midsummer--something of course the area is known for, along with the intensely bright sunshine that beams at you from cloudless blue
skies--and the heat, like the long walks, never seemed to bother Van Gogh either, despite his fair Dutch skin. Even during the dog days of August he claimed to be as happy working in the heat as a cicada singing in a tree. (Something else the area is known for.)
So I feel it's appropriate that I visited Montmajour for the fourth time myself the other day, during the middle of a heat wave. It's the kind of place that seems forever unchanging but at the same time wears a new face each time you visit. Kind of like provence itself. A bit of a side note here: I was just thinking to myself the other morning, and jotting down in my journal, that Provence seems
Back to Montmajour. Due to the very slow pace of change, it's possible to get views from the abbey that are identical, or nearly so, to what Van Gogh saw when he tramped up there: wheat fields, pasturing lands for horses, a single farm house bordered by tall trees acting as a wind break, a tall rocky hill in the near distance, the ancient cityscape of Arles much farther away. As I said, it's worth the visit just to see that view. But the abbey itself always maintains a shadowy solemn stone grandeur, something that didn't particularly interest Van Gogh--who rarely sketched or painted the abbey itself--but never fails to affect me. When you visit, you start in the crypt area of the abbey and slowly wind your way upward. First to the tall, empty walls of the church--a sign informs you that despite its current bare appearance the church was extremely ornamented and decorated during its day--and then to open courtyard bordered by several small chambers. Rooms for the monks long ago. Finally outside to the upper rim of the abbey, where one finds those great views. But it hardly stops there. A defensive tower was installed at the abbey in the fourteenth century at the command of the abbot in reaction to troops from Les Baux who were attacking Arles. Today one can climb a tall, tightly winding stone staircase to reach the top of the tower and there be rewarded with even longer, more distant views. One can see clear all the way to Tarascon. Coming down from and out of the tower, your self-guided tour naturally leads to the back of the outer area where you see a series of rectangular, box-like holes cuts into the rocky terrain. (Check the picture above.) And by rocky I mean literally into a sheet of rock itself. These holes are the remains of a very old burial ground. Indeed, it was this burial ground which necessitated the abbey being built in the first place. As you stand outside looking at these tiny graves carved into rock, the wind blows past your ears, the road outside is silent, and you can still feel the presence of ideas and people--and ideas of people--long past but still whispering.