This is a story with a happy ending. In fact, this story is an entirely happy one. It is the story of the 5 friends. Brian Cunningham, Mel Vincent Dela Cruz, Conall de Paor Greg Downes and the native Alec Byrne embarking on a tour of the ancient mountains around Grenoble, France.
There is good wine good cheese and good company throughout. Challenges met, expectations exceeded, and spectacular views of the country hitherto thought to be known only to the sun and the moon.
Here is the story of this expedition.
Lyon Airport. Conall, Greg and Mel wait patiently for Alec and Brian to arrive. They wander around and test the air outside. It is cold, although not as cold as they had expected. Brian and Alec arrive soon after. There is jubilant reunion, efficient packing and we get going straight away to Chateau Byrne which is about 45 minutes away. We pass by the castle and the toll plaza which only 30 minutes before, we had seen from the air.
Brian had arrived in the south of France a week before. He stayed with his brother in Val Thorens Ski Resort. He told us of the place, of his brother, and of his skiing with Alec the day before.
We Reached our destination that evening. Greeting Alec’s Parents, Jacqueline, and Rob. And his younger brother Luke, who, that very day had turned eighteen years old. There was a party for him. We deposited our baggage in the spare bedroom. Moving a second mattress in so that we could all sleep together.
Over the next hour, Luke’s friends arrived, as did some of Alec’s. Namely Pierre who is a champion skier and talented musician, Lukasz who swam with Alec and is half polish, and Alexandre who is Alexandre. All are wonderful characters. We cracked open some beer and attacked the pizza on the kitchen table. “Brian iz in ze Kitchen.” And “T’a fait tombé ta carte de pédé” were the ‘phrase utiles’ for the French and Irish respectively.
We all slept in the spare room, mattresses on the floor. Alec slept apart from his troops, which the next morning we would protest, but the next night we would request on account of his awful flatulence.
Brian Wakes up to Conall’s camera in his face. doesn’t he look hot without his glasses on?
It is on this second day that Alec resolved to take us on a tour of Grenoble. We would get there by train, and by jove what an impressive train it was. Two stories, completely electric and so silent. It zipped us from Voiron station to Grenoble in 20 minutes.
In Grenoble, it was strange to us Irishmen for half or more of the sky to be obscured by mountains. It was in Grenoble, from this mere appetizer of mountain views that it dawned on us that there are no mountains in Ireland.
Ravioli swimming in a local cheese called St. Marcelin was declared delicious by Conall and Mel. And a burger with several cheese inside was declared the same by Alec, Brian and Greg.
After dinner, we walked into a large crowd of yellow vests. Conall grabbed a leaflet off one, it has since been lost, however.
That evening we took the train back to Voiron, where outside the station, Alec engaged in that disgracable and distinctly continental habit of les bises with a female friend of his. The non-natives stood by some meters away as Alec caught up with this person. An ex-girlfriend of Lukasz’s he told us afterward in the car on the way back to Chateau Byrne.
Our second dinner of that day was cheese fondue with baguette, salad and with some white wine. Five cheeses all melted down in a pot in the middle of the table and a huge pile of bread chunks. The power of cheese and bread to feed 7 young men.
At 6:30 am, we rose out of bed bleary eyed, got into our underclothes for skiing and lumbered into the car. Lunch and breakfast consisting of rolls and croissants respectively was bought along the way. The mountainous vistas which amazed us in Grenoble, were outdone by the stupendous rocks on the way to Vaujany. The long valley up which we had to drive, was perfectly flat on its bottom and was flanked on both sides by great walls of snow and stone. One could get claustrophobic. And the sun only seems to touch the valley floor for half the day.
At the resort, Greg and Conall got ski lessons from Gilles on the kindergarten slopes, while Mel, Brian and Alec made their way up to the more advanced slopes. The two beginners progressed quickly, and at lunch time, after sandwiches and beer with the three experienced skiers of the group, and with Luke, Pierre, Lukasz and Rob Greg and Conall attacked the green slopes again. All day they slipped down the kids slopes with glee and with Greg sometimes losing control of his speed and being unable to stop himself careering past the ski lift and down the next slope. Conall was able to stop before this happened to him, but he fell on his arse 28 times instead.
Alec, Brian, Mel, Lukasz, Pierre and Rob came down of the red and black slopes and everyone went for a well-earned lunch in the restaurant on the slopes. We opened our packed lunches ate them heartily with chips from the bar.
Coming down from the slopes on the cable car, we were exhausted and slept most of the way back. Except Alec who was driving of course. Dinner that night was risotto rice and more bread. Another delicious meal made by Jacqueline and enjoyed by the 7 men in her house.
We got to bed early, planning on getting up to go skiing the next day.
Monday had something else to say about our plans. The weather was poor. 7⁰C in Voiron meant it would still be above zero at the resort, which means slippery wet snow which is shit for skiing according to Alec. We also got stuck in traffic in Grenoble. We turned the car around and headed home after an hour on the road.
Instead of skiing, we went on this mild sunny day to some of the local peaks around Voiron. The sandwiches which we got for lunch with us. The walk to these places was peaceful, and ripe for chatter about the profound things in our lives. The cover photograph for this report, is of that day.
These views of us in the forest are nothing when compared to the views from the top of the mountain we were on. At the top, there was a cross, and a view of the landscape something like what the Gods of Olympus had over Greece.
We remained up on that peak for quite some time just looking down at the land splayed out below us, as if it were just a map. The photograph of the day was taken by Brian and is shown below.
Later, we went to see a paragliding launch area which had similar views, but in the fading light, and our saturated eyes, they could not be so spectacular as the one’s we saw in these photographs.
On the way home, we bought the funkiest cheese and saucisson in the supermarket, along with the freshest baguettes in the bakery next door. Dinner that night was Tartiflette with Leffe blonde beer. We went to bed early again that night, to really go skiing in the morning.
To the slopes of Vaujany, through the valleys of the Rhone Alpes again. Greg and Conall had a hearty breakfast of Weetabix, and porridge and bananas respectively. The others bought their breakfast en-route. The BSW(Byrne Space Wagon) Enterprise took us too our destination in good time. Brian and Mel and Alec commenced a second assault on the blues reds and blacks. Greg and Conall vowed to follow them in the afternoon and bought the appropriate ski-passes.
After a good morning of
technical lessons from Gilles, Mel, Alec and Brian met Greg and Conall at
the training ground. They broke for
lunch and were met by Alec’s father Rob. Although he had been working that
morning, he told us the following: “Yeah, I was working at home and I looked
out the window at the blue sky and thought of you guys out here skiing. And
then I looked at my laptop again and thought…[with his face he expressed what
he felt] So I filled the calendar for the afternoon with some random text so
they wouldn’t book me for anything and came up here.” ‘What a work life balance that
man has’ we all observed. We’ll do well to get where he is. After beers and
lunch and anecdotes from Rob we made our way to the ski lifts to take us up to
the blue slopes.
This was a day filled with challenges faced and overcome. The satisfaction felt at the bottom of a difficult slope was a unique and memorable feeling. Especially for Conall and Greg, the two who found even the simplest of slopes challenging.
There were two styles of attack employed by these two beginners. Greg favoured speed at the expense of control, whereas Conall favoured control at the expense of speed. Both resulted in the same number of crashes.
Alec and Brian entertained themselves by going off-piste, taking shortcuts through the thicker snow between the trees.
Mel and Greg in the foreground. A view like that of the Gods of Olympus in the background. Above is the infinite blue expanse of the sky.
On our last run, we sped down the long final slope in formation. Each skier no more than a few feet the another. Conall scraped his ski-poles in the slope, throwing up a cloud of snow into the fellows behind him as he went. The speed was exhilarating. The falls harmless. And the comradery and spirit of adventure were admirable.
Dinner That evening was well earned Tartiflette cooked by Jacqueline again. The hunger from a hard days skiing on top of that meal, and some Leffe Blonde made it heavenly. After dinner we took over the living room and decided to watch a movie. The Big Lebowski. Brian, Alec and Greg all fell asleep during the opening 10 minutes. Only Conall and Mel actually saw the film.
We awoke late from our deep sleep. Our bodies tired and bruised from skiing. Breakfast was had, and the five set off for a short walk around Coublevie in the late morning sun. The air was crystal clear, and the mountains loomed large and beautiful in the distance.
Later on, we got into the Byrne space wagon to go to the museum of French Resistance in Vercors. An absolutely fascinating place raised and walled off by mountains from the surrounding countryside. The drive there wove through gorges between high cliffs and through picturesque mountain towns. A most interesting landmark was spotted along the way. A giant bicycle simply plonked there on the side of the road. Below is a photograph with Conall for scale.
It took us about 90 minutes to reach the remote museum. It looked like a concrete bunker which was part of the mountain it was in. The content was fascinating. It told the story of the resistance in France but in particular it focused on The Republic of Vercors. An enclave of resistance to the German occupation on the Vercors plateau. Declared when the Allies landed at Normandie, they had been promised paratrooper support and supplies by the Free French government, but it never arrived. they kept the Germans out for some weeks but were overrun by a glider borne invasion of the plateau. The Germans then proceeded to massacre the inhabitants of the four small towns of Vercors. A tragic event, The museum recount of it was very engaging.
Outside the museum part, there was a viewing area from which the whole Vercors plateau could be seen.
As we drove back to Chateau Byrne the sun set in the plateau but still covered the surrounding mountain tops in a sunset orange. Vercors seems like an isolated but peaceful place to live.
Dinner on our final evening in France was cheese, and bread
and soisison followed by chili
complimented by Blonde beer and wine. Another delicious meal cooked by Jacqueline Byrne.
The next when we were having breakfast and preparing to
leave there was a green bird sitting in Alec’s front garden. Possibly a cuckoo.
It remained in the grass going about its business there for over an hour.
After breakfast we spent our final morning in France walking in the hills above Voiron to reach the prominent statue of Mary perched on top of a mountain overlooking the whole region. Although the day was overcast, the views from the top were spectacular.
Mary stands on a snake atop a tower, and when the clouds rolled in over the valley below it was as if we were on an island in a sea of cloud and the mountains yonder were other islands too. A good way to spend the last morning.
Brian and Alec survey the sea of clouds
Soon after this we said our goodbyes and thank you to Jacqueline and Rob for hosting us and feeding us, and they thanked us for coming and insisted that we were a pleasure to host. We wrote a thank you card in all of the languages that we knew for them and according to Alec, it is still on display in his house. Alec kindly drove us to the Airport in the Byrne Space Wagon he sent us of with Bijoux and good wishes. We got on our flight and left France at half past 2. We arrived in Dublin Airport after dark. Mel was the first to break from the party and head home. Then Conall was discharged and got the bus back to Waterford. Brian and Greg waited in Dublin Airport for another hour and got the bus back to Limerick.
And so ended our glorious tour of Grenoble. With a walk in the mountains, affectionate goodbye’s and expressions of gratitude, a flight and a bus home. I hope we get to go again.