The destruction of sacred places

Why do invaders of a country have the need to destroy sacred places, especially?  In Antibes, archaeologists have found the remains of at least five different cultures and I wonder to what extent each layer represented initial destruction.  These diggings have been made in the Chapel of St Esprit, adjoining the Cathedral in Antibes.

The bell tower of Chapelle St Esprit

In 476 a.d., during the huge political ferment of invasions by Northern Europeans – Ostrogoths, Vandals, Visigoths, to mention some — Visigoths occupied Antibes, sacking and destroying the Chapel of St Mary, established mere  decades before, later to be the Cathedral.  I am uncertain as to how many of these invaders might well have been Christian themselves.

Cathedral and Saracen tower

In 1125 the church was once more sacked and destroyed by invading Saracens.  The presence of Saracens in Provence had ended in 973 when William the Liberator destroyed the settlement at Fraxinet.  In the ensuing years the church was rebuilt, restored and given the form of a cathedral it has today.

Cathedral with baroque facade

The Germans occupied Antibes from late-1942 to August, 1944.  The Cathedral was left unharmed.  In the distance, I recall hearing of a German general who delayed the total destruction of Florence, at the express orders of Hitler, until it was too late.

Choir end of Cathedral, considered the oldest part

But Catholics of Antibes need, ironically, to reflect on how their own forebears built this sacred place on the ruins of a pagan temple, probably dedicated to Aphrodite.  Archaeologists in 1860 even found the remains of the pagan altar under the choir section of the Cathedral.  The historian cryptically notes that the altar was “for sacrifices” which would somehow justify destroying that sacred place.

Cathedral of St Mary, Antibes


© Will van der Walt

Les Semboules, Antibes

September, 2018



Michael Nelson :  The French Riviera A history (Matador, London. 2017)

David Abulafia: The Great Sea (Penguin Books, 2011)

John J. Norwich:  The Middle Sea (Vintage Books, London. 2007)



My photographs






Will will travel

I am a part of all that I have met

Ek is deel van alles wat ek ontmoet het

Je fais partie de tout ce que j’ai rencontré

Είμαι μέρος όλων αυτών που έχω γνωρίσει

Soy parte de todo lo que he contrado

Ich bin ein Teil von allem, was ich getroffen habe

나는 내가 만난 모든 것의 일부이다.

Sono parte di tullo quello che ho incontrato

Ik ben onderdeel van alles wat ik heb ontmoet

Namibia from space


I am a part of all that I have met; 

Yet all experience is an arch wherethro’ 

Gleams that untravell’d world whose margin fades 

For ever and forever when I move. 

How dull it is to pause, to make an end, 

To rust unburnish’d, not to shine in use! 

From Ulysses by Alfred, Lord Tennyson, 1833


© Will van der Walt

Les Semboules, Antibes

October, 2017



The earth




Space Panorama NASA 1969






What did they leave behind?  They were in Provence for at least two centuries.  Some say not much.  Perhaps the name Maures Mountains, 80 kms west of Antibes.  But there is much more.

                        Maures Mountains

From the seven hundreds to the nine hundreds they were a formidable force along the coastline of Provence.  To the north there were epic battles with Frankish forces.  It is said by some that, if Martel’s battle with the Saracens at Poitiers in 732 had not been successful for him, Europe would have become Muslim.  Other historians question this.  That a large part of Spain was under the control of Saracens until 1492 did not make things easier for the populations of France.

                            Bay of St Tropez

The Andalusi Saracens from southern Spain invaded what is today the Bay of St Tropez.  The year was 889.  1,155 years later the Allied Forces would also invade Provence through the same Bay.  The Andalusis established Fraxinet (near today’s La Garde-Freinet) and this would serve as headquarters for various activities, one of them, the piracy in the mountain passes of the Alps.

We think these days of great national units and find it hard to grasp the political splintering of that time.  Halfway through the brief history of the region in his book “Midi”,  André Brink writes, “Wait, it only gets worse.”

                 Medieval portrayal of Saracens

To cut a long, convoluted story short,  the Saracens of Fraxinet were defeated in the Battle of Tourtour in the year 973 by William, Liberator of Provence, as he is known.  The Muslim dream of establishing colonies in the south of France was dashed.

Did the Saracens leave anything behind?  Europeans called them moors and today French surnames like Mouret, Maurin and Mauron bear witness to that.  The Andalusis of Fraxinet were not only warriors:  they brought, amongst other things, buckwheat to the shores of France.  The rounded towers characteristic of the buildings of that time in Provence are architecture from north Africa.

     Vestiges of architecture from north Africa

In Mougins, 20 kms north west from Antibes, there is still the Saracen Gate from which Christians kept a watch on Saracens in the area of modern-day Cannes where, for 80 years, they had a foothold.

The Saracen Gate, medieval quarter of Mougins

In Antibes there are street names that speak of Arabic presence across the centuries – Chemin de Maures, Avenue de la Sarrazine.  The iconic tower at Les Remparts was called Le Tour Sarrazines, also serving as a look-out.

                   Avenue de la Sarrazine

Le Tour, also called The Saracen Tower

In the Rabiac cemetery in Antibes there are Muslim graves, those who died alongside the French in World War One.  In this cemetery there is a monument to the Hakis, those who aligned themselves with the French in the Algerian war in the late-1950s and, with the outcome of the struggle, fled to France.

               Muslim graves, Rabiac cemetery

     Monument for the Hakis,                 Rabiac cemetery

The complexity of the situation reaches its highpoint in the terrorist attack on Bastille Day in Nice, 2016.  The very first of over 85 victims was a fifty-five–year-old woman with the name Fatima Charriki, a dedicated Muslim and lifelong a French citizen.  It is estimated that nearly a third of the victims had Arabic ancestry.  From this there has appeared the book “Ma mère Patrie” (My Motherland)  by Hanane Charriki, the daughter of Fatima.


                            Hanane Charriki

© Will van der Walt

Les Semboules,  Antibes

July, 2017



Wikipedia:  History of Provence

Article:  Robert W. Lebling: “The Saracens of St Tropez” (Aramco World,  2011)

Dictionnaire de la Provence et la Côte d’Azur (Larousse, Paris 2002)

Blanchet, J-M. Turc, R. Venture : La Provence pour les Nuls (First Editions 2012)


Maures Mountains –

Bay of St Tropez  –

Saracen soldiers  –

Round tower   –

Saracen Gate, Mougins – my photo

Le Tour – my photo

Avenue de la Sarrazine  –  my photo

Rabiac Muslim graves  –  my photo 

Hands Monument  –  my photo

Attack in Nice  –







Musée Peynet

The drawings of Raymond Peynet (1908-1999) interested me as a child – the little man with his round black hat (a Chaplinesque bowler?) and spikey hair and his girlfriend, demure and lovely – the essence of romance, a mix of innocence and risque.

The artist came to live in Antibes, acquiring a place for him and his wife in the neighbouring town of Biot.  He and his wife, people say with envy, were married for more than 50 years and her name, appropriately, was Damour.  And there is greater affection for his memory than for that of Picasso. A small museum to honour him was set up on the Place de la Republique.  Hand in hand, Claudie and I did our pilgrimage to it.

Les Amoureax

Most people associate Peynet with the commercialising of his work.  It is often seen as sentimental, saccharine, cute, but it’s more subtle than that.  Les Amoureux (The Lovers) are the chief focus and the variations on this theme since the 1930s are bewildering – he’s even done a series on the astrology icons with the lovers!

Les Remparts drawn by Peynet

In the museum they had an exhibition too, with the work of other caricaturists – Ronald Searle; Honoré Daumier and others.  One painted caricature that really impressed me was of different types of cheese in the uncanny form of Charles de Gaulle’s profile.  The idea, of course, comes from Acrimboldo.  This caricature probably refers to De Gaulle’s statement as the president that it is difficult to govern a nation that has more than 246 cheeses!

Humour conquers all, a wall legend in the museum by Paul Klee tells us.  What strikes me with Peynet is that all he does is inhabited by a smile.  With the pain, anguish and tragedy of life, there is someone who will relentlessly seek out human warmth.

Raymond Peynet

On the way back, strolling through the Saturday crowds, I saw what I had previously missed when I went that way out of the vieille ville – the monument to the martyrs of the French Resistance, an image that touches, but it couldn’t quite banish Peynet’s doves that alight on the little man’s black hat as he cradles his beloved.

What remains with me too, is the plaque in the museum informing us that, in 1995, with the 50th annual memorial service of Hiroshima, the Japanese unveiled a bronze depicting The Lovers at the site of one of humanity’s greatest desolations.

© Will v.d.Walt

Samedi  14 Janvier 2012

Image Sources: by Will and

Cannes: Finding a Grail

You may say that I won’t find a grail in Cannes, but I know it’s there.  I’ll get it.

I take the crowded ‘bus from Antibes to Cannes and a young man gives up his seat for me.  It turns out that he and his girlfriend with another couple are from Khazakstan.  And this figures – the French, I’m told, would not be so gracious as to give up a seat.  My day is blessed and my pilgrimage begins.  But as other pilgrims find from time to time, the going isn’t easy – you have to love the large, heat-struck, slightly confused tourist crowds, the traffic, the heat, and, at the Festival Hall complex, the extensive and noisy and dusty construction work and the heat.

Festival Hall, Cannes

Around the Festival Hall, a striking modern building of sloping glass and generous stairways, there are handprints of the famous in the pavement – some single hands with the name signed; some, double.  And the tourists bundle around – this will be the closest they come to those they have seen on the silver screen, admire and adore.

Le Suquet

Above the bubbling hub of the city, on a little rise, there is the stone watch tower and a rampart. This is the medieval quarter, Le Suquet, and if it were human, it would frown:  the hurry and tinsel and bustle below shows no respect for the medieval relic.

Beyond the long fringe of palms on the promenade named La Croisette, the hotels loom – The Splendid, Majestic Barriere, The Carlton International and the Martinez, to name a few.  Each of them is architecturally interesting and each, one can be sure, has its stories:  at the Carlton, Grace Kelly met Rainer III of Monaco in the 1950s; Alfred Hitchcock shot a scene here; the Nazis occupied the place in World War 2 and Hollywood has invaded those 343 rooms since the 1940s with each film festival.

I go into the cool colonnaded foyer of the Carlton.  Will this sumptuous palace yield the grail that I’m looking for?  I ask, May I take pictures?  They say, Non.  I leave.  The grail is not here.

In the noon heat that drums on the skin, I stroll along the promenade chewing my apple and my banana (for which I paid  three euros or R30),  thinking about Cannes.  This place, once occupied by the Saracens, now seeks desperately to keep the flow of tourists by any means.  Along the promenade there is a series of large reproductions of photographs by well-known photographers – Jeanloup Sieff; Heuer; Diego; Toll and so on.  The theme is beautiful models and some of the shots are really inventive.  There are posters for a Picasso exhibition, a retrospective on the films of Romy Schneider and a pyrotechnics festival.

Image by Diego

The beaches are crowded out with rows of neatly-placed blue canvas deckchairs and yellow umbrellas.  You can hardly see the sand, something which South Africans, used to endless stretches of empty beaches, would find mildly horrifying.   Through the day’s shimmer, sleek cruisers bob soporifically on a waveless Mediterranean.

Through the palms I see the Martinez, a hotel completed in 1929.  It is pure déco, named after the original owner, a man of Sicilian-Spanish origin.  My heart beats faster.  I approach.  Inside there are two officials behind the warm glow of the softly-lit reception counter.  I hesitate.  I take the law into my hands.  And there, before me, is the grail – a remarkable déco staircase that I saw in a book on Provence.  I won’t ask for permission.  The receptionists are busy with clients.  I take the picture.  It’s not quite as beautiful as I thought it would be.  I look back.  The receptionists are watching me.  I feign innocent interest.  They look away.  I walk to the staircase and look up the stairwell, four storeys… It is magnificent.  I take the picture and walked smartly out of the Martinez.  I have my grail.

The grail – the art déco stairwell, Hotel Martinez

Returning to the ‘bus terminus, I cross through a park area where there are pétanque courts.  Playing this game of bowls so characteristic of the south of France, groups of men cheer or bemoan their accuracy as they toss the grey steel boules.  Nearby is a statue of a fat, happy man overseeing the game:  he is clutching a boule to his heart and is perhaps the patron saint of pétanque.

At the pétanque courts

Will van der Walt ©

Vendredi  6 Juillet 2012

Image Sources:  Photographs by Will

Two Museums in Nice


Musée Masséna

A museum like Musée Masséna encapsulates an important vein of the history of Nice. I thought it would be worth seeing and was pleasantly surprised. It was built between 1898 and 1903 in the style of the First Empire, a style that celebrated the Napoleonic era and its achievements – at its height, the First French Empire in the early-19th century had 44 million subjects.  Jean André Masséna (1758-1817) was a military commander during the Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars, a character with a mixed reputation.  His Italian name tells of the French-Italian aspects of the city’s history  – Nice became French as late as 1860.


Bay window roof in Musée Massena

The same style enjoyed different names elsewhere – Biedemeier in Germany; Regency in England.  Somehow the egalitarian spirit sweeping through the politics of Europe at the time had no effect on the sumptuous, highly refined approach to architecture, objets d’art and decorative aspects.  Musée Masséna is impressive.  It suggests that splendour is almost an inevitibility with those who can afford it – Greek friezes, ornate baroque mirrors, magnificent marble floor inlays, classical figures and gold-inlaid furniture.  Perhaps the mining magnates of Parktown in Johannesburg and the steel magnates in the USA at the fin-de-siécle were doing the same thing.  One hundred years later the president of Zimbabwe has ventured on this tradition himself – the irony spirals.

I went through it all, knowing, once more, that I am a modernist in my taste and a minimalist.

I left, going through the gardens that have won awards and that give onto the Promenade des Anglais, where the most expensive hotels in Nice are.  It was a long and tiring walk, the last part up a hill, before I entered the grounds of the Musée des Beaux Arts.  In this private mansion, built by a Ukranian princess in 1878, there is art spanning four centuries – religious icons in the Russian style and, amongst others, an interesting collection of large Vanloo paintings that cover the era before the Revolution and after it.  There is a rather beautiful landscape by one Théodore Rousseau, together with sculptures by various artists of varying interest.  One, a haunting image of a woman draped in gossamer by Anonymous… how do you create gossamer with marble?


Head by an anonymous sculptor, 19th-century

Then, la cerise on top… two figures by Rodin.  One was The Kiss. 

If Rodin was the father of modern sculpture then the thoughts that underlie the creating of this work must be part of the reason.  Completing it in 1889, Rodin said that he was paying homage to women and their bodies, women who do not merely submit to men, but are full partners in passion.  Having been part of the larger concept of The Gates of Hell, The Kiss was inspired by a story associated with Dante’s Inferno, a story of illicit love and tragedy.  I have seen it before. I find I have to walk around it to appreciate each angle.  It is almost as if one has to swirl with the curve of her spine to arrive at the moment of the lips… with Michaelangelo’s gap between the fingers of God and man, this gap must rank as the most significant… yes, one can get passionate about Rodin’s Kiss.


The Kiss

When I stood in the crowded enviebus back to Antibes, through dense summer traffic, the rather jaunty ‘bus driver was whistling Albinoni’s Adagio.

Will van der Walt ©

Vendredi  6 Juillet 2012

Image Sources:

Bay window roof;  Anonymous sculpture – Photograph by Will

Rodin’s The Kiss –


It was a Provençal meal, the more so for having Italian touches.  Simone Bottero, Claudie’s friend, and who had Italian parents, invited us to lunch.  She lives in Le Cannet, the name which probably means Little Cannes, a suburb.  For those not familiar with Provençal cuisine and for future generations, I would like to record the details.  As an aperitif we had vin des oranges, sweet and piquant, which was homemade.  We began with pisaladiére, slices of bread with marinaded onion.  It can be served with anchovettes as well, but we didn’t have that.   This was followed by a tomato salad on a blue ceramic plate with yellow salad tongs and strips of white goats milk cheese – a treat in primary colours.  This had a parsley vinaigrette dressing.  Next, there were slices of cold pork and gnocchis,  little pasta balls, with a pimenté sauce.   We brought it to a close with sorbet and Tanzanian arabica black coffee.  There now, even if this is not archived, I won’t forget it.


Self-portrait, 1889

I then had the pleasure of going to the Pierre Bonnard Museum in Le Cannet.  A starkly modern place for which you pay 7 euros (R70).  But I pleaded that I was A. a tourist guide and B. a pensioner and I got in for 3 euros.  And – I had a little audio gadget that purred about the paintings softly in my ear.

It might be pretentious to say that one discovers a painter, but, I confess, it was a little of that.  From the late-19th-century, Bonnard (born 1867) weaves his way amongst the other greats – Matisse, Monet, Vuillard.  It’s difficult to pin him down because he echoes the impressionists and there is a hint of the Fauves to come, works that have abandoned perspective and embrace new ways of using colour.


The Dining-room Table


La petite fenetre, 1946

In this museum there is currently an exhibition of his la fenêtre works, amongst others, together with paintings by Monet, Vuillard and Matisse.  The la fenêtre or window motif was often used by artists.  Even Picasso eventually succumbed.  In 1952, Matisse said, Les fenêtres m’out toujours intéressé car elles sont un passage entre l’interieur et l’exterieur  (Windows have always interested me because they are a passage between the interior and the exterior).  The landscape beyond is seen through additional framing structures. This motif also serves to contrast the inner objects, a kind of still life, with the openness outside.

Two of these paintings in particular will, like the Provençal meal, remain with me.  One, Nature mort et paysage, done in 1930, is a muted winter scene through a window above a ballustrade with pale greys and blues of the sky.  In the foreground, there are the warm fruits of the interior in generous bowls.  The other, Petite fenêtre, shows trees in a lilac haze, the suggestion of distant hills and in the foreground sun-yellow flowers – the inner and the outer in balance.  Both paintings are images of peace, the latter done the year before his death in 1947.

Looking at the many works he did in this museum, in books and on the internet, I have the impression that there was contentment in his life.  There is unmistakable warmth in what he does, a muted joie de vivre. Yet, the series of photographs of him in his last years shows a sad face.  The peace in his work was not necessarily the peace in himself.  In 1944, he wrote, Celui qui chante n’est pas toujours heureux – the one who sings is not always happy.


Self-portrait, 1940s


Will van der Walt ©

Vendredi  20 Juillet 2012

Image Sources: La Petite Fenetre – & Self-portrait 1940s –  

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