It’s early June at Chaumont-sur-Loire’s annual garden festival, and one of the 26 gardens created around this year’s theme, ‘A Collector’s Garden’, is already getting more attention than others.
From afar, Nuances, a garden created by two Belgian landscape-architects, looks like a large hyper-realist photograph in a modern museum: bright flowers and lush green leaves set in a pure white frame on a pure white wall. A few cardoon leaves flow out towards the viewer, like an 18thcentury Dutch painting within a painting. The blues of the lupins, campanulas and delphiniums are so intense they look like an over-saturated print.
That day, everybody wants their picture taken in front of this live still-life. A few weeks later, as the holiday season begins, Nuances has become the face of Chaumont in all the magazines and TV programmes covering the festival.
“Seriously, you should be careful,” says L, who had a near-miss with an elk on her way back home at dusk a few months ago. Her partner M warns us bluntly: “Elks are more dangerous than other animals. They’re tall, so if you hit them their legs go under the car while the body goes straight into your windscreen; that’s two tonnes of animal landing right on you.”
Our hotel just outside Aalborg is in an old country house amid sprawling meadows on the edge of a wood. It’s a balmy afternoon, with the sun still high in the sky at nearly seven o’clock and just a few clouds disappearing off the horizon. It’s the kind of place where you want to relax in one of the salons and admire the view, a glass of chilled Chablis in hand. I enthusiastically grab the wine list from our waitress who shares my preference for French dry white wine. “Here we are: Chablis. How much is 620 Danish kroner?”. Dr K quickly checks the exchange rate and replies crisply: “How much is the Chilean white?”.
The drive from Osnabrück to Flensburg starts under showers and grey skies, but by mid-morning the clouds temporarily clear as we veer off the motorway towards Buxtehude. The road goes through the Altes Land, an area developed by Dutch settlers in the 14th century, and it’s a pleasant change from the relentless motorway. It’s fertile land still, with orchards and soft fruits, although Christmas trees appear to be a popular line too.
The people of Osnabrück are the happiest in Germany, according to a country-wide survey ten years ago which measured living standards, amenities, and public services. That was before the financial crisis and the pan-European austerity drive, and today it’s not immediately obvious why the town would top the happiness charts. But it looks friendly enough, and we’re certainly happy to be there, the first stopover of our four-week road trip to Finland.
As we drive away from Barcelonnette heading south towards Sisteron, the landscape gradually changes. The mountains are softer, less mineral, greener. The forests, fields and orchards tell us we are slowly entering Provence. Deciduous oak gives way to the shorter, evergreen oak and Provençal pine, and we see the first olive groves; the houses take on a paler shade of ochre, their roofs covered with terracotta tiles rather than flat stone.
We are taking the picturesque route, winding our way down on B roads through mountain passes and hillside villages. Occasionally there are signs for small, almost unknown, ski resorts such as Montclar, reminding us we haven’t quite left the Alps yet. This J-shaped itinerary involves going as far south as Dignes and then, as we reach the Durance valley, veering west and back up north to Sisteron.
From that point, we’re traveling partly on the ‘Route Napoléon’, the road which the former emperor, having escaped from Elba in early 1815, took to avoid running into the royalist troops in lower Provence on his way up to Waterloo.
Godfather P wastes no time in going up to the youthful-looking stallholder to say he recognises him from a television programme. Local fruit farmer Nicolas Tron is, after all, partly responsible for our visit to Barcelonnette, the town in the Ubaye valley, in the Alpes de Haute Provence, famous for its so-called Mexican villas.