I had seen her smile hundreds of times, maybe a thousand, but she wasn’t smiling this morning. “Why don’t you go for a walk on your own today,” it was a cool statement not a question. “I need some time to myself.”
“Uhhh…oh…okay,” I stammered and got my bag, “I’ll be back… in a couple of hours.”
Our bed and breakfast, Le Prince Noir, was up at the top of the old medieval town of Les Baux de Provence and there were a hundred steps and cobblestones to climb to get to it. Everywhere we went here ruined battlements looked down on us with a remote, broken sadness. The constant wind kept the castle’s crimson flag taut and made us tense.
I went out with a combination of melancholy and relief. I didn’t like what I had said the night before. Maybe, I hadn’t said enough. She was right, I hadn’t made any time for romance. It was like we were travel buddies getting on each others’ nerves— and I needed a break as much as she did.
The weather during our May stay had been cold, wet and windy. The mistral had been blowing fierce and Provence had been freezing. This morning, although the wind was whipping, the sun was shining hot and I had to peel layers off as I went.
As I hiked at the side of the winding pavement I noticed the many centipedes trying to cross the road. Perhaps they were millipedes, I don’t know, I couldn’t count their legs. In any case, if they were millipedes, the extra legs weren’t getting them across the road any quicker and most were getting run over by the tires of Peugeots and Citroens. Then I realized they weren’t trying to cross the road, they were crawling on to the asphalt to warm up. It was a mini massacre, befitting the violent history of Les Baux and this Valley of Hell— where Dante Alighieri had been inspired for his inferno.
Dante might have called it a tortured landscape and, although I appreciated the spectacular drama of it, the place was hard. One could easily feel tortured here. The rocks looked like bleached bones. White limestone outcroppings had holes and skeletal niches carved in them from either thousands of years of erosion, or a thousand years of man. The empty eye sockets watched me maliciously and I was comforted by the occasional passing car.
The twirling cedars Van Gogh had painted as green fire clung to cliffs with scruffy bushes, precariously clawing at what soil they could. There was no surface water to be seen anywhere. And, that ever-blowing mistral moaned ghostly in my ears carrying the voices of ancient battle dead. Its breath also stirred the blood-red poppies so they flickered like flames.
But the vast quarry caverns seemed the most hell-like to me. They were omnipresent; the valley had been quarried for two millennia. Their entrances were tall, foreboding gates capped with thick mountain lids. There was graffiti, garbage and foul smells. I was scared to go in very deep. They reminded me of cold tombs and I wondered if hell could be cold.
I didn’t want to be cold any more. I kept walking down and around with the sun on my face and the wind at my back. I walked into L’Oustau de Baumanière and looked at the pool and the menu. They both looked a little chilly and hundreds of euros out of our budget. Maybe we could do it next time when it was warmer and perhaps I’d sold my soul.
So, I climbed back up to town. Zigzagging up the asphalt and then the cobblestone. I stopped at a shop and bought a music box that played “La Vie En Rose”. It had the Eiffel Tower on it and I thought she might like it. I walked up to Le Prince Noir and the sun was blazing on the roof tiles. She was there waiting with her warm smile. It was heaven. I gave her the box and she played it, and smiled some more.
Les Baux got hot that afternoon. I thought, when the sun shines and someone you love smiles, even the Valley of Hell can be a heavenly place.