We stay with Cindy and Eric and Anna in a tiny apartment in Berlin for a week, doing nothing in particular but living. The three are here working on photography books and projects and workshops, and for them this stop is just one more in a life of itinerancy. They move to new places every few months to work or think or for Eric to run a photography workshop, but everywhere they work on new projects, connect with friends, and live. Travel is merely another axis on the grid in which they live their life.
I am lucky to know the people I do, and to while away days in quiet contemplation with them. To be not going anywhere in particular, to not be thinking about the next step. Instead, we live our lives and, inspired by Cindy and Eric and Anna, make photography into art. Are we successful?
Stoytcho and I have been invited to go visit my uncle and his wife in the countryside outside of Eymoutiers, a town in the province of Limousin. My cousin has apparently purchased a house there, where we’re welcome to spend a couple of days. But of course, trains (and buses) lead to Paris, making direct public transit nonexistent between Grenoble (in the south-east) to Limoges (the nearest city, in the south-west of France). So we rented a car and got this:
Yeah, I know, I wasn’t sure Stoytcho would be able to drive the tiny thing. But it turns out he fits fine.
When we picked up the car, we asked the rental agency what roads to take and they emphasized that most highways in France are toll roads. And French toll fees make U.S. tolls look like spare change–the rental agency staff estimated our trip might cost 30+ euros! We opted for the scenic route instead.
Our route took us ~6 hours and through two national parks (Livradois-Forez and Volcans d’Auvergne), past dozens of adorable towns scattered on plains and nestled in the hills, across forests clothed in warm autumn colors. (P.S. if you do the same drive, stop in Livradois-Forez National Park at the signs advertising fresh local cheese and tell me how it is! We did not stop and I forever regret it.)
The castles made me wonder if we had fallen into some sort of fairy tale…
We spent the night sleeping in the car somewhere in Livradois-Forez and woke pre-dawn to keep driving.
Dawn was slow over the misty landscape, and it wasn’t until we stopped for a break that we realized that the thin veil of white across the fields was more than mist. It was our first frost in nearly two years:
Summer is over. But the coming winter doesn’t look so bad.
P.S. Here’s the route for those interested. It’s basically the Google Maps directions if you select “Avoid Tolls”:
Hundreds of trails weave through the mountains surrounding Grenoble, several only accessible through villages nearby. But planning a weekday getaway hike can be a challenge without a car, as most of the buses out to these trailheads only run on the weekends outside of the summer holiday and winter ski months. There is one trail, though, that takes you up and away from civilization to the highest peak in the Chartreuse mountain range: the hike up to Chamechaude that starts in Le Sappey-en-Chartreuse.
At 9 miles, hiking Chamechaude is a pretty straightforward day hike for the intermediate or experienced hiker, though the uphill may take you a bit longer if you haven’t hiked in a while and the top might be challenging if steep slopes and sheer edges make you nervous. We took our time and the whole hike took us around 7 hours. We didn’t need any special equipment; just food, a few liters of water, and sunblock. We also picked up a map at the Grenoble Tourism Office (Office de Tourisme Grenoble-Alpes Métropole).
We wake before dawn to catch an early #62 bus to Le Sappey-en-Chartreuse, and in minutes we have left the city for behind. The bus trundles along on a neatly paved two-lane road and we watch as dawn spills across the swelling hills and forests. Near the end of our ride, we see a steep cliff jut from the landscape to the left. This is Chamechaude, what we’ll be climbing today.
The bus drops us off in the center of town, less than half a mile from the trailhead. The morning chill has yet to dissipate, so we zip our jackets and start hiking to warm up. The path immediately slants upward, and with few exceptions, will continue uphill for the next several hours.
The first part of this uphill hike is through thickly wooded forests, and wayfinding is made difficult by the profusion of trails sliced through the forest, a combination of hiking and ski trails marked with heiroglyphic patterns of colors. We imprint on our trail’s symbol of a red and white flag and follow it, learning on the way that an ‘x’ in these colors means don’t go this way, it’s not the same trail. I’d wager in the winter these ‘x’ symbols also mean “Do no enter. Downhill only.”
An hour into the hike, the forest thins and we break into a broad meadow at the foot of Chamechaude’s steep side. Chamechaude is on this side is a sheer cliff of a massif, a deformation in the Earth’s crust that might be made if someone dropped a cosmic sized bowling ball onto the ground. Climbing it from here is not a hike but an actual climb, and we’re not equipped for that.
Instead, we follow the trail to the left and around the back of Chamechaude, once again into forest, across small streams and through handmade livestock gates maintained by those who still graze their flocks here. There are even signs asking that we not disturb the cows and sheep.
Finally, we find ourselves on the other side of Chamechaude, a steep but climbable slope cut with a narrow switchbacked trail. Three hours after we began our uphill hike, we begin to hike uphill in earnest, planting one foot in front of another, plodding up and scrambling over small piles of limestone rock. I pick one up to examine it and find traces of fossilized clam and snail shells. This area is a protected park, so I put them back.
While in distance summiting Chamechaude should be only a mile, it takes us more than an hour to climb. We’re exposed here, above the treeline, and are thankful for extra sunblock as the noontime sun glares down on us. But we rest only at the top, heaving and sweating. Was the climb worth it?
Downhill, while precarious, slips by faster than the uphill and we are back at the foot of the mountain in forty minutes. We take the long way back, savoring the cooling shade of the evergreens and brilliant colors on the deciduous trees in the forest. It’s 5 pm and the day is done by the time we again reach the town center of Le Sappey-en-Chartreuse, and we’re just in time for sunset on the bus ride back to Grenoble.
Located on a hill in the north, the Bastille affords some of the best views of Grenoble and is an ideal place to watch the sun rise and set over the city. Though the entrances through the parks at the Bastille’s base are locked and inaccessible outside of business hours (rendering them unusable for hikes up to see sunrise and sunset), there are several routes and trails up the hill to the Bastille. You just have to know where to look.
Should you plan on doing a sunset or sunrise hike, bring a light, since there are few lights along the Bastille trails. Second, bring water. The Bastille hill isn’t that tall but some of the trails up can be steep, and the only source of water I saw were fountains at the top where the “bubble” gondolas depart. Third, bring a windproof jacket. Even when the air in the city below is still, it whips and chills at the top of the Bastille walls.
If you’re coming from the part of the city just south of the Isere River, the easiest route up to the Bastille is at the southwest end of Rue Saint Laurent. Look for the Fontaine du Lion, a massive fountain depicting a lion battling a snake; there are stairs just south or a bit north of this fountain that will take you to a trail that leads up to the Bastille.
I’ll try to get an actual trail route up here later, but for now the best instructions I can give are to stay to the left to avoid the road, and keep looking for stairs or switchback trails leading up. After 10-20 minutes you should reach the first Bastille walls with stairs leading up into the ruins. Walk up the stairs and continue climbing, but any tree-free outlook after this point should provide a good view of the city.
At the top of the Bastille you’ll find a lookout point and the “bubble” gondola that can take you back down to the city (11 AM – 6 PM). Enjoy the views, and then climb or take the gondola back into town.
I’m not much of an alcohol drinker and I’ve never mixed a drink in my life (unless you count a rare shot of Bailey’s into hot cocoa), but if there was ever a name for a drink, it would be Sunrise over Grenoble. And you would make it with layered peach juice and grenadine and whatever alcohol goes well with those two things, maybe a dark spiced rum. It’s true I don’t know what I’m doing behind the bar here in my mind but it’s my hypothetical drink. Get your own.
Anyway, the point of all of this is if you ever find yourself in Grenoble, wake up predawn and hike up to the Bastille for sunrise. It’s picture (and mixed drink) worthy:
After sunrise, head back down to the city just in time for breakfast at a local café. Maybe even get a shot of Bailey’s in your coffee.
Our hike at the edge of Skopje took a while not just because of the distance, but also because we spent a lot of time taking close up shots of beautiful flowers and animals along the trail. This guy is probably an Erhard’s Wall Lizard.
A lovely Crimson Scabious. They were everywhere at the start of the hike.
This looks like it might be the same as the Crimson, but dry and ready to send out seeds.
What would have been a delicious Chicken-of-the-Woods, but had been already eaten. We found and cooked one of these once, they really do taste and feel just like chicken. (Do not eat wild mushrooms unless you are absolutely confident you can properly identify them)
This is a type of Cyclamen. They are beautiful and absolutely everywhere wherever there is shade. We found an entire tree tunnel lined with them near the end of the hike – a carpet of pink and purple.
This is the leaf of the Cyclamen. Interestingly, they’re usually a good distance from the flower clusters.
Unknown, possibly Armeria vulgaris?
After this start the insects!
This reminds me very much of the weta. It’s actually a type of saddleback bush cricket.
Possibly a type of locust? Nope. It’s a Predatory Bush Cricket. It’s also known as the spiked magician and it eats other crickets, among many other things.
It was huge. This is a 6.5 inch phone for reference. This bug is a fairly uncommon sighting.
A lovely brown grasshopper of some sort.
And a very similar looking one in bright green. Maybe female and male of the same species?
And the latest in our unending search for jumping spiders. This little guy has a meal in his mouth.
It’s midday when we stop for lunch at the edge of a glassy lake, resting our packs against a rocky outcrop speckled with green, black, and orange lichens and tufts of moss. We quickly don jackets to minimize loss of body heat, then dig sandwiches and water of out of packs and share a meal in silence, gazing across the lake. It’s water mirrors the mountains rising on the opposite shore, the slopes a patchwork of slate, mustard, and dark green brush. A soundless wind carries low-hanging clouds over us, obscuring the peaks as fading shadows that are soon lost in the gray haze. It’s been a wet, chilly hike, but nothing could dampen the grandeur of this scenery. And while otherworldly, it’s located here on earth in the unlikeliest of places: the Rila Lakes of Bulgaria.
And if you speak to a Bulgarian expatriate about their country, they’re more likely to miss the food or to complain about government corruption. Few mention the country’s two sprawling mountain ranges, its karst caverns, golden plains, or alpine lakes. Ask about the country’s panoply of Thracean, Roman, and Ottoman ruins and you’ll often get an “Oh yes, we do have that.” Tourism is an afterthought in most of Bulgaria, and the country’s natural beauty remains a secret to outside world.
Back at Rila Lakes, we continue our hike through alpine grassland, past a dozen more still and glassy lakes, heading for the trail summit. The people we encounter are mostly native Bulgarians, taking a last break at the end of the summer season before school and work starts again. A handful are backpackers from other countries that when asked, “why Bulgaria?” reply with “It was cheap.” And we pass one group of park employees, dressed in waders and working to move rocks and brush along one of the lakes. “We’re preventing blockage that happens when vegetation dies for the season,” they explain to us, “visitors have brought some extra nutrient contamination to the lakes, but we can remedy it by ensuring the water continues to flow.”
As we climb the last mile to the summit, the temperature drops even further and wind chill forces us to add hats and gloves. Though the stream beside is flows freely, ice coats the rocks at its edge. Frost flowers, long shards of ice, grow from blades of goldenrod grass beside the trail. The summer growing season has long since ended here.
The peak is a disappointment for a standard hiker. The clouds that have drifted in starting around lunch have thickened, and where there should be a view of the entire valley there is only a thick gray fog. We climb back down and complete the trail loop, heading up along the western ridge of the valley. The clouds descend further and envelope us in obscurity. When we stop to rest in the dead grass beside the trail, we watch other hikers pass us, materializing from the mist with the scrape of shoes on dirt and sounds of breathing and fading into faint outlines and then, nothingness.
With visiting the relatives complete, Stoytcho and I took a couple of days’ retreat in the Rila Mountain Range for some outdoorsing. It has been a singular sorrow to be cooped up in the car, passing so many beautiful slopes and potential trails to the unknown here in Bulgaria. As a remedy, we booked a lovely room at the Hotel Borovets for the off-season nightly price of 58 lev (~$35 USD, including breakfast!), and for a stunning 10 lev (~$6 USD) they packed us daily lunch as well. Their lutenitsa was delicious.
Our first hike was at Skakavitsa Falls. Despite gorgeous weather the last two weeks, summer decided to flee on the days of our hike! We hiked in light mist and clouds, but the trails were still beautiful. Photos and map below of the rainy wonderland.
If you’re looking to hike Skakavitsa, be warned that in 2018 the signs were still all in Cyrillic. From the trailhead follow the red trail up to the hut/inn, then continue in the same direction. Do not go left, despite the open fields and better-marked trail — this goes to Rila Lakes and is a day-long affair. Stoytcho and I started on this trail before realizing we had passed the falls and had to double-back.
Day trip! We’re driving south of Plovdiv to see the Chudnite Mostove (Wondrous Bridges/Marvelous Bridges), Bachkovo Monastery, and Assen’s Fortress, all nestled in the mountains south of Asenovgrad. Here in Bulgaria summer still lingers and sunlight spills over the landscape, sneaking through the trees and dappling the trails. The hot midday air smells like pine sap and cut grass. And the afternoon stretches the shadows long between the steep mountain peaks, bathing us in shade and cool winds. Though it’s the cheapest (and poorest) member in the E.U., Bulgaria has natural beauty to rival any other country.