It's hard to turn down an invite to stay on a mountainside in the south of France for thw weekend, especially when it's an invite from the French Sri Chinmoy Centres, with the chance to catch up with loads of friends and spend time meditating, trekking and generally chilling. As usual the travel arrangements had to be pretty hectic to get us there after work on a Saturday night, but we sped up to Heathrow getting there just in time and arrived at Nice airport around half eleven. A friend of Fran's gave us a lift to Les Courmettes - the excitement started as soon as we hit the mountain roads and began to have lots of near-death experiences on the hairpin bends - fortunately I was half asleep after a day's work and a flight so I wasn't too traumatised. After a long climb on a winding road we arrived at Les Courmettes - a big old farmstead with huge wooden doors and cloister-like walkways of old, smooth stone. It was quite magical, the trees and the rooves of the buildings silhouetted in the moonlight, total silence, the lights of the Cote D'Azur in the distance. Not quite so magical was the endless creeping around and whispering as we tried to find our room without waking anyone up, but we finally found our place and turned in.
Morning meditation was cold - although it was high summer, 6am temperatures in the marquee where we met seemed to be around freezing - we all took blankets. Unnatishil, who always lays on a two mile race, announced that the course this time would be down the mountain then back up then down again and up again. Then he announced it in French and said it would be up then down, so the bilinguals were all a bit confused. I was confused as to whether or not I whould run, as less than 48 hours earlier I'd done 6 hours of hard training on the Black Mountain and Fforest Fawr in preparation for July's attempt at the BB Traverse. Still, a hill race at one of our Franco-British-Irish get togethers for the first and probably only time, and me styling myself as a hill runner, I had to at least jog round, right?
By the time we were ready to run at 7.30 it had warmed up enough for shorts and t-shirts so we all gathered in the dusty carpark with its commanding views down to the coast and watched as the marshals headed off to mark the turning point. After the usual moments of silence we were under starter's orders then off down the slope. I was jogging, as planned, but everyone seemed reticent on the steep downhill so I found myself at the front and decided to go for it. Soon it was myself, Adelino and Ambarish to the fore as we clattered down the hard road trying to stay in control and not pound our limbs too much - Adelino and I are both a bit injury prone and steep downhills on roads have given me grief in the past. Anyhow, Adelino soon realised I was holding back and grabbed the lead, but I found myself warming up and moved back in front towards the end of the first climb. As I headed back down I saw that the goats from nearby fields had invaded the road, all rather excited by the unique spectacle of two dozen runners charging through their farm. The marshals soon found that their main job was goatherding instead of directing and encouraging the runners, and once or twice I had to weave a tight chicane between over-friendly goats. The alternative would have been a goat steeplechase, but I don't fancy my chances over normal hurdles let alond furry, moving ones. With horns.
So, coming first in a friendly two miler with no really fast runners in attendance (except the swift Adelino but he still recovering from injury woes) isn't normally a big deal but it mean't a lot to me as I worked myself as hard as I could on the second climb and came in with half a minute on the second and third placed guys.
After being rewarded with an amazing breakfast in which I wasted time looking for a cup for ages before realising you were supposed to drink out of the bowls, we were off to trek to the top of Pik des Courmettes at 1248 metres. I think Les Courmettes is around 800m itself, so this was only expected to a 3 hour jaunt.
We began with a slow ascent on winding tracks, but later the terrain was rough in places - many of the trails just lines of white cairns with no discernible path under your feet. This wa sa totally new landscape for me, arid hills with lots of bare limestone faces and loose stones everywhere, sparse vegetation including lots of lavender and other sweet-smelling plants. The day was crystal clear, and after picking our way carefully around some lesser tops we arrived at the summit where a view of the snow-covered alps competed for our attention with an equally awesome view over the Med and the well-named Azure Coast.
Descending was a trial with lots of slips on limestone scree - instead of zig-zagging most of the paths went straight down the steepest aspect of the hill - but we arrived back at Les Courmettes with anough appetite for the gourmet lunch they laid on. Les Courmettes is a real gem.
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