We are in Ailefroide, in the Parc des Ecrins, located in what is so wonderfully called the High Alps, the Hautes-Alpes, and it turns out that Aile, of Ailefroide, means Alps, and also water, as in acqua alta or, in this case, eau chaude…When I asked the weathered-face guide in the information services of this very Alpine town, she said “oh, you know how we French love to twist words…” Yes indeed, I do know, having studied old French, and the Latin derivations.
I remain haunted by that other mountain on this ridge, La Meije., and it cannot seen from here, only from La Bérarde, where we were last year, and from La Grave. It was that first moment, seeing the face of Messaien profiled against this strange and wonderful-looking mountain, that got me hooked on the very idea of La Meije. So awhen we would take our annual drive from our cabanon in Provence to the Alps – my husband loves the time that we would go near there. We would actually be able to take a cabin car up the mountain, see the hangliders preparing their wings to fly off into the distance… All very superb as a spectacle, but I had not – and still have not – figured out what the specialness of this particular mountain consisted in.
The bird Olivier Messaien went to La Meije to hear, and whose melody he put in his music, I never found the name of, nor did I ever find again that amazing portrait of the musician against the mountain. But it remains, partly because of that, I expect, looming in my mind. We would be somewhere around in Les Ecrins, the mountain range in which it is found, and I would ask the knowledgeable people which was the mountain I wanted so much to see again… Ah, you can’t see it from here was the usual answer…
Everywhere, there are posted plaques and monuments to the alpine guides and first climbers, usually in the 19th century, of these mountains. Our hotel, the Engilberghe, is named for one of them. About names, I was intrigued today by two rival stories about Madame Carle, of the famous Meadow (le pré de Madame Carle). Here is one, first the puritanical one; she was married to a high parliament official, but at his death, had to nourish her children, etc. etc. The far more interesting one, or, as the French pamplets and posters say, the “more romantic” one is that she was a lady of easy virtue (“vertu légère”) and, to punish her, her returning husband took away the water source for her mule, who promptly plunged into the boiling waters and took his rider with him. Splash and the end of the easyvirtued lady.