Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Martignac (1,322 ft) to Manigod (3,356 ft)

Sunday 28 June 2009

Today is a day for driving. No matter which route we take. The shortest route is 588 kms through Tulle, Ussel, Clermont-Ferrand, Saint Ettiene, the outskirts of Lyon, Chambery and Annecy on motorways nearly all the way. This route would take us 5:54 hours. But why do it the easy (read boring) way when you can opt for a longer day! So I use Kate to plan an itinerary that takes us through some amazing country and past some stunning sights. Our route now avoids the motorways and meanders through the French countryside through the provinces of Aquitaine, Auvergne and across to the eastern side of the Rhône Alps.

We travel a total of 1,083 kms through Lanobre, Issoire, Givors, Nances and Aix-de-Bain before reaching our final destination high in the French Alps at Manigod (near Thônes). This route takes us exactly 10 hours with a few quick stops. But what a trip – definitely an ‘Oh. Wow. Oh wow. Oh wow’ kind of day.

We had not long left Montignac heading east where we start to see the advertisements for McDonalds everywhere – it has been bliss not seeing this trashy stuff for so long. Many European towns and cities limit their advertising to billboards on the side of buildings and hoarding signage just the same size as any local retailer and quite a few of them say no to those garish illuminated signs that we in Australia can’t seem to resist. But as we get further east, there is a regression into the type of advertising that we more usually see at home – guess the pull of the tourist dollar is too much to resist. Anyway, enough of that crap.

We are up the earliest we have been for ages – the hotel normally serves breakfast on a Sunday from 8:30 am but we have arranged with them to leave ours out so we can eat at 6:30 am. We are on the road about 7:20 am with almost no other traffic. We get to Larche (the next town to Montignac) with the early morning sun bright and intense. Crossing the River Vézère, the view to the Mairie (council administration) is just a picture that begs to be taken. But we need to keep moving today, so we need to restrict most of our photography to photos taken from the moving car – thank God the Nikon is going OK!

Rural France is busy and productive at this time of the year. Crops are well growing, with lots of corn and sunflowers, carnations and roses, maize and millet. The hay has had a first cutting and huge rolled bales bask in the sun, slowly drying – some are netted, some strapped. As we get further east, the sunflowers are more mature and they follow us, turning their faces to keep warm. They are so cheerful and bright. And amidst this patchwork of greens and yellows, dotted with little bits of floral bright we see chateau after chateau after chateau. These are the equivalent of the English baronial castles. Some loudly dominate their landscape while others are more reserved, and quietly but with determination rule their vassal areas. Towns are centred around the Mairie and the local church (whose steeple can usually be seen for long distances). Streets are narrow without footpaths. Houses open their doors directly to the street. Town squares are large with the local restaurant / tabac / bar facing onto the shared area and occasionally men sitting, smoking and talking.

We are first heading for Lac de Bord les Orgues on which Château de Val sits. About now we are down to 20 litres of fuel and I am feeling that we need to make sure we have a fuller tank as we are travelling in very rural areas where on a Sunday, we might not find too many petrol stations open. So we pull in to a small one in Lanobre where Michael and the owner speak in smiles and hand gestures as they do not share a common language. Amazing how far ‘Bonjour’ and a smile will get you! No problem, we get our tank filled. And as Michael is paying, a small van screeches to a halt at the edge of the petrol station and the horn toots far louder than I thought possible. A lady gets out and opens the rear door and people in nearby houses come hurrying. Ah, it is the mobile Boulangerie / patisserie! This is a settlement that is spread out a little and I guess too far for most people to walk to get their daily bread. I am sure I have spoken about the French love affair with fresh crusty bread and as they do not add preservatives to their bread, you buy it at least once, often twice a day. These are small long loaves – not like the sweet, soft square, pre-cut loaves we get at home. Michael buys a half bagette that resembles an ear of wheat and two chocolate croissants (pain de chocolat) for our lunch later.

So we head for the lake, passing the locals waiting on the edge of the street for the boulangerie / patisserie to arrive! The road leaves the town and we drive down steep slopes through very heavily woods. And there, all of a sudden, off to our left, shining in the early morning light is the chateau. Now, as chateaux go, this one is no more or less stunning than many we have seen, BUT, the location with it sitting on a promontory into the lake, absolutely takes your breath away. This is a postcard place. Though by far the funniest thing we see here is the sign pointing to ‘La Plage’ – the beach, set out with paddle boats, kayaks and deck chairs – all in neat rows on the white sand – hundreds of miles from any coast!

Chateau seen, we retrace our route back through Lanobre and head again east. Continuing to alternate between open plains full of promising crops, or providing rich pickings for the multitude of cows herded into comparatively small paddocks and away from the precious winter hay. For a part of the day we are following the Tourist Cheese Route but it is a Sunday still early in the summer season and nothing is open. As the day lengthens the landscape is changing and we are coming into much more mountainous terrain up and down increasing slopes and round and round narrowing winding roads. We are now in timber country and every so often we see huge logs piled by the roadside awaiting collection. We also pass a number of timber mills – actually, passing them is the wrong expression – we seem to drive through the centre of a number of them!

We cross the Loire River, getting our first glimpse of the icy blue/green colour of the high mountain rivers and lakes – rich in oxygen carried in the snow melt. This area of the world is big on sports and today is no different. We have to detour around a number of events – the first a moto-cross race. We come across a staging point where the only part of the riders or bikes that resembles anything clean are the rider’s faces – and I am sure this is only because they are wearing full helmets. They are covered in mud, from the tip of their heads to the bottom of their wheels! Later, one of the competitors hurtles out of the woods on our right and dashes across the road to rejoin the competition path. It all happened so fast we might have imagined it!
And the cities of France are filled with flowers at the moment - in many places every street light post has a basket of flowers cascading in colour as well as baskets on bridges and public buildings - a real picture!

Later on, we are diverted on a very circuitous route through Aix-des-Bains as there is the equivalent of a marathon on, with racing cyclists additional to the multitudes of people enjoying the early summer sun on Lac de Bourget. Poor Kate struggles, busy re-planning the route each time I take a turn following the diversions. She does catch up – isn’t technology amazing. At times there are up to 14 satellites involved in calibrating our position, our destination and the route between the two. I have to laugh as occasionally we get a message that tells us “There is another route that is 8 minutes faster. Do you want to take it?” As if!!

We arrive at Chalet Bois Pic on Les Choseaux in Manigod exactly ten hours after we set out. Chris and Mike Woodcock welcome us warmly – with a son at Homebush Bay in Sydney they are no strangers to Aussies. We chat and Chris tells us of her skiing accident in March this year that has seen a couple of major operations on her leg with another to go in September and we relate our trip thus far over a rosé on the balcony of the chalet. Our snug little apartment is attached to the rear of the chalet with the most amazing view down the valley. It is one room with kitchenette and bathroom attached. The room opens on to a small sunny patio and inside there is a double sofa bed, double bunks, a table and chairs with a comfy chair, TV and Video player and a compact CD player. Cosy and comfy.

We went down to the village to the store for provisions and got pork, potatoes, carrots and zucchini for dinner which Michael cooks. I stand on the patio and watch the sun reluctantly slip behind the hills as the last rays cast their pink blush on the peaks of the across the valley. And higher on our slope, the first of the evening clouds, small and alone, drifts noiselessly towards the valley floor.

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