Backroads of Provence: The Magic Square of Chapel St. Laurent Thursday, Jan 5 2012 

 
Templar Treasure Map
Have you ever asked yourself “I wonder where King Solomon’s Treasure is hidden”?  Probably not since last week’s Powerball ticket came up empty.  A holiday in Provence, however, might inspire sober consideration of the question if it turns into a treasure hunt.  Many a back road in this region of France reveal an assortment of new adventures.  What one stumbles across may be steeped in so much history and intrigue to cause a stop in wonder as if gazing at some marvelous painting in the Louvre Museum.  Sometimes a mystery can be discovered in the very village that one is visiting.

Take the village of Rochemaure Castle for example.  You could spend a week or two at the Lys de Rochemaure and thoroughly enjoy the beauty and history of the home, charming medieval streets, the boulangerie and pizzeria before venturing out into the Rhone River valley that beckons down the hill without even thinking to “about-face” and head up the castle road to see the Chapel of St. Laurent.   This landmark would probably not make the list of things to do on the Provence vacation, but there is something there that is quite rare and worth the climb.  Treasure seekers say that this chapel holds a mysterious clue to the treasure of the Knights Templar.  Set in the exterior chapel facade is a carved clay tablet with strange Roman engraving.  It is called a “Magic Square” which some claim dates back to the era of the Visigoths.

 

This particular square is known as the Magic Square of Rochemaure Castle, or a “Sator -Rotas” magic square.  The Magic Square is a palindrome, or a word puzzle that is composed of five words of five letters each laid out in a five by five square matrix.  The words inscribed are “SATOR – AREPO – TENET – OPERA – ROTAS”.   They can be read forward, backwards, up and down to repeat itself in each direction that it is read.  The magic square was thought to have a medicinal power for helping with childbirth, curing fevers and insanity.   Roman doorposts and kitchen utensils bore the Sator – Rotas square to ward off evil spirits.  Roman army divisions may have carried the square on their standard when marching into battle. 

The Rochemaure Sator -Rotas Square was once thought to have been used by the Knights Templar to conceal the location of the Treasure of Solomon.  Sator – Rotas squares have been discovered in the ruins of Pompeii, so it is fair to assume that this type of magic square was in use prior to the period of the

Sator Rotas Square

Templars.  It has been a popular view that Sator – Rotas squares originated in ancient Persia.  However, excavations are now showing that squares found in the Middle East and other parts are Europe may not be that ancient.  A researcher at St. Michael’s College has now taken the position that the Sator – Rotas square probably originated with early Latin- speaking Jews in Italy about the time of Christ.  This is not insignificant because the Sator – Rotas Square was valued as a prophetic symbol by early Christians such as the order of the Templars.

The significance of the Sator – Rotas Square for Christians lies in the fact that the five words of the square can actually be reassembled to create a palindrome in the shape of the Greek cross containing the words PATER NOSTER, which means “Our Father”.  This cross palindrome excludes the letters “A” and “O”, but left in position they mysteriously flank the vertical and horizontal axis of the cross in perfect symmetry representing the symbols for “alpha and omega” or “beginning and end” which refers to Christ.

Trivia: The Magic Square of Rochemaure was classified as a historic monument in 1903.   The square is supposed to be a key to a an encoded reading system known only to insiders of the Templars Venaissin.  According to local history, Pope Clement V was residing in Avignon, just south of Rochemaure, and played a role in protecting the Templars Venaissin during the trials and extermination of the Templar order in France.  Clement V apparently received payment of their protection from the treasure, eventually acquiring all assets of this Templars Venaissin.*  
 
So if you find yourself sitting at a cafe with nothing to do while your “better half” is out shopping in Provence, you can always pull out a pen and paper to start solving the magic square puzzle.  The Rochemaure Magic Square happens to be a mathematical magic square.  To get started assign a number to each letter of the alphabet starting with number 1 for the letter A and working up from there.  Then replace the magic square letters with the corresponding numerical value.  Then add the rows and columns.  The row/column total should be a two digit number.  Then add those two digits together and you’ll get another two digit number.  Finally adding those two digits together should make the final value for each row and column the perfect number 1. 

How does that sound for a great time during your vacation to Provence?  Well if you add a pastis de l’eau, a bowl of pistachios and a sunset over the Rhone River to the equation, it just might start to end up being a great idea.

Rhone River Sunset

If you hook up with a metal detector from the rental store down on the river road you might come back from Provence  smarter and wealthier.  Here’s a final clue:  The Provence towns of Sauveterre, Orange, Avignon, Pont-Laval, Eyguiers, Thor, Nyons and finally Rochemaure may be the locations of the hiding places for Templar treasure.  Their first letters S-O-A-P-E-T-N-R are an anagram of the eight unique letters of the the magic square words SATOR – AREPO – TENET- OPERA – ROTAS, when taken in order they are SATOREPN.*

Ciao for now!

TV

*Source: Luc at THunting.com

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Backroads of Provence: The Yellow Wine of Kings Monday, May 30 2011 

Provence is full of surprises and perhaps what should not be surprising is that the discoveries that make a vacation in Provence so delightful today, so often have deep and rich historical significance. Wine is an excellent illustration as we discovered on our visit to Rochemaure Castle.

Enter stage left my French brother-in-law Loic < l-o-eek>. He is so reserved and stoic <st-o-ick) that in my nearly 15 years of knowing him I can count the times that we have had a good belly laugh together on one finger.  So any sudden change in his demeanor can be an excellent litmus test to validate whether something is truly special, such as the new and yet unsurpassed fruit of the vine we discovered in Provence a couple of weeks ago. Loic’s family has been in the wine business for generations. While he is no longer in that business himself, he certainly knows a good wine when he tastes one.

French Merguez BBQ

The other night  as we settled into the kitchen at Loic’s fabulous country home near St. Paul Trois Chateâux for a simple meal of grilled merguez and rare artisanal country sausages,  it was a fair assumption that the standard Côtes du Rhône set out on the table might not be the only wine we would be drinking that night.  Côtes du Rhône has been called the “anti Cabernet” and is known for it’s versatility in matching with a range of foods from filet of beef to pizza.  Therefore is was a wise selection for grilled sausage.  Towards the end of the meal, however, Loic quietly left the table and emerged from his storage room with a couple of new bottles. He casually opened a bottle of what looked like a white and began to fill a small aperitif glass. I immediately noticed the odd bottle which resembled a cognac bottle.  In the glass the wine looked like a Chardonnay but had a more yellow colour to it.  It certainly didn’t smell like any white I have ever encountered.  The fragrance resembled cognac. In his usual stoic manner Loic explained to me that the wine had been aged in special oak barrels for a long time and the process was extremely unusual. He urged me to taste it.  I looked at Loic in astonishment. I asked him “what is this?  It tastes like a crisp light white wine but smells just like cognac!” That’s when Loic broke out in an ear to ear smile and with a laugh he exclaimed “Isn’t it incredible? I can’t explain it and it’s like nothing I’ve ever tasted!”

With that rare reaction from my bro, I knew we were enjoying something special. He asked me if I have ever heard of “yellow wine”. The answer was “no” of course and I could do little more than invite humble instruction at the foot of the master. I was also shocked that he was actually laughing and talking (he really tries to avoid speaking English at all costs.)

Vin Château Chalon

The Emperor Napoleon was once served a wine at a sitting with the Prince of Metternich in Germany.  Napoleon complimented the Prince by declaring this wine that he had just tasted from the Prince’s region was the best wine in the world.  The Prince looked at him, so the story goes, and apologetically informed the Emperor that the wine was not from his region but in fact came from a small town within Napoleon’s own empire..a town called Chateâu Chalon.  What we were enjoying at dinner is perhaps the most unique wine I have ever tasted.  Chateâu Chalon continues to be claimed by some as the best wine in the world. 

Château Chalon Abbey

In the year 280 A.D., Roman Emperor Probus declared Chateâu Chalon as having exceptional soil for grapes and mandated that vines be planted there.  The process of making Chateâu Chalon is unique in that the wine is fermented in small oak barrels for the minimum legal duration of six years and three months.  The barrels actually have a gap in them for evaporation of what is called “the angel’s portion” of the wine. 

Napoleon 1

The wine is derived from a special grape called the Savagnin, which itself has mysterious and historically significant origin.  It has been served to kings and nobles throughout history including Tsar Nicholas II at his coronation.  Loic was able to taste a bottle that his friend had brought back from a wine trade show.  He and some friends went in on a case, which he chose to break out at dinner.  Another attribute worth mentioning is that the unfinished bottle is still corked and resting peacefully at our home in Provence.  You see this wine is also called “vin de gard” because you can keep it a very long time after opening.

So when visiting Provence don’t forget to ask the butcher for a bunch of merguez, some secret local sausages and a wine with “cachet”. You’ll never know what surprises come next.

Ciao for now!

Backroads of Provence: The Castle Network Tuesday, Mar 15 2011 

Provence is often thought of as the place in the sun where winter weary northerners can take that all important five weeks of paid vacation to come and rest among the lavender and sunflowers with the song of the cicadas serenading a friendly game of petanque accompanied by a cold pastis with water.

But the hidden gems that have seemingly fallen by the wayside of the A7, bypassed by white knuckled tourists racing to the seaside, are indeed the castles.  The good news for the Provence savvy voyageur is that some of the coolest communities in Southern France lie in proximity to these ancient giants, as though by some magnetic force, the medieval hamlet with its cathedrals, churches and cafes are pulling inward as tight as two cards in the hand of a Texas hold em gambler with four showing on the table.

Autoroute A7

Montelimar is known by travelers heading south on the A7 from Paris as “the doorway to the sun”. Could it be because there is a large sign on the A7 roadside about the size of the “Welcome to Wisconsin” sign on I-94 that says “Doorway to the Sun”?   Well anyway, Montelimar is a good place to start for the castle hunter because beginning in Montelimar one can wind down the national routes, or the wine road, on day trips to find some really interesting castle properties that are open for visits.  One simply needs to orient oneself with the “castle network”.

Chateau Grignan

Starting with Rochemaure Castle at Montelimar and heading southeast, it does not take long to get to the Chateaux Grignan. This is a magnificent property and certainly would be a main feature of any day trip. In fact any of the castle visits should be approached like a really good wine by taking one’s time and sipping easily. Other castles within easy shot of Montelimar include Suze-la-Rousse and Rochegude. A bit further south one would land in Avignon, home of the Palace of the Popes, which is a must see for every castle hunter’s itinerary.

Visiting each of these castles and diving into their history reveals a tightly interwoven story involving economic history and trade dating back to the Roman occupation, struggles for power and politics, warfare, invasion and other points of interest such as the crusades.

Chateau Rochemaure

Rochemaure Castle is essentially the lead castle in the wine road castle network, with her hamlet bordering the Rhone River and only 6-7 minutes by car  to Montelimar’s commercial district.   Around 100 B.C. the Romans colonized Rochemaure in Provence, constructed a Roman spa resort and named it Fontes Collaxionis which means “spring that dilates”. It’s meaning is uncertain but it is probably due to either the claimed medicinal properties of the water for digestive trouble or the skin pore opening qualities the bathers experienced. The Romans actually brought to market the mineral water from Rochemaure’s springs which originate deep within the pores and fissures of this ancient volcanic mount. It should be no surprise that in 145 A.D. the Romans took advantage of Rochemaure’s strategic elevation over “the Roman way of Antonin le Pieux” (a Roman emperor), which was the first Roman road through southern France, as a fortress. In 412 the Visigoths invaded Rochemaure and in 1843 Rochemaure actually seceded from France by way of the Treaty of Verdun, to become part of Lotharingie (which was an early demarkation of the region of Provence as we know it today.)  Here are some quick Rochemaure facts:

  • 1039-1308 A.D. – Rochemaure was part of the Germanic empire
  • 1120-1140 A.D – the first part of the castle of Rochemaure was constructed, which was the dungeon, or prison.
  • 1200 A.D. – Construction began on “the Lord’s house” and the walls surrounding the village of Rochemaure. At this time construction began on the church “Our Lady of Angels”  taking 50 years to build.
  • 1308 A.D. – Rochemaure again became part of France.
  • 1598 A.D. – Construction began on the Chateau de Joviac. Le Chateau de Joviac is today the location of an international watercolor painting (aquarelle) festivals each year in July.
  • 1628 A.D. – The worst epidemics of the plague hit Rochemaure, and in 1630 the castle was evacuated and vacated.
  • 1709 A.D. -The only time in recorded history, the Rhone River was completely frozen and people were able to cross it on foot at Rochemaure.
  • 1792 A.D. – A system of ferry boats were put in service for regular transportation across the Rhone. In 1842 the first bridge to cross the Rhone began at Rochemaure

    Pont Rochemaure

    making it a popular trading hub.

  • 1856 A.D. – A flood destroyed the bridge and it was rebuilt in 1858.
  • 1944 A.D. – The bridge was destroyed by allied airplanes in WWII.
  • 1944 A.D. – Rochemaure is liberated from Nazi control by the allied forces.

Today there are several springs that exist within the community of Rochemaure as in the “Cartier de Fontaines” neighborhood. La Bernarde is one that has a reputation for high quality water and is still in use. The Rochemaure community is trying to raise money to restore the suspension bridge across the Rhone as landmark for pedestrians.  If you are curious about the fantastic people of Rochemaure history and the “castle network”, you can begin to learn more about her lords and ladies here:

Adhemar de Monteil carries Holy Lance

 

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