I’ve come to realize that not only am I walking through a series of perfect rock gardens, but that very often a rock will have its own garden.
In the lower areas, a rock will support a mixed colony of flowers on it and around it.
Higher up, a rock might be embraced by a juniper or enveloped by an azalea..
Tiny plants squeeze into crevices..
Above the tree line and in the scree where the snow has only just melted, the tiny shrubs are just coming into bud, sheltered by the rocks they are crouching under.
I found myself almost at a standstill looking at these tiny ecosystems, each existing by itself and also as part of the whole ecosystem of the mountain..
And as for the rock and its tree!
Almost wherever you walk around here, there are beautiful brown cows grazing and clonking their bells on the hillside. They are moved from area to area each day and kept there by a slight cord held up by poles. Some ropes are electrified and I think the cows must have learnt that the rope means,’Don’t even try it!’.
They munch their way through flower after flower, plant after plant, and by the end of the afternoon, start gathering at the point nearest their milking trailer. The cowherd opens the rope and the queen cow leads her herd over to be milked.
It must be good to have a drink in the racing, fresh river before lining up.
The trailers are moved into position each day. Each one houses eight stalls and the milk is pumped into a round stainless steel container sitting in the back of a ute. This is then taken to the fromagerie to be made into Beaufort cheese. Summer Beaufort is much favoured because it is flavoured with the summer meadows. Winter Beaufort is made from the milk from cows eating hay in their barns further down the mountain.
There’s always a slice of Beaufort to be had at breakfast, lunch and dinner.
You can swoop up from the village of Pralognan on the Teleferique to Mt Bochur and traverse a slope to Le Refuge des Barmettes. From there, you can continue on the ancient Salt Route up to Le Lac des Vaches.
It’s like walking through a continual rock garden. We’re early enough in the last week of June to still have all the alpine flowers blooming freshly and the butterflies floating and bouncing around us.
The path initially drops gradually and then rises to pass through some pines before emerging onto the grassy ski slope at the Refuge des Barmettes. That takes about forty minutes.
As we approached the Refuge, we noticed a little dog barking furiously, jumping up and down on the spot. We got closer and saw a small snake backed up against the wall of the building. The manager came out, grabbed the dog up and called for the chef. It was a viper, dark grey with beautiful black markings. It was powerless against the chef who emerged with two walking poles and pincered it off into the grass below the Refuge.
After that, off course we needed refreshments.
Rain and thunder threatened so we walked only a short way up the ancient walled Salt Route before turning for home.
Here in Provence, the landscape is shaped by the limestone hills. The limestone is quarried to provide stone for the houses and walls and the hills also act as a giant reservoir. Rain is absorbed by the limestone and partially dissolves it to create underground pools and channels where the water flows downhill to emerge as springs.
La Fontaine de Vaucluse, pictured above, is the largest in Europe. Its water comes to the surface in a huge cavern after travelling for kilometres through the limestone hills. It lies in a deep blue green pool under a towering limestone cliff and seeps through the rocks at its lip to form the Sorgue River. The river races down the hill, increasing in size as more springs feed into it, to the village of Fontaine de Vaucluse and on to irrigate orchards before flowing through Isles- sur- Sorgues.
The water is clean and clear and rushes and swirls over gravel, rocks and brilliant green water weed. Huge old plane trees shade the stream and the path beside it where people walk up to view the cavernous source.
Restaurant Philip is on a terrace beside the water. I love to sit right at its edge and look through the water to the gravel bottom and watch the water surge into this section from about five or six channels. Some ducks play in the current and upend themselves looking for food near the opposite bank. I can see every detail of their paddling feet. Long, thin, leafy plane tree branches overhang. All you can hear is rushing water.
On the other hand, the spring at Fontcaudette, pictured above, is tiny and trickles from a dark hole under a rock wall. It has been formalized a bit by some stone walling creating a small pond for the hameau, probably about five or six house originally. The water flows in a little channel through the garden of Les Romarins and down in to the vegetable garden below our hedge. There are a lot of black polythene garden irrigation pipes involved.
The difference between the two springs is just a matter of scale.
The tiles are still warm underfoot as I open the French doors and shutters to the terrace. Cool morning air flows inside. The table under the grapevine is in morning shade and angled to look across the hedge to the hills of the Luberon.
Nick is back with the bread and the coffee is made. It seems a bit silly but I’ve brought my stovetop espresso pot half way around the world so that we can have strong,smokey intense coffee in the morning. Plungers and filters just don’t quite get there!
As we sit, peacefully gazing out to the hills, two small spiders, one black and the one brown, provide the entertainment as they climb and drop, climb and drop from the pergola above.
They perform this to a strange soundtrack coming from the pool filled by the ‘font’ of Fontcaudette, which lies to the back corner of the house. At first, we thought it was the sound of squawking birds, a bit like an Australian wattle bird, but it was far too harsh for a European bird. We then discovered that there is a group of quite large frogs inhabiting the pond and it is their croaking which accompanies all our meals. Actually, the croak is pretty much like the sound of a wet foot squelching in a wet Croc!
So, we sit, and gather ourselves for the day. What will we do or not do?
There must be strict planning controls over new buildings in the rural area north of Coustellet. The new houses are built of the same limestone and in the same style as the established farm houses. In the hameau of Fontcaudette some of the seventeenth century old houses are so clustered that one roofline is merged with another, the terracotta tiles flowing over the entirety.
Further down the road are some new houses which sit up bright and crisp in fresh white limestone. You can see the limestone exposed in road cuttings through the Luberon to Lourmarin and you can see its natural tendency to split into building stones.
I don’t know how long it takes for the stone to weather down to the older dark grey buff colour, but I enjoy seeing the varying degrees of weathering and softening with age.
Many of the olive trees around Fontcaudette grow in a circular trio. They are slender young trees growing from the rootstock of their ancient parent. Sometimes the decaying stump is left in the centre and sometimes it has been removed,leaving bare earth in the middle of the cluster.
I’m sorry not to have seen the dark,twisted trunks of the mature trees.
I’m waiting for the thunderstorm which is rolling around in the hills behind us. It seems a long time since I’ve listened to the heavy thudding and rumbling that precedes a summer storm. Melbourne doesn’t produce as many of those as it used to, but here in Provence they’re a regular part of summer and a relief from the days of heat. The big decision is whether to risk lighting the charcoal BBQ in the face of being washed out. I think we’ll do it!