The drive from Chamonix through to the Southern French Alps on the French Riviera is long and expensive. The drive was mostly uneventful and not particularly scenic after we left Courmayeur. Arriving to the smell of salty air where Alps meet the Mediterranean however was quite refreshing. Having grown up on the West Coast of Australia, salt air is in my blood and I always feel a special affiliation when it fills my lungs.
We drove directly to the small mountain town of Gourdon which is mostly known for its castle that is perched high on the edge of a cliff that overlooks the flatlands that spread down to the ocean. It is also a well known flying location and we were all keen to try soaring off the parapets of the castle which was a touristic centre well known for its perfumes and soaps.
The weather predictions were looking positive and we settled a small camp on one of the paragliding landings. The small opening in the dry foothills surrounded by costal mountains was a beautiful place to camp and we cooked under the stars with the lights of Cannes and Antibes spread out in front of us.
The next day our flying plans were foiled by strong wave winds from the north and massive salty fog rolling in from the sea. It was still nice to hike up to the take off 30min above our camp and check the view and read our books out of the wind!
The next day we hiked up early and managed to take a flight in the weak morning thermals. As the days progressed the thermals became stronger and challenging. Having to hug close to the cliff face to get the unpredictable lift can be sketchy and it was hard work to gain any real altitude. After a few hours of flying I managed to push further up the ridge to a big golfball looking military radar where I caught my first real thermal of the day and raced a group of vultures up the thermals into the forming clouds. From there the view over the Mediterranean was incredible, coastline stretching around the French Riviera in a big arc as far as I could sea before the sea haze blocked my view. After that I pushed out over the Gourdon Castle and appreciated the scene from several hundred meters above. After a late lunch we went for an evening soaring session but just missed out as the wind died away to a calm and spectacular sunset.
We had an amazing few days of flying in Gourdon. The highlight for me was scratching back up the side of the cliff below the castle after coming back very low on a return glide. It was a tricky position because I was too low to glide to the official landing field and emergency landing options were very limited. The pressure was on. Flying close to the terrain, known as “scratching”, I gained only a metre or so every pass along the rock cliff in the unreliable lift. It was hard work and it took a long time to work my way up to the walls of the castle. Breathing a sigh of relief as I flew past the surprised tourists standing on the parapets who quickly upholstered their expensive cameras and fired volleys of pictures at me. On my last pass, I was close enough to give the smiley kid with snot running down his face a “high 5”. Spiralling higher and higher above the castle, back into the clouds was a wonderful experience. Our last night in Gourdon we camped on the Kennedy take off that overlooked the flats all the way to the Mediterranean. Cooking by our small campfire, drinking a glass of local wine and looking out over the valley was spectacular. The sunrise the next morning was even more impressive.
We had arranged to stay with some friends of friends when we arrived in Roquebrune, just outside of Monaco. The wealthy and tightly packed country of Monaco is a sight to see. Expensive looking skyscrapers and buildings all crammed together along the Mediterranean coastline. Huge mulit-million dollar mega-yachts anchored just out of the harbour that look like they have just arrived from a James Bond set. And against odds, paragliders hanging from the sky as they soar the evening sea breeze and occasionally come down to land on the narrow stony beach.
The friends of friends turn out to be Guille and Leo, a couple of instructors and tandem pilots from Annecy who are both friendly and relaxed. They have invited a few friends over that evening and food, beer and conversation is shared freely. The vibe is relaxed as they discuss the next days competition as we had arrived just in time to watch the French Championship of Acrobatic Paragliding!
The next days were a blur of fun. Flying over the beautiful warm waters of the Mediterranean with good friends and watching some of the best acro pilots in the world throwing down some of the best and cleanest manouvers I have ever seen in person. If you don’t know what acrobatic paragliding looks like I recommend youtubing it or clicking HERE to see the highlights of the actual competition.
The parties in the evenings were a lot of fun and all the French pilots were friendly and inclusive even though we didn’t parlais le France (speak French). We were, more or less, the only foreigners at the event so we didn’t always understand what was happening with the events but we enjoyed it none the less.
The flying was somewhat limited for non-competitors but Jon and I had several memorable flights of soaring over mansions and castles along the shoreline before coming in low to skim over the crystal clear salt water and land on the beach where someone was already waiting for you with a beer in their hand. On the last day we ran into a friend who had been coming to Voss for Ekstrem Sport Veko (https://ekstremsportveko.com/) for several years and he invited to us to visit him in his home town of Dignes after the competition was finished
After the exciting weekend was over we were on our way NW again into the well know cross country area of St Andre les Alpes. Arriving to a crowded landing at Aero Gliss we were greeted by dozens of pilots drinking beer and packing wings after what appeared to be a great day of flying…….the view wasn’t bad either…..