Sunday, October 20, 2013

The Vercors


My little blue car chugs valiantly upwards on the winding road to the Vercors mountains.  Even with the accelerator pressed to the floor, she will not go any faster than 60km an hour. The line of impatient motorists behind me is getting longer and I have to pull into a lay-by twice to let them pass.

I have not ventured into the Vercors for years. The first time was when we arrived in Grenoble in 2001. I was excited at the prospect of tasting the local AOC cheese: Bleu de Vercors-Sassenage and we eventually found a dairy farm that sold it. Unfortunately, the farmer was in the middle of mending his tractor when we got there and hastily wrapped us a piece of cheese with his grubby hands covered in engine oil. We haven’t eaten it since.


As I pass through that village now, I am amused to see that it’s called Engins - and the association of blue cheese and tractor oil is fixed forever in my mind.

The second visit was to the Grotte de Choranche, a hauntingly beautiful cave, a fairytale palace of emerald pools and fragile glittering stalactites fit for a Snow Queen…


Close to Choranche is the medieval village of Pont-en-Royans, famous for its maisons suspendues that overlook the river Bourne. The houses, with their pastel façades, date from the 15th century. Oh, it is as pretty as a picture!



The third time I went, I recklessly braved the steep and winding Col de Menée in search of lavender fields in the south. When I finally reached Die, I was in dire need of a glass of its famous clairette – a sweet, sparkling wine made from muscat and clairette grapes.  I was driving, so resisted the temptation, even though the trauma of navigating those sheer and monstrous cliffs had reduced me to a quivering blob.


The Vercors is also famous for the maquis, the group of French freedom fighters who resisted the German occupation of France during World War 2. Parts of the Vercors are hostile, isolated and difficult to access and therefore made an ideal refuge for these brave, determined people.


But on this sunny afternoon, I am driving to Méaudre, which is neither hostile nor isolated and is easy to access, even for me. I want to wander through a dappled forest, breathe pure mountain air and savour the colours of early autumn.

The Vercors is home to animals such as the ibex, the mouflon (wild sheep) and the chamois. There were even bears here once but they disappeared in 1940 and were never reintroduced.  I merely get a glimpse of a handful of clucking hens, deer dashing across fields and a few disgruntled cows.


There are so many mushrooms and toadstools, so many shapes and colours. One day, I would like to learn how to identify them but for now, I simply stoop to admire their beauty.


On the way back, I pass several farmhouses with intriguing roof details. I discover that the limestone tiles are arranged in what are called sauts de moineaux or ‘sparrow hops’…like a staircase. This was to protect the houses – which once had thatched roofs – from catching fire during lightning storms. The stone at the top is known as la couve and is a fertility symbol, vestige of the Celtic tribe, the Vertacomocorii, which gave its name to the region.


Driving home is less embarrassing because it’s all downhill and my little car can manage that quite well, thank you very much.

This is probably my last walk before autumn turns into winter. Winter is for shivering on the sofa slurping soup and grumbling about the snow.

Roll on spring…







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