Amy McPherson finds beauty and adventure in unspoiled territory…
Before I went, I had no idea where Vercors was, but I did know it was famous for its outdoor activities. A two hour car journey from Lyon Airport brought me to a small range of pre-Alps mountains that straddles the departments of Isère and Drome in south-eastern France. As we turned off the dusty highway into the valley, I was greeted by a heavenly view. The hills were a crisp lime green and the sky a brilliant blue. Vercors makes a great first impression.
I came here seeking an adventure. Vercors, a utopia for outdoors enthusiast, was ready to indulge me.
Hiking in Hauts Plateaux Nature Reserve
One of the great things about hiking is that all you need is a good solid pair of shoes. It is so easy to simply walk into nature and feel miles away from civilisation. Being a mountainous region, Vercors has plenty of hiking options on offer.
In the Hauts Plateaux Nature Reserve, the largest land-based metropolitan reserve in France, there are no roads or houses, apart from refuge huts providing shelter for hikers. The 17,000 hectares of wild land with its forests of oaks, beeches, firs, spruce, pines is home to much wildlife including marmots, black grouse, Alpine ibex, vultures and golden eagles.
Paths that crisscross the reserve are rocky with limestone which has been sculpted by water and weather, covered with pine needles and tree roots, lined with mountain flora. The moist undergrowth of the forest is full of ferns, fungi and fabulous fauna. I spotted Lady’s Slipper orchids, Edelweiss, Gentians, as well as the rare scabiosa columbaria ‘Vercors’ in various shades of purple. Other than the crunch of my footsteps, the only other sounds were the whistle of the wind and the rustle of leaves. So quiet, not even the birds stirred. The air was fresh, the surrounding nature energising, and the sound of silence meditating.
Gentle cycling along Via Vercors
No respectable ‘outdoor destination’ would be without the offer of some great cycling. Here in Vercors, while the lycra-wearers rule the spectacular balcony roads that are dramatically carved onto the rock face with breath-taking views of gorges beyond, cliffs above and alpine meadows below, there is an alternative leisure option to exploring on two wheels.
‘Don’t worry’ guide Olivier from Velectrip, which specialises in nature sports, assured a group of us keen to explore the area. ‘We don’t have to wear lycra!’
ViaVercors is a network of designated cycling routes that cuts through the valley floors connecting all the main towns in Vercors. The mostly flat routes took us from farmland to villages, along running streams and quiet back roads.
Vercors: Active by Nature
A bike tour is a great way to explore the many villages of Vercors and visit the local craftspeople and farmers. Other than forest and nature, Vercors is also well known for its agriculture. We stopped at the Ferme du Pic Saint Michel, where Marion and Yannick Rochas have 60 chamois alpine breed goats.
After much petting and cooing the goats who seemed more than happy at the attention, we sampled goats cheese of different stages of maturity direct from the farmer’s hands.
‘Many people say they don’t like goats cheese,’ Olivier said as he stuffed a cube of the one week old cheese into his mouth. ‘That’s because they’ve never really tried it directly from the farm. You cannot get this from the supermarkets.’
Of course, a day on the bike also means guilt-free sampling of great regional cuisine from many of the cafés and restaurants conveniently en route. They’re all listed in the ViaVercors map which you can get from the tourist office, or you can book a guided tour. The best part? I was pedalling an e-bike, which are readily available for hire at local bike shops. It meant the ride was relaxing and I could take it easy and enjoy the views.
Trying out the sport of biathlon
Biathlon is a sport that requires the agility of a cross country skier and the sharp aim of a sniper. It was never on my radar as a holiday activity. Yet, when you find yourself among champions as I did unexpectedly it seemed a shame not to give it a go.
‘Actually, many of the French Nordic sport champions comes from Vercors’ said Loïs Habert. He and his wife Marie Dorin, both ex-national biathletes, and cross-country skier Robin Duvillard manage ZeCamp Hotel in Corrençon-en-Vercors, which offers a selection of sports and wellness holiday activity options. It is the perfect place to try biathlon.
‘Shooting a rifle is all about the breathing,’ Loïs said just before he pulled the trigger and downed one of the targets. I tried to replicate, concentrating with all my energy and managing to hit three out of five targets.
For the ski part of the biathlon, it being summer we ‘ski’d’ on roller skis. It’s not that easy, and not like roller skating, and though I’d seen school groups make it look easy as they rolled up and down the streets of Villard-de-Lans, the town where I was based, I retreated to the hotel for a session of yoga.
On top of the world in Vercors
All around Vercors, the sight of silvery mountain peaks like limestone fingers reaching to the sky is never far away. If you want to get closer to them then a spot of rock climbing is a popular pastime here. I couldn’t resist and joined mountain guide Jehan-Roland Guillot. As he strapped ropes and hooks onto each of us in our intrepid group of climbers he assured us we would be on top of the world soon. I pulled on a helmet and looked up. The sun was streaking through the vertical silhouette of the so-called Three Maidens – Les Trois Pucelles, a set of limestone formation above the valley of Grenoble 1456 meters above sea level. It looked daunting. It looked impossible.
‘Don’t worry, winked Jean-Roland ‘I’m good with beginners!’
Sheer joie de vivre
Two hours later, we had hiked past the 90-metre springboard used during the 1968 Winter Olympic Games at Grenoble, picked our way through patches of coniferous trees, abseiled down a rock wall like James Bond, climbed the jagged edges of the cliffs to the top, and finally reached the gap between the rocks. A rope, stretched tight between the peaks of the rocks, was our way across. Tentatively I hooked my clips onto the rope, inched towards the edge. It was a steep drop to the ground, I gulped.
‘Trust the rope, trust yourself, there is nothing to be afraid of. Just let go’ encouraged Jehan.
In my line of sight, the city of Grenoble spread before like walnut butter, covering the basin and towards the edges of the mountains. It was a beautifully clear day and the peak of Mont Blanc was just visible in the distance. Adrenaline kicked in. It felt like I was at the top of the world.
I breathed it all in and let go.
For nature, beauty, adventure and sheer joie de vivre – Vercors is hard to beat.