13/07/17

Le Mont Ventoux

Vaucluse

It sits overlooking the Rhone plain.  Most often when you pass it is shrouded in snow, dark clouds or fog, but it is always there. Because it lies below the 44th parallel the sun's rays hit it unequally which means four quite separate climates are on one mountain - dry and warm on the south-west face, humid and warm on the south-east, dry and cool on the north-western, humid and cold on the north-eastern.  It has one of the most varied flora in France.

The Ventoux is a God of Evil, to which sacrifices must be made. It never forgives weakness and extracts an unfair tribute of suffering.

- Roland Barthes

Et Ventour, que l’ou tron laboue
Ventour que venerable aubouro
Subre il montagnolo amatado souto ée
sa blanco tèsto fin qu’isastre
And Ventoux, who thunder tills
Ventoux who, venerable,
Raises up on squatting hills
His white head to the stars

- Fréderic Mistral (1813-1914)

Mistral (originally Mistrou) was a lexicographer of Occitan.  He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1904.

Mont Ventoux was originally forested but stripped in the late middle ages to build ships, leaving the iconographic moonscape, bleached blot on a landscape of green, the most northerly mountain of the Pyrenees-Provençal chain.  It has a unique place in the heart of cyclists, the K2 of velocipedes.  Folklore and fact abound. Despite the frequent gales on the summit,  Ventoux does not mean “windy”, but is from Vintur, a god of the Gauls, whose home it is.  Every summer, the Fondation Occitan which works to keep alive the ancient language and culture of Provence, Northern Italy and North Eastern Spain walk to the summit reciting poetry, a motley collection of students, elderly people who can remember the language of their grandparents, and the customary scattering of French marxists with woven shoulder bags.  

But, of course, they are far outnumbered by the cyclists.  They come in their thousands, the thin strips of muscle who will accomplish all three ascents before lunch, the optimistic chancers who had a great lunch in Bédoin and thought they might rent a bike and set off in the middle of the Provençal summer afternoon, and the great mass who will make it and will have something to talk about for years to come.  The initial ascent, through warm fields of lavender and fennel “what is the fuss about?” the arrival at Chalet Renard where, quite suddenly you realise what getting to the summit actually involves.  From warm and enjoyable to freezing and moderately terrifying.  Treeless and fully exposed to the winds from the High Alps, it’s only 7km to the summit, but, depending on wind, can take mortals nearly an hour.  Cyclists blow all over the road like autumn leaves.  The wind is from the right then the left, then everywhere. But you will probably make it, via the tangle of baffled Belgian camper vans, to the euphoria of the summit. The descent, freezing at first, getting warmer and safer by the minute, is the icing on the cake.

His body ached, his legs grew tired, but still he would not give in", taken from a card left by his brother, Harry, following his death.

- card left by Harry Simpson for his brother Tommy

This year, the Tour is not doing Ventoux.  This is odd, particularly because 2017 marks the 50th anniversary of the death of British cyclist Tommy Simpson, who, already suffering from a gastric complaint,  died from a combination of amphetamines, alcohol and diuretics. Or perhaps the omission is a deliberate decision to distance the Tour from drugs. His memorial stands where he finally died, and has become a shrine for cyclists. 

All the legends of the Giant of Provence can be found easily though.  The mountain has many aspects depending on climate and the inclination of the observer, but they are all intense and dramatic.  The stories are the stuff of legend, the lives and deaths of the immortals.  But there is also a story which is not well-known away from this area, and that is what I am going to tell you now.

The wedding of one of Gustave and Saku's sons to a local Tulette woman
The wedding of one of Gustave and Saku's sons to a local Tulette woman

In 1901, a Frenchman, Gustave Carpentier, worked at the Sino Russian bank in Yokahama.  Gustave had been brought up in an orphanage but he was a bright student, fluent in Russian and several languages of the Far East and his progress at the bank was swift.  In 1903 he married Saku Kaneko. 

Over the intervening years Gustave and Saku travelled several times to Europe - and had five children.  In 1921 Gustave, who had been working in Switzerland for 6 years, decided to settle permanently in France.  Suki and he made the journey up the Rhone from Marseille.  Some 150km north of the sea there it was, heaving up from the river plain.  To this family, inculcated in the culture of Japan, there was no thought of Gaulish gods, no awareness of the place of Ventoux in the Occitan world, to them it was like the sister of Mount Fuji.

Saku, with the older daughters of Gustave Carpentier
Saku, with the older daughters of Gustave Carpentier

I met Yves Kaneko, great nephew of Gustave, in Tulette, where he is a GP.  The family still own Saint-Christol, the farm bought by Gustave and Saku,  and Yves remembers stories of his doughty great aunt who kept a small corner of her homeland in rural Provence during the first part of the 20th century. Gustave and Saku, unable to manage the farm alone, had been joined by her brother Kakuji and his wife Fuji.  Dried tuna was sent from Japan by post.  Soy sauce was unknown, so she used Viandox (the French Bovril).  After a very tough few years the farm became successful, growing vines and stone fruit.  1963 was such a bumper harvest it paid for Saku to return to Japan and spend a year there.

I asked if there was any racial prejudice against the Kaneko family.  “No, I think not - they were just all farmers pitching in to make a living …”.

Fuji, who, with her husband Kakuji, had travelled from Japan to work on the farm.
Fuji, who, with her husband Kakuji, had travelled from Japan to work on the farm.
One of 36 Views of Mount Fuji by Hokusai (1760-1849)
One of 36 Views of Mount Fuji by Hokusai (1760-1849)

with thanks to Ian Tyson, Jo Tyson and especially Dr Yves Kaneko for his time and the very generous access to his family photos.

And, with a summary of Stage 11:

Credits

Name Role
Yves Kaneko Archive photos
Penny Averill Photos