Paths of the Sun|
Friday, October 08, 2004
|Photo by Pam Inverarity
|Edge of the Vercours.
Adventures don't just happen. First you need a plan. During the winter of 2002, half-way around the globe from my native Australia, I built a mountain bike in a small Swiss apartment. By August I was an hour or so south on the train in sunny southern France for eight days of adventure and mountain biking fun.
The plan was to test my new toy and learn some mountain biking skills while doing what I love most: escaping to somewhere less populated, exploring, using up some energy and testing my resourcefulness. For this, I'd found something that sounded just perfect - Les Chemins du Soleil: the Paths of the Sun.
These two long distance mountain bike trails cross each other in the pre- Alps of southern France. I chose the Grenoble to Sisteron trail because it looked more interesting on the map. After a bit of planning Roger and I were heading south on the train with our bikes and a small pack each. We had a tent and sleeping bags, a little repair gear, some snacks for the trail, and a change of clothes for the trip home. There was very little information available on the trail at the time-a small pamphlet with a rough description of where to go for each section-but we knew there were
trail markers. And besides, having very little information just makes for more adventure.
The first day we took it easy. In Grenoble we did some last-minute shopping: maps, spare brake pads and a front pannier for carrying fresh
baguettes. Sadly, I couldn't convince Roger that for the perfect French image what he really needed was a wicker basket. Our first 1000 m (3300 ft) altitude gain was done on the bus so that we could cruise gently down from the edge of the great green Vercours plateau. We were surrounded by verdant rolling pastures and pine forests. Shining white columns of limestone punctuated the edge of the plateau. Tiny villages and small wooden chalets made an occasional appearance as our trail alternated between road and dirt track.
On day two our ambitious natures got the better of us. By the end of the day our muscles were aching and it seriously looked like the trip might be over in six days, not the eight that we'd planned. If, that is, we could manage to keep up that sort of pace. We'd made a few unplanned detours, something that would turn out to be par for the course. In fact, we would lose the trail at least once a day over the entire trip, either because we missed a trail marker or because it was missing altogether.
We made planned detours that day too, to see the Gorges de la Bourne and the Grand Goulets. The road there is carved out of the rock near the base of deep gorges and passes through grand arches and narrow passageways. Most people were sight-seeing from their cars, except for the strange pair who seemed to be cross-country skiing up the road towards us on long, wheeled, ski-like contraptions. I guess they missed the winter snow. Personally, I was pretty glad that there was none to be seen.
Lunch that day was the start of many great meals to come. At a small walkers' hut a long way from the nearest village we sat in a flowered
garden and were served creamy French omelettes with crusty bread and wine. Forget Parisian restaurants. For unforgettable French cuisine fastidiously prepared with the best ingredients, my recommendation is to find a tiny, unpretentious place somewhere down south. Work hard and sweat a bit to get there and the food will taste like a small bite of heaven.
The afternoon was hot so we weren't in a hurry to get back on the trail. This early-afternoon lethargy quickly became a trail philosophy. For almost all of the trip we found that a siesta at a cafe was the best plan for the hottest part of the day. Roger used the time to indulge in the macho southern French pastime of sipping pastis, a strong, sweet, aniseed- flavoured spirits to which you add copious quantities of ice and cold water. I had no intention of joining him, since I don't like liquorice-like flavours and iced water gives me a headache, but he seemed to be enjoying it so much that I couldn't help having a sip of his once in a while just to reassure myself that I didn't like it.
|Photo by Pam Inverarity
|A village in Provence.
Day three started with the promise of very fine weather but we were met with a delivery of a sudden shower as we followed a narrow dirt trail. Our rain gear stopped us from getting wet, but it did nothing to keep the mud at bay. Of course, riding in the mud was fun. Lots of fun. But it took us a good couple of hours at a fountain in the next village to wash the mud off our bikes and make sure they were in good working order for the next few days. A friendly local lent us a brush and a bucket. It wouldn't happen in Paris.
After another excellent lunch in the following village we escaped the afternoon heat for a couple of hours in a small personal museum dedicated to the French Resistance. The Vercours had been a stronghold for the Resistance in WWII, and there was an impressive collection of memorabilia here, as well as numerous heart-rending letters and photos which illustrated more than adequately the atrocities and destruction perpetrated there.
Finally, we reached the edge of the plateau and admired the view as the landscape dropped away dramatically before us. I looked at the trail marker nailed to a tree and laughed as I read out "Danger! Chemins du Soleil." We'd just spent a good while pushing and carrying our bikes up a ridiculously steep slope, and it was only now that they saw fit to warn us about the trail. Peering over the edge of our lookout where the trail continued downwards we then saw why the warning had been added. Here, for the first time, we decided to walk our bikes downhill for some way too. I
suppose you could describe the trail at this point as "technical." Personally, I had no intention of testing my skill against the huge sheer
drops that bracketed the switchbacks of the trail. It was not only very steep at that point, but also extremely narrow and covered in either wet leaves or loose rocks.
It was another story altogether when we made it onto a forestry trail. In a cloud of dust and with whoops of joy, we left the green alpine world of the Vercours behind us and descended into the top of Haute Provence. The forest gave way to Mediterranean woodland and dry scrub, the valleys were carpeted with fields of lavender and sunflowers, and the ancient villages looked like something from a painting.
We stopped late in the day for our evening meal at Die, home of Clairette, so we had a glass each with our meal (of course). We had no intention to rush our food, but afterwards we were pushing for time to find a good place to set up tent before dark. I wanted to err on the side of caution and stop at the first likely spot, while Roger wanted to push on for as long as possible.
We pushed on.
It was a long, hard ride and the twilight was deepening before we found a clearing just off a small dead-end dirt road. Little did we know that our tent site at the small ruin at the end of the road was the venue that evening for a rave. Raves are essentially illegal in France, which at least explained the strange, remote location. Throughout the night our sleep was interrupted by the headlights and straining motors of mopeds carrying pillioning teenagers and the distant industrial thump-thump-thump of the revelry. When we made it to the ruin the next morning (we were once again off-trail having missed a vital marker), we were invited to share some beer and join the party. It had
obviously slowed down a lot by that stage but was valiantly kept alive by the few who were still awake. We turned down the kind offer and backtracked to find where we'd lost the trail. Eventually we made it to the top of a shoulder in the middle of some very wild scrub, and our reward was a long, fast and exciting descent which led us into vineyard-covered hillsides followed by sunflower-strewn plains.
It was late in the afternoon when we made it to our goal for the day, a camping ground at Luc-on-Diois. The proprietor was a young guy who gave the impression of having "smoked the carpet" as French like to say, an expression that suggests having smoked everything else available. He asked us where we'd come from and was so in awe of our exploits up to that point that he let us camp there for free. Perhaps he was also feeling so generous because we stammered on determinedly trying to explain things to him in French and doubtless amused him no-end since he was actually from Huddersfield, England. No hard feelings, though, when we finally caught on. At last we were able to have a shower and give our clothes a wash. The next day was our much-needed rest day.
We spent our rest day enjoying drinks at the cafe and treats from the bakery, and watching petanque, a game in which old French men throw heavy metal balls around on a small flat rectangle of dirt. As the afternoon drew to a close we packed up our gear and headed off once more to spend the night high on a hill amongst prickly scrub.
|Photo by Pam Inverarity
|Late afternoon on day 6
A storm blew in that evening, and we tied the ropes of our tent to the bikes to keep it fixed firmly in place. From the comfort of the tent we watched the lighting play rough games in the sky and eventually fell asleep to the sound of crashing thunder.
The rain didn't stop until after sunrise, so we had a lazy morning waiting for the tent to dry out. A group of mountain bikers passed on the trail as we were having breakfast. It wasn't long before we'd packed up and caught up with them. It was our sixth day on the trail and we were confident and in good form. We probably might have impressed them, too, if Roger hadn't hit a rock while braking hard downhill and gone slowly and spectacularly end-over-end.
The group invited us to have lunch with them in the next town, and it was during our lunch banter that we finally managed to impress them, as we were doing far more of the trail than they were and covering more distance in a day, as well as actually carting camping gear around with us rather than paying for beds.
We eventually left them behind for good at the next big uphill and found ourselves in a tiny, ancient town for the evening meal, where the
proprietor of the cafe was in the middle of making apricot jam. We were her only clients at that time, and she cooked us a wonderful home-style meal of duck, lentils and potato, then sent us off with a delicious packed lunch of farm-fresh goodies for the next day.
We camped high on a ridgeline and watched pastel sunset colors darken over the sparsely populated valley below.
Day seven was very hot and sunny, with plenty of hills and no cafes until late in the day, which foiled any plans for a civilized siesta. In the late afternoon we came to a sealed road and a small, touristy town, where we cooled off with some drinks and ice creams in the shade and
stocked up on some bakery goodies for the evening meal and the next day's breakfast.
Once more we proceeded to get lost and frustrated trying to find the right trail over the next looming ridge. Tempers were lost too, but when we found the trail it was where neither of us thought it would be. That solved the argument. The view from the top of the ridge was commanding, and the descent was fast despite the tricky terrain-night was closing in and there was nowhere on that steep, loose slope to camp.
With sunrise the next morning, our last day on the trail had finally arrived, and after all our efforts we were looking forward to finishing by
lunch time, relaxing, and basking in the glory of our achievements. We'd had enough of these huge hills, so we planned to eliminate the last three be taking the road out through the Gorges de la Meouge instead. It looked to be easy riding, nice scenery, and boasted a Roman bridge as a bonus.
At the end of our scenic shortcut, we picked up the real trail once more, only to be disappointed that although we'd cut the main hills out of the picture, there were still plenty of smaller ones to sap our dwindling energy. At last, though, we found ourselves on an exceptional section of single-track which raised our spirits and led us to a lookout over our final destination, Sisteron.
As the tiny city with it's imposing 14th century fortified citadel came into view, a siren rang out from the citadel, taking us by surprise. We
almost expected the city's defenders to sally forth and challenge the two fatigued mountain bikers at its gates. As we found out later, the siren, which had replaced the original bell, was sounded each day as part of a tradition marking the end of work in the fields, and perhaps the start of pastis drinking and petanque playing.
With no city guards forthcoming, we descended triumphantly into Sisteron but we couldn't help but feel a bit disappointed. Not only was there no parade of cheering people throwing flowers and welcoming us to the end of the end of our quest, there was not even a small congratulatory panel marking the end of the trail. After all our efforts and adventures over 280 km (174 miles) of steep hills and rugged terrain, we entered the city quietly, barely noticed or remarked upon by the locals. No one seemed to have even heard of the trail at the information centre.
So we had a muted celebration-a well-deserved shower at the local camping ground and a quiet, civilized meal in the centre of town wearing our change of clothes. It ended just like so many other adventures, with a wash, a feed, and the opportunity to put our feet up. Soon the heat, the aching muscles, the frustrations and lost tempers would be all but forgotten, leaving just the warm memories of an adventure which we'd enthusiastically recount to anyone willing to listen.
If You Go
Of course it was so much fun I'd recommend it to just about anyone. So here are my tips:
A little French is indispensable, even if it's just from pocket dictionaries and phrase books. You'll need it to communicate with the
locals and to read the newly published guide book (which would have saved me from getting lost on a daily basis if it had been available at the time): www.chamina.com.
French trains and busses will take you and your bike practically anywhere (check the SNCF train timetable for trains which take bikes).
"Wild camping" is technically illegal in most of France, although bivouac, which is putting up your tent overnight only and moving on the next day, is permitted in a number of places such as certain parcs regionaux and alpine areas. There are paying camping grounds scattered in various places along the trail, as well as well-catered hostel-style walkers' huts (gites d'etape), hotels and bed-and-breakfasts (chambres d'hotes).
Don't expect to find many bike repair shops. Bring spares and repair gear.
Try the local goat cheese, picodon. And the salads!