There is a place
at the top of a hill. The hill is a silent miracle of blues and greens and deep browns and oblong pale stones as old as Rome. If one sits patiently the ghost of Cezanne might emerge, and the trees themselves will seem to fold into pure color, shape, scent.
Hidden on the side of the hill is a large park, with meandering lanes made alternately of ancient rock and soft hued dirt. It is as if no one has ever been there in the whole history of time; and yet it is impossible to feel alone or lonely there. The trees themselves are imbued with companionship and a beauty that is at once breathtaking and inviting.
It is such a gift to find this place one feels frightened it might suddenly disappear, a mere ephemera of one’s imaginative desire. Surely this is a spot inhabited by every sort of dryad, sprite and cheerful goddess. It is difficult to find, there isn’t a sign in sight, and there are fenceless gates that lead wonderfully to nowhere.
Like every pastoral dream there are lovely windows, framed by olive trees, that open suddenly on to the sea below. And of course, depending on one’s chosen path, there are charming views of an old, still working lighthouse. At night the beam flashes in great circular stretches, huge and brilliant, and gives to the hill an illusion of great height.
Just outside the park is a long and steep stations of the cross, with the requisite images of a suffering Christ kept in flower bedecked plaques. I have traversed this area many times, over many years, and have never seen more than a handful of people. The place seems to protect itself from unnecessary popularity, despite it being without question one of the more lovely locales on this planet.
Upon reaching the path’s end, there is nothing to see but two small churches, one truly ancient, made of soft light stone, and dating from the 11th Century; the other, much smaller structure was built at the end of the 19th, and is painted the rich, gorgeous pink-red so typical of the belle-epoque Mediterranean architecture one finds all around this region. This particular church is so small and unremarkable it is easy to miss the twisted old olive tree, standing in an odd sort of solitude, directly in front of the blue wooden entrance. If one looks closely, though, there is a joyous surprise: a small and humble note is attached to a stake in front of the tree, announcing that on such-and-such a day (I have of course forgotten) in 1949 Jacqueline Roque, better known as Jacqueline Picasso, planted this tree. No reason is stated. No reason is needed – it is just one of the fine and exquisite facts of this particular place of magic and wonder.
Well, it is not quite true that the only thing to see here are the two churches. Not true at all. There are… the views. Oh what a paltry term for the endless vistas of treed coastline, mountains, villages, cloud, sky and sea. On a clear day the eye reaches to the Alps and far into Italy to the east, and it seems, gazing in the opposite direction, that Marseille is a shimmering blink away. On a rain day, however, the clouds are closer than the land below, and the very air appears celestial and grey.
After the arrival, and the wandering and gazing, and falling into almost a stupor of love for the sea and the color and the silence (it is always silent, even the birds are hushed), departure is hard going. It is sorrowful to leave paradise on Earth, especially when the return, one knows, is a year or two or five away.
But there is always the walk down, and one more visit to the secret park. If, of course, one can find the gate. I did. But even though I took the same route, I am sure of it, I was not prepared for the appearance of a tree house. It wasn’t there before, I know it wasn’t.
Maybe the first time I wasn’t looking closely enough. Or maybe, just maybe, the creature who lives there didn’t at that moment want to be seen.