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A Secret Garden

Sometimes when you travel, you discover extraordinary places. And then there are times when an out-of-the-ordinary place discovers you. A few years ago, it was the garden of the Pavillon de la Reine Jeanne (Pavilion of Queen Jeanne) near Les Baux de Provence that took me completely by surprise.

Pavillon de la Reine JeanneI was spending some time that summer near le village perché (the hilltop village) of Les Baux. The ruins of the citadel of Les Baux overlook the vast plain of La Crau on the south side. On the north side, several Provençal mas (country houses) nestle against the limestone cliffs. One of these country houses has been transformed into a special inn that has become one of my favorite places to stay in the world. As I love to take long walks in the early morning, I decided to meander up the narrow road that traverses the length of the Vallon de la Fontaine (Valley of the Fountain) à deux pas de (just near-literally "two steps from") the hotel.

Just past the ancient lavoir (wash house) which is an interesting site in itself, I came upon a tiny jewel of a jardin (garden). As I slowed down to take in the deep purple lavender, red roses, and tiny boxwoods that frame the four symmetrical sections of the square garden, I was stopped in my tracks by an elegant, hexagonal pavilion of stone that had obviously been there a very long time.

Pavillon de la Reine Jeanne

Small and demure, the charming pavillon was flanked by two towering cypress trees. The three arched openings were decoratively supported by carved ionic columns. Each arch was crowned by a gargoyle-type face which contrasted with the lovely carved scrollwork flowing across the top of the exterior hexagonal faces. Curious to see the interior, I had to bend my head to enter the tiny space and wondered what types of rendez-vous the mysterious building was meant to encourage. I paused for a few minutes and sat musing upon one of the well-worn benches carved into the interior wall. There was not a soul around. For these few treasured moments, this secret garden belonged to me.

Pavillon de la Reine Jeanne

As I exited the pavillon, I noticed a marble plaque on the stone wall nearby. I learned that the little temple was built in the 16th century for a noblewoman named Jeanne. Later research revealed that this Renaissance gem was constructed in 1581 for Jeanne de Quiqueran, wife of Honoré des Martins, who was baron of Baux at the time. The garden itself belonged to their family and was named the "Jardin du Comte" or the "Verger du Roi". In addition, the plaque also noted that Frédéric Mistral, the Provençal poet who almost singlehandedly rescued the Provençal language and culture from oblivion in the 19th century, had a copy of the garden pavilion made for his tomb in nearby Maillane.

Pavillon de la Reine Jeanne

Since that rewarding summer walk, I have made regular pilgrimages to the Pavillon de la Reine Jeanne and its très beau jardin (very beautiful garden). I feel quite a connection to the place-no doubt for its exquisite yet rustic beauty. And also perhaps a bit for its name as my first name is also Jeanne, spelled the French way.

Curiously enough, not one time have I have ever seen anyone else there, a fact that makes me both sad and glad at the same time. It is wonderful to sit in front of (or in this case inside) a treasure and feel it and absorb it without any distractions or large crowds-think about trying to take in an artistic masterpiece at a blockbuster show at the Louvre in Paris or the Metropolitan Museum in New York, for example. But I believe beauty is meant to be shared so I would wish more passersby for this secret garden. Until then, I will enjoy the garden-framed pavillon in its divinely solitary state.

December 3, 2008

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