Tuesday 26 April 2011

The Jocou and Serre de Beaupuy - more Mountain Pines

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Anyone reading our blog may have concluded that we are obsessed with the local mountains and the Mountain Pine in particular.  Yes, but next week we'll be doing something completely different.

Just under a week ago we went back to The Jocou for the third time.  It's a dominant, 2 000m, peak offering magnificent views in every direction:  to the east across Trieves and the Devoluy towards the Parc des Ecrins;  to the north over the Vercors towards Grenoble;  to the west over the Vercors towards the Rhone Valley and to the south over the Diois.  On Wednesday, the views were as expected but, as so often, a combination of haze and distant pollution over Grenoble and the Rhone Valley spoiled them for photography.

On the Jocou summit looking towards Les Ecrins and a friendly Raven coping better than us with the ferocious wind.

We had intended, for the first time, to brave the more exposed route back via the Col de Seysse.  The path runs along a razorback ridge with spectacular drops each side and then descends very steeply to the Col.  Given the strength of the wind and our attitude to heroics, we remembered Falstaff's words: "Of valor discretion is the better part".  So we returned by a another route through the forest.  

The treeline is at about 1 800m and has the poignancy of a battlefield.  The Pinus Mugo are the hardiest but even they struggle to survive.  Battered, lopsided trees pepper the hillside until the forest establishes itself lower down.

Even at 1 600m life is tough for a tree.  A valiant attempt to establish larches culminated in this strange group of lichen-clad survivors, huddled together for mutual support.

One severe February day, a couple of years ago, we approached The Jocou via the Col Vente-Cul which, returning to Falstaff's aphorism, was as far as we got.  That time the freezing wind was armed with tiny, ice particles.  

On the Col, once again, the Mountain Pines still grow, albeit slowly, in the most exposed situations.  Completely ice-bound they must have been encased like sculptures for months on end.  Lower down, another elegant example of those redoubtable little trees.

But Spring is here and Summer is coming.  This time there was an abundance of new flowers on the path up to the Jocou summit.  Pulsatillas in white and purple growing surprisingly right at the top, mostly solitary and delicate in a wild and hostile environment.  Anemones and carpets of crocus.  The most striking at the moment are the gentians, glowing in the grass.

A few weeks ago we had driven up to the Vallee de Combau and walked up to another 360 degree view -  first the Tete de Praorzel and then the Serre de Beaupuy at 1 750m.  Again, not great light for views and again the ever-present vapour trails.  

From the Tete de Praorzel looking north over Chichilianne, Mont Aiguille and the Grand Veymont.

A handsome lone Mountain Pine, relatively protected from the weather, Les Quatre Tetes on the Vercors Plateau in the background.  Lower down, in a sheltered valley, there are stands of beech trees, always decorative and strikingly graphic.

Monday 18 April 2011

Tussac and the Grande Pigne, Vercors Plateau

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Another week passed, occupied with necessities that we would have preferred to postpone rather than getting out and doing what we wanted to do.  For sanity's sake the hills were calling again and on Sunday we drove to Benevise, about half an hour from here, beyond Chatillon towards the Col de Menee.  Benevise is a largely unspoilt little village, sitting up on a promontary at about 700m and usually bathed in sunlight.  From Benevise a relatively unfrequented track leads, by one of the shorter routes, up onto the Vercors Plateau at Tussac.

The Plateau has some resemblance to Conan Doyle's 'Lost World'.  Not quite as wild and forbidding but intensely atmospheric and romantic and easy to get lost in.  Walking to Tussac is not taking any chances.  Ours was a relatively easy four to four and a half hours circuit  -  walking time that is, but wonderfully varied.  Tussac is a little peninsula that, like a finger, points south from the Mountain of Glandasse and the main Plateau. In winter the Plateau is a wild and wonderful place and not for the faint-hearted; it used to be the training ground for French Arctic and Antarctic expeditions because of its climatic similarity.  In summer it's a centre of transhumance acting as a grazing ground for thousands of sheep and a few cattle from the surrounding valleys.  Tussac has several huts used by the shepherds during the grazing season and, in places, the strangely manicured look of a Japanese garden.

We passed by the huts and the open grassland and cut through a forest of mountain pine (Pinus Mugo) to the edge of the cliffs on the west side of Tussac, looking down into the valley towards Archiane.  The pine forests were in large part the reason for the establishment of the National Park.  The trees had been threatened by a health fad based on an extract from their bark and the wonderful forests of these amazingly hardy little trees were fast disappearing.  Now they are flourishing again.

Walking by no particular path through the forest along the edge of the cliffs calls for a certain concentration as the limestone geology is haphazard and treacherous, the trees pushing their way through deep grikes, the vegetation often concealing the edge of the cliff and deep rifts.  The cliffs fall in huge terraces down to the valley 1 000m below.

Looking over the cliffs from Tussac, 1 000m into the valley at Archiane.

Apart from the annual visit of the sheep, the forests are left alone and the cliffs are home to a variety of wild life including chamois and successfully re-introduced mouflon.  We know they're there but somehow we rarely see them.  The other recent and wonderfully successful re-introduction has been vultures which had been absent for around half a century.  Of the four varieties introduced, the first two have formed secure breeding colonies and it's difficult to spend time on or near the Plateau without seeing these magnificent birds.  Also various eagles which we usually fail to identify.

The mountain pines tend to be chaotic and dense.  They live and die on the Plateau and there are fresh saplings everywhere.  It isn't a ghoulish fascination that prompts us to photograph their skeletal remains, rather the graphic outlines and dinosaur-like carcases that fertilise the woods.

Bilberry (Vaccinium Myrtillus) sustaining itself from the remains of a decaying tree stump.

Vertigo: leaning over the edge of the cliff to photograph these weird pinnacles promotes giddiness and an other-worldly feeling.

The strange world of the Mountain Pine forest.

From the Grande Pigne we turned back towards Tussac and the view down the valley towards Mont Barral, The Jocou and, in the distance, the Parc National des Ecrins, the snowline defying the early summer-like weather.

Partially protected from the wind, wild narcissus grow in profusion on short stems between Tussac and the Grande Pigne.

The long walk back to Benevise provoked a certain thirst, sated at the Cafe de la Mairie in Chatillon-en-Diois on the way home.

Tuesday 12 April 2011

A walk in the Roanne Valley

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Sunday was not a day for working on a computer.  It seemed to be the first day of summer.  The modest Roanne River is one of those exciting mountain torrents running in a magnificent gorge, much of it through pine forest, and always sparkling and crashing on its rocky bed.  The Roanne drains a thinly populated basin of tortured geology;  a paradise for flora and fauna, challenging for mankind.

Last time we were in this valley, ten years ago, we camped near Les Reynauds and woke up to the spectacle of a pair of Golden Eagles warming themselves at the top of the cliffs in the early morning sun.  No eagles this time.  We started further down the valley at St. Benoit-en-Diois.  The light was totally wrong for a shot of the strange little village church, an architectural curiosity for this region.  On the other side of the river we climbed through the vineyards towards the crest of the valley.

Old vines pruned, ready for the new season's wines.

The second week in April and at the top of the Serre Bauchard approaching 1000m overlooking St. Benoit and the Roanne it was a brilliant summer day about 27C.  

View from Serre Bauchard over St. Benoit and the bends of the Roanne towards the Trois Becs in the distance.

After a relatively modest winter, Spring arrived early.

Blackthorn, sloe, Prunus Spinosa, in clumps beside the path.

The footpath joined the road again at Rimon, a sun-baked hamlet at siesta time.

But, at over 1 000m in its relative isolation, it might be a hard place to pass the winter.

Ancient stable door in aged larch to the lower storey of a house in Rimon where the livestock traditionally lived in winter.

From Rimon, a beautifully constructed but decaying mule track leads back down the 6km to St. Benoit.  For us, a wonderful walk through the forest though perhaps before the days of roads and cars the 650m descent and the climb back up to Rimon might have been less alluring.  We arrived at St. Benoit with the sun full on the portico of its extraordinary little church.

The church at St. Benoit-en-Diois.  It is like nothing else in the region and is a classified monument.  Someone must know its history but we have been unable to find out much about it.  To us it strongly resembles Corsica's Pisan church architecture but we have no idea why this should be.  We'll keep trying to discover its history.

Latest excavations in Die

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Archaeologically Die isn't Urr of the Chaldees or Chichen-Itza but it has a very long and respectable pedigree.  Neolithic menhirs dated 4 500 to 4 000 BC were quite recently found during the enlargement of the local wine co-operative.  In 218 BC, Hannibal passed through the territory of the Voconces, the local people who inhabited what is now the Diois.  In about 100 AD Die became the capital of the region taking over from Luc about 20 Km to the south.  The town grew rapidly as the capital of the Voconces.

Die has substantial Roman connections and plenty of archaeological evidence of the long Roman occupation of the area.  The still-impressive Ramparts were built around 307 AD, starting under the Emperor Constantin.  Die continued to make its small but singular impression on history when it became the centre of one of the few Protestant enclaves in a mainly Catholic part of Europe.  Die's Protestantism deeply marked its history and its heritage.

The present extensive excavations around the Cathedral have revealed a pattern of foundations of a variety of dates yet to be disclosed by the archaeologists.  As the photographs below show, there are some interesting, perhaps medieval, columns, pavements and foundations and some heavily carved lintels.  We'll have to wait for the report but it is somehow satisfying to feel that we are a continuation of a long history of human occupation, from time to time quite benevolent.   

6-sided column Capital and section of stone column, with Die's Cathedral in the background on the Place de la Republique.                    

A second, larger stone column section found on the eastern side of the Place de la Republique.

Monday 11 April 2011


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We've both enjoyed working in Japan.  The singularity of Japan and the Japanese, for better or for worse, makes it one of the world's most interesting cultures.  Even when the Japanese adopt western ways they do so in a peculiarly Japanese way.  The present horrors that have been visited on them and their country have highlighted their virtues of stoicism, dignity and unselfishness.  

It's not all that easy to work out why the Japanese have followed western ways, apart from lack of choice.  
Visitors to Kiyomizu Temple Pagoda, Kyoto.
Artistic and restrained, the average Japanese seems ill-suited to the cut and thrust of business and international competetiveness.  Yes, the Japanese excel at whatever they do but they seem happiest on misty, drizzly days visiting ancient wooden temples or at cherry blossom festivals in soft, spring sunshine.  That's an idealised perception but hard to resist after a visit to Japan and to be all the more moved by the plight of all those ordinary Japanese people who now might well fear even the soft morning drizzle and the seafood they love so much.

'Geisha' adds a striking touch of colour to a typically restrained garden.     Tokyo.
Shoren-in Temple, Kyoto.

Touche pas a mon Hopital

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Supine, unconcerned or entirely self-centred voters are a feature of modern democracries.  At first glance, France is no exception.  But to an outsider, after a few years, the differences are very marked.  The French get out into the streets and protest, usually in a civilised manner.  Politicians here are not all that different from politicians everywhere.  When they have a success on their hands they want to move on to more dangerous territory.  France has rightly achieved the miracle status of the country with the world's most accessible and, in many ways, best health care system.  The system is humane, well-administered and, by modern standards, affordable.  Nobody needs to be left to die or to deteriorate in misery.  Appointments are readily available at short notice and the care is often, if not usually, world class.  But, yes, far too many drugs are prescribed and perhaps that might be a good subject for improvers.

As ever, money is always available for a war but the health and education systems are costing more than they are worth in the eyes of the politicians.  Less immediate glory perhaps.  Political careers are short, major achievements take a little longer.  Now local hospitals are being neglected and under-funded, apparently in the hope that the inevitable deterioration will justify centralisation/closure.  The small hospital in Die has an enviable reputation for its freedom from secondary infection and its relative efficiency. But, like many others, it is slated for closure just as soon as a way can be found to silence its supporters.  Without the hospital, the people of Die will have to travel about 70 km to Valence and people from outlying areas much further.  Some people will die but that is the cost of keeping up the defence budget or whatever.  Will there be an allocation of funds to transport urgent cases and to improve facilities in Valence?

On 2nd April about 500 of Die's citizens, under the slogan 'Touche pas a mon Hopital', marched from the hospital to the sub-prefecture in protest.  500 is a good proportion from a town of less than 5000.  The protests were repeated all over France.  Will the politicians take note?

Protestors straddle the Rue Camille Buffardel, the main shopping street in Die.

. . .  and, in the Place de la Republique, Marianne urges on the concerned citizens.  Only fools underestimate Republican values.