Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Lanslebourg, 2: le plus beau pays

Lanslebourg, Savoie, October 26—
THE LAST TIMEI was here I was unimpressed with the area. Not this town, with its comfortable old-fashioned hotel, but the area, stretching from Bonneval at the upper end of the valley to Modane at the lower end. I was on foot, with my friend Mac and my grandson Henry; we'd been walking two weeks, having started at Evian-les-Bains on Lake Geneva, and were headed to Nice. We were a couple of days behind schedule; worse, we were down in what seemed like low country.

Worst, we were in civilization, after days in the high mountains. People, cars, machinery, noise.

This time, though, we've come here from the city. Same people, cars, machinery, noise: but so much less than in Torino, never mind the crowded Salone di Gusto. There's snow all around, which of course mutes sound; and we're not on a tight schedule; and we have a car, which covers the boring stretches so much faster, theoretically allowing more time for the interesting ones.

But we're between seasons, and many things are closed, or apparently closed. I wanted especially to take another look at the marvelous frescos in Bessans, but they're off limits for some reason. We drove into Modane this afternoon to see about its interesting museum, but it's closed until Thursday morning. We'll go back then, or maybe Friday.

It is so incredibly beautiful here. We keep stopping to snap photos, or sometimes we don't stop, Lindsey lifts her iPhone to the windshield — on the road it's not often easy or safe to stop. The mountains hereabout rise to nearly 4000 meters, 13,000 feet; and there are a good many of them, rising in blinding white above the dark forests, the bare stretches of dark grey rock.

The light slants in from the south, sometimes filtered to extraordinary effect by the yellow-gold needles of the larches — mégèves in French, what I've always called spanieltails because of their characteristic branches.

This morning we did manage to visit the chapel to St. Sebastian in the next village upstream, Lanslevillard. Our hostess called the mairie there and arranged our visit: like the chapel in Bessans, this one is a national treasure; you can't visit it without accompaniment.

Extraordinary. Three walls are covered with frescos painted by an anonymous itinerant, probably Piemontese, in the Fifteenth Century: two bands on one long wall, three on the other, broken comic-strip-style into rectangular frames illustrating the lives of Jesus and St. Sebastian. It's known the Sebastian mystery-play was given here in May 1567, performed by the villagers; and that a company of archers was stationed here at that time; Sebastian is an important patron saint here.

The frescos are remarkably fresh and realistic; you'd recognize these faces if you ran into them on the street — though they aren't particularly Savoyard: to my eye, the faces are Italian. Of course there was no Italy in those days, nor did France really have much presence hereabouts. We are in fact in Savoy, as the white cross on the red escutcheon reminds us on road-signs. Savoi, the Kingdom of Two Sicilies before that; France only since 1870 or so (and some territory hereabouts was ceded by Italy within my own lifetime).

This morning our hotelkeeper, the birdlike woman I wrote about in the book about our Long Walk of two summers ago, looked out the window at the snow-covered mountains and said C'est le plus beau pays dans le monde, the most beautiful countryside in the world. Then she started, and put her hand to her mouth and looked at us guiltily. They're all the plus beau, I responded, my country also: but this is extraordinaire.

It's also a bit foreboding. The edge of the cisalpine world, it's been defended from invaders — or armies merely passing through, but doing damage en route — for millenia. Hannibal brought his elephants through one of these passes (many claim him); the Maginot line ran across these mountains as recently as the 1930s. Huge fortresses dominate the skyline down around Modane; another fort is a tourist destination at Exilles, the other side of the Italian boundary.

It's a hard country, hard with rock, sharp with cold and wind, sudden with avalanche and flood. The summers are seductive, with endless miles of flowers among the sweet grasses that give Beaufort its unique savor. These days even the winters are deceptively playful, with ski-lifts and vacation chalets on all sides.

But down the street a monument to a dog reminds passersby of he danger in these mountains. He worked nearly a decade finding and assisting the victims of blizzards and avalanches; when he was ten, worn out with work and loyalty, he took a last walk into the mountains to die where he had served. His monument reads
Passant je suis autre chose qu'un monument
peut-etre plus qu'un symbole
je suis un example
Passerby I'm not a monument
perhaps more than a symbol
I am an example.

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