Pretty Perfect P-O Picnics
WITH KATYA WILLEMSEN
(Read Shepherd’s Prayer, Katja’s fast- paced adventure set in Collioure.
Available on Amazon)
The immensely likeable monk at the Ermitage de Domanova, Frère Gérard, welcomes visitors with open arms. Within minutes of biting into our baguette, he not only ambled over to say hello, but joined us for a glass of vin doux. Noisette, his guard-cat (see inset), meowed a greeting from his perch on the first floor window sill.
Once the fortified residence and chapel of a wealthy noble family, “doma nova” means “new house”, but despite this upbeat name, its story is as anguished as many historical buildings in our region: abandon, war, revolution, looting, murder and inevitable decay.
When Frère Gérard arrived nine years ago, the hermitage was in ruins. Vipers and scorpions had annexed the ground floor, and falcons occupied the attic. By trade, a builder and carpenter, and by passion, a man of the cloth and sculptor, this gentle monk breathed life back into the building. The chapel’s interior and fine sculptures were restored with the help of experts funded by the village of Rodès and the state, but Frère Gérard did most of the structural repairs with his own hands – one stone, one beam, one picnic spot at a time.
For a hermit who welcomes the world into his domain, it’s symbolic that one of his first projects was to replace the original door that termites and time had ruined. He sourced oak that was over three centuries old then built the new 250 kg door himself, à l’ancienne, the old-fashioned way. He sawed the wood by hand then assembled the parts via slots and grooves and traditional pegs. It’s no surprise that this magnificent door is rarely closed.
From the moment you turn-off the N116, hand-painted signs and simple crosses show you where to go. (See inset for detailed directions.) One of the signs even tells you exactly how long it will take: 7 minutes by car, 17 by donkey, and just 27 on foot. The road rises gently, past a tall shrine to Saint Mary, and ends on the monk’s doorstep, so leave your car at the bottom and walk the way of the pilgrims.
The Ermitage de Domanova isn’t an austere edifice to God, it is Frère Gérard’s home, and he loves visitors. Testament to this welcome are the many picnic spots at which to enjoy the tranquillity of his garden and the splendid views.
There’s even an inside picnic area if rain or the Tramontane catch hikers off-guard. Snakes and creepy-crawlies were evicted from the old animal quarters, with Noisette’s help of course, and a cosy room with farm-style tables and benches was created. There’s even a kettle, cups, coffee and tea. And guess who made the stain glass window himself?
If you’re lucky, Frère Gérard will invite you up to the wooden galley overlooking the altar, and play Byzantine chanting for you. The haunting music in the small chapel with its glittering baroque altarpiece reaches deep into the soul.
Be sure to see the ex-voto collection of naïve paintings on wood, some date back to 1693.
Have fun choosing where to picnic, and don’t forget to take an extra glass for Frère Gérard!