Destination: Italy. En route we stopped for a few days in the south of France to visit friends whom we hadn’t seen for ages. Then our adventure began. Firstly we passed through landscapes we’ve traveled for years and then into the great unknown as we headed for the Haute Provence Alpes. The journey through Haute Provence and Haute Durance would probably have been quite spectacular if we could have seen it but it was raining too heavily and the cloud cover was low. The orchards were protected by some sort of fleece which looked like spiders webs, presumably protection against marauding birds. We drove along the itinéraire de villages perches (hilltop villages route) of which we saw little, the route des fruits et des vins (the fruit and wine route) and finally up into the Alpes de Haute Provence.
We were heading for Saint Ours, high up in the mountains (1,800m) about 30km past the town of Barcelonnette. What we didn’t realize at the time was that Barcelonnette has links to Mexico and holds a week-long Mexican festival in the middle of August. In the late 19th century enterprising trading folk from the Ubaye valley went to Mexico and founded drapers stores which would later evolve into department stores based on the French model. Many returned and firm links were established between the two places.
We turned off the main road past Meyronnes and drove on for another couple of kilometres to the hamlet of Saint Ours, which was tiny. Some of its families too had emigrated to Mexico. Because of its proximity to the Italian border, in times of economic crisis there had been a thriving smuggling trade between the hamlet and its counterparts over the border of chocolate and salt, largely ignored by the authorities as this exchange was beneficial to all. At the end of the second world war the Germans mined the hamlet before leaving and when the Mexican contingent returned it was to find their hamlet mostly destroyed. Saint Ours has become a place of pilgrimage following some “miraculous” cures and hundreds flock to the church and tiny chapel on 17 June each year. Above St Ours and across the valley are fortifications left over from the Maginot line although we did not have time to visit these.
We were hoping to meet up with a friend of ours who was working here as a shepherd during the summer months but he was unable to come down and join us as planned. The scenery was really stunning and I found it hard to imagine what life must be like for a shepherd. He was staying in one of the mountain refuges and it would have taken him over an hour to get down to the hamlet. Each year he takes part in the time-honoured tradition of “transhumance”, the seasonal movement of flocks in the summer from lower pastures to high mountain pastures and then back down again in the autumn. As the shepherds tending the flocks are often a long way from the nearest village they have to transport everything they will need on the backs of horses or mules. Our friend, along with other shepherds, took along a cat packed in a basket on a previous occasion and all the dogs ran along beside them.
We discovered that there was an artist living in this remote hamlet – Christine Serain aka Suting, in a small cottage at the entrance to the village. In answer to my question of “do you live here all year round?” she replied that yes, she does live there all year round and that it is necessary to have heating for 9 months of the year. She had gone to China to study calligraphy and to learn Mandarin as she wanted to incorporate Chinese calligraphy into her artwork. Many of her recent calligraphic work incorporates Chinese letters to illustrate the concept of ‘couple’. Her website is http://www.serain-suting.com.
We walked through the hamlet and up to the chapel, surrounded by masses of wild flowers.
We stayed that night in the gite/auberge de St Ours where had a very comfortable room under the roof. The evening meal was cooked by the owners of the gite and very good it was too, as was breakfast. We chatted to some of the other people staying in the gite. One of them, a mountain guide, had just come up from Genoa on his motorbike to spend some time in the mountains. In a mixture of English, French and Italian we learned something of his life as a mountain guide – fascinating.