Thursday, October 31, 2013

La Réunion - a full two weeks

My apologies. I was sleepy and sloppy in my first post from La Réunion and got the days of the week mixed up: arrived on Thursday, Hell-Bourg and Ste. Suzanne on Friday (east), St. Philippe and the southern coast on Saturday.
Sunday, we needed our rest and the Thomas clan arrived early in the afternoon. They needed their rest, too.
Cirque de Mafate
Monday morning, Paul, Anne, and I had our helicoptor tour of the island. It's splendid. Our tour took off from behind St. Paul. The company is Helilagon. There is another company based closer to us at l'Ermitage, Corail, and they seem to be just as good. We had scheduled the 7:00 tour because we had been told that one must do it very early so as not have the view obscured by clouds. It turned out that they rescheduled us for 8, which we only found out because we also discovered they would pick us up at our hotel at no extra charge and I phoned to arrange that. The pick-up was at 7:20 and when we arrived at the héliport, we discovered the 7:00 people and the 8:00 all still waiting for the all clear signal.
Take off for our group of 6 was at about 8:30 and the sky was wonderfully clear. We flew over St. Paul and picked up altitude to enter the Cirque de Mafate via the Maïdo peak. From there, we dipped into the Cirque. The cirque is one of the three caved-in calderas of the Piton des Neiges volcano, the one that has been dormant for long enough for people to feel safe living in the cirques. The Cirque de Mafate is only accessible on foot or by helicopter. There are villages on the plateaus that are separated from one another by deep gorges and the cirque is surrounded by almost vertical walls. The inhabitants voted against having a road built along the canyon entrance and against having electricity brought in. As far as electricity is concerned, they were right, because now, they all have solar panels and do not need the heavy installations. Mafate was originally settled by run away slaves. Apparently one was called Mafate and in Malgache, that means either "qui pue" (who stinks) or "qui tue" (who kills). Once the run aways made it into the cirque, no one really bothered trying to capture them. They were followed, later, by the poor second or third sons of planter families, and by Chinese shop keepers.
From Mafate, we went over to the Cirque de Salazie, which we had driven through the week before. It's so much greener! It's canyon entrance is on the eastern side of the island, where all the rain comes from. Still, in spite of being on the rainy side, the waterfalls are just trickles this year.
Turning south we flew over the Piton de la Fournaise, the active volcano, although there's no activity right now. There's a valley, a plain between the two volcanos and we could see the large farms.
And then over les trois Salazes into the Cirque de Cilaos, not quite as confined as Mafate, because there is a road and electricity, but still signs of rugged living.
Les Trois Salazes 
Tuesday, we (quite a group, now) made our way back to Ste. Philippe to visit the Jardin des Parfums et Epices. That was a beautiful visit. I recommend it. The guidebooks say you need to reserve for the guided tour, and you do. That said, they accept too big a crowd on a tour, so you kind of wonder if they do have a limit. Our tour was the 10:30, but by the time they got us all rounded up it was getting closer to 11 and they had opened a tour for 11, so, since there seemed to be fewer people on the 11:00 tour, we switched. It was well worth the wait; our tour guide was the owner! Of course, there's vanilla, curcuma, ginger, mangoes, papayas, bananas, and more. There's so much more, if you go, take notes in order to remember it all. The tour is an hour and a half, but ours seemed to go on a bit longer. The parents of small children dropped out a bit half way through because it's just too much information and stationary pauses. For those of us unhindered by babies, it was an enlightening tour.

 This hole in the ground is what is left when the lava cools around a hardwood tree. The tree burns slowly enough for the lava to cool around it. Once the tree has burned away, the hole is left. This is useful to determine the depth of the lava flow. It is also useful as a natural toilet. The people would choose to build their houses near two such holes, so that when one filled up, they could use the second, until the first had composted, and so on.
Notre Dame des Laves
NWhen we left the garden, we drove past the Grande Coulée, to the east coast. At Sainte Rose, there is this church, now called Notre Dame des Laves. In 1977, a new caldera formed outside the Piton de la Fournaise enclosure and its lava flowed into Sainte Rose, stopping just in front of the church (and a little around the sides). It scalded the building but that was all the damage done! A miracle! The rest of the town was pretty much destroyed and has been rebuilt on top of the lava flow. They've cut steps in the flow for access to the church. 
We continued up the east coast, to Sainte Anne, where we cut across to the road that cuts through the plain between the volcanoes. The "plaine des palmistes" is not as flat as its name sounds. The road winds up and down between the pitons. It's agricultural country. Towards the southern end, it's much more urban and less interesting. As the road descends to St. Pierre, the villages are named for the number of kilometers to St. Pierre: Dix-neuvième, Quatorzième, Onzième. I must say that in the metropolis, there are not so many pharmacies and medical centers or service stations. The roads here are in excellent condition.

On Thursday, we drove up to the top of Maïdo to the viewing rampart for the view into the Cirque de Mafate. It's a beautiful drive. And there are some magnificent views. I envy the hikers that go into the Cirque. There are places to eat and even spend the night. We are no longer up to such hiking. I hope that some of my friends who do hike and who read this blog will consider it as a future destination!
We came back via St. Paul. This is the first capital of La Réunion. It's a big town, but not as big as St. Pierre, and certainly no as big as St. Denis. There are only a couple of shopping streets. There's also a market on Fridays and Saturdays, but this was on Thursday. We did stop for lunch. And we stopped along the coastal road on the way to St. Gilles. In fact, it turned out to be where we stopped on our return from the wedding on Saturday, at Cap La Houssaye.
Friday, Saturday, and Sunday were taken up with the wedding activities. Monday was Anne's last day with us. We did not feel like doing very much. It wasn't really a nice day for the beach, either. We has lunch at Salines-les-Bains and then spent the latter part of the afternoon with Louis, Gwen, and Sacha, who came over to our hotel for a dip in the pool. We then took Anne to the airport..
Le Marché Couvert at Célaos
Tuesday was a nice morning, so we headed south, along the coast, to St. Louis, where we turned and went into the Cirque de Cilaos. It's a beautiful drive, but there are too many S curves to count. You don't have the impression you are going up a mountain because you keep going up and down, following the meander of the river. There are villages here and there, not along the road, but always a little distance off. There are staircases carved into the rock along the road that lead to paths to get to the isolated farms. There are hiking paths to take hikers into the Cirque de Mafate and the Cirque de Salazie.
At the town of Cilaos, there is a little covered market with local produce: melons, lentils, mangoes, peaches, wine, ... and some local crafts, like the embroidery. Further along the road, at the end, is the Ilet à Cordes, on the opposite side of the cirque.
Célaos embroidery
Wednesday was another rather lazy day, spent pleasantly with the Thomas clan. It rained during lunch.
There was a big storm during the night but we woke up to a beautiful morning and decided to take one last drive. We went back to St. Louis to see the Museum of Decorative Art of the Indian Ocean. What a disappointment! The site is an old coffee plantation, Maison Rouge, and they've started cultivating the rare café bourbon again. A small tin of the coffee, 125gr., costs €22! We would have loved to taste a cup of coffee (€2) but the snack bar was closed. The museum exhibit was of Chinese furniture and porcelain that the locals imported -- very beautiful, but nothing made locally. We didn't stay long. We read the posters describing the particularity of Boubon coffee and the life and death of the coffee market in La Réunion. After this very brief visit we got back into the car and decided to see where the little road ended. That was a drive on a little road cut through the fields -- fields of sugar cane, bananas, a bit of pineapple, and more. Some banana plots were empty of fruit; others had fruit already in bags, but still hanging from the plant; and others had tiny fruit just starting. Some of the cane has already been cut, but there is plenty left. We saw four workers in one field cutting. These hillside fields are not good for mechanical harvesting. This agricultural path led to the Department road 3, slightly wider. Beautiful. There's a break in the road, though, where we had to go down the mountain to cross the ravine and then go back up to the D3, which is marked in green from this point on to indicate it is picturesque. Well, the preceding portion was very picturesque, but this bit, which runs parallel to the main highway, but at about 800m. altitude, all the way to St. Paul, has house on each side. We could imagine that there must be nice views of the coast from time to time, but since we were caught in a cloud, we couldn't see. Tired of all the twisting and turning, we called it a day and returned to l'Ermitage.
Tomorrow, we hope to go to the St. Paul market. It's a big tourist attraction. Almost all the Réunion souvenirs are made in Madagascar, though. I hope it's not a tourist trap. We also want to see the Sailors' cemetery. We've passed by it several times and this time we want to stop.

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