Big Churches in Little Europe: Calvi

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Saint-Jean Baptisite, Calvi

When I was quite young, my favourite book was "Rebel on a Rock" by Nina Bawden. Living in Australia I could imagine a summer holiday on a rocky, sun drenched sea side town and saving the country from nameless political evil through love, pig-headedness and sheer luck. Some things I just didn't grasp - political terror, village intensity and spatial ancientness. These three things don't exist in Australia (unless you belonged to that 0.03 percent of the population whose families pre-dated colonisation).

Early in my discovery of Europe I was delighted to discover Calvi - a high outcrop of rocks, ancient jumbled buildings, narrow streets, pushed up and out into the Mediterranean sea on three sides and crowned on high by a walled city including a couple of empty cafes and a Cathedral. There were tourists, policemen, and people eating ice cream but underneath it all were the hints of centuries of political oppression. Calvi and Corsica might be happy and French now, but since that old Cathedral was established, a lot has gone on.

Nowadays, the Cathedral is just a building and a name. The old town perched on its massive walls protecting it from the sea and pirates is not really lived in - the lower town with the marina, roads and railway has the church and the people. However, the old town is still a fundamental part of Calvi.

The church itself was rebuilt in the fifteenth century and replaced the earlier building from the 700s. When you go in, (and despite my rampant romanticism above, the area is crowded with tourists in the summer), the building feels cool and empty. The decoration is sparse with great empty walls, one or two with a near black painting or statues, which adds to the sense of ancientness. It almost feels as if the building has not only had its bishop and cathedral status taken away but also all of the art and the things communities place in their churches that mark them as owned. Most visitors don't hang around for long.

For me, I found the place an excellent space to sit and do nothing for a while. The empty walls start to tell their own tales as effectively as the statues and paintings tell the stories they were designed to tell. What is space is as communicative as what is object.

Your response may be quite different.

I have been to a music concert there presented in French and English. It was pretty dreadful for pure musical technique - but if that is your only measure, then stay in London, Paris or New York. However, in terms of local musical expression in a building that remains central to the identity of the local town, it was great and I look forward to paying my money and going again.

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