Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Eau Zone

Can you imagine drinking pure spring water straight from the tap? Well, that’s what we do here in Grenoble – we also shower in it, brush our teeth with it and do the washing up in it. The water comes from a spring - la source de Rochefort – which bubbles up between the Mount Rochefort and the river Drac, south of the town and is filtered naturally through a hundred metres or so of alluvial deposits. The reservoir lies in a protected zone of nearly 3000 hectares – a beautiful nature reserve where house construction, industry and the use of pesticides is forbidden but walking through forest glades and observing the flora and fauna is actively encouraged. And while Grenoble water is untreated, the rest of France is having to drink something reminiscent of their local swimming pool on a crowded Saturday afternoon because the Ministry of Health has intentionally over-chlorinated the water supply in case terrorists contaminate it with botulism. The sensible people of Grenoble were not having any of this nonsense and refused the treatment – besides, any terrorist wanting to contaminate this water supply would have to be pretty good at orienteering and cross country running…

Grenoble Daily Photo

The French are the world’s second biggest consumers of bottled water (the Italians are the first). The average person gets through 124 litres a year, which is about a bottle and a half a week. We British manage just 14 litres a year – and most of that is probably drunk in one go on the same morning-after-the-New-Year’s-Eve-party. Mineral water – eau minérale – offers health-giving properties that are recognised by law. This means that strict rules are enforced at the site of the spring, as the quality has to be consistent. The water must come from a single source - of which there are 1,200 in France – and temperature, mineral content, taste and visual appearance are monitored closely to ensure they do not vary. Although I am usually suspicious of what I would term fanciful cures, I admit that I have gulped down several litres of a well-known mineral water in my time, which is supposed to help you slim by acting as a diuretic. I know full well this is nonsense. What it really means is that you go to the loo five times an hour and pay for the privilege – you could get the same results with a gallon of tea and a couple of fig rolls. Nevertheless, it is high in calcium so it is good for your bones. Other mineral waters make different claims. Vichy water is good for your complexion (you have to drink it, not wash in it), Hépar water is good for your nerves and fizzy water like Salvetat is good for the digestion. A well-known manufacturer of slimming products has even brought out a ‘zero calorie’ water…and yes, I thought it was a joke too but I’ve seen people buy it...

I’ve always believed water to be a pretty boring element but in fact it’s good for all sorts of things. Spa towns (named after the Belgian town of Spa) have been around since Roman times and have fallen in and out of popularity ever since. You no longer have to be a wealthy aristocrat to take the waters – the doctor can prescribe a three-week cure and the Sécurité Sociale will reimburse you. In Uriage-les-Bains, a thermal resort a few miles into the mountains around Grenoble, you can treat your eczema, sinusitis or rheumatism just by taking a bath. It is something to do with sulphur and arsenic, says the brochure reassuringly. You can also drink the water, have it injected or get pulverised with it – an experience similar to being set on by riot police with water cannons. My rheumatic mother-in-law has been on a cure twice and each time she has come back exhausted and aching all over but adamant that it has done her the world of good.

She's probably right. But I still think the best use for water is to make a Nice Cup of Tea which, as we all know, cures everything. So I'll just go and pop the kettle on...

Friday, April 13, 2007


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?

Thursday, April 05, 2007

A bicyclette

Grenoble is an oxymoron of a city. It is the capital of the French Alps and surrounded by mountains – yet it is as flat as a crêpe Suzette. In fact, it is the flattest town in France. This makes getting around less strenuous than in other cities and if you are not brave or foolish enough to take your car, there are plenty of other ways to travel.

By bicycle, for example. Now, I don’t ride my bicycle here because – well, for a start the tyres need blowing up and I’ve lost the bicycle pump but also I don’t want to die just yet. In Grenoble, you pedal at your peril. There are several miles of clearly-marked cycle paths winding their way through town ( they even have their own traffic lights ) with the unfortunate tendency to come to an abrupt halt just when you need them most: at the edge of a river or motorway bridge or at the beginning of a dual carriageway. Here you are forced to launch yourself into wild traffic that’s enough to make anybody’s wheel buckle. Moreover, most people don’t realise these lanes are for cyclists. Motorists think they are serendipitous parking spaces, joggers think they are running tracks, teenagers on mopeds think they are for doing wheelies on and as for dogs…well, let’s say they give a whole new meaning to the phrase ‘wheels in motion’…

Nobody is quite sure who invented the bicycle. The French claim it was a certain Count Sivrac whose célérifère - a sort of glorified hobby-horse without steering, pedals or brakes – appeared in Paris in 1791. The Germans and the Scots are also strong contenders for the honour but it was two French coachbuilders, Pierre Michaux and his son Ernest, who improved on the basic model and popularised it, in 1861. Just over forty years later, the Tour de France was created and became the most prestigious cycle race in the world.

photo by Eric

Of course, there is always the Solex to make things easier. This is a motorised bicycle invented in 1940 and – along with strings of garlic, stripy tee-shirts and la baguette – it became a symbol of France. It was made here until 1988, when a Hungarian firm took over production. Now, the Solex is made in China. I rode one once, a long time ago, and it was rather fun. You pedalled frantically until the motor fired and then off you tootled, holding on to your beret and bracing yourself for the potholes (it had no suspension). When it rained, the Solex – which relied on friction on its front wheel to activate the motor– would not start and you could end up red-faced and pedalling like a maniac for several kilometres before you called it a day and rang for a taxi.

Today, a new electric Solex has come on to the market. Very green, I'm sure - but not really quite as fun, n'est-ce pas?