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IV. CITY OF MARVELS


Chapter 3

They immediately found themselves stuck in a massive traffic jam.

“Relax,” Gus said, “enjoy the view. This crossroads was congested before Rome was founded. Attempts to fix it through the ages have proven insufficient, too.”

After the Second World War, a great roundabout with a monument was erected before the medieval eastern gates of Old Bellegarde to relieve the constant tie-ups. Since their last visit a decade and a half earlier it had become dangerously clogged by traffic again.

Allie rolled up the window against the exhaust fumes. “This should be empty soon for the Summer Festival, right? No cars allowed in the old part of town either, just electric golf carts?”

“That’s what I read,” Skip said, glancing at her in the mirror. “We’ll park here, make the grand entrance, and I’ll move the car later to the hotel.”

The center of the huge traffic circle was filled with an enormous circular concrete platform, the Maureven War Memorial. This solemn monument supported a colossal concrete jumble of military architecture from many ages. They first saw the base: a high rear wall, crenellated along the top like a medieval castle, abutting a low wedge-shaped sixteenth-century bastion as they passed. The next section was topped with primitive wooden palisade and pierced by arrow-slits above a wall with machine-gun embrasures. Then came a Norman-type tower overlooking a bunker from one of the D-Day beaches, next to a section prickling with tank traps.

Scattered on the differing levels of the monument, lay a forbidding no man’s land of actual wrecked tools of the Second World War like broken toys: twisted tanks, shattered artillery pieces, and crumpled airplanes, embedded in concrete, festooned with barbed wire. Yet all that merely served as a pedestal for the monumental statue of a mournful, kneeling old woman.

Around this massive, bizarre fortress-like installation, cars crawled around a slow-motion racetrack. The passengers craned their necks as they rounded the shrine, but it was hard to truly appreciate this close. Frantically whistling traffic wardens waved Skip into a large unpaved grassy field, a temporary parking lot for the upcoming event.

While the group piled out and stretched, grateful to be there, Allie made a brief call. Gathering their stuff, they crossed the arching pedestrian bridges above to the traffic circle. At the top, a human traffic jam paused to take in the vista.

Behind the monument stood the stone walls of the castle and the gate crowned with fluttering banners. Beyond them the twin spires of the cathedral pointed to Heaven. Tourists in light summer garb wandered by. A picture perfect scene of which Skip took advantage.

There, looming atop the mad architecture of the pedestal before them, was one of the largest and most recent figures ever inspired by the Scolding Madonna anywhere in the world. Like her proud distant cousin overlooking New York harbor, this version also faced into the sunrise holding aloft a torch, but there the similarity ended.

“The monument’s different from the model in the closet,” Allie remarked. “This thing looks much more broad and massive.”

“They changed the design,” Gus said, “once they decided to cast the statue out of wrecked cannons and tanks. The base needed to be even more substantial.”

“Cheery old bird, she is, too,” Nigel said. “Reminds me of my grandmum, not.”

“The Grieving Mother” was just that. Cast of rough, blackened steel, she did not greet the living with hope but looked across the land of the dead like a grim widow. Crouched on one knee but still thirty feet high, the old woman held an electric light ever-burning aloft in her left hand. Her wrinkled right hand shaded her mournful squinting eyes, peering sightless over the uncounted battlefields of France for the lost. For this was, and is, a war memorial which does not celebrate victory but count its dreadful price.

The crone faced east, looking past the Gardens of Remembrance stretched towards the distant dawn. The grandest expanse of graveyards in Southern France, marble monuments floated like ice in a sea of green extending from the dark haunted hills of Haute Maureven and beyond down to the gates of Bellegraal itself. Closest set were the low slabs of recent years beyond which were acres of military crosses from the War, and taller, more elegant tombs and grave markers from ever earlier and more graceful eras.

The four followed the broad walk around to the eastern side of the memorial. There along the walls of a broad recess were inlaid memorial plaques for those souls killed in the defense and liberation of the region. In front of the indented section stood a marble block. “The Altar of Sacrifice to the Nation” was a carving of an ancient horned altar draped by a French tricolor, upon which were rendered trophies of broken weapons, a First World War helmet with a bullet hole and victory wreaths. Several real floral arrangements withered around the base.

“Here we are where Doc promised to return like MacArthur,” Gus said, “and a mere week before the anniversary at that. It’s more depressing than I thought it would be.”

“I wish the old man were here, too, bro,” Skip said.

“Don’t fret, it’ll get better, Gus,” Allie said. She turned and called, “Isn’t that so, Angel?”

At that, a woman stepped from behind a bastion and waved shyly. She wore a bright sundress, with honey-blonde hair cascading beneath a floppy white hat, and a large shoulder bag. Smiling at Gus, she said, “Oh, I certainly hope so.”

“Angelique!” Gus exclaimed. His face lit up with a surprised smile. Laughing, he lunged forward to embrace her. “Mother of Mercy, I don’t believe it, Angelique!” he exclaimed, holding her at arms’ length for a good look. She was slender, almost skinny, and lovely, still youthfully lithe yet with a few touches of grey and fine lines around her smiling blue eyes. “You look fabulous. What an unexpected delight,” Gus babbled. “How did you know?”

“Yes, it’s really me, Augustine, surprise!” she said with a wink and a smile at Allie. “A little bird told me you’d be here. If you are guiding visitors in my town, I came to make sure you weren’t spinning any more wild stories.”

“And spoil all my fun?” he complained with a smile. “You may have to stay close to make sure I keep my facts straight.”

“Not so fast, cherie,” she laughed. Greetings and introductions around followed. Allie hauled the book from her bag to compare the scene while they crowded around. They stood at the exact spot where their parents – and Raimondo – had fatefully met for the first time during its dedication in 1949.

“What a happy scene,” Allie said. “They look so young.”

“A wonderful moment,” Angelique said, “though I’ve never liked the way my relatives were cropped out of the picture. We must make our own.” Skip nodded.

“Okay, everyone line up,” Skip ordered. “You know the drill.”

He snapped several quick photos, then Nigel did also. After a brief discussion, it was soon decided a good meal came next on the agenda. “I know the perfect spot,” Gus said with due modesty. “After all, I wrote the book.”

“As if there is any other choice,” Angelique agreed. “But not to worry; they promised to hold a table for us.”

The party rounded the monument, and over the bridge to the town’s medieval gate. Inside the old town, the streets were already blocked to automotive traffic. Streams of people wandered freely through the wide city gates. Chateau Bellegarde on their left, burnt down during the French Revolution, was not completely rebuilt until the 1970s. But the modern stonework matched the adjacent original tower to perfection.

Overlooking the entrance, hung the small turret of the mad monk Heronimo from the central tower. A large metal mirror mounted on a beam protruding from the window swung around at the whim of visitors playing with levers inside. Skip took a couple of pictures of it as it looked down at them.

“Oh, I remember this,” Allie enthused as they walked between studded wooden gates beneath the portcullis into the city. She touched the stone and ironwork, “I’d forgotten how real this is, like entering an authentic medieval town! I’m so relieved it’s not a tacky rip-off of Dis–” Coming around the tower, she stopped in her tracks, speechless.

Beyond the gate the street opened into a broad plaza between the Chateau and the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Reprimand. Bleachers were installed along the near side for the concerts and plays. But the remainder of the plaza was clotted by a swollen Babel of tourists in casual garb of T-shirts and shorts. They were happily gawking, talking, strolling, munching, sipping, smoking, window-shopping, and chasing escaped children, pets, and balloons.

Street vendors hawked various kinds of treats, jewelry, games of chance. Three or four noisy street performers or maybe missionaries competed for attention. Visually, it was hardly any less loud. Welcoming banners in a half-dozen languages fluttered overhead. At their right a sign beckoned bearing a pair of all too familiar twin yellow breast-like arches.

“I apologize,” Angelique said with a touch of sad resignation. “How could I warn you? I guess I’ve been hardened to it, but this is what the Holy Tub has done to my lovely home.”

Gus, one-time tourist writer, could not find adequate words.

“Not that bad,” Skip said, unfazed. “You should see Delhi.”

Nigel seemed also unimpressed, asking, “Where’s that bloody restaurant again? I trust it has, say, a little less atmosphere?”

Angelique said, “Somewhat; we can avoid the worst.”

Gus nodded. “Unless it’s really changed, it should be fine. Lead on, oh native guide.”

Angelique smiled and they walked along the shops on the right past the corner of the Cathedral. In front of it, workers were finishing the stages for the weekend’s performances upon either side of the main entrance. Above the main door, tourists were lining up to stand in front of the rose window where the Scolding Madonna had once appeared.

Soon they came upon a long queue before a door above which a gilded Art Nouveau sign hung. Café Mystérieux, it read in graceful letters over a coffee cup. The carved steam curled in the shape of a question mark. Gus and Angelique ignored it, chatting and laughing as they turned around the corner and proceeded along a narrow, foreboding alley.

Halting in front of a grimy but otherwise blank door halfway down, they waited for the rest to catch up. “The front entrance is for tourists; this is the one the locals use, or at least it was,” Gus said. Angelique nodded.

“Something I didn’t put in the guide – so I hope they’ll let us in,” Gus explained.

“If we don’t stand here chatting all day,” Angelique said. “Oh, if you use this door, don’t knock. Tourists do that, so the staff ignores it.” She opened the door and entered.

Gus paused, whispering, “Remember what I told you about watching what you say? It goes double or triple in here.”

 


 

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“We must be ever cautious,
for even holy things may be used for foul ends by men of guile.”

– St. Thomas Aquinas
(attributed author),
On the Well of Forgiveness,
c. 1274

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