June 2015 — It’s early June at Chaumont-sur-Loire’s annual garden festival, and one of the 26 gardens created around this year’s theme, ‘A Collector’s Garden’, is already getting more attention than others.
“Seriously, you should be careful,” says L, who had a near-miss with an elk on her way back home at dusk a few months ago. Her partner M warns us bluntly: “Elks are more dangerous than other animals. They’re tall, so if you hit them their legs go under the car while the body goes straight into your windscreen; that’s two tonnes of animal landing right on you.”
We push the door to Göteborg’s humble cathedral, whose warm sandstone and pale brick façade cuts a slight silhouette against the summer sky. Near the choir, a singer and his pianist are rehearsing. His voice rises in the peaceful, modest interior and fills the cool off-white walls. We sit for a while, thieving a few musical moments of what he later tells us is from Dvorak’s Biblical Songs.
Today’s drive is much shorter than previous days, a mere 80km from Aalborg to Frederikshaven where we take a ferry across to Göteborg. It’s sunny, although not especially warm. We drive on roads lined with more lupins and daisies, aspens and willows. The countryside is gently undulating and, above our heads, white clouds are torn in long hair-thin strips.
Our hotel just outside Aalborg is in an old country house amid sprawling meadows on the edge of a wood. It’s a balmy afternoon, with the sun still high in the sky at nearly seven o’clock and just a few clouds disappearing off the horizon. It’s the kind of place where you want to relax in one of the salons and admire the view, a glass of chilled Chablis in hand. I enthusiastically grab the wine list from our waitress who shares my preference for French dry white wine. “Here we are: Chablis. How much is 620 Danish kroner?”. Dr K quickly checks the exchange rate and replies crisply: “How much is the Chilean white?”.
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.
The last time we headed out to the back of the Col Pers we trekked through blizzard and skied on frozen-over chopped up snow. After several days of sunshine and warm weather, the conditions today were mercifully kinder and incomparably more pleasant.