The drive from Osnabrück to Flensburg starts under showers and grey skies, but by mid-morning the clouds temporarily clear as we veer off the motorway towards Buxtehude. The road goes through the Altes Land, an area developed by Dutch settlers in the 14th century, and it’s a pleasant change from the relentless motorway. It’s fertile land still, with orchards and soft fruits, although Christmas trees appear to be a popular line too.
The people of Osnabrück are the happiest in Germany, according to a country-wide survey ten years ago which measured living standards, amenities, and public services. That was before the financial crisis and the pan-European austerity drive, and today it’s not immediately obvious why the town would top the happiness charts. But it looks friendly enough, and we’re certainly happy to be there, the first stopover of our four-week road trip to Finland.
As we drive away from Barcelonnette heading south towards Sisteron, the landscape gradually changes. The mountains are softer, less mineral, greener. The forests, fields and orchards tell us we are slowly entering Provence. Deciduous oak gives way to the shorter, evergreen oak and Provençal pine, and we see the first olive groves; the houses take on a paler shade of ochre, their roofs covered with terracotta tiles rather than flat stone.
We are taking the picturesque route, winding our way down on B roads through mountain passes and hillside villages. Occasionally there are signs for small, almost unknown, ski resorts such as Montclar, reminding us we haven’t quite left the Alps yet. This J-shaped itinerary involves going as far south as Dignes and then, as we reach the Durance valley, veering west and back up north to Sisteron.
From that point, we’re traveling partly on the ‘Route Napoléon’, the road which the former emperor, having escaped from Elba in early 1815, took to avoid running into the royalist troops in lower Provence on his way up to Waterloo.
Godfather P wastes no time in going up to the youthful-looking stallholder to say he recognises him from a television programme. Local fruit farmer Nicolas Tron is, after all, partly responsible for our visit to Barcelonnette, the town in the Ubaye valley, in the Alpes de Haute Provence, famous for its so-called Mexican villas.
All that’s left for breakfast is French toast and muffins. I look at the waiter, then at the muffins, and at the waiter again. We’re not especially late but the café, just off the main drag in Grenoble, has run out of croissants and fresh bread. It looks a friendly place, with a nice terrace getting the morning sunshine, and it would be a shame to leave. I turn inquisitively to godfather P and Dr K who appear just as disappointed. Before we have to make up our mind whether to settle for what’s on offer, the waiter volunteers to pop over to the baker’s around the corner. A few minutes later we’re sitting down with freshly squeezed orange juice, a large cup of coffee, and half a fresh baguette each with butter and jam. It’s an auspicious start for our two-day stay, the first stopover on our way to Haute Provence, near Apt.
“Do you mind if we move our tour to Le Monal to Thursday?” the guide asks.
It’s a sunny enough day but apparently there is too much wind on the other side of the mountain, whereas the forecast for Thursday is sunny all day and no wind, which would be ideal. We could still do it today, but really Thursday would be better.
I got up at 6.45 and drove half an hour to get to Sainte Foy, the starting point for the trip; so I do mind a little. The only possible answer, though, is: “Of course, that’s no problem”.
But having come all this way and being so close to Le Monal, a place I have been meaning to see in the winter for so long, I’m not going to give up just like that – I am going to walk there instead.
The road that winds up the vallée des chapieux from Bourg Saint Maurice has been cleared as far as Bonneval-les-Bains. This is where we’re heading with former instructor M, who has suggested we go snowshoeing away from the Val d’Isère crowds and explore the lesser-known parts of the Tarentaise.
She tells me about Bonneval, a small settlement of scattered houses on the way to the Cormet de Roselend, a popular destination in the summer. Now, in mid-February, this is where the road stops. There is nobody else around apart from a couple of cars parked on the roadside opposite the ruins of a hotel that was never completed and a derelict open-air swimming pool.