Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Mont Ventoux

After previous attempts at climbing the summit of Mont Ventoux--in a car, mind you, not a bicycle--we finally made it to the top of "the Giant of Provence."
We checked the weather report.  The ten-day forecast predicted a good day on Mont Ventoux and no good days for many more after that.  Rain and more rain for days.  When the temperature drops at 1,909 meters (6, 261 feet) and it rains, that rain looks more like snow.  It seemed likely that if we were going to get to the top of the mountain, we’d have to do it on the first of the ten days—and not a day later.  So off we went.
Chateau at Le Barroux
The route to Mont Ventoux from Lagnes took us through Malaucene on the north slope of the mountain on the D974.  Vineyards everywhere, of course.  Before gaining altitude, we stopped for photos of the medieval chateau (12th century) at Le Barroux.  The road was challenging but not uncomfortable.  We passed through small villages—Les Ramayettes, Ile Piaud—into heavier wooded surroundings and finally, above the tree line. 

Mont Ventoux from a distance
Close to the top but below the tree line, there’s a hotel/restaurant, Le Chalet Liotard, where the road ends when the pass is closed.  The last time we visited the area, the pass was, in fact, closed and we enjoyed a meal at that hotel looking over the ski runs below.  This time, we passed right by and continued climbing, up past the woods to the limestone cap.  From a distance, Mont Ventoux looks as though it is perpetually covered with snow.  More accurately, it is white limestone—until it is actually snow.  A beautiful sight.   

Both on the way up and back down, we saw names on the road supporting bicyclists competing in the Tour de France as Mont Ventoux is often on the route of the Tour.  We have witnessed the struggle many times when we watch the Tour.  The mountain climb begins after a grueling  100 or so miles of racing first.  For those of us who are not bicyclists, it’s hard to imagine.  We passed cyclists—some young, some at least octogenarians if not nonagenarians—slowly making their way up the long and steep slopes, around the hairpin turns in the hopes they would arrive at the top even though they’re not propelled by gas.  It seems virtually unfathomable that all but the most professional competitor could possibly make it to that peak without expiring.  

The road closer to the top was, as expected, very twisty, with guard posts here and there, but many stretches with nothing but an edge beyond which one was not expected to wander.  A few times, I had to stop because I lacked the confidence to maneuver past the car.  I was on the outside close to that edge mentioned above.

Weather stations old and new
We stopped just short of the top to take some photos and were sure we’d be blown over the edge by the Mistral wind.  The temperature near or at the top was 2˚ centigrade with a wind chill that was off the scale—a far cry from the temperature at Lagnes when we had left in the morning.  At the very top just below the weather station, we found a family of four—Germans—enjoying the view. 

In one direction, we saw the Alps beyond the Chartreuse range.   In another direction was a wind farm and that two nuclear cooling towers beyond the smoke-filled valleys of the Vauclous--a result of the ubiquitous autumn agricultural burning.  To the east, the French Alps were already covered in snow.
Pussy cat on guard at bar
We headed back down the north side to return to the hotel restaurant for sustenance.  Lunch was pricey, and it was still early, so we opted for coffee.  On the bar lay a fluffy cat—clearly in charge of all that happens on the mountain.  We took our coffee outside in the sunshine where it was considerably warmer than it was only a short distance at the top.

Back up the twisting road we went to the summit where the number of cars had increased exponentially and down the south side toward Bédoin, ending up on the same road where we had started—the D974.   We had actually made a loop.  The road down on that side of the mountain is somewhat easier to maneuver, though still a challenge.  It was past noon, and we made our way to Chateauneuf-du-Pape for lunch.  

Le Mule de Pape
Chateauneuf-du-Pape is small but popular.  We parked very close to the center and walked back in search of a two-star Michelin restaurant and opting instead for a popular restaurant called La Mule du Pape where we enjoyed beer and pizza. 

The last time we were in Chateauneuf-du-Pape, we drove through vineyards to the chateau—destroyed by the departing Germans who had used it as a base during the war.  This time, we walked from the center of the town, climbing up streets and steps to arrive at the same place.  I had no idea how close it was to the town when last I was there.  In five minutes we were there.  From the chateau, one can see the Rhone River and Avignon.  When the Pope was in residence at Chateauneuf-du-Pape, he could continue to watch over his Papal Palace.

We returned to Lagnes reliving the sights of the day.  There is something about Mont Ventoux that is unforgettable.   It drew us.  And I understand the draw for others.  We have made our trek and we’ll leave the bicycles to the others.    

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