Tales from

the Loir

A Weekly Column

 November 1, 2000 - Col de Vence: A Day on the Moon

Circumstances in the form of my wife Aprille's art show have brought me back to Provence again. She has her exhibition to take down at the Musée Renoir and I have a rendez-vous with some provençal rosé. Fortunately we arrived with a spare day and an unusual guide. Fred Natale is a guide of a quality rare to find in anywhere but especially so in Provence. Not only is he a native, but he has worked on archeological digs so he knows the nooks and crannies of its history like few others.

The day starts with a round-about back-road trip from Cagnes to Saint Paul de Vence. Fred points at walls and farmhouses and describes in his elegant provençal accent the age and origin of the stones and building as we pass. He slows to a crawl so Aprille and I can enjoy the dramatic view of St. Paul de Vence high on the cliff side. St. Paul itself is beautiful tourist trap. It's easy to forgive when the ubiquitous shops and galleries are done with such flair. Aprille thinks the art quality is high for such a tourist-y place and I concur.

St. Paul was just on the road to the Col de Vence. Col is the French word for mountain pass. This col is like a desert of rocks or the surface of the moon. The white rocks spread out for miles and cover every inch of the ground except for where men have moved them to make room for roads or grass. Shepherds cleared the land thousands of years ago. The paths are rare but every cleared depression and hole only exists because someone carefully moved stones.

It is easy to forget we are anywhere near the Cote D'Azur with its tourists, beaches and crowds until the car turns on a switchback and the blue Mediterranean dotted with pleasure boats floats suddenly into view. It disappears just as suddenly leaving only this strange lunar landscape.

We park the car and hike through the fields where Fred spent his childhood weekends riding horses. He says that the odd shaped rocks take on the shapes of monsters at night. They are eerie in daylight and the ghosts of their past are everywhere. Some ancient culture stacked the rocks in shapes and forms that only they would understand. There are walls, cairns, corners, dolmens, menhirs and random piles. No one knows why, when or who made these structures. One can only speculate. This is sheep herding country so the piles could have been shelters. It is believed they were made over two thousand years ago. The sheep herders still use this land for grazing but there is little else here.

The place is obviously dear to Fred because of childhood memories but I think he finds a deeper connection to his past and his ancestors among these rocks.. As he stares at the mountain to the south, he says he has still not climbed that one. It is more of a statement of what he has accomplished because he has climbed the others. I suspect that he does not want to use up the final mystery of this holy place.

We climb back into the car and head further into this exotic landscape. The remarkable thing is there are so few buildings here. There is an occasional shepherd's stone shelter but little else has been disturbed by urban encroachment. We come to a crossroads and take a left onto a unpaved road. Fred bounces the car like a child hopping on stones to cross a creek. After about a kilometer of road that would break most four wheel drive trucks we find a place in the road that even he can't traverse. Fred says it is too bad because he wanted to show us the Gorge du Loup. Aprille spots an elk high up on the ridge and we get out of the car to watch it. Somehow we just start walking towards the Gorge. The walk is worth the hike. The Gorge du Loup is a straight drop off from the trail. The view is incredible and Fred points out castle of Gourdon which is barely visible in the afternoon haze. He says that this trail was one of the main routes from the high Alps to the sea for hundreds and maybe thousands of years.

As we are returning to the car Fred spots three large elk high on the ridge. They stare at us. Their horns silhouette the sky as we hike this ancient road back to the car. I don't want to leave. I envy Fred and his childhood in this place.

But this is France and no perfect day is finished without a perfect meal. Back we go in the fading October light to the coast and dinner. I want to make sure the bouillabaisse is as good as I remember. It is.. Our host tells us over dinner about his other passion, rally racing. As a hobby, he is head mechanic for a racing team. This is not like Nascar where one races in circles. These cars race around winding mountain roads that make my stomach plunge at twenty miles an hour. It is interesting conversation but it sounds dangerous even in this comfortable restaurant.

Fred does not race anymore but he still loves the sport and has the ability. I can tell by the fluid movement of the Audi going up the winding road back to the house. He is going much faster than I would ever dream of trying on this narrow mountain road with no guard rails and lots of distance between the edge and the bottom. Gorge is what it is called here in Provence. I know instinctively that I shouldn't ask the question but like a lemming heading for the sea I must. "Is this what it is like in a rally? No. It is more like this...... aaaaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh". Now I know what a ricocheting bullet feels like when it leaves the gun. In a race, a driver has to keep this pace up for about twelve hours. The stress must be incredible... the adrenaline rush, too. It seems like a proper ending to a day I walked on the moon.

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October 25, 2000 Cult of the Black Virgin
October 18, 2000 Harvesting Grapes by Hand
October 4, 2000 Provence: All Good Things




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