Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Lanslebourg, 3: the walk from Bonneval to Bessans

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.

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.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Catching up in Lanslebourg

WE'VE BEEN ON THE ROAD almost a week, but the first couple of days don't really count, of course; you're in the air, your mind is out of sync with everything else; then you land, rent your car, drive to an unfamiliar hotel in an unfamiliar city. That same night, last Wednesday, after 24 hours or so traveling, we went out to dinner with friends — I've written about that on Eating Every Day, of course.

Then we spent three days in the Salone del Gusto. Some reports from that leaked into the eatingblog too, but others will provide food for thought — heh heh — for comments on this site, later on, perhaps. Let's see:
Quality of Life
Disappearing apples
Sardegna, not Toscana

Today we drove from our Chivasso hotel, where we've slept the last four nights, over the Montcenisio pass and down into Lanslebourg. I wanted to bring Lindsey here to see this valley along the river Arc, from Bonneval south to Modane. I walked it two years ago, with Mac and Henry, when we took the Long Walk from Geneva to NIce. At that time I didn't really like it, but the more I thought about it afterward the more I realized I'd missed something.

I'd hoped Lindsey and I would be walking here, but the year's first snowfall coincided with our arrival. Driving the pass was a little hairy: the road was often covered in snow and sometimes icy, and toward the top we drove into cloudy air that tended toward snowblindness. It's a special road: we've taken it two or three times before, but never in this kind of weather. I remember the first time, when, at the top, we drove past the lake and saw a couple of girls, twelve years old or so, sitting in the grass, ostensbily watching their herd of cows, weaving daisies into a chain, right out of Heidi. They weren't out today.

We arrived at our hotel in Lanslebourg, the one Henry and Mac and I stayed in in the summer of '08, about three o'clock. We were cold. There was snow on the street. A fire burned in the hearth. The same birdlike woman met us, and was cheerful, and showed us to a room, and brought us tea back at the hearth in the lobby.

After a bit we drove up through Lanslevillard — yes, there were apparently two settlements named "Lans," one the bourg, one the villard — to Bessans, where I'd hoped to show Lindsey the amazing frescos. These are in a 15th-century chapel; Henry and I saw them on that walk: they depict the Life of Christ, and are amazingly concentrated paintings. But the chapel is off limits; we're not going to be able to see these frescos, not on this trip in any case.

Too bad. But we stopped in at the library, excuse me, "Media Center," here in Lanslebourg, and looked at photographs of the frescos in a couple of books. They were painted by an anonymous itinerant at the beginning of the 16th century, we read. Migration, again. Local saints are very important in these chapels, often protecting domestic animals as they were herded up and down the Alps. Another saint, St. Landry, was sent to Bonneval a thousand years ago or so, and drowned in the Arc river on his journey; his body washed downstream to Lanslevillard, where all the bells began tolling on their own initiative. A miracle: so he's preserved in the church there, and became the saint in charge of droughts.

Makes sense: a drowned man would know something about irrigation. I think the cult of saints replaced the local cults of local deities, lesser deities of course, dryads and such, spirits of springs and torrents, forests and bogs; protectors of virgins, widows, drunks, and domestic animals.

Yesterday at Terra Madre I heard a woman from an immigrants' rights organization say that "immigrants are the bearers of competence." I believe that; but I also believe that other migrants bear foreign authorities. Perhaps it only depends on from which end you view the spectrum.

Sunday, October 03, 2010

Epic, Comic, Lyric: Mark Morris in Berkeley; Molière in San Francisco

WHAT AN INTERESTING, classically absorbing evening of dance the other night in Zellerbach Auditorium, UC Berkeley. Mark Morris presented three big pieces neatly triangulating his view of the human condition: a formal, geometric, abstract suite of dances in total silence called Behemoth; a funny, inventive, dashing suite to Kyle Gann's Studies for Disklavier called Looky; a moving, descriptive, lyrical three-movement dance setting of Erik Satie's Socrate.

It was a carefully thought-out triangulation, even though the bookends are twenty years apart in their composition. Behemoth (1990), which seemed to run a good three quarters of an hour, breaks the fifteen-dancer ensemble into three fives much of the time, running them — sometimes literally — through the repertory of Morris steps and freezes, punctuated occasionally by slaps, claps, or stampings but otherwise perfectly silent, demanding a similar silence and thus attentiveness from the audience.

And this year's Socrates returns to the triple quintets, sometimes but not consistently assigning them to unison portrayals of the philosopher or one or another of his student-friends (Alcibiades in the first movement, Phaedrus in the second, Phaedo in the third), again in symmetrical groupings moving either squarely or diagonally to the stage.

Looky, on the other hand, is all comedy and grace. Gann's score is mechanical piano gone crazy, always firmly rooted in classic piano repertoire, from Schumann and Chopin through Liszt and Gottschalk to Shostakovich and Art Tatum. The piano, bereft of human performer, stands upstage right; the dancers enter by ones, twos, and larger groups in what looks sometimes like party clothes, sometimes evening pajamas, silently miming conversation, arguments, puzzlement, joking, often dancing in response to the crazy waltz or boogie or incipient tango that ultimately dissolves in roulades of high-speed mechanical virtuosity.

I liked Gann's music very much; enough in fact to want to get a copy and listen to it again and again. But Satie's Socrate — now there's a timeless masterpiece, in more ways than one. It's so artless, understated, beautifully balanced and scaled; so moving in its modest self-abnegation to the pathos of its subject, that it overwhelms me to think about it. There wasn't even that much Mark Morris could do, other than move gracefully, repetitively, submissively to the meter and cadences. The costumes were lovely; the dancing itself superb.
WE DON'T LIKE TO MISS a production of a Molière play if we can avoid it, so even though it isn't considered one of his best, we drove down to see Scapin at San Francisco's American Conservatory Theatre yesterday. We had very fond memories of an earlier production, probably twenty years ago or more, also in the Geary Theatre, perhaps starring Réné Auberjonois in the title role, in a translation/adaptation called Scapino; memories which may have lessened the current version a bit, as it seemed a little more formulaic, a little less spontaneous.

But that's the nature of the play, whose adaptation of commedia dell'arte into proscenium-stage comic theater depends on formulae. Bill Irwin was a first-rate Scapin; Jud Williford was his match as the other clown/servant Sylvestre; Geoff Hoyle and Steven Anthony Jones were their matches as Geronte and Argante, and the rest of the cast fell easily into place. Great costumes and set; satisfactory musical accompaniment.

I complained a week or so ago about a production of Twelfth Night that too evenly distributed comedy throughout the three levels of society Shakespeare portrays: nobility, clowns, young lovers. It's wrong to do that, I insist, in Shakespeare, particularly Twelfth Night. It's entirely appropriate to treat Scapin that way, and I thought this was a very entertaining production — though the translation I remembered from so long ago, with its recurring
But what the devil was he doing aboard that boat
seemed a much funnier, not to say more memorable, version of Molière's
mais que diable allait-il faire dans cette galère
than did the present rather whiny
but — why did he get on that boat?
  • Molière: Scapin, running through October 23; ACT, 415 Geary St., San Francisco
  • Restaurant dining: a social contract

    COMMENTS POSTED RECENTLY to my post of a few days ago, over at Eating Every Day, about a dinner at Oliveto in Oakland, bring to mind a matter I've given a fair amount of thought to: the extent to which we all get the treatment, in restaurants and elsewhere, that we somehow suggest we want or expect. I was struck forcibly by this idea years ago when dining in a restaurant with a couple of friends who told the host, immediately we were seated, that they wanted ice water with no ice in it.

    To dine in a restaurant is to appear in public. Most of us, these friends included, clearly understand the forms involved in going to a restaurant. You're greeted by the host, who leads you to your table; a waiter appears, either with menus or with a greeting and query as to whether you want a drink before dinner; a busser appears to handle the water, bread and butter, and such things.

    You don't expect to see the host again, though he may appear at some point to verify things are going well. Your transactions with the restaurant will all be conducted through the waiter. The busser will continue to serve you silently, taking dishes away, filling the water glasses, perhaps replenishing the bread.

    Diners and service staff rely on these forms as a social convention facilitating the dining experience; diners and service staff interfering with the convention risk interrupting the smooth flow of the meal. The diner needs to be aware of the extraordinarily demanding nature of the waiter's job, the complexity of the host's (he functions as manager and spokesman for the restaurant as well as greeter and conductor-to-table), the numbing repetitiveness of the busser's endless pursuit of silent perfection.

    The service staff, on the other hand, needs to be aware of the desires, even the demands, of the customers, not only for their table but also for its effect on the floor as a whole, the many tables, each aware to one degree or another of its neighbors. For this reason the customer's demands must be given highest attention — even anticipated when possible. When a diner makes the first demand, requesting a certain table, say, or volunteering without question a preference for ice water without ice, he's all but hoisting a flag: difficult patron here.

    Over and over I've noticed three kinds of response to this. The optimal one of course is immediate understanding. This involves deference on the part of the service staff, but I suppose that's what "service" ultimately means; a professional host or waiter or busser realizes that there is nothing demeaning or servile in his metier — on the contrary: if unusual service is demanded, fault, if any exist, lies with the customer.

    The second is a deference to the patron that's accompanied by some expression of criticism on the part of the server. This is unfortunate. The customer notices it more often than the server perhaps realizes, and an unsatisfactory relationship develops which, since it's never really expressed, can't really be resolved.

    The third is the worst of all: everything goes to hell. Each side of the transaction takes deliberate steps to make the other side's participation more difficult, raising the ante. Voices may be even be raised; nearby diners are affected; dissatisfied patrons go away sulking and perhaps publish their discontent. (This is exacerbated by the prevalence of blogs and of "reviews" on restaurant-finding computer applications.)

    I've listed two demands triggering this sort of situation: table request; ice water without ice. There are many others:
  • "allergies" (many or most of which are in fact simply food dislikes)
  • split or shared plates
  • courses desired out of sequence
  • corrections of dishes implicating the kitchen's competence (salt, etc.)
  • inappropriate expectations (espresso machine in a Chinese restaurant)
  • and I'm sure others could be added.