Le Jardin des 9 Damoiselles, Vaison la Romaine  ©Unfolding Provence | Land art to visit in Provence

The Garden of 9 Damsels

As you approach the old Roman town of Vaison-la-Romaine from the North West side, your eyes get distracted by a structure reminiscent of ancient raised stones set in circles.

In my teens, I used to visit this town regularly and I don’t remember seeing these.

Have they sprung from the earth after some seismic activity or been revealed by an archaeological dig?

Why are they there and why are they placed like this?

The size of the rocks, their arrangement and the setting suggest something old, timeless and important. Yet, I found out it’s a modern installation, a piece of land art.

This sophisticated structure called Le Jardin des 9 Damoiselles (The Garden of 9 Damsels in English) consists in 81 standing granite boulders.

The 9 damsels are arranged in a set of three by three to form a square that sits in the middle of 72 menhirs organised in a circle. They represent the 9 European City of Culture chosen by the European Commission for the year 2000.

Commissioned by the Rotary Club of Vaison-la-Romaine, the sculptors Fabienne Versé and Serge Boÿer placed the 81 standing stones to respect Divine Harmony proportions. They engraved the stones with texts and symbols that relate to ancient laws such as the Tantra, the Tao, the Cabal and Pythagoras.

But there is more.

The 9 European cities featured on the central stones were invited to submit a short text from one of their sons, typically a local poet, a writer or a philosopher. Their words were then engraved both in their native language and in French.

A Monument Turned to the Future

After year 2000, Le Jardin des 9 Damoiselles could have become a memory, a monument turned inwards, recognised but ignored by locals and passersby. And yet, the local authorities found a way to make it a life-affirming statement, open to the world.

Every year on the Summer Solstice, one of the remaining 72 stones is engraved with a line from an invited city’s local poet. For example, the town of Dio-Gare, Mali chose the words of Fodé Souleymane:

“Truth is fed by three persons: the one who knows it, the one that expresses it and the one that admits it”.

And the town of Tochigi, Japan selected a line from Ninomiya Sontoku:

“Sharing wealth born from all of us supporting each other will allow each one of us to be happier”.

A Fitting Commemoration

The impetus to create, in that exact place, such a monumental work stemmed from the tragedy Vaison-la-Romaine and nearby towns lived through on 22 September 1992.

On that day, heavy storms and torrential rain caused unprecedented floods. They destroyed the commercial buildings and habitations in the path of the river Ouvèze, some of which were built on the very same land the garden is now standing on.

Over a 3 hour period, 300mm of water fell. The town’s famous Roman Bridge built in the first century AD endured structural damage as the furious volume of water reached over the top.

Aside from the substantial material damages, 42 people lost their lives.

Around the Garden

Next to this site, visitors can walk around the young forest of over 4000 bamboos planted that same year and chosen for their rustling sounds and graceful dance-like movements at any hint of a breeze.

It’s a wonderful counterpoint to the rock installation. An invitation to calm, peace and reflection that can bring respite and solace when needed.

A leisure and activity zone with a playground for team sports, a children’s play area and an outdoor fitness course complete the area.

So, Is the Garden of the 9 Damsels Worth Stopping by

It’s easy to dismiss the garden as you arrive on the outskirt of town, eager to drive in and discover its famous Roman ruins and the medieval town or to attend a summer festival.

But, do stop. Do take a moment to stroll around the large stones and perhaps read a few lines of poetry.

Like any good art, the Jardin des 9 Damoiselles can resonate on different levels.

You can appreciate it on its own merit, as part of what surrounds it or, if you want to deepen the experience, by bringing in the context of its creation.

Vaison-la-Romaine was the seat of a tragedy that left indelible marks. What can a town do to commemorate such an event with sensitivity while drawing something positive from it?

They chose well. The health and fitness and family-friendly oriented area combined with the more contemplative land art are suitably impressive.

The whole set up shows life carries on.

What better way to pay homage to the people who lost their lives?