Conor Power witnesses a moving ceremony in the ancient Riviera town of Antibes
People from all over the world flock to the French Riviera for its beauty and light but what this part of the world is often lacking in is a bit of soul; a sense of community. Town after town along this blessed stretch of coastline have seen their evolution change into something a bit more bland than one would hope for. Antibes, however, is different.
Antibes has the fortune of having a perfectly maintained provencal village right in its heart, its ancient ramparts wrapping around it and extending right to the sea. All around this might sometimes feel a little too crowded and touristy and jet-set – particularly in the height of summer – but there’s a strong community here that has changed remarkably little over the last thousand years.
To find it, you need to get up early in the morning. You get your first inkling of it by hanging out with the locals as they have their early morning coffee on the market place on Cours Masséna or the Place Nationale. And, if you’re fortunate enough to be here on the first Thursday in July, then getting up early and walking to the highest point on Cap d’Antibes (a wonderful wild wooded peninsula dotted with billionaires’ hideaways) to the Chapelle de la Garoupe will be well worth the effort.
The ceremony of a group of barefoot sailors carrying a particularly heavy statue from this chapel down to the cathedral in the old town is one that goes back to 981. Antibes was miraculously left unscathed during a plague at that time and to give thanks to the Virgin Mary for saving the lives of so many of its citizens, the sailors of the town began this tradition of carrying the statue of Notre Dame de Bon Port the 3km route.
A police motorbike keeps the traffic at bay while the procession proceeds, stopping at stations every so often for a prayer and a rest. By the time we reached the cathedral, the entourage has filled again with all the curious who buzz around the edges taking photos.
After three days in the Cathedral and including more Mass and a candlelit procession, it’s time for the Virgin to make her way back up the hill again. The farewell Mass is a moving affair. There is something about the sight of young men in this modern age in such a town bowing their heads and making a sacrifice such as this.