The French province of Provence is named after the Latin word for province, which is provincia, and not because it’s a French province, because, after all, all French provinces are provinces. This useless and confusing piece of information is meant as an introduction to the fact that Provence was dear to the ancient Romans.
After the battle of Alesia, all of Gaul came definitively under Roman rule, but Provence had already been firmly Roman, and the Romans always held a warm spot in their hearts for the area, which is brimming with all kinds of cool aqueducts, arenas, theaters, and the like.
The above has undoubtedly made it clear that I’m a bit of a Roman-history nerd. I even collect ancient Roman coins and can spend hours poring over some lump of greenish bronze just because it has the faintly visible outline of a galley’s prow, three pellets, and an ear of corn. Imagine, therefore, how excited I get in Provence, where you can’t kick a stone without uncovering a new arch, and where the very dirt remembers the passage not only of Caesar but of Hannibal before him.
It’s easy to understand why the Romans loved Provence—it’s a great place. The cities are wonderful, the villages are wonderful, there are rivers and gorges and olives and fruit trees and all kinds of niceties. The edge of Provence is the shore, which English speakers call the French Riviera and the French call the Côte d’Azur, or “Azure Coast,” because the water is blue. Really blue. The Mediterranean is bluer, somehow, than other large bodies of water. Maybe the Romans put dye in it or something.
Anyway, in Provence you can, and should, visit Nîmes, with its arena, and Arles, with an arena of its own that’s just as nice (according to the inhabitants) and a theater to boot—not to mention its very cool ancient cemetery. You should also definitely visit the Pont du Gard, which is an immense Roman aqueduct that has been spanning the valley of the Gardon River for over 2,000 years and is truly one of the wonders of the world. (If you have, in your mind, a picture of a Roman aqueduct from some long-forgotten source, it is probably a picture of the Pont du Gard.) When recently I visited the Pont du Gard, I proudly wore my “Et Tu Brute” T-shirt, sporting an image of the famous Eid Mar coin, minted by Brutus in … oh, you don’t care.
All of these things are wonderful and you should go to Provence and stay a long time and read about them, then check them out, and then decide to stay even longer and go to one of the many summer arts festivals. There. Now, let’s go to Lançon, which you’ll never visit …
Lançon is a relatively small town of 7,000 people, not too far from Salon-en-Provence, which itself boasts, primarily, an air-force base. Lançon, sadly, does not contain any Roman vestiges, since it is a relatively new village, having been founded as recently as the seventh or eighth century A.D. For all its modernity, it is a striking place. It winds up a steep hill topped with an impressive though small circular castle. The town traditionally had three concentric defensive walls, but most of the outermost wall and parts of the second wall have been dismantled over the centuries.
The town has all kinds of tiny winding streets, and if you’ve read any of these dispatches you must know by now that I love tiny winding streets, particularly if they are lined with stone houses hundreds of years old, and doubly so if they are the lived-in, what’s-so-special-about-us kind of houses that wear their centuries with easy grace. This is very much the case in Lançon (and is not a rare trait in Provence in general).
In order to get the most out of Lançon, I visited it with a few friends, some of whom have the great good fortune to live there, and with Stéphanie, who runs the tourism bureau (which consists, pretty much, of Stéphanie). We arranged a private tour, which is possible and can be done by calling up Stéphanie.
Anyway, Stéphanie began by giving us a few hard-to-believe facts:
1. Lançon was the only village that was granted permission, some eight or nine hundred years ago, to use as its coat of arms a modification of the coat of arms of the celebrated Seigneurs de Baux. No other village was ever granted this honor.
2. Lançon contains the only place in France that produces both wine and olive oil!
3. Lançon contains two archaeological excavations, and one of them has just unearthed a clove of garlic from 500 BCE, which might be the oldest found in France.
Needless to say, we were very impressed by all this. After expressing our amazement in appropriately awed tones, we set out on a very, very thorough visit of the town.
I won’t give you a street-by-street history of Lançon, though Lord knows I now could, but I will linger for a moment over a street named Pavé d’Amour, which loosely translates as “Hunk of Love” Street. I, for one, think that is one hell of a street name. It turns out that it is due to the town’s one nationally recognized landmark, an ancient building known variously as the Hotel de Luxembourg and as the Maison des Templiers, because apparently it was once inhabited by the Templar knights.
“Why ‘Hunk of Love’ Street, though?”
Stéphanie seemed a little shy about the question. “In the 16th century there were a lot of … parties in it.”
“And ladies who were very open to …”
“It was a bordello!”
“In a way.”
In a way my eye.
Just below the second rampart of the town is the church, which was begun in the 14th century (taking over main churchly duties from the Chapel of St. Cyr, further down the hill) and expanded in the 17th. In front of the church lives M. Deluy, who apparently serves as the town’s living font of history. His house is built into the second rampart and is filled with bric-a-brac, as he used to be an antique dealer before he retired. He spends a lot of his time sitting outside his house, in front of the church door, which is where we found him, in the company of several cats and an ancient Citroën Ami 6.
“Looks like a 1970 model,” said one of my friends, when I asked about the car.
“Seventy-one,” said M. Deluy, as he stroked a gray cat.
The church, like many French village churches, looks larger from the inside than from the outside. It is a strange church, made stranger by a little side chapel containing kitsch plaster statues of the Virgin Mary talking to a pair of children. Mary wears a golden chain with a hammer and a pair of tongs, which seemed really strange to us.
“I have no idea,” said Stéphanie, when asked about the symbolism. I therefore decided to go ask M. Deluy. I had kind of been looking for an excuse to talk to him.
M. Deluy said, “The statues?,” then got up to lead me into the church once again, leaving my friends and Stéphanie to chat on the church steps.
“Did you see Moses in there?” he asked as we entered the church, to which I replied in the surprised-negative tense (remember your French grammar?).
“Moses the cat,” he specified, which reassured me somewhat, but we hadn’t seen any cats in there, either.
“You like cats?” M. Deluy asked, with a look in his eye that made it clear that much depended on my response to this question. Thankfully, I was able to respond with utmost sincerity that I do, indeed, like cats very much. M. Deluy grunted and then we went over to the statues.
“Notre Dame de la Salette,” he said. I had never heard of that particular Notre Dame.
“But what about the hammer and the tongs?” I asked.
“How should I know?” he said. “It’s not like I believe in that hogwash. It’s a shame Moses isn’t here, though. He loves the church, that’s why I named him Moses. He’s usually in here. I know, let’s go get him.” With that, he hurried out of the church to look for Moses.
“You seen Moses?” he asked another old man walking by.
“Isn’t he in the church?” the old man replied.
M. Deluy then went around the back of his house (through a gateway in the rampart). “There he is!” he shouted. I only saw a gray blur as the cat ran through the open doorway of the house. M. Deluy blocked the doorway with a roofing tile and then rushed past me to go back around the house. “We’ll get him from the front,” he said.
This tactic worked, and soon M. Deluy had a handsome young black-and-white cat in his arms. I went over to scratch the cat’s head, and the cat started purring. “Come on,” said M. Deluy, as he carried the cat into the church.
When we went through the doorway he dropped the cat, which immediately ran to the front of the church and jumped onto the altar, where it paraded back and forth, its tail high in the air.
“See?” said M. Deluy.
I went over to pet Moses again and noticed that the white cloth over the altar was covered in cat hair.
“The altar used to be further back, but that was when the priest used to turn his back on the parishioners. Then the pope turned the priests around. You know, that pope, the one who’s dead.”
“John XXIII?” I asked.
“Yeah, that one. Damn, I forgot about my mother!” … which was not at all what I expected M. Deluy to say. “Might as well leave Moses on the altar. He likes it here and can jump out the hole in the back.”
He said this as he scurried out the door and got in the 1970 Ami 6 to drive across town and pick up his mother, who was supposed to come over for dinner, and who must have been older than can safely be imagined. We waved goodbye and offered heartfelt thanks to him, then hung out a little more on the church steps, because it’s a nice place to hang out.
By that time it was getting late. We took a little walk around the castle, which can’t be entered, because it’s private. (People actually live in it, which is very cool.) It was then time for an apéritif. We convinced Stéphanie to join us and headed off for a long evening of talking and laughing and hanging out on a wide terrace overlooking the hills of Provence, where people have eaten and drunk and laughed and talked since the time of Caesar.