It's about 50 miles from Antibes, as the seagull flies, or a bit longer for crows, assuming they prefer to stay over terra firma . We had read about in the guide books - a small compact medieval town on a stretch of Riviera noted for its flowers, although greenhouses might be a more accurate description. It's also a stretch of coast that motorists see from on high - the elevated motorway is visible in the background above, but that stretch of highway, perched on its concrete supports, sadly does the strip of coastal scenery no favours.
All one's misgivings about the hinterland evaporate when one arrives at the foot of the town, where the ancient bridge, with its curious dog-leg bend, straddles the river that brings silt and pebbles down from the hills.
Inside the village is the customary labyrinth of narrow passages, steep flights of steps, ancient doorways with intricately carved or moulded porticos. This kind of timewarp is virtually unknown in Britain, notwithstanding York, Ludlow, Lavenham etc which, although redolent of past centuries, seem somehow too manicured, too made-over with modern products off the shelves of Wickes and B&Q. Not so in this place: most of the stucco began peeling, bubbling and lifting in the 17th century, with little more than accumulations of algae, lichens and cobwebs to keep the remaining flakes in place, if not already bare.
The guide book said a visit to the monastery was a must ( confusingly, one of the books describes it as a convent). Sadly we never got to learn the gender of its inmates, since it was closed to visitors on the day we were there. That was a bitter blow, given that its founders - a Dominican order- had interests that extended beyond the spiritual world to the artistic - acting as patrons to numerous accomplished artists of their day whose work adorns the inner recesses.
But there is one lasting memento of our day trip, tinged as it was with disappointment, which sits on the coffee table in front of me as I write.
As we trudged our way around the monastery walls, something unusual caught my eye in the compacted aggregate that served as a path . There was just a red-brown rounded end visible, poking up just proud of the surface, which I wasted no time in prising out.
Before and after polishing ****************************
It was a knife handle, a little short of 10cm in length, but a knife handle with a difference. This one was heavy for its size - too heavy to be steel. And that red-brown coating was not flaky rust, but very adherent, more by way of a heavy tarnish. The picture on the left shows its original appearance. The one on the right is the other side after polishing, with a bright silvery lustre.
This is not electroplated silver, nor is it electroplate (steel dipped in molten silver). Given the density it has to be solid silver, through and through.
One day we will make a return visit to this time-warp of medieval prosperity, and the knife handle will be in my pocket. Maybe we'll seek out one of the successors of the diligent aesthetes who established their order in this Riviera town, a mile or so inland from a seaside resort of the same name - with added appendage; Jane with her linguistic skills can explain to him (or her) how we came by our find, and give first refusal on this artefact from an age when money was no object.
What would be nice would be for the monk, or nun, to say "Oh, we have five others just like it, but there's a gap in the display box", in which case we would be happy to see it reunited with its rightful owners.
Age of the handle ? No idea, but I suspect it is at least 100 years old, possibly a lot more.
PS Yes, this has been written as a bit of a tease, in the style of the Sunday Times's "Where was I ?"
And yes, you may also have spotted suggestions of writing on the knife in bas relief. Indeed there is, but I can't reveal what it says - that would give away too much, narrowing the search down to a few places within a 10 mile radius.
So where was I ? Answers on an electronic postcard, please to firstname.lastname@example.org. The prize ? Certainly not the knife handle, which is part of someone's national heritage. Hopefully you would settle for seeing your name emblazoned here in a large Technicolor font !
Afterthought: it is probably wrong of me to assume it's a knife handle. That's one small knife. On second thoughts, it may have been a small fork - one of those two, or three pronged ones that might be used for side courses, delicacies, shellfish etc. as distinct from the heavy-duty sort.
Colin Berry, aka sciencebod, is a retired PhD researcher/teacher/academic who has worked in industry, medical schools, schools, food and biomedical research (mainly in the UK, but also in W.Africa and the United States). He's best known for his work on RESISTANT STARCH, recently described as "the trendiest form of dietary fibre".
See also his specialist Shroud of Turin blog on www.shroudofturinwithoutallthehype.wordpress.com
with over 200 postings to date.