Friday, 6 December 2013

Christmas shopping and a short, but steep, walk to church

Our last day was to have been spent in Tignes, but Margaret wasn't up for the trip. The thought of a ride up the mountain by gondola and sitting it out in a high restaurant wasn't appealing and I could understand why. She said she'd stay at home, but it was only a short break and I knew she wanted to do a little shopping, so we called off the skiing and headed to Super U instead.
Sam was a bit sulky (he wanted to ski), but he cheered up after breakfast in the cafe. I got lots of nice things in the supermarket, including chocolates and biscuits for work, Beaufort cheese for Laura, something for Max (which I can't mention here in case he reads this); also a present of Leffe Belgian beer and glasses for me and some provisions for the long drive back next day.
We popped into Intersport where Margaret found a present for my sister; there was a weird music, books and games shop next door to Intersport, where I bought a set of cheap headphones to replace the ones that disappeared about the same time Tom left for Ecuador.
We'd thought we might have stopped in Bourg and had a look around, but we'd got pretty much all we needed and so headed back to Villaret.
Way above the village, there a small chapel built on the nose of a massive outcrop of limestone. It was obviously put in a place that’s difficult to reach in order to either be closer to Jehovah or to score more Brownie points for the pious making the journey from the valley floor. When we were here in 2012 for the first time, I'd tried to find out something about the place, but there was nothing on the internet.
It's called the Chapel St Michel on the map and there were quite a few references to shrines to St Michael, many of them established by people heading out on the Crusades. I guess it was the nearest they had to travel insurance. Although I could find many references, I couldn't find anything about this particular one.
From Villaret, it's quite hard to see how you would walk up to it. The front slope is massively steep, so that if you lost your footing, you would not be able to prevent yourself from falling. We assumed there was a way around the back, but there are deep clefts either side of the chapel and a sheer cliff above.
The notes in our chalet say that you can walk up to it and that it's also possible to walk up still higher to where there are some old gun emplacements, perhaps from the First or Second World War (perhaps earlier). These valleys have been the scene of many battles and have seen many armies pass through from Hannibal to Napoleon.
There are signs pointing up to the chapel in Villaret and so we set out early afternoon on a lovely sunny day. The tarmac road stops at Maison Blueski, so once we'd clambered over the icy snowbank piled up at the head of the village by the snowplough, we were on a dirt road (steep but clearly used by quads or 4x4s). These fields are wonderful summer pasture for sheep and cattle, but right now the grass is a little rough and covered with patches of snow. Soon, it will be all snow.
There's a clear track upwards, crossed in places by farm tracks, and in the winter sun we were soon too warm and having to discard clothing. Sam, Lucy and I were making the journey and Margaret was going to do a few jobs around the chalet. The path zig-zags upwards. There's a clear older path which is embanked on each side, but people have cut across the zig-zags to take a more direct route, so there are lots of little paths and a fair bit of soil erosion. In the places where the afternoon sun doesn't reach, the snow was building up. Untrodden snow gives good traction, but where people have walked, the snow is icy and quite treacherous.

After half an hour, there's a small shrine to the Virgin Mary where people had left offerings of flowers and produce (including a quince). From there, the path climbs and the views of the valley open out so we could see onto the bowl of Le Plan, the ski resort next to Les Arc and higher still, the track forked with one route leading to the chapel and the other one upwards towards the high plateau. That's a walk for June.

Now we were more or less on a level with the chapel at around 1350m and, to reach it, the path is cut into the sloping cliff for a short way before it arrives behind the chapel. This part is the most exposed, but is in the sun so ice and snow haven't built up. Behind the chapel, the path continues and leads down to La Rosiere, the area on the edge of Bourg immediately below Villaret (hence Villaret sur La Rosiere). You could use the path to do a full circuit.
The short walk up to the chapel was the most dangerous (especially coming down). Steps cut into the wooded slope have eroded and the snow has turned to ice so it was quite hard to walk. We had to go onto all fours going up and slide down on bums.
The chapel is well cared for. The heavy door is propped open, but a grille prevents you from entering. Inside there's a room with a small altar, a cross and a domed ceiling painted blue with stars. Outside is a large cross and floodlighting to highlight the place during darkness. A plaque on the wall says it was built in 1563 (about the same time as Thorney Abbey) well after the crusades. Of course the present building may well have replaced an earlier shrine.
The grassy face of the mountain below the chapel is extremely steep and you feel as it you're looking down directly upon Villaret and (below that) Bourg itself. 

Looking down the steep slope to Villaret and Bourg

Walking down, retracing our steps, required more care on the snow and ice, but we were soon back at the chalet and we walked onto the garden and took the steps down onto our patio. Margaret was sitting in the sun with a glass of wine petting Maurice (who had shown up again). They were having a very nice time.
Margaret had also had a glass of wine with the old lady next door who had been spending some of her afternoon working on the land behind our chalet pulling out and burning brambles. One had no French, the other no English, but they'd drunk wine, complained about hard work, commented on the fine weather and Margaret had established that it was a) OK to feed the dog and b) the dog was called Clarissa.
It seems a strange name for a dog (even a French dog) so I'm not sure if Margaret hadn't actually got the old lady's name, not the dog's. Anyway she now has a four-legged and a two-legged French friend.

Sam sent me this note on Dec 12: When we got back from shopping today, we saw the farm lady with a man who had a truck of dogs. She was buying a new collie for the farm. Interestingly he was from another valley and originated from Wales. He was retired here but breeds farm dogs. He gave her a deal of 400 Euro for a 3 month old. It was called Anushka and was going to be learning from the older dog, formerly known as Maurice and Clarissa. The dog's actual name is Roxy.