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Secret Provence

Secret Provence

by Jean-Pierre Cassely

A statue of a pregnant Virgin Mary, an astronomical observatory in a former nuclear missile silo, a hotel room in a tree or a gypsy caravan, primitive Provencal artists, the mark of Christ's knee, a fountain that flows with wine, a caiman dedicated to the Virgin Mary, a church in a theater, an erotic mediaeval bas relief, a countess who returned to life, Provencal Villa Medicis, a false volcano at La Roquebrussane, a "sheep bridge" at Arles, a rain-making saint, an alchemist's garden, a magic palindrome at Oppede...
Provence is not limited to postcard clichés about fields of lavender or picturesque villages where pastis-drinking inhabitants pass the time playing pétanque...

Extracts From The Book
Secret Provence: Sleep in a treehouse Secret Provence: A statue of the pregnant virginSecret Provence: Observe the stars from the former military base of plateau d’Albion

Sleep in a tree house

Open Book Secret Provence From the A50 motorway (in the direction Marseille-Aubagne), exit at La Penne-sur-Huveaune, drive through the village and take the RN 8 in the direction of Aubagne. When you leave the commune of La Penne-sur-Huveaune, turn right (there’s a pharmacy on the corner) and follow sign postings for ‘Clinique la Casamance’. About 100 metres before the Clinique la Casamance (place des Farigoules), turn left on boulevard des Tamaris and follow the signs to arrive at the main entrance to the chateau. If you’re coming from Aubagne, take the RN 8 in the direction of Marseille until you reach the sign for ‘Clinique la Casamance’ on your left; then follow the instructions above.

It’s a real wooden hut, perched in a plane tree in the park surrounding the Château des Creissauds. Inside, there are all the modern comforts in a very tiny space: air conditioning, bathroom, toilet. On the bottom floor, there’s a living room with a kitchen space and a little terrace for breakfasts. Upstairs, the bedroom ringed by windows offers a 360° view. Let’s be frank here, it’s a treehouse for lovers. On the other hand, if you suffer from
dizziness or are allergic to heights, you’d better seek more classic lodgings.


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A statue of the pregnant virgin

Open Book Secret Provence The little known village of Cornillon-Confoux possesses a very strange statue of the Holy Virgin: installed in a niche outside the church, it represents a Virgin who is manifestly several months pregnant. As they say in Provence, ‘enceinte jusqu’aux yeux’ (pregnant up to her eyeballs)… Erected in 1865, the statue is one of the rare representations of Christ’s mother as parturient, and this despite the 16th century decree by the Council of Trent banning ‘unusual images in Catholic churches.’ There are only eleven other examples of this type in France: in the cathedral of Reims (Marne), in Brioude (Haute-Loire), Plomeur (Finistère), Laroque-des-Albères, Prades and Perpignan (both in Pyrénées-Orientales), Chissey-sur-Loué (Jura), Oulchy-le-Château (Aisne), Arcachon (Gironde), Belpech and Cucugnan (both in Aude).

One other peculiar feature about this statue, originally placed inside the church, is that it portrays the Virgin as she appeared to Catherine Labouré, at the convent of Les Filles de la Charité, 140 rue du Bac, Paris, in 1830. During this appearance,
Mary was seen by Catherine just as the statue in Cornillon depicts her pregnant, with twelve stars
above her head (since vanished from the statue), and crushing a serpent with her foot (a detail
that often goes unnoticed).



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Observe the stars from the former military base of plateau d’Albion

Open Book Secret ProvenceIn 1965, General de Gaulle decided to install part of the French nuclear deterrent force on the Plateau d’Albion. Over 785 hectares, 27 silos were constructed to receive missiles (although only 18 came into service). After some 30 years the site was abandoned. Most of the silos were covered over and left to oblivion after of course being relieved of their weapons. Some gave rise to projects such as a local café or the Laboratoire Souterrain Bas Bruit [Underground Low Noise Laboratory]. The most original project is SIRENE (SIlo REhabilité pour Nuits Etoilées), a private astronomical observatory.

The idea of Frédéric Bardin, a dedicated astronomer from the Optics Laboratoire at Marseille Observatory, was to use one of the silos as an astronomical observation platform to give introductory sessions and further training. Work started in 2000. Besides ease of access by road, the site, whose altitude of 1,100 m takes it above the layer of pollution, has the benefit of one of the clearest skies in France, not to mention the protective statute acquired by the armed forces for another 30 years against property
development and thus against encroaching light.

The military presence is still very obvious: the technical building on the ground has been used for
welcoming visitors and for information services, but the most spectacular sight is the door of the
silo that formerly contained the missile, still in place today.

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