From that perspective, it is easy to forget that the Alps (not only on the French side, for that matter) are a fantastic all year-round holiday destination. When the skiers are gone, which is quite late, given the nearly permanent snowcap on the glaciers, there come the hikers and bikers. But things quieten down in the early autumn, when hikers are back at their desks and skiers haven’t arrived yet. That’s when we choose to spend a week in the French Alps.
Our base is Vénosc, a little gem of a town, picture-pretty with its cobbled streets, chalets and restaurants serving tartiflette and other artery-clogging après-ski dishes.
It is pouring with rain when we arrive, but we still venture out for a walk in the forest, and it’s beautiful.
But for the rest of the morning we retreat into the comforts of our B&B run by a friendly Dutch couple. We then pass the afternoon playing boardgames at a local crêperie, sipping hot chocolate and listening to the rain tap against the roof. We conclude the day by taking a stroll through the nearby hamlets, all of them almost as pretty as Vénosc.
The following day we stock up on picnic fodder in the excellent deli serving local produce. And if that’s not enough, there is a fresh produce market down below the village, selling a mouth-watering variety of breads, sausages and cheeses. It’s been seven years since I left France to settle in the UK, but the food is something I miss almost every day.
From the bottom of Vénosc you can take a cable car to the popular ski resort of Les Deux Alps. I expect to see a ghost town, but far from it, the resort is thriving, with hikers, mountain bikers and snowboarders (yes, the glacier again) mixing smoothly in the streets full of restaurants (and think proper stuff, not fast food, it is France after all), sports shops, gift shops and bakeries – every French town, large or small, has a bakery at every corner, or the residents would riot.
If hiking, biking or snowboarding hold no appeal, you can try summer sledging or paragliding. You can hardly have a more spectacular location for the latter, soaring high over the valley.
We walk up to Le Diable au Coeur, the top of the ski station, a rather ambitious 4-hour hike. We alternate between admiring the views and gasping at the sight of bikers rushing down helter skelter, luckily on separate paths.
At the top, we park ourselves in a cafe and soak up the sun. It’s bliss, but I would still much rather have skis attached to my feet.
Exhausted, we decide to catch the lift down, but to our dismay, it closed half an hour before and there is not a soul in sight. Desperate, we wave down a passing 4 by 4, and we get a lift with two friendly rangers. Phew. Descending a massive mountain in the dark would have not been much fun.
Having spoken to the tourist office in Les Deux Alps, we know where to head next. The friendly staff member advised that we take the bus from Vénosc to get to La Bérarde, and then catch the same bus back, but we don’t feel like getting up at daybreak and then spending 12 hours on the mountain. We decide to take our own car.
The climb is breathtaking, in the dual sense of beautiful and terrifying. It’s a proper white-knuckle drive on a narrow, super steep mountain road. There is no chance of two vehicles passing each other except for designated passing places. There is no barrier on the side and most of the time we are just inches away from falling into an abyss. Maybe the bus idea wasn’t so bad after all…
At the start of the hike, there is a cute little chapel, so I go in immediately. The white-washed walls are covered with photos of those who died on the slopes, ordinary tourists and experienced alpinists. OK, mountains are no joke, I get it…
The climb is not very steep, but it is rocky. The path runs along a majestic brook and offers stunning views of the summits in front of us and the valley behind. We get to the first refuge and we flop in the sun.
We are already within the boundaries of Parc National des Ecrins. Camping in the wild is permitted, and the park is dotted with refuges, where hikers can help themselves to a bed and a blanket, and in some places even cook a hot meal. There are lots of hikers on the path, some of them with big backpacks, probably wandering from one refuge to another. Others are proper mountaineers, with climbing shoes and ropes.
Our last trial is the descent back, when we are dreading the prospect of crossing the tourist bus on its way to pick up returning hikers. And soon enough, here it is. We retreat to one of the passing spots, close our eyes, hold our breath, and we pass. Phew again.
Lac de Lauvitel
The weather is still spectacular, so we decide to follow the advice of our friendly rangers from Les Deux Alps and do the Lake Lauvitel hike.
It is another iconic walk in the area. I’m particularly excited at the prospect of a marmot sighting, which is supposed to be a given on that route. It is a steep climb in the forest, which gets us to pant and sweat profusely, but any discomfort is rewarded by the sheer beauty of the mountain lake. We spend a couple of hours by the shores, admiring the summits reflected in sapphire waters.
The only disappointment is that the marmots don’t show, even though I nearly break a leg from looking around rather than watching the path.
The local area abounds with small artisan businesses (it is France after all!), the most interesting of which, at least to me, are local producers of all things edible: bakers, beekeepers and cheesemakers. They are a passionate and stubborn lot, refusing the shortcuts offered by cheap, industrial production and instead living the ideals of slow food.
We pick a small goats farm in the Bourg d’Oisans area and we arrive just in time for the evening milking. We watch a small herd of goats brought into the shed from the fields and milked. Even with a herd of 20, milking is not done by hand. It is a small assembly line, with ten or so goats entering a podium, where each gets a bowl-full of grain while a sucking machine is attached to their udders. We watch in awe, like most city dwellers would.
A portion of the milk is kept aside for the young, and the rest is pumped into containers, where it gets heated, mixed with rennet and transformed into fresh cheese. Not the kind you get in supermarkets, but the real stuff, made from super fresh unpasteurised milk, each batch having its distinct taste. We then move to the basement where the hard cheeses mature, some for as long as 6 months.
The place is obviously swarming with bacteria, something that a city dweller may find shocking, but it is exactly the friendly bacteria that render the cheese so amazing. That, and the time it takes for proper cheese to mature.
I leave full of admiration for the passionate owners, who clearly love their job and love their herd – each goat gets a pat on the head or even a kiss. But it is the countryside here, no place for our urban sentiments. The kids may be getting kisses and cuddles now, but their destiny is the slaughterhouse.
As we drive up North from the Alps, I get nostalgic after my 4 years in Paris. London may be giving us the good jobs, but it is France that can give us a good life. Who knows, maybe one day…. To cheer myself up, I buy another crunchy baguette and a pain au chocolat.