Sunday, October 20, 2013

The Vercors


My little blue car chugs valiantly upwards on the winding road to the Vercors mountains.  Even with the accelerator pressed to the floor, she will not go any faster than 60km an hour. The line of impatient motorists behind me is getting longer and I have to pull into a lay-by twice to let them pass.

I have not ventured into the Vercors for years. The first time was when we arrived in Grenoble in 2001. I was excited at the prospect of tasting the local AOC cheese: Bleu de Vercors-Sassenage and we eventually found a dairy farm that sold it. Unfortunately, the farmer was in the middle of mending his tractor when we got there and hastily wrapped us a piece of cheese with his grubby hands covered in engine oil. We haven’t eaten it since.


As I pass through that village now, I am amused to see that it’s called Engins - and the association of blue cheese and tractor oil is fixed forever in my mind.

The second visit was to the Grotte de Choranche, a hauntingly beautiful cave, a fairytale palace of emerald pools and fragile glittering stalactites fit for a Snow Queen…


Close to Choranche is the medieval village of Pont-en-Royans, famous for its maisons suspendues that overlook the river Bourne. The houses, with their pastel façades, date from the 15th century. Oh, it is as pretty as a picture!



The third time I went, I recklessly braved the steep and winding Col de Menée in search of lavender fields in the south. When I finally reached Die, I was in dire need of a glass of its famous clairette – a sweet, sparkling wine made from muscat and clairette grapes.  I was driving, so resisted the temptation, even though the trauma of navigating those sheer and monstrous cliffs had reduced me to a quivering blob.


The Vercors is also famous for the maquis, the group of French freedom fighters who resisted the German occupation of France during World War 2. Parts of the Vercors are hostile, isolated and difficult to access and therefore made an ideal refuge for these brave, determined people.


But on this sunny afternoon, I am driving to Méaudre, which is neither hostile nor isolated and is easy to access, even for me. I want to wander through a dappled forest, breathe pure mountain air and savour the colours of early autumn.

The Vercors is home to animals such as the ibex, the mouflon (wild sheep) and the chamois. There were even bears here once but they disappeared in 1940 and were never reintroduced.  I merely get a glimpse of a handful of clucking hens, deer dashing across fields and a few disgruntled cows.


There are so many mushrooms and toadstools, so many shapes and colours. One day, I would like to learn how to identify them but for now, I simply stoop to admire their beauty.


On the way back, I pass several farmhouses with intriguing roof details. I discover that the limestone tiles are arranged in what are called sauts de moineaux or ‘sparrow hops’…like a staircase. This was to protect the houses – which once had thatched roofs – from catching fire during lightning storms. The stone at the top is known as la couve and is a fertility symbol, vestige of the Celtic tribe, the Vertacomocorii, which gave its name to the region.


Driving home is less embarrassing because it’s all downhill and my little car can manage that quite well, thank you very much.

This is probably my last walk before autumn turns into winter. Winter is for shivering on the sofa slurping soup and grumbling about the snow.

Roll on spring…







Sunday, July 07, 2013

A Tale of Two Châteaux

It was such a beautiful day yesterday, but very hot. I decided I needed a walk in the forest and found an itinerary that started an ended at a château. Perfect!

But first I had to walk to the château in Eybens, about four kilometres away. Napoleon stopped here in 1815, on his way from Laffrey where he had confronted the King’s army and come out of it rather well. It is said that on arriving in Eybens, he was offered a footbath by an old woman, la mère Simiand, before continuing his route to Grenoble. Lucky man...

I, meanwhile, set off beneath the blazing sun in my khaki shorts, acutely conscious of my pasty, muscular Welsh calves - inherited from my hill-farmer ancestors – as I trudged beside the busy main road and over the motorway bridge. It was a relief to finally reach the shady lanes around the château gardens.
Of the château itself, I barely caught a glimpse. It perches high on a hill overlooking the village, the rooftops peeking above the trees.

There is some mystery concerning its origins. Documents suggest the existence of a château before 1120 but it was rebuilt in the mid 17th century by, claims a rather salacious legend, Christine de Savoie, the daughter of Henri IV. Apparently, she built it as her personal royal Den of Iniquity, to entertain her numerous lovers and host all sorts of wickedness such as black masses and necromancy. As there is no hard evidence for this story, it was probably made up by someone who didn’t like her very much.

I had no feelings about Christine one way or another, I was just intent on getting started. The track ran alongside the walled gardens for a while, winding gently upwards until it reached a crossroads where I took the track to Herbeys. This track sloped down into a deliciously-cool, dark forest where birds sang, streams gurgled and a nasty horsefly stung me on the arm.

Then it was upwards again into the sunlight and a view across the meadows to the glorious mountains beyond.


I finally reached Herbeys. I had been here before, to climb the colline des Quatre Seigneurs and I knew I would be able to see the château from up there. But I was too tired and too hot and too thirsty to do that. So I wandered around the village looking for it ("easily visible from the road" they said) and…I couldn’t find it.

I do know that the château was once the Bishop’s Palace, that it dates from the year 1310 and that it is now privately owned. I also remember it being quite large so I had no idea why I couldn’t see it.

I splashed my face and arms in the icy water of the village fountain and headed back to Eybens, my sturdy calves now glowing pink in the late afternoon sun.

I may not have seen my beloved châteaux but at least I hadn’t got lost - just slightly confused. Most important of all, I felt - if such a thing is possible - both happily exhausted and completely revigorated.

And that, after all, is what it's all about...







Friday, June 21, 2013

Faites de la musique!

In honour of the fête de la musique, our CLIS decided to surprise the rest of the school with a batucada. I don't know whether the awe on their faces was provoked by our rythmical prowess or the sight of my jiggling bingo wings but anyway - we had great fun...

Hannah, my eldest daughter, writes and sings her own songs:

And Abigail, my youngest, also tends to break into song at the slightest provocation, whilst wearing her mum's checked shirt...

My middle daughter, Rachel, is quite content to simply sit and listen...

...and very prettily, I'm sure you'll agree.
Bonne fête de la musique!


Friday, April 26, 2013

Spring in my steps


Now that spring is here (sort of) I’ve been taking myself and my dodgy knees for a ramble or two in the sunshine. After all, isn’t fresh air and exercise supposed to be the best remedy for depression? No, wait - that’s fluoxetine…

Anyway, fresh air and exercise works for me. My first outing took me to the Marais de Seiglières, a marsh situated at an altitude of 1150 metres, near St Martin d’Uriage. The spot was named after the seigle (rye) that was cultivated there in the thirteenth century and it is now classed as a conservation area.


This was not an arduous ramble – more of a gentle stroll through pine forests and across spongy marshland. I passed through the ruins of a hospital dating from the eleventh century, its walls now low, moss-covered banks. Whatever the hospital was built for – some say it was a leprosy hospital – it was certainly huge. I stood there for a few minutes, trying to imagine the place echoing with voices and footsteps - but all I could hear was the joyful singing of birds and the soft rustlings of the forest…


As I walked down towards the large pond in the middle of the marais, I had to keep an eye on my feet for fear of stepping on the numerous copulating toads that were strewn across my path. Spring, of course, is the season of love and new beginnings although the cynic in me says otherwise. I don’t believe in Fairy Tales. I once kissed a Handsome Prince you know, and guess what he turned into?

I went home at the end of the afternoon, refreshed in body and spirit and very slightly sunburnt.

My next walk was to Mont Jalla, the small peak that rises between the Bastille and the Mont Rachais. There are several tracks you can take and I took the easiest, because that’s the sort of person I am.


However, I had forgotten how noisy the place was. As well as the hordes of families with children and excited dogs, there was the constant drone of traffic rising up from the streets of Grenoble. And the closer I got to the top of the Bastille, the louder the rumblings from the bulles, the téléphérique that ferries people to and fro from the Jardin de Ville.

It was quieter when I finally reached the summit of Mont Jalla. I took a few minutes to wander around the Mémorial National des Troupes de Montagne, the war memorial built in the year 2000, and puzzle over some crumbling ruins perched on the cliff edge (the ruins were perched, not me). These turned out to be the remains of one of the world’s first industrial aerial tramways, used by the cement factory of the Porte de France to transport limestone mined from the mountain. What a shame. I had been hoping for something a little more romantic…



I took a different route down the mountain and sorely regretted it – the pun is intended. It was mostly stairs. Steep stairs. By the time I got to the Jardin des Dauphins at the bottom, I was hobbling. After a few minutes groaning on a bench, I decided to forego my principles and take the bus home. My poor, poor knees.



It is dreary today and the sky is dark with rain. But as soon as the sunshine returns and my knees have stopped creaking, I'll be off again - with a smile on my face and Spring in my steps...







Saturday, January 26, 2013

Kicking up a raquette



If you’ve read this post, you will know I am not a great fan of winter sports. However, I am an open-minded type of gal so when someone suggested I try snowshoeing, I gamely agreed. I imagined it to be a sedate activity with no chance of careering down a mountainside in a wildly out-of-control fashion, screaming, as I tend to do whilst skiing.

The French word for snowshoes is raquettes. If this conjures up a game of tennis, you wouldn’t be far wrong. When the French began to colonize the cold regions of North America in the seventeenth century, one of the ideas they adopted from the Amerindians was the ultimate in sensible shoes. They called them raquettes because they resembled the rachètes or racquets of the jeu de paume, the forerunner of modern tennis. This gave them a great advantage over the English who didn’t realize until a few years later that life doesn’t have to come to a standstill because of a bit of bad weather. Judging from recent newspaper reports, they seem to have forgotten again.

The French brought the raquettes back to France, adapting the shape to suit the steep and rugged slopes of the mountainous regions where they used them for practical purposes, like hunting or shepherding. It wasn’t until the end of the nineteenth century that snowshoeing was introduced as a leisure activity, by Henri Duhamel. Since the mid-twentieth century, the sport has grown in popularity.


So I set off one crisp, bright morning, to try it for myself. I was told that if I could walk, I could snowshoe. Well, yes, OK – I can walk but I don’t usually look like a constipated duck while I’m doing it. Nor do I keel over every time I want to turn around…so that premise is not strictly true.

Also, I hate being cold. Despite the layers of vests, fleeces, thick socks and two pairs of woolly tights, I was absolutely freezing. I just wished I’d smeared myself with lard and stuffed newspapers down my trousers like I said I would…

Once in the forest, however, these minor inconveniences melted away in the winter sunshine. The scenery was breathtaking: swathes of sparkling, untrodden snow billowed around me like a plump eiderdown; the air glittered with diamond dust and – oh! - it was so beautifully quiet. At any moment, I expected to see Mr Tumnus trotting towards me playing his flute…


And, yes. I did fall over, several times. But apparently, you are allowed to slide down slopes on your bottom, so I affected a convincing nonchalance whenever I did so. I think it worked…

I waddled home, still freezing, aching slightly but very happy indeed. There are magical places in this sorry world after all…

I’ve been invited to go cross-country skiing next.  I’m looking forward to it, I really am. I’ve already started stocking up on lard…