(for Mam, who loved a bargain holiday, and Dad, who loved Yugoslavia)

Friday, February 12, 2010

Vienna Roll

In all fairness to Vienna I shouldn’t be posting my online graffiti about it here. I spent a long afternoon in the place, most of that in a museum. It wasn’t so much a skite as a chip off a skite to Bratislava. They make it so easy. The shuttle train goes over and back all day between the two cities for about 8 Euro return. They are only 65 kms apart and the trip takes about an hour. In fact Bratislava airport is the RyanAir airport for Vienna.

The day I went, during Christmas week, the train was boarded by boisterous, clear-skinned gangs of twenty something Austrians in expensive sports casuals who may have been on an adventure, or just doing some budget Christmas shopping. Whatever it was, it was done and they were on their way back home early enough on a Sunday to be in time for church. There was also a more subdued scattering of non-Austrians. Bratislava is something of a late Saturday night to Vienna’s Sunday morning, a little more dishevelled in spots. But then Titania’s palace would look rough and ready next to any plain public building – never mind an opera house or palace – in downtown Vienna, all cream stone and painted railings. As for the Christmas decorations! The city was dolled up like Liberace on concert night - not a burnt out bulb in the rows and wreaths of sparkling lights.

At the Christmas market in Rathausplatz the same ornaments displayed in every Central European city at Christmas – decorations, candles and wooden puzzles, as well as gingerbread and toasted almonds and sausages - were on sale for a premium. And the mulled wine was twice the price of Bratislava (same quality too), plus you had to lay down a mortgage deposit on the ceramic mug. None of your plastic beakers in this here green postcard metropolis.

I happened to have a book with me on this trip, a volume of Arthur Koestler’s earliest memoirs that I had bought at a car boot sale a few days before in Spain – the only English language book I could find. It wouldn’t be your average airport fare, but it had a kind of musty relevance on this trip, since he had lived in Budapest and Vienna, and Vienna is an up-river sandblasted version of Budapest. Almost a hundred years later, the contrast between the two cityscapes and cultures probably hasn’t changed much.

Koestler writes of venturing inside Gerstner’s luxurious tearoom, aged around 15, in 1920, when the “misery of the post-war inflation years in Vienna was at its peak”

“The air inside Gerstner’s was hot, perfumed, and sweet; the sounds were muffled to a low murmur by the thick, soft carpets on the floor, the silk tapestry covering the walls, and the velvet curtains on the doors; it was like the padded interior of a chocolate box. The people who sat chatting and smiling at the small, polished tea-tables all looked wealthy and well-groomed and happy. They were mostly nouveaux riches, speculators and profiteers, for the old bourgeoisie of Vienna had been destroyed by the inflation as finally and completely as if it had been buried by a landslide; nevertheless, this new clientele of Gerstner’s looked perfectly civilised and did not even try to assume blasé manners. The people of Vienna had never learned that an air of boredom is an essential part of savoir faire; and so warmly saturated with tradition was the atmosphere of their city, that the parvenus had already acquired the unique Viennese art of being not only rich but actually enjoying it. They had that courteous gaiety and amused self-mockery and warm malice and flickering erotic spark, which had prevailed at Gerstner’s in the past Imperial days.”

I didn’t get anywhere near the inside of the padded chocolate box. I stayed outside on the cream vellum exterior. But I thought that commentary from an insider-outsider more than compensated for the poor rap the Austrians get today in the soundbite media. I had my bag lifted down from a train for me (not this trip) by a man in full business garb, and it wasn’t because he wanted a date. Three people got involved to help me get a ticket from a machine in the tram when I didn’t have change. The driver had shrugged when I sat down anyway to fiddle with my fiver. One of the three told me there were padded cells in Austrian jails for the likes of me and had a good laugh with his girlfriend. All in English, by the way. At the museum two men stepped aside and held the door.

The Kunsthistorisches Museum had so many Egyptian artefacts, including mummies, giant sarcophagi and even a full height granite pillar, that I couldn’t help but think it is time every country gave everything back. This museum is only in the halfpenny place on that score by comparison with the Louvre, the British Museum, the Metropolitan et al. I just hadn’t been in a major museum for a long while and had forgotten. There were so many Old Masters upstairs – Rubenses and Reynoldses and Rembrandts and Dutch Elders and Youngers and lighter French and Italian fare – that I left bog-eyed. In the end what I can bring to mind easiest are the ghastly – sorry! - fruithead and fishhead paintings of Giuseppe Archimboldo and Jan Steen’s Beware of living the Good Life, a louche scene of vice and disorder. There was a wonderful portrait of Paul the Apostle by Rembrandt and a beautiful portrait of Mary Magdalene by Titian or Tinoretto. But too, too many paintings to see in one day.

All these paintings and artefacts were acquired and assembled by the Hapsburgs, whose origins and achievements were celebrated in a separate exhibit of paraphernalia and thick-crusted brocade capes which could have stood up without help. Most outstanding exhibit of all was the massive shelf on the nose of Maximillian I, which either gave him the martian energies to carve out an empire and found a dynasty or the complex that needed all the trappings of empire to enable him to find a wife.

The Kunsthistorisches is a bang for your buck museum, but far, far better if you live in or around and use one of those season tickets. Having said that, I don’t know if I would be running back every Sunday to see hall after hall of massive, dark religious scenes – crucifixions and transfixions and sermons and sacraments. I was relieved ten minutes walk from the front door to be looking at bling up town in the Rathausplatz, at trees festooned with red heart balloons and falling icicles. I felt like the bespectacled secretary character who throws off her glasses and shakes out her hair at the office party and hits the dance floor. 
Vienna seemed to be a happy place at Christmas, where people were looked after well by their city and kids kept innocent and warm.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

CheapSkite Day Breaks

You don’t have to fly off somewhere to have a bargain break. And the sun doesn’t have to be shining either.

Cheap skite for a wet day
I was googling different types of travel breaks to see what could be reinvented less expensively here and came across ‘mosaic holidays’. In fact I knew an academic couple who did a one week, 8-hour a day mosaic holiday in Verona a decade ago and the wife said it was furnace hot and altogether the most gruelling experience of her life - and she had a row of kids and a bombastic, ever-restless husband (the holiday was his idea of switching off).

Well this is absolutely not that kind of break. In the blissful liberation of being in a hiatus between jobs for the first time in years I browsed a dozen beaches this week, gathering bits of seaworn pottery. There was no one around, just a few strays like myself doing the same thing. Or similar anyway. Several were gathering glass. A Frenchwoman was poring over the stones looking for orange and cream sea-hardened periwinkles that had come loose from their shells and been washed up. She collected these extremely rare finds to put in a transparent glass vase and she told me her back was broken and her eyes were strained but she was happy (though probably not as happy as I was). This day-holiday, by the way, cost €4. I had a flask of coffee with me. On another posting I will describe the super tuna sandwich that everyone should have with them when they set out on a day's ramble.

I read somewhere about some famous Warren Buffett type who was burnt out after years on Wall St and took a sabbatical on a deserted Caribbean island. He took long beach walks every day gathering bits and one day when his heart leapt at the glint of a spectacular piece of seaworn beach pottery he said he knew that he had experienced greater euphoria than a killer trade would ever give him again. 

This is the kind of thing I imagine he saw: 

When you get home you can put all the bits together in a design that pleases you and get even more value from the day.

And here are one or two I made earlier:

Art, Health and Gourmet Eating for Refined Cheapskates
Freeform Art Workshop at the (beach below the) Atelier of Salvador Dali in Portlligat, followed by a handsome 5 hour walk on smugglers’ coastal paths and lunch - without a reservation! – at El Bulli (beach)

The middle section here (Portlligat, through Cadaques, over the mountain and south along the coast to Montjoi bay) is not for the faint-hearted. It is a 4-5 hour walk and there is no bus or taxi rank at the end of it to take you back to where you started. So you have to have cooperative friends, or forget the walk and settle for the creative endorphins let loose by the elevated company you have not quite spent time with today.

I’d like to say the material for the following portraits all came from Portlligat beach, but to be honest only about half of it did, the rest being from Cadaques. But technically Portlligat is only a suburb of Cadaques and Dali was a man who liked to go into town on his night off with the best of them.


On the left here we have an unusually subdued Mae Worst and on the right an understated self-portrait of the great master himself Servidor Doily after a night on the town. 

El Bulli is rated the world’s best restaurant and you have to book three years in advance if you want a table in August (but not August 2011 or 2012, when the great chef is taking a break). You don’t have to take a break, though. You can dine al fresco beneath the modest walls of the place, like the two Dutchmen I met feasting on twigs and berries after descending from a 10-day trek in the Pyrenees. I like my food, but if you think this photo shot isn’t staged, you are very wrong. You don’t want to be drinking wine before driving back the twisty mountain road to town. I brought the accoutrements from home on a boring, bad old day just for something to do and to take this hasty photo. 
That’s El Bulli above the cork in the wine bottle. 
You can see what a lousy day it is, which is how come I managed to lay it all out for this compelling shot,  and then pack it back into my rucksack to eat at home, all without being spotted by beach strollers.  

Thursday, January 21, 2010

A Taste of the Camino de Santiago

Oh my poor feet!
Don’t know what to call this one. Is it a bargain break? (Sure is). Is it a pilgrimage? (Yes, of course. That’s what it’s supposed to be). But couldn't you call it a green trek? A sunshine holiday abroad? A life-changing experience? A sign of the times? Start of an obsession?

When I joined my two friends, they had already clocked up enough miles to get a certificate if ever they made it to Santiago. They had pilgrim passports with colourful stamps, and they had warm, painful and life-enhancing stories to recall. I knew they weren’t going to give up at that point, but  I wasn’t so sure about myself. I had arrived by aeroplane, coach, taxi and bus to a town around 40 km east of Santiago. They had been on the road since just after dawn and were in full stride. I was utterly unfit from a prolonged sedentary job  and immediately set a mileage clock in my head and started an obsessive countdown. A long-legged friend who had gone at the camino multiple ways over the years had told me with derision of seeing a bus dropping awl wans (old ones if you are not Irish) a few miles out of Santiago to stagger the last bit into town. Quelle horreur!, I didn’t say.

I love walking, though I am no longer any good at it. Tommy Tiernan, the thinking man’s comedian, calls it a great cure for madness. Next to my slimbo friends I was Gulliver in Lilliput. I can truly say I passed no one in a poorer condition of fitness than myself (though it's not like I passed anyone anyway). But no matter. I am only saying this to encourage the hesitant.

In less than an hour after meeting we were so deep in the country, green country – in burnt out heat-desiccated SPAIN! - that the bliss of that offset the developing blisters. It was tough going sometimes. Still hot in September, hilly - and of course it was unknown terrain. But just when it seemed like you might want to stab a pilgrim for a shot of coffee, in the middle of nowhere you would round a bend and there, sitting under a canopy of trees, was the thing you had dreamed of on every hike you ever did – an aromatic little café with snacks, bottled water, shade and chairs! Something else was noticeable too. Very reasonable prices, sympathetic mutual wincing between strangers in the queue and at the  tables outside. Camaraderie! And tangible efforts by the woman behind the counter to understand and accommodate. I hadn’t experienced that for a while on my travels.

Left to my own devices I might have sat under one of those trees for the afternoon, but the arrival and departure of pilgrims helps maintain a pace, lends a mild sense of urgency to get to the next milestone, or nearest albergue for the night.

We continued on through forests of eucalyptus, past decorated horreos (grainstores) and fields of corn and cabbage that reminded me of Ireland, but an Ireland that had pole-shifted down to summer holiday land, so that alongside the cabbages were peaches and vines, though not vineyards (this was the French Way). I did 15 kms that day. My companions added 24 to their awesome, mounting tally. We passed a fellow who had walked from northern France in a series of seasons. When someone strode past at a clip or swept by on a bicycle there was always an acknowledgement, or a Poco pocito! if they were Spanish and you looked knackered. 

When we got to the albergue, there was a cheerful masochist from Northern Ireland with a 40 kg rucksack who had prepared for the trek across the Pyrenees by running up hills in Donegal in several coats with the bag on his back. He was planning to do another route as soon as he got to Santiago. I should say the goal of the pilgrimage is to get to the Cathedral of St James in Santiago from wherever you start out, along waymarked routes, at whatever pace is comfortable for you, or uncomfortable enough for you if you want to make a Lough Derg of it. You can cycle, and a great many French and Spaniards flew past us on wheels. Purists can be scornful of the cyclists, but St James probably doesn’t object and neither do the owners of small hostelries and cafes who were saved from emigration and indigence by the Camino de Santiago and the happy mix of pilgrims and hikers and cheapskate holidaymakers who walk the landscape of Galicia from spring to autumn every year.

St James

St James, or St Iago, son of Zebedee and Salome, was one of Jesus’ earliest apostles, along with his brother John. Executed by the sword of King Herod Agrippa I in person, James’ remains are said to be held in Santiago de Compostela in western Galicia, regarded as the third holiest city in Roman Catholicism. He is the patron saint of Spain and his feast day is 25 July. This year, ie 2010, is a Jubilee year, when the feast day falls on a Sunday and record numbers of pilgrims are expected, with up to 200,000 qualifying for a certificate, or Compostela. You get a Compostela (with your name spelt in Latin) if you show that you have completed 100 kms (200 kms for cyclists).

Here is a little more about the beloved saint from Wikipedia:

According to ancient local tradition, on 2 January of the year AD 40, the Virgin Mary appeared to James on the bank of the Ebro River at Caesaraugusta, while he was preaching the Gospel in Iberia. She appeared upon a pillar, Nuestra Señora del Pilar, and that pillar is conserved and venerated within the present Basilica of Our Lady of the Pillar, in Zaragoza, Spain. Following that apparition, St James returned to Judea, where he was beheaded by King Herod Agrippa I in the year 44.[5][6]

“The translation of his relics from Judea to Galicia in the northwest of Iberia was effected, in legend, by a series of miraculous happenings: decapitated in Jerusalem with a sword by Herod Agrippa himself, his body was taken up by angels, and sailed in a rudderless, unattended boat to Iria Flavia in Iberia, where a massive rock closed around his relics, which were later removed to Compostela. An even later tradition states that he miraculously appeared to fight for the Christian army during the battle of Clavijo, and was henceforth called Matamoros (Moor-slayer). Santiago y cierra España ("St James and strike for Spain") has been the traditional battle cry of Spanish armies.”
“St James the Moorslayer, one of the most valiant saints and knights the world ever had ... has been given by God to Spain for its patron and protection.”    Cervantes, Don Quixote

It wouldn’t be religion unless all this was disputed by scholars, sceptics, rivals and barflies, so there is a lot more on the subject here.  

One thing about the Irish – they love a good pilgrimage. They love all the blisters and sprains, the frozen ankles (the Pyrenees) and the hunger. Another thing is they don’t mind having a good laugh and sharing the memory of the pain over a good meal and a few drinks in a warm hostel. We met a disproportionate number of Irish – or that was my recollection anyway on my 2-day sample of the camino, for which I got no Compostela (30 km at a stretch) but lost a small toenail from tight boots. We spent one night in an albergue and the other sharing a triple hotel room. The albergue served up crisp sheets, hot showers, Galician soup and ruby rich wine from the Ribeira Sacra. The next morning we got lost, found our way again and rambled and then trudged (I did anyway) through more fragrant eucalyptus woods, past farms and orchards to a smart looking hotel just 10 kms from Santiago where we fell into another reasonably priced pilgrim meal, followed by the sleep of the dead. My two friends left at dawn. I got the bus at 10.00 am in my flip flops and we reached the Cathedral in Santiago around the same time.

Twelve o’clock Mass is where those who have made it in to the city that morning gather and the Cathedral was packed on a September Friday. Two young lads a couple of seats ahead were carrying a tall gold-fringed banner and one of them had a T-shirt with a cedar and map of Lebanon on the back. Both of them had the profiles of early Christian apostles, so they had probably come a long way. The priest called out the nationalities of the pilgrims who had received Compostelas that morning and the group from St Martin got resounding applause. Could that have been St Martin of Canigou in the Eastern Pyrenees? I don’t know, but if it was, then they had walked almost a thousand kilometres.

Santiago is a lovely compact city with cosmopolitan shops and a prosperous appearance, which must feel quite strange to someone who has just walked several hundred kilometres due west through country landscape and many people spoke of the sense of not wanting to arrive, or striving to get there but not wanting it to be over. 

I stayed in a sparkling little 3rd floor pension where the sweet elderly couple who ran it had looked after my bag while I was away. It was bang in the middle of town and cost €25 a night. We missed the morning bus due south the following day and so took another out to the coast at Noia, where we had a picnic on the grass looking out to sea. Noia looked just as prosperous and cosmopolitan as Santiago and put paid to my images of wild and remote Galicia. But it is altogether lovely, and I can fully understand how this camino can draw you back and back.

Getting there and costs
Well you can walk! Or you can get a taxi like I did. But RyanAir will bring you to Santiago from almost anywhere in Europe, or to Santander or Pau or Porto or any other starting point you might choose. So will the very reasonable Spanish train system. I got a RyanAir family ticket, whatever that is, from Reus airport south of Barcelona to Santiago and it cost €3.98, all in. Yes. I flew back to Girona from Porto for €5. All in. The various buses and taxis all cost around €5 each. The albergue cost €12 for the night and around the same for the three course meal with a large jug of wine. The hotel was €48 for a triple room. We paid €25 for the coach from Santiago to Porto, about €8 to get to Noia on the coast for our picnic. There are luggage lockers in the bus station and railway station where you can leave anything you don’t want to carry with you, but probably not enough to go round in high season, so that is a consideration. But there are services that will collect your bag from the albergue in the morning and deposit it at your projected lodging, if you are organised enough to know where that is going to be.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

La Sanch Procession in Collioure

Good Friday

Collioure is very close to the Spanish border and I travelled up from Roses. The La Sanch procession is at 9.00 pm in Collioure (11.00 am the same morning in Perpignan) so it suited me very well, if I could find a way of not having to drive in France and if I could get back the same night for work the following morning. The trains don’t cross the Spanish-French border after 7.00 or 8.00 pm at night. So I drove the desolate coastal road just over the border to Cerbère and took a 10 minute train ride. I got there a couple of hours early, had a coffee, bought a bottle of Languedoc wine to bring home, wandered the streets and pottered around on the beach, then parked myself under a doorway in possibly the worst viewing spot in town, just to stay out of the rain.

I was chatting in bad French to a Frenchwoman and her grandchild and she told me the procession changed route every year and no one knew until it appeared which way it was going. We were close to the church on the pier and there were two walls of people bordering the obvious seafront route, more at the other side of the church door in case they bolted out the back. They weren’t coming our way anyway. But after a chat with a tradesman up the road she said they were, and they did, and I was so shocked to have an uninterrupted frontline view I pressed all the wrong buttons on the camera. The photos are terrible, one so bad it is almost good. Here it is:

Blood Brothers
The brotherhood of La Sanch (the Blood) dates to the early 15th century, when it was founded in Perpignan by the influential preacher Vincent Ferrer, a friend and supporter of anti-Pope Benedict XIII, who was residing in Perpignan, the new 'Vatican', after being driven out of Avignon. The early purpose of the brotherhood was to assist and accompany condemned prisoners to their execution. Vincent had had an epiphany after an illness in 1398 and saw himself as a messenger of penance, sent to prepare mankind for imminent judgment. He  subsequently travelled around Europe for 20 years, attracting thousands of followers, many from the criminal classes, and the pointed red and black hoods worn by the intinerant sinners were intended to protect them from being recognised and lynched.

The procession today commemorates the Passion and Agony of Christ and marks the start of the Holy Week ceremonies. The lead penitent, le regidor, is dressed in scarlet and rings a bell to warn of the approach of the black-robed penitents on their way to the gallows. Behind him the penitents carry statues, crucifixes and banners representing the scenes of the passion. In Collioure a pious narrative was relayed by low-volume loudspeakers mounted at second-storey level on every street, but the procession itself is silent, except for the bell. Once it has passed, what many people seemed to be doing, and moi aussi, was cutting across town to a new viewing spot to get a second look. Alas, my photos never got any better, most being of the back of the head of the person in front of me. In my frenetic need to come out of it with something I missed much of the spiritual reward and I vowed to go back again with my hands in my pockets.

Having expected something between a Hallowe’en performance and a Ku Klux Klan outing (sorry, but I couldn’t dismiss the images in my head, all the more having read of the infamous and ubiquitous Abbé Saunière’s supposed links with the brotherhood), I was surprised at the simple piety of the commentary overhead and the respectful, intimate and non-threatening atmosphere of the event. There was no background racket, no sniggers from the crowd, no pushing to get a better view. Being from Ireland, I had been surprised to see so many shops open on Good Friday, including craft shops, eateries and cafes. But they all had pretty displays with flowers, candles and statues, and everything closed just before 9.00 pm. For the record, the procession is not organised by the Church, although it includes members of the clergy, but by the “brotherhood of the very precious blood of Our Lord Jesus Christ, La Sanch.”

I was the only person at the station and wondered what I would do if the train didn’t come. There wasn’t a room or a bed to be had anywhere. When it did arrive it showed no signs of stopping and I ran and ran and ran uselessly as it glided by until I ran out of breath and platform. But the platform hadn’t run out of train yet and eventually it stopped. It must have been a mile long. There were about 3 passengers aboard as well as myself but the train was merely going to bed down in Cerbère in preparation for a busy weekend. I was home by midnight. The total cost of this stimulating and should-have-been spiritual outing was around €12, including petrol, return trainfare and coffee (didn’t count the wine).

Camargue Gypsy Festival

Who are the three Marys?
The first thing you have to know here is who the three St Marys are. You may already be confused, as I was, by all the conspiracy theories and tales of the Holy Family in the South of France. This is how Wikipedia puts it:

"The three saints, Mary Magdalene, Mary Salomé and Mary Jacobé, whose relics are the focus of the devotions of pilgrims, are believed to be the women who were the first witnesses to the empty tomb at the resurrection of Jesus. After the Crucifixion of Jesus, Mary Salomé, Mary Jacobé and Mary Magdalene set sail from Alexandria, Egypt with their uncle Joseph of Arimathea. According to a longstanding French legend, they either sailed to or were cast adrift - either way they arrived off the coast of what is now France, at "a sort of fortress named Oppidum-Râ". The location was known as Notre-Dame-de-Ratis (Râ becoming Ratis, or boat) (Droit, 1961, 19); the name was later changed to Notre-Dame-de-la-Mer, and then in 1838 to Les Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer.

"The town is a pilgrimage destination for Roma (Gypsies), who gather yearly in the town for a religious festival in honor of Saint Sarah. The French believed she was Mary Magdalene's daughter, and she was also known as Sara-la-Kali (Sara the black). Dark-skinned Saint Sara is said to have possibly been the Egyptian servant of the three Marys. The famous flamenco guitarist Manitas de Plata first played here."

So there you have it. The bones of the two Marys (Salomé and Jacobé) were ‘found’ in the 15th century and their 500th anniversary was celebrated by Pope John Paul XXIII. When I started this paragraph I thought the above all sounded like heresy, but now you have the Pope endorsing it, so all is well, if you are a God-fearing Catholic anyway.

Or is it? Here is the view of Walter Weyrauch (2001):

"The ceremony in Saintes-Maries closely parallels the annual processions in India, the country in which the Romani originated, when statues of the Indian goddess Durga, also named Kali, are immersed into water. Durga, the consort of Shiva, usually represented with a black face, is the goddess of creation, sickness and death.[7]"

Nothing is ever simple is it?

The road to Roma
The gypsies love St Sara with an abiding devotion. In the days leading up to 24 and 25 May each year they come from all over Europe, dressed for celebration, to meet in the little seaside town at the mouth of the Rhone. It is about 24 km from the interesting city of Arles, where Van Gogh and Picasso painted, and where the 20,000-seat Roman amphitheatre today hosts cultural events and bullfights. Bulls are big in the Camargue and bull steaks are served in most of the busy restaurants in Saintes Marie during the festival. If you don’t have transport, there is an infrequent bus from Arles to St Marie, so no reason you can’t get a RyanAir flight to Carcassonne, or Nimes or some nearby airport and get the train to Arles. You can get more information about how to get there and where to stay, as well as photos and videos, at the Gypsy Music website 

Arles is also home to the Gypsy Kings, whose intermediate roots are in Catalan Spain and whose blend of flamenco and Latin rhythms took their music out of the circuit of weddings and traditional festivals to the top of the pop charts and world stages.

The warm-up

Roma are arriving for days from all over Europe. The hotels in town are booked up months in advance and the closer the time gets the further afield you will have to go, thus limiting your experience, unless you are prepared to join traffic queues down the narrow main road from Arles. Remember the Camargue is marshland with few roads. But commuting is not impossible, and we stayed just outside Arles and went to and fro by car. 

There is great camaraderie among the gypsies, who ignore tourists and gawkers with magnificent disdain. They are not being rude, just focused. This is only a tourist event by default. The Roma have business to conduct and people to meet and prayers and celebrations to get on with. There is a fair bit of strutting too. My gypsy-mad friend and I followed a band of about 12 young men dressed in white trousers, turquoise shirts and bright yellow square-cut gold chains through the streets as they scouted for a suitable restaurant for their leader. They were Arlesians, and they were practically levitating with high frequency energy and good health, with strong white teeth and glossy, stand-up black hair. And before anyone starts yelling about stereotypes, that is just a description. Maybe they were all on multivitamins. What is more we had left the leader singing with that same raw energy in the square late the previous night, where a handler passed him a whiskey bottle at intervals to protect the crucial rasp in his throat.

Throughout the day the church, where the statues and relics of the two Marys and St Sara are kept high in the wall above the altar and below in the crypt respectively, is packed with the faithful praying for a precious healing gesture from the saints.

Right outside the door is where much of the celebration is going on. There are flamboyant Romanian musicians in spats and sharp haircuts, young dancing girls in spotted dresses and stout and sexily-clad women. The music and hilarity extends beyond the church surrounds to the little town square nearby and to some of the outdoor eateries. There is plenty of drink going down, and God knows what else, but we didn’t see any fights. It is the music that gets more intense as the night wears on and the best performances are surrounded by solid crowds in a heightened state. One such involved two singers (one of them the turquoise hero) engaged in a passionate a capella musical challenge backed by fast, syncopated hand clapping. I could not fathom the subject matter – it could have been love, war, poetic prowess – but each contribution fell and rose and twirled and then was flung to the ground like a lord’s gauntlet to be taken up by his opponent. We watched for an hour until my infatuated friend, who had worked her way up to the front row, managed to get herself into a standoff with three substantial Spanish gitanas claiming right of place, so we backed off and left quietly to go find a bull steak. That clapping was out of this world.

St Sara is brought to the sea
On the afternoon of the 24th St Sara is brought up from the crypt and a procession of Camargue horsemen and pilgrims lead her down the two hundred yards to the sea, where they enter the waves, carrying her aloft. Half the visiting male population is by this time on the roof of the church, from where they have a fine view of the entire proceedings and probably the entire province. The rest are hurrying behind the fast-moving statue, reaching out to touch the saint’s voluminous seven-layered gown. It is a brisk procession and after hours of advance traffic control, the whole thing is quickly over, to be repeated tomorrow when the two Marys are brought down to re-enact their arrival from the sea. The fiddlers are back in the church square. There are some amazing musicians from Romania, a family led by the father, who has clearly had his hands full rearing sons so bored and brilliantly gifted they can play riveting music on automatic pilot long after their active thoughts have departed to ladyland. One of them is wearing a pair of fierce black winklepickers. A brother on guitar is in spats and a black fedora and is a cool dude. The third and youngest is playing keyboards with consummate ease and hasn’t yet developed the vacant look. The father is watchful, and a task master. In a suit he could be a Mediterranean businessman. The mother, who has trailing infants, is circulating in the crowd trying to sell CDs to the tourists. She isn’t doing too well and when I offer a donation without taking the CD she gives me a hangdog look and takes it without thanks. Clearly she too has the task master to contend with.

Up one end of the promenade, a row of thick-haired French intellectuals and languid young women are dining al fresco at a long table outside some picturesque painted wagons that must equate to the plush yurts at Glastonbury. Many other gypsy families are doing the same, strung out along the prom beside their trailers and inland in a parking area. This is where you might see a lot more Roma lifestyle if you could loiter. But you can’t, because marriages and mergers are being arranged and this not reality TV. We met an American preacher couple who specialised in gypsies and said they had special access through religion. They had met a TV woman who was a world expert on gypsies and she was dressed up like Carmelita but hadn’t been able to get into some of the camps the preachers had, or so they said. There were probably people there who had broken into gypsy folklore and conquered the gypsy language and assaulted its grammar and climbed over the tribal divide. For whatever reason, we would seem to be far more fascinated by them than they are by us.

While the flat seashore and marshy hinterland wouldn’t be my favourite landscape, the Camargue has a diverse menu to offer the curious, including swimming, horse-riding with cowboys in the saltmarsh, photographing flamingoes and rice paddies and buying souvenir bags of salt. And of course there is Arles and its many attractions.

Definitely worth a look, as the real estate agent said. I have just seen that RyanAir fly also to Beziers, Montpellier, Marseilles.  Any of these is in striking distance of Arles.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

A Stroll in Rennes le Chateau

This little outing came by way of an acquaintance, a book or two, a day off and a mellow lady, Ani Williams who plays the harp and can tell you which missing note in your make-up causes you repeating spirals of trouble. Ani will then show you how to reintroduce the missing note into the symphony of your inner life. At the time (summer 2009) she was renting a house ten paces from the Rev. Saunière’s wicked-wonderful church in Rennes le Chateau. My acquaintance had booked a consultation and I had the afternoon to wander around. If you haven’t heard of Rennes le Chateau by this point, you deserve to have conspiracy theorists make jokes about you.

Two decades before the Da Vinci Code came out I had read Holy Blood, Holy Grail, which provided something of the historical background (and fiction, if that is how you are inclined) for Dan Brown’s novel. But more recently an intriguing book by Patrice Chaplin, Girona – City of Secrets, had tied all of this in with a little-known side of Girona in Spain and her own bohemian and sometimes hair-raising life and love story. Ani, who also conducts an annual ‘pilgrimage in celebration of men and women’ in Cathar country and Provence, knew Patrice, along with a coterie of other iconoclasts in the region – and as we languish jobless in the wreckage brought on by the iconics, why wouldn’t we pass some of our time usefully giving the iconoclasts a hearing? Ani’s pilgrimage, Song of the Goddess, Grail and Gypsy, in search of Isis, Mary Magdalene and St Sarah (admit it - how intriguing is that!), is principally for American recession survivors and she is accompanied for part of it by Henry Lincoln, one of the authors of Holy Blood, Holy Grail, who made riveting discoveries of his own in the region. I am not going to go into them. That is what his website is for, so use the link above. But for the record, this is what he thinks of Dan Brown and his book.

“Both novel and not-very-successful film were entertaining rubbish, but I found it slightly irritating that Mr Brown seemed to be implying that he has based his story upon accurate facts. I can’t comment on his ideas about Leonardo, or Opus Dei ... but, for Pierre Plantard - the Priory of Sion - Jesus - Mary Magdalene - and so on, I can only say: “Facts?!!? I’d love to see your sources, Honeybunch.”

The Church of St Mary Magdalene is a pretty stone and mortar building with yellow painted eave decorations. The devilish Asmodeus, weighed down by the baptismal font on his back, greets you in the doorway, wearing a new and apparently less terrifying head since the original was lopped by a treasure hunter in 1996. Lest we get carried away here, a statue of Jesus being baptised by St John eyes Asmodeus from the opposite wall across the chessboard tiled floor and to a conspiracy ingénue the place is neither spooky nor remarkable, if we leave Asmodeus out of it. But every detail of the decoration of this church has been parsed and analysed in an intense quest for clues and codes and symbols and there are more than enough hints and allusions to satisfy the cravings of scholars and nitpickers both. The little museum next door, which also gives you access to the controversial Tour Magdala, fills in the dates around the theories and has a collection of curious items, including invoices for Abbe Saunière’s extravagant purchases for the refurbishment of the old church. Anything you could possibly need to know about the layout, history, geography, geometry, speculations, mysteries, spiritual connections, ritual lunacy and heresies associated with this place can be found at Corjan de Raaf's meticulous  website, RLC (Rennes le Chateau) Research: There may be dozens of other similar websites - I don't know - but the above should keep you going for a few months.

In a very brief conversation with Ani after my solo tour, I mentioned the fact that I felt no goose pimples inside the church or tower. (Patrice Chaplin writes of a spine-chilling encounter with the evil character at the door in, I think, the late 1950s that she can summon to the back of her neck still). Ani’s reasonable reply was that a great deal of work had been done since then to clear the spiritual energy of the area through meditation and music and that she herself played the harp with this intent every morning when she was in residence. 

The Tour Magdala is at the heart of the whole Saunière story, and it lines up with an older and since torn down twin in Girona through the peak of Mt Canigou, the sacred mountain of the Catalans. And there lies a whole nother story, incorporating amongst other things the unorthodox priest’s apparent regular, secret and extra-curricular visits to the Spanish city, for details on which you will have to read the Chaplin book (check out this interview on Andrew Gough's Arcadia website).  The Tour was built at the corner of the garden behind the Villa Bethanie, an elaborate guest mansion also built by the priest, which has served lifetimes since as a hotel and now a museum. The Tour was where he housed his vast collection of books, journals and manuscripts. All I can usefully say about it here is that it is an utterly charming structure, rich in carvings, mirrors and coloured  tiles with a view of the plain and mountains beyond that would make your heart sing.

There are probably as many truths as there are myths about this little mountain-top village. Saunière’s life was nothing if not interesting and his parties were legendary, with Hapsburgs, opera singers, French widows and cult figures dropping in to be lavishly entertained. Then there were the nightly diggings, the anti-Republican diatribes, squabbles with the Catholic Church, rumoured affairs.  One theme runs through all narratives and that is the long-running and deep-rooted contests between the Catholic Church, Judaism, Gnosticism and material cultish forces that were focused in this area of France and northern Spain.

We left Rennes after a forage in the little bookshop, where I bought a slim Lulu-published volume on the secret elite who rule the world by knowing the cycle of astronomical events and hiding them from us. My newly tuned companion bought one on Jesus’ life in France after the Crucifixion.  I am not going to find fault with either. The latter is a thoroughly readable history of the area from early times and the former is more believable than anything Dan Brown ever dug up. Both authors spent considerable time living in the area. Can you imagine the dinner party conversations they must have around here?

I have to add this, a propos of the ‘evolution’ of religions, stolen from Henry Lincoln’s site. He quotes Kipling.


He that hath a Gospel
To loose upon mankind,
Though he serve it utterly -
Body, soul and mind -
Though he go to Calvary
Daily for its gain –
It is his Disciple
Shall make his labour vain.

It is his disciple
(Ere those bones are dust)
Who shall change the charter,
Who shall split the trust -
Amplify distinctions, Rationalise the Claim,
Preaching that the Master
Would have done the same.

He that hath a Gospel,
For all earth to own
Though he etch it on the steel,
Or carve it on the stone -
Not to be misdoubted
Through the after-days -
It is his disciple
Shall read it many ways.

It is his disciple
Who shall tell us how
Much the Master would have scrapped
Had he lived to now -
What he would have modified
Of what he said before -
It is his disciple
Shall do this and more.

He that hath a Gospel
Whereby Heaven is won -
(Carpenter or Cameleer,
Or Maya’s dreaming son) -
Many swords shall pierce him,
   Mingling blood with gall;
   But His Own Disciple
   Shall wound him worst of all.

Getting there

Obviously you can drive, to Quillan, then Couiza and up the mountain from there. But if you have the time and legs for it you can take a little train journey out from, say, Carcassonne and walk up the mountain road, an easy enough stroll of less than 2 hours. The surrounding land is rather flat, so this will be a nice change. At any rate here is the train timetable There are buses too, from Carcassonne and Perpignan. There is no reason the green and carbon free should be excluded from the treasure hunt. There is a small entrance fee for the museum and grounds but it is well worth it. I think it was about 4 Euro.  RyanAir will get you to Carcassonne and if RyanAir will get you to even a nearby country, I never look up another airline.