What Happened In Pradelles

1st August 2022

Pradelles, in the Haute-Loire, had its moment in the sun 500 years ago when a statue of the Miraculous Virgin was found in the site where the town’s beautiful chapel now stands.

During that Renaissance period its population stood at over 5000, and it was a place of worship, commerce and warriors. Now, 500 or so people live in Pradelles, and it is a little down on its uppers.

But there is one compensation to be derived from a majestic past: many live in ancient homes of hand-carved stone; homes of beautiful proportion and stunning architectural elegance. Being wealthy, it would appear, is different from being rich.

I stayed in a Gite organised by the town (a knockout building, of course) and shared the evening with Philippe, Jeramie and Lou – three of my Chemin Che-mates. We cooked dinner together and talked about French comedy, film, and of each other’s passions. Walking with the guys that day, I discovered that Kaicha became more fluid in her progress once we were all talking together. Like most of natural life, donkeys respond to good rhythm.

The next morning, I walked up the street in search of coffee, and stooped into an unremarkable café, because there was laughter emerging from its interior.

The lady of the house was an absolute delight. She spoke native French and had the facial features of South India. The colourful flag hanging on the wall would surely offer me some explanation, but I did not address it immediately. Breakfast sprinkled in mystery is always more delicious.

She made me coffee, and explained her very non-French breakfast fare very proudly, as it was all homemade. She had banana and tapioca pudding, vanilla and lemon cake, and three kinds of homemade jam. Each was explained in detail, including how the apricot and spices edition turned out too runny, but was still tasty.

She stood beside me as I tried each jam, giving her feedback as I went, until, on her bidding, I decided on my favourite. I went for rhubarb and vanilla, but it was a close call.

We chatted as I ate.

She and her brother came here 22 years ago from La Réunion, the French ‘department’ in the Indian Ocean. All around the café, evidence of their island first-love was to be found. To the left of the flag, a little corner was dedicated to a tropical waterfall visual, surrounded by luscious green-plastic leaves. At the back bar stood a wide selection of Réunion rums (or rhums), augmented by her brother with fruits and spices. I had the lime-infused expression, which made me feel like a whaler on the high seas.

Being thus energised, I moved on to the boulangerie to get some supplies for my walk. I claimed the last pain aux raisins of that morning. When they’re gone, they’re gone.

Pradelles, like most of rural France, operates on the freshly, home-prepared model. Our cities are subjected to supermarkets’ subversion of this ideal; their ‘freshness theatre’ is likely not fresh, and decidedly not super.

On the boulangerie noticeboard, I saw there was a concert of Mozart and Schubert that very night in Pradelles, but I unfortunately was donkey-ing out of town. Zut, alors!

Leaving the town, I fell into chat with a rather erudite man outside the Chapel. Kaïsha is the ultimate conversation starter, and we chatted about Robert Louis Stevenson and the chemin that the author’s adventure inspired. The man kindly gave me a leaflet that explained the church, and I went on my way.

That evening, on reaching Langogne, I had an impulse which would usually never occur on such a walk. I decided to grab a taxi, retrace my steps, and return to Pradelles for the concert.

Mozart should never be ignored, if one has rhubarb enough to leave one’s chair.

As it turned out, the concert was in the Chapel of Our Lady – the site where the Virgin’s statue was found 500 years ago.

I recognised the man at the door from that morning. The chapel’s erudite parish priest did not recognise me as I arrived. I was in civilian clothes,  lacked a donkey, and should have been somewhere else. He was busy dealing with patrons, and I said nothing.

He stood up and spoke to the assembly before Mozart began, thanking us for coming. He spoke of his vision that the chapel would become a place not just of worship, but of creativity, community and of good living. He was eloquent and thoughtful.

Pradelles, he continued, is embracing the world again, and Our Lady’s Chapel wants to be at the centre of it. The Stevenson walk is bringing so many new people through the town, he said. Only today, I spoke to a man walking through from Dublin, no less.

My ears burned.

I did consider standing up, doing a twirl, and declaring that I was here, even though I should have been somewhere else. But I said nothing. Because I had to leave promptly after the beautiful concert for my taxi, I did not get a chance to greet that erudite man again.

However, I  felt proud to be a citizen of Pradelles for one day. I feel sure that its glory is rising again; hand-carved with laughter, welcome and love.

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