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Mountains and Ghost Towns

sunny 24 °C

We could have stayed on in Annecy but decided to press on as we were beginning to run out of days. We chose Marsailles as a tentative destination, knowing it would be quite a long drive. But it wasn't going to be that easy. For one thing there is no motorway between Annecy and Marsailles as the central massif is in the way. Although we didn't mean to, we ended up on the motorway to Lyon, which took us about an hour out of our way. Perhaps if we had have stuck with the motorway to Lyon we could then have gotten onto the A7 south. But we didn't want to backtrack and so turned off at Grenoble and headed directly south across the Massif on highway 75. On the map Highway 75 looked like a major road, but what the map couldn't show was the terrain it was covering. We were back into the mountains which meant a much slower journey. Fortunately there weren't many cars on the road so we never felt under pressure, but as the afternoon wore on and the sun began to peak between the mountains it became clear we were never going to make it Marsailles. French rural roads are not illuminated so driving at night is not really an option and although it was still only 4ish I suggested to Shelly that we make contingency plans to stop somewhere else.
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Digne-les-Bains in northern Provence is famous as the heartland of the lavender region and every year the city hosts a lavender festival. It sounded suitably quaint so we agreed that was where we would go. But as the afternoon wore on and the light continued to slip away it seemed like we wouldn't even make there. Once again we started preparing contingency plans. Unfortunately the Lonely Planet was no help as it didn't provide any details about the towns in this region. Up ahead we could see a limestone spur towering over the highway topped by a massive medieval castle. Its scale suggested that the town it was attached to must be fairly large. It turned out to be the town of Sisteron, population approx 20,000. Passing through the new industrial suburbs of North Sisteron, we came to the old town clustered around the base of the massive limestone spur. For the briefest of minutes the sun suddenly burst from behind a mountain peak and the whole town was illuminated in rich, warm tones. It was so stunning we pulled over and took a quick series of photos. Then it was off again before the light completely faded. We both fell silent as we drove through the rest of the town, admiring its well restored medieval buildings, festooned with garlands of flowers. There were people out in the streets, wandering around enjoying the late afternoon ambience. The place looked like a postcard. So we pulled over on the side of the road. Should we stop here for night? We should certainly be able to find a hotel and we'd at least have another 45 minutes of afternoon light to explore. I mean it all looked so nice. We re-read the entry for Digne-les-Bains. Digne did SOUND lovely and, after all, Sisteron had not cracked a mention in any guide so we decided to press on.
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We arrived in Digne-les-Bains just on sunset. The hotels mentioned in Lonely Planet were either full or extravagantly expensive so after about six laps around the darkened town we eventually found a cheap room on the outskirts of the old town. Fortunately there was a public carpark across the street with one single space left - there was a good reason for that - it was almost impossible to squeeze a car into, but after completing an epic 33 point turn I managed to squeeze our car in (and prayed to God that someone else would have moved by the morning so I could get out again!). After dropping our bags we rushed out to get some dinner before all the restaurants decided to close. We settled for a fairly average pizza before heading back to the room for an early night - the streets were almost deserted.

The next day we wandered around the old town. Unlike Sisteron, Digne-les-Bains seemed devoid character. Nor was there much evidence that we were in the heart of the lavender region. In fact the lavender had all been harvested recently and had been cut back or plowed over, so there were to be no fields of lavender for us. A tip for travellers - always be wary of guide books that state a particular place is wonderful because it hosts some seasonal festival. Undoubtedly the guide visited during the festival when everything is happening and the place is alive. What's the place like 99% of the time when there ISN'T a festival? Well, in Digne-les-Bains case it becomes just another very sleepy little regional French town.

So Digne was a disappointment - oh well. We decided to make the most of the opportunity and take the scenic drive through the Grand Canyon du Verdon. It proved to be a lovely drive. We stopped at a beautiful little village called Castellane, dominated like Sisteron by a towering peak of limestone, although this time topped with a little church. It was well worth the detour. Turning onto the scenic drive the road once again narrowed and became torturously winding. It was tense but again there were few cars on the road to hassle us. A few hours into the drive however we began to notice a build up of traffic. We were debating what could be the cause - this was a pretty obscure road - when we suddenly came upon a massive traffic jam. For an hour we crawled slowly forward in first gear. The cause turned out to be a head on collision further along the pass. The two cars, both obviously travelling fast, had been completely destroyed. As we drove past we noticed there was blood trailling down the drivers door of one of the cars. I doubt if anyone survived. As if we needed any further warning of the danger of these roads! I must admit the sight unnerved me. I was confident of my driving, but that was irrelevant when so many French drivers were prepared to drive like maniacs and overtake on blind corners.

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As we wound our way out of the Canyon we passed the tiny and quaint little village of Montferrat. Tucked away high in the mountains it seemed not to have changed in centuries and perhaps it hadn't. But for all its modern obscurity, Montferrat was once a famous place. In the eleventh and early twelfth centuries the Marquis' of Montferrat used the Crusades to build for themselves a reputation that far exceeded the actual importance of their tiny village. They married their way into many of the princely families across Europe; they were advisers to Popes and Kings; one was elected King of Jerusaleum and two almost became Emperors of Byzantium. Looking at this tiny village now - even with modern roads it was far from everywhere - it seemed an amazing feat that people from here had even managed to escape from this place, let alone influence the world as they did.

From the mountains it was all downhill now. We were speeding towards the sea. We had a date with St Tropez!

Posted by paulymx 01:32 Archived in France Tagged backpacking

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