Friday, 13 June 2008
Distance 25 km
Duration 6 hours 15 minutes
Ascent 759 m, descent 865 m
Map 61 of the TOP 100 blue series (now superseded)
Map 60 of the TOP 100 blue series (now superseded)
Topoguide (ref. 401) la Haute Provence par les Gorges du Verdon
We departed our watery resting place at 7 am, accompanied by the morning bells.
Across the footbridge the bar was already open, being on the main road, so we stepped in for a coffee before setting off at last in the footsteps of Napoléon.
The track was marked with white painted eagles and rose steeply into the woods. We soon emerged onto a bare col (Col de la Gardivoire) looking down on the village of Saint-Jacques, and from there the path descended across the face of the slope below the great wall of the Barre de Chaudron.
The soil was black and waterlogged, and there were many landslips on the slope. In places we had to pick our way over masses of silt swept down by the recent torrential rains.
The village of Chaudron, approached from this direction, seemed cut off from everywhere in the world, but in fact it was on a small road and there were actually cars in the street.
Our path then followed the road up through pine forest to the Col du Corobin, laboriously regaining all the height that we had lost since the previous col.
The wild mountains stretched away to the horizon, broken by huge cliffs where the land had collapsed.
A tedious road descent ensued, reminding us of the unsuitability of roads for the walker. We had to trudge around eight hairpin bends to reach the valley, whereas a walking track would have gone straight down.
At the bottom we came to the scattered houses of la Clappe, whose only attribute was a holiday camp, evidently for people who really, truly wanted to get away from it all.
When Napoléon came this way there was an inn, at which he stopped for an omelette. The price asked for it was so astronomical that he questioned the innkeeper -“Are eggs so scarce in these parts?” “No,” replied the innkeeper, “eggs are not scarce, but emperors are!”.
Just past la Clappe the progress of the imperial party was difficult (in those days there was no road), and one of the pack mules stumbled, sending a chest of twenty thousand gold coins pitching into the gorge. We peered down hopefully but saw no golden glints.
Then we had a choice of ways, either upwards towards Entrages, or downwards to the river. In typical effort-avoiding fashion we took the latter, and as soon as we reached the water we sat down for a picnic. From there on it was an easy walk on the little road until we came to the health spas of les Eaux Chaudes.
The hot, sulfurous waters that gush out of the ground here were known in antiquity and praised by Pliny the Elder during his governorship of this part of Gaul. Since the eighteenth century they had been exploited in the form of therapeutic spas and trade still seemed to be booming.
A bit further on, the outskirts of Digne appeared and with them the camping ground. We installed ourselves in a plot that was as bald as an egg in the centre, probably where a big tent had been, but had enough green grass at one side to accommodate our tiny home.
We had only done half of Napoléon’s progress for the day, but then he was not suffering from jet-lag as we were, and we were not suffering from delusions of grandeur, as he was. The afternoon passed pleasantly in a prone position, after showers and a change of clothes.
When we ventured into the town at 6:30 pm, it was further than we expected and we got there too late for the Office of Tourism.
There were lanes and squares going off at all angles from a big central roundabout, so we thrashed about until we found a long square with a church at one end, where we took a glass of rosé at a bar and chatted with the owners.
They amazed us by saying they had been to Australia, but it turned out that they had been on a round-the-world cruise on the Queen Mary and had only visited Australia in passing, by accident as it were.
Later we dined in the same square, or rather in a vaulted dining room behind it, to keep out of the cold.
We had lasagne and moussaka, both very good. At the next table was a Canadian woman who had come to Digne for a spa and massage. She declared that they were a great disappointment, and that Digne was the ugliest French town she had seen.
It was after nine when we set off for home. Thinking to take a short cut to connect with the road we had come in on, we walked and walked until we saw a sign informing us that we were on the D900 to Barcelonnette, entirely the wrong direction.
Night was falling, and the only thing we could do was go back to the centre and retrace our steps to the camping ground, which we reached with great relief in pitch darkness.