Category Archives: France

191. Two years of Roads of Stone

roads of stoneThe second anniversary of this site passed midway through a busy August. An office move and a new computer have diverted me since, but the milestone seems worth marking all the same.

There hasn’t been much time to write. This isn’t a site for daily updates – the past twelve months at Roads of Stone have seen just 28 posts.

Still, that adds up to around 20,000 words, squeezed into odd moments here and there, so perhaps it’s not surprising that I’ve been busy.

Those words have extended to travel writing on Kenya (seven posts), Scotland, Texas, Bermuda and France.

Conversations have extended to cover geology, music, golf, UK and US politics, the history of horseracing and Shakespearean theatre, petroleum economics, global warming, the urban development of London and French cooking.
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180. Mountains of food – la cuisine savoyarde

fresh-powder-flaine-france-april-2008-by-roadsofstone.jpg

I was in Haute-Savoie last week – part of the ancient kingdom of Savoy – that mountainous corner of France around Mont Blanc and south of the Swiss city of Geneva. The name Savoy comes from the latin sapaudia – fir forest – an origin still heard in the French word sapin (fir tree).

Long an independent duchy, the area was occupied by Napoleon’s troops from 1792-1815. After a period as part of Sardinia, Savoy was annexed by France in 1860.

en-avril-hiver-commence-flaine-france-by-roadsofstone

The region has strong associations with Piedmont in Italy, and with French-speaking Switzerland (Turin and Geneva are both much nearer than Paris). The local dialects reflect old mountain French with a smattering of Italian.

But the food doesn’t reflect Italy or France. Savoie is a stronghold of Alpine cuisine. Don’t expect delicate French dishes – this is the home of solidly calorific monster feasts to fuel any long day on the slopes.
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171. A splash of Burgundy in winter

blue-sky-through-the-trees-epsom-december-by-i-am-jae-at-flickrdotcom.jpgThe sun is wan and thin today, struggling weakly to light the path around the park as I lope my way through the winter afternoon on this, the shortest day.

Christmas is just around the corner.

In Ashtead Woods, near the famous Epsom Wells, my footsteps fall silent among the leaves. The track is lined here with silver birch trees, stripped bare to show glimpses of greyed out sky behind. A still and unforgiving air is rushing past my face. I hear the rhythm of my breathing, and nothing more.

I let my mind fall empty. And dream of a frozen hillside, in another season.

* * * * *

The frost is on the ground – shining sheaves of white splashed on the grass beside the road. It’s late October, dawn. With chilly hands stuffed inside my sleeves, I’m fighting up a steeply rising lane.

At this early hour, my stiff legs are unexcited about the slope. My heavy stomach and a thickened head recall a feast of French food and wine consumed in happier hours just a thirsty, restless sleep behind me.

burgundy-france-hillside-dawn-october-2007.jpgA curve sweeps ahead atop the climb, and I strive to meet it, counting out each breath and gasping in my exertion.

Twenty, thirty – forty – my feet keep turning, and at last I crest the ridge to greet an unexpected dazzling sunlight where yellow leaves are exploding from the vines.
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169. Down tracks and cracks in Paris and London – Tate Modern and the 1812 from Waterloo

waterloo-eurostar-station-by-jan-hanford-on-flickrdotcom.jpgRain. River. November. On the long-awaited day that Paris came closer to London.

As I step on to the platform under a damp grey sky, there’s a farewell party in full swing around the station.

After thirteen years, the last Eurostar will depart here in a few hours’ time. And in the morning, when the first train arrives at a gleaming new St Pancras across the Thames, Paris will be just two hours and fifteen rail minutes from London.

Fog in the Channel – Continent Isolated’. So read the famous newspaper headline of yore. Not any more. This rapprochement is almost complete.
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167. Paris – Ville de lumière

paris-metro-by-alain-bachellier-at-flickrdotcom.jpgplay-ville-de-lumiere-by-gold.jpgVille de lumière
J’ai besoin de toi

Gold – September 1986

The City of Light lies at her knees. It’s eight o’clock on an autumn Friday, and the streets of Paris are grid-locked. Frozen.

Emerging up the ramp and out of the Earth at the Gare du Nord, there’s chaos all around us. Sporadic, half-hearted toots echo from the crossing streets, but it makes no difference.

nicolas-sarkozy.jpgAs a vision of Nicolas Sarkozy’s France, it’s dark and disappointing.

It wasn’t meant to be like this. A family celebration in Burgundy had called us here, and we’d tried to do it properly. Ecologically.

To take the train from London, bundle an exciting metro ride across the city to the Gare de Lyon and board a southbound TGV. To travel serenely, and greenly, across the evening and arrive in Dijon as sharp as mustard.

So much for plans and good intentions.

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155. Le grand départ – the Tour de France in London 2007

tour-de-france-london-2007-park-lane.jpg

The streets of London deserted … except for a million people lining the roads.

A Brit leading the Tour de France halfway through Kent, and pulling on the King of the Mountains jersey, later that same evening.

The best weather of the summer.

The Tour de France – in London, for the first time ever.

Truly, the weekend of a lifetime. And we were there, too.

On Saturday afternoon, we wandered happily from Green Park to the Serpentine, watching the cyclists flash by. The speed of the racers was simply unbelievable – Hyde Park Corner hasn’t seen traffic moving so quickly for many a long year.
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153. The green monster – Ditchling Beacon and the London to Brighton bike ride

UPDATE February 2012
For a Ditchling Beacon map and gradient information, please see here:
223. Cycling on Surrey and Sussex hills – from White Down to Ditchling Beacon;

And for return routes back to Guildford, see here:
245. London to Brighton, and back;

* * * * *

ditchling-beacon-the-green-monster-2007.jpgSummer. Early afternoon. A soft and unassuming heat haze rising from the lush green meadows of Sussex.

And rising too, slowly but relentlessly behind this pretty village, lies the reason that we’re here.

The most famous climb in all of southern England.

The mean city streets of London seem such a long time ago. The start in Clapham lies almost fifty miles behind us, and barely a handful more remain ahead. The countryside is peaceful. Very peaceful.

The chatter and banter of those early miles has faded now. With a myriad and more of cyclists on the road, along the classic route to Brighton – you can hear them, all the way.

london-to-brighton-bike-2007-spirit-of-the-peloton.jpgNot just the whirr of spokes, the squeal of frantic brakes, or the grinding, mashing sound of crunching gears. There’s a richer, more lyrical sound to listen to, louder and more urgent still than the rhythm of the riders’ breathing.

Much more than that. Because I’ll swear that on these Sussex roads you can hear the spirit of the peloton. Continue reading