Mistral

Mistral

Mistral

Mistral

Excerpt

The traveller who crosses the English Channel, passes over the monotonous plain of Northern France, visits the airy mass of Chartres perhaps, or the luminous bubble of stone that is Vézelay, and journeys through the turretted hills of Burgundy will find, as at last he leaves Lyons behind him, that he has entered another world. He will have experienced a change more profound than any which preceded it. The air will have undergone a subtle transformation, will be sweeter and more radiant; the hills will present a clearer line, the buildings a sharper edge; the girls will be plumper, darker, more full of laughter; and visibly or invisibly he will be accompanied, henceforward, by the Rhône.

But his most striking illumination will come when he approaches the heart of this country of Provence which he has entered: and for this moment nature and man have combined to provide an appropriate setting. The Roman arch at Orange is the gateway to the 'sweet South', the gateway to both the southern clime and the blazing clarity of the Latin mind. For nowhere else is the Roman contribution to the splendour of our world made apparent with such a living and immediate physical impact.

This country is one of the anvils upon which Mediterranean civilization was hammered out. Inhabited originally by the Ligurians, it knew the Phoenician traders, and the Phoceans whose leader, Phocis, fell in love, according to the legend, with the beautiful daughter of a local chieftain, Gyptis. Their descendants, the Massaliots, summoned the aid of the Roman legions in their struggle with the Ligurians. The land became the Provincia Romana and saw Hannibal, and the barbarians; and legend tells how to its shores there sailed one day the Ship of the Saints, bearing from the Holy Land the Holy Marys, and Lazarus, and Sarah the black Saint of the Gypsies, bringing the light of the Cross to outshine the brilliance of Greece and Rome.

The Emperor Lothaire raised Provence to the status of a kingdom on the fall of the Hohenstaufens; in 1245, it was acquired by the family of Anjou, who retained it until 1487, when Charles VIII incorporated it into the kingdom of France. Its great city of Avignon had already housed the Popes, had witnessed the indomitable spirit of St Catherine of Siena, suffered the Black Death and the Inquisition, and was later to shelter the Stuarts; while close by, on the slopes of Mont Ventoux, Petrarch once meditated, rather priggshly, on the nature of life and love.

It is important to realise that this country has never been truly French: the change of atmosphere that our traveller experienced was not merely an effect of climate, still less of imagination. Even . . .

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