The Tinee Valley
The main route from Nice up into the mountains starts off in one of the ugliest parts of the Côte d’Azur: the plain of the river Var. It probably wasn’t bad in the days before it became a commercial zone, with huge DIY stores, light industrial warehouses and the like. The riverbed is very wide, grey and stony, and always looks a bit bereft because most of the time there’s not much water running through it. I’ve seen it raging now and again, in the spring, and it’s quite scary. On the opposite side to Nice, it’s more promising, with farms among the pre-fabricated buildings. There’s never any reason for us to go there, though, unless we’re lost.
The old houses along the Var are usually Provencal-style: ochre-ish colours, shutters, low, tiled roofs, with olive trees and palms (and old cars) in their yards. But as you climb gently up, things change rapidly. To get further up into the mountains, you have to turn off the Var and follow one of the other rivers, the Tinée or the Vesubie. The twisty-turny roads go through some impressive gorges, where the rock hangs right over the road, and some rockfaces are ominously clad in giant metal nets to catch whatever falls off. There are a few villages stuck in along the rock, and they feel a bit dark to me. The paint on the buildings always seems to be peeling, as if it’s too damp to hang on in the shade of the cliffs. Once you get beyond the gorges, however, there are lots of wooden chalet-style buildings, with steep roofs built for snow. It’s as if we’ve passed a border without seeing any flags.
The village of Roubion
Roubion is about 70km from Nice, and it took Joel and I under and hour and a half to get there on Sunday morning. The storms that had killed 17 people just down the coast from us in Nice on Saturday night had cleaned the air until it sparkled – but we didn’t know anything about it until later on. Like everyone else who’d shown up bright and early, we were waiting for sheep.
Every year this tiny mountain village (population 108) holds a Transhumance festival. About 2,000 sheep, which are being driven from summer pasture down to their winter pasture, pass through the narrow main street on their way to the next overnight stop. There wasn’t much to do as we waited, except admire the view over the valley we’d just driven through. There are a couple of pretty churches to look at, too, plus lots of painted doors (which are a bit naff, actually), and the communal village oven, which had been busy baking loaves to sell. Naturally we bought one, as well a coffee at one of two cafés. There were two groups of wandering musicians, too, with whistles and accordions and drums – all very folklorique. We found ourselves a nice bit of wall, and sat around in the sunshine with everyone else waiting for…
Well, I wasn’t sure what was going to happen exactly. The local police were guarding a tunnel cut through the rock, through which the sheep were going to appear, but they seemed pretty relaxed about it. They didn’t clear children out of the way, so perhaps there obviously wasn’t much chance of trampling. There was excitement in the atmosphere, but I doubt it was quite the same as waiting for the bulls to start running in Pamplona. However, soon there was a surge in the decibel level, and we saw the wandering minstrels coming our way, followed by three women dressed as god knows what, with floppy bonnets and flowing frocks. And behind them was a sea of sheep! At that point Joel jumped off the wall and trotted in the other direction. It wasn’t exactly as if he was being chased, as the sheep were moving pretty slowly, a bit scared and confused, but as he looked back, it reminded me of those photographs you see of young men in Pamplona, a look of terror on their faces…
Of course, I’m joking. Joel said he only jumped off the wall so that one of the kids behind us could get a better view, but…
The idea of the festival is that you follow the sheep along the road for a mile or so to the next pasture, in an even tinier village – a ski station, in fact – called Roubion les Buisses. It was very jolly, with everyone clapping along with the music. Whenever a few sheep escaped onto the verges, one of the three sheepdogs chased after them, accompanied by a noisy explosion of camera clicking as if the paparazzi had caught sight of Gwyneth Paltrow. I thought sheepdogs were always border collies, but what do I know? Apparently there are many kinds, including chien de crau – one of which was called Rocket.
When we arrived at Les Buisses, there were scores of stands selling mountain cheeses and meats, so we bought some sheep’s cheese to go with our communal bread, inspected the handiwork of the chainsaw artists, and then took the ski-lift up to the peak, 1,724 meters high. There were still sheep up there, a flock guarded by two big white maremma sheepdogs, who came to bark at us to warn us off. They were hardly fearsome: once they realised we weren’t sheeprustlers, they just wanted to be scratched behind the ears.