I’ve just returned from a visit to Forcalquier, now a small village in the Haute Provence, where my wife and I for some thirty years owned a hill-side home with views of the old town below,
and opposite, the “montagne” de Lure,
We sold our Provence home nearly three years ago, but on this visit we were staying there with the new owners, now good friends.
Forcalquier wasn’t always the now mostly ruined middle ages town whose population doubles or triples only in the summer months as tourists flock to the “pays de Forcalquier” to visit the old town, the Place du Bourget, the convent des Cordeliers, and the 12th century “concathedral” Notre Dame de l’Assomption.
At an earlier time, at the end of the 11th. century a family of the Counts of Provence created the comté de Forcalquier which remained an independent state through the 12th century.
Forcalquier was the capital of Haute Provence along the Durance River, an area that included the towns of Manosque, Sisteron, Gap and Embrun. Forcalquier minted its own currency, and its church was elevated to the status of a “concathedral”. The Counts of Forcalquier grew to a power that could defy the Counts of Provence.
To bring an end to all this, as part of a movement to make all of Provence a part of the Kindom of France, Louis XI in 1481 sent his Italian mercenaries against Forcalquier, installing his battle engines, les bombardes,
on a hill, in fact our hill, opposite the chateau established on a second, neighboring hill. And to this day because of the bombardment our hill is called La Bombardière.
The siege lasted just three weeks, at the end of which time the town was taken and pillaged with the result that Forcalquier, and all of Provence five years later, in 1486, became legally incorporated into the French royal domain. The town did return to economic prominence in the 18th and 19th centuries, but at present is but a shadow of its former self, needing attention but without real prospects of a return to even a small portion of its former splendor.
Anyway, all this as preface to our recent visit to our former Provence home. On the morning of the last day of this visit we walked down from our hill, the Bombardière, and then climbed one of the several paths that led up to what’s now called the Citadel on the flat at the top, this structure hardly more than a reminder of its former self, built in 1875 on the ruins of the much more imposing medieval citadel or castle of the counts and kings and queens of Forcalquier that was destroyed in 1601.
Now in the life of the town the present “Citadel” is a highlight of the tourist visits. It offers a panoramic view of the surrounding countryside, including the town below, our former home, the farmlands, the hills, and mountains in the distance. The townspeople are proud of their Citadel and the city does what it can afford to maintain the paths leading up to the top, the overall look of the place. It doesn’t have the means to do much more.
Near the top the city fathers have placed this sign:
I was immediately struck by it. I hadn’t noticed if before. I looked at it, and then I looked again. The site, it said, was under the protection of the public. Now what did that mean? What does the public ever protect? In my experience the public was nearly never protective of its public spaces. What was, for the Forcalquier fathers, the “public?” The townspeople? The city fathers? The tourists?
None of these seemed to fit, none of these seemed to be that “public” in “under the protection of the public”? Was it perhaps meant to be a joke, or was it intended to draw us out from our usually private selves, something to make us respect the public nature of the place?
Yes, that must have been it. We who were there on this spot were the public, and we were being called upon to protect what we were enjoying, the path on which we walked, the flat at the top of the hill, the stone walls surrounding that flat and over which we looked to admire the surrounding views of the countryside.
A clever stratagem on the part of the town fathers. For they were not, nor could not be the principal protectors of this “public” space. We were. And if we weren’t that already we became that because of that simple phrase, “under the protection of the public.”
I don’t remember ever seeing that at any of my visits during my some 80 years to hundreds if not thousands of public spaces. It should have been said everywhere that the space was protected by the public, that is, when I was there by me. It would have been a good thing, for the space I was visiting, and for myself, to be in this fashion a part of its protection and continuation.