Thursday, 24 January 2013

The Peace of Fontilles

The Peace of Fontilles

There are places, and monuments, that have such a remarkable effect on you they stay with you until you die. For me, they will always include Michelangelo’s statue of David in the Academia at Florence, the city of Prague and the Sultanahmet mosque in Istanbul. Since recently they will also include for me a little known village called Fontilles in the Costa Blanca region of Spain.

Tucked away in the hills only a few kilometres inland from the popular resort of Denia, the turnoff to Fontilles is easy to miss, in fact you pretty much have to know it`s there to find it at all.

As you drive through the arid, stony landscape, you may catch occasional glimpses of a stone wall running high up along a ridge. Finally, you turn down into a scented, wooded valley and realise that the wall you were just now outside of, you are now inside.

The buildings are of varying sizes and designs, some elegant and imposing, if unpretentious, rather reminiscent of European spa complexes. Indeed they do date from much the same era. Others, as if resting against the steep, wooded hillsides, are smaller, more like small villas or even bungalows.

The three of us arrived by car during the siesta, so that for half an hour or so we were the only people there, giving the place the air of being somehow suspended in time. There was a strong sense of people around, but no sound, apart from a gentle, fragrant breeze through the pines. Parking, we walked slowly along the pathways, which were lovingly dotted with statues and grottos with little fountains and watering places. The whole place seemed to have been planned for the purpose of peace.

I had often thought of peace before as being an absence of discord or conflict, or of noise, but this was something different. The stillness at Fontilles was so pervasive you could not have spoken in a loud voice if you had wanted to. It was difficult to speak at all. This was a place for listening to the quiet. Even, as the afternoon wore on, other people appeared in small quiet groups, our greetings to one another were wordless smiles.

Bathing in the silence, we walked slowly back to a monument near the information office, still closed for the siesta, and read the inscription. Founded in 1902 and opened in 1909, run by the Jesuits, Fontilles is one of the last two leper colonies in Europe. The other is at Tichilesti on the Danube delta in Romania. When the Fontilles colony was first opened, the local people were so outraged and horrified that they built a wall round it to protect themselves from the lepers. Lepers are still today in some ways the ultimate symbol of the outsider. Outside the wall are fear, outrage and indignation. But inside the wall are healing and peace