The winding river Arc flows through a valley known as the Porte de Maurienne. The river is a hive of industry, sided by railway lines and an elevated toll road and home to steel mines, hydro-electric plants and dams, and metal factories.
Away from the industry the valley is a biker’s, hiker’s and rock-climber’s paradise with spectacular views of the surrounding French Alps.
Aiguebelle was more gritty than pretty. Famous for its ornate iron balconies we struggled to make them out through the grime of dirt that covered the terraced shops and apartments lining the town’s one street, ‘Grande Rue’.
It did give us a comfortable and quiet night’s stay, for free, in a grassy car park next to the ranks of school buses. We left early with them the next morning.
30 miles or thereabouts down the valley is St Jean-de-Maurienne, a Roman centre and later important Episcopal seat in the Middle Ages. Bustling with traffic, shoppers and locals we followed a walking tour and discovered its gems.
A wooden Roman door guarded entrance to the Notre Dame Church decorated by motifs of leafy faces, mythical animals and two bishops tussling over a crozier. It was separated by a road from its 11th century bell tower caused by vandalising revolutionaries in the late 1700s.
It was a highlight to visit the peaceful and Gothic cloisters, built in 1450, square around a central garden. The stone arches and vaulted ceilings leaned in, and out, and the perspective was of a fairy tale.
In the rafters, swallows nested, protected by local regulations as annual visitors from the North African lands of the former French Empire. Mais oui, of course!
The ’forum’ turned out not to be a meeting place but an award-winning block of 1980s modernist flats, behind an elegant art deco theatre and accompanying First World War memorial.
It was notable how many names were included on the monument and how few were added to it after 1945. The town was mercifully spared more loss, or there were fewer men to lose?
More modernist apartments lined the central square where the town’s most famous son, Fodere, was commemorated with a statue.
He invented the science of forensic medicine in 1765 and was famous in his lifetime as the statue was unveiled only 11 years after his death.
Under darkening skies we headed a mile out of town to a McDonald’s for free wifi to update the blog. Returning in drizzle that quickly became pelting rains we sheltered in the doorways of Darty Électroménager (a Currys type outlet) for an hour.
Feeling rather wet and miserable we were ignored by most shoppers but jovially greeted by a smart lady who laughed with us about the ceaseless rain. She returned in her car and drove us back to Bertha as we pigeon-chatted about the town and our travel plans. Trip angels come in all manner of forms and todays was a lovely woman in a battered old red Peugeot 205 with a very kind heart. Merci Madame!
Knowing that our mountain pass was open early (from regularly updated roadside information) we circled above the stunning Redoute Marie-Thérèse to find a peaceful campsite along Hannibal’s trail at Bramans, just 30km from the start of the 2084 metres climb over the French Alps to Italy.