, the greens attached; eggs straight from the henhouse, their shells streaked and dirty; slugs in the salad; muddy potatoes; …all these allegorical figures of country life “consumed” at stallholder markets in much the same way one takes a little farm vacation beneath the faded eye of Millet’s Semeuses – is just as illusory (if more plausible) in Carpentras as in Sarcelles. Not to mention the fact that even Carpentras stallholders redundantly add the label “organic”, as if “local strawberries” and “artichokes from Provence” no longer sufficed to signify the authentic naturalness of the product…. In almost every metropolis – Boulevard Raspail on Sunday mornings, Union Square in New York, Pike Market in Seattle – the “supermodern” consumer on a quest to commune with the nourishing Earth can buy a bit of genuine nature. (Pradelle: 238-9)

Or reproduce it in their living room…. Away from the horrors and complexities of la vie moderne.

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