Will Self: PsychoGeography

The maquis de Sade
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The Independent Online

"Today I made the ascent of the highest mountain in this region, which is not improperly called Ventosum. My only motive was the wish to see what so great an elevation had to offer. I have had the expedition in mind for many years ..." So begins Petrarch's justly celebrated account of his ascent of Mont Ventoux, a peak at the west end of the Luberon massif in Provence.

Luberon. Mmm ... The very region sounds lubricious, to me. It makes me think of dallying with libidinous Cathars in valleys rather than climbing up 2,000 metres of bare limestone-capped mountain. But then Petrarch was made of sterner stuff. "Remorseless toil," he observed, "conquers all." He claimed that his 1336 hike was the first taken since antiquity purely in order to admire the view. Others have disputed this – as well they might. Founding father of Humanism Petrarch may have been – Norris McWhirter he wasn't.

Besides, his account is studded with spiritual exhortations; you can't imagine Janet Street-Porter coming out with: "The life we call blessed is sought for in a high eminence, and straight is the way that leads to it." Nor, I imagine, do most of us always have a copy of Augustine's Confessions on hand when we go hill walking, to liberally quote from should we feel the impulse.

Still, there I was, in the Luberon, and while climbing Mont Ventoux seemed a little de trop, I still had an urge to get out in that maquis and deprive Jean of his source (or is it Manon?). Why shouldn't I scale the Petit Luberon, a lesser limestone escarpment to the south of Mont Ventoux? And why not provide myself with a motivation to match Petrarch's own lack of one?

The village of Lacoste suggested itself as a starting point (suggested ... it always strikes me as such a suggestible word), because the Marquis de Sade lived here, and his castle still stands on the hilltop, a suitably medieval- looking ruin, in this landscape fractured by religious schism: Protestant against Catholic, Catholic against Protestant, and everyone against the libidinous Cathars.

True, daytime temperatures were hitting 37C, and August isn't really the month for strenuous exertion in this part of the world. Not that the locals see it that way; the day before I set out, a cycle race climbed the zigzag road to Lacoste, its Lycra-clad, tight-shirted contestants looking – from behind – more than ready to embark on 120 days of Sodom. Poor Tommy Simpson, the English cyclist, was done for by the heat when he pumped his way towards the top of Mont Ventoux during the 1967 Tour de France. Granted, there were amphetamines and alcohol found in his bloodstream, but who among us can honestly claim that we've never cycled up a mountain pissed and speeding? Besides, when it comes to the Tour, I say, plus ça change.

I elected – like Petrarch – to leave before dawn, and by the time the sunlight was streaming down through the trees I was already high up on the Petit Luberon, with De Sade's castle well below and behind me. At the top of the escarpment the rocky path levelled out and I entered the mysterious Forêt des Cèdres. Actually, there was nothing mysterious about this at all – it was a forest of cedars: big, shaggy trees, their foliage trailing on the ground. It seemed I'd narrowly missed out on a herd of Eeyores, because all over the forest were rude shelters constructed from fallen boughs.

Then, as I reached the far side of the plateau, and the massif fell away from me in successive lower peaks carpeted with thorny scrub, it hit me: I would devise a latter-day perversion to match any ever dreamed of by Donatien Alphonse-François de Sade. It was this that would provide my motivation as my feet stumbled on the sharp limestone outcrops, this noble pursuit that would be my trailblazer as I joined the Grande Randonée down into the valley.

It worked: meditating hard on what I might get up to, given two cyclists, a copy of Augustine's Confessions and a large saucisson sec, I motored past the lonely "Peak of the Eagles" and down towards the turning point of my trek, Le Tapis. I checked to see if there were any children down the well, then turned back, marvelling at the way the escarpment high overhead had been eroded by run-off into fantastical arches, spires, and an exact likeness of Gérard Depardieu.

By the time I was heading once more down the rocky track towards Lacoste (as Petrarch would have it: "a heavy body weighed down by members"), my own salacious feverishness was greater than the air temperature; someone had told me that De Sade's castle was now the property of the octogenarian designer Pierre Cardin, and he was in the process of transforming it into a comfy bourgeois home. Perhaps cardinism was the perversion I sought? And what is cardinism, I hear you ask. Simple: sexual relief obtained by castle conversions. True, this may be an expensive way of getting your jollies, but with the housing market the way it is ...

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