What with family visiting and other responsibilities,we have been very busy for the last few weeks We did however have a walk we meant to blog about since we’ve done it twice, so now’s a good time.
The Massif of Sainte-Baume is about forty minutes’ drive to the west of us and not far from the town of St Maximin. It is one of those long Provençal limestone massifs that, without warning, just rears up from a surrounding plain. Its name means ‘Holy Cliff’, baume being the Provençal word for ‘cliff’. The ‘holy’ part comes from the large cave which has been a site of Christian pilgrimage from the at least ninth century; a succession of (mostly French) kings and pope visited it from the thirteenth to the sixteenth centuries. Why? The legend in Provence is that Mary Magdalene and two other Marys of the gospels left Palestine because of persecution, sailed in a frail boat without oar or sail and arrived in the Camargue. They then preached the gospel, and Mary Magdalene later went to live in the cave which now bears her name and has been turned into a church.
Whatever you may think about the legend, there’s no doubt that the site is a spectacular one. First the road climbs to a plateau, from which you see the cliff of Sainte Baume rising out of woods. There, nestled improbably into the cliff, are a cluster of buildings – a monastery for the Dominican friars who run the site.
The walk too isn’t too hard: you follow the steep but well graded ‘Kings’ Road’ which winds up though lovely woods up along the side of the hill, until you eventually reach the final steps to the level space in front of the cave. If you are a connoisseur of French Catholic church interiors there is probably much to get excited about in the low, gloomy space of the cave with its altars and statues. Even if you aren’t, it’s not hard to imagine it being a near impregnable place of refuge for people during the many wars, insurrections and raids that so frequently disturbed Provence in the past.
However, the cave is only two-thirds up the massif and the walk continues. A further path – less smooth and with steps in places – takes you to the top of the ridge. Here the views are magnificent, particularly to the north where the bald and solemn massif of Mont Sainte Victoire broods over Aix-en-Provence. By any standards it’s a memorable walk.
Finally, although we make a point of not being rude about ailing, psychologically troubled old men we have to make an exception for Donald Trump. His decision to take America out of the COP21 agreement – and we were there in Paris for it – has been held to be a triumph of stupidity and stubbornness over sanity. We wouldn’t argue otherwise. President Macron immediately made a well measured speech (in French and English) in response in which he invited concerned environmentalists interested in climate change to come to France. Merci beaucoup M. Macron; we already have.