(Continued from “The Perched Village of Peillon”)
Reluctant to return to Nice the same route we came, we decide on an Alistair Humphreys-inspired “microadventure” with the goal of getting across a green hilly area on our map in order to cycle the coastal road home.
Things get bumpy, then rocky, then a barrier blocks the path. A sign in French bluntly informs us the land is private. We’re sick of seeing these kinds of signs in France.
There’s no question of turning around. We lower the bikes under the metal, creep by the houses, and continue to ascend another stony path with trees on either side. Just when we’re far enough from the houses to talk again, another building, a home to someone who must really want to escape it all, springs up from the greenery. Who lives on this remote, mysterious land between coast and valley? Matt whispers the same joke as always: “They’ve a long way to get milk.”
We lift the bikes over a small stone wall near a house, push them further upwards, clinking and clanking, and eventually join a better-maintained path with a wooden sign indicating walking trails. We even see the A8 motorway sitting on its stilts on its way to Italy. Relief sweats out of me.
Just an olive grove to go and we should reach tarmac before the ascent to La Turbie and the rewarding views of the glistening Mediterranean.
A church nestles in a valley of trees below. Within minutes, we’re approaching it, our wheels turning freely again. An elderly couple hobbles towards the entrance; singing drifts from the doors into the hot Mediterranean air. We push our bikes past a stall displaying an ice cream board and religious icons like seaside souvenirs. A nun dressed in white rushes out of a nearby building, calling after a man. Curiosity lures us inside.
We forgot to pack two masks so take it in turns to go in. Matt goes first and is out within a few minutes.
“Anything special?” I ask.
“It’s just a church, isn’t it?” he replies. “Singing was nice but it’s stopped now”.
I take the mask. The church walls are crammed with child-like paintings and drawings of accidents, many of which are similar: children fall from windows; bodies lay in awkward positions next to smashed-up cars; horse-pulling carts trample over victims. I try to make sense of where we’ve arrived. Is the area prone to earthquakes? What are the walls saying?
Candles were displayed for sale at the entrance in boxes ranging from €2 for a small one to €9 for the largest. Inside, dozens and dozens of them burn in different corners. A lady in a red and cream headscarf kneels down before some of them. Sunlight gushes through long windows and onto the floor at either side of her. Her red skirt sweeps the tiles and her stiletto heels peep out. We heard her speak Russian outside the church and I wonder whether she’s travelled to France specifically to come here, or whether she’s one of the many Russians living in nearby Monaco. I also wonder for what or for whom she is praying.
Flames flicker in the stillness. Hopes, prayers, thoughts, money, all wrapped in wax, ablaze.
I follow the walls and pictures around the cloister and notice the repetition of a lady in the pictures. She hovers in the air, a crown on her head, an ornamental rod in one hand. There she is above a man who’s escaped a rock falling on his head; above a car driving over the edge of a road; above children in bed with their parents at their side; above a cyclist running someone over (although by the way it is drawn, it looks like the victim was already lying on the road when the bike came). A plaque, like a vertical tombstone, reads: “MERCI a N.D de LAGHET”. N.D … Notre-Dame … Our Lady.
Have people survived these accidents and are thanking the Virgin Mary? Is this somewhere people come to pray for healing and give thanks for recovery?
Stone steps lead down to a crypt. Its walls are similarly adorned with frames, many containing photos, some preserving baby clothes with notes of thanks for a child’s birth.
With faces of real people staring back, I no longer doubt whether these accidents happened. The art is contextualised within reality; the walls are silently conveying the stories of hundreds.
Pens and a pile of paper have been left on a small table. I’m not very religious. I’m not very superstitious. But I pick up a pen; there’s nothing to lose. The instructions are in French. I think I have to express, to “Our Lady of Laghet”, what I’m grateful for and what I’d like to ask for, presumably regarding health and well-being. I think of loved ones, scribble a few words, and add my folded-up wishes to the others piled in a basket at the other side of some railings.
As I turn to leave, dozens of crutches and walking sticks meet my eyes. They’re nailed to the top of an arched section of wall, filling it completely. I remember something I’d once read about evolution and the human body not being well-adapted for walking on two legs. There was evidence for it right there.
Back in the bright, early-evening sunlight, Matt wonders what kept me. I talk about the pictures and my interpretation of them. He looks confused and says he’d better go back in for another look.
“Fascinating,” he says when he comes out the second time. “Did you see the ones of the cyclists? And all those walking sticks?”
We give our legs some grateful pats and straddle our saddles once more. We’ve got one last big hill – the one up to the high coastal road, the Grande Corniche. It will trace the French Riviera through the sky.
The sun descends as we too plummet back down into Nice, exhausted. It’s incredible what’s on your doorstep when you get out and explore. It’s amazing what experiences you can have in just one day.
I’ve since Googled “Laghet” and learned it’s a place of pilgrimage and retreat for people appealing to the Virgin Mary for healing. Since the seventeenth century, there have been reports of physically or mentally sick visitors experiencing spontaneous healings.
It’s also mentioned in Marcel Proust’s novel “In Search of Lost Time” where a character is cured of a deadly disease in Nice and thereafter always carries a gold medal dedicated to Notre-Dame de Laghet.