Having spent the last three weeks at home in New Zealand catching up with friends and family in Auckland, Rotorua, Taupo and Waiouru, it’s time to hit the road again as Sylvia has a meeting in the southeast of France. Last year I wrote down the movies I watched ( mainly so I don’t watch them again) and also the hours in airplanes: 117 movies; 551 hours in the air. An email from Star Alliance said I had flown 198,996 kilometres with them plus I did a lot on other airlines. Sylvia has done a lot more than me.
Sunday 6th January 2019
Thirty-six hours after leaving Auckland we arrived in Barcelonnette. It was around 8pm and the last hour of the drive was on windy and icy roads in the dark so fairly slow going with Sylvia behind the wheel. Checking into the Hotel Azteca we hit the hay pretty early.
Monday 8 January 2019
After breakfast Sylvia headed back to the room to get up to date on emails and pre-reads for her meeting starting after lunch. I took a stroll around the town, careful not to go for a skate on the icy streets. It’s around -3 degrees at 8.30 in the morning, the sun yet to appear over the mountains. Fortunately it’s dry and there is no wind so it doesn’t feel too cold.
I was surprised as I strolled around the town at the number of mansions in what is a small town. Heading back through the town square I stopped at a local cafe for a brew and got chatting to a nice English couple who had lived in France for 30 years and moved here three or so years ago to retire. They gave me a run down on the town and its interesting history. Founded in 1231 the town, like most from that era, changed hands a few times and was owned or occupied by many different rulers. In 1850 people from the town started emigrating to Mexico, some of whom made a fortune returning to the town years later and building large mansions, some in a Mexican style.
Down the road the ‘yellow jackets’ are still out in protest. At times they block roads and intimidate people. Apparently in France every vehicle has to carry a yellow safety vest in it. One of Sylvia’s colleagues said how he was stopped one day and they started rocking his car until he got his yellow jacket out of the back and put it on the dash to show support.
At noon I met Sylvia at the hotel and we were transported by taxi up to a restored farm house at about 1550m. Bruno, the owner, is a colleague of Sylvia’s and it is here Royal Canin is holding its GLT (Global Leadership Team) meeting.
We sit down for a large and tasty lunch before the first meeting starts. After lunch Bruno hands me a couple of poles and some rackets (snow shoes) and points to a track heading up the hill. I head off up a sometimes icy track, steadily gaining height and exposing some great views up and down the valley and into the surrounding mountains. At the 2000m mark I fit the snowshoes and continue to a couple of small huts used by shepherds in the summer to tend to stock. Bruno told me later there are lots of wolves in this area and also some lynx, which would explain the larger than usual cat prints I saw.
I arrived back at Bruno’s at 6 as the meeting finished and we soon sat down to another tasty meal. Raclette, which is toasted cheese with potatoes and charcuterie meats. Many of the team are staying at the house so only a few of us had to make the journey back down the hill.
Tuesday 8 January 2019
After breakfast Sylvia and the other ‘hotel stayers’ headed back up the hill to continue their meeting. I took the car north up the valley alongside the L’Ubaye river. At Saint Paul Sur Ubaye I turned left heading up a valley with, in places, steep switchback, winding roads. The road topped out at a pass just over 2000m then wound its way down again to the town of Les Claux, a ski resort with the lifts running up from the middle of the town. There are numerous lifts, which on the map look like they link up with the next town down the valley.
The road lead to a large valley with lots of towns and villages running down to Lake La Durance. Stopping to admire the view I spotted what looked like a fort on top of a cliff so headed off to investigate.
Mont Dauphin turned out to be rather magnificent. Built in the second half of the 17th century to fight off invasions from nearby Italy, it has a population of around 150 people but all the apartments, barracks, ammunition store and officers quarters are still intact. Situated on the top of a three-sided cliff with moats, walls and more moats to the fourth side it would have been quite a challenge to conquer.
It never saw action and was not expanded as the Italian boarder moved further away. It was however bombed by the Italians in 1940. The population has always remained small, reaching just over 800 in 1856, I presume when a Regiment was stationed there.
From here I headed up the up the valley to Briançon where there are more old forts. The road headed up a valley then climbed a steep pass to Claviere and the Italian border. This town also had many ski lifts and cable cars, many idle due to a lack of snow. The road wound its way down and up through valleys and over passes passing Monte Motta where chair lifts take skiers up to 2800m. Eventually the road led out on to the plains and a town called None, near Turin.
From here I intended to head to the pass at the top of the L’Ubaye river on the French border. On putting Barcelonnette in Google maps it wanted me to drive back the way I had come, well over 400kms. I often wonder if Google maps has a commission deal going with the oil companies. Fortunately I was able to find the correct route on my Ulman-Pro app, which cut the journey down to under 200ks.
This part of Italy is totally flat with layers of agriculture and horticulture adjoining the many small towns and villages. A thick blue haze of smoke hung in the air all the way across the plains. It was dark by the time I crossed the pass and negotiated the road back to Barcelonnette.
Wednesday 9 January 2019
Not far up the valley is an old fort complex, which said on the website it was open for tours from 10am. Arriving just after 10 I discovered it was far from open; the car park was in fact more like a skating rink. Tempted to take a stroll up the hill I looked at the ice on the track and decided against it. Fifteen odd broken bones is enough so the aim is not to break anymore, I think some call it being responsible!
I headed back down the valley to the information centre at Jausiers. The lady there informed me that at this time of year don’t come here unless you want to ski as everything is closed! She did however tell me that if I went to Tournoux I could walk up a track and look at the forts from the outside. Heading across to an outdoor shop I managed to get some rubber gadgets with spikes to fit on my boots to walk on the ice.
Arriving at Tournoux I parked the car and headed up the track through the trees to Fort de Tournoux. As it turned out there are really five forts running up the hill from the road at 1400m to one at the top at 2010m. First started in 1843 with Fort Moyenne and superior built over 20 years these included passages and stairs running up the inside of the hill. Originally with brass cannons that could cover the road at a range of 3-400m, as time went on the fort and its armaments were upgraded, until as part of the Maginot Line in 1939 guns had ranges of 15km.
I strolled up to the top fort which was more of an observation tower than a fort. Everything was locked up so I will just have to go back in the summer to look inside.
Arriving back at Tournoux with a 15km walk behind me I ran into an English chap called James who was walking a couple of very energetic dogs. We chatted for a while and I headed to the car, James appeared again and invited me into his place for a brew. He and his wife Pam had met in Scotland some years ago. Five years ago they moved here as it was Pam’s grandmother’s place and although Pam was born in Paris she spent many summers here as a child. The house is one of the Mexican style places built in the early 1900’s with 3m ceilings. James explained it’s not that practical in this part of the world and they are slowly doing it up, recently having double glazing installed but still going through a heap of wood to keep the place warm. As with most little villages in the area they are one of the few full time residents most places are now holiday homes.
Thursday 10 January 2019
After another stroll around the town I headed down the valley and parked the car for a stroll up the hill to Bruno’s place to join the team for lunch. Sylvia reckoned the road was too icy to take our rental car up. At 4kms and a four hundred meter climb I reckon she just thought I could do with the exercise.
It is always rewarding to look back at the view when walking up a hill. We enjoyed a great lunch and said goodbye to the team, a taxi taking us down to the car for our drive to Marseille and flight to Edinburgh.