Sunday, July 22, 2007

Lakes



Summer is supposed to be here and despite the rain, thoughts of lazy days by the pool are on my mind. By pool, of course, I mean lake - because my local “swimming baths” is just that. Set in an area of woodland called Le Bois Français, the shore of this lake has been turned into a sandy beach and when I finally get the chance to stretch out in the baking sun, I could almost be in St Tropez - if it weren’t for the surrounding snow-capped mountains and low-flying buzzards, that is.

There are thousands of lakes in France, both man-made and natural ones. Lake Geneva – called Lac Léman in French – is the second largest freshwater lake in central Europe. Sixty per cent of the lake is in Switzerland and the rest is in France, in the department of Haute-Savoie. Like many Alpine lakes, Lake Geneva was formed by a retreating glacier thousands of years ago. It was so polluted in the 1980s that swimming was forbidden, but pollution levels have dropped considerably since then and swimming is one of the main leisure activities along with sailing, wind surfing, boating and scuba diving. There are many anecdotes attached to Lake Geneva: Empress Elizabeth of Austria, known as Sissi, was fatally stabbed in the heart by an Italian anarchist while she waited to board a steamship on the lake; Mary and Percy Shelley and Lord Byron took their holidays there and wrote ghost stories; it is also said that the song Smoke on the Water by Deep Purple was written about a casino burning down on the shore of the lake just before one of their concerts.

Not counting Lake Geneva, the largest and the deepest Alpine lake in France is the Lac du Bourget in the Savoie department. The western shore of the Lac du Bourget, lying at the foothills of the Jura mountain range, is inaccessible by road and remains a haven for wildlife, including beavers and turtles. The eastern shore, on the other hand, is built up (the main town is the thermal resort of Aix-les-Bains) and is lined with restaurants and night clubs. Legend has it that the lake was formed by the tears of an angel whom God ordered to leave the Northern Alps although personally I can’t see why he had to make such a fuss…



A little further up the road is the lake of Annecy. This is the next largest lake after Bourget and is reputed to be the cleanest in the world. The same angel is supposed to have cried this lake too so he was obviously quite upset about leaving. Paul Cézanne, however, sneered at the picturesque views, calling it the type of landscape young lady travellers like to sketch in their albums. It didn’t stop him from painting Le Lac Bleu, though, during his stay in 1896.

The third largest Alpine lake in France is the lac d’Aiguebelette, also in the Savoie region. The tearful angel had probably cried himself dry by this time and instead, another legend explains its origins. There was once a village, the story goes, whose inhabitants were wealthy and pleasure-loving. One day, a poor beggar arrived looking for food and shelter. None of the villagers would help him except for an old mother and her daughter, who were themselves ostracized and poor. The beggar turned out to be Christ in disguise. In His wrath, He flooded the valley, drowning the selfish inhabitants of the village except for the two women, whose houses remained intact on two small islands in the middle of the lake. Hmm. I wonder how they got to the shops, though?





Further south, in the Mercantour National Park, lies the lac d’Allos. Situated at 7,316 feet, it is the largest natural lake in Europe at this altitude and in my opinion, one of the most beautiful. The air is clear and crisp and the surrounding scenery is majestic, with mountains rising to ten thousand feet towards a brilliant blue sky…

Near Chamonix, there is a lake known as the lac à l’anglais – the Englishman’s lake. This artificial lake was built in the early twentieth century by an eccentric Scotsman called Lord Sinclair (English, Scottish - we’re all the same to the French) and includes a “cave” built from reinforced concrete and a false “ruined” chapel. Today, it is used as an aquatic sports centre which is much more sensible.


Lacs artificiels, or reservoirs, were created to produce electricity. The first hydro-electric dam was built in 1868 by Aristide Bergès, a French engineer who settled in Grenoble and today, there are four hundred and fifty dams in France that belong to the electricity board (EDF). Most of the reservoirs were created at the expense of village communities and people have not forgotten. The Sautet dam, about forty miles from Grenoble, was one of the first hydro-electric dams to be built. In 1934, the dam was completed and the villagers stood on the top and watched as their village, with its twelfth century church, disappeared beneath the water. Ten years later, when the dam was emptied for maintenance, they came back out of curiosity and were shocked to see that their village was intact (if a little damp). EDF decided that in the future, it would be prudent to destroy the houses before flooding. The village of Les Salles-sur-Verdon, for example, was razed to the ground to make way for the lac Sainte Croix in 1974. A new village was built nearby and some monuments from the old one were incorporated, including the fountain and the bell from the church tower. But for many, the heart and soul of the village still lies beneath those deep waters.




I’m a little frightened of lakes myself – I don’t like to swim out of my depth and I don’t like the idea of swimming with fish. I can’t windsurf either – or water ski. No. I much prefer to lie down in the sun, close my eyes and think of St Tropez…

11 comments:

ColinB said...

I enjoyed reading this immensely, being a scenery junkie, and always on the lookout for new places to visit.

We drove by the St.Croix reservoir recently, which as I expect you know is turqouise, as is the river Verdon that feeds it. We were told that it's all to do with the fluoride content, and that on no account should we drink the water, as if we would, but curiously there are fishermen out there, so the water can't be that toxic.

Just because someone might get emotionally distraught at the sight of their submerged village reappearing briefly, is that a good reason to demolish villages when constructing new dams, as happened at St.Croix ?

Seems like official vandalism to me for no good reason, unless you're a bureaucrat running a nanny state !

sablonneuse said...

Thank you for yet another informative post with lovely pictures.
Lakes are picturesque but I'm frightened of water as I can't swim at all.
Enjoy the sun while you can. There still seems to be lots of rain about everywhere.

Gigi said...

That's interesting Colin - I didn't know that it was the fluoride content that made the water turquoise...

As for the villages, I think the 'vandalism' is justified (some consider the construction of these dams as vandalism, anyway!)...ghost villages are just too creepy - a pile of rubble, on the other hand, doesn't ressemble anything much.

If you get the chance, do go to Allos. You can't drive up to the lake but it's not a difficult walk and it doesn't take long...Lake Allos is definitely worth a bit of huffing and puffing for :-)

Sablonneuse...I love swimming - in a swimming pool, where I can see the bottom :-). But I'm frightened of lakes and the sea too. I'm always expecting some monster from the deep to grab me and drag me down to the bottom. That's what you get from watching Jaws at a young age...:-)

ColinB said...

Hiya Gigi

I guess I just like time capsules, the creepier the better. Pompeii and Herculaneum are the obvious ones, and there's also Oradour-sur-Glane as a grim monument to man's inhumanity to man.

But they aren't watery. For that I recall a fantastic boat trip we once took from Kas on Turkey's Lycian coast to see Kekova, an underwater city.

Now if only they could find the location of Atlantis ...

PS I personally don't see how fluoride per se could make the water go turquoise, but haven't been able to find any hard info as yet.

Minter said...

wonderful journey and descriptions... for a summer of rain, lakes seem like just a fluid continuation! I've always assured myself that because it's a lake, there cannot be anything too creepy in it (even in Scottish Lochs). Definitely a weird sensation when I swim in the deep seas--did you see "Open Water"? Will put you off swimming in bath tubs.

Mountain Dweller said...

I love lakes too and we sometimes visit Le Lac de Serre-Ponçon (Hautes-Alpes) which is apparently the biggest artificial lake in Europe. As you say, you can beat mountain lakes for the scenary or the sunbathing.

Tinsie said...

I've never swam in a lake. I'd like to give it a go sometime...

bluevicar said...

My new turf is also land-locked and edged by snow capped mountains. The only body of water large enough to sport in is the local "Resevoir." I've never been swimming in it...too many bad memories of mud squishy lake bottoms from my youth. Still, water is beautiful as demonstrated by your photos.

Given the time of year, you are quite likely better off at the lake than at the beach...crowded, hot, touristy. Just relax...

Meilleurs voeux!!

Roads said...

Thanks very much for that post and marvellous pictures. I know most of those lakes pretty well, and I used to camp in Tallard, close to the Serre-Ponçon, too.

Wonderful.

IslandGirl4Ever2 said...

First... thanks for stopping over to my blog, Gigi and bienvenue! This is truly a beautiful spot and it's just amazing how breathtaking nature can be!! See ya!
Leesa

Amy Jemima said...

Lovely blog... it really makes me miss France...