On their website, the Pilat National Park is described as a local, dynamic, medium-sized mountain range within easy reach of Lyon, Valence and St. Etienne. As I was driving there last Saturday for a walk, the undulating farmed hills and wealthy pockets of habitation drew an unlikely comparison to the Cotswolds. That dollop of quaintness that pleases the eye without ever imprinting itself too permanently on the memory like the snow-covered ridges of the Cumbrian fells do.
I drove up to the Col du Pavezin and walked up a small hill and then down again to an auberge for a coffee. I had only been walking for 45 minutes and felt disgusted with myself. What happened to the glory days of seven hour hikes in bare feet. Trekking over Bow Fell in a blizzard without a rope or a jacket. But like the Cotswolds, this isn’t wilderness walking; this is lightweight walking. Old man’s terrain. Pensioner’s paradise. I’ve found my natural habitat. Walking slowly with sticks and a flat cap thinking about the price of coal.
I mopped up the coffee I’d spilt down my shirt and headed up another hill that afforded beautiful views of the Rhone as it meandered its way towards the sea. A plaque on a rock said you can see Mont Blanc on a clear day. But every plaque in France says this. It’s said that you can see Mont Blanc from the Eiffel Tower on a very clear day. The day I presume when every atom of air is sucked out into the void of space leaving Monsieur Mont Blanc and Madame Tour Eiffel to eyeball each other for eternity.
The altitude at the top read 3000 feet, which ends all comparisons to the Cotswold that rise at their highest point to 430 feet. After searching in vain for Europe’s highest peak through the smog of civilisation and the dust blown in from the Sahara, I headed down through wild flower meadows to the village of Rellieux, where I decided to live for the rest of my days in one of the abandoned farmhouses.
A couple of years of hard labour would make it liveable again and it wouldn’t be too harsh living up here where the gentle year round breeze from the south keeps the temperature mild. I stopped and dreamed for a few minutes before walking through a beautiful glade back to the Col du Pavezin to drink a not-so-well-earned lager: three hours in the French Cotswolds isn’t really a walk, is it? An informal saunter at most.
I waited an age in the cafe. A gang of bikers had commandeered it for some homoerotic gathering. Their chrome polished Harley Davidsons parked outside for all to see. Packs of bearded men sitting at tables in crotch-squeezing leathers taking up every minute of the waiter’s time with endless orders of sickly coloured soft drinks and plates of fries and chicken. ‘Just order a beer and a packet of crisps,’ I wanted to say. ‘And then piss off back home to your Peugeots and Citroens that we all know you’ll be driving to the office on Monday morning.’ Not that I was angry or anything. I just wanted a small beer and home. Home in time for tea and the football results. Simple things. Not leather sweating bikers riding around the countryside like modern-day cowboys boring everybody to death with tiresome stories of chivalry on the highway.
In the end I got my beer. And got home in time for the football results and a cup of tea. I’ve lived abroad many times. And the simple act of listening to the football results on the radio at five o’clock on a Saturday afternoon with a cup of strong Yorkshire tea is something that remains the same. And always will. For my sanity if nothing else: Arsenal, one. Aston Villa, two…