February 2012 Walks
Walk 17: Cavaillon 5 February
–26° Celsius on Mont Ventoux, minus something on the Colline Saint-Jacques
The wind has been blowing with more force each day since last Sunday, as if building to some final apocalyptic fury. Occasionally it appears to relent, and the sky clearing of cloud allows the earth to be temporarily warmed by the sun’s energy. Anywhere behind glass or sheltered from the mistral and you begin to feel that the worst of the winter has evaporated with the lengthening of the days, that is, until you step outside, and confront the full force of this dry infuriating swirling gale, or inadvertently forget to close a shutter, to hold tight to a door, or to button up your coat. At the supermarket I open the back of the car and three plastic shopping bags sweep out of the boot, and like ectoplasmistic spirits, folding, swirling and metamorphosing, scuttle animatedly along the tarmac car park, out of the supermarket grounds, speeding along the road and disappear down a left turn on the roundabout. Plastic bags and packaging litter the air and catch in the overhead wires, in trees, in the scrub and anywhere they will hold in the wind.
Now I understand why the fields, vines, and scrubby roadside ditches are strewn with this shredded confetti of plastic. The wind in its determined force, unremittently pulls, whips, shreds and lacerates anything it can lay its hands on, anything light, unattached or flimsy. The lampposts rattle and tremble as the wind reaches its full strength, whipping the electric lines back and forth. Boards, signs, bins, and barriers are all blown over, strewn and flattened. The police municipal have abandoned their nonchalant morning post at the junction, and the canal once flat, now appears to be a torrid stream, its surface rippling with frothy waves that threatens to break its banks. And all the while the temperature seems to be dropping. The cruel combination of a forceful unpredictable wind and cold arctic air drives any residual warmth from the ground, pawing its way into any cracks or crevices in the house. The ground outside is solid, all the heat stripped from its surface, and sucked out, its moisture dried. The metal bowl that catches the water from the tiled roof is tossed around the garden and the pipe in the garage is frozen solid – and all standing water is completely frozen, swimming pools like miniature arctic landscapes, water butts stretched and solid with ice.
And yet when you look out the window the sun is shining and it seems that the sky is entirely blue. It is only now that you understand, how this arctic wind is the most debilitating, and why locals fear the long bouts of the mistral, especially in winter; for the strange unerring force of the air, the anti-social quality and the sapping relentless blowing…. inside some giant experimental wind tunnel. For now the schools have shut down, the toilets are frozen and there is no power as the electricity keeps cutting out. It seems strange as our little house remains remarkably cosy. Once the wood fire is on and all the double-glazed windows firmly shut you try to forget the weather roaring outside. But every day another reminder – the metal chairs at the back of the house are picked up and flung across the terrace, smashing against the fig tree. It is sometimes hard to open or close the shutters or open the car door, pushing against the fierce wind. Still we think because the sun is shining and the wind is blowing that our clothes will dry just as well outside on the washing line – but instead they become stiff in ten minutes, the waterlogged fibres freezing them into solid castes. Everything is shaking and pulling, as the wind swirls and gusts, picking up our plastic bin, and sending piles of cardboard boxes shimming across the road. And everyday we wake up hoping that the wind has dropped. But now we are resigned to the cold as we peer at the weather forecast across the whole of Europe, and realize how much harsher it is almost everywhere else.
So it was with some relief that on this Sunday, when the wind seemed to drop, we were able to venture out to Cavaillon. The wind considerably weakened, we felt safe to clamber up the colline Saint-Jacques. According to the local newspaper, La Provencal, it had been minus 26 degrees that evening at the summit of Mont Ventoux, but in the feeble wintery sun it felt almost warm as we made our way up the steps to the top of the cliffs, climbing breathlessly in the frozen air to the deserted summit with its scattered houses and hermit chapel. At the top of the colline looking eastwards there is an orientation tableau. Made up by a circle of carefully painted ceramic tiles that faithfully approximates the panorama, showing the significant contours and places in the landscape. Cavaillon lies at the confluence of the Luberon, the Durance Valley and the low mountain chains of the Petit and Grand Luberon. The jagged Alpilles rise across the River Durance Valley, and skirting the north of the town the small but powerful river Calavon, with the chain of Vaucluse mountains and the flat plain by the Rhone beyond. Nestled against this detached limestone outcrop of the Luberon on which we stood, looking down, the small compacted medieval town that we had climbed up from, could now be easily defined, against the surrounding urban architecture. Its outline of medieval streets and buildings both conceals and reveals a remarkable history of trade and religious diversity. It was a place made famous for its river men who would use rafts to navigate the dangerous unpredictable rivers, ferrying goods and people to the Mediterranean and back. It is also where a crossing for the Durance was established, long before the Romans came to the region. Because if this it was a place that attracted a diverse population of peoples. Until recently it demonstrated a modicum of intercommunal tolerance, the cultivation of melon and fruit requiring a large workforce of migrant labour. However, religious and ethnic tolerance has fluctuated widely over time. Witness this typically vitriolic and prejudiced report from Darlac, the author of L’Histoire naturelle de Provence (1782) describing the Jewish quarter:
“The Jewish Quarter is so contaminated as to revolt even those least concerned with cleanliness. It is surprising how the police, whose first duty should be to look after public health, should allow in the middle of a town so many breeding-grounds of disease, and do not force the filthy Jews to keep their streets and houses cleaner.” (quoted in Jacobs: 83)
In the fourteenth Century Bishop Philippe de Cabassoles, Petrarch’s close friend held out here against the vicious politics of Avignon. It was at the end of this turbulent century that the Jewish community who Darlac barely describes, was swelled by the expulsions from the rest of France, making their homes in the Papal enclave of the Vaucluse. Their freedoms increasingly circumscribed, and confined to the densely packed ghetto which would be locked at night. The community thrived in spite of persecution, and built within the tight streets a number of imposing buildings. Sadly the famous Rococo-decorated synagogue, first built in the fifteenth Century, the former cathedral Notre-Dame-et-Saint-Véran and the modern theatre were all shut. So we wandered up and down the empty streets, while we waited for a restaurant to open.
I imagined as we walked through the old town how a hundred years ago the Durance and the Rhone in full spring flood, would surge over their banks and inundate the low lying land – washed and brimming with a fertile silt – the ochre of Roussillon canyons, and the mineral rich Alpes would spread out and contaminate the streets. These dried out silt beds, of the Cavaillon flood plains, proved ideal for the cultivation of fruit and vegetables but particularly the melon. Alexandre Dumas recalls in his grand dictionnaire de cuisine that he gave a full set of his collected works to the municipalities new library, in return annually for ‘a dozen of the “frais, savoureux et sapides” Cavaillonnais melons’ (Garrett 2006: 205). This particular cultivated melon made it the richest municipality in France, though it is difficult to tell quite how, or to see where all that wealth has gone – except perhaps for some extended social housing and a suite of playing fields with stadia for various sports, the town appears somewhat depressed. Stores on the shopping street are bordered up and we meet only one man out with his dog clutching a baguette. Otherwise the streets are deserted. And yet here we are finally sitting inside a North African restaurant, eating couscous and chips, enjoying the warmth and ambiance of a room filled with people sharing food together. I already want to return to eat a fish tagine, and visit the theatre, the synagogue and the former cathedral of Cavaillon.
Walk 18 14 February
Vaison La Romaine Part 1 – A Valentine in Vaison or food for the Tourists
Vaison, in deep winter, is a town waiting for the tourists to return. Its sole reason for existing seems entirely bound up with the past…. Waiting for another summer season to replace the last one with its buried memories, and the weight of a past, that can never be completely erased. Even the most tragic and dramatic events of its recent history are coloured by this ancient history. In the museum at the centre of the archaeological site of Roman Vaison, there is an extraordinary reminder of this; five or six well-preserved stakes of wood, as thick as a forearm are displayed in a glass cabinet. They are about six feet tall and are displayed alongside photographs of their discovery and two thick iron collars, shaped like hollow pointed wedges. These iron collars were the metal tips placed onto the rough wooden piles, which allowed them to be driven into the stony ground. Their wooden remnants, preserved in the waterlogged banks of the river, were only exposed because of the force of a flood that smashed into Vaison on September 22 1992: a flood that ripped past the town and scooped out tons of the impacted bankside in a few wild minutes. But it is these six piles that remain, given their own monumental display cabinet. They loom up out of the reflective glass panes, dark forms, ossified with an intense tarry blackness, like shriveled upended sarcophagi, or primitive effigies, sentinels of Vaison’s perpetual disinterment.
It is Tuesday 14th February and the freezing weather has lifted briefly, as if for Saint Valentine’s Day. Here, thankfully the day has not been entirely co-opted by manufactured flowers, and mass-produced cards that profess undying love with an excruciating sentimentality. There is a smattering of Valentine consumables but it is just another wintry Market day in Vaison, lifted only by the strong sun. Another day of selling lettuces and oranges, and of serving food to the few customers and tourists who have the time to stay on after the stalls are packed away. We are unfortunate enough to choose an empty restaurant with a owner who will not let us leave. We are served a meal of ‘tourist’ fare plucked from a freezer… which reminds me of the saddest meal I ever had in France, a miserable plate of mixed bean salad taken straight from the can served up as vegetable and bean salad with a few stale slices of baguette, This café in Huelgoat finally destroyed any remaining pretense of the bon nourriture de France. You could see that in la belle france that they could serve just as much processed food, without any care or pride, as any other country in the world. The restaurant was empty for a reason but we had a fine view of the river and the medieval town, and where able to bask in the strong sunlight.
“Vaison-la-Romaine is a medieval city classified as “City of art and history.” It is also a city where an archaeological Roman city was discovered in its quasi-totality. It includes the House of Messii, the Portico of Pompey, the House report (insula), thermal baths and Roman theatre.” (net-Provence)
The wooden piles and the beautifully crafted stone bridge remind us of the roman’s advanced skills in civil engineering. The bridge at Vaison not only withstood a direct hit by a German bomb during world war two but also, far more remarkably, survived the wall of muddy water that surged down the gorge-like valley from Mont Ventoux on that fateful day – 22 September 1992.
A flash flood ripped through Vaison-la-Romaine this September making international headlines. The most devastating flood since 1616 left a path of destruction along the course of the Ouvze River killing 53 people when they were swept away from a riverside campsite. Pictures on CNN showed homes along the river dropping, wall by wall, into the turmoil. The only surviving bridge was Roman, built over two thousand years ago during the first century BC.
Soon, engineers from all over France came to Vaison to study this wonder: the bridge that has survived two major floods (in 1616 and again in 1992), a direct bomb hit during World War II, and two thousand years of heavy traffic.” (http://www.dailymotion.com/video/x1pwcg_innondations-de-vaison-la-romaine_events)
I have done some limited research on the web and have found five different accounts of the flooding. These accounts variously put the death toll as 42, 43, 35 or 53 deaths (or combinations of these numbers). It seems then, that less value is put on the human lives lost in this cleaned up story, than the potential of the flood to provide useful scientific data on flash flooding, or to give the archaeologist more work, more Roman history, more reconstruction. The surge of water on the river was also variously described as a mudslide or as a flash flood.
‘Thirty-four people were known to have died after a five-hour storm on Tuesday, described by meteorologists as ‘a tropical downfall’ hit the Ardeche Drome and Vaucluse regions on Tuesday. Another 44 people were still missing yesterday after rivers burst their banks, smashing houses and trees and washing away cars and caravans.
The worst affected was the town of Vaison-la-Romaine in the Vaucluse where at least 21 people died. It stands above the river Ouveze. Over the past three decades, industrial and housing estates and campsites have been built on the river banks. ‘People used to build high above the river, not like now when buildings go up on the riverbed,’ one resident said.
“Paul Quiles, the Interior Minister, has declared the area a disaster zone. He said some areas looked ‘as if they have been bombarded’. President Francois Mitterrand said a ‘natural catastrophe of extreme violence which has hit a part of the country has cruelly left many families mourning. I share their pain.’” (The Independent Friday 25 September 1992 – Julian Nundy reporting from Paris)
Undoubtedly the terrace where we ate our reheated meal would one day be engulfed, again, by a brown boiling surge of mud that obliterated everything. But fortunately for us Saint Valentine protected us both from the waters and potential threat of food-poisoning.
Walk 19 February 21
Ascent of the North Face of Mont Ventoux (from Mont Serein, you can look down on the world)
Petrarch’s Letter to Dionisio Da Borgo San Sepolcro
‘Today I climbed the highest mountain in the region, which is not improperly called Ventosum. The only motive for my ascent was the wish to see what so great a height had to offer. I had the project in my mind for many years, for, as you know I loved in these parts from my childhood on, having been cast there by fate which determines human affairs. And so the mountain, which is visible from a great distance, was always before my eyes, and for a long time I planned on doing what I have finally done today. The impulse to make the climb actually took hold of me while I was reading Livy’s History of Rome ye sterday, and I happened upon the place where Philip of Macedon, the one who waged the war against the Romans, climbed Mount Haemus in Thessaly.’ (Petrarch: 11)
Looking down as you drive along the road to Malaucène you can see the bare fruit trees and vines laid out in neat parallel lines. Occasionally the pattern is distorted, and this bird-like view reveals giant pick up sticks or needles thrown across the land, interlaced with the dark outline of the trees. In fact they are the ribbons of tense plastic webbing tied between the outer branches of the cherry trees that make a patchwork of reflective ribbons with a metallic appearance. Rigid from this distance, and in their random layout, these reflective ribbons confuse the eye into imagining some giant has thrown across the fields a box of their pins – like javelins caught haphazardly in a heap of kindling wood – they lie in a disorderly pile across the bare earth. Perhaps this is what climbing to a great height has to offer, it is the opportunity to see the world from above, transformed, but unlike from the artificial platform of a plane, with your feet still firmly planted on the ground, surrounded with the scent and feel of the place.
What did Petrarch see that day? He hardly describes it in detail, more preoccupied with internal and spiritual thoughts engendered by the strenuous exertion of his ascent. This lack of detail has led many to doubt that he ever actually ascended to the Mountain’s summit. But there is something so fresh and honest in his description of the exhausting climb that one can really imagine him, that long day, searching for some easier way to climb to the top. Almost giving up and then finally just before sunset stumbling to the top. And what he admits to, when he finally reaches the summit: ‘he stood there as a dazed person’. He also gives a brief but careful description of the general topographic panorama for the full 360 degree circle. Now there is a table de orientation to guide your sight, which pinpoints peaks in the Alps to the north, including Mont Blanc, Grenoble and, views out across the Ardeche and toward Lyon. But when he climbed the peak there were only primitive maps, and certainly no portable telescopes.
Unfortunately we do not have the time to make a full ascent, so we drive up the D974 toward the skiing station of Mont Serein. The views, both left and right of the road, are spectacular. The road seems to climb only very slowly. As we drive up in the sun the air feels unseasonably warm but in to the shade you can feel the cold mountain air. It is deceptive in the car, as if you are barely ascending at all, sealed inside. At some point the side of the road becomes encased in compacted snow, dirty but still icy. It looks as if the shaded north face of the mountain is covered in snow. The crown of the Mountain still looms above. Despite driving for some considerable time, it seems that this road is never going to reach the top. But then, somewhat incongruously, you come round a bend and begin descending a slight compression. And there in front of you is an oversized roundabout, a nondescript sculpture in its midst, with a choice of roads leading off down to the ski resort or on upwards. But the summit road is firmly closed, so we have no choice but to head toward the resort. As you turn down this road you can see a number of parked cars, and buses filled with primary school pupils, about to go for a days tobogganing on the compacted snow. The slopes look far too bald and icy for any skiing but the mountain slopes are not entirely deserted. This road that leads to the far end of the Mont Serein is like one large extended carpark, over a kilometer long and at least two buses wide. Thankfully it is mostly empty today.
We start out from the far end of the resort, past an enclosure of wooden cabins and caravans. It takes only 5 minutes before we have left behind the sights and sounds of the ski resort, and are beginning a slow gentle descent through the pine forest. At certain points the water from melted snow has refrozen, creating sheets of black ice which it is impossible to walk on with out slipping. We pass a number of noticeboards – one which describes in very precise terms the presence by the pathway of seven wizened beech trees and two large twisted pines. These distorted, rotting, split specimens with their distended and exposed roots are the sole survivors of a primary forest that once covered the slopes. Now the mountain is planted with a mixture of spruce trees, transplanted there at the end of the nineteenth century, to ameliorate the dangerous flash floods, and avalanches that had begun to blight the lives of the villagers below.
We now leave this wider pathway and start climbing at a steep angle along a narrower path. Under the trees there is little or no snow. Occasionally, you are able to see through this tree cover and see an uninterrupted view to the Alps. We stop briefly to look down now, at the miniaturised ski resort of Mont Serein, and contrast it’s man made artificiality with the stark, expansive simplicity of the biosphere park. Yet almost all the trees in the park are artificial transplants. From here you can also discern how the flattened hummock of Mont Serein is attached to the great Mont Ventoux, like a small twin bulging from its northern flank: an ideal place for a way station and for a twenty-first century leisure post.
The path, at points now, is only as wide as a boot, and with the snow it is easy to imagine how one could lose your footing. On a number of occasions the crust of snow gives way, and the stony scree below starts to slip from under foot, sending small shards of stone cascading downwards. I start musing on the possibility of either my slipping down the mountainside, or even of pushing someone else down (for fictional purposes only). You can imagine how easy it would be to shove someone over, so precarious the footing and precipitous the slope, without any substantial vegetation now to stop the fall. It reminds me of a Sciascia story. But I need to concentrate on the pathway. For now we have to turn sharply up the steep path and walk across a small drift of icy snow. The brittle crust gives way, and you sink up to your knees into a fragile crystalline hollow. At points the drifts of snow must be 2 or 3 metres deep. We have been walking carefully and constantly for about one hour now. The only other life on the mountain are a few small songbirds skimming close to the ground, and two dark wild goats which we suddenly disturbed. In the woods below us we could make out others, perhaps part of a small herd. Continuing up above the tree line, we emerge onto the road, which is like a miniature glacier, spilling out over the metal barriers and rolling down the roadway in a thick icy mass. We start the final climb from here, along the exposed tarmac. Tiny shards of ice crystals, torn from the surface of the old snow dust the exposed parts of the road, and are sprinkled over the surface of the snowdrifts. There are more crusty drifts that have formed on the road, jagged and irregular patterns of ice, formed by the unrelenting wind that cling to the poles and barriers.
Then, there we finally are, our legs aching from the climb, looking out and down across the flattened summit of the Col de la Tempete, down to the places we had already set foot, in earlier attempts to ascend the summit. We are only a few hundred metres from the point in late October, when we stood in the fierce wind, abandoning our moonlit walk to the top. The sense of a final achievement is palpable then, set off by the unbelievable panorama that spreads out from the north side, and round to the south face of the bare crown. Remarkably today, it is almost entirely still, and the sky seems crystal clear. Apart from one other couple, who we disturb at the chapel, the summit is entirely deserted. In this squat refuge, huddled into the rock, there is a pyramid of snow forcing the metal doors open and almost touching the altar. We quickly study the chaotic assortment of offerings laid out on the concrete slab. Amongst the jumble of dried flowers and half-burnt candles there is a most poignant, desperate, message that reads in English: ‘dear Margaret, I miss you, please help me’. The anguish concentrated in that small note, brown with damp is painfully apparent – that solitude engendered in a confrontation with nature:
It will never be my view that solitude is disturbed by the presence of a friend, but that it is enriched. If I had the choice of doing without one or the other, I should prefer to be deprived of solitude rather than of my friend. (Petrarch from On a life of Solitude, Book 2)
Certainly on a clear day, this is a magnificent observation post (just as the information sign claims). A place of rare contemplation and solitude, where one can look down both on the world and on ones own small part in it. And surrounded by the icy beauty, with a blue sky above, you are even more aware of the harsh conditions that usually pertain; that this place is just as likely to be covered in cloud, shrouded in mists and blasted by a cruel wind or exposed to the burning sun, as to be bathed in this light wintry warmth… a place both of peaceful solitude and a yearning for companionship.
A couple of weeks later I am in a aeroplane, only 15 minutes from landing at Marseille, and I casually look out of the window to see where we are. I immediately recognize it. There it is, an unmistakable view of the mountain from the northwest – its great ridge running up toward the weather station and its tower, running down gently into the mountains beyond. From the air, the sharp apex of its long spine seems accentuated by the afternoon shadow. But though I can see much further, and with godlike omniscience look down onto the landscape, I feel too far away, and too sealed in to feel even a modest portion of the sublime beauty I experienced that day two weeks ago, when we finally made it to the top of the great Mont Ventoux; that glistening mountaintop capped with ice, a gift of exertion, granted to us, on that clear wintry day.