The Keeper of the Shrine
Saint Reparata’s Cathedral on a sunny, sunday afternoon – you’re thinking peace and quiet, aren’t you? Right?
The place was heaving last sunday. Full house and no returns. The CofE would be fighting back the envy at the very sight of it. And the reason? Confirmation Day, you see. Still, I sneaked my way through the crowds of proud parents and over-excited adolescents to visit the shrine of Nice’s patron saint. An act of reverence and momentary tranquility that was all too short, necessarily. But all the same as I was leaving I saw her again – the Keeper of the Shrine. For the first time since the last sighting, a couple of months ago.
There she was, stalking down the aisle towards me, head up and back straight. She was wearing a fitting cotton dress in a bright, flowery print which enhanced her elegant figure and served as a softening frame for those harsh dark features.
She returned my smile. ‘Bonjour’ she murmured as she passed.
Was she real or a figment of my imagination? Certainly she looked real enough. I could have reached out and touched. Doubt remains, though, and fancifully I often wonder … But in either case it hardly matters. What does count is that she is an occasional presence, conferring a strength grounded in the harsh rocky soil of this terrain and a grace derived from the sureness of her presence in this place of reverence dating back three hundred years.
The original cathedral – a Romanesque structure – was raised up on the Citadel, a strategic rocky outpost between Vieux Nice and the Port. It is, perhaps, beneath the remains (enough to give a clear illustration of its size and form) that the first occupants of worshipped – Bronze Age man everywhere appears to have had a yearning for the high ground. Interesting to speculate; but difficult to be at all certain – waves of immigration have broken on these pebbly beaches for millennia, with Greeks from Phocea (in present day Turkey) arriving here in sufficient numbers to found and develop an important trading post, Nikaia.
The Romans settled for one of the hillsides (Cemelenum; now a smart suburb, Cimiez). There they founded a more modest township – yet one that boasted an arena, which still stands (it’s the main venue for the annual summer Jazz Festival). The Romans’ Italian descendants, or rather their regional warring aristocratic offspring, took it in turns to own this City. And one of its sons – Garibaldi – a prime mover in the unity of that hitherto fragmented nation. Ironically, Nice – ever the individualist and belonging at once to everybody and nobody – turned its back on Italy and threw in its political lot with France in 1860.
Like the Keeper of the Shrine, Nice will bestow a smile, a welcome, even a blessing; but she’s her own woman all the same, all the time, now and forever.
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