THE ANNEX BLOGThe mountain that saved the Roman Empire
– The legendary Mont Sainte-Victoire in Provence

An Exclusive Extract from our Latest Travel Book – 19.8.16

– Nicholas Woodsworth discovers the fascination behind the mountain that saved an empire and inspired Cézanne

A region steeped in fable and myth, Provence is a cultural crossroads of European history. A source of inspiration to artists, poets, and troubadours, it is now an enviable refuge for the wealthy and fashionable. Nicholas Woodsworth, who was born in Ottawa, Canada, married into a Provençal family and has lived in the region for decades. Lovingly recounting vivid details of life in Provence, he provides here a welcome antidote to the typical rosé-tinted, romantic view of it being a perennially sunny destination for tourists. The true Provençaux have always lived a hard life close to the land and the rhythms of the seasons. And it is in the revelation and understanding of these lives, of the Provençal people, that the truths of the region are to be found. As much a study of Provençal culture and history as a memoir and travel book, this is a deep and soulful investigation into a way of life that remains very distinct from that of the rest of France. Below is an extract from the book exploring the history of Mont Sainte-Victoire, Provence’s most famous mountain.

Chapter 6

Mont Sainte-Victoire is not a tall mountain – at just over 3,000 feet it is scarcely a record-breaker at all. Mont Ventoux, the highest peak in Provence, is twice its height. Nor is Sainte-Victoire easily visible from the town it has been linked to since Roman times. Its bare limestone mass begins to rise from rolling countryside some eight miles outside Aix-en-Provence, and from the old part of town it can only be seen from certain rooftops, high balconies and east-facing windows. Although it is undeniably a good-sized chunk of stone, in shape the mountain is narrow and elongated. Even residents in the more elevated quarters surrounding the old town see it end-on, from which perspective its real bulk – thirteen miles of rocky fl anks rising steeply to a scallop-edged ridge – cannot be appreciated. Foreshortened, Sainte-Victoire from Aix looks like a squat and lop-sided pyramid. These were some of the reasons why Jany and I decided to celebrate our return from the Cévennes with dinner at the Petite Auberge. For we were both great admirers of the mountain, and from here you could sit smack in front of it, get the full broadside view, and linger over a Provençal meal at the same time.

The restaurant lay in hilly country not far off the Route du Tholonet, the road that runs from Aix, past the pretty little village of the same name, and along the foot of the mountain. On tourist maps it is also known as the Route de Cézanne. Beyond undulating folds of red earth covered in patchwork fields and stands of feathery pine and cypress, the mountain suddenly reared its pearly-grey mass. Close-up, unobstructed and seen in its full length and volume, the rocky wedge of Sainte-Victoire seemed to sit on the very edge of the auberge’s outdoor terrace. If I could reach out a little further, I thought, I just might be able to touch it. It was only an illusion, but Mont Sainte-Victoire has that kind of effect on people. It impresses itself on outsiders during even the briefest of visits. Long imprinted on the subconscious of generations of Aixois, the effect is even stronger. Never mind that it is not constantly in plain view – the mountain claims a looming and predominant place nonetheless. For what it lacks in overwhelming size it makes up for with the living presence of its personality. That, at least, Jany said, was the way she saw it.

We ordered. I asked for a cold ratatouille followed by a daube of baby boar. Jany chose a hot goat’s cheese on salad, and supions – tiny squid in a herby tomato sauce. Could a mountain really have a living personality, I wondered? For the sake of peace I don’t usually take Jany up on this sort of discussion, especially not before dinner. So far New Age mystery has entirely failed to take hold in this part of the world – its old secrets are more than enough. But here, hovering on the fuzzy edges of the metaphysical, I felt I should register a little scepticism. ‘Explain, please,’ I said as a waiter brought some crudités to tide us over, and I began dipping a carrot stick into a bowl of anchovy cream. ‘I cannot speak directly for all mountains,’ Jany admitted. ‘But I know a thing or two about the one in front of us, and it most definitely has a personality.’ And why shouldn’t it? she continued. Mount Olympus, Mount Sinai, Mount Ararat – throughout history such mountains have held an undeniable power over the people who live around them. What else but personality could you call a specific inner energy, an influence exercised not just on the people of Aix, but on the plains, the valleys and villages for many miles around? There was something especially solid, a kind of inevitable, profoundly-anchored thereness about Sainte-Victoire’s presence, she maintained – even when you couldn’t see it you could feel it.

A bottle of chilled rosé arrived. ‘Not everyone appreciates the feeling,’ Jany said as I filled her glass. ‘I once met a man who lived directly beneath the mountain near Puyloubier. Like just about everyone else in the village he was a winegrower. For him Sainte-Victoire was a gloomy and baleful thing. No matter what he was doing – pruning his vines, washing his car, eating his dinner – the mountain was inescapable, always there over his shoulder. He felt he was constantly being watched. Eventually the sensation of being spied upon day and night grew to be too much. He came from a family that had grown grapes around Puyloubier forever. It didn’t matter; he finally sold up and moved away.’ But most Provençal people, she went on, regard the mountain as beneficent. The Celtic tribes who first lived around it called it Ventour, after their god of the winds. They’d used its caves and grottoes for their cults’ spiritual ceremonies for centuries before the Romans arrived. The Romans, too, regarded the mountain as a suitable place for the joining of destiny. It was here their first settlers took root in Provence. In the 2nd century BC Sextius Calvinus established a thriving garrison settlement no distance away beside the thermal springs that soon became known as Aquae Sextiae, the waters of Sextius. Every Aixois knew the story of the founding of Aquae Sextiae – it was their own town, after all, the awkward Latin name not yet neatly contracted to its present three letters. But what, I said to Jany just the slightest bit impatiently, did that have to do with the mountain? By this point our entrées had arrived and I was interested in getting down to eating mine. But Jany was equally interested in getting to the point of her story. Like many of her more emotive countrymen, she was a great talker with her hands. Watching her gesticulating with broad sweeps of her forearms and making the finer points with elegant little finger-arabesques, I have often thought that she might be totally silenced by simply tying her hands. Now, not even possession of a knife, fork and salade au chèvre chaud could stop her enthusing. After a harrowing day in the Camargue marshlands she was, after all, back in her own element. ‘It has everything to do with the mountain,’ Jany said. ‘Between them, Aix and Sainte-Victoire probably saved the Roman Empire.’ What happened, she explained, was that after twenty years of peacefully enjoying their spa-water the town’s garrison were given the fright of their lives. Over the horizon came rumbling the largest threat to western civilisation ever assembled – a vast army of 200,000 Teutonic barbarians bound for an invasion of Rome. But they had not reckoned on Provence’s wily Roman general, Marius, who set a trap for them. Permitted to bypass his outlying defences at Glanum near the Rhône River, the barbarians marched straight into the bulk of his Aix legions lying in wait at the foot of the mountain. ‘It was total annihilation,’ Jany recounted with some satisfaction. ‘The invaders were boxed in against the mountain. They had nowhere to go. Dead Teutons lay piled high across the plain – at least a hundred thousand were slaughtered. Marius was said to have climbed to the summit, where the tall iron Cross of Provence now stands, the better to look down on the battle and his enemy’s destruction. To celebrate he had 300 captured chieftains brought up the mountain and hurled into the Garagaï, the deep chasm that lies at the top.’

Jany paused in her eating and sighed in a showy, nonchalant way. She is a sensitive thing – she was obviously relieved to find that she could talk about bloody slaughter and at the same time eat, all without betraying by any signs of distress. ‘The victory,’ she said, ‘was so great that it remains with us even today, at least in our choice of local names. The mountain, of course, was renamed Sainte-Victoire, holy victory. The name Marius has become a favourite for the christening of Provençal baby boys. And the soil became so fertilised with the bodies of dead Teutons that there is another wine-village – it’s not far from Puy-loubier – still called Pourrières. It was taken from the post-battle name, Campi Putridi, the fields of putrefaction, and is a deforma- tion of the French verb pourrir, to rot. There were bumper crops there for years after the fight. The farmers used to build their vine trellises from human bones.’ If my daube, chunks of baby wild boar swimming in a sauce made of red wine and its own blood, had not been quite so good I am not sure I would have carried on eating. But it was and I did. And I continued listening. Sainte-Victoire, Jany went on, has never ceased being an object of curiosity, fascination and veneration. By the Christianised 5th century hermits had settled on the mountain, by then considered a dwelling place of the saints. Camaldolesian monks built a refuge for pilgrims, a building which still stands near the summit beside the present-day priory. From the 12th century onward mothers were bringing marriageable daughters and unwell children up the mountain to pray for divine intervention. Shepherds, too, got in on the act – they would lower sick animals on ropes down the gaping mouth of the Garagaï, where far below, it was thought, the Golden Goat of Provence grazed in therapeutic meadows beside an enchanted lake. And so dinner continued, story after story of strange beliefs and miraculous occurrences. In the history of Provence Mont Sainte-Victoire was plainly a larger-than-life phenomenon. Once she got going on Provence Jany was a phenomenon herself. By the 1600s, she was telling me as dessert arrived, the mountain had become so thoroughly invested with spiritual legend that the parliament of Provence in Aix could no longer hold its burning curiosity – it finally offered a condemned prisoner his life if he agreed to descend the Garagaï on ropes and tell them what it was really like down there. And was it, I asked Jany, all it had been cracked up to be by the seers and holy men? She shrugged her shoulders. Unfortunately the poor fellow had became so tangled in his ropes he was strangled before he could get back up to make his report. ‘So there,’ Jany said as she finally ran out of stories and I was scraping the last traces of fromage frais avec son coulis de framboise from my dessert bowl. ‘Don’t tell me a mountain can’t have personality.’ And I didn’t. For a while we said nothing at all, but simply watched the great stone hulk in front of us fade into invisibility as the evening light fell. As it did so I found myself thinking of the man who had felt Mont Sainte-Victoire such a compelling presence that he spent much of his time giving it life on canvas. By some subtle magic he had made it his own forever, and in doing so turned it from a religious icon into an artistic one. I had decided to take up Jany’s suggestion that the Mediterranean was rooted as much in people as it was in places. I couldn’t look deep into the Garagaï, I reflected. But I could at least try looking into the life of Paul Cézanne – no one had ever given the mountain more penetrating thought.

If you want to learn more about Nicholas Woodsworth’s adventures in Provence read on here.