La Route Napoleon

Thanks to my employer, I spent a short week in Grenoble, France, meeting people from synchrotrons all over the world and taking in as much technical information as possible. It was an intense week of knowledge, networking and a small bit of exploring that I very much appreciated. Thanks to the US Department of Energy’s travel rules, when the synchrotron school was done, I had four personal days to spend as I chose in the rest of France.

Grenoble itself is a beautiful city, expanding through a valley of mountains with an old part and very new area.

I managed to get out for a run one rainy night, then a good explore our second last evening.

My colleagues and I took the tram into town then walked towards La Bastille, a castle that overlooks the town complete with a cable car.

Wandering along the cobble-stoned streets by the river, we admired the architecture and marveled at the single-lane roads right down by the river that were being taken at speed even at rush hour.

At the open gated entrance to La Bastille, we found a sign that read it would close in fifteen minutes but some locals advised us this was not true, it was open all the time, the fading light would be our only time limit.

Right from the base of the mountain, that castle was a maze of stairs and archways leading forever upwards. It was a popular place for runners with signs up advertising a foot-race coming soon.

It was a beautiful climb with oversized steps in many places making us work hard for the stunning views.

We ended up near to peak right as the sun was setting so we saw the city light up. It was a nice evening, without the raging winds and rain we’d gotten used to and so we took our time at the top exploring every outpost.

Way too dark to venture down on foot, we paid 5 Euro each to take the cable car down. The sphere was snug with just three of us, I can’t imagine it during peak times! It was a short ride down into old town where we quickly found a tram to get back to the European Synchrotron in time for our free dinner.

After saying my goodbyes on Friday, it was time to go exploring. In typical me fashion, I didn’t have much of a plan other than to head down to Monaco via a scenic route and go from there. As I was walking out of the Synchrotron Facility, I was advised by a fellow student who grew up nearby to take La Route Napolean down to the coast. Ok!

Unfortunately, I had a lengthy Friday afternoon of traveling to pick up my rental car since Grenoble doesn’t offer any options. I took a train to Lyon, a mistake because I was supposed to take one to Lyon airport, but no worries, once in Lyon, a large bustling city, I stepped off the train and onto an express airport tram. Half an hour later I was at a very familiar airport. A bunch of walking and a bus later, I was at the Thrifty desk. Fifteen minutes after that, there was a bunch of complications because I was half an hour earlier than my set pick up time. I’d never heard of this being an issue before. Anyway, it took half an hour to get that sorted out, then I was handed the keys to my black Renault Kadjar.

Now pretty much dark, I needed camp. I’d downloaded a map while on the train so I used that to find a spot near Grenoble (yes I was going back the way I came). I climbed a very windy road, keeping an eye out for options, but it was slim pickings. At the eventual place, it didn’t seem at all like a camp or RV spot so I ventured back down a ways to a pull-out on the side of the road. This would do. I ate dinner admiring the view of Grenoble below, able to follow the blue lights of emergency vehicles as they wound their way through the maze.

It was already pretty late so I was ready for bed, I set up my air mat as best I could in the compact SUV and made myself comfortable. Not long after, a car pulled in which put me on edge, but they soon left. “Nobody cares what you’re doing” I told myself. Ten minutes later, a motorbike pulled in then took off and soon after, a big black SUV pulled up right next to me with his lights shining at the side of my car. Now I was really uncomfortable. I could see some movement in the car and his engine was still running, what were they doing? I was taken back to my very first night in the Astro van when a similar thing happened and I messaged my friend in a panic. Nothing happened then and it wouldn’t now… That didn’t last long. Once he turned his engine off, I was scared. I quietly moved into the front seat and tried to start the car calmly. Of course the fob thing wasn’t close enough to the start button, and the clutch had to be in, oh and I had to unlock the doors. Shit. After all that I drove away, perfectly fine but completely unnerved. To cut a long story short, I searched for the next hour, heading further south until I found a tiny area by the side of a straight highway that actually had an RV sign on it. Yay! Home safe, I listened to a podcast to calm me down and then I was asleep.

An eventless night, I woke up at 8am so got some decent hours in and I was comfortable enough in the Kadjar. I explored my camp a little, discovering the edge of a huge lake that was covered in a slow-rising steam. With miles to cover, I hit the road, stocking up at a supermarket on the way.

I would wind up and over mountains all day, my first stop to eat some breakfast at a waterfall by an abandoned stone hut.

I would drive through fields of farmland, then a tiny village every now and then with its narrow roads bordered by old buildings.

At around lunch time I found the most perfect camp where I definitely would have stopped if it was the right time of day, I just crossed my fingers I would be so lucky later.

Coming up and over Col de la Cayolle, I saw the trees turn from green to orange, orange to bright yellow as the vegetation dispersed with the altitude. There were almost more cyclists than cars making me feel very aware that I am in Europe.

I stopped in for a late lunch at a town in a valley before going over the next pass, herding sheep off the road as I went.

I left the farmland behind now for unmistakeable ski towns. The quaint houses were replaced with lodges and hotels and I could see the green ski runs just waiting to be packed with skiers and snowboarders.

Nearing 5pm and not wanting to repeat the issues I’d had the night before, I started looking for camp. I’d given up on the map I’d downloaded but was grateful to have cell service to use satellite view on Google Maps. I wandered down a dirt road to a river and found an ok spot where I could park and so I explored up and down the river a bit.

I found a square tunnel that ran underneath the road with a bare trickle of water covering its floor. Deeply dark inside, I was brave enough to walk through, managing not to get my feet too wet. At the other end I discovered a big boulder and a dam that had been formed by natural debris.

Coming back out the tunnel and continuing up river, I followed a sort-of trail right by the raging grey water until I was startled by a dog’s bark. I looked up and saw the perpetrator, a black and white fluffy dog with two pups at its side, once of which began barking in a high pitch squeal incessantly. We looked at each other, not sure of what to expect, but my first thought was that I didn’t particularly want to meet their owner. But I decided they must have been wild by the damp look of them. Not wanting to find out if Mum was going to be aggressive, I started back the other way and when I saw them following, broke into a run. She didn’t look like the biter-type but I was flying solo and didn’t want to take any chances. I made it back to the car and hopped in. Sure enough, the family lumbered around the corner and trotted off across the river. I could hear the pup barking as they ventured off down the dirt road.

I was spooked, I thought I’d give up on that option. Carrying on, I still had plenty of light but the villages were becoming closer together now and so camp-options seemed to be lessening. I remained positive and pulled into anything that looked promising. My only requirements were that it be out of sight of the road and flat. Around 6pm I was rewarded. Just out of sight of the road was an abandoned stone house (not quite a castle) with no evidence of recent life. It was a beautiful spot! I figured if anyone else was going to be up here they would have had to drive and I was the only Kadjar around… I looked around a little, finding a campfire ring I wouldn’t be using and the sounds of a river that I couldn’t see. Yes, this would do just fine.

Surprised that I slept so late, I didn’t get out of camp until 9:30am and I was confused why my phone told me 8:30am, there couldn’t be a time difference within France? No, daylight savings had just ended. I was excited to get to Monaco, the focal point of this road trip. I was surprised it was only an hour and a half drive away. When it was only twenty minutes away, I was surprised the wealth hadn’t started showing yet.

I stopped for breakfast as soon as I could after seeing the big blue ocean, the coastline formed by white yachts. It was a jagged and fast descent down into the Kingdom of Monaco and after going through a circular tunnel, all of a sudden, I was in it.

What’s more, after navigating through the tight streets (impossible without Google Maps), I found myself on the start/finish straight! Instant smile and yelps, but I contained myself in the Kadjar, very aware of the narrow lanes and traffic around me. This was insane! I was actually here!

I turned right through turn one and started up the hill. I’m sure everybody says this, but it is sooooo much steeper than it seems on screen! The casino where I was going to park was straight ahead, but I ignored the directions and followed the circuit. At least I thought that was what I was doing, turns out straight ahead to the casino was the circuit and I’d messed it up! Anyway, I drove back around, smiled politely at the well-dressed guards standing at the drive into the casino and carefully avoided the huge mull of tourists gathered at the front of the grandiose building.

Parked safely underground, I grabbed my backpack and wound my way up and out. Not wanting to be like the others with their phones in front of the casino, I went off in search of a piece of the F1 circuit that I recognised. I took some stairs to a view over the water, then a public elevator going down to get me to sea level. To my surprise, the elevator opened up right in the tunnel! Ecstatic, I walked along the banking right turn, doing my best to imagine just how ridiculous an F1 car would sound roaring through here. I had to do my best based on the buzzing sound of scooters driving through.

At the exit of the tunnel (blinded by sudden light just as the drivers are), I looked for the swimming pool chicane but couldn’t quite make out where it would be for all the construction going on. Monaco, like most of France, feels very narrow. With construction it almost reaches claustrophobic levels. I took some temporary stairs down to the marina where the circuit takes the last of its turns. Here floated the boats of the rich and famous, all tied up with rope.

It was here that Kimi Raikonnen crashed and went straight from his wrecked car to his party boat. Just up ahead was where Michael Schumacher “lost it” into the penultimate corner after setting the fastest lap in qualifying – something he was later penalised for. I was actually here!

Around the last few corners and I was back on the main straight. The pit lane was full to the brim with carnival rides and games – I wonder if that space is ever open? I suppose when you don’t have anything like a fair grounds, you make do. I was stoked to see the grid boxes still visible on the tarmac, as well as the start/finish line.

Now I was in familiar territory as I walked the piece of circuit I’d driven and now I really felt the incline of the hill after turn 1. It was great to see the pit lane exit and just how narrow it really is as it snakes around the hill, cutting through Turn 1. Being a little later in the day, there were more tourists out now and so I shared the sidewalk as best I could. I tried to capture the steepness of the hill with a few photos but I don’t think I succeeded. Straight on to the casino where the gaggle of tourists still remained, ever more so now because there was a bright orange Lamborghini being valet parked.

I walked on through, wondering just what people did in Monaco and it seemed they sat at cafes sipping coffee or wine, watching the world go by and when they weren’t doing that they were shopping. Even their “walking man” paintings on the ground seemed very Monacan.

Now was the part of the circuit I was really excited about, the run down the hill and through the hairpin. Amazingly, the bump on the left side of the straight that all cars avoid seemed like barely anything! Coming down the right hander into the hairpin, I couldn’t resist but walk along the red and white kerbing that remained throughout the year. At the hairpin, a few people stopped to take photos – I knew there were F1 fans around me. Again, the incline blew me away and it was hard to capture.

I sat here a while, just watching cars go round trying again to imagine just how they make a race happen each year in this crowded place. A few more corners (still with red and white kerbs) and I was back down into the tunnel. It probably took me about an hour, but it felt like only ten minutes – maybe I was experiencing the speed of the circuit!

That was all I’d really wanted to do in Monaco and so I sat myself at a cafe to figure out my next move. Nice was the next town west along the coast so I figured I’d head there.

On my way out (after paying only 4.50 euro for parking), I did another lap of the circuit, feeling bad for the Ferrari behind me, but you know, it is impossible to overtake in Monaco!

After attempting to stop at a Fort on top of a hill that was overrun with tourists, I stopped in at the next one – Nice’s old Fort. It was a modest affair with the interior all closed up but the views down into the bay were pretty impressive. I was thankful for the blue sky that made the water so blue.

The view down into Nice made me change my plans of driving along the coast, it was a massive place and I didn’t much care for exploring it. I figured instead I would go along as far as Antibes where my cousin had lived, then head inland back to the mountains. I’d read it was near impossible to find camps along the coast anyway.

I stopped in at a supermarket to stock up and then concentrated very hard as I drove through some very built up areas. It was difficult doing this solo, with no one to help me navigate or point out interesting things to see. By the time I was driving alongside a stone beach near Antibes, I was done. It was too much hustle and bustle for me – it wasn’t how I liked to experience a place.

I stopped for lunch on the beach and, not tempted to swim even though the sun was out. While enjoying what was left of the day’s warmth, I made my plan for the rest of the afternoon. Based on my cousin’s suggestion, I would aim for Vernon Gorge, a beautiful area for hiking in.

It was a nice drive up into the mountains where I was soon out of the big cities and back to small villages and farmland. The autumn colors started to show again and when I entered a regional park, I felt confident I’d be making a good camp – I was certainly due for one.

Using, I singled out a lookout where I would focus my camp-searching attempts. I’m so glad I did because when I approached it, I saw a restaurant closed for the season but nothing much else to suggest there was anything special nearby. I parked and walked over to the edge of the road and discovered I was standing right above a massive gorge that must have stretched 100m down at least. This was France’s version of Horseshoe Bend in Arizona, though completely different in its natural wonders. It was absolutely gorgeous and the water running at its base was a beautiful color turquoise.

I stuck around to explore a little when I heard an extremely loud bang followed by echoes of it traveling along the canyon. The first thing I thought of was a giant rock fall and I was just awed by it, amazed that it could be so close by. I found my camp just around the corner from the lookout – a place where I could sleep in the tent which would be a nice change from cramping into the car. Always hunting for more, I carried on a little ways looking for other options and came to a bridge crossing over the gorge. Another excuse to get out and have a look, I parked and walked over the bridge, gazing down at either side at another canyon leading into the bend further north. Based on the signs, I wasn’t even at the main attraction yet, so I was excited for tomorrow.

Now happy with the camp I’d already found, I found a short trail on and so decided to see if I could find yet another view of this awesome canyon with the light I had left. I found nothing of the sort, but I did see a sign that said something about military and mentioned the word “penal”. That explained the loud noise – I was close to a military base. As I walked beyond the sign along the marked trail, another giant boom rang out, followed by another, then another. The last one I could actually hear a whistle before the boom as something flew through the air. I took that as a good reason to turn straight around!

Back at camp, I set myself up and managed to find a tiny spot of service to get in touch with Dan and let him know my location. I heard more bangs before I went to sleep, each of them seeming louder than the one before it. I hoped I wasn’t camped too close!

I survived the night’s bombings and fly-overs to wake up to a cloudy day and a few moist spots in my tent from the dew. Still, could be raining! I was keen to get going to see what more Verdon Gorge had to offer so I packed up, had a bit of a wash and off I went. Bye camp!

At the bridge, a young man was in the pull-out waving me down. I was surprised to see another human being out here in the early morning, let alone one standing with nothing but a water bottle. I pulled in, wound down my window and he explained that he needed a ride back to his friend having just retrieved his water bottle which he’d forgotten near the bridge. I didn’t quite understand his story, but he seemed friendly enough. I soon learnt his name was Rafael, he was from Spain but living in France as an Oper and thankfully he spoke English! Him and his friend were backpacking along and through the gorge having hitch-hiked from Toulume to get there. Someone else had given him a ride from their camp to the bridge to retrieve his forgotten water bottle then I came along only a few minutes later to take him back.

At another closed restaurant atop the gorge, we found his friend Matok comfortable in a hammock clearly expecting Rafael to have taken longer than he did. They invited me to join them on their hike through the gorge and I happily accepted. First, I gave them some water to top up their supply and we had breakfast on top of the cliffs. Rafa explained the route to me and while I couldn’t hike through with them all the way, I could go halfway then turn back. It was nice to meet some people having been solo the last few days and for once I wouldn’t have to make decisions about where to go and what to do for the next few hours.

I packed a small bag, Rafa and Matok hoiked their overnight packs onto their backs and we were off. It was a steep descent into the canyon and when we passed our first few signs, I was happy to be with French-speaking company as they could interpret. Yes some parts of the trail were closed but we could go the way Rafa had planned.

As we clambered down rocky steps, I learned that Matok was a musician, playing and teaching the drums in Tuolume and Rafa told us (both first timers to the Gorge) about how the water level is controlled by an electric dam upstream so that there is enough water for them to increase the water level twice weekly for the joy of kayakers. Amazing!

We reached the water after only half an hour of quick descent. There, we de-layered but the sun still would not show. We crossed a beautiful bridge to get to the other side of the canyon and made our way along the waterway.

Though we saw evidence of camping, Rafa told us how it is highly illegal to camp anywhere by the riverside or even go to the water in certain spots because it was so well protected. The rock formations that towered above us were stunning. All of us being climbers, we could appreciate the many different rock types around us.

The autumn colors made the trail even more intriguing, it was amazing I managed to look at my feet there was so much else to be looking at.

There were a few people out on the trail but nothing like what it would be in Summer. Some had arranged a taxi so they could through hike but most were day-tripping just like me. Rafa and Matok were the only ones with larger packs.

At the lunch spot, right below the viewpoint I’d enjoyed last night, all the hikers seemed to get there around the same time. Rafa had warned of the possibility of swimming and he wasn’t kidding. Both he and Matok had changed into swimmers upon getting to the rocky beach. As other hikers sat enjoying their lunch in warm clothes, I stripped down to my undies and followed the two Europeans in. Wow. Cold! And the current was generous! We swam to the other side and sat a while, then hunger and cold sent us back to home base.

We were all quick to put warm and dry clothes on but I didn’t feel warmth again until we started back on the trail. We enjoyed our lunch and I managed to get a few waves from people standing at the the lookout I’d been at yesterday.

Back on trail, we went a bit further on until we came to a high point with some more fantastic view into the canyon. Thanks to the hour of the day and the dizzying set of stairs that sent the trail downwards, I would be going no further.

We hung out at the top, happy that the sun had come out, if only for an hour and I enjoyed the view as my friends spoke in French.

Time for me to head back, I said my goodbyes and thank-yous, feeling very fortunate to essentially have had a guide and some interesting people to talk with. They’d pulled out a harmonica, we’d sung national anthems and swapped our stories. It was a great day to spend a day in a beautiful place. Matok also gave me a climbing magazine to keep me entertained on my flight home. It was in French but he said I would appreciate the pictures. Au’revoir! Chow!

It took me only a couple of hours to make it back to the car. Like any out-and-back hike, I tended to keep my head down for the return and I motored up the hill trying to maximize my exercise having been doing a lot of sitting around lately.

Back at the car, it was nice to feel tired from a big day’s work. I chugged some water and didn’t hang around long – I wanted to get back into cell service to find out just how far I was from Lyon airport.

It didn’t take long, only ten minutes down the road I pulled over and found I was five hours out. Perfect. That meant I could make camp immediately. Rafa had suggested I find somewhere near the lake that I would pass and so I drove on through the mountains.

I didn’t get very far before yet another person flagged me down. This time it was an older lady, maybe in her fifties armed with some hiking poles. She had two friends and wondered if I could take them into the next town of Aiguines? Sure! I did some rearranging in the car to get the back seats up and they piled in. Not a lot of English spoken among them but we managed. They’d hiked from Aiguines through the mountains and they learnt where I was from. They got to witness my wonder at seeing a vast lake below Aiguines and the paragliders sailing above it. Ce’magnifique!

It was only a short drive and I was soon letting them out in the terracotta village. I drove through the narrow town and to a lookout, seeing if I could spot the paragliders again. Without luck, I decided to drive back up the mountain to stop at some of the lookouts I’d passed with my passengers on board.

I found a beautiful spot at an old church which still holds a yearly service and the paragliders were still floating. The lake was almost as blue as Lake Tahoe and the village of Aiguines looked absolutely stunning in the forefront of the view.

Weary from the day’s hike, I was ready for camp. I drove down to the water and found a road off the main one that strangely enough, had a height barrier over it – probably to stop RVs coming in which is completely unfair. Lucky for me I’d left Ramsie at home! I found a beautiful public area with plenty of flat spots and a vanner (a VW so it was short enough to fit through) with his washing line out. What a camp!

Not interested in setting up just yet, I took a very leisurely stroll along the rocky shore and got to watch two of the paragliders come in to land on a big flat area obviously perfect for them. It was also right next to a medical hut?! There were a few families out with their dogs enjoying the lake, some fisherman and I could see a kayak rental place across the water. On top of all that, the mountains were the backdrop.

I sat leaning against a tree writing this and reading until the light faded and I crawled into my tent for an early night.

The next day, I said goodbye to France. It was a long-ish drive back to Lyon airport where I was flying out but I still managed to take some scenic roads. It was the right time to end my trip since I could feel a cold coming on. After I returned my rental car, successfully showing pictures I’d taken to get out of paying for damage to one of the wheels, I took the airport shuttle to the nearby hotel, checked in and enjoyed the luxury. I tried out the sauna thinking I could sweat out the cold but that just made me feel ill. After some good rest in a comfortable bed where I could starfish, I was in a good enough state to face the plane.

I left feeling like I’d made the most of a work trip.

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