About once a week I find myself on Montpellier’s tram line 2. And when I do, I always look out for the Gothic spire of a church reaching above the trees between the Beaux Arts and Jeu de Mail des Abbés stops. I fight the urge to get off the tram and see it up close, but I always have to get to where I’m going.
Today, though, I had a bit of time and the afternoon light was pleading to be photographed. I hopped off the tram and, with the spire as my guide, made my way down a side street. I came to a keypad-locked gate that secured a small dirt path leading to the back of the massive church. OK, I thought, the short cut was a bust – time to double back and head around to the road running parallel, which would bring me to the front of the church.
At the point on this second road where I felt like the church should be, there instead was a long, low, ugly building that followed the curve of the road for quite a ways. I walked along its facade, stopping every hundred feet or so to take pictures of the decidedly more beautiful old mansion entrances on the opposite side. I finally reached the end of the ugly building, and I’m sure I looked like a kid at Christmas as I peeked around the corner to catch my first glimpse of the church.
I’m sure I then looked like a kid at Christmas who got socks instead of a puppy – because that church was nowhere to be found. And when I say nowhere, I mean it was gone. I crossed the road, walking diagonally away from the ugly building, craning to see the spire above its roof and the trees behind it. I saw nothing but the impossibly blue sky over the South of France.
And then things got surreal.
I kept walking, thinking the curve in the road must have thrown off my inner compass and convinced that it couldn’t be that hard to find; it’s a freaking cathedral in a neighborhood of two-story homes. But the road was narrow so there was no chance to get a clear sight line.
Before too long, I came upon a large gate that was opened wide. Immediately inside on the left was a bleached white stone building with brilliant blue, newly painted shutters closed to the outside. Ahead of me to the right was a crumbling, exquisite villa, and behind it to the left, a long gravel path. Even farther back, to the left of that path, I could see a glass conservatory type structure off the end of another building that was hidden by trees.
Still no church, of course, but it had to be around here somewhere.
I shuffled in several directions around the little courtyard of this abandoned compound, stopping every couple of steps to look for the spire. I mean, they were old trees, but they weren’t redwoods. Perplexity was flirting with obsession.
I leaned down to look for a flying buttress through the lower branches of the trees, and it was while I was in this flattering position that I noticed a man in a jacket and khakis approaching me from the gravel path. He was looking at me in that stern and disapproving way only the French can master. The conversation we had is translated from (his native and my bad) French below.
“Hello, are you here to see someone?”
“Yes, hello, I know that this is very very strange and stupid, but I have lost the church.”
“I look for the church, but I don’t know where is… I have lost the church.”
“Are you here to see someone?””
“No, I would like to see the church. The church? I do not know how it is called, the church?” *pointing past him in the general direction of where my inner compass is telling me there should be a freaking Gothic cathedral half the size of Notre Dame*
“I do not know of a church. This is completely private property here.”
“Oh, I am very sorry. Do you not know where is the church? The front of the church?”
“I do not know of a church. This is completely private property.”
“The church?! There is a church there…”
“I do not know of a church.”
“This is completely private property.”
“This is private property?”
“OK. I am very very sorry. Thank you.”
“Have a good day.”
Although I did not turn around to check, I’m fairly certain he stood there until I was no longer in view.
The moment I got home, I went on Google maps to see what the hell was going on. I will now confess that I fully expected to see some sort of pixeled-out area similar to the Naval Observatory during Dick Cheney’s vice presidency.
Below is what I found. The right-hand circle is the church; the left-hand circle is where I spoke to the man. I will leave it up to you, gentle readers, to decide if he knew “of a church.”