There are 100 ski resorts in the Val Cenis – which is west of Chambéry and heading for the Alps and Italy. In Mondane there are posters: it is the regions 40th birthday. Happy birthday piste n’ pissed. Mondane is commemorating another birthday: it is 50 years since it was flooded, the high-street 15 feet under water, deaths. There is a small exhibition with testimonies in the local museum – to “mechanical pianos”, a speciality here, it seems.
“The worst wayes that ever I travelled in all my life in the Sommer were those betwixt Chamberie and Aiguebelle, which were as bad as the worst I ever rode in England in the midst of Winter: insomuch that the wayes of Savoy may be proverbially spoken of as the Owles of Athens, the peares of Calabria and the Quailes of Delos.
…I commended Savoy a pretty while for the best place that ever I saw in my life, for abundance of pleasant springs, descending from the mountains, till the last I considered the cause of those springs. For they are not fresh springs, as I conjectured at the first, but onely little torrents of snow water, which distilleth from the toppe of those mountains, when the snow by the heate of the sunne is dissolved into water. Of those torrents I think I saw at the least a thousand betwixt the foote of the ascent of the Mountaine Aiguebelle and Novalaise in Piemont, at the descent of the Mountaine Senis; which places are sixty two miles asunder.”
Bikers and HGV drivers are the staple of Mondane; in La Chambre, a stop-off post for the former, and cyclists, I met four Australians. They were in their 60s, wiry-fit. On three month trips: one couple will cycle the rest of France and catch a boat for Cherbourg, then fly home from England, the others are off to ride the Danube.
La Chambre is where Jane Fonda, Rousseau, Hell’s Angels and Lance Armstrong come together in my mind – there being not many things to do, other than interview bikers, cyclists, and Serbian jailbirds. For, surrounded by the first vision of “proper” mountains with their five weather in an hour peaks, and without wi-fi (“lost”, and anyway it’s not the season, yet…a few more weeks,” says Julie returning from holiday and about to start her summer lodge-work up in “Two Alps.”) I think about us as travellers in search of fitness and health.
“The swiftest and violentest lake that ever I saw, is that which runneth through Savoy, called Lezere, which is much swifter than the Rhodanus at Lyons, that by the poets is called Rapidissimus amnis. For this is so extreme swift, that no fish can possible live in it, by reason that it will be carried away by the most violent fource of the torrent, and dashed against huge stones which are in most places of the lake. Yea there are many thousand stones in that lake much bigger then the stones of Stoneage by the towne of Amesbury in Wilt-shire, or the exceeding great stone upon Hamdon hil in Somerset-shire, so famous for the quarre, which is within a mile of the Parish of Odcombe my dear natalitiall place. ..The cause of the extraordinary swiftness of this lake is, the continuall fluxe of the snow water descending from those mountains, which doth augment and multiplie the lake in a thousand places. There is another thing also to be observed in this lake, the horrible and hideous noyse thereof. For I thinke it keepeth almost as terrible a noyse as the river Cocytus in Hell, which the poets doe extol for the murmuring thereof, as having his name Cocytus from the olde Greeke word…which signifieth to keepe a noyse.
I travelled many miles in Savoy before I could see any snow upon the mountaines, but when I came something near Aiguebelle I saw great abundance almost upon every mountaine.
The Alpes after I had once descended from the mountaine Aiguebelle, towards Chambery inclosed me on every side like two walles till I was past mount Senis, even for the space of sixty miles.”
Expensive spas, fitness hotels and spiritual retreats are flecked around these valleys: they are fly-drive territory, off the “trade route” I and Tom (and Tim) follow. Appearance, not in the Parisian, nor the Lyonaise, sense is important here. The “look” is sportif, leather or lycra. Though my McQueen doesn’t count, the bikers tell me. Tant pis.
The Floods of Modane, 1957
In a spotless marble-floored café on the via Vittore Immanuel in Turin I realize something is missing, standing at the bar. What it is, is smoke. “Impossible in Italy now, illegal,” a Slovene waitress tells me in Susa, just over the border.” And in this new era of smoke-free eating and drinking there is just a little more of a return to the “natural”.
“…The countrey of Savoy is very cold, and much subject to raine, by reason of these cloudes, that are continually hovering above the Alpes, which being the receptacles of raine do there more distill their moisture, then in other countries.
I observed an admirable abundance of Butter-flies in many places of Savoy, by the hundreth part more than ever I saw in any countrey before, whereof many great swarmes, which were (according to my estimation and conjecture) at the least two thousand, lay dead upon the high waies as we travelled.
When I came to Aiguebelle I saw the effect of the common drinking of snow water in Savoy. For there I saw many men and women have exceeding great bunches or swellings in their throates, such as we call in latin strumas, as bigge as the fistes of a man, through the drinking of the snow water, yea some of their bunches are almost as great as an ordinary foote-ball with us in England. These swellings are much to be seene amongst these Savoyards, neyther are all the Pedemontanes free from them.
I rode from Aiguebelle about two of the clocke in the afternoon, and came to a place called la Chambre, which is eight miles beyond it, about nine of the clocke in the evening: this was the ninth day of June being Thursday. Betwixt Aiguebelle and la Chambre, I observed no extraordinary matter, but such as before in Savoy.
…At a towne called St. Jean de Morienne, which is about six miles beyond la Chambre, I saw a goodly schoole and a great multitude of schollers in it. The Parish Church is a pretty thing, having a faire steeple.”
Even my “bikers” are following their own, carbon-heavy, form of mind, body fine-tuning. The “Rocketman” tells me: “It’s about calculating what you can and can’t do, about knowing.” Knowing, that is, at 240 kilometers an hour on curvaceous mountain roads with “Sherlock Holmes is dead” drops.
Exceeding is the abundance of woodden crosses in Savoy, and a marvailous multitude of little Chappels, with the picture of Christ and the Virgin Mary, and many other religious persons, wherein I did oftentimes see some at their devotion.
“I observed a great multitude of poore woodden-bridges over al Savoy, which were only made of beech trees, that were cut down from the sides of the Alpes. Some few stony bridges I saw also prettily vaulted with an arch or two. These bridges are the necessariest things of all Savoy. For without them they that are on one side of the river, cannot possibly get over to the other side, by reason that the violence of the lake is so great, that it will carry away both man and beast that commeth within it.
I noted one thing about sixe or seven miles before I came to Lasnebourg that is not to be omitted. The waies on the sides of the mountains whereon I rode were so exceeding high, that if my horse had happened to stumble, he had fallen downe with me foure or five times as deepe in some places as Paules tower in London is high. Therefore I very providently preventing the worst dismounted from my horse and lead him in my hand for the space of a mile and halfe at the least, though my company too adventurously rod on, fearing nothing. In Lasnebourg which was the last towne of Savoy that I lodged in, situate under the foot of that exceeding high mountaine Senis, I observed these three things. First the shortnesse of the women’s wastes not naturally but artificially. For all women both of that towne and all other places besides betwixt that and Novalaise a towne of Piemont, at the descent of the mountaine Senys on the other side, some twelve miles off, did gird themselves so high that the distance betwixt their shoulders and their girdle seemed to be but a little handfull. Secondly, the height of their beds: for they were so high that a man could hardly get into his bedde without some kinde of climbing, so that a man needed a ladder to get up as we say here in England. Thirdly, the strangenesse and quaintnesse of the womens head attire. For they wrappe and fold together after a very unseemly fashion, almost as much linen upon their heads as the Turkes doe in those linen caps they weare, which are called Turbents.”
If La Chambre is a staging post, then Lansleburg is a resort proper: even the cows ski. It is betwixt seasons, but the sportswear stores are open and ready. “It’s nice at this time of year, not too many people, says Hugo, who with two mates is cycling, camping and hiking for a few weeks, post college.
As I walk a way up the valley Mont Cenis, in Tom’s footsteps – and the horse-tracks of a thousand Grand Tourists afterwards – I am aware of thinking how good this is for me, healthy, gently tanning, aerobic. There are few cars on these roads, just vans small enough to pass muster (HGVs are banned, must go by the Fréjus, via Mondane), the occasional cyclists pumping for the tops, and schoals of bikers. This is “eden” for bikers. Alois, my Slovene white van man says. He’s almost my age, but seems far older. Communism, even the “soft” Slovene kind under Tito, hasn’t given him the taste for fitness, self-improvement – youth. He seems happy enough. In fact, watching him hop across the meadows in search of Marmot holes, I’d say he’d got the balance pretty good. Tonight he’ll sleep in Verona. The next day: home in Slovenia. He lets me off at Susa. I walk to the piazza, sit down and order a coffee. Opposite me two stick thin Germans in top-to-toe leather. “A good morning,” one says, sliding off his boots. “Time for a water, I think.”
[Sees “Roch Melow”, “…said to be the highest mountaine of all the Alpes, save one those that part Italy and Germany. Some told me it was fourteene miles high: it is covered with a very Microcosme of clowdes. Of this mountaine ther is no more then a little peece of the toppe to be seene, which seemeth a farre off to be three or foure little turrets or steeples in the aire. I heard a prety history concerning this mountaine which was this. A certain fellow that beene a notorious robber and a very enormous liver, being touched with some remorse of conscience for his licentious and ungodly life, got him two religious pictures, one of Christ, and another of the Virgin Mary, which he carryed a long time about with him, vowing to spend the remainder of his life in fasting and prayer, for expiation of his offences to God, upon the highest mountaine of all the Alpes. Whereupon he went up to a certaine mountaine that in his opinion was the highest of all the Alpine hills, carrying those two pictures with him, and resolving there to end his life. After he had spent some little time there, two pictures more of Christ and our Lady appeared to him, whereby he gathered (but by what reason induced I know not) that he had not chosen that mountaine which was the highest at all; so that he wandered a great while about til he found a higher which was this, unto the toppe whereof he went with his pictures, where he spent the rest of his life in contemplation, and never came down more. My author of this tale or figment (for indeede so I account it and no otherwise) is our Maron [guide or conductor] of Turin, and told us this upon the way.
The descent of the mountaine I found more wearisome and tedious than the ascent. For I rode all the way up being assisted with my guide of Lasnebourg, but downe I was constrained to walke a foote for the space of seven miles. For so much it is betwixt the top and the foote of the mountaine: in all which space I continually descended headlong. The waies were exceedingly uneasie. For they were wonderfull hard, all stony and full of windings and intricate turnings, whereof I thinke there were at the least two hundred before I came to the foot. Stil I met many people ascending, and mules laden with carriage, and a great company of dunne kine driven up the hill with collars about their neckes: in those waies I found many stones wherein I plainly perceived the mettall of tinne, whereof I saw a great multitude. One of them I tooke up in my hand, intending to carry it home into England, but one of my company to whim I delivered it to keepe for me, lost it.
We’re all healthy now. Next stop: why? Does it make us better? I should email Jane Fonda. In Lanleburg I watch BBC World. Kirtsy Lang is interviewing Robert Service, an Oxford academic, about the “end” of communism, not as practiced in Sloenia, Russia or Bulgaria, but as an idea. As another mind-body-control biker zooms past it all makes a curious healthy sense.
Val Cenis has 100 resorts.