Sites and Birds: Interesting Walks in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence
Mother Nature jumped the gun this year, often bringing brilliant azure skies and near-balmy weather well before spring officially arrived. The tantalizing temps make bundling up unnecessary when my husband and I head outside to elevate our heart rate with a nature walk. And with the expansive Parc Naturel Regional des Alpilles—comprising tons of trails—at our Saint-Rémy doorstep, that’s our destination of choice.
Slinging binoculars over our shoulders is de rigueur for these balades in the Alpilles because some of our feathered friends are sure to fly by, always providing much cheer, and it’s fun to watch them up close. Adorable Wagtails, Black Redstarts, and Blue Tits with their French blue berets—brighten our outlook and lift our spirits even before we’ve left our neighbourhood. Further, along our appointed course, we might see Sparrow Hawks, Jays, Goldfinches, and most assuredly flocks of Chaffinches. And once in late winter on a return to centre ville, we saw a dozen multi-coloured Bee-eaters flitting about a tree near the kiddie park. But, of course, you can’t predict what birds you’ll see where or when.
Game for a Walk
Fun discoveries in nature abound, but when secrets are revealed in a city space, that’s rewarding too. So when I stumbled across an urban mystery game the tourist office offered, my curious self was eager to give it a try, and Ralph agreed. We’d combine solving the riddle with our walks—we’d wander through the woods and then tromp about town. Just like birding, the caper promised surprises.
And Intrigue dans la Ville: Saint-Rémy-de-Provence did not disappoint, beginning with a letter from the mayor dated 16 June 1874 that outlined the challenge: Find the culprit responsible for vandalizing several mulberry trees (necessary for silkworm production) and olive trees. Since Saint-Rémy had grown from a rural village to the thriving capital of seed trading, this was a tailor-made plot. Armed with a booklet of clues, a map of the town, the year’s almanac, a tiny mirror and descriptions of six suspects and their motives—jealousy and greed topped the list!—we embarked on our mysterious mission.
Our first stop was the plaque by the arch Porte Saint-Paul leading to the centre ville. We used the numbers of the date it was erected—1747—to identify the initials of the first innocent suspect. Next up, elegant Place Plessier, where we examined the graceful dolphin fountain and located the bas relief of ferocious animals on the façade of City Hall—a former Augustine convent—that we’d never noticed before. From the information gleaned there, we counted vowels and consonants and shook them all about based on values given to each to obtain the age of the second innocent suspect. Then at the birthplace of Saint-Rémy’s most celebrated native son, the doctor-astrologer Nostradamus, we transferred his birth date listed on a plaque into a grid (included in our booklet). The grid produced a number—only decipherable with the mirror and critical to our search.
Hiking the Hills
Over the next few days, we hiked the hills and then passed through the village to continue the hunt for the offender—after all, the mayor was counting on us! The following clues directed us to the vestiges of the Église Saint-Martin that had collapsed in 1818 (and then rebuilt a few years later). The information there led to the first name of the next innocent suspect, which, in turn, corresponded to the saint listed in the almanac that pointed to another suspect’s date of birth.
After that, we drew lines and filled in boxes and scratched our heads, but eventually, we found our way to the beautiful Renaissance building housing the Musée des Alpilles on Place Favier. We studied the stone lintel over the entrance and noticed the series of stylized bullheads as if for the first time. Then, after consulting the lunar phases listed in the almanac and the city map, we made a beeline down the lane to the Hôtel de Sade, an imposing building, now the Musée Archéologique that displays sculptures from the Roman city of Glanum located on the outskirts of town.
Learning On The Go
At this point, we were closing in on the vandal but had an anagram to unscramble and another deduction left. We found the first on a plaque dedicated to Frédéric Mistral (winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1904) by Porte Trou, the only intact arched entry in the town’s ramparts. A critical clue to the next suspect surfaced after circling dates on the almanac related to the suspects’ dates of offences and alphabetizing them based on the names of the corresponding saints.
A French explanation of a stone carving written in Provençal embedded in a building on Place Jean de Renaud gave a hint to the profession of another innocent suspect. And so it went until we had our man—or woman. (No spoiler alert here!) To confirm our verdict online, we needed a code based on scrutiny of the decorative portion of an oil lamp bolted high on a building across from Nostradamus’ fountain. Bird binoculars to the rescue for a triumphant finale!
Billed as a family game, we found Intrigue dans la Ville was no child’s play. But, lest we forget, heritage and tradition are revered in these parts. So not only did Ralph and I get a workout crisscrossing the historic centre, so did our grey cells interpreting all the detailed French required to decipher the directions and tips.
Our reward for solving the caper? The delight of discovering many intriguing architectural and historical facets of this enchanting city of secrets. And for good measure, a stop at a popular boulangerie for a decadent edible treat. Or maybe deux.
All the photos were provided by Gayle Smith Padgett except for the bird photos, which are as follows: