Andy Mossack travels to the Vercors Massif in the Isère department of the French Alps to find a perfect summer getaway.
Perhaps it is the mountain air, or quite possibly because this is my first overseas trip since lockdown, either way, there is no doubting this is a very special corner of France.
Just a 90-minute drive from Lyon and 40 minutes from Grenoble, the Vercors may be unknown to the many, but those in the know have been enjoying her hospitality and jaw-dropping alpine scenery for years. Set at the meeting point of the northern and southern Alps, this is a place of outstanding natural beauty – the Réserve Naturelle des Hauts Plateaux du Vercors happens to be part of the largest nature reserve in the whole of France.
The villages here celebrate and enjoy traditional locally sourced food, not for the benefit of tourists, but because they’ve always been doing it. And who can ever forget one of the most spectacular drives in the world; the Gorges de la Bourne road, literally carved out of the side of an immense gorge and took eleven years to construct.
Summer in the Vercors is very special. Let’s take a closer look and see why.
The High Plateau (Hauts Plateaux)
Unlike most alpine regions, the Vercors has a relatively flat summit of some 500 square miles embraced by the Chartreuse mountains to the north and the Dauphiné Alps to the east. It’s a white limestone massif, with wide sweeping fertile valleys, soaring gorges and huge cave systems, some of the deepest and biggest in France. Mother Nature was clearly in a very good mood when she created the Vercors, throwing all the essential ingredients for natural drama into one sensational place.
Perhaps the best way to appreciate the colossal scale is to take a hike through the Réserve Naturelle des Hauts Plateaux du Vercors. 17,000 hectares of wild untamed land embraced by a necklace of distant mountains. Roads and permanent dwellings are forbidden here, giving Nature a free hand to do her thing.
There are plenty of trails with excellent signposting but there is nothing better than having a qualified mountain guide leading you to the best views and giving insider tips on the flora and fauna. At Corrençon en Vercors, the gateway to the Réserve Naturelle, Gaël Ferrari takes me on a 4-hour round trip culminating in a steep but walkable ascent to a look-out point that almost defies gravity. Along the way we pass wild raspberries and blueberries, stop for herbal tea in an ancient refuge hut, stand on the 45th parallel line and pause respectfully at a memorial to the WW2 French Resistance who were so active here against the Nazi occupation. Sadly, not one Marmot, Chamois, Ibex or Golden Eagle is spotted, but there’s always next time.
Back at Corrençon en Vercors, Gaël bids me farewell at the steps of the Les Hauts Plateaux restaurant, whose glorious terrace overlooks Golf de Corrençon en Vercors one of the finest Alpine golf courses I’ve ever experienced. I devour a guilt-free lunch ordering the epic Salade Royale (€16) (lettuce, boiled egg, smoked chicken, potato, tomato, mushrooms, walnuts, parmesan all in a delicious dressing) before diving into a home-made tarte aux myrtille (blueberry tart) €8. Foraged straight from the doorstep no doubt.
Up here on the plateau, there’s not just the nature reserve and golf to enjoy. This is also the domain of the biathlon; the sport that combines cross-country skiing with rifle shooting. Olympic world champions come to train here during winter, but during summer they swap their cross-country skis for roller skis, (similar to rollerblades but with little wheels front and back) and hurtle around a track that weaves its way around the forest and golf course. It’s an adrenaline-fuelled ride for the experts. Sadly, my initiation lesson proves to be much less exciting, rolling around the car park in ever-decreasing circles.
The rifle shooting, however, is an entirely different matter.
Using a scoped high-powered air rifle, I attempt to hit a line of five targets 50 metres away. After a few false starts, it seems I’m a natural, getting maximum points from lying and standing positions. “Can I have my Olympic medal now?” I ask my instructor. He gives a Gallic shrug and mutters as he stomps off.
I spend the night here at one with nature at the Zecamp opposite, a rustic hotel built by three former international biathlon athletes. Relaxation and healthy eating are mandatory here and given such a spectacular location it’s a pleasure to do just that.
E-Biking along the Via Vercors
Perhaps the best way to appreciate the stunning scenery is to ride right through it courtesy of a state-of-the-art electric mountain bike. Olivier is my guide, a man who knows the Vercors’ plateau villages like the back of his hand. It’s a thrilling few hours riding off-road from Villard de Lans, down steep valley pathways, across alpine pastures, through tiny hamlets and away from traffic with just the cows for company. When it comes to uphill climbs, I have battery power to help me, but I still have to pedal. It just makes the physical side of biking much less arduous for novices. The Via Vercors is a reasonably gentle mountain route of over 50 km linking the plateau villages of St Nizier du Moucherotte, Lans en Vercors, Villard de Lans, Corrençon en Vercors, Autrans and Méaudre.
Arriving back safe and sound at Villard de Lans, the main resort town in the area, I spend an hour relaxing with a well-earned drink in the market square, ringed by shops and lively bars with customers sitting outside enjoying some late summer sunshine.
Back at Corrençon en Vercors I’m set for a real treat. I’m having dinner at the Auberge du Clariant, the only restaurant allowed within the nature reserve. This permission comes with strict strings attached, namely no connected energy services whatsoever, so all their water, power and light must be delivered in-house. I walk the 2K from the village up to the restaurant and find it on the fringes of the reserve and lit up by braziers, candles and torches. It’s a magical sight made even better when a glass of hot mulled wine appears in my hand.
There is something very special about sitting by a crackling fire eating locally made raclette to the sound of cowbells ringing from a nearby meadow. Perhaps those ladies are reminding me where the milk for the delicious cheese I’ve just wolfed down may have come from.
I navigate my way back to the Zecamp through the ink-black night by holding a flaming torch and a host of extraordinary memories.
Pont-en-Royans and the Gorges de la Bourne
Pont-en-Royans lies at the other end of the Isere valley to Corrençon-en-Vercors and is reached by driving through 24 kilometres of the immense wonder of Nature that is the Gorges de la Bourne. Built in 1872 as a balcony road literally carved out of the limestone, its hairpin turns, tunnels and vertical drops are the front row to one of the most spectacular drives in the world. Formed by the Bourne river flowing hundreds of metres below, the gorge follows the river’s meandering path through this vast mountain range with the road hugging each twist and turn. The scenery is nothing short of epic as each bend unveils another jaw on the floor vista.
This is hair-raising stuff, with the road narrowing in some places to allow only one vehicle to pass. But it’s all worth the effort because at the end of it lies another treat. The unique village of Pont-en-Royans. It is an extraordinary sight to find rows of multi-storied 16th -century houses perilously hanging over a precipice as the Bourne flows far below. Invited inside one of these famous ‘hanging houses’ I edge myself along a very narrow outdoor balcony to an original box toilet. I say toilet but it’s essentially a seat with a large hole offering nothing but thin air and the river beneath. A perfect cure for constipation I would suggest.
The village is also famous for the slightly eccentric but nevertheless fascinating Museum of Water ( Musée de l’Eau). A journey into every aspect of why this precious liquid is so important to our existence. And once you’ve learned all about it why not enjoy a water-tasting from some of the museum’s impressive collection of bottled waters. Over 1,700 varieties, collected from all over the world.
Now we’re delving deep into the Vercors Regional Park (Parc Naturel Régional du Vercors) and to get even deeper, a few minutes drive away lies the spectacular Caves of Choranche. Discovered in 1871, this subterranean karst system which stretches for over 15 kilometres, has 20-metre high caverns, underground rivers, lakes and thousands of extraordinary white stalactites.
Taking the 45-minute guided tour, I’m treated to an enchanting sound and light show in the main cavern and a glimpse at living prehistoric creatures. The proteus, are rare amphibian albino salamanders who dwell in dark cave systems and haven’t changed since the dawn of time. The creatures live here in specially adapted aquariums and are part of a Europe-wide project to protect the species.
On my way back to Pont-en-Royans I have to pay a visit to the Cabane Café, the private rustic retreat created by serial entrepreneur Gilles Falque. He has personally created what I can only describe as a sizeable hippy hangout set amongst the searing Vercors limestone peaks and forests. You can snack on fresh local organic picnic fare, explore hidden parts of the retreat, or just chill with nature for as long as you want in various hammocks, beds, huts, nooks, and crannies. It’s a slice of the alternative for sure, but well worth a stop-off.
Now you can appreciate why the Vercors is such a special corner of France and for me, Isère’s jewel in the crown. Don’t let her wait too long to welcome you with open arms.
Image credits: Caves: 3DPIX, Cabane Cafe: Dominik Fusina, Gorges de la Bourne:SM Booth. All other images (c) Andy Mossack.
Tell me more about The Vercors in Summer
Direct flights with easyJet from London Gatwick Airport to Lyon from £23 pp one-way* (*Economy Light fare only includes hand luggage)
Getting to Gatwick: Fast, frequent train services are provided to Gatwick Airport by Southern from London Victoria, and by Thameslink from London St Pancras, through central London via Blackfriars and London Bridge. Single fares start at £12 (Advance on Southern, Anytime on Thameslink); Thameslink off-peak return £22.30. On Thameslink journeys starting north of the Oyster area with an off-peak or super-off-peak adult ticket booked online, up to four children aged 5-15 can travel with the adult for £2 each.
Car hire from Lyon Airport (and returning to Lyon Airport) costs from £40 per day with Gotcarhire
Where to Stay
Room-only accommodation at Le Vernay Hotel from €90/ £77 per night, per room for two people sharing, £38.50pp. Or call +33 476 95 31 24 for more information.
Room-only accommodation at Auberge de la Croix from €79/ £67 per night, per room for two people sharing, £33.50pp. Or call +33 476 95 40 02 for more information.
Room-only accommodation at Ze Camp from €88/ £75 per night, per room for two people sharing, £37.50pp. Or call +33 647 57 74 48 for more information.
Room-only accommodation at Musée de l’eau Hotel from €70/ £60 per night, per room for two people sharing, £30pp. Or call +33 476 36 17 90 for more information.
Tree Climbing Adventure, Autrans €20/ £19 pp
Nature Hike in Réserve Naturelle des Hauts Plateaux with Gaël Ferrari. Call +33 06 76 13 80 49 for more information.
Biathlon Ski-Roue initiation €14.50/ £12.39pp for a half-day track pass with equipment hire (includes boots, poles and roller skis)
Where to Eat
COVID Testing for Travel
For rapid response pre and post-flight tests, Eurofins offers fast and efficient PCR and lateral flow travel testing services for fully vaccinated and non fully vaccinated travellers. I used the service for my trip to Vecors and the whole process was handled without a hitch. It offers UKAS accredited COVID-19 PCR testing available to all through easy to use home testing kits as well as through sampling sites and drive-through facilities. Eurofins can help if you need a COVID-19 test to reduce the mandatory self-isolation period or you’re looking to prove you’re fit for essential travel.
Eurofins’ PCR tests start from £20.