Gateway to the Alps

Trip Start Jun 18, 2010
Trip End Jul 17, 2010

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Where I stayed
Hotel Citadines

Flag of France  , Rhône-Alpes,
Saturday, June 26, 2010


The next day (June 25th) dawned clear and warm (yawn). A friendly Parisian taxi-driver delivered us to the train station in good time for our TGV to Lyon. What a way to travel – who would bother with airports, check-ins, flights, when this alternative is available? From Lyon we collected our Peugeot wagon and set out for Grenoble – except we didn't because we immediately made a directional mistake and headed off up the motorway in the opposite direction. Paris here we come again! Eventually sorted, and paying more attention to the clipped consonants and clearly enunciated advice of the woman inside our Peugeot GPS navigation device, we arrived in Grenoble

Grenoble’s a modern city, a university and ski town on the fringes of the French Alps. While the city itself offers little of historic or cultural interest, its setting, in a lush, glaciated valley beside the Isere River and surrounded by three huge massifs, is superb. The Vercors Massif to the southeast and Chartreuse Massif to the north are composed of limestone, while the more extensive mountains to the west are, for the most part, granite (and, for the cyclists, there too is the Alpe-d’Huez). The huge geology of the region is a joy to those with an interest.

It was mid-afternoon when we arrived in Grenoble and, after a few loops around the one way system, reached our apartment. We then headed out for a stroll through the oldest part of the city and a visit to the elevated vantage point of an old fort across the river. It was hot and we were feeling lazy so we caught the cable car up.… a cosy, sauna-like, plastic bubble that ensured we arrived at our destination bathed in sweat and having created yet more laundry to add to the growing, unwashed pile. Pig-French obtained us a couple of very welcome cold beers (and a coke for she who has been drinking way too much of it on this trip).

Next morning, coffee, croissants and pastries at a café for breakfast, a stock-up on cheeses and fruit at the local market, then off for a driving tour in the Vercors. Here we consulted the same motorist’s guide to the French countryside that had been our invaluable bible on our last visit to France – 'France on Backroads’. Our copy was published in 1986, then went out of print, but we figured the roads wouldn’t be hugely changed, centuries old buildings and structures were likely still there, and if all guidebook and map navigation failed, we could always resort to Madam GPS. The best laid plans….

We set off to intersect with the ‘backroads’ route, consulting Madam GPS for the ‘shortest route’. We quickly discovered this is the maddest option, leading you as it does through the narrowest and most convoluted village streets, seeking the shortest kilometer distance. Geoff, new to his left-hand drive Peugot, uncertain of its edges, and tending, when under pressure, to indicate fruitlessly with the windscreen wipers, found this quite a challenge ( especially in a teeny street in the village of Montaud, where a 2m x 2m gap between buildings required that we flatten the wing mirrors to get through!). ‘Fastest route’ by Madam GPS, we discovered, takes you quite far out of your way to seek the biggest roads (By elimination we have now settled on ‘optimized route’).

Having squeezed through Montaud and squiggled our way relentlessly up the very steep eastern flank of the Vercors Massif, we joined our designated route….. for a while… until we got to the road closed sign. Bugger! (The aged look of the sign and the fact that it shows on the 2010 Michelin map as a red dot annotated ‘route coupee’, suggests this has not been driveable for some years). That’s OK. We are big people. We can find another route. Back down we go, along the river valley for a bit, then up again from a little place called Rovon. No route coupees on the map here. No sign of road closures…. until we reach the one that says ‘route baree’. The road is closed for logging! Tad frustrated now. Down we zig and zag again, plummeting back to the valley floor, and again along the valley to the next likely access road. Turn left at Izeron then up, up, and up some more (these are huge, kilometers long climbs that are alive with laboring cyclist and have Geoff drooling with envy), to finally achieve our intended rendezvous with the backroads route. We decide to backtrack on the route a little, to view some gorges and traverse a particularly scary tunnel we’d read of but missed owing to our road closed deviations. A couple of km’s down the road, almost to the tunnel and… ‘route baree’. Just like London – all of bloody France is bloody closed! Disheartened but not defeated we turned around and continued on our backroads route…. Up onto the surprising and beautiful, gently rolling plateau atop the limestone Vercors Massif.

The next day dawned clear and warm (Are you hating us yet?) and we set off on the next leg of our journey (27 June) to Provence. We had another backroads tour planned enroute, into the Northern Ardeche (north west of Montelimar). Successful this time, this route took us up onto the rather bleak, volcanic landscape atop the Mezenc Massif and to the foot of ‘Gerbier de Jonc’, a weird cone-shaped rock pile that juts from the plateau. It’s composed of the rock-type phonolite, named for the ringing sound it emits when struck (There’s a chunk hanging in the volcanics section of the Auckland Museum). The rock lump proved to be a bit of a destination for French tourists as they were swarming all over it in large numbers, as they were in the market sited somewhat incongruously in the middle of nowhere at its base. Incidentally, the River Loire has its source here and the watershed between the Atlantic and Mediterranean can also be observed. On noticing the huge swarms of flies outside the car at that spot, Stef and I pushed Geoff out to take the photo.

Back down to the motorway and off to Provence (with a quick detour to a roadside nougat shop near Montelimar – You have never in your life seen so many varieties of nougat!).
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Wendy Stinson on

Have been enjoying your blogs. Sure hope you don't stuck with excess bagage for all your trophies and acheological finds. Why are husbands always the drivers and wives always the navigators??? We are very jealous about the weather. Sunday here was the most disgusting day ever. Madills Farm is a mud mire with lots of little muddy boyes swimming around with a ball. How is she with the shopping list?. Hope she has been satisfied! Hell I wish I was there!!!!!


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