The old heart of Céreste looks sleepy and unassuming. The quiet medieval part of the village occupies a small hill to the north of the main road between the market towns of Apt and Forcalquier, seemingly set apart from the swooping thoroughfare with its grander buildings dating from Napoleonic times. Easy enough to pass by without even noticing the ancient stone houses hidden behind the main street's shops and cafés shaded by great plane trees.
In essence it can't have changed much since it was a secret Resistance stronghold during the Second World War, ideally placed to watch the activity of the occupying forces between the area's two main towns, yet with ready access to the hills. Céreste's narrow alleys twist down from the highest, oldest point like rivulets. Even in bright sunshine there is a maze-like quality to the calades, most too tapering to take a car. Imagine what it must have been like at night, seventy years ago, when all was silent and dark and every footstep was suspect.
The poet René Char, code-named Captain Alexandre, had a safe house here - crucially, a house with two exits, that was wrapped by electrified wire to alert him to any approach: it made the radio crackle.
The old village is still quiet, though the tumble of interlocking houses has been much spruced up even in the past decade or so. As I walked around with notebook and camera, taking advantage of an open-house art show that enabled me to go through doors that are normally closed, it wasn't hard to feel I was looking for ghosts of the past and finding nooks and crannies they might have known in courtyards and cool vaulted ground floor spaces.
When I write a novel, I want the setting to be authentic. I want the reader to feel he or she is seeing a place and inhabiting it with the characters. And to do that, I have to have been there myself, and to 'be' there as I write, to capture the atmosphere as best I can. Others have called it The Spirit of Place, and I think that's a perfect expression.
Of course, what we see and record is selective, especially if chosen with a particular creative aim in mind. And that morning in Céreste what I saw was light and shadow, the constricted, enclosed pathways that could be traps, and the sense of secrets held in stone.
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