Travel writer Katja Gaskell goes walk about in the mountains where the sound of music echoes…
The sun is hanging low in the sky when I meet Alexandre Guhery on a late summer afternoon at La Ruche à Gîter. The hostel is in the heart of the Massif de la Chartreuse, a regional park which straddles the Isère and Savoie départements in south-eastern France. It’s a beautiful setting, an emerald green landscape punctuated by dramatic limestone cliffs and overlooked by the peaks of Chamechaude, Grand Som and the Dent de Crolles.
The area is as popular in the summer months as it is in winter. When the snow melts and the first signs of spring appear, walking shoes replace skis and mountain bikes take the place of snowshoes. It’s a popular spot for climbing, hiking and even hang gliding. Today, however, I’m about to embark on a less traditional mountain pursuit and follow Alexandre as he leads me on what is possibly the most unusual walk in France.
A pianist in the mountains
Originally from Brittany, Alexandre Guhery has lived in Chartreuse for more than ten years, drawn to the region by his love of the mountains. He’s tall with silver hair, a boyish grin, and an infectious enthusiasm for the Great Outdoors. Recently qualified as a mountain guide, Alexandre now leads individuals and groups on walking tours throughout the Chartreuse mountains. So far, not so unusual. But Alexandre is not just a hiking guide, he’s also a concert pianist and last year he decided to combine his love of music with his love of the mountains and launched the “Rando’piano”, a guided walk that ends with an outdoor piano recital, in the middle of the forest.
There are 15 of us in the assembled group and we set off with Alexandre guiding us up a gentle incline and among the beech and pine trees. The path is uneven and rocky underfoot, twisting its way around giant boulders, as the late afternoon sunlight peers through the tree canopy. We have only been going 20 minutes when Alexandre tells us to stop, to spread out and to simply listen to the sounds of the forest. This idea of pausing to appreciate nature is a theme that Alexandre returns to regularly during our time together.
Deep in the Chartreuse forest
We continue onwards and upwards, the rocky path eventually giving way to dirt trails carpeted in fragrant pine leaves. After a couple more kilometres we are deep within the Chartreuse Forest. We walk by ancient trees, past verges thick with nettles that have grown waist-high, and across meadows where wildflowers sway in the warm summer breeze. The forest is the only one within the French Alps (and the only one of just 15 in France) to have been given the title Forêt d’Exception (Exceptional Forest). This label is awarded to destinations that promote the forest heritage and marks the forest as exemplary in sustainable development.
But these trees hide other stories too; in the 11th century the Carthusian Fathers established a small community at the foot of Charmant Som in the village of Saint-Pierre-de-Chartreuse. From this small beginning grew a new monastic order that spread across Europe. Still today some 30 monks live in the Grande Chartreuse, the head monastery, leading a life of solitude and silence. They are also the keepers of the famous Chartreuse liqueur recipe. Monks have been making this herbal liqueur, the only one in the world with a natural green colour, since 1737. The recipe, which blends 130 different plants and herbs, is known only to a handful of monks.
After two hours of gentle walking (this is very much a stroll as opposed to a hike) we arrive at a lookout and see the sun beginning to set over the lush green valley below. In the distance is the city of Lyon and the summit of La Grande Sure, which rises to nearly 2,000 metres. We don’t stay long, however, because our concert is about to begin. A short walk from the lookout the last of the sunlight shines on a large overgrown meadow surrounded by pine trees where, in the middle, there stands an upright piano under a bottle-green canopy.
An open air concert hall
“For me, this walk through the forest is like walking into a very long concert hall,” explains Alexandre. “I like spending time with my audience rather than being thrust straight into the spotlight.”
To one side of the makeshift stage lie a handful of yellow and turquoise bean bags. Some camping chairs have also been set up, draped in pale yellow blankets to ward off the inevitable evening chill. We’re each handed a glass of chilled rose and people bring picnics out of backpacks, cutting slices of saucisson and Chartreux cheese, and tearing off pieces of baguette, while Alexandre prepares himself. And then the recital begins, and it is nothing short of magical.
During the 50 minutes that Alexandre plays, without sheet music, we’re treated to wonderful renditions of works by composers including Bach, Brahms and Chopin. The last of the remaining sunshine quickly disappears and soon the only light comes from the two head torches dangling from the ceiling of the canvas canopy. When we arrived in the meadow Alexandre had explained that he would much rather play in the open air but needs the tent covering to stop humidity affecting the piano. But as the skies grow ever darker, I disagree with him, the torches in the canopy shine like a spotlight on the performer. The last song, Metamorphosis by Philip Glass, is a dramatic and soul-stirring finale after which nobody moves for several minutes.
It’s nearly 10pm by the time the recital finishes but fortunately the walk back to our original meeting point is much faster and takes just 25 minutes. We start the descent wearing our head torches but soon turn these off and let the light of the stars guide us instead. It seems only fitting to end the most unusual – and wonderful – walk in France the way that we began, very much at one with nature.
Other things to do in the Chartreuse region
Although the Grande Chartreuse is closed to visitors, you can walk to the monastery and see the grounds. Start with a visit to the Museum of the Grande Chartreuse, for a better understanding of the mystery of the Carthusian Order and then walk to the monastery itself. The walk takes roughly one hour.
Chartreuse appears on almost every menu but if spirits aren’t your thing, then don’t worry, there are plenty of other opportunities to get a taste of this unique liquor from cheese to ice cream. One of the best ways to try Chartreuse is to combine it with chocolate; visit Chocolaterie Sandrine Chappaz who creates award-winning chocolates including a Chartreuse cocktail inspired collection.
Housed in the mountain church of Saint-Pierre-de-Chartreuse is the Arcabas Museum. The museum is dedicated to the works of the contemporary French sacred artist Jean-Marie Pirot, better known as Arcabas. It’s thought that during his lifetime he created between 4-5,000 works of art, a fraction of them are on display here.
Katja was a guest of Chartreuse Tourism and Isere Tourism. Alexandre Guhery runs organised guided walks including Rando’piano via his company oreilledulynx.fr