Cycling in mainland France’s largest natural reserve allowed Judy Armstrong to appreciate a land where time stands still
I am standing with my bicycle on a cliff edge. The view soars over a patchwork of green and gold, lilting with heat, scented with lavender. I stare, and marvel, because behind me is an Alpine wilderness. My face is in sunshine but hail spits against my back and clouds swirl, angry and grey. While the panorama in front whispers warmth and decadence, the terrain at my rear is spiked with sharp peaks and rough cliffs.
This is why I am here: this marriage of austere Alps and seductive lowlands. It is the junction of the Isère and Drome départements, the high plateau with a hint of Provence. The combination is compelling; it is a fortress with a soft side.
My location? The Parc Naturel Régional du Vercors, established in 1970 to protect and preserve a unique landscape. The largest natural reserve in mainland France, it forms a vaguely triangular chunk rimmed with cliffs and riven with gorges. With Grenoble as its northern portal and Die as the southern anchor, the park is contained mostly on the high, barren Vercors plateau. There are few villages of any size, and road access is restricted to a handful of passes and tunneled gorges.
Because the terrain is predominantly limestone, there is little surface water in the form of streams, rivers or lakes. As a result, it is barely shaped by agriculture – livings have been scratched out here for centuries, yet the impression remains of an untamed landscape. Perhaps the biggest impact on the Vercors came in World War II, when it was bombed, invaded and ravaged as the Nazis searched for Resistance fighters. As the population was decimated, so too were the buildings and villages.
All these factors lend this isolated highland a feeling of timelessness. The people are staunchly proud of their space, welcoming visitors who are, in turn, encouraged to use their imaginations. Minimal infrastructure maximises thinking: spoon-feeding the tourists is for other places in France.
That said, there is plenty to do here. High on the list are activities such as skiing, snowshoeing and husky sledding in winter and hiking or biking in summer. While it is simple to organise a day’s discovery on foot, horseback or bicycle, it is more inspiring to string days together, travelling slowly across the plateau and absorbing the sense of place.
Because this is France, someone has already thought of that. The GTVs – Les Grandes Traversées du Vercors – were created to give walkers, cyclists and riders access around and across the plateau. Different routes for different modes of travel ensure safety for the travellers and protection for the landscape, with options to blend, shorten or lengthen the stages. The walking paths hug the plateau edges, while cyclists are routed more centrally.
Since 2007, more than 300 kilometres of tracks have been waymarked, making this a jewel in the crown of France’s open spaces. The GTV organisation publishes guidebooks with route cards and lists of accommodation and transport providers, so it is possible to explore independently or with a guide.
With limited time, my husband Duncan and I opted to cycle. Rather than circumnavigate the highlands, we chose to ride mountain bikes from north to south, down the escarpment to Die. By following a linear route, we hoped to experience the full thrust of the Vercors: the rough tracks with the smooth trails. Soon, with our map and route notes from the ‘GTV by horse and bike’ guide, we were ready to roll.
Our starting point is Villard-de-Lans, the largest town in the Vercors. We reach it from Grenoble, driving slowly up the corkscrew roads, through a tight-walled gorge on to the plateau. Villard, spread across a mountainside, is a low-key ski centre in winter, but in summer it features flowers and fountains.
Nearby we find La Ferme du Bois Barbu, a family-run auberge in a small hamlet. Stella and Thierry Soyer welcome us warmly and offer maps, binoculars and a garage for the bikes. This eagerness to share is typical of the businesses which have banded together under the auspices of the GTV to make multi-day traverses a reality.
The morning dawns cool, with a cautious blue sky and a cloud inversion simpering through the Gorges de la Bourne. We cycle slowly away from the houses, past chomping cows and on to a dirt track through woodland. It feels magical, with sun rays slanting through the morning mist and illuminating the greens of foliage, moss and lichen.
Large chunks of limestone, in slabs and steps, make for fun riding and we roller-coaster along and down a ridge, to Corrençon-en-Vercors. The schoolyard hums with energy, a farmer in blue overalls sucks his teeth by a silent tractor and a woman with a Yorkshire terrier waits patiently on the church steps.
From Corrençon we begin to climb, gaining height through woodland to the lofty Bélvèdere de Château Julien. All around are bare-chested cliffs; overhead, buzzards wheel. There are several route options but we follow the GTV waymarks of green and gold on forest tracks and trails.
The belvedere is on the edge of a grass meadow. It points us to a wide track zigzagging down to a pretty footpath flitting between trees, and the famed plateau of Herbouilly. I say famed because everyone we meet on the Vercors says, “Ah! Herbouilly! It is so beautiful!” It is a surprising space, a tranquil meadow of waist-deep, golden grass, fringed with forest and flanked by pale cliffs. A track meanders across it; the only signs of human interference are a tumbled-down stone building and a single picnic table.
Lulled by a sense of solitude, we navigate silently along lanes and tracks to the cliffs above Tourtre. Rock climbers kitted out with ropes and hardware stride along our trail; we check the map and decide that warnings to treat this section with caution are best heeded. Whizzing down the road instead, we swoop around the rock amphitheatre and soon tumble into Tourtre. Above, the cliffs are sheer; it’s hard to believe we have found a way down them.
A narrow road squeezes between red-roofed houses; doors are open and we can smell food cooking. But we aren’t invited in, so continue downhill – and stop, to stare at farmland. This is one of the few places in the Vercors with neat green fields, white cattle and wide-hipped barns. There is a stream, too, which has chewed a runnel out of sandy soil; it is a rare sight and we follow it up a shallow gorge, until it shrinks and disappears.
Our day ends in La Chapelle-en-Vercors, dominated by an imposing church, in the heart of the plateau. With origins in the 12th century, Notre Dame has been burned, bombed and rebuilt, yet its spectacular 13th-century bell tower appears unscathed. Around it cluster pale stone buildings with brightly painted shutters; it is a real contrast to the neutral shades of nature.
In a bar, we meet the local taxi driver. He moved here from Brittany and loves it. “The people and the place are extraordinary,” he says. “We have tourism, but it is mostly about nature. There is nothing vulgar in the Vercors.” The sentiment certainly applies to Vue d’Ici, our home for the night. Originally a cowshed and now a wood-clad écogîte, it was a five-year building project for its owners Vincent Prud’homme and Patricia Olive. It is a family home, gîte, chambre d’hôte, art gallery and relaxation space – a yoga class was in session when we arrived. We share an evening meal with the family and three German guests; it is as convivial and interesting as always when strangers meet on common ground.
Following their passions
Vincent is a mountain guide and spends much of his year on the high plateau. He was a sculptor before he met Patricia, a dancer and teacher. “We came here for the nature; it is peaceful and beautiful but we never feel isolated,” she says, serving a breakfast fit for cyclists. “We are only one hour from Grenoble or Valence, where we can take the TGV to Paris in two hours. And we are just three hours from the sea, at Montpellier. We are happy here; we just follow our passions and see what happens next.”
The morning is grey, misty and atmospheric. It is exciting to spin through La Chapelle, drop on to little lanes and whizz through the woods, wondering what’s around the next corner. We stop to investigate a small cave in a limestone cliff and find what looks the jaw of a sabre-tooth tiger, although it might have been a mossy branch. There are more than 3,000 caves in the limestone of the Vercors; the most beautiful is the Grotte de Choranche, woven with stalactites and stalagmites. The most poignant is the Grotte de la Luire, used as a secret hospital for Resistance fighters in World War II until being discovered by the Nazis.
Our route today traverses the Serre la Poule, en route to Vassieux-en-Vercors. Woodland gives way to farmland, then a wild plateau studded with rocky outcrops. There is no sign of life, except for a lost hunting dog; he dashes toward us, stares mournfully into my eyes and pushes a sad nose into my hand.
We arrive in Vassieux at lunchtime and dive into the Tetras Lyre, the village hotel and social hub. Almost totally destroyed in the war, Vassieux sits on a bump near the head of a valley. It is a focus for students of pre-history, with a museum deep in the woods; and as a reminder of the Resistance. The Mémorial de la Résistance is a large, modern structure above the village, but tired cyclists can save their energy. For in the centre of the village, next to a sturdy cream church, is the skeleton of a glider used to silently drop German soldiers on to the plateau, and next to that is the Musée Résistance Vercors.
Inside the wooden building, history unfolds with timelines showing tragedy, stoicism and bravery. Collections include combat kit, letters and medals, a battered helmet and dusty, studded boots, tattered flags and a packet of Lucky Strike cigarettes. Photographs show young men in shepherd’s garb huddled around campfires in the woods, then destruction, despair and death. But there are also mementos of smiling families, children playing, farming life before and after the nightmare.
It is a sombre, but necessary, way to pass an afternoon here. It is impossible to understand the Vercors without delving into its recent past; no one ever said tourism should be entirely comfortable.
We hold that thought next day, as we prepare for our last few kilometres in the saddle. Tendrils of cloud chase us south along farm tracks, into the forest and past the Musée de la Préhistoire. We climb past a hexagonal wooden cabin in a meadow and fungi the size of Frisbees, all the way to the plateau lip. For a moment I stand with my bicycle on the cliff edge, staring at the panorama which stretches south toward Provence and, eventually, the sea.
Turning our backs on forest and limestone which will soon be winter-deep in snow, we drop off the cliff and on to a narrow trail. Down! We spiral through corkscrews, spin across the cliff face and descend slippery tracks through dense woodland. The trail is an utter joy, swooping and rolling across and down the vast rock face. Then, 30 minutes from the cliff edge, we find our first bunch of lavender. Suddenly the air smells different, feels different; the vegetation changes and even the sky clears.
The switch in atmosphere is bizarre: we almost feel lighter. By the time we pop out of woodland on the Col de Marignac, it’s as if we are in another country. On a blend of farm trails, tight single track and quiet lanes, we slip through hamlets with terracotta roof tiles, and meadows with sun-dried grass. Pausing to admire the village of Marignac-en-Diois, we realise that the backdrop of great-grey cliffs now seems remote, like a picture. It’s hard to believe we were up there less than two hours earlier.
It’s all downhill now to Die. Easily resisting the option of another two hours’ ride around a high-sided valley, we slide along in the sunshine and reach the home of Clairette, the sparkling wine that has put this little town on the oenophiles’ map.
An AOC since 1942, Clairette de Die has been produced for more than 2,000 years. More recent legend says a shepherd left a bottle of local wine in a spring, only to find it had become pétillant in his absence. No doubt, when he reached in to scoop out his treasure, he enjoyed the same view as we do, as we park our bikes and settle into a bar in town. The view? An imposing band of cliffs, streaked grey and orange, looming over a patchwork of green and gold, lilting with heat, scented with lavender.