Of course that happened to us. Our specialty is to take a plan, be ultra casual about it, and then run like the wind. Maybe not so much run like the wind as lope like overstuffed cuckoos lugging luggage as the alarm indicating the doors are about to close on the TGV chimes loudly and repeatedly. The closer the time for departure, the more panic inducing the sound becomes.
Scrap any romantic notion of nattily dressed travellers leaping onto the side of trains and grabbing at bronze railings as the engine pulls out of the station. The TGV is seamless and fast. Anyway it’s all because the platform attendant directed us to the wrong waiting area. She did so. Of course the kids were talking loudly and I could have been distracted. But, whatever … the good news – we made it on; the bonus – we were on the right car. Plus we’re all good stair leapers.
We were whisked south at 220+ km/hour. D and I debated driving, but since my cousin – J – offered to meet us in Valence, I’m happy we opted for the 2-hour train trip. July and August are the holiday season – hello 4 weeks vacation – for the French and the roads are jammed with cars and caravans. Many tourists head south from northern countries as well and a 5-6 hour drive can take up to 14 hours. No thank you, Toronto traffic 11 months of the year is enough for me.
J took us through the Drôme Provençale on our way to his mountain hideaway in the Alpes de Haute Provence. I can’t divulge the village name he’s perched above because I’m jealously guarding its amazingness. Sorry – I don’t love y’all that much. Let’s just call it B. B is nestled in a long valley deep in the mountains and in the middle of a National Park. It is one of the most remote places in France and damn close to paradise.
The valley was once home to 2 villages and several homesteads. Both original villages are now abandoned. One of these can now only be accessed by a long hike, and the other, Original B is up a steep road overgrown with wild flowers. New B (built around 100 years ago and home to 50 people on a busy day) is the domain of Mr. and Mrs. Mayor.
The Mrs runs the only café, is the local propane supplier for the valley, has a monopoly on available groceries, and is the only source of ice cream cones for over 30 km. The Mr is not only the Mayor, but also the owner of the small campground strategically placed across from the café and the eyes and ears for district authority. Basically they run the village and valley and if you want anything you go through them. Meaning you had better make a good impression. Everyone tows the line. Kinda intimidating, hein? They’re 89 and 90 respectively.
Perched HIGH above my cousin’s mountain house is a former French military observatory. Twenty years ago the researchers moved to Chile and it was turned over to B and today the village (i.e. Mr. Mayor) rents it to the Valley Association. They aim to protect the natural environment, rent out renovated farmhouses as gites, and keep the observatory running. We went there. All the way up there. Have I mentioned it’s HIGH? And that heights turns my knees to jelly? But I conquered my fear because I don’t want the kids to know. They’re cruel and they’d never let me live it down.
We trekked out bright and early in a go-anywhere 4×4. No pansy townie SUV masquerading as a 4×4 here. This is the real deal. It has to be when your life depends on your vehicle not sliding off steep and narrow stone trails. We zigged and zagged up and down several mountains before arriving at a plateau of sorts. The general consensus – by us – is that in the Northern hemisphere a zig is right and a zag is left. The reverse is true in the Southern hemisphere. We’re nothing if not incredibly intellectual.
A detour around and down another mountain brought us to an abandoned village made famous in geological circles by a particular type of rock fissure found there. The village is actually now home to a reclusive, and some say ornery, Englishman who made his way there 15 or so years ago, bought one of the houses and renovated it. J told us that depending on his moods, the trail leading to the village is roped off or open. We were in luck – he wasn’t home. But I easily could be.
Wow and again wow, as my best friend would say! I could become a recluse given the beauty of that place. A recluse accompanied by my family and WiFi. The village is called Le Poil and I can attest to the freshness of the water pouring from the fountain in the square. The archaeologist in me dreams of excavating the ruins of the church built into the cliff face. My nature lover side would be happy as pie surrounded by mountains, fresh streams, and forests. And the writer inside just found a perfect spot for inspiration to take over. Think I can convince D? Whoever comes up with the successful plan has a standing invitation to visit anytime.
After a good snoop around we picnicked beside the river. We picnic a lot. Who wants to stop for sit-down meals all the time when you have warm baguette, fresh goat cheese, country paté, and white peaches available? Throw in a shady rock beside cool water and there’s no place else I’d rather eat. See? I’m not that high maintenance.
Then more zigging and zagging up to the observatory. While the climb tested the limits of my jelly knees, I am beyond happy that we went up. The astronomer on site showed us the sun and we were witness to solar flares. Très cool. They look exactly as we see them in pictures. And the view! Talk about standing on top of the world. Un petit café capped off a perfect day.
Days exploring mountain paths and nights gazing at stars make for a peaceful and memorable time. Our 4 days in B flew by, as they were bound to, and we’re ready for a repeat if the mountain will have us. I’m pretty sure Madame Mayor would approve.