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Katja Gaskell goes walk about in the mountains where the sound of music echoes The most unusual walk in France 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. 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. 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 70 | The Good Life France The Good Life France | 71
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