And I'm not talking about a sparkly sentimental sort of magic either, but we'll get to that in a bit.
Arles is really at its most quiet. Certain restaurants and shops are closed and there is not a soul to be seen wandering the streets most mornings. Definitely a shocking shift after the rush of Paris. So it was with a bit too much enthusiasm that I yelped out a "Yes!" when Remi asked if I wanted to go exploring with him for the day. The goal? Two medieval churches in the Drôme Provençal. The Drôme, though not technically in Provence, holds nonetheless all of its charm. Hills lined with shorn lavender fields and vineyards roll out one after the next. Rusty flower distilleries vie with stone farmhouses and fortresses. We pulled off the highway at Montelimar, known to anyone driving down from the North as the spot where the sun pops out from behind the clouds. Works every single time.
First up was Comps, after a brief stop at a bakery in Dieulefit that proved, sadly, that yes, it is possible to get bad food in France. Barely edible food actually. And can you imagine how much we had been looking forward to munching our quiches alone with such a view?
The church is a prime example of the Provençal style of medieval architecture--no frills, decoration or spiky gothicness here. Call it the Little Black Dress of ecclesiastical design (yes, yes it is Fashion Week in Paris!! I can't help it! Ahhh!). Perfect for the region, which still seems much more modest than the showier (and greater known) areas to the South. I truly fell hard for the lay of the land--a calming mix of pine and oak trees. For those of you that have been following for a bit, this is also truffle country. Signs declaring "Absolutely No Foraging!!" followed us throughout the day and I couldn't help but be a tiny bit hopeful every time Ben sniffed around at the base of an oak. "Get the truffle! Get it!" I hollered encouragingly. Alas, Ben is apparently not a truffle hound in the making....
By 3:30, the sun was already starting to dive between the folds of the highest hills, so our timing couldn't have been more fortuitous to have arrived at Notre Dame la Brune d'Aleyrac with the last rays of the winter day. We first made out its roofless form from the road above. All bones of stones from a distance. A spot of crumbled past in the valley below.
And yet, this Notre Dame has been drawing worshippers for one thousand years. Pagan, then Roman, then Christian. The secret to its longevity lies at the end of a steep drop opposite the nave, where a sacred spring burbles and gushes, infusing the stones with an incredible peace. I have been lucky enough to visit some of the world's most sacred places--Tibet and Angkor come to mind. And this small ruin had that same strong pull. Indescribable yet irresistible.
Somehow, it seemed as if there were still a roof overhead and the altars in place. That a fervour was still very much alive. And so it is, for some. For on the rocks surrounding the source were offerings the likes of which even Remi had never seen in France. Seashells, a bracelet, a white flower that looked less than a week old. Magic. And as I promised, nothing of the sham about it. When Remi and I pulled ourselves away from the site, finally, once the light had folded into itself and the cold had come on, we felt as if we were rejoining the world. As if we had been to another place all together during the time that we were within what is most certainly a house of faith.