Though it is nearly two months until this historic town of 17,000 will be on center stage of the cycling world, it had already set up markers on its prime street, lined by plane trees, indicating the spot where the peloton will start the stage that will take it over five passes before finishing with a final four mile climb to the ski resort of Pra Loupe up from the ski town of Barcelonnette.
Before I set out for Pra Loup I had a feast of sculptures by the British landscape artist Andy Goldsworthy. There are nearly twenty of them scattered in the vicinity, including a serpentine figure of clay on a wall in the Gassendi Musuem in Digne. Several of them are installed in ancient stone buildings in the surrounding countryside and are part of a ten-year project referred to as "Refuge d'Art." The only one of those that was within my range was two miles out of town past the thermal spring spa that earned Digne its name. It was a fifteen minute hike from the road to the cairn that Goldsworthy had constructed in an abandoned stone structure not much bigger than a shed.
A couple miles out of town in the opposite direction were five more cairns, all comprised of flat stones in contrast to these rounded ones. They resided in a large outdoor park called the Musée Promenade with an admission fee that included the work of a dozen other sculptors who specialize in using natural material for their work. Walking trails through the woods on a high embankment linked all their work. Goldsworthy's had their own "Cairn Path."
One would walk for a few minutes and then another would pop up, each mysterious and regal, a cross between a Mayan ruin and an object left by visitors from outer space.
The final one stood in a clearing high above the others in a position of prominence looking down upon Digne and out over the spectacular mountain-framed valley.
Behind it was the ancient three-story Rampart Mansion that now housed a museum celebrating the geographical uniqueness of the region. Twenty million years ago it was under the sea. The surrounding mountains and valleys abound with all manner of fossils--mollusks and dinosaurs and even a creature resembling a mermaid. The park is part of a world-wide network of Geoparks, a concept that was launched in 2000, and has been sanctified by UNESCO. There are 111 of them. France has five. There are two in Canada, but none in the US.
Ten miles further up the road climbing through a narrow gorge with a boulder-strewn fast-rushing stream stands another Goldsworthy. It is known as the "Sentinelle de la Vallée du Bés." It resides in a small recess along the narrow road facing the stream, standing at attention as if on sentinel duty. This was his first in the region, created in 1999.
There was hardly room along the road for Goldsworthy to work, carefully piecing together his mosaic. I could imagine his presence and could envision the process of his craftsmanship as portrayed in the magnificent documentary on his work, "Rivers and Tides: Andy Goldsworthy Working with Time" from 2001, one of my all time favorite documentaries.
I had a particular interest in these cairns, as Janina and I have been gathering rocks on nightly raids from a former golf course near her home that had recently been bullldozed preparing the area for a housing project of mini-mansions. Lots have all been staked out and roads laid through the property, but fortunately construction has begun on just two of the many lots, so there are still rocks a plenty to harvest for a cairn of our own. One of our piles in Janina's front yard has already begun to resemble a cairn.
The Tour route doesn't include any of Goldsworthy's works, but I was happy to include those I did on mine. I wasn't able to visit all of them, as they are scattered far and wide, but I will be sure to make the others a part of my routes to and from Canne in the future, especially the "Sentinelle de la Vallée du Vançon" that stands out in the open on a sharp bend in the road off in another valley.
I camped just a few miles beyond the Sentinelle in the recess after I had climbed out of the gorge and found a meadow that was like a mini-amphitheater with mountains, some still snow-capped, all round. When the sun peaked over a ridge in the morning and shown on my tent, the temperature inside rocketed from the 40s to nearly 60. I still had some more climbing to do, helping to keep me warm in the early morning chill. Then it was down and then up over another pass, then down, then up, finally reaching the ski resort of Pra Loup and the finish of the stage at the end of the day. Banners announcing The Tour were hung on light poles as I neared the summit.
Fans of the French rider Bernard Thevenet, who won The Tour forty years ago, had erected a monument to him complete with a bike bearing the number (51) he wore during the race. Just as Greg LeMond "Slayed the Badger" (Bernard Hinault) in 1986, Thevenet much more shockingly slayed the Cannibal (Eddie Merckx) eleven years before. Thevenet is one of The Tour announcers for television, so this is a site for his eyes.
It is these gestures reflecting the deep passion the French have for The Tour that make riding the route such a meaningful and uplifting experience. Whether a mere decorated bike hung from a post or an ornate art project, they all gladden the heart.