attention abeilles: hiking the massif de l’esterel

img_1742The best thing about waking up in the morning–or returning to my petit chez moi at any time of day–is the view from my balcony: the brilliant bay outlined by mountains.

I come from the part of Missouri that’s just barely not-Kansas. Deprived of elevation for so long, any hint of it makes me giddy.

Mountains comfort in their grandeur: a constant illustration of perspective. When you can see more than the neighbor’s front lawn, it’s easier to feel loosed from quotidian cares.

These particular mountains sit stoic, wrapped in a fine layer of gauzy fog. They look their best at sunset, as the dying light tinges them a deep purple. When night falls, the streetlights click on and trace a route around the base of the mountains in sparkling orange light.

These are my personal fairytale mountains. But like a shy classmate with a crush, I was content to stay a safe distance away. I didn’t even have a name for the object of my affections. All this time I’ve been here and my description stopped at: “those pretty mountains in the distance. To the right. With the red rocks.”

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It turns out I have a view of the Esterel Massif, a coastal mountain range of volcanic rock tinted brick-red by porphyry. On Sunday I asked Cécile, friend and native Cannoise, what I needed to do to get over there. Whenever I’ve hopped on a train to explore, I’ve always headed direction Ventimiglia, towards Italy. Never towards Marseille. I had developed a mistaken idea that the trains didn’t really run that way. Left unchallenged, this idea kept the mountains mysterious– and inaccessible. I’m glad I asked, because Cécile assured me that they do. She looked at the map of destinations and suggested a few. I wrote them down. I’m well-versed in the string of sparkling towns surrounding Nice, but didn’t even have names for the much more rural areas that neighbor Cannes.

It was a beautiful afternoon and I was itching to go somewhere, but the tiny train station right across the street didn’t offer rides for several hours. Fearing the sunset and the resulting chill (I was ill-dressed for a 15-degree temperature drop), I went to Villefranche-sur-Mer.

The next day, the sun again shone bright and my student canceled. It was as good a sign as any to get on the train. I picked Agay and bought a round-trip ticket for 7 euros. The next thirty minutes I was shuttled through the coast, surrounded by rocky red mountains and the deep blue sea (a preview of the hiking scenery to come).

The train spit me out in front of a tiny station and sputtered away. The station, bright red and boxy like a toy house, was dwarfed by the red rocks in the background. AGAY.

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Because I always like to spend a lot of time in adequate preparation, I picked a direction at random and started walking, googling hiking trails and train times as I did so. I was also wearing Birkenstock slides, which proved their name by causing me to slip all over the mountain. (There’s a reason I do not position myself as the Expert Traveler, source of wisdom for all practical matters).

Within five minutes I was away from the main road and headed down a promising path. It involved wooden and stone stairs and much of it felt like I was cutting through people’s backyards.

acs_0361acs_0351acs_0362acs_0363 Within twenty minutes, I had gained a lot of elevation and a panoramic view of the sea and hills. I hadn’t passed anyone else until I saw a red pickup truck parked in a field near a sign that warned ATTENTION ABEILLES. Watch out for bees. 

acs_0358An old man walked around to the truck.

Bonjour! I called out. Excuse me, but what bees? It seemed wise to inform myself in case there were giant attack bees further down the trail, or something of the sort.

It was nothing so adrenaline-inducing.

The man pointed behind the truck to a collection of beehives. I crept a bit closer and could hear the signature angry hum. Vaut mieux pas s’en approcher ! He warned. Vous risquez de vous faire piquer ! 

acs_0352 Noted. Getting stung a dozen times over wasn’t really on the day’s agenda, so I gave the bees a wide berth. Bees soon became a theme, though, buzzing shrilly about each patch of wildflowers I approached.

Ten minutes later, I came to a bench on an overlook. I stopped and read for about an hour, stopping occasionally just to fling my head back and breathe. I also furiously brainstormed picnics, my mind organizing grocery lists. If ever I found a place to have un pique-nique, this was it. acs_0330 acs_0353 acs_0329 acs_0332 The trail widened into a a red-dirt path big enough for several lanes of traffic. Tiny pebbles lay like scattered marbles on the ground, a sort of Home-Alone-style trap. In my sandals, the footwear of the hopeful and foolish, I was struggling to stay upright (much to the amusement of my fellow hikers). I wound my way up the red rock layers until I came to the point de vue at the very top of this particular mountain. acs_0356acs_0360acs_0359 acs_0350acs_0354acs_0344img_1717acs_0334 Gravity propelled my descent and I arrived where I had started in half the time. I still had 45 minutes before my train came, so I took the opportunity to visit Agay’s stretch of coastline. img_1742acs_0333 I found a rocky beach with clear water and patches of electric-green moss. Next to the bay was a campground complete with RVs, grills, and families having apéro. A man in waders headed out in the water with a bucket and a pole, surely hunting for some kind of snack from the sea.

It was a notably different crowd than on the Cannes beaches, with the luxury restaurants on the sand offering 20 euro cocktails. This felt normal, rural, a bit like a lake in Missouri. (But give me a Mediterranean bay any day.)acs_0337acs_0349acs_0346 acs_0331acs_0366acs_0365acs_0367acs_0364 It was a day well-worth 7 euros, I’ll say that much. Good things can happen when you jump on a train.

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puy de dôme hike

Last weekend we hiked the Puy de Dôme, a dormant volcano in the Massif Central. The Auvergne region is nearly synonymous with these volcans, which account for the green lunar landscape of the area. volcan-viewsvolcan

Lonely Planet chose the Auvergne region as one of the top ten regions of the world to visit in 2016, saying “Auvergne has long been overlooked for being too peaceably rural. But that’s all changing, as French travellers weary of tourist-clogged rivieras seek escape here. The Auvergne has responded by reinventing itself with ambitious art projects and a portfolio of wilderness adventures, without ever losing its small-town charisma.”

I can attest to that. After all, last summer I visited Puy-en-Velay and was so charmed by the views and sloping cobblestone streets, the lack of tourists and the tiny brasseries, that I put the Auvergne on my application as one of my top choices for where to live this year.

Here in Montluçon, in the département of the Allier, the geography is a bit different. Though there are no ancient volcanos rising from the ground, the town has been called the porte d’entrée (entryway) into the Auvergne. Getting from Montluçon to the Massif Central is just a short trip south–or it should be.

Mary and I had planned to take the train to Clermont-Ferrand (the largest city in the region; only a few miles away from the Puy de Dôme), but in a last-minute change of plans, a French friend offered to drive us.

G showed up at our house in attire more suited to a discothèque than a vigorous hike, though this wasn’t the only expectation he challenged.

Men are thought to avoid asking for directions, but the trend must not extend to France as G inquired probably a dozen times about the proper route.

It turns out you cannot simply put the name of a volcano into the GPS. Puy de Dôme was close–we could see its trademark antenna–but couldn’t find a parking lot or the start of the trail.

We listened to French rap and wound through the hills, the language barrier presenting occasional moments of hilarity. After the fifth or sixth u-turn, I got my book out, only looking up twenty minutes later when I heard Mary laughing hysterically from the front seat.

She didn’t have to explain. Just ahead, a line of cars had formed, waiting as a herd of red cows wandered lazily down the road.cows

A few blasts of of the horn quickly took care of the problem.

The cows were not the last hurdle, but after a few more wrong turns and a brief visit to the wrong puy, we soon arrived. It’s possible to take a tram to the top, but we were craving fresh air and exercise and had gotten lucky with a sixty-five degree day. tram.jpgIt took us a leisurely hour to get to the top, level with the paragliders. For 85 euros, we could have joined them, though my stomach dropped at the idea. Maybe next time…para 2.jpgjess auv.jpgpretty trees auvergne.jpgdomesky-hikeimg_2437sunIt’s funny: though the view from the top is clearly gorgeous, more well-known is the view from Clermont-Ferrand of the Puy de Dôme itself. At the top a sign explained how a famous French author (if only I could remember who) would always gaze at the Puy from afar, but when he saw the view from the top, he was sorely disappointed. He wrote about it in a letter, expressing something like righteous indignation.

While I don’t share the man’s bad attitude, I will admit there’s something impressive about the Puy de Dôme in silhouette, something you miss standing at the top.

Still, the view is breathtaking: almost prehistoric, incongruous with the rest of France.

We hiked down (the word rolled would almost be appropriate with how steep it was) in about half an hour. It was easier on the lungs but worked a whole new set of leg muscles.

Back in Clermont-Ferrand, we made a quick visit to the cathedral before having dinner in a little crêperie. The Notre-Dame de l’Assomption is, I think, my favorite cathedral in France. Unlike Notre-Dame de Paris, it’s not swarming with tourists, and something about it makes me think strongly of fairytales, like it’s not quite real.

Mary and I visited a few weeks ago when we were in Clermont for our TAPIF orientation. When we took the train to return to Montluçon, the sun was setting a brilliant violet and the cathedral stood high and dark above the city, still visible as the train swayed and creaked away from Clermont. I think we all have buildings or sights or works of art that speak to us for inexplicable reasons, and this place does that for me.

On our first visit, an organist played high above as a few quiet visitors wandered the perimeters. The music gave me chills.img_1864-1img_1862-1img_1787-1img_1863-1

clermont cath.jpgDinner was savory crepes and sweet crepes and wine. We pored over the menu, delirious after not eating all day. I chose something with coquilles de St Jacques, emmental, mushrooms, crême fraiche, and for dessert, a crêpe with chocolate and bananas and peanut butter (something you don’t often see here!). We found that Mary’s accent improves when she impersonates a French man, and the meal ended on an exciting note when the server set both of our crèpes on fire, though only one included alcohol and was supposed to be flambéed.

It was a good weekend in Clermont and I suspect we’ll have many more. It’s just an hour and a ten-dollar train ride away!