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: Drink Fruits and Flowers at Domaine Eyguebelle Monday, Jan 3 2011 

If you find yourself on the backroads of Provence near Montelimar and exploring the wine road area you may run across Domaine Eyguebelle just south of the city. If you are not in the area, then make a point of getting there. Bringing tasty items like fruit syrop back from Provence in your luggage is always an exercise in the art of compromise. Bottles are heavy and the luggage weight limits on international flights are down to 31.8 kilos per check in bag. So if I had a choice of bringing home a bottle of French wine or a bottle of Eyguebell syrop, it would have to be a fairly rare bottle of wine for me to leave the Eyguebelle behind. You can always find a bottle of French wine back in the states. You would be hard pressed to find anyone who sells or even knows who this greatest of all distilled fruit syrops and liquers is. Even if someone made a lucky guess and suggested that you can buy Creme de Menthe at their shop, it is unlikely that they would know that it was actually invented by the monks at the Eyguebelle Monastery.

Hai Karate Aftershave

Ah yes, that wonderfully green forgotten liquer that tastes like mint.  The first time I had a taste of this concoction it was back in the 1960s when I was just a boy.  I was at a neighborhood friend’s house and there was a crystal decanter on the living room coffee table filled with an electric green liquid.  I don’t know whether it was just a 1960s era attraction to anything that would look cool under a black strobe light, or a James Bond attitude of “suave and debonaire” having purchased Hai Karate aftershave for dad at Christmas that heightened my curiousity.  Perhaps it was simply a kid’s fascination of things like bug guts that made the green liquid too hard to pass up.  I took a snort and recall being somewhat underwhelmed.  I am not a real mint fan.

But I didn’t even find out that the Eyguebelle monks had invented creme de menthe until I was about 1/2 the way through the factory tour.  I had been drinking other syrops like Tessier for years.  My wife’s family would send them to us each Christmas and the kids absolutely love mixing real fruit syrops like raspberry, almond and cassis with Perrier, San Pellegrino or even ordinary tap water.  I realized that these commercially available syrops were indeed “kids stuff” when it compares to the world of Eyguebelle.  Following the short factory tour and museum walk we wandered into a factory store with a bewildering array of shelves loaded with bottles of syrops, aperitifs and liquers for sale.  The entire family drifted away in a state of wonder, looking at all the flavors.

Eyguebelle Syrops

There was syrop for just about every natural fruit extract you can imagine.  Then there is a complementary alcohol-based liquer that matches each syrop in the same selection of fruit flavors.  For example, I was drawn to the fig syrop.  It just sounded interesting.  So when I elbowed my way up to the syrop bar – that’s correct, Eyguebelle has a syrop bar long enough to serve about 10 people and the boy behind the counter asks you for your flavor, pulls a full bottle from the rack behind him, puts in a shot, adds spring water and delicately places an ice cube in the glass – I asked for the fig syrop.  Tasting that cold fig in ice water was heavenly.  Then the bartender asked with a smile if I would like to taste the creme de figue.  This alcohol-based version of the syrop I had just tasted, he explained, won the bronze medal at the 2006 industry competition in Paris.  He was right.  This liquer, not mixed with water but taken with a simple ice cube in th glass, was over the top.

Fois Gras & Carmelized Fig

I think the reason I was so attracted to the fig flavor is that during my recent gastronomic adventure across Provence, I was turned on to the fact that fois gras goes very well with a sweet fruit and figs are often served to be eaten with fois gras.  So I hatched the plan that during Christmas, when fois gras is served at our home with friends, creme de figue would be introduced and blow the guests away.

So much for fig.  My wife was not terribly interested in fig.  My kids were wearing out thebartender with everything but fig.  I guess nobody else connected the fois gras thing.  Sometimes enjoying top shelf gourmet cuisine can be a lonely adventure.  The reality is that kids just like spaghetti.

So my kids were downing the raspberry (of course) and the strawberry and then advancing to the more sophisticated tastes of mandarine and green bannana (wow!)  My wife starting dipping into the flowers (yes flowers) and shared with me the poppy and the lavender syrop.  I began to realize that we were arriving at an impasse, yes a battle of wills.  With luggage already filled to the brim, how many bottles would it take to get the bag weight to within a gram of 31.8 kilos?  Then she did it.  My wife pulled out the famous Melonade liquer.  That single ice cube floating merrily in a couple of shots of this light orange liquid all resting in a pure crystal glass is nearly impossible to beat.  It tastes just like you are biting into a cold slice of fresh canteloupe.  So now I am thinking of prosciutto and melon rather than fois gras and fig.  She had me dead to rights.

Prosciutto & Melon

But alas, three children means six extra suitcases!!  So I am looking at my bottle cabinet with creme de figue, melonade and syrop of lavender, poppy, raspberry all at the same time.  What’s that hidden back there?  Could it be?  Yes!  It’s green bannana! What a holiday it will be.

Ciao for now!

For a real TechVoyageur experience, visit historic Rochemaure Castle in the heart of Provence!

Backroads of Provence: A Repose for the Sweet Tooth Friday, Nov 26 2010 

If you have ever been afraid of returning from your vacation to Provence about 10 pounds heavier than when you left…then be afraid, very afraid.  The fears are warranted because the country of France is sometimes overlooked as producing  some of the best candies, chocolates, pastries and essences of fruit in the world.  Each department of France seems to have its own claim on one of more specialty foods; and sweets are usually part of the conversation.  The Drome region of Provence is no exception.  The pastry shops are phenomenal.  Les Patisseries are phemomenal all over France and the Drome has its own offering of special cookies, cakes and breads.  So in the interest of getting right to the point we will have to engage in a discourse on La Patisserie Francaise some other time.  Let’s talk candy; the sweets of Provence.

La Patisserie Francaise

If you venture into the wine road country, you will have to land in the city of Montelimar.  For many travelers this can be the beginning of a good wine road vacation in Provence.  It will be even more so when the new TGV station gets built in the Montelimar suburb of Allan in 2011.  An easy and cheap Iceland Air flight to Paris puts you at the TGV station in the Charles De Gaulle airport and viola, the fast train will put you right in Montelimar.  Oh joy!  You get to visit and see all the “fabrications du nougat” in Montelimar.  If you have never heard of a man named Arnaud Soubeyran before you will know him now.

Nougat Montelimar

Arnaud Soubeyran often gets credited for inventing the famous French candy called nougat.  Nougat was actually invented by artisanal candy makers throughout the Montelimar area and perfected by housewives, homemakers and grandmas over the years.  Mr. Soubeyran would never take credit for inventing nougat, but through his legacy he goes down in history as the young engineer who started from a modest beginning to become the “Henry Ford” of nougat manufacturing.  He made nougat famous throughout the world and he made Montelimar famous for nougat.  There are many small nougat factories and outlets around downtown Montelimar, but the place to start is the Soubeyran nougat museum and factory.

Museum Soubeyran Nougat

I am normally not a fan of museum tours when I am on vacation in the U.S.  Have you ever been on vacation and in the midst of Nowhereville, South Dakota had to put up with a screaming car of kids trying to get you to stop for a tour the famous Corn Palace, the Wall Drug Store, or some other tourist trap?  Then you sneak past when the family has fallen asleep and when the awake you say “aw shucks guys, I missed the exit and we’ll have to hit it on the way home”?  Well the Soubeyran museam is certainly not like that.  On the contrary, it is quite tasteful (pardon the play on words) and really pretty cool.  Unlike American “nougat” – like the stuff in the middle of a Mars candy bar – real nougat of Provence is a delicious, tender and fragrant artisanal confection made from pure and healthy ingredients like eggs, almonds, milk and honey.  It is spectacular, and there are so many different kinds. The museum store at the end of the tour will leave your head spinning and you wallet empty.

Furthermore, there is something for everyone on this tour.  For those who like to cook, there is the discovery that this seemingly simple confection is actually very difficult to do right. 

Nougat the Old World Way

For those who like manufacturing there is the history, continuity and change where the old way of doing things meets modern day marketing and brand management. The tour includes amazing machines that young Arnaud Soubeyran invented and patented to package and distrubute the nougat at larger volumes without compromizing the quality.  You might think of him as the Willy Wonka of France.  Indeed the old ways don’t change and you can actually see a batch of nougat in production at the plant and taste the fresh final product.  But if you don’t like candy and you don’t like history and if you don’t like manufacturing and if you don’t like learning about the empire of a young French entreprenuer, then you will love the coffee shop. 

At a small oasis away from the tour and the candy grabbing kids is the cafe.  You can sit there peacefully and be served the best coffee you’ve ever had.  Then as you enjoy the aromas and, of course, fresh nougat that the hostess places on your coffee saucer, you can just chill and watch her sit next to you at a cafe table to assemble boxes of nougat – yep everybody pitches in at the plant.  If you don’t like the coffee shop, then I guess I’m out of bullets and you’ll have to walk down to the wine shop, buy a bottle of champagne, sit in the parking lot with a plastic cup and listen to “You Know I’m No Good” by Amy Winehouse on the renta-car stereo.

In closing, the sweets in France are awesome.  There are  more sweet surprises to come in future blogs; but for now Soubeyran will have to do.  In my humble opinion, he is more than enough to satisfy the most demanding sweet tooth.

Ciao for now!

For a real TechVoyageur experience visit historic Rochemaure Castle in the heart of Provence.