Sunday, October 28, 2012

Le Mistral

It's not only the British that love discussing the weather - while they ramble on and on about the rain, in Provence the infamous Le Mistral becomes the main topic of every conversation once it strikes with all of its might. This dry and cold wind originates in the Alps and Massif Central, bringing the bitingly cold air off the mountains to the Rhône Valley, rushing at speed reaching nudging 160km/h. It can do major damage to the crops, often brings about forest fires and sometimes affects people's frame of mind but on the good note, it pushes the bad weather towards the sea, leaving the sky luminous and pollution-free. That's why Provence boasts over 300 sunny days a year. Allegedly, on a really wind-lashed day from the top of Mont Ventoux, the region's highest mountain, it's possible to see all the way to Corsica, located more than 350 km southwest from the Provençal giant. However, this persistent myth hasn't been supported by concrete evidence, since it's impossible to stand on the top of Mont Ventoux when the Mistral blows.

Before coming to Provence I could hardly imagine the force of Mistral. The combination of clear blue sky coupled with torturous wind seemed impossible to exist... until I felt its effects on my own skin. Imagine peeling off your cardigan, lured by the glorious sunshine, opening the door and... the bitting cold immediately chills your bones and makes you wonder whether you're for sure in the south of France and not in Siberia. Even if you head out equipped in multiple layers, you'll have to try really hard to pick the right clothes to guard you from the force of Mistral. When it blows, the streets become deserted. It's so cold it effectively dissuades everybody from going out. The wisest thing to do is repose yourself in the comfort and coziness of your room and wait for three, six or nine days until Le Mistral subdues.

I've experienced Mistral before but it wasn't until couple of days ago that I got to know its knock-down force. Because of the direction it comes from, it's difficult to find many windows on the northern side of Provençal houses. However, my new room was of northern exposure. While in other rooms inside the house any howls were almost non-existing, the piercing scream heard from my room made me feel as if I was in the middle of the busiest multi-lane highway intersection, as if million kettles started buzzing over my head at the same time. I could hear the wind whistle trough every gap, shake the house, torture the branches of the trees, make wooden shutters bang against the walls and rattle all small objects standing on the shelves.

In Lagnes, in only three days, the temperature dropped almost 30 degrees. In the morning I could see the effects of the wind - tormented trees with almost bare branches, objects placed in front of the garage scattered in all directions. We were spared the worst results - in some nearby houses the roofs were torn off due to the powerful wind. Here Mistral blew only 130 km/h. In nearby Murs, its speed reached 160 km/h.

No matter how irritating Le Mistral is, it hugely figures in Provençal life and landscape; it's synonymous with the region as much as lavender, vin rosé, olive trees or herbs. It's because of Mistral that Provençal homes are protected by rows of tightly planted, twisting cypresses; that knotted olive trees don't reach very high, but stay low to the ground. Thanks to Mistral, Provence prides some of the finest wines in France - local vineyards are subjected to both intense heat and freezing wind that additionally blows away the worst grape-eating pests. Any time it starts blowing, you wish it away, but on the other hand, that's one of many elements that define this sunny region - after all, without Mistral, Provence wouldn't be Provence.

Vincent van Gogh, Wheat Field with Cypresses (image courtesy of http://www.metmuseum.org)

Friday, October 26, 2012

Mountainous sentiments

Mer de Glace, holding the title of France's biggest glacier at 7 km long and 200 m thick is undoubtedly one of the major ready-made attractions of Chamonix. It's also the place where Alan and I took our second couchsurfer, Kyle. It's hard to believe, but almost two years have passed since I moved to the foothills of Europe's highest mountain. Now, at the end of October, I am back again to little mountain-surrounded Chamonix, where some of my most cherished memories dwell.

The glacier is accessible not only by hiking trail, but also by rack railway. Thanks to this custom-built facility the number of visitors to Mer de Glace has significantly increased since its launch in 1908. The last time I visited the site, despite the off-season, it was full to bursting with tourists. Even upon the finest views I can't feast my eyes, having such hordes around. However, this time luck was on my side. Due to train tracks maintenance the station located at 1913 m above sea level was totally deserted. During my ascent I saw only five hikers making their way down - a blatant proof how few people make the effort of stiff climb of over two hours through coniferous forest, at this time of the year wonderfully painted with autumn colors. Such a shame - the giant mass of ice is an incredible view to crown the hike, but what you see on your way up isn't even slightly inferior to the main course. It is, however, all the better for it - thanks to those lazy comfort seekers I could appreciate the solitude of the mountains to the fullest potential; lounging about on a wooden deck, surrounded by granite spires of some of the most prestigious peaks in Chamonix - Aiguille Verte, Aiguille des Grand Charmoz and Aiguille du Dru - one of six great north faces of the Alps, in my opinion the most beautiful mountain of Vallée Blanche. For over one hour the only sounds that existed for me were water gushing in the massive bulk of ice just below me and soft whistle of the wind.

The glacier has obviously been receding and has thinned 150 meters since 1820 at the Montenvers Station. If you look the the photos I took, you'll see a prominent line above which trees grow. That's how high the glacier reached in 1810. Once easily visible from below, now it only comes into view when you reach Gare du Montenvers. Most of its surface is marred with cracks, gritty and gray, but in some places sparkling blue comes into view. It's possible to reach the bottom of the glacier, where an ice grotto is carved out every year, by a twisting path and a series of steps. However, my shattered knees said no to getting so close to the glacier. I slowly started making my way down, this time by other trail than the one I took uphill. Around 30 minutes into my hike, an unexpected obstacle forced me to turn back - another trail closure due to the maintenance works. I was on my last legs when I reached the elevation of 1913 m once more, but happy to have one last chance to take in the incomparable view.












This short visit to my Alpine home was also marked by some reunions with old friends - I managed to find Sara in her "African" apartment just before her leaving for Toulouse, stayed with Tom in Passy, heard some news about his former housemates and our friends, Paola and Lucie, shared my couch with two frisky dogs, fell off the slackline a couple of times and witnessed the biggest water fight ever - participating Tom and his friend David, at the end of which the floor of Tom's apartment was absolutely messy with water and my clothes were glued to my skin with liquid plant fertilizer, even though I didn't even raise my hand against any of the guys.








Over the recent 2,5 years the words "return" and "visit" have somehow lost their meaning to me. Being always elsewhere, it's difficult to say which direction I take when I return and which when I just visit a place. If I were to think about Chamonix, probably neither of these would properly describe what I do when I come from the direction of Viaduc des Égratz or Col des Montets to my Alpine winter den. For me it became a lifestyle understood only by these who've ever been a part of this laid-back place. If I had two lives, I would probably travel in the first one and spend the second one in Chamonix. And every time somebody asks me "Are you going back to Chamonix?" I smile, remembering snow-covered trails beneath my feet, creating colorful mandalas with first spring flowers or the strains of "Society" by Eddie Veder sang with friends by a campfire in the forest of Argentiere, and give entirely truthful answer "I have never left."

Friday, October 19, 2012

Highlands

Despite being totally unprepared for wayfaring the Highlands, my adventurous nature was stronger than my fears. I put myself in the hands of fate, thinking "Sleeping in odd places doesn't scare me. And even if I don't make it to the very North, at least I'll have seen the dramatic West," the only part of the Highlands where I managed to find couchsurfing hosts.

I stay with Polish-Scottish family living in the picturesque countryside just six miles from Isle of Skye. After having lived a semi-nomadic lifestyle for years, Magda, Alex and their adorable kids, Katie and Michael, finally got a place of their own. It's still pretty barren construction site and the conditions are rustic. Rubble, wood and dust get in your way all the time. I barely ever take my jacket off inside the house, it's so cold. But the warmth that radiates from my hosts more than makes up for these inconveniences. Within minutes I feel completely adopted into the family and this feeling grows with every moment we spend together.

The Scottish weather granted us with lots of warmth and sunshine for our adventure in the Isle of Skye. By many regarded as a paradise, it's too diverse to be properly appreciated during a slapdash visit. From sandy beaches to jagged monster peaks of the Black Cullins, each of Skye's peninsulas is entirely different world of its own when it comes to landscape. We decided to visit Trotternish, the northernmost one and hike up to the Storr, one of the most sought-after geological treasures of the island. It's a series of rock pinnacles sculpted by volcanic activity, the most famous of which is the Old Man of Storr. The first glimpses of these giant natural features greeted us from the roadside, just to disappear soon, set back and swathed in dense forestry. After a 1-km walk among the woodlands the first proper view of Storr's rugged landscape finally met our eyes. I recalled the words of Guido, telling me "you can't leave Skye without seeing the Old Man of Storr." Now I knew why - these heart-wrenchingly beautiful giants lived up to their promise, and the views from the very top were stunners - a perfect reward for the steep hike on loose rocks.









Apart from the Old Man of Storr we also went for shorter walks along Trotternish scraggly coast. Here I saw another evidence of former volcanic activity on Skye - black beaches, a spitting image of black sand beaches in Blönduós or Vík í Mýrdal on Iceland.




For the remaining two days of my visit th weather didn't cooperate at all. Instead of enjoying long walks I decided to do something useful and help my hosts with the construction. Moreover, I can't forget to mention that Michael and I swiftly became best friends - this adorable six-year-old boy who would not yield an inch to me could convert even the most unbending people who don't want to have kids to the other side. Our story-reading sessions would never finish after just one story; it would endlessly continue like "That's my favorite book, read this one." "I haven't heard this one for so long." "This story is the best one, you have to read it." As it usually works for me with kids, I couldn't refuse any of his wishes.

In Magda and Alex's house filled with jolly atmosphere and laughs there were enough things to keep me there for months. Yet the rainy weather was the biggest turn-off for me. I started feeling sick and unwell. Full of sorrow I bid farewell to these wonderful people and slowly started heading south...








Monday, October 8, 2012

The best thing I did in Scotland

The traffic on early Sunday morning wasn't one to wish for if you want to reach your goal quickly. Only after around 10 minutes of waiting did I spot the first vehicle looming out of the mist. To my dismay, it turned out to be driving instructor car, so I refrained from even holding my "GOOD PERSON" sign up, certain that an unexperienced driver wouldn't be allowed to pick up a hitchhiker. How surprised I was to see the driver pull over.
"The thing is, it's not me who's the student, it's Jenny and I'm the driver, so you're in safe hands. This car has to be in Aberdeen very fast, so now I'm speeding."
"Don't mind, I'm a fast driver too... although still license-less."

My destination was Inverurie. Going to Aberdeen would have worked fine, but having hitchhiked A93 for countless times and being bored to death with its predictability, I deflected myself from this course of action. And then my driver suddenly changed his mind... "I have a lot of time today, so I can take you all the way to Inverurie and then go to Aberdeen." I lapped up his offer and couldn't have been any luckier. The man, instead of taking the main road to Inverurie, trudged up ever-tighter turns along tiny country roads barely the width of 2 meters, allowing me to seize the last opportunity to take in the beauty of Aberdeenshire countryside, bright with all shades of yellow and green. Apart from the stunning scenery to behold it was also the driver's stories about people he knew and whose houses we passed that my attention was turned to.
"You see this farm right on the hill? That's where one of my really diligent student lives. He'd never sat behind the wheel before he started his lessons, then after only 21 hours he passed his test at the first go - no mistakes."
"You know the Aberdeen Angus bull? That's where they're bred, here in Alford. There's a statue of the bull at the end of the village. Once my former student who lives in this house with red garage door painted the bull gold in the middle of the night to celebrate passing his driving exam in February."
"In early '80s the woman who used to live in this house lost her cat, which was ran over by a car. So what she would do was to sit in front of the house every day and write down the license plate numbers of cars which she thought were speeding and report them to the police. But they could do nothing about it, since you need a speed gun and they can't take somebody's word for it. She did it for 20 years! She's in mental asylum now."
"The man who used to live in this mansion killed his friend in a car accident on the sharp bend we'll pass in a while and was sentenced to one year in prison for reckless driving."

We also passed places that aroused more personal memories. The house where he spent his childhood. A small primary school he attended. The sheep farm where he spent his holidays. The field where he learned to play football. Seeing the places we passed with his eyes made this short ride one of the most memorable ones I got in Scotland.

Finally in Inverurie, I literally left a part of me. It was the best thing I had a chance to do in almost two months of being here. May my 465 ml of blood save many a Scottish life. This time I handled the donation very well; nobody had to struggle with my threadlike veins and the nurse reassured me couple of times "We have the newest machines and they constantly show the blood flow, where 10 means 'excellent' and you're just over 7." In addition, I had the first chance in more than one month to speak so much Polish - with a new friend, Dorota, met on a hitchhiking group on facebook who turned out to be an au pair in Inverurie. Dorota, thanks for coming along!


Here my time in Abedreenshire comes to an end, tomorrow I'm leaving for the Highlands to explore them as much as I can with the resources that I have, that is not so much time (off to Sardinia in the beginning of November), no proper camping equipment (borrowed from a couchsurfer who's coming along with me) and not the most excellent weather at this time of they year, but with enough faith in good people to let me hope that I needn't worry too much. So, one month less at work is one month more on the road!