Gorging Ourselves on Scenery

Trip Start Sep 07, 2008
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Trip End Oct 10, 2008


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Flag of France  , Rhône-Alpes,
Thursday, September 18, 2008

Sad to be leaving our little B&B in Provence that had been our home away from home for the past 3 days, we said goodbye to our hosts (Caroline & Jean-Luc) and their gorgeous puppies (Alta & Vega) and set off for a big day of driving. Today we had planned to drive through the Gorges of Verdon on our way up to the Alps and Chamonix. Jean-Luc's local knowledge and great directions helped us find the best roads as this is not an area that is well covered in the travel guidebooks.
 
After only an hour or so on the road we rounded a bend to discover the most beautiful blue lake, Lac de St Croix. It is obvious the French love their outdoor pursuits as the edge of the lake was dotted with places to rent canoes and paddleboats. At the end of the lake, huge cliffs of sheer rock rose up on either side of the river to form the western end of the Gorges of Verdon. We thought this was magnificent and started clicking away on our cameras, but little did we know what awaited us further up the road. The road immediately started to climb once we left the highway and became a series of hairpin bends, looking down over sheer cliffs. The French don't seem to bother with all the usual safety advice and guardrails like you would find on a similar road at home, which is kind of refreshing in a way, but also a little unnerving.
 
The scenery just continued to get better and we found ourselves competing with campervans for the tiny spots on the side of the narrow road to park the car for photo stops. The highlight was definitely the drive along the Route de Cretes loop (or D23), which, thanks to Jean-Luc's advice, we knew to drive in the clockwise direction as there is a whole section that is one way that you can't access if you come from the other direction. The gorges are just breathtaking as they are sheer rockfaces that drop straight down to the tiny river below. In some places the cliffs are 700m high and you can hardly even see the river. Some of you may remember seeing this incredible scenery on Top Gear, in the episode where Jeremy Clarkson raced a pair of extreme rock climbers to the top of the gorges in an Audi, while they scaled the cliffs. We certainly didn't feel like Jeremy Clarkson taking the drive so slowly in a Renault and stopping for photos every 5 minutes. We did however see quite a few crazy rock climbers and people abseiling off the sheer cliff faces. While I don't quite understand the desire to dangle from a piece of rope 700m above the ground with certain death awaiting below if the rope fails, there were certainly no shortage of willing participants parking their cars at the lookout spots and heading over the cliffs. We did, rather morbidly wonder to ourselves how many cars the authorities find up here each year with no sign of their owners.
 
As we drove past the town of La Pulud-sur-Verdon, we entered the one way section of the drive, which was the most spectacular. There were sheer cliff faces at the edge of the road, no guardrails and little tunnels gauged through the rock at intervals. We stopped in a cutting that was filled with mountain goats and as I tried to return to the car, was unable to get in my door as a mountain goat had taken up residence there in the shade. He wasn't budging but eventually we managed to scare him away so we could continue our journey. The rest of the drive was equally magnificent, as we drove around bends under huge pieces of overhanging rock and followed the river out of the eastern end of the gorges.
 
The rest of the day was spent trying to get to Chamonix, as it seemed we could only take B roads to Grenoble which took forever. The mountains seemed to get higher and the scenery started to become distinctly more Alpine the closer we got to Grenoble. It was an exhausting drive for poor Matt, made worse by slow campervans, but we eventually pulled into Chamonix just before dark to see the white peak of Mont Blanc towering over us.
 
Chamonix is a gorgeous little alpine village which sits at 1037m altitude and is surrounded on all sides by enormous snow capped peaks. The highest of these is Mont Blanc at 4807m, which is the highest in Europe. The town itself has a real buzz about it and this was the off season, so I can only imagine what a happening little place it must be in the ski season. I started to get the insatiable urge to strap on a pair of skis and throw myself off a mountain, as it has been 4 years now since I last skied. It wasn't to be as it is too early for the first snow of the season by about a month. We spent the evening wandering the streets and enjoying being really cold for the first time since we arrived in Europe. The temperature dropped quite quickly as the sun disappeared, down to a chilly 5 degrees. We decided that it was OK to have pizza for dinner, as although we don't actually get to Italy on this trip, it was just on the other side of the mountains so that did count as local cuisine.
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