Virginie gives you a tide table, remarking that you are lucky – Basses Mers Soir 20 30 – the sea is on its way out, and the early evening would be perfect for exploring the cliffs. In town, you cobble together a meal to take with you. The water is calmly retreating as you approach the Falaise d’Aval. The path that caves in and out of the cliff face and leads to the giant arch of the Manneporte has lifted itself free of the sea. It is deserted, as if cleared by a curfew, or patrolled by a troll only ignorant strangers would attempt to pass. But behind you there are others willing to take that chance. You lead the way, Canute-confident, through a semi-submarine tunnel of green-stained gold, colours with an intensity and freshly created rarity that no palette or pen could replicate. Gazelle-like and half-drunk on the combination of cavern must and sun-baked sweat, you leap over the rocks towards the giant door, the gate to heaven. The sun is declining, and the sea is tamed and passive. As you come round the shoulder of the cliff, and look up and through the arch, the needle of rock beyond it fills the gap, a guardian warning the foolish not to pass. Then, moving forward and round the cliff shoulder, this guardian steps back to allow the sun to strike the silver from the sea into your eyes.
The imperfect arch towers above you, a stack of layered golden sediment carved by air and water. Beneath your feet are variegated strands of seaweed, some of it like slimy thick dark brown lengths of film stock. The sun and air draw out its smell. Through the door, there is a curve of beach upon which you will be the first ever to set foot, and a further arch to pass through. The alabaster cliffs turn golden in the sun, their tops jagged and scooped out of a sudden blue. Your footsteps echo across the giant pebbles of a beach reserved for the gods, a hammock for the setting sun. When you stop, the only sounds are seagull cries, the lapping sea, and the faintly echoing tinkle of cliff side sources. Looking back through the arch, you can see silent and faraway shell-fishers, as tiny as their prizes, miniatures at the bottom of the beanstalk. You are abruptly happy. It could not be so unless you were alone. It’s a kind of happiness you imagine experienced by hermits, the uncontrollable spontaneity which is the necessary complement of so much stoic waiting.
They might have used this stretch of coast to shoot Jason and the Argonauts, recognising it to be rich in myth or ancient magic. And every so often the hand of some god or other still reaches down and plucks up a traveller between forefinger and thumb, transporting them to mystic heights, here in this harbour of calm, where the land tongues the sea and the sea licks the land. Recompense for the hot disastrous road this afternoon. The Sirens sing and not being strapped to the ship’s mast, you walk towards them… The voices of a young Italian couple behind you break the spell.
Alone, random factors dictate whether the day goes for or against you. But still you feel it is possible to make your own magic, to let yourself be touched by it. You pass through the second arch over more glistening seaweed and rocks, and perch yourself on a hard-to-climb promontory which is yours alone.