I must admit I am not a great skier. I mean, I love mountain skiing, especially in sunny good weather, after a good night’s snowfall, when the slopes are not run down yet to the state of mogul or to ice crust. Obviously, out of the season of school vacations and national holidays. Ideally, it would be nice to have someone carrying my skis, but well ok, am going a little overboard.
Probably, the matter is that I’m an unsporting character and from all kinds of supporting physical activity I choose yoga (or rather, I chose earlier, as now I confine myself to occasional morning sun salutations). However, I felt always uncomfortable while thinking of the days wasted in the immediate vicinity of the ski slopes. My friends stomped around near the ski lifts even earlier than the station workers, shaved off the mountains regardless the weather, and eventually stopped making regular pauses for a glass or two of hot wine, so dear to my heart. Well, it makes sense: within a week or two you need to benefit from riding and sharpen your technical skills until the next time.
Their ski passes were worth the money, and I mustered up some strength to face the challenge only by the lunchtime, spurred by the idea that there wouldn’t be such an opportunity in Moscow (the stations on the Dmitrov highway, of course, do not count).
My move to France broke this vicious circle. Three hours of calm driving are separating me now from, perhaps, the most lovely ski area, which I managed to visit so far – Serre Chevalier Valley. Three hours in January this year turned into five. No, not because of traffic jams: the road was empty, as usual. It was the first time when I went there alone, and could make as many stops on the way as I wished.
This road reminded me once again of the thing I enjoy the most – the process. Fortunately or unfortunately, am much less bothered by the result. The result is final, whereas the process can turn into a wonderful endless story, with many different results along the way. As well as life itself, which is a process with a well-known result.
Thus, this article is not about length of the trails, modern infrastructure of the ski stations and diversity of the slopes, – although the Southern Alps are a very good destination ski-wise. It’s about what this area and the road there could offer, besides sport zeal.
Canal de Provence
As a big city girl in the past, I rarely wondered how water makes its way to the tap. There’s a pile of much more important things in life. I was not even perplexed by the fact that for many years we had only “summer” water at our dacha. It sourced from a surface pipeline, which at that time created a kind of geometric pattern on our garden plot, aesthetically supported by numerous vegetable rows.
Provence, as it turned out, is a rather arid region: in summer the temperatures can reach up to 40 degrees in the shade, and this shade is quite scarce. Locals are proud to quote the statistics of meteorologists: the greatest number of sunny days per year! Toulon (2,900 hours of sunshine) is the leader of 2016; Marseille and Nice follow with a miserable backlog.
However, lack of rain and plentiful rivers in the southernmost departments of the region are turning into a real problem, even today. In case of drought threat it is officially forbidden to wash cars, fill pools and baths, water lawns. Imagine how it had been before the technologies began its impetuous gallop!
In the middle of the XIX century, the authorities of the region took charge of a titanic project, still in development today – Le Canal de Provence. Having tamed the waters of the river Durance, originating from the Upper Alps, they arranged a new stone bed for it, extending the vital liquid down to Aix-en-Provence, Marseille and Toulon, drastically facilitating life of all the surrounding territories. The water arrival in Marseille was commemorated, in particular, by erection of a majestic Longchamp palace, henceforth housing the Museum of Fine Arts and the Museum of Natural History.
This channel runs exactly along the most beautiful, all-year-round practically carless highway A51, connecting Gap and Marseille, the capital of the Bouches-du-Rhône region.
We are from our childhood like we are from a country. A man who created a new European empire and who visited Russia not as a goodwill emissary, never provoked my rejection as an uninvited conqueror, but rather aroused my interest. “The Hussar Ballad”, “War and Peace”, and all the other films and books devoted to this historical period in my imagination were tinted with the romantic flair of France and its gallant gentlemen, fighting for their “noble cause”.
Escaping from his first exile on the Elba Island and having disembarked with the army in the Gulf of Juan in 1815, Napoleon hit the road from Grasse to the Alps. He overcame a large part of it on mules, since in those days no roads in proper sense of the word were constructed in this area.
A half-kilometre after leaving the highway A51 already mentioned, raising with the path to the mountains by the national road N85, you can observe a road sign, helpful reminder on who was here before you.
I explored the route of the great commander only partially, however reached a so-called “Napoleon shelter”, which is located at Col du Lautaret.
The construction of such shelters, or refuges, nearby the alpine passes was commissioned by the very founder of the First Empire, as a courtesy towards the people of the region for their support during his difficult campaign, yet was carried out already during the reign of his elegant, but no less revolutionary, nephew – Napoleon III.
By the way, in summertime this road is bursting with colours of sports shirts, as it is often chosen by the most famous cycling race of the world – “La Grande Boucle”, or Le Tour de France.
The place to make a stopover on the way to the snow-capped peaks – so far they remain as such even in summer. Along with pretty cafes and pubs, where you can grab a delicious and inexpensive snack, or traditional restaurants where gourmets could enjoy local cuisine, for example, in La Cigale restaurant, ranked as #1 by Trip advisor, Tallard is noteworthy for its fortress of the XIV century, which solemnly crowns one of the surrounding hills.
A historical monument of France, this fortress was erected in the place of an earlier castle of the Hospitallers, or the Maltese Knights. In the Middle Ages, it fell into the hands of the most renowned French noble families, the Clermont-Tonnerres, in particular, whose members had been taking part in important historical events of the country from the XIth century up to the French Revolution. This castle was also one of the titbits during the religious wars between Catholics and Protestants, the end of which was marked by construction of St. Gregoire church in the XVII century.
There’s a small Gap-Tallard airfield in the neighbourhood, where thrill seekers can plunge into all kinds of aerial adventures: ballooning, hang-gliding, paragliding, helicopter rides, parachute jumping, and free fall simulations in a wind tunnel. Since the sun is residing here on average 330 days a year, even a miniscule cloud is unlikely to spoil the pleasure of flying over the alpine peaks.
Briançon and Mont-Dauphin
If you’ve never heard the name of Marquis de Vauban (Sébastien Le Prestre, marquis de Vauban), it means that you’ve never been interested in military architecture. Like me.
Wikipedia praises him as an “innovator in the art of siege” and “father of gradual attack”. I had a chance to see the two fruits of his labour – the fortresses of Briançon and Mont-Dauphin – out of 12 included in the UNESCO World Heritage Sites list (in total he designed more than 150 fortified objects over his lifetime). Having quite quickly changed the camp of Prince Conde to the one of Mazarini in the days of the Fronde, Marquis de Vauban devoted his whole career to strengthening, preserving and extending the borders of France in the era of Louis XIV, the Sun King.
On the way to the valley of Serre Chevalier, you will first come across Mont-Dauphin, so let’s start with it.
On a relative plain, the road encounters a sudden mountain whose walls continue into man-made fortifications. Mont-Dauphin has become a strategically important entity at the intersection of the Durance and the Guil rivers, containing military garrisons, an arsenal and a powder stock. Rouget de Lisle, the author of the French national anthem, the famous “Marseillaise”, spent several years within its precincts, while practicing himself, among other things, in the art of womanizing.
The kids, for sure, will love searching for marmots, which inhabit the hills down the city. My husband claims that they used to be fed by numerous nature lovers, but today it’s strictly prohibited. You’re most likely to see them from spring to early autumn, although the hills are wide open for visiting all year round.
Just 5 minutes by car from Mont-Dauphin there is another site worth the tour: the Petrified Fountain (La fontaine pétrifiante de Réotier). Water that nurtures this natural fountain comes from a mineral thermal spring, rich in gypsum and calcium. When in contact with air, its carbonate deposits form bizarre volumes, inspiring local legends on a fairy monster and his terrible bared teeth. During the construction of a railway line at the end of the XIX century not far from the fountain, there were found Roman silver and bronze coins, whose age varies from the time of the reign of the emperor Tiberius (14-37 BC) to the emperor Magna Magnesium (350-363 AD): proving quite a busy movement along the ancient road from Arles to Rome.
Briançon opens the ski valley of Serre Chevalier. It is the highest city in France (1,326 meters above sea level) and the second in European ranking, ceding petty 234 meters to world economic Swiss Davos (the distance is usually measured from the city centre, so for me personally Briançon comes first in Europe as well). When redesigning this city Vauban, guided by the natural landscape where the five valleys converge, came up with the idea of a fortification system in the form of a star. The stronghold is protected by the forts located on neighbouring heights, and its lower walls, folded in a five-pointed pattern, are made of huge earthen ramparts, which made it unattainable for hostile cannons. This mighty bastion, for many centuries parrying the blows of those infringing upon its independence, in the times of Vauban was an outpost on the border with Italy.
Nowadays you can take a safe walk along on the walls and ditches of this impregnable fortress and enjoy breathtaking views of the national park of Ecrins, or take the lift to the mountain slopes.
In summer, active travellers will be able to appreciate the rope town Grimp in Forest, which stretches out at the foot of the fortress, gain rafting or kayaking experience on the Durance, and contemplate the magnificent July 14th fireworks getting into a DJ groove in the citadel, whose history is more than ten centuries old.
Les Pénitents des Mées
They strike the eye right away. Descending from the mountains to the sea, watching the country gradually pacify the rocks and become steep, leaving another turn among the fluffy hills, you suddenly bump into a mystical spectacle. The procession of ancient monks, whose slender 100-meter figures are wrapped in heavy black coats and whose faces are hidden by giant pointed hoods, meets your gaze. This procession has been at a standstill for eternity already: the Pénitents des Mées meekly bear their punishment.
The legend brings us back to the time of the Saracens invasion of the Provencal region in the XIIth-IXth centuries. A local feudal landlord, Rimbaud des Mées, after a successful attack on a moonless night on the camp of uninvited guests, found himself in a company of beautiful Moorish women whose lovely eyes were frightened to death with the perspective to share the fate of their compatriots, yielding themselves prisoners.
Surrending to their charms, instead of escorting them to a boat departing for Arles, where their fate was to be decided by the authorities, he locked himself with them in his castle and ceased communication with the world outside. His vassals became uneasy: first, they immediately suspected shameful pleasures, second, they did not understand how one could addict oneself to the representatives of a completely different culture, whose skin colour was much darker than their vision of beauty. And third, as the most reasonable explanation for the irrational behaviour of their master, they certainly considered sorcery of the perfidious strangers. The days went by, Monsieur Rimbaud continued to roll in sin, postponing the departure of his beloved foreigners, thus the indignation of his subjects grew. Women started to avoid the castle in fear of dark magic, men grumbled.
The local clergy did not sit still in waiting: the priors of Paillerols and Saint-Michel arrived with another visit to the ill-fated castle in order to dispel the witchcraft and invoke the responsibility of an eminent member of the congregation. The besotted nobleman felt quite free to advise them bugging off to their direct duties, rather than stick their noses in the affairs of his castle. As a hint of what might happen if they didn’t leave him alone, he mentioned the proximity of the deep waters of the Durance where he intended to throw them. Nevertheless, this visit had the effect, and our ardent lover took a thought on relevance of his behaviour, resulting in the decision to finish the job, i.e. to send out foreign beauties to Arles.
Outraged by the unwelcome, the church servants wished to colour the departure of the captives with regional importance, thus exposing Mr. Rimbaud to public humiliation. They obliged all the inhabitants of the domain to attend passage of the unfortunate women along the riverbank to the boat, so as to extinguish ever-possible re-weakness towards them.
Morose but irresistibly fair, the Moorish emerged from the castle’s gate, and started their way towards the river. In an instant, men became fully conscious of their lord’s reluctance to see them apart: they seemed to be hypnotized with the exotic beauty. The monks occupying a certain eminence nearby also felt themselves humble humans: their hearts beat faster and their eyes showed up completely inappropriate sparkles.
On the other side of the river, the Great Holy Donatus, the hermit from the Mount Lure (who converted this part of Provence into Christianity) quietly observed the spectacle. He realized with bitterness that the monks were going straight sinful, and turned them into stones right where they were standing. Even the prior of Paillerols remained numb with a wooden heart pressed to his heart, which can be seen today, according to the local reckless speleologists, in one of the hardest to access caves of this mountain sculpture.
Lake Serre-Ponçon and Boscodon Abbey
The Durance River, which delivered so much joy to the people of Marseille upon the construction of the respective branch of Canal de Provence, at the same time, caused a lot of trouble to the inhabitants of the Hautes-Alps and the Alps de Haute Provence, by the catastrophic floods of 1843 and 1856, in particular. As long ago as at the end of the XIX century, there existed already a project to create a water reservoir, but it was realized only in the middle of the XXth century, given its technical complexity. General de Gaulle who was supposed to cut the barrage ribbon in triumph, never did it due to Algeria crisis, however he is the person whom we owe “the largest active water storage reservoir in Europe” (at least, at the time of creation).
Lake Serre-Ponçon can be rightfully called “Provencal Matyora” to which about fifteen hundred people were compelled to say farewell and leave their soon-to-be-flooded villages.
In return, now we can contemplate an artificial lake in the foothills of the Alps, whose bright blue waters are bracing with freshness even in summer heat. Spas, hotels and small resorts have grown on its banks, whereas holidaymakers enjoy furrowing on boats, oared or motored, kayaks, floating bicycles, paddle boards, kites, and everything that seems appropriate for water fun.
The sole monument preserved on the lake is the chapel of St. Michael (Chapelle Saint-Michel), the head of the Heavenly Host. Visits are not allowed, even if your nimble oar brings you to a small islet, a former top of the hill, on which this place of worship was built in the XII century. In any case, you will fail to enter: the windows and the entrance are blocked up with stones, however this is not an obstacle for the numerous birds that have nestled in the cracking walls. Me personally would be discouraged by a single necessity to sail over the cemetery – traditionally located in whereabouts of a church. It went under the water, but did not disappear.
In its golden days, the chapel was part of the diocese of Boscodon Abbey (L’Abbaye de Boscodon) located just 15 minutes away by car. In the middle of the XIIth century, Guillaume de Montmirail, – apparently, a relative of the Count that Jean Reno seemed to have so much fun playing in a French comedy “The Visitors” (Les Visiteurs), – having no direct male descendants, made a donation to the local monks: they built the abbey on his land, explored the surrounding forest and settled a sheep farm. This is the place where a distant successor of the above-mentioned prior of Paillerols sent regular reports on his spiritual work.
Until quite recently the way there has not been an easy one: the road had been almost nonexistent before cars were invented, and the access to the monastery was feasible only by a shaky wooden footbridge across an inflow of the omnipresent Durance.
The original building was completely destroyed by the conflagrations of the XIV century, but the Benedictines reconstructed it in the next century, and during the French Revolution the estate was sold as a part of the national heritage to peasant families. In the early 1970s it was redeemed and restored by the Association of Friends of the Abbey.
Today, a measured pace of the abbey activities consists of exhibitions, performances, excursions, gardening, maintenance of a specialized library and creative workshops: miniature illustration, calligraphy, and ceramics. Here you can also have a nice midday’s snack in a small cafe and buy a jar of local honey as a souvenir.
During our last summer trip (yes, the mountains are even better in summer than in winter!) I came across a fascinating article about sundials in a local magazine, – as if on purpose, – after a day’s walk, still impressed by the specimens I saw.
I confess I have never been able to read them, yet they constantly attract my eye. The region of the Upper Alps definitely has something to offer for me to enjoy, moreover the largest number of hand-painted sundials could be found here. Giovanni Francesco Zarbula, a painter from Piedmont, did quite a work in this part of France and Italy in the XIXth century, dedicating forty years of his career to the valley of Queyras, about thirty years of them – to the whereabouts of Briançon. He used the ancient technique of fresco painting to maintain the colours’ brightness for a long time, which goes beyond all comparison with any of modern manual skills.
Almost a century later, a French artist Rémi Potey brought himself to restore some of Zarbula dials and quickly began to create his own, surpassing his predecessor in subtlety of drawing, richness of tinting and variety of patterns.
Our favourite dial, presumably the one of expatriate Zarbula, is painted on a wall of one of the village houses in La Salle-les-Alpes. Its signature states: “Vulnerant omnes, ultima necat”, which means “Every hour hurts, and the last one kills”. That is, in a way, the same message as a more famous Latinism “Memento mori” (“Remember that you have to die “). I did not take a photo: the weather promised to be completely uncloudy the next day. Maybe for someone (you, perhaps?) it would become a reason to visit this beautiful land and see its treasures with his (your) own eyes.
And this is only a small part!
 A Soviet musical comedy by Eldar Ryazanov romanticizing Napoleonic wars.
 Allusion to “Farewell to Matyora”, a novel by Valentin Rasputin depicting a fiction Siberian village which has to be evacuated and cleared so that a hydroelectric dam will be constructed.
Read in Russian: Лучше гор могут быть только…