Friday, April 13, 2007

Mountains


When I moved to Grenoble from Aix-en-Provence, I thought I would never get used to the mountains. Grenoble is surrounded by three mountain ranges: the Chartreuse, the Belledonne and the Vercors so there was – as the writer, Stendhal once put it – a mountain at the end of every street. I did not find them beautiful, I found them oppressive - aggressive even. I missed the airy blue spaces of Provence.


However, it looked as if I was going to be here for a while so I decided to make an effort to know the mountains better. I began at the Musée Dauphinois, housed in a former convent perched on the slopes of the Mont Rachais that overlooks the town. Here they have a whole floor dedicated to an exhibition called Les Gens de L’Alpe – The people of the Alps – who, from about three thousand years ago until the beginning of the twentieth century, chose to live at altitudes of between four thousand and six and a half thousand feet. They must have had a good reason to choose this way of life because it was a gruelling one and, cut off from the valley, they had to be self-sufficient. Life was not possible without animals and it was thanks to the goats, sheep, cows and mules that they were able to feed and clothe themselves, keep warm and move from place to place in search of fresh pasture. Animals also gave them the necessary goods for bartering: wool, cheese, meat and skins. The museum has a collection of tools and everyday objects used by these people and you can peer into life-size reconstructions of their living spaces, including a school room.


Society evolved, communications improved and les gens de l’Alpe moved down to the valley. However, the mountains were still a part of their lives. In the same museum, on the floor above, is an exhibition dedicated to the history of skiing. Cave paintings suggest that skis have been around for a long time. Originally, they were used for travelling and hunting and skiing only became a sport at the beginning of the eighteenth century. With the invention of ski lifts in the 1930s, Alpine skiing became popular and today, people come here from all over Europe to ski.


I don’t ski because I find it too uncomfortable, too expensive and too frightening. Climbing seems a little dangerous and paragliding downright foolhardy. But I do love walking in the mountains when the snow has melted, the Alpine meadows are turning green again and flowers are pushing up their heads between the rocks. France has 110,000 miles of hiking trails among which are the Grande Randonnées (GR) which are long distance trails. Part of the GR5 crosses the Alps from Lake Geneva to Nice and takes about four weeks to walk, if you are reasonably fit. French hiking trails are well-marked with coloured blazes painted on trees and rocks to guide you and I have only ever been lost once – and that was because I was following my husband.


In order to preserve the many species of mountain flowers, it is forbidden to pick them and if you are caught with an illicit posy you will be heavily fined. Certain flowers may be picked in moderation – for example, génépi, a flower used to make a delicious digestif – but you are only allowed to pick forty sprigs. As many people make their own génépi liqueur, I’m sure most of them pick flowers by the bagful but I have never heard of anyone being caught.


Mountain air and water, of course, are renowned for their restorative properties. “Taking the waters” became popular with the upper classes at the end of the nineteenth century, especially in France, and mountain spa towns like Uriage and Allevard had elegant hotels and guesthouses built as well as a casino for their wealthy and rheumatic patrons.

Mountains offer not only pleasure and good health but also protection. The Vercors range is a natural fortress of sheer cliffs looming above deep gorges - I once drove through there in a thunderstorm on tortuous, narrow passes and had nightmares for several nights afterwards. During the German Occupation of France in World War II, the hostile, rugged Vercors was a refuge for those who wanted to escape the political and racial discriminations of the Vichy government. When the Germans moved south, the French Resistance movement set up a dozen camps in the Vercors’ forests and by July 1944, there were four thousand civilians and military men camped there. The inhabitants provided food and clothing for them while the Allies dropped weapons and medicine by parachute. In defiance of the Occupation, the résistants raised the French flag and in the name of liberty they proclaimed the Republic of Vercors, This provoked the Germans into launching a ferocious attack by road, on foot and from the air. The fighting lasted for a week: six hundred résistants were killed as well as more than two hundred local people.


Today, I am beginning to see the beauty and the majesty in these mountains. They have become comforting and familiar and I love to see them change with the seasons, from warm, bare rock against a blue sky to snowy peaks sparkling in the winter sun. And, as the French writer Boris Vian once said – what’s the point of moving mountains when you can simply walk over them?

14 comments:

Mountain Dweller said...

I have come to love the Alps as well. Whenever I go somewhere flat I always seem to be scanning the horizon searching for mountains that aren't there.

Tinsie said...

Awww lovely photos! I grew up in a city surrounded by mountains and I never found them oppressive - in fact, if anything, I like the feeling of being "enclosed".
I didn't know Grenoble was the same, I'll have to visit some day.

CJ said...

Wow, beautiful photo's. I love reading your blog...each post is a little treasure to be savoured.

Gigi said...

Mountain Dweller - Well, I'd still prefer to be living in Provence even though I'm reconciled to living here (for now!).

Tinsie - the surrounding mountains are certainly beautiful but I'm not that fond of the town itself.

cj - I have loads of "mountain" photos from when I used to go hiking. I'm not fit enough to do it at the moment but seeing the pictures reminded me how much better I felt (and looked) in those not-too-distant days...

Mlle Smith said...

These pictures are GORGEOUS!! I used to live in Los Angeles, and I recently returned for a visit and it was so refreshing to see the mountains nearby like that.

We have mountains in NY, but because the buildings are so enormously high (read: tacky), you cannot see the mountains. Must be nice to have them right nearby like that, although I prefer to see them and not climb or ski them. :0)

Gigi said...

Mlle Smith - that's odd. Do you know, I've never thought of New York having mountains? My knowledge of the geography of the US is woefully lacking...:-)

Louise said...

Love mountains - which is a good thing perhaps, living high up in the Swiss Alpes! Coming back to Switzerland the other day from the Auvergne which is quite hilly, after driving round lac Léman, my heart soars as the high peaks come into view. And the mountain flowers are slowly starting to come out...

angela said...

If I start on the GR5 from this end and you start from your end where will we meet?
I did actually walk about 5kms of it one day...
Lovely photos.

CJ said...

Had to let you know somehow...I have just nominated you for the Thinking Blogger Award. Of course you are under no obligation to participate, all the information is to be found in the Thinking Blogger Award link at the bottom of my Brilliant Blogs list and the logo also which you can display on your page. I just think your blog is great and I wanted to share it with others.

Gigi said...

Louise - I think I prefer Auvergne, actually :-)

angela - I'm determined to do it one day, so you never know!

cj - thanks very much! I'll have to wait until the week-end before I sort out nominations etc (and update my links which I've been meaning to do for ages!) - I've just started a new job, and with the English teaching work I already do every evening, it means I'm completely exhausted when I finally come home!

Beaman said...

Wonderful wonderful photos and very interesting reading. :)

Roads said...

"warm, bare rock against a blue sky ..."

... to any geologist, that surely is the definition of contentment, Gigi.

blueVicar said...

It's funny, gigi, I grew up with mountains all around so I felt comforted by their presence. When I moved to the midwest of the USA, the flat openness was expansive and borderless, making me feel vulnerable. I expressed this to my new mother-in-law who grew up in Illinois and she said that mountains had always made her uneasy, the way they cut off views of the horizon.

I guess it's just what you're used to...

But finding the treasures of where you are and writing their stories, well, you do a fine job of that, Gigi, whether it's where you want to be or not, and I, for one, am grateful.

Meilleurs voeux!!

Jonas said...

A charming entry. Thank you!