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An Amateur Cyclist on the Combe Laval, Vercors



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That's the first corner, looking backwards. That’s the first corner, looking backwards.

The Combe Laval (described here) is one of France’s incredible balcony roads, routes which it must have taken some serious bravado and one too many ales down le pub to even conceive of back in the 19th century. This particular example’s located on the western edge of the Vercors Massif, just to the south-west of Grenoble in south-east France (a map might have been better at this point…). Being down here in our 3.5 tonne, 3m high, 2.2, wide motorhome, I’d already discounted the idea of driving across the Combe Laval as, although we’re within the limits set for the road, I’d rather cling onto whatever sanity I have for just a wee while longer. It’s a bit tight up there!

The Combe Laval Balcony Road, Vercors, FranceThe Combe Laval Balcony Road, Vercors, France

The road hugs the heights of a cliff face alongside the top of a monumental gorge, the mouth of which gapes open above St-Jean-en-Royans, where we happily parked up for the night. While there, Ju nipped into tourist info, and came back laden with cycling routes. Route No 28 – Les Grands Cols de Vercours – included the Combe Laval, but was 62km long, estimated at 4 hours, and with 1571m of climbing (a bit less than a vertical mile…).

Route #28. I took the highlighted shortcut.Route #28. I took the highlighted shortcut.

The leaflet stated it was intended for a cyclotouriste habitué, which I am not, having used our £45 second-hand mountain bike all of twice. Fortunately Ju passed my ineptitude on to the tourist info lady, and she marked out a much shorted circular route of maybe 22 miles.

I ask you, do I look like a 'cyclotouriste habitué'? No, no I do not!I ask you, do I look like a ‘cyclotouriste habitué’? No, no I do not!

This morning I set off, loaded down with a few litres of water, map, tools, phone, figs to scoff and a long-sleeved top, in case it got chilly (it’s June, it did get a bit chilly on the way down, but not enough to bother with it). The Combe Laval, for me and for most folks I guess, is about the spectacular section right at the gorge mouth, the highest, stupidest, tunneliest, most death-defying bit. If you only want to see that bit, you’ve got about a 6 mile climb, which took me about 70 minutes (not much faster than running it?).

Coming from St-Jean-en-Royans, this is the first view of the cliff road you get. Jaw-dropping stuff.Coming from St-Jean-en-Royans, this is the first view of the cliff road you get. Jaw-dropping stuff.

I say ‘about’ as I completely forgot to look at my watch when the road finally emerged from the trees and the first tunnel framed the open sky off to my left. Jeeze. How, how, how, even with a skinful of beer and several blood-firing face-slaps, did anyone think they could build a road HERE? They did though, some intrepid, dauntless folks thought it up and people tougher than I can even imagine hacked it from the cliff face.

Just around the corner are the height and weight limits. There should be a small sign to say Just around the corner are the height and weight limits. There should be a small sign to say “sigh, look, if you’re anywhere near these limits, best write an impromptu will before continuing”…

During the night before I’d woken and imagined going off the cliff face, forced over the low wall by leaning back too far for a stupid selfie-shot, or being rammed into the abyss by an enraged white van man. I’ve not much fear of heights (unless it’s Ju near the edge…), but once up there I have to say I was careful! There was very little traffic to worry about, and plenty of space to lean the bike against the cliff and gawp around the 500m-or-so section of really intense road. Having ridden/walked up and back I got the nerve up to ride along and shoot a video, which I’ll upload here when we get some WiFi.

From here the road carried on upwards, through more small tunnels before popping out at an eaterie at the Col de la Machine. There’s a good viewpoint here looking out over the forest and cliffs in the gorge, a sticker-splatted sign for the gorge, and weirdly an old ‘many thefts here, don’t leave anything in your car’ sign, right in the middle of nowhere. After a few figs I plodded off up the road, wondering why it was still going upwards from the other side of a ‘col’, which is usually the highest point on a mountain pass.

Looking back from Col de la MachineLooking back from Col de la Machine

From here the road heads through Alpine forests and farmlands towards the village of Lente. At one point, a small monument stood out above the grass in a field, announcing the killing of resistance fighters in 1944. Just before D-Day, an uprising took place in the Vercors, with encouragement from London. Russian and Ukrainian volunteers in the German army were quickly shipped in to quell it, and the resistance fighters crushed. The monument listed a number of names, and at the bottom: ‘two unknown’, poor bloody fellas.

After Lente the road climbed up to my shortcut turnoff towards Bouvante le Bas. In all about 10 miles of climbing, which to some of the 0% body fat fellas cycling these parts will obviously be nothing, but for me it was enough. The ride back home from that point was almost entirely downhill, grabbing at the brakes, 30mph-for-free stuff, and I loved it!

I was out for maybe 3 hours in the end, including breaks, so the 4hrs for the full loop would more likely have been 6 to 8 for me. That’s the last of the balcony roads for now, having run the Gorges du Nan a few days ago. We drove the Petits Goulets this afternoon, which ends in a large, modern tunnel now that the Grands Goulets is closed. If they ever re-open the Grands Goulets, I think I’d love to see that section too, as it looks pretty amazing, but for now the fences are pretty clear: off limits!

Cheers, Jay

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Departmental Roads

D Roads to Stella Plage, North to the Opal Coast



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Zagan the motorhome’s up against familiar pale yellow dunes in the free aire at Stella Plage (N50.47341, E1.57723), just south of Le Touquet on the Côte d’Opale (the Opal Coast). When we arrived yesterday afternoon, 18 of the 20 spaces of the aire were taken, and another 6 or 7 vans were parked up on the seafront. This morning (which happens to be a Monday) pretty much everyone’s gone, so it seems there were a few weekend wanderers here, rather than the whole of France being packed out with camping cars.

The free motorhome aire at Stella Plage on the Opal CoastThe free motorhome aire at Stella Plage on the Opal Coast

Quick aside: France has a thing about posting signs indicating the full details of local laws, so rather than a great big blunt ‘NO MOTORHOMES’ sign on the sea front spaces, there’s a 4 page notice (in teeny weeny writing) giving precise dates when vans can park outside the aire, where they can park, the fact they need to be self-sufficient for cooking, washing, sleeping and toilet facilities and lots of other details we couldn’t easily translate.  After September, the sea front if fair game, but we’re happy we opted for the aire as the dunes we’re sandwiched between are protecting us beautifully from the wind. Every time we come here there are land yachts or kite surfers hammering up and down the coast.

Motorhomes along the seafront at Stella PlageMotorhomes along the seafront at Stella Plage

Now we’re pooch-less, so don’t need to allow 24 hours after a vet visit before heading to the UK, we could quite easily (with some strong coffee perhaps) motorhome our way home from Paris in a day. Get up early, pile up the A16 toll motorway, grab a train under the channel, free motorway it up to Nottingham. But no, we’re WAY, WAY too lazy for that. That and the fact a couple of hours driving serves to seize my upper back into a mass of painful muscle, in a way no number of press-ups, kilometres on the rowing machine or miles of running can touch.

So we’ve stuck to the old way: France’s departmental (D) roads have brought us here, the equivalent of ‘B’ roads back in Blighty. These smaller roads effectively join the dots between French villages and small towns, and since July 1st this year have a blanket 80kph (50mph) speed limit (previously 90kph). The aim of cutting the max speed is simple: to reduce the number of folks killed (roughly 10 a day) or injured (about 190 people a day) on French roads. Will it work? Time will tell, folks still pull off daft overtakes across solid white lines or in the face of fast oncoming traffic when we’re doing the new limit, so perhaps the lower limit will have the opposite effect? Ju’s updated our TomTom SatNav with the new limits, although it’s wrong in some places: sections of road with two lanes on one side and a single lane on the other, with no central divide, are sign-posted at 90kph for the dual-lane side, while the TomTom has them at 80kph. 

We cruised out of the campsite in Paris on Saturday around noon, having had a cracking stay seeing friends, visiting Versailles, gawping at the art and architecture in La Defense, looking around the Pere Lachaise cemetery and doing some Parkrun tourism. From what we could see, but for a section of roadworks on the way into the city, the roads around Paris flowed easily. Except at rush hour that is, when they were jam-packed for a couple of hours each morning and evening: think six lanes of endless brake lights with occasional horns blaring, that kind of stuff. Sundays were devoid of cars mind you: if you’re concerned about the traffic, come to the city on a Sunday and you’ll have the roads to yourself.

After a long section of free motorway and dual carriageway, the road gradually dwindled down to D road as we headed for a wee free aire at a village called Conty (N49.74425, E2.1565), to the south-west of Amiens (which we visited in 2017). We’d been recommended a visit to Arras by a nice British couple at the campsite in Paris, but we both thought we’d already been. Checking our map we just found we haven’t (doh), so that’s one for the ‘next time’ list. Conty turned out to be a good spot for a kip, a small town with boucheries, boulangeries (Ju can’t resist the artwork cakes these places flog, opting to try one called a Glandan acorn-looking treat), a poste, and a tabac (which had burned down). A kid quaintly greeted us with a passing ‘bonjour monsieur-dame’, and a lady opposite the permanently-shut church popped out her front door and asked whether I was cold (I think, my French is pretty rubbish). The aire was a grassy area away from the main road, a perfect spot for a good night’s sleep (we made sure we were at the far end from the cockerels spotted strutting in a neighbouring garden!).

Le Gland - the acorn cakeLe Gland – the acorn cake

Sunday morning we woke to the distant thud-thud of guns. Shop windows in France have us gawping at the array of shotguns, knives, throwing stars, explosive depth charges and the like you can buy and deploy of a Sunday in vengeful war against the local small mammal population. As we drove in among the fields, groups of blokes with dogs stalked through the low crops, guns at the ready, dogs trotting at their feet. They were pretty easy to spot, being dressed in bright orange jackets with a seemingly pointless camouflage pattern. Exactly what they were hunting, and how come their prey hadn’t been blasted out of existence through this relentless Sunday massacre, we dunno.

Crossing the Somme west of Amiens only took us past a handful of war cemeteries. This area of rolling countryside was the scene of human slaughter a hundred years back, and if we’d been further east the green signs pointing to the war graves would have stood at junction after junction. We didn’t stop to pay our respects though, not this time.

Up here at Stella Plage we’re on familiar ground, having stayed on the same spot two or three times before. I really like it here. The fact there’s only a single bar/cafe (open at the weekends) doesn’t bother me. I like the peace, the dunes, the huge beach. It has an easy living feel to me, a little like the Capbreton aire down towards Spain on the Atlantic coast which we first stayed in seven years ago on our first escape from the big bad World.

The sand dunes of the Opal Coast, south of Le Touquet Paris-PlageThe sand dunes of the Opal Coast, south of Le Touquet Paris-Plage

Our ferry home is at 6am tomorrow from Dunkirk (it was cheaper at that time, who needs sleep?), so we’ll head up to the aire at Oye Plage this afternoon, a shortish drive from the port. From there we’ll nip up the motorway and home to Nottingham, popping Zagan back in storage for a few days while we head off on holiday with friends. He won’t be alone for long, as we’re then grabbing him again for a jaunt up to Bonnie Scotland for a mate’s 65th and to check out the North Coast 500. After that, it’s a December back home and we’ve just about decided to use the van to head south in January for a longish tour through the winter months, Greece and Turkey maybe, not sure yet, watch this space :-).

Kudos to Ju! 10km beach run this morning, good work!

Cheers, Jay

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Parkrun Paris – Bois de Boulogne



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I was first introduced to Parkrun by my running club, or rather I was first taken to a Parkrun by members of my running club. I’d heard about these events taking place all over the world at 9am on Saturday mornings, but I had never dared to venture to one before.

What is Parkrun?

To put it simply, a Parkrun is a free five kilometre (just over 3 miles) run or walk in a local park that is timed. They take place every Saturday morning and are organised by volunteers, who will run or walk them too when they aren’t busy volunteering. This means they know what it’s like to do what you are doing, so they offer fantastic encouragement and support. There’s loads more information as well as locations on the Parkrun website.

My Parkrun history

After my head decided it couldn’t cope back in 2015, I found that exercise really helped me fight depression and anxiety. Swimming is my favourite exercise, but as you can’t always do that when out on the road I went to the local gym, stepped nervously on the running machine and started to walk. Then I walked quicker, then a sort of jog thing, then I got out of breath and it was back to walking. This carried on for quite a few months until I finally reached my goal of being able to run for 15 minutes without stopping, or dying.

My next running goal was, rather ambitiously, the Marrakesh half marathon in January 2017. I survived! And when we returned back to the UK, we both joined the wonderful Kimberley and District Striders (KADS) running club. In January of this year I decided to try a Parkrun, safely accompanied by several members of the running club. I’d avoided Parkruns for ages because I stupidly thought that I would be laughed at, the slowest and left behind, get lost and generally make a fool of myself, but that couldn’t have been further from the truth.

Parkruns all have a beginner’s briefing so you know what to do, and they are marshalled by volunteers so you know where to go. Best of all they have a ‘Tail Walker’ who goes around with the slowest person to offer encouragement and so you are never last. Everyone claps, cheers and encourages each other and the atmosphere is only competitive at the front – the rest of us are competing against ourselves and our times on previous Parkruns. At my local runs if you get a personal best time, you get to ring a bell and have your photo taken to mark the occasion (but only if you want to).

KADS takeover at Brierley Forest ParkrunWhen KADS ‘took over’ a local Parkrun and marshalled it for the day.

While in Paris we stayed in our motorhome at Camping de Paris, which is situated in Bois de Boulogne, a huge park to the west of the city. One of the Paris Parkruns takes place here, and as we were in town we thought it would be rude not to join in. We sussed out that the start was a couple of kilometres from our campsite using a map on their Parkrun course page, helpfully titled ‘For Our English Friends’ (it’s in English while everything else is in French), but as we’d managed to get lost in the park a few times – there are loads of trails and paths to explore, we set the alarm for super early.

It was still dark when we were beeped awake. Leaving the motorhome at just after 8am the sky was brightening up but it was still chilly so we wrapped up as warm as we dare – unsure if we would be able to leave things somewhere safe while we ran. We found a gathering of chilly-looking lyrca-clad folks stood around where we thought the start should be and soon discovered that nearly everyone was from an English-speaking nation. There was a family from Australia, a couple from South Africa and quite a lot of ex-pat and holidaying Brits. The big surprise was how few French people there were. 

in Bois de BoulogneJacket off and running club top on, ready to go at the Paris Parkrun

Soon we were joined by Laurent (the chap in purple in the photo above), the race director for the day, who organised his team of four marshals, then set about giving us all a briefing in both English and French. There seemed to be less rules here than at the UK Parkruns I’ve done. At home dogs must be on a short lead, but here they joined in and ran freely (nearly taking out a runner or two) but then there were dogs all over the park running freely, so why would you stop them?

The main difference was the number of runners. Back home we have several Parkruns within a half hour drive of us, and each get around 100 – 200 folks taking part. In Paris I had expected loads of people, but there were only around 30 runners, and it’s not like there weren’t hundreds of folks running around in the park, they just didn’t want to join the Parkrun. I overheard one of the marshalls (an English lady) saying it’s basically an ex-pat event and the French haven’t taken to it. I have no idea why, but to me that’s a big shame.

Paris Parkrun Course BriefingCourse briefing at Paris Parkrun

After the briefing it was time for the off and all thoughts of being chilly disappeared as I headed off at top speed – I can’t help myself, it always happens when I run in a group. Jay had done a 16 mile training run the day before, so opted to jog around with me (yes my top speed is his slow speed) and enjoy the event. We got chatting to a few folks as we went around, or rather I was rasping out the odd sentence on any slightly down hill section of the course.

Less than 30 minutes later it was all over and we were cheered over the line. Laurent timed us as we crossed the line and we were given a finishers chip. I took a photo as I was the 28th finisher, probably the lowest number  I’ll ever get! I took my personal barcode and the finisher’s chip to one of the volunteers who scanned them both, recording my details into the system.

A little later I got an email with my finishing time. At the start of the year I set a goal to run a timed 5k in under 30 minutes (my Strava recording of runs on my phone is a tad erratic so doesn’t really count), and at the Paris Parkrun I achieved my goal – I crossed the line in 29 minutes and 8 seconds. I was so happy, I treated myself to a Pain au Chocolat for breakfast, and a cake from a boulangerie at dinner.

After our run to the Eiffel Tower when we arrived in Paris, this, for me, was the perfect way to end our trip to Paris. There is still so much more to see in the city, but it gives us a good excuse to come back another time – especially now we know how accessible it is in a motorhome.

Can’t believe this was only just over a week ago!

Ju x

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La Defense, Paris : Modern Art and Architecture



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La Defense Paris

It was during out summer tour of Scandinavia in 2016 that we stopped in Aarhus in Denmark. Our guidebook recommended visiting ARoS, the modern art museum, so we did, and we loved it. After walking around Versailles the other day, with its walls full of huge paintings of battles and people gone by, we’d had our fill of paintings and sculpture, so we decided not to visit the Louvre. I know, I know, it’s a must see, but we just didn’t fancy it, so we’ve saved it for another trip.

After exploring the Pere Lachaise cemetery, we popped into a few other places in Paris using our metro pass, ending up in the museum of Modern Art. It’s free to see the permanent exhibitions, but they were just about to close when we arrived. With time against us all we could do was have a quick nose around one of the rooms and ogle a Picasso before we left. Just those few minutes in that one room reminded me of ARoS and why I like some modern art; canvasses full of bright colours left your imagination to see what it wants.

On our last full day in Paris we headed out for a run around the nearby park. Across the water from us was La Defense, the business district of Paris. Glossy, glassy monuments to corporate-ville rising up above the trees, themselves a form of art, decorating the skyline for miles around.

Running around the Bois de Boulogne in ParisJay going great on his 16 mile run around the Bois de Boulogne

Our Paris guidebook came from a charity shop, as do most of our guidebooks. This means it’s about 10 years old, but it mentioned lots of artwork around La Defense, and it sounded like my kind of artwork. After a suitable recovery time from the morning run and a spot of late lunch, we set off to walk along the river to see what was hidden among the towers.

La Defense ParisThe Skyscrapers of La Defense

Arriving at the Pont de Neuilly at the eastern end of La Defense, we took an outdoor escalator up a level, then a flight of stairs to reach the Esplanade du General de Gaulle. This vast, open plan, area greeted us with a large pool of water filled with spirals with lights on top. The Takis fountain is supposed to offer an amazing reflection of the sky scrapers around us – but sadly it was a little windy, so the water wasn’t flat.

An art installation at Le DefenseJay lying on a street, or is he? An art installation at Le Defense

Moving along the esplanade it was clear that there were additional artwork installations – including a huge cut out of ‘Auntie Maria’ by Hanif Kursehi which stared out at us as we played around the base of ‘La Moretti’, a multi-coloured ventilation shaft by Raymond Moretti.

Auntie Maria and La Moretti La Defense Paris

At exactly 5pm the 55 jets in The Esplanade Fountain, by Yaacov Agam, started to dance for us. I joked the fountains must mean home time for the office workers in the towers around us. No sooner were the words out of my mouth than revolving doors picked up pace and other doors flung open to cope with the hundreds of laptop-bag carrying folks emerging onto Place de La Defense to start their commute home – some of the half a million people who work here.

Just as the fountain kicked into life at 5pm, La Defense did so too, and became a bustling street. A coffee company took the increase in footfall to offer free samples of their latest brew, and as we weren’t in a rush like everyone else, we took full advantage while watching the world go by. Another wave of bodies washed by us at 6pm, and at that point we realised just how long we’d been here.

Lilian Bourgeat public benchTaking a break on one of Lilian Bourgeat’s public benches home time at la defenseRush hour at La Defense

If you get a map of Paris and draw a straight line from The Louvre to the Arc de Triomphe you’ll be drawing along the Champs-Elysees. Carry that line further out and across the Seine and you’ll be drawing along the walkway we were taking, known as the Axe de La Defense. This became clear as we climbed the steps of La Grande Arche and looked out across the city – the Arc de Triumph clearly visible, if tiny in the distance.

La Grande ArcheLa Grande Arche View along Axe de La DefenseView along Axe de La Defense

Rush hour in La Defense is different to the rush hour I was used to back home. Mine were mainly spent sitting in a traffic jam, but here most folks walk to the metro to be whisked home like you would on the tube in London. But there are always a few exceptions to the rule and these were the people I was most enjoying watching. Grown men and women, be-suited in office attire whizzing along on electric scooters, but without the huge grin any child would have on such a toy. There were also folks on one-wheeled gyroscope thingys (I have no idea what they are called) gliding around and making the whole place look even more sci-fi than it already does. 

The Thumb CesarThe Thumb or Le Pouce by Cesar – one of my favourite pieces here

I guess in my mind that sums up La Defense. It’s a place of business and a futuristic looking place of fun, where life’s norms are challenged and you are made to stop and stare. Like ARoS, I loved this place and can certainly recommend a trip over to see it if you have the time. It’s about a 10km round trip if walking from Camping de Paris, but if you time it right and arrive around 5pm on a sunny day, I can think of no better place to people watch and explore some free modern art to see if you like it too.

Ju x

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