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Into France: Four tourists in a campervan

We sped out of Mulhouse without ice but with enough food to last us a few days. We again hit the French equivalent of the Autobahn until Belfort, where we entered the world we’d live in for the next five days. The French two-lane highway barely spread the width of two cars. Shoulders existed but only measured a foot or two. Essentially, where the pavement ended on the right side of the car, that was it. But the van felt good. It bounded rather than bounced. It took bumps and curves with an easy motion. It jerked not at all. We were finally on our way. All the while, the sound of the Volkswagen engine thrummed up through the vehicle.

The store in Mulhouse showed me that now we were completely dependent on Udo. I knew no French and Virginia’s was limited to a few words and phrases.

The two lane lead us through the steep hills of the Haute Saone until we reached Ronchamp, a tired little village that followed the road. The sky closed and it started to rain lightly. The town possessed a tourist past that had gone away long ago. Empty storefronts and closed souvenir shops lined the highway. Udo pulled over and looked at the map, wondering how we were to get up the hill of Bourlemont to Le Corbusier’s famous chapel, Notre Dame du Haut. At my insistence, he drove on. I had the faith that we would see a sign that would lead us the right road. After a few minutes, we found just such a sign on a road called, in English, Chapel Street. The road, which provided barely enough room for two vehicles meeting, climbed the steep incline in tight curves. The forest grew thick and lush, dark in the rain. We passed old mining operations and ancient houses. Toward the top of the mountain that towered over the village, we drove out of the forest. The chapel appeared before us.

I’d read about Le Corbusier’s groundbreaking chapel in college. It was an object of study in my Introduction to Art History class. In the early 1950s, the Association de l’Oeuvre Notre Dame du Haut commissioned Le Courbusier to build the chapel on the site of a pilgrimage church that was destroyed in World War II. The Norte Dame du Haut was the third chapel built on the site, the first in the 4th century. The association and its attendant priests and nuns wanted a building that reflected their efforts to remain relevant to the modern era.

I never gave Le Corbusier’s work here much thought, being, in my youth, a reactionary when it came to modern architecture. Much had changed in the intervening three-plus decades. I’d lived in Europe. Artists, writers, and sculptors introduced me to new forms and showed me the arc of art history. Their respect for the past and the aesthetics of modern art transformed me from a backward pedestrian into a sponge, ready to absorb whatever new and interesting abstractions I came across. Now in the presence of the Notre Dame du Haut, I was in awe. The chapel towered over the top of the mountain, much bigger and majestic than I’d imagined.

Still, when we approached it, it was much smaller than it seemed. The airfoil-like roof and broad concrete sides spanned three towers, one much higher than the others. The roof, also of concrete, reminded me of a nun’s bonnet, as it was probably supposed to. When we entered the chapel, it was indeed much smaller than it seemed. Light entered the chapel from tall windows behind the main altar and through tiny, stained-glass windows interspersed in the south wall. The place emanated a kind of reverent silence. Each of the towers presented a separate apse, the largest being that of the main altar. A small crowd of people, maybe twenty, joined us in the church. Candles lit the interior more than the outside light. The chapel itself possess weight, an effect of the dim light and concrete construction.

Outside, just after we’d entered the chapel, a thunderstorm broke free. Thunder rumbled outside but hardly made a sound within. It was as if we were miles away from that storm.

We sat in the pews that lined half of the church. I counted the apses—five in all. An altar stood outside. The main altar was the focus of the chapel. An altar stood under each of the three towers. Ghostly, spiritual glow fell from windows high above that faced away from the sun.

Nick enjoyed poking around in the place. While Udo, Virginia, and I sat in the pews, he wandered around, looking at each of the altars and into the confessional at the back of the church. He was careful and didn’t make a sound. People came there not just to see the place but to pray. Ronchamp had been for centuries a place of pilgrimage to the Holy Virgin and took its place on the one of the many pilgrimage roads through Europe that constituted the Camino de Santiago, or St. James Way, which led to the shrine of St. James the Great at the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in northern Spain. I couldn’t tell the difference between the pilgrim and the tourist, because the interior of the chapel struck everyone dumb. Those who talked kept their voices to a whisper and only added to the overwhelming and reverent atmosphere of the church.

We wandered the grounds after the storm had passed. The gray sky dampened color and made the green of the lawn and the surrounding forest deeper green. We were as silent outside as we were in. We took the gravel paths out behind the chapel, where the bonnet roof drained into a basin of abstract sculpture. The Soane plains spread out below us, and Jura mountains fluttered off the other direction. We made our way down to the visitor center, where we read more about the Association de l’Oeuvre Notre Dame du Haut, which owns and maintains the chapel, and the Poor Clares, the nuns who look after the pilgrims.

We drove away from the chapel slowly. The forest was dark and branches hung low over the roadway, weighed down by the rain. The road led down through mountain valleys and up over lovely, rolling hills. When we arrived in Vesoul, a small city in the middle of the Haut-Soane, we sought a campground for the night. Evening was just falling and we wanted plenty of time to get set up and have dinner before dark.

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