Lanslebourg, Savoie, October 27, 2010—I BROUGHT LINDSEY HERE to show her the valley I'd walked a couple of years ago, when Henry and Mac and I walked the GR5 from near Geneva to Nice. (You can read my running blog from that trip at Alpwalk, or, more conveniently, in my book Walking the French Alps.)
My idea was to introduce her to the valley via one or two stages of the walk, not at all strenuous here, basically flat, in the hopes she'll acquiesce later to further stages. It's such a beautiful walk, so varied, through calm, splendid landscape, and dotted with interesting villages, good restaurants, and comfortable hotels.
Alas, Mother Nature chose this week for the first snowfall of the year. It wasn't all that heavy, though it made crossing the Moncenisio a little hairy the other day. But it did cover the walkingpath with a good three or four inches of snow, and we waited until this morning to try the first step of the walk, from Bonneval sur Arc to Bessans, a short walk of six or seven kilometers — less than five miles, on country road, then footpaths, along the northern bank of the Arc, at the foot of massive rock cliffs, where I figured the sun would soonest melt off the snow. (Other stages of the walk hereabouts are on the south side of the river, in the shadow of high mountains and through forest.)
We drove up to the little town of Bonneval and left the car there. Bonneval's more or less a vacation community of ancient stone houses, most of them with new or recent roofs and fitted out inside, no doubt, with all the comforts. The town was quiet; hardly a person to be seen; the houses not yet occupied for the season; few other cars in the car park.
(Bonneval prefers that you not bring a car into the village, and provides a good-sized parking lot on the outskirts. The two or three hotels are also on the outskirts, leaving the village free to imitate the middle ages whenever it likes — or, if I'm not being too cynical, whenever it's to its advantage, say for a photo shoot.)
Following my trail guide, La Vanoise (FFRandonnée, 2008), we walked through town, past the ancient stone church, and out a country road. Bonneval is at 1800 meters, just under 6,000 feet. I'd put on my long underwear and layered up for the morning, but though there was thankfully no wind and the few clouds were high cirrus it was still a little chilly. Nor had the snow melted: only in the tracks left by a few farm-trucks was there bare ground to be seen, and it was often treacherous with black ice.
Another point, one I hadn't though of though I'd run into it before: often the balissage marking the route, a white strip over a red one, is painted directly onto a low rock by the side of the path. Snow covers these marks, of course. Still, we had the trail map in the guide, and I'd walked here only two years ago; besides, the direction is obvious, you keep walking downstream holding to the right side of the river. There's no way you can get lost.
It was a beautiful walk. First you walk through open farmland, all of it snow-covered today, with only a couple of nearly invisible white horses and, later on, a small herd of cows to animate the countryside. I heard an occasional rook up in the cliffs, and once a more melodic birdsong. There was the occasional crunch on frozen snow, or the more amusing squeaky crunch on partially thawed snow; otherwise our footsteps were pretty well muffled, and the morning was blissfully silent.
At one point I mistook the way, not remembering that it climbed after passing a few scattered stone barns, and floundered down through soft snow toward the river, turning then through a small forest. Soon enough this proved a mistake; it was hard to work our way through the branches; we turned back up to resume the trail. Almost immediately we met a French couple coming up trail from Bessans, confirming the route. (They were the only other people we saw on the walk.)
Then we crossed a little brook, the Vallon, on a footbridge, at a spot I remembered feeling quite special in the summertime — one of those pools where you just know a naiad hangs out to help or hinder passersby, depending on the respect they show the site. And then, just ahead, there was what I'd wanted Lindsey to see, the Rocher Château, immensely high, black and gleaming with ice and icy water, streaked with grey-blue lichen and red iron oxide.
This rock was something of a village six or eight thousand years ago, offering shelter to Neolithic community and raw material to their economy, which centered on (besides hunting and gathering, of course) the manufacture of spear and arrow-points. The stone here is perfect for the purpose, apparently, and items manufactured here have turned up hundreds of miles away, apparently eagerly traded in those days.
The area was quarried as recently as fifty years ago, and one or two huge cubes of stone lie at the foot of the cliff from that time. But this is too important an archaeological site to succumb to commerce, and the State has set it aside. There are petroglyphs here, too; eight running stags, painted in the style of the cave painters of soutwestern France, but almost invisible now after so many years facing south into the sun. Four or five explanatory panels give the history, and a helpful empty frame on a standard is placed to help the visitor see what's left of the paintings.
By now I'd begun to get hungry, and half the baguette in my backpack disappeared as we resumed the trail. A farm road took us on into the hamlet of Villaron, where a tiny stone chapel stood at a crossroads, utterly dark inside but with one missing pane of opaque glass allowing a flash photo. Further on was a curiously rustic crucifix in a shrine set into the low stone wall: this is a devout area, this Arc valley, or at least a careful one.
Then in half an hour we were at the bridge crossing the Arc into the town of Bessans. By the guide we should have been here in ninety minutes without stops; two summers ago it took us two hours and a quarter. Today it took two hours and a half: we took longer at Rocher Ch âteau, and the slick ice had probably slowed us down, not to mention the little detour in the woods.
Bessans was quiet; not a thing open. No place for a hot cup of tea. The church and the impressive chapel were locked up tight as a tick, so the only frescos we could see were those on the outside wall of the St. Anthony chapel, whose interior boasts sixty of the most impressive frescos I've seen anywhere. The little churchyard sat poignant in the snow, the photographs of its more recent citizens speaking mutely of evanescence.
We found a bench outside a closed hotel-restaurant and sat down to eat our sausage, bread, apple, and chocolate. A black cat minced carefully over the snow. Someone unlocked the closed Mairie, went in, brought out four enormous pots of crysanthemums, and disappeared. A stout middle-aged woman waddled past, eyeing the ice suspiciously. An old couple, older even than us, walked past quietly: we spoke briefly: no, there was nothing open; no, there was no transportation back to Bonneval.
Bessans lay dead-silent under its snowcovered roofs. There was a very nice public restroom at the Mairie, though, so after our lunch, after listening to the church strike one-thirty, then two o'clock, we shouldered our packs and took the Departemental road back to Bonneval. Immediately a car drove past us: I put out my hand, he stopped, and we rode into Bonneval to drive back to the hotel.