A couple weeks ago I was having lunch alone in Saint-Paul de Vence when a stranger came in the restaurant and sat at a table near mine. We started to exchange on various topics and it turned out to be a nice encounter. There were lots of shared interests and discussions. At some point the man mentioned a place called Utelle where they have a sanctuary in honor of Virgin Mary and is very popular for pilgrimages in the Provencal Alps region. Utelle is a small village about 6 km before the Madone at the top of the mountain. While the information provided by that person I met in Saint-Paul really interested me from a photographic point of view, I had no specific plan for visiting the site in the very near futur. Christmas was coming and we were all kind of busy here.
But why would I go there?
Well, in the meantime we were contemplating the idea of investing in a house somewhere, in the mountain. A quiet place where I could get away from the noise and take my time to do some photography and, of course, writing. Amongst the houses we were considering at that time, just before the end of the year, one of them seemed interesting and we thought it would be appropriate to go there for a visit. But time ran out and after the visit the end of the day brought us back home in Saint-Paul. It is only last Saturday that we decided to go back for a second look at the house and also to evaluate the driving distance in case we decide to move on with a purchase. And this time we could afford going up to the Madone and see what it is all about.
A bit of history first.
The legend says that around year 850 some Spanish navigators on the Mediterranean Sea, near the VAR, were caught in a huge storm. After a while fighting for their lives, and feeling the end was imminent, they started to pray the Virgin asking her to save their lives. If their wish was granted, they promised to build an oratory for her. The Virgin appeared to them and indicated a peak in the distance. O.K., I’m pretty sure you know by now that the spot she’s indicating to the navigators is actually the peak just above Utelle. Don’t you? The sky cleared out and they were saved. As promised they established a small monument in Utelle, which ended up enlarged and modified over the years until it became a chapel. Today, the sanctuary called “Notre-Dame des Miracles” is comprised of a chapel, a small hotel/restaurant and a boutique. If you understand French, you can visit the website which offers more details and infos.
Not all roads lead to Rome!
Passed the village of Utelle, a narrow road brings you there and every turn presents you with an interesting view of the mountains and the valley down below. But the best is when you reach the plateau and see the church. You could continue for a short distance but this will only bring you to a dead end where a communication antenna is installed. I parked the car, got out and started shooting. I had the dogs (Luna & Lili) with me and they had a blast running in all directions on this wide open space. A monument holds a massive circular rock plate on which you find a 360 degrees description of the area. Keep in mind that you are right between the high peaks of Mercantour/Vésubie and the Mediterranean Sea. You see both at the same time, the mountains and the sea. And you’re high enough to have cloud moving above and below. I felt very fortunate to be there at that specific time because I had a bit of everything: blue sky, fog, sun, wind and clouds.
I came back from there with a variety of photos, but the one I’m sharing with you is the most representative of what I felt and saw on the site. That’s the small building holding the 360 degrees map. The elevation at this point is around 1200 meters, I found it very special at first glance and I really felt I was above the clouds in a distant country. But no, this is still the French Riviera my friends! And that’s the beauty of it.. Mountains and sea in less than an hour.
But where is the Madone, no picture?
You’re right! I’m telling you all that stuff about the Madone and yet, no picture of her. In fact, I thought it would be too obvious. You know I like contrasts, all kinds of contrasts. Of course I have picture of her and the sanctuary, but I wanted to present something different. And the monument is where I had the most emotions through the Leica. I really felt I was standing in a special place, at the right moment. I see it as a “give & take” deal with Madonna. She gave me a great photo opportunity, along with super weather. I’m giving you a hint of what can be found there on that hilltop, with all my respect.
To reach Madone d’Utelle from Nice, take D6202, then D2505 after Plan du Var and finally D32 from Saint-Jean-La-Rivière. Once in Utelle, follow the indications. Your mileage may vary, as they say, but expect approximately 1 hour to get there. That’s only around 50 km.
© Normand Primeau