Monday, 13 June 2011

La Montagnette and the Vallon de Combau

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After several days of much-needed rain, we took advantage of a break in the weather to return to the Vallon de Combau and the Montagnette on the Vercors Plateau.  Instead of taking the usual well-beaten path we opted for a different route in the hope of coming across something new.  

The Montagnette isn't particularly high, being just under 2 000m, part of an escarpment which runs approximately north-south along the edge of the Combau.  We clambered up the steep grassy slope towards the rocky summit.

The escarpment to the west of Vallon de Combau with the summit of the Montagnette extreme right

As we climbed towards the rocks, the sky clouded in and the light, being grey and flat and undramatic, was just not suitable for long distance landscapes.  So we have chosen some brighter views taken on a previous visit in October 2007 to supplement what we saw this time.

There were rewards for choosing the steeper route.  The decaying roots and trunk of a fallen pine, a natural sculpture suggesting Dali or Bosch, and containing almost any caricature you choose to imagine.

The slope is home to a colony of marmottes.  The marmottes were too quick for us but there are plenty of burrows and recent workings which is good news in an area that had lost most of its population of these endearing animals.  The other main occupants of this little forest are ants;  uncountable in their laboriously-constructed domes.

The view from the base of the cliffs is one of the finest in the area and we have chosen the shot below from our previous visit.

View from a limestone pavement at the base of the cliffs over the Vallon de Combau, Trieves, Devoluy and Champsaur with the peaks of the Parc National des Ecrins in the background.

In the view above, the sky is almost clear, as clear as we can get it.  This region is on a busy flight path and vapour trails are ever present though, fortunately, the aircraft are usually high enough to be hardly heard.  However, the vapour trails sometimes spread and cover the entire sky like a layer of low cloud.  But the air here is clear and the visibility often excellent.  We used to live in the Var with a distant view of the Mediterranean.  In the 1990s from our terrace we could often clearly see every detail all the way across the 40 Km between us and the sea.  By the time we left, a year ago, a clear view was a rare ocurrence, perhaps two or three times a year and the guilty pollution was all too plain to see.

Skirting round the low cliffs we walked up the slope to the summit and to the view of our favourite local mountain, Mont Aiguille.

Looking north from the summit of La Montagnette into the Isere, Mont Aiguille and Le Grand Veymont.

It seemed a pity to take the same route back as last time and instead we walked south along the edge of the escarpment and over the Sommet de Rangonnet.  Heading south, we walked into one of those magical corners that are such a delight to find.  Perhaps a niche with its own micro-climate, noticeably different vegetation, particularly pleasing Mountain Pines and dramatic geology on a small scale.  A stage set for Tolkien or a backdrop for a pre-Raphaelite painter.

A deep, probably very deep, cleft at the edge of the escarpment, with its own rock garden, and a view towards the Jocou and Mont Barral.

A fine Pinus Mugo, Mountain Pine, at the edge of the escarpment, shaped by the wind and the long, hard winter.

The map doesn't show a direct descent from the escarpment but an apparent break in the cliffs and a couple of tell-tale names, Pas du Loup and Pas des Brebis, suggests that there is a way down.  There is, but we failed to find a track of any sort and the going varied between steep and very steep.  It might have been easier to have retraced our steps but less enterprising.  After a long descent we followed a stream bed onto glorious meadows at the valley bottom;  meadows so carpeted with wild flowers that it was impossible to step between them.  On the way down the stream we stopped to shoot a couple of flowers.

Great Yellow Gentian (Gentiana Lutea) and a Dactylorhriza Orchid (at least that's what we think it is).  These handsome orchids, not at all uncommon, grow profusely all over the hills and valleys in this area.

The architectural flowering head of a Great Yellow Gentian just before coming into bloom.  Another common plant in the region though apparently threatened elsewhere. 

Like so many herbs and plants the Great Yellow Gentian possesses an abundance of medicinal and other properties.  It is the main ingredient of Angostura Bitters and of Suze  -  a liqueur from the Limousin. It also flavours an unusual Italian beer.  Extracts both from its bitter roots and fresh flowering parts have long been considered effective against various poisons and a general tonic for the digestive system.  The root is considered to be anthelmintic, anti-inflammatory, antiseptic, bitter tonic, cholagogue, emmenagogue, febrifuge and stomachic.

As the gathering of wild flowers is rightly strictly forbidden in France, we haven't tried the plant for any of its properties  -  though we have tried the liqueur.

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