The Paths of the Sun
Riding through history in the French Alps
May 17, 2004
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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.
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.
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.
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