The scenic route through France

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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:

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Yeah, I know, I wasn’t sure Stoytcho would be able to drive the tiny thing. But it turns out he fits fine.

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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.

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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.)

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The castles made me wonder if we had fallen into some sort of fairy tale…

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We spent the night sleeping in the car somewhere in Livradois-Forez and woke pre-dawn to keep driving.

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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:

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Summer is over. But the coming winter doesn’t look so bad.

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P.S. Here’s the route for those interested. It’s basically the Google Maps directions if you select “Avoid Tolls”:

Grenoble

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We really enjoyed visiting Grenoble. It’s a great mix of industrial, college, tourist, and residential. There’s a bustling downtown shopping area, a massive visitors’ center with maps and advice for hiking and skiing. It’s close to a trio of mountains and has a fairly extensive public transit system, but is also small enough that crossing the city is a half hour affair on foot.

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Its streets hold tiny cafes, repair shops, board game stores, and lots and lots of street art. Almost every area had at least something on the walls, usually fairly pointed at politics or the human condition, but often just plain colorful and weird.

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The city itself is clean with wide streets and beautiful walks.  Much of it is entirely pedestrian, night or day.

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There’s also a delicious array of food. We’re not sure if it’s particularly varied for a town this size because of the college scene, or if this is normal in France, but we were able to find cheap, delicious food at all hours. A Turkish kebab and pita shop filled us right up one night, when the fancy but apparently affordable french cuisine restaurant was booked full. Since there are so many people out and about, the smaller places tend to fill up. France continues the Italian custom of eating and talking for hours.

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Another great place we went to was a pasta shop on the main drag. A definite french twist on the Italian staple, we tried a variety of their sauces – the bolete and almond was our favorite!

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Just around the corner from our hotel was a lovely pastry shop. Not only were the desserts and drinks amazing, the staff was also super friendly. When it became clear we spoke barely a word of French they were happy to chat in English, and even let us practice our pronunciation! French coffee is not as good as the Italian, but they more than make up for it with their tea and pastries.

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The people around town were genial. This gentleman waved me down to come help him carry his cart down from the truck. Smiles and waves later, I figured out he was a knife sharpener. We could have really used that, but by the time I ran back with out little kitchen knife, he was gone into town.

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We’re not sure if most French cities are as nice as Grenoble, but we really want to go back. It was just the right size to explore, and full of friendly people. There were lots of trails around town, and the food was always good and often affordable. We couldn’t find a hostel, but the hotels we saw were neat and not overly priced. It was a great first stop in our journey through France.

Hiking Chamechaude

 

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

You decide:

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A view from the cliff’s edge down toward the meadow.

 

 

 

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.

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Sunrise and Sunset at Grenoble’s Bastille

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Dawn over Grenoble, as seen from the Bastille.

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.

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The winding multitude of paths down the Bastille to the Isere River (top).

 

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The Bastille at dawn.
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A view of Grenoble just below the Bastille.

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.

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There are no lights along the trail to the Bastille, so bring your own.
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Some of the stairs and paths are pretty steep, so bring water.
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The wind can be pretty rough at the top, so bring a jacket to stay warm.

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.

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The Fontaine du Lion; there are entrances up the hill to the Bastille to the right and left of this statue.
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One of the entrances up to the Bastille. Just keep heading up.

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.

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One of the many stairs up/down.
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The gravel paths around the Bastille are favored by walkers and joggers in the morning, so once the sun rises you’re unlikely to be alone.

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.

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A view of Grenoble at night.
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Spare gondolas in storage.
Gondolas come into the station at the top of the Bastille, overlooking Grenoble.

Sunrise over Grenoble

IMG_6246 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: IMG_6193

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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.

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