For rational minds, it is just natural - water trickling down the hills for millions of years, patiently carving vaguely human shapes into the uneven rocky substratum.
But rational minds sometimes miss the point - or the poetry. The "Penitents", the spectacular rock formation that rises over the village of Les Mees, some 25 miles upriver from Cadarache, owes nothing to geology. They bear witness to an event long past, when the "Saracens", that is the Arabs who had conquered the Iberian Peninsula in the early 8th century, were still occupying Provence.
The time was just before the turn of the first millennium and local lords were constantly skirmishing with Saracen emirs. One day, having raided a Saracen's stronghold in the Jabron valley, near Sisteron, the lord of Les Mees - whose family was to own the estate of Cadarache in the 1450's - was bringing home the spoils of the battle: Seven young, beautiful Moorish women whom he intended to lock in his castle.
On his way home, the lord and his men met a procession of hooded monks from the nearby Saint Donat monastery. The Moorish ladies were so beautiful that the monks forgot about their prayers, hymns and vows. They stared at the prisoners, transfixed, harbouring thoughts that were not all pious.
The manes of Saint Donat - or was it God himself? - took offence, and the monks were instantly changed into stone. One can still see today, on the highest of the Penitents - 114 metres - the pectoral cross the Abbot was wearing at the time of the encounter. It is made of two large wooden beams, some three metres long, which seem to guard the entrance to a small cave.
The first mention of this puzzling cross appears in a book published in 1636. The rock is so friable that no one, mountain climber or archaeologist, has ever been able to explore the place. To this day, no one can explain how these two large beams got there.
The account of how the monks of Saint Donat were petrified may be a legend. But the presence of the "Abbot's Cross" definitely isn't. return to Newsline #51