A Week Away – The Vercors By Train

The Vercors is a beautiful and mountainous area of France, much overlooked by tourists although packed full of natural history. Travelling as part of a Naturetrek group holiday, we stayed in a simple but lovely family-run hotel in the village of La Chapelle-en-Vercors, at the heart of the region.

The Vercors is a pre-Alpine massif where the limestone crags rise up to just over two thousand metres. Grenoble lies to the north-east and Lyons to the north-west
Lots of dramatic limestone rock to admire

The small hotel had a wild swimming pond in the grounds, absolutely delicious to dip into after a long, hot day of nature watching.

The pool was at least two metres deep in the middle. We floated around amongst the fish and tadpoles, watching birds coming down to drink and wash in its shallows, whilst dreaming of building one of these in the meadows!

The remoteness of the area and difficulty of the terrain meant that The Vercors was a stronghold for the French Resistance in the Second World War. However, even after eighty years, the area is still haunted by the memory of the atrocities that happened here in the summer of 1944. Shortly after the Allies landed in Normandy in June 1944, the poorly-armed members of the Resistance came down from their hideouts in the Vercors mountains and attacked the German troops stationed on the plateau, thinking that the Allies would soon be arriving to give them support. However, their timing was off and, before Allied forces could reach them, the Germans had landed gliders packed with elite soldiers onto the central grassy valley of the massif. These soldiers hunted down and killed the Resistance fighters. There then followed a series of reprisals including the razing to the ground of the village in which we were staying. The men of the village were herded into a farmyard and shot.

The same thing happened in the nearby village of Vassieux-en-Vercors, and the murdered villagers along with the fallen Resistance fighters now rest in a special graveyard to commemorate them.

A stark reminder of the atrocities in the area in the summer of 1944
A view over the central grassy valley where the gliders carrying elite German soldiers landed. The graveyard can be seen in the centre of the photo, with the village of Vassieux-en-Vercors, now rebuilt, to the right

The region is famous for its botany and both of our guides were extremely knowledgeable. We saw around thirty-five species of orchid over the course of the week and here is a selection of some of them:

Late Spider Orchid
A meadow of Elderflower Orchids, both the yellow variety and a few of the deep pink ones
Burnt Tip Orchid
A patch of Early Purples
A small Early Purple Orchid with a big view
The Vercors is in the Drôme department of France and this is the Drôme Orchid which is found mainly there

One of the complications of orchids is their ability to hybridise amongst themselves. We saw several such hybrids, and this one below is a cross between a Monkey Orchid and a Man Orchid:

I have saved the best until last. I have wanted to see a Lady’s Slipper Orchid for years and here one is, growing free and wild in The Vercors:

But it was not all about the orchids. We saw and identified hundreds of other plants. This Greater Butterwort, growing in damp, low nutrient soil, is carnivorous:

It supplements its diet by catching and digesting flies on its sticky leaves:

Flies caught on the sticky leaves of the Greater Butterwort

There didn’t seem to be as many birds around as we had hoped. We did, however, get good views of a pair of Red-backed Shrike:

These birds are famous for their habit of impaling prey on thorns or barbed wire to form a larder. The prey can be large insects, small birds, rodents, frogs and reptiles.

We saw a lot of Alpine Chough with their red legs but yellow beak:

Griffon Vulture were often soaring up in the sky, recognisable with pale heads and a black trailing edge to their wings:

A Short-toed Eagle was an exciting spot. This bird mainly eats snakes which it sees while soaring up to five hundred metres high:

House Martins and Swifts were nesting in and around the roofline of the church in La Chapelle-en-Vercors:

House Martins’ mud nests around the church

As well as the wonderful orchids, the area has an enviable number and variety of butterflies. Here is a fairly typical scene of our group wandering through a flower meadow one morning, happily catching butterflies and botanising:

It was worth stopping to look at any scat found on the ground to see what butterflies it was attracting:

Three Grizzled Skippers, a Dingy Skipper, a Small Blue and a Speckled Yellow moth on some scat

We see a few Small Blue Butterflies in the meadows every year, but here in The Vercors we saw hundreds:

Small Blue butterflies
Blue butterflies were attracted to the salt on our skin
Adonis Blue butterfly
I have long wanted to see an Apollo butterfly
A lovely green Forester moth, out flying by day

One of the most amazing things I saw were these Owlflies – I had never seen anything like them before. This is the Owly Sulphur (Ascalaphus libelluloides):

At about 4cm in length, excluding the antennae, these are big things. They are aerial predators of other flying insects
The Owly Sulphur

Actually this next insect is pretty astounding too. One night we ran a moth trap and this nymph of the Masked Hunter Fly (Reduvius personatus) was found lurking inside it in the morning:

The nymph camouflages itself with dust

We have Burnet moths in the meadows, but not any that look like this:

Zygaena rhadamanthus

This bee-fly is also a very different one to ours:

Bombylella atra. The Black Bee-fly

Some members of the group watched as this Great Green Bush Cricket emerged as an adult:

Great Green Bush Cricket with discarded nymphal case
Paper Wasp and her nest which was on a little stalk attached to the rock

It had been unseasonably hot all week. On the last day, we celebrated the end of a successful holiday by visiting the town of Pont-en-Royans where Naturetrek treated us all to ice creams:

The ‘hanging houses’ of Pont-en-Royans
Watching with our hearts in our mouths as boys leapt into the river at Pont-en-Royans

What with one thing and another, it had been a few years since we had ventured off British soil and actually it felt so good to be somewhere different for a while. Now safely installed back in the meadows, everything seems to have grown so much whilst we were away – what a difference a week can make at this time of year.

3 thoughts on “A Week Away – The Vercors By Train

  1. What an amazing holiday. I would love to do something like this. What is the interest in Scat by butterflies? The orchids are amazing. X

    1. I’ve just looked it up….although they get all the energy they need from the nectar of plants, they also need salts and other nutrients that they can’t get from nectar. It was pretty amazing to see such a collection of them there

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