I remember the precise moment when the idea that was to become The Secrets Between Us sprang into being. I had been poring over a map, searching the border region of France and Italy (I’m fascinated by borders), when I saw a small town, high in the Alpes-Maritimes, by the name of Saint-Martin-Vésubie. The Wikipedia page briefly mentioned the route de sel, an ancient road used to transport salt from the coast to the city of Cuneo since Roman times; that even today can be followed all the way from the Mediterranean, across the perilous mountain passes into Italy.
My interest piqued, I carried on reading, and learned something remarkable: that during the Second World War, Saint-Martin-Vésubie, and several other mountain villages, became havens of relative safety for Jewish refugees.
In November 1942, following the occupation of France by German forces, the Italian Army marched into Nice and the surrounding area as occupiers. The French populace perceived this as a stab in the back. The Italians were – unlike German forces – seen as neighbours, cousins, especially in regions like the Vésubie valley, where this was often literally the case.
What’s more, it soon became clear that Italian Occupied France was operating under different rules from the rest of the country – then under German occupation – and from Italy, especially when it came to Jewish citizens and refugees. Although persecution and anti-Semetism had been widespread throughout Italy, the Italian military forces refused to deport any Jews or political refugees from the Occupied Zone, despite increasing pressure from the German administration. In the spring 1943, it was decided that many of the refugees who had flooded into Nice would be transferred away from the coast to “enforced residences” in mountain villages, partly for safety, partly to secure the coastline, and partly to stall any threats of action by Nazi officials.
Almost overnight, the population of Saint-Martin-Vésubie doubled as hundreds of refugees arrived; not only French but German, Russian, Polish, Czech, Hungarian, Belgian. For one summer, Saint-Martin-Vésubie became a bustling, cosmopolitan refuge where Jewish people and other refugees experienced some level of relief, safe from persecution by French and German forces.
Once I had read about all of this – the border, the salt road, the Italian occupation and the refugees – I knew I wanted to try and write a story set amongst it all. I knew I wanted to bring these remarkable events to life for readers who may never have heard of them otherwise.
I’ll write another post soon on my research methods; the books I’m indebted to, the trips I took to the National Archives, the articles and documentaries and films I devoured in the writing of this book. But today, I wanted to share my experience of the place that inspired the story.
The Secrets Between Us is set in a fictional village in the Alpes-Maritimes, named Saint-Antoine; a decision I made both to allow myself some narrative freedom, and to respect the history of Saint-Martin-Vésubie and the real-life experiences of all those involved, whose stories of survival and persecution need no fictional embellishment.
Physically, however, I took much inspiration from Saint-Martin-Vésubie, from the mountains, the surrounding countryside and the villages of the Vésubie valley. I hope to be able to share just a little of this remarkable place with you here.
From The Secrets Between Us:
Our gargouille was different. It wasn’t a monster at all, but a waterway; a stone channel as old as the town, running from a fall in the mountains, all the way along our steep, main street and down into the river. Generations of people had channelled the flow so that it seemed to spout on almost every corner. Its water washed our clothes and bathed our children, filled our cooking pots and drenched our thirsty plants in the summer. It was the throat of the mountain, and we drank from it.
I turned from the hotel, took the back way through twisting passages and narrow alleys. They smelled old, of shadowed stone that never dried, that hadn’t had the sun on its face for more than half a millennium. I shivered, walked faster. Ahead I could see the little square in front of the church, where sunlight fell bright and made the old yellow stone glow. I stepped into it gratefully. All around, moisture seemed to be seeping from the village’s damp-clogged walls, like honey.
Finally, we came to a place where the trees parted around a pile of huge, grey rocks that looked down over town, its roofs a jumble of terracotta shards on the mountain. The sun fell bright; the air was quenching and clean.
Saint-Antoine, she says; a place of granite and wildflowers, of trees that cling stubbornly to the steepest slopes. A place where marmots cry their warnings, where goats wander, belonging to no one but themselves, and elusive chamois look on from impossible heights. It’s a place where the wind blows from the peaks, tasting of ice even in summer. A place where larches turn the mountainside gold in the autumn, like the candlelit hair of the church’s ancient Madonna.
It’s so narrow that I find myself looking up fearfully. Wooden balconies and walkways cling between the buildings, brittle as old bones.
To visit Saint-Martin-Vésubie you can fly to Nice, and either drive or catch one of a few buses a day up the steep, narrow winding mountain roads to the village. (Don’t look over the edge…)
We stayed at La Bonne Auberge; a lovely family-run hotel (which I believe was where the Italian Army held registrations for foreigners during the occupation). There’s a big, Alpine style lounge, simple rooms, and good food, plus an enormous collection of genepi, liqueurs and other spirits…
Finally, a little way along from the hotel you can find a series of stone memorials, commemorating the events which took place in Saint-Martin-Vésubie and remembering those who fought, those who resisted and those who were killed.