This is the content of a blog I kept during a trip to Europe in August and September 2005 – I have moved it to this site as, over time, it made less sense to have the entries in reverse chronological order.
Notre Dame des Dunes, Dunkerque
11 August 2005
An uneventful crossing and an unremarkable night in a commercial hotel – I was very tired after being unable to sleep through a combination of nerves and excitement before setting out. There was a rowan tree with berries outside my hotel window, which I took as a good omen. They have always looked to me like graceful, living virgin Goddesses.
I found the chapel in Dunkerque easily but too early – it didn’t open until 10am. The only signs of life were a couple of drunks sitting outside with their bottle. I went off in search of café-au-lait and realised that the harbour was only two minutes walk away.
When I returned, one of the drunks had disappeared and the other was asleep under a tree. I’m always surprised that I react to street drunks just like everyone else – with impatience and a little fear, occasionally with disgust. I who so very nearly became one! I forced myself to remember in this sacred spot, then was able to look at the poor man with a great deal more compassion.
The chapel is quite small, above the door is written “Ave Maris Stella” (Hail, Star of the Sea). Inside the theme is so much of the sea … model boats (like those once used in sacrifice to the gods during bad storms?) hang from the ceiling, which is painted dark blue, with stars. Its vault-like shape and colours immediately made me think of Nut, sheltering us at night.
I looked around for the black madonna, aware that so many have been whitened – but no, there she was right above the main altar. Tiny, she and the child were no bigger than dolls. They were wrapped in what looked like white silk and only faces were visible. I could hardly make out what colour she was but suddenly it didn’t matter. I tried to take a photograph (above right – you can hardly maker her out) but first found myself in tears at the altar.
Someone asked me “why black madonnas?” last weekend. I don’t know the answer. I don’t even know the question, properly, yet. But here I had a first inkling.
You would be forgiven, in this particular building, for wondering if this really was the church of a patriarchal religion. Sure, the cross and the usual altar are present, but overwhelmingly, this is a chapel of the Lady.
There’s a larger, white virgin and child at the back of the church (picture left). The infant looks unsettlingly like Melvin Bragg. There’s also a statue of Saint Martha, complete with dragon, nearby.
Apparently the statue of the black madonna was found early in the 15th century as part of building work. A fresh water spring gushed forth and there she was – a double miracle. The statue was carried about to different places but used to disappear and reappear at the spot where it was originally found, eventually a chapel was built at the place where the lady obviously wanted to be.
Responsible for several miracles, the black madonna is obviously still revered here. There is a procession on 15th August (of course – the feast of the Assumption) and the lady is taken to bless the sea.
Unfortunately the spring vanished in the 19th century when some drainage was put in. But still the town’s councillors offer a votive candle each year on 2 February and still the sea-blessing ceremony takes place.
Next, set out to somewhere called Huijbergen in the Netherlands – but the Convent where I should have found the madonna appears to be closed, the windows were boarded up and there was a “for sale” sign.
So off to Leiden to spend a glorious day in the Museum. A long drive, not helped by getting thoroughly lost in Den Haag (a city that doesn’t believe in direction signs). After a couple of hours there, including a wrong turning which involved paying nearly 2 Euros to get out of a car par I never wanted to enter in the first place, I finally reached the campsite I’d been looking for – very near Leiden. A disapproving woman took my money and grudgingly allowed me to camp on her site. The longed-for cup of coffee wasn’t to be had as the camping shop had sold me the wrong gas cylinder, so I went to bed with a bottle of water and a bag of crisps. To look on the bright side, after the baptism of fire that Den Haag proved, at least when driving I no longer have heart failure every time I have to turn left or approach a roundabout.
12 August 2005
There was a massive thunderstorm in the night and the family in the next tent, who seemed to have every possible mod con (including what looked like a freezer and a microwave) had their radio or TV on half the night and switched channels every five minutes to make sure I did’t get too bored.
There are lots of museums in Leiden and I decided to visit the Ethnographic museum first, basically because it was the nearest, but also because I spotted a poster for their temporary exhibition on the Dogon (who live in Mali) and produce beautiful artwork (you can see an example on the right). Many people have heard of them in connection with the star Sirius, which apparently they knew about when “discovered” by westerners. I was disturbed, but not surprised to hear that Dogon art is highly prized and sold for vast sums – but that little of this money finds it way back to the people.
There was so much to see that I never even got to the Ancient History Museum (whole purpose of visit!), so decided to stay another night and go for it tomorrow.
13 August 2005
I always forget how good it is to be near the water so much of the time. I love Leiden! After living here for a few months in the early 90s, I often think of visiting so this is a great excuse.
Essentially, Leiden is a Renaissance town – probably the closest equivalent in Britain is Oxford. It has, perhaps, a similar mixture of respectable burgers and more-or-less scruffy students. Staying until today meant I could browse around the market and indulge once more in my favourite chips with peanut sauce. I eyed up the stroopwaffels (syrup wafers), served freshly made and hot but perhaps I’ve got too old for such delights, the smell was too sweet and sickly for me today.
I forgot how you take your life in your hands crossing the road – not the cars but the incredible number of bikes. The lethal quotient of these is now enhanced by a fair number of “bromfietsers” – bikes with little motors. They come at you from every possible direction and some that seem impossible. I sat outside a cafe with some freshly pressed juice and watched bikes being apparently abandoned – left in rows, most unlocked. As impatient shoppers push through the row of bikes quickly becomes a random heap.
Once in the museum, I headed straight for the Netherlands history section and found a dozen or so large stone altars, all dedicated to Nehalennia. I’d come a long way to see these altars, and the real stone, there where I could touch it, was too much and I felt my eyes fill up again ….
The Ancient History Museum is another seductive place … again, it took most of the day and I didn’t see everything. Feet aching, longing for a hot bath and camera batteries depleted again, I gave up for the day.
14 August 2005
Long drive from Leiden to Rheims, made somewhat longer by managing to miss the Brussels ring road, so drove through the city – still, Sunday morning, wasn’t too bad. Direction signs were useless again but I headed due south – the sun helped – and soon found the way again.
Was rewarded on arrival at Walcourt – the Basilique de St Materne.
Isn’t she beautiful? I have an awful temptation, if I ever find myself alone with a Black Madonna again, to peep under her frock. If you can make out the small picture (left), she is most definitely dark of skin but the robe looks awkward, wrapped as it is around the infant Jesus. Isis said “My veil no-one has lifted” so I’m not sure if I dare …
I had the same reaction to this madonna as to the one in Dunkerque – breath caught, almost in tears. What I feel is recognition – but why and how?
I loved this place in Walcourt. My favourite thing, beside the Lady, was the vending machine for postcards and other souvenirs – the kind that you would normally buy Mars Bars and packets of crisps from – and the statue below left – does anyone know who she is? There was no indication on or near the statue. I was struck by the resemblance to Atargatis, the lovely goddess with a city on her head, in token that she (like Inanna) has the attributes of civilization in her gift.
Walcourt is quite near the French border and it wasn’t long before I was in the Ardennes and heading for Avioth and another Basilique. This one was very popular with tourists, lots of people and a whole crocodile of nuns were in attendance. I was disappointed to see that this madonna has obviously been whitened, although if you look at the picture on the right closely there are signs of this.
Also, there are postcards on sale in the church (in a much more sophisticated vending machine) showing her as much darker, as well as a set with the paler features. Interestingly, this madonna didn’t have the usual effect on me.
Driving through the Ardennes I was aware of the landscape; rounded hills and rich farmland. I passed at least seven roadside shrines – every one was to the virgin. I wondered about Shakespeare’s Forest of Arden and wished I could spend more time here; there is something of the grail in this place; I can’t explain exactly. But this is so much the Lady’s country.
15 August 2005
Drove down to the wonderfully-named Troyes – France is big! I thought I must be a long way south until I checked the map and found I’m not that far from Paris! Into champagne country, although I didn’t see any vines at all so far.
Finally arrived at Chatillon-sur-Seine, about 50 miles south of Troyes, and had a frustrating time looking for Notre Dame des Graces. Turns out that she is not, these days, normally kept in the little church now dedicated to St Pierre (formerly the church of the Notre Dame abbey, built in the 12th century) but is in the church of St Vorles, but that, the old woman who seemed to be looking after the church told me, is closed. She didn’t speak any English and my French wasn’t up to understanding exactly why it was shut down. I went to see, but there was no sign of repairs going on. Odd. Even odder was the wall just opposite this little church, in a large car park. For no apparent reason there are three cows heads sculpted on a wall with no other purpose (above).
The “sensible” explanation might be that this is where the market is held – certainly the car park is large enough. But a closer look at the cow on the right revealed strange markings: sure, I get the alpha and omega – but what of the signs on the left of the picture? On reflection later I remembered that the letter “A” was based originally on an ox’s or cow’s head and you can see versions of that there.
Well, I wasn’t going to solve this one in an afternoon and was looking forward to visiting Auxerre.
Today was a bank holiday in France and everything was closed, so no maps, no tourist centres, no help at all. No-one I asked had heard of the church or any Notre Dame or miraculous statue in the area. I do have a plan for finding these churches already – normally I head for the top of the highest hill and failing that, for the oldest part of the town. Then I drive around at random and ask women of middle-age and above. Nothing worked. Discouraged, I gave up, having driven a hundred-mile round trip.
Still, I did see lots of fascinating buildings and ruins, both Roman and medieval – of course, no Reformation means there is lots more for a lover of old churches and history to see. I also drove through the village of Chablis and was rewarded with the sight of endless rows of vines. Now, all I know about viticulture (why isn’t it viniculture?) you could write on a postage stamp, but even I could see that these grapes must like well-drained soil and a position on the side of a hill, not too steep. The soil looked gravelly and very pale. For miles and miles, there was nothing else growing, except the ubiquitious fields of sunflowers on flatter ground and the odd cabbage in cottage gardens.
I noticed from signs on the road that I was following a famous wine-tasting route. Not much good to me! Perhaps I imagined, when I finally stopped to eat tonight, the slight curl of the waiter’s lip as I ordered an Orangina to go with my beautifully cooked meal, and drank the same with the plat du fromage that followed?
Incidentally, if French restaurants can manage to serve cheese at room temperature, why can’t we?
16 August 2005
I drove from Troyes to Avignon and took a side trip to Mazan, where there is apparently at least one black madonna. However, the church, as I’d half expected, was closed. Some women told me that it only opens for an hour in the afternoon every day. But the town itself was very odd, with an atmosphere I can’t quite describe. Not altogether friendly. I discovered much later that the de Sade family had a chateau there, so who knows?
17 August 2005
Up at dawn, excited, to visit Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer in the Camargue. I was at first not that impressed – the Camargue looked a little bit like the Somerset Levels. But, as the Levels do, the place quickly grew on me and I was thrilled to see a whole flock (if that is the right word) of pink flamingoes in a stretch of water very close to the sea.
The church itself is extraordinary – probably unique. Built like a fortress and indeed has been one in the past, much assisted by the fresh water spring found inside it, there is a crypt containing a statue of “Sainte Sara” – in fact, Sara-Kali, Goddess of the Gypsies. To this day, Gypsies retain ancient rights in this crypt, including that of dressing the statue, which they do in many colours. In fact, they just seem to add layers, without removing what’s below.
The photo at the left is a bit “arty” … I liked the effect with the nearby candle flames.
There is also (below right) a large painting of the arrival of the two eponymous Maries, by boat from Palestine, miraculously as they had no oars, rudder or sails. Like a double Aphrodite, they appeared in this strange spot, and began to preach to the local people.
Interestingly, I read that the town was once sacred to a triple Goddess comprising Isis, Artemis and Hecate. Outside the church (and passed over very quickly by the English language guide that I read) is a lion in relief. There is also a pagan altar in the church and a hand of Fatima in a display cabinet, along with other remains.
It occurs to me also that the whole spot has a very lunar feel – the white Camargue horses and posters advertising bullfights; in the souvenir shops are bull and horse pictures and pottery. Both, of course, are lunar animals.
Below the lion is a photo of what is supposed to be the pillow of the two Saintes Marie. It looks more like an ear to me … perhaps we can whisper our secrets to the compassionate Mother?
Finally, to show that the cult is alive and well, below right is a modern piece, apparently given to the people of the Camargue by the artist.
I might try to visit again on my return. But for now, had to move on, so took the motorway route along the coast to Italy. An amazing experience in itself. I had expected a few tunnels, after all, this is the spot where the Alps meet the Mediterranean, but I lost count after thirty-five or so, and there were just as many dizzying overpasses. This is one heck of a feat of engineering, the tunnels go all the way to Genoa and beyond, must have cost billions. Another thing I quickly became accustomed to was the existence of houses and whole villages just above the tunnels – often with neat, terraced gardens running down almost to the top of the entrance. How adaptable we humans are!
As usual, the Italian frontier passed without any apparent restriction to free movement. I suppose my nervousness about passing this particular frontier comes from childhood. In 1963 we visited Italy by train and I still remember being terrified of the stern “policemen” – as I thought of them – who boarded the train every so often and barked instructions at everyone. Now there are seemingly no borders and I appreciate not having constantly to change money and/or be interrogated, but I do wonder about the price we’re paying.
The other thing that I noticed immediately in Italy is that Italian drivers are exactly as the generalisation goes. Maximum speeds are universally ignored – I’m driving along at the speed limit (when I can figure out what it is) and someone passes me so fast that the car rocks. They must be doing at least 130 miles per hour. If you drive too slowly (ie at the speed limit) and have the temerity to pull out to pass a slow lorry or string of caravans, they come up behind to about three inches distance, hooting and flashing. Terrifying is the only word I can think of to describe this, and very tiring, I’ve found.
In fact, if I ever make a trip like this again, I want someone to ride shotgun – act as navigator, save me from running round the car every time we reach one of the many left-hand-drive automated motorway tolls, and gesture at Italian drivers (they use both hands and I don’t dare!) Interested? Let me know – of course, you get to pay your own expenses!
Service stations on the motorways are so different from ours, and I do like them. There are no prepacked sandwiches but a kind of mini-shop that puts our delicatessens to shame, selling good bread, cheese and ham. You have to queue twice (once to pay, once to show the barista your ticket) to get a coffee, but it is excellent when it comes, as are the home-made sandwiches and pastries. Large groups of Italians stand around, spilling out into the sun, talking, laughing, cuddling babies and children. A far cry from the miserable, portion-controlled service stations of British motorways.
Apart from getting horribly lost on the hills above Bologna, where hairpin bends on dizzying heights were mercifully obscured by the growing darkness, not much else to report from today. I did have the privilege of watching a hare from my terrifying eyrie, though.
18 August 2005
A day off – that is, I only drove about 150 miles instead of the more usual 400. Checked out the beach at Senigallia, a little way up the coast from Ancona – but mile upon mile of cars, hotels and heavily-greased Italian and German tourists made me beat a hasty retreat.
19 August 2005
I had my Cream CD playing as I drove into Ancona, on the Italian Adriatic, and the above track started up just as the bay came into view. A wonderful choice – the place seems redolent of romance, an azure sea (not, so far, wine-dark), easy to imagine heroes arriving here, or of the sad defeated ones from Troy looking about for somewhere new to bring their Goddess and start again.
In fact, Ancona was founded by Greek settlers about 390 BCE, long after the Trojan war, and Greek merchants founded a Tyrian purple dye factory here (this is the dye so prized in antiquity for producing the Imperial purple and bright red colours). Use of the Greek language here continued into Roman times, and the city had its own coin with the head of Aphrodite on the reverse.
20 August 2005
I was very disappointed with Loreto – it is just too big, too grand and too full of Catholic tat in appalling taste. This is where Mary’s house in Palestine is supposed to have miraculously appeared by means unknown. Others say that a local family paid for the house to be transported, stone by stone, during or soon after the Crusades. Apparently some archeologists are convinced that it is a genuine house from Palestine of the correct era, but of course no-one can prove whose house it once was.
Either way, the house is now completely covered in marble, statues, tourists and “do not” signs.
There were some really devout people at this huge place. And the Madonna? Well, for some reason she just didn’t affect me, perhaps because I felt too far removed, there were layers of glass and a lot of distance between us punters and the Lady. But she is certainly very dark of skin. Photographs weren’t allowed, and there were many people about; it would have felt extremely disrespectful to start snapping away. I contented myself with reading the English guidebook, which told me that the statue was black because of centuries of candle smoke, then went on to say that the present statue was replaced in 1921 and “unfortunately” the artist made her black again. Unfortunately? Disregarding the racist implication of this, it is an odd statement. Surely the artist was briefed better? Perhaps s/he simply assumed that the Madonna was black because the church liked her that way? Or because it is well-known that she should be black? There are no answers, of course, only questions.
Incidentally, if these Madonnas turn black because of candle smoke, why are so many equally ancient ones very white and pink after centuries?
I did buy a tiny statue of the Madonna, for a Catholic friend. Also a cute little Pinnochio puppet for my partner’s grandson …. then left as quickly as possible. I drove south, about 150 miles, having found a ridiculously cheap hotel room in a place called San Giovanni Rotondo, which turns out to be another place of pilgrimage – to a Padre Pio, of whom I must confess I had never heard. Turned out also to be in the middle of nowhere – there’s always a major snag with these bargain rooms! Once more I found myself clinging to the side of a mountain in deepening dusk. Anyway, apparently, Padre Pio was a Capuchin monk who received the stigmata and went on to become a great healer and miracle worker. He was due to be canonized, I’m not sure whether that has happened yet. His photo was all over the hotel, and looked rather benevolently over my bed last night – a fabulous room of white tiles, marble and a queen-sized bed, all for a little over £20.
The south of Italy is very different from the north – much less green and lush, the part I’m in now looks a bit like the arid red landscape of cowboy movies. It also looks much poorer and more sparsely populated, and I’m still a long way from the deep south. But at last, I got to see lemon trees and olive trees!
So now I’m in Manfredonia, which is a tiny bit below the “spur” of Italy’s leg, on the Adriatic coast, if you’re following this on a map (and if not, why not?!) As I was taking a photo of the Black Madonna in the church here, prior to wandering about, the batteries died on my camera and the spares I’d bought in France decided not to work either. I came in search of a battery shop and found this computer shop with one internet machine for hire – great synchronicity!