Provence History in Motion: let the stones talk while you walk
Almost anywhere in Provence a casual glance around oneself will reveal a proliferation of Roman ruins, medieval hilltop fortresses, Renaissance châteaux and Romanesque cathedrals, for this is a region steeped in history (not to mention myth, legend and folklore). Yet much of that history remains maddeningly elusive for the Anglo-Saxon visitor; often sites offer little or no information in English – or the English is so cryptic as to be virtually unintelligible.
This discovery was what motivated Janet Henderson, Scottish media lawyer turned full-time mother and part-time historian, to start researching the history of the region. “Moving to Vaison la Romaine from London, I was struck by the number of magnificent historical monuments that seemed to be slumbering quietly amongst the more recent buildings of the modern town – and it got me wondering why this small provincial market town had acquired such extraordinary monuments in the first place.”
Her legal training served her well as she began her four year research into the history of Provence: “I quickly realised that what I was lacking to appreciate fully Vaison’s historical treasure trove (not to mention the many historical jewels scattered casually around the region) was the bigger picture, the broader historical context or “back story”, if you like. And it turned out that, in order to tell a coherent story that charted the historical evolution of the town, I had to return to the Bronze Age and then, almost like a detective, tease out the details and tie the threads together into a seamless and compelling historical narrative.”
The end result is a tale that carries listeners effortlessly along on an epic historical journey that spans 3000 years. This, Janet suggests, is the unique aspect of the tour; not only does she explain and showcase the monuments themselves, but she also uses the historical setting as a backdrop for the story. Using the monuments as stepping stones from Antiquity through to the French Revolution, they appear to spring to life as one imagines the events and peoples that shaped Vaison’s destiny over the centuries. Furthermore, because each historical period has its own district, the story can unfold naturally as one walks through the town, first admiring the Roman ruins, then the Romanesque ecclesiastical district, then the medieval and Renaissance “old town” and finally modern post-Revolutionary Vaison.
There is one other fringe benefit of this approach, Janet suggests: Provence’s privileged situation at the crossroads of north and south made it a veritable melting pot of myriad peoples, cultures and traditions. If, as one historian suggests, European medieval history is “an amalgam of Roman and so-called Barbarian (Germanic) cultures, woven from the most useful remnants of a diversified past”, then Vaison’s story is essentially the story, in miniature, of the origins of western civilization as a whole.
Finally, the understanding of Provençal, French and indeed European history that clients end the tour with will serve them well when viewing other towns or monuments in the region. They will find themselves saying things like “that’s a Romanesque bell tower, I can see the Roman influence”, or “I know why every village in northern Provence has a historic Jewish quarter”, or “aha, there’s another Renaissance-style fountain, very Italianate thanks to the influence of the papacy in Avignon” – and so on.
One thing is for sure; Janet’s passion for her subject, her grasp of historical detail and her talent for storytelling ensure that the walking is effortless – and the talking both educational and entertaining!
Contact Janet Henderson at Provence History Tours for more details or to book a tour (she tells me that a tour of Avignon is also in the pipeline).
Image credits: All photos were provided by and published with the permission of Janet Henderson.