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21 September 2011

The Alpes Maritimes, and Haute Provence.

Sunday at Embrun in the Province des Alpes Maritimes, high in the alps near the Italian border, for La Journée de Patrimoine, or national heritage day in France. The French take great advantage of this annual heritage day, there are special openings of historic buildings, places, conferences - all about their country steeped in history, and they love it and are proud of it.

Its pouring rain, so we hope it clears a bit for our tour of the town this morning.
The journey south was quite easy, with the new Lyon airport road towards Grenoble making a huge difference. Not too much traffic, except passing Grenoble. That is when dramatic country appears. Sharp, very high mountains and twisting climbs and dips. Very slow driving this part. We were in fact, following the route of Napoleon for some of the way. Apparently he passed through Gap on his way through the alps.

Embrun itself is an ancient town high on a cliff, very near the Italian border and divided from Italy by very high mountains.
After checking in to this little old fashioned hotel, we assembled at the Tourist Bureau and followed a street theatre group wandering the narrow streets. They portrayed a story about Clovis Hugues a writer, poet and activist, a comedy and very entertaining. We ended up by a sculpture made by his wife soon after his death in 1902, with a bust of him and a gorgeous sculpture of his grandchildren reading his poems.
This was in a park at the edge of the cliff, near the very splendid cathedral (Lombard architecture of course) looking out across towards Italy. We tried to work out the direction and the valley where the invading Lombard barbarian tribe would have come from in 575, when they invaded and devastated this town.
After that it was an organ recital in the cathedral,
on a magnificent 15th century organ, -the photo is a carving at the base of the organ - before wandering back here for an apero and dinner. This morning, despite the awful weather we joined a tour of the town concentrating on its military history.
The Romans were here up to the end of the 5th century. The region was declared Catholic by Emperor Constantine resulting in a bishop being appointed at Embrun. The first bishop recorded was Marcellin in the years 365-374. He was eventually made a saint for his evangelism in the province of Alpes Maritimes, making many converts. There is a square and a fountain and streets named after him.

We are particularly interested in the Lombard invasion and the local hero who eventually managed to chase the Lombards back into Lombardy. It is a town of nine fountains,
each important as a water source for the inhabitants in days gone by. We had a very good guide, who pointed out fortifications, and covered a wide range of history at the same time. This afternoon a tour of the cathedral and the treasury and at 5pm a seminar on Lombard art and architecture. Hopefully it should be interesting and contribute to John’s history of the Lombards.
Weather is pretty awful for photographs, see how I go – luckily we brought rain coats and umbrella!
We had been struggling around all day in driving rain, feeling very cold, and were happy to have a break in our cosy room.
After half an hour’s rest, we went out again to the tour of the Treasury in the Cathedral. We lined up at a door inside the cathedral, and fortunately managed to get into the tour of the first 50. We were ushered into a treasure cave, the treasures are stored in what is an old secret chapel of the cathedral, no windows, no doors, beautiful but for me claustrophobic. It was unbelievable, the clerical vestments embroidered in silver and gold, several hundred years old, the silver and gold vessels of the mass, the extraordinary relics of some saint or other, the paintings, the altar of walnut intricately carved, the ancient small organ – a present from the dauphin of the time, beautiful. The treasures were held in two rooms, part of an old secret chapel. The first room had glass cabinets with embroidered vestments, gold and silver accessories of the mass, and the second was a small chapel with a magnificent altar. I had to step back into the main part, as just couldn’t cope with the feeling of claustrophobia. Packed in with 50 others, no windows or doors, just one small escape door, I just couldn’t manage it.
However, the whole tour was magnificent, and the guide excellent, she obviously loved her work and was passionate about it all.
After that exhausting and exhilarating dose of history, we returned again briefly to our room before setting out again for the Lombard conference. What a shock – the rain had cleared and the mountains all around us were topped in snow!!!
No wonder the temperature had plunged. After taking some pics, we went into the hall, and the presenter was great. She was an architect, and fascinated and passionate about the Lombard influence on the art and architecture of the region. We were able to record her talk and although she used many of the resources that John already had, its always interesting to see another approach. She did an illustrated computer presentation, and many of the churches she showed us are in Italy. It was all good information, and can only add to our interest.
Monday we set off from Embrun, and had a spectacular drive down from the mountains to the road around Lac Serre Poncet. We then climbed up again taking a corkscrew road – stopping now and again to look at the view. There is a huge dam at the end of the lake which provides electricity for the region.
Headed over past Sisteron towards Apt – for the meeting with Kathy and Valentine Morozoff, the Russian Americans who found me through my book. Their grandfather knew Kathleen ffrench - he grew up in Terenga where Kathleen inherited her great uncle’s estate. Their family escaped during the revolution through Harbin for a short while, but ended up near Kobe in Japan and started a confectionery business, specialising in chocolate. The business is still going, but they are gradually getting out of it as they are ready to retire now. Val is the third generation to run the business, but his sons live in the USA and are not interested in continuing.
We had a great and very lively evening, non-stop talking!!!
Tuesday saw us on the road home – the auto route was busy, so we had a few breaks, but got back here in the afternoon, in time to harvest tomatoes, beans, raspberries, figs and spinach.

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