Off the beaten track in Provence

Something happened here yesterday that made nature turn off the freeze button. I don’t know what made it flick the switch, but whatever it was, it made it a very pleasant day.

A warm winter walk at Reillanne

The last few weeks have been bitterly cold, with snow, ice, hail and even ice rain, that hideous weather event that literally turns everything into an ice rink in seconds. We’ve had it twice this year, the latest being a couple of days ago, not what I had planned in my mind for my birthday, but happily it didn’t last long.

Snow in the lane at home

We’ve also had beautiful bluebird days too, with vivid, cobalt skies, kept clear by the Mistral, chasing off anything that gets in its way. These days are spectacular, but the wind-chill means that temperatures hardly feel as if they have pushed their way above freezing.

Beautiful bories under a bluebird sky

Yesterday though, was totally different, to the point that I was sitting on the terrace at 6pm, just after sunset, listening to the birds singing as they were starting to settle for the night – it really was lovely to hear that first, real, evening chorus, and what was more surprising was that I wasn’t wrapped up in padded coat, scarf and hat.

It really felt hopeful, that perhaps the first signs of spring were just around the corner, and at the moment, that is certainly something to make me feel happy. Over the last few days, there have been other signs too, with the buds starting to swell on the wild clematis….

The rising sap, turning the stems of young trees and bushes a cherry red, positively glowing with the promise of what is to come…

And today in the bottom of a river valley, the sight of wild daffodils starting to push towards the sky…..

As well as a Hellebore in full flower….

It’s been a joy to see.

I’ve spent the last week, continuing to explore the wonderful off-road network of paths and trails that run through fields and woodlands around the local villages, walking some old favourites, and finding some new routes too. The good news is that Millie seems to have got used to the morning routine now, of breakfast, followed by a long walk, as she no longer collapses in the kitchen when we get back, apparently too tired to take another step.

Although she does show her displeasure on our evening walks, with a reverse game of Grandmother’s footsteps, where I realise she has stopped walking behind me, and she doesn’t move until I walk back to meet her, at which point she turns on her tail and runs straight back to the house … sometimes we don’t get further than about 200 metres!

I am not moving, not for you, not for anyone!

What has shocked me, is that we have walked over 160 miles this month, about the same distance as it is from here to Menton, on the Italian border. It doesn’t seem possible that I could cover that distance, just pottering around the tracks here, nor does it feel that I have walked that far at all, but apparently the computer doesn’t lie.

I’m very aware though, that it may all come to a grinding halt in a few days time, as we are awaiting an announcement on what steps will be taken next to slow the spread of the virus. The current rumours are that we will be in ‘confinement’ again, which if it follows the last 2, means that we will be restricted to 1 hour of exercise each day, within 1km of the house – so, to be honest, I have really been making the most of the relative freedoms we have at the moment.

Out in the hills above Reillanne

I know I have mentioned before, in fact probably so often, that it is starting to feel like a broken record, but walking here at this time of year is superb, and some of the walks have been incredible. The views across the landscape to the distant snow-capped low Alps around Digne are wonderful and last Saturday morning, I walked again to the top of the Mourre Negre, in the bright, early morning sun, so that I could get a good glimpse of them glittering in the distance.

Incredible views from the Mourre Negre

I wasn’t disappointed, as the weather was perfect and not only were they a shining, white splash on the skyline, but also it was clear enough to see the newly-fallen snow blowing from the summit ridge of Mont Ventoux. You can watch a short video of some of the highlights of the walk here

A very cold-looking Mont Ventoux

The following day was one of those bitterly cold, but bright blue days and I grabbed the opportunity to take Millie for the walk that leads from the beautiful Abbaye de Senanque to Gordes, following ancient stone tracks, between high walls and bories, to the beautiful little village.

Normally this walk finishes with the bustle of arriving in Gordes, which even in Winter is busy with visitors, but this time it was eerily quiet. The viewpoint, that is normally so busy with people absorbed with their own moment, looking at the village and the valley laid out below them, was empty. I happily sat on the edge, sheltered from the breeze, only moving when someone took their chance to drive a small sports-car, onto the rocks behind me, to take a photo. It felt quite an intrusion into the peace, but gave me the nudge I needed to walk round into the village.

Even in the depths of winter this is stunning

Again it felt strangely silent, as I sat with my back against the stone wall of the chateau, enjoying the warm midday sun. I saw just a couple of people walking through the main square, not stopping to chat as they may normally do, but just nodding from a distance as they passed each other. The cafés, restaurants and shops, that overlook the square, which would normally be full of people, and busy with the lunchtime rush were closed and shuttered. In fact it felt as if the roads had been closed, and the area cleared for some forthcoming event, almost as if the whole village was holding its breath, waiting for something to happen.

An eerily quiet Gordes

That is the case wherever I have been, and it is this aspect of life that I miss most. Popping up to Simiane for breakfast on my birthday, I couldn’t help but feel sad that the terrace outside is clear of its tables and chairs, and that babble and bustle of the community popping in for coffee and croissants, isn’t taking place. Cafés and boulangeries are such a critical part of french life, that it feels very strange for them to be either closed or unable to provide a meeting point for the community, especially when people are feeling so isolated. But I managed to grab a takeaway coffee and croissant and sat in the sun, for a few minutes before heading off for another rather lovely walk, that took me out on the tracks high above the village.

Snow caps visible above Simiane

Then today, I found a new walk, that took me past the expansive lavender fields, high on the Plateau Des Claparèdes, towards Buoux…

Vast lavender fields across the Claparedes

….before dropping down below the cliffs to the Aigue Brun valley below. Whereas all the other walks I have been on have had open, expansive views, this was the complete opposite. As I started to walk down the steep. rock and cobble path, I started hearing voices, which seemed so strange, as I rarely see anyone on my walks, and this seemed perhaps more ‘out of the way’ than most of the others.

After taking a moment to admire the view across the valley, towards the incredible striated cliffs, under which was a small ‘troglodytic’ house, I turned a corner and found myself staring at a climber, perched precariously half-way up a rock-face. I then remembered that the cliffs here are renowned as being an incredible climbing venue, with some of the world’s top climbers taking on the difficult climbs in the 1980s. Chatting to the chap at the bottom of the rope, he pointed out that they were doing one of the easier climbs…. which didn’t do anything at all to encourage me to give the sport a try … especially as I find my knees wobble just climbing a few rungs on a ladder…

Buoux is a fantastic climbing venue

Although I can understand the challenge, and would imagine that the views from the rock-faces are incredible (if you can bear to look)

I could never do this … not in a million years!

Leaving the climbers to their cliff, I continued down, taking little paths that snaked down the steep slope, watching Millie run ahead, in search of the water we could hear babbling through the valley below.

Arriving by the river, it was as if we had stepped into another world. Gone were the open expansive views and any sight of a traditional provencal landscape, it was as if I had walked through a portal into the Teign valley, below Castle Drogo back in Devon, or perhaps to one of the rivers on Exmoor.

Hard to believe this is in the heart of Provence

Nestled at the bottom of the cliffs, the valley is green and moist, with incredible lichens and moss covering the trees, as the river babbles between them, along its stone bed. The dark rocks giving the water a brackish quality, rather than the bright, clear waters of the Toulourenc, or the vivid green weeds at Fontaine de Vaucluse…

Millie getting as wet as possible

Millie was in her element, lying full length in the water, splooting, with her legs stretched out behind her, it was as if she had just discovered paradise…

The happiest, and soggiest of dogs

We followed the river back up the valley, with the muddy (yes, muddy) path sticking close to the river bank, occasionally having to climb over, or sometimes under, fallen trees, black with damp and bouncy with moss, or scrambling up a rocky bank to avoid a particularly large trunk…

Millie continued to run ahead, following the path without any idea of where she was heading, taking any opportunity she could to get back in the stream, just to make sure she was absolutely soaking wet and could spend the rest of the day exuding that distinctive ‘wet dog’ scent, that I really haven’t missed at all!

Moss-covered river stones

Then all of a sudden the river disappeared and we found ourselves walking up a totally dry, almost dusty riverbed, made of pale stones, which opened out into a much larger area tucked under the most beautiful, overhanging cliffs.

Walking under the cliffs

This continued for some distance, with the path under the base of the towering cliffs, which had clearly been eroded by the river many millions of years ago. The eddys of the long-gone water, leaving their marks in the rocks that curved out above me and over the valley… it was absolutely beautiful, and such an unexpected sight too.

Just such a spectacular place

From here I crossed the dry river bed onto a path that continued up the valley, before taking the rocky track back up towards the car park at Barbe Blanche, high on the Plateau des Claparèdes, where I had first started.

Walking up out of the valley, you immediately emerge back into the more traditional provençal landscape, passing lavender fields and with expansive views across towards Mont Ventoux.

Lavender fields on the way back to the car

It was a peaceful, and exceedingly beautiful walk, that seemed to take me into Middle Earth for a short period of time, and I can imagine that even in the height of summer, this would be a cool, verdant spot, offering a quiet escape from the heat of the July sun, although the climb back up in the heat would not be so much fun!

So my collection of walks to do with Andy, when he gets back, continues to grow and I really can’t explain how much I have enjoyed having the opportunity to explore the walking here.

High above Simiane

I always like to take a positive from a negative, and if I hadn’t been recovering from my broken clavicle, I would have been out on my bike instead, and probably wouldn’t have done half the walks that I have managed, so in that respect every cloud has a silver lining!

It may not be a silver lining here, but the sunsets recently have been incredible

3 thoughts on “Off the beaten track in Provence

  1. Fabulous photos! My friend that used to live in Gordes always raved about the wonderful walks around the area. We’ve done some with her but were always happier on two wheels.


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