It is one of the joys of a writer’s life that unless the deadlines are looming – or making the particular whooshing sound of which the late Douglas Adams spoke – then by and large we are free to come and go as we choose.
Thus, when a friend I’ve known for more years than I care to remember rang a couple of weeks ago and said, “Fancy a trip to the south of France?” it was only a matter of considering the logistics. One cheap last-minute flight later I was at Nice airport, breathing in the balmy Mediterranean air along with a better class of traffic fumes.
Bill drove me north towards the mountains, explaining he’d had an unexpectedly long trip down, owing to the usual mountain cols being shut by snow. We had to follow the same detour on the return leg, via Digne, where we stopped for a quick bite at a pavement café and I realised how much the French like to manicure their trees.
The following day we made a quick trip over the Italian border into the market town of Cuneo, where I discovered that the Italians do a nice line in literate sculpture.
Driving back over the mountains was awe-inspiring. Not only for the spectacular scenery, but also for the constant switchbacks and the fact there was surprisingly little traffic to contend with. I took my passport, but nobody asked to see it.
I was staying near the town of Barcelonnette, which has beautiful narrow streets filled with expensive boutiques, and allows glimpses of the snow-clad mountains at the end of every one.
The roads into those mountains can be very hairy to drive over. This bridge was one destroyed during the last War. And if you think the view from here is impressive …
… you want to stand up there and look down to the river way, way below!
And once you’ve made it over the bridge, there’s a tunnel that looks more like the entrance to a cave than a roadway.
The tunnel itself clearly gets very little sunlight, as these huge icicles demonstrate. To give it some scale, Bill is well over six feet tall. And, just after he’d posed for this picture, one of the frozen stalactites dropped off and shattered on the ground. Good job he’d moved!
There’s usually very little to prevent you slithering off the side of a mountain, although we chose to walk up this single-track road. The air is so dry that wood weathers to beautiful tones of silver, but hardly seems to rot.
The climb was hard work. I thought I was simply very unfit until I discovered we were at more than 2600 metres (8500 ft) above sea level. That made me feel a little better about my breathlessness.
And it was certainly worth it to see the first signs of spring amid the snow-flattened grasses.
We also saw more wildlife than I was expecting, including ibex, deer, and even a couple of marmot, a curious creature a bit like a mountain beaver. Often, you see them and don’t realise you have. They tend to stick their heads out of their burrows and stay so still that, with their brownish-grey colouring, it’s easy to mistake them for a rock.
Speaking of rocks, the pattern of quartz in the rock of the mountains was fascinating.
It was an amazing trip, but also a sad one. The last time Bill was there, his wife Jean died very suddenly, and there were still formalities he needed to carry out. My task was a bit of moral support, and also to act as toll monkey on the long drive back up through France. Not easy to negotiate automated toll booths that are designed for left-hand-drive vehicles, when you’re travelling solo in a right-hand drive.
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This week’s Word of the Week is verglas, meaning a thin film of ice on rock. It has its roots in glass-ice, from the Old French verre-glaz, and is frequently seen on French road signs in mountainous regions, where it is usually ‘risque de verglas’ or ‘verglas fréquent’.