A Secret Garden
Sometimes when you travel, you discover extraordinary places. And
then there are times when an out-of-the-ordinary place discovers
you. A few years ago, it was the garden of the Pavillon de la
Reine Jeanne (Pavilion of Queen Jeanne) near Les Baux de Provence
that took me completely by surprise.
was spending some time that summer near le village perché
(the hilltop village) of Les Baux. The ruins of the citadel of Les
Baux overlook the vast plain of La Crau on the south side. On the
north side, several Provençal mas (country houses)
nestle against the limestone cliffs. One of these country houses
has been transformed into a special inn that has become one of my
favorite places to stay in the world. As I love to take long walks
in the early morning, I decided to meander up the narrow road that
traverses the length of the Vallon de la Fontaine (Valley
of the Fountain) à deux pas de (just near-literally
"two steps from") the hotel.
Just past the ancient lavoir (wash house) which is an interesting
site in itself, I came upon a tiny jewel of a jardin (garden).
As I slowed down to take in the deep purple lavender, red roses,
and tiny boxwoods that frame the four symmetrical sections of the
square garden, I was stopped in my tracks by an elegant, hexagonal
pavilion of stone that had obviously been there a very long time.
Small and demure, the charming pavillon was flanked by two
towering cypress trees. The three arched openings were decoratively
supported by carved ionic columns. Each arch was crowned by a gargoyle-type
face which contrasted with the lovely carved scrollwork flowing across
the top of the exterior hexagonal faces. Curious to see the interior,
I had to bend my head to enter the tiny space and wondered what types
of rendez-vous the mysterious building was meant to encourage.
I paused for a few minutes and sat musing upon one of the well-worn
benches carved into the interior wall. There was not a soul around.
For these few treasured moments, this secret garden belonged to me.
As I exited the pavillon, I noticed a marble plaque on the
stone wall nearby. I learned that the little temple was built in the
16th century for a noblewoman named Jeanne. Later research revealed
that this Renaissance gem was constructed in 1581 for Jeanne de Quiqueran,
wife of Honoré des Martins, who was baron of Baux at the time.
The garden itself belonged to their family and was named the "Jardin
du Comte" or the "Verger du Roi". In addition,
the plaque also noted that Frédéric Mistral, the Provençal
poet who almost singlehandedly rescued the Provençal language
and culture from oblivion in the 19th century, had a copy of the garden
pavilion made for his tomb in nearby Maillane.
Since that rewarding summer walk, I have made regular pilgrimages
to the Pavillon de la Reine Jeanne and its très beau
jardin (very beautiful garden). I feel quite a connection to the
place-no doubt for its exquisite yet rustic beauty. And also perhaps
a bit for its name as my first name is also Jeanne, spelled the French
Curiously enough, not one time have I have ever seen anyone else there,
a fact that makes me both sad and glad at the same time. It is wonderful
to sit in front of (or in this case inside) a treasure and feel it
and absorb it without any distractions or large crowds-think about
trying to take in an artistic masterpiece at a blockbuster show at
the Louvre in Paris or the Metropolitan Museum in New York, for example.
But I believe beauty is meant to be shared so I would wish more passersby
for this secret garden. Until then, I will enjoy the garden-framed
pavillon in its divinely solitary state.
December 3, 2008
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