Today I thought I’d share a story that began via my meeting of a very interesting woman the other day here in the old city of Grasse. Her name is Ann Marie and she is about 72 years old. I met her while having lunch with friends at my favourite little restaurant in the centre of the city. (It’s the Cafe Oratorio, and may I recommend their Tirimisu salé- a cold glass of savoury marscapone and whipped egg whites layered with parmesan cheese and sautéed veges in olive oil….one of the most delicious things I’ve ever eaten… bit I digress.)
Ann Marie is blind- and a rather eccentric character with a strong sense of humour that rather takes you back with its boldness. Before her retirement, she worked for 40 years, at Robertet, one of the oldest Grassoise fragrance/raw material houses. Her position was as a translator for the clients coming from Germany, Spain, and English-speaking countries. She would translate the briefs into French for the perfumers, evaluators, etc.
She told me a very interesting story about a recent date- September 8th. This is the birthday of the Virgin Mary, and ever since the 17th century, up until more recent times- there was an annual pilgrimage à pied (on foot), from the city of Grasse to a nearby village called Valcluz- where there is a Catholic sanctuary dedicated to the Virgin Mary, called the Sanctuaire Notre-Dame de Valcluse. Back in the day, September 8th was a major holiday in Grasse, and all the perfume factories would close, and all the workers would hoist their respective flags representing their companies, and walk to Valcluse. Part of the reason for the tradition of this pilgrimage, was to thank the Virgin Mary for her protection, since the Plague never touched Grasse. I decided to go there this morning to see the place for myself…
The sanctuary is about 10 min by bus from Grasse, and when I arrived to the shady green gorge where it is nestled, I found the most perfect feeling of peace surrounding the enclave. The chapel was lit only by many candles, with natural morning light filtering in through the stained glass. The place was silent and I thought it was empty, until I saw several white-robed nuns, perfectly still, deep in prayer. With representations of Mary everywhere, I was struck with how this place felt like a woman’s chapel. Slowly more women came in quietly, and settled in for their own personal communing with the spirit of the place. I sat for about an hour, lost in my own thoughts, prayers, dreams, and reflections.
Then, the bell tolled in the tower, and some priests came in, the lights came on, and I realized there was a general preparation underway for mass. I watched all this with interest, since I am not Catholic, and decided to stay for the service. About 30 people arrived for mass, and about 10 more nuns appeared, as well as 4 priests. As it was to turn out, there was a guest father…. a man from Gabon… a man as black as coal. He gave a moving sermon, interspersed with the most beautiful singing by the nuns. The vibrations of sound were simply amazing- and I had the feeling that one really doesn’t have to be religious, (or fluent in the language of delivery), to be deeply effected on many levels by the power of sound and devotion intertwined.
Later, when I spoke with one of the sisters, she explained to me about the guest priest from Africa, whose grandfather had been a sorcerer. This man had also been in training to become a sorcerer, but one day, he had an epiphany, and changed to Catholicism. He then went on to study in Rome, and as turned out, was here in Valcluse for 2 days to teach. Somehow, this felt auspicious for my visit today…to have such a rare event, and dare I say, one touched indirectly by just a hint of magic from another culture.
To add a little more history of the place- the first records show that there was a sanctuary dedicated to Notre Dame on the left bank of a water source in this area, likely the same as now, in the 12th century- although the current chapel was constructed in 1650. There is an Hermitage next to the chapel, which also used to house an olive oil press (a moulin– a wheel operated by the water from the river). At one time, and there was a hermit who lived there from about 1614 onward.
All in all, the place is peaceful, immersed in a green gorge of nature, with waterfalls, and benches everywhere to sit and take it all in. Plus, it’s 10 min from Grasse by the bus that runs every 30 minutes….
I have a feeling I’ll be going back.
One of the many plaques that decorate the walls of the main chapel, a mini-chapel inside the hermitage dedicated to Saint Rita, and also on the walls of a grotto beside the river. I thought this one rather sums it all up.
Ps- Here is the direct link to the Sanctuaire’s site. Sanctuaire Notre-Dame de Valcluse