The Chateau Saint-Martin, Vence, France

It has been raining on and off all week, the temperatures cool, the sun appearing between dark clouds, teasing.  We read and write, and when the weather clears, walk up the road into the lower alpine hills and back through meadows, crossing bridges over rushing streams.  We return to our thirteenth-century Knights Templar castle, the Chateau Saint-Martin.

Only a few ruins to the side of the property remain from the medieval castle, but I recall that the property goes back indeed to Saint Martin of Tours, a converted Roman soldier, who spent time here in 350.  A statue over the fireplace in the front salon shows Martin on his horse, cutting his robe in half to give to a naked beggar, and in a sense this hospitality continued.  In 1115 the Earl of Provence gave the property to crusaders returning from Jerusalem, the Knights Templars, requiring that they offer lodging to travelers, and cultivate and protect the region.  The Templars were disbanded in the fourteenth century, and the Wars of Religion, and after that the Revolution, did great damage to the property.  But in 1900 a wealthy business man bought the ruined estate.  Eventually it was restored, opening as a hotel in 1958.

We had the opportunity to dine with an old friend the other night, a man who came to the hotel as Second Maître d’ in 1971.  He recalled visits from many of the famous in the area, including Marc Chagall (1887-1985) who lived nearby and who created the stunning stained glass windows in a local chapel.  Others have come up from the Cannes film festival as well, to add to the star-studded list of guests.   In those days the chateau was only a single building and twenty-four rooms.  Since then it has expanded, but the proprietors have kept the gracious feeling of those earlier days, with white stucco and arched portals, tiled walkways and vaulted ceilings, gardens of lavender, cypress, olive trees, and arbors of aromatic jasmine.  And all the while the panorama of sky whirls before you, the clouds sweeping to the sea, the lightning and thunder traveling over the rolling hills, the brilliant sun burning through mists crowning walled villages.

We leave this aerie perch tomorrow and head for Mary Magdalene country, the Massif de La Sainte-Baume where an ancient protected forest guards a mysterious grotto (see June 26, 2009 post).  We are preparing for a pilgrimage to the Magdalene’s cave and her nearby basilica, to learn more about her and from her.  I have long sensed she reflects the heart of Christianity in all of her stories – the penitent sinner of the seven demons cast out by Christ, the woman of adoration who washed Christ’s feet with her hair, the disciple who first saw the resurrected Christ and ran to tell the others, perhaps the first evangelist.  Henry Lacordaire (1802-1861) agreed.  This Dominican preacher, famous for his sermons in Paris’s Notre Dame, visited the grotto in 1851.  Seeing in Mary Magdalene the power of love, both divine and human, the heart of the Gospel message, he wrote and worked to revive her legend.  He built the present Hotellerie for pilgrims, and by the 1880’s it was recorded that on the saint’s feast day 10,000 pilgrims made the journey up to the dripping cavern-shrine.

Hopefully, we too shall make the hour long ascent through the ancient forest.  We shall follow in the footsteps of many kings and queens, saints and sinners, and ordinary folk like us who carry the seeds of both saints and sinners, just as Mary Magdalene did.

Deo Gratias

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