More Montana Musings

More Montana Musings

Over the last few weeks I’ve been engaged in some technological explorations relating to the presentation of geocaches in various mapping tools – see Memory-Map and Back to BaseCamp – and my success in doing so has lead to a measure of confidence in such things. I probably understand such things at a level well above the average geocacher right now. So it seemed to be a reasonable leap to see whether I could figure out how to extend this work into the display of various attributes on the Garmin Montana. It proved to be a painful exercise. I eventually settled for something that’s better than my previous attempt, but not as good as I wanted.

Not long after I got the Garmin Montana (the first one, which I ultimately lost down a drain in Letchworth) I explored changing the icons to make them more visible against the collection of fairly busy and colourful maps on the device. I was happy with the results (see Custom Icons) at that point, but a couple of things still irritated me about it.

One irritation was the inability to tell whether a puzzle (or multi, letterbox or wherigo) was solved already of not. Another was the inability to tell which caches are disabled. I regularly spend ages at a site looking for a cache before checking the logs and discovering that the cache has been disabled for some length of time. Sometimes they are there, so I still want them on the GPSr, but I like to know when I start searching that it might not be there.

I tried to have a look at whether it was possible to use the fairly complex schemes of custom icons I’ve implemented in Memory-Map and BaseCamp. What followed was a very frustrating dive into some fairly dark recesses of the internet in an ultimately fruitless search for a way of enhancing what I’d done. After much, pain I found a post on a forum site in which a well-known London cacher had stressed that on the Montana your options are very limited. He suggested the best thing to do, and that’s what I’ve implemented. What he confirmed was :

  • Custom icons on the Montana can only be applied to waypoints, not to geocaches
  • The Montana relies on a fixed relationship between cache type and icon which is embedded in the firmware somewhere, not in a configuration file – the <sym> tag in a GPX file is irrelevant because the Montana doesn’t use it
  • The list of acceptable names for geocache icons is quite limited – it doesn’t cover the full range of geocache types at all, presumably because many of them are rarely available in practice
  • If you provide a Montana with a cache type it doesn’t understand then it defaults to the bucket “Geocache” icon

What this means in practice is that it can’t even represent every single cache type, never mind having variations relating to status. You’ve got to get a bit creative with it. And the way to implement your creativity is to amend the apparent cache type in GSAK before downloading to the device. I guess I kind of knew this already, and had previously been using the “Benchmark” cache type to highlight solved puzzles, and the like. I’d been doing this manually, by changing attributes in GSAK one-by-one. Tedious, and prone to error.

So I wrote a macro for GSAK that changes the apparent cache type as follows, and then changed the custom icons on the Montana to reflect what I’m actually using them for. It’s very bespoke, but it does what I want, or at least the closest I’m going to get to it :

  • Cache In Trash Out Event.bmp -> Used to indicate “owned” caches, represented by something that looks like a star in a green circle
  • Event Cache.bmp -> Used for all event types (CITO, Event, Mega, Giga, GPS Maze) – there’s never enough of them for me to care what type of event each one is
  • Webcam Cache.bmp -> Used to identify disabled and archived caches – there’s so few webcams left that there’s no point in giving them their own icon
  • Virtual Cache.bmp -> Used for both virtuals and webcams
  • Mega-Event Cache.bmp -> Used to highlight caches that have corrected coordinates, represented by an icon that looks like a piece of a jigsaw puzzle
  • All other icons (Trad, Multi, Wherigo, Unknown, Found, Letterbox, Earthcache) are used to represent those cache types where the cache is not corrected, owned or disabled
  • Geocache.bmp -> Used for anything else, so all the “funny” cache types like Lab Caches, Groundspeak HQ, Lost and Found Events, and so on

In the instances where a single icon is being used to represent more than one type of cache, I have just added the cache type onto the end of the name. It’s rarely a thing of significance, to be honest.

If Garmin ever changes the firmware to allow more of the standard geocache types then I’ll revise this scheme, but it doesn’t seem to be high on their priority list.

To implement this, I created yet another pack of icons (shown above), and two macros for GSAK. One macro sets the cache type to the scheme above, recording the original settings into two of the “User Data” fields. The second macro restores the original settings from User Data so that the GSAK database is as it was previously. This is necessary because the GSAK menu option to download to a Montana doesn’t allow any configuration. I now have assumed this is because any configuration wouldn’t be implemented properly on the device.

The little bits of magenta in the icons are there because the Montana translates pure magenta (RGB 255:0:255 or #ff00ff) into “transparent”, so they on the display they look a little neater.

So to execute this method, install the pack of icons onto the \Garmin\CustomSymbols folder of the Montana’s onboard storage (not onto any installed microSD card). In GSAK, run the SetSymbols macro, then download caches to the GPSr using the Send Waypoints, and finally run the RestoreSymbols macro.


Back to BaseCamp

Back to BaseCamp

Having spent a week or so getting Memory Map to display custom icons (see Memory-Map), I felt somewhat emboldened and tried to have a pop at doing the same thing in BaseCamp. BaseCamp has to be a preferred technology for some locations due to the availability of good-quality, free, vector maps that can be mimicked on the GPSr.

As with all things relating to Garmin devices and applications, there is very little available by way of documentation if you are trying to customise them. Garmin’s plan is evidently that the vast majority of users don’t delve deeply enough for this to be an issue, and one can presume from the limited amount of chatter on the subject that they are mainly correct in that assertion. Most people aren’t in the game for heavy customisation. A few people are, and I’m one of those. So this post is very much in the “niche” category. I make no apology for that.

Objectives

As a geocacher, most of my dislike for BaseCamp stems from the fact that by default there are only two on-screen symbols – a locked treasure chest and an open treasure chest brimming with gold, which represent an unfound cache and a found cache respectively. So by default there is no method of telling different types of cache from one-another, nor is there any way of indicating whether those caches are mine or someone else’s, whether they are disabled/archived or whether I have corrected the coordinates. That makes the tool of limited use for planning journeys.

So my objective was to figure out how to make it more useful by being able to use custom icons to display those various status flags. Simple, really.

Planning

Garmin advises that you can, indeed, use custom icons (see Garmin Support – Custom Icons). This gives some basics about what custom icon files need to look like and where you have to put them. What it doesn’t do is to tell you how to use them.

For that, research around various forums revealed that, as a user of GSAK, the symbol displayed by BaseCamp is whatever is defined in the <sym> tag of the input GPX file. GSAK has a number of different ways of producing a GPX file, depending on what you’re intending to do with them afterwards, or put another way, GSAK outputs GPX files using different sets of tags depending on whether those tags are likely to be used by the destination application or not. You can see in the picture here that there are options for Garmin POI files, generic GPX files, BaseCamp specific files, and so on. My focus was on the generic “GPX/GGZ/LOC File…” and the “Garmin MapSource/BaseCamp File…” options. You can see the dialogs that those options spawn in the pictures below.

The key points to observe on these two diagrams are :

  • On the BaseCamp export (right side) there’s a list of cache types and associated symbols which are placed in the output file – these can be altered by pressing the Change button
  • Also on the BaseCamp export you can see checkboxes labelled Override with database symbol name… and Use a macro for symbol generation – the meaning of the second one is obvious but the first caused me to go looking – there is a database field called Symbol
  • On the generic export dialog (left side) you can see there’s various controls that talk about symbols, but not at the level of granularity that’s on the BaseCamp specific one – experimentation showed that with the Force use of Geocache symbols only and Make symbols same as last GPS send checkboxes both off, the <sym> tag in the output takes the value of the database Symbol field

The net result of this investigation is that it’s possible to select various methods of setting the symbol to a custom value, and that they can be achieved using macros. My plan was therefore clear – draw up a map of the custom symbols I want to use, and then figure out how to implement that in a macro in GSAK.

Implementation

The steps to implement the solution turned out to be rather straightforward. There are just 3 things to do :

Firstly, configure GSAK so it knows about the custom icons. Download the configuration file, unzip it and move it to the local data folder for GSAK. In my case (on Windows 10) this is C:\Users\’Me’\AppData\Roaming\gsak where ‘Me’ is the folder for the current user. Look at the Export to MapSource dialog above. If you press the Change button you get a further dialog in which you can assign individual custom icons to each set of statuses. We only need to do this for child waypoints, because for geocaches we’re going to use a macro to populate the database and then use the Override with database symbol method. Once you’ve installed the config file and restarted GSAK you should see the new icon numbers and names in the dropdown lists on this dialog. Go to the Child Waypoints tab and configure the six child waypoint types with custom icon numbers 58 thru 63 as per the picture below.


Secondly, set up GSAK. Download the Macro file and install it into GSAK as normal. Change your display of columns in GSAK so that you can see the Symbol field. Try running the macro – you should see the value of the Symbol field changing as you do so.

Finally, install some icons for BaseCamp to use. Download the icons file and unzip the contents into the folder where BaseCamp expects to find them. On my Windows 10 PC this is at C:\Users\’Me’\Documents\My Garmin\Custom Waypoint Symbols.

And that should, theoretically, be the end of it. Having tested it, you can now either use the generic GPX output or the BaseCamp one. Both place the content of the Symbol database field into the <sym> tag of the output file, and that seems to be all that BaseCamp uses. Browse to an output file through BaseCamp and install it, and you should see the new icons straight away. You’ll notice also that they have been imported into BaseCamp as geocaches, not waypoints, so when you double-click you’ll still get the geocache dialog.

Note the macro file is written specifically to allocate custom symbols as per the rules shown in the GarminOther.txt configuration file. You are free to change these, and the icons, as you see fit. The convention for naming the icon files is 000.bmp, 001.bmp, etc. This convention automatically associates the <sym> tag “Custom 1” with the icon file 001.bmp. You can use any of the other standard Garmin icon names if you want, but you’d need to change the macro to match what you’re setting up.

Note also the specifics of how I wanted to see the icons. I’ve used little indicators in the icons to show corrected coordinates and active/disabled. Ones I own have a totally different icon style, as do ones which are archived or found.

Final Annoyance

Surely, there can be no more annoyances! There are. One stands out.

BaseCamp, by default, shows a text name alongside each cache or waypoint. Whether this is displayed or not is controlled by a tag in the GPX file, but there is no way in GSAK to set that tag, as far as I can tell. It is contained within an extension to GPX that GSAK doesn’t use.

You can open each item in the cache/waypoint list and suppress display of the name by changing “Symbol and Name” to “Symbol Only”, but for some reason in BaseCamp you can bring up an “Open” dialog for multiple waypoints but not for multiple caches. For caches you have to do it one-by-one, which is tedious in the extreme.

The quick way is to select all caches and waypoints and then “Export Selection” in BaseCamp to produce a new GPX file. This contains the relevant tag, so you can edit it and substitute all instances of “SymbolandName” with “SymbolOnly”, save it, and import that one back into BaseCamp. Bob’s yer proverbial uncle. It’s irritating that I didn’t figure out how to programme that, but it’s a fairly small irritation, and to be honest, unless you’re loading thousands of caches into BaseCamp you might find the labels useful.

Show me some pictures then

Pictures below show a few examples of how this looks in BaseCamp.

On the left you can see a picture of my current list of caches to do in Milton Keynes. The small cyan coloured dot on some of the icons is how I represent a puzzle, multi, letterbox or wherigo when I’ve added some corrected coordinates. You can also see a few of the trads have a white bar through them, indicating that they are temporarily disabled.

In the centre you can see what the area of my Flags of All Nations series looks like. The circular stars are “owned” caches. The red boxes with crosses are archived. I’m using the pink benchmark icon (“Benchmark” cache type in GSAK) for planning locations to replace the archived ones. The circle with star is a bit bigger than the other icons, so I might change that one.

On the right you can see a bunch of smiley-face icons with corrected coordinates. These represent a massive puzzle series I did in France in 2018 (see Val D’Oise Madness).

All of these examples are shown with Freizeitkarte maps, but obviously the icons will superimpose over whatever maps you choose to use.


Memory-Map

Memory-Map

So after all these years of trying to use Garmin’s BaseCamp tool to pan the layout of caches, I finally got to wondering what else was available.

I’d heard a number of times over the years about people using Memory-Map to plan out caching routes, so I decided to have a look.

The first step in any new venture into geocaching applications is to figure out what the maps are like. In Memory-Map’s case, the maps are whatever you buy. You can get a free trial for the UK Ordnance Survey 1;25,000 scale maps. These look much like the OS Explorer “Orange Top” printed maps – I guess the printed maps are just a rendering on paper of the electronic versions. Anyway, these electronic maps have the problem that they are raster maps so they get blurry at fine detail, however at the sort of scale you need for planning a geocaching trip (which is wanting to see between 2 and 10 km of map across the width of your screen) the resolution is fine and the maps look lovely. When your trial period runs out they will sting you for about £100 for the full Great Britain mapping. They look nice, as you can see in the samples below.

This leads me quite naturally into a discussion about the main weakness of using Memory-Map though. They don’t sell up-to-date maps for very many places apart from Great Britain (the 1:25,000 OS Explorer maps), France (the IGN 1:25,000 map) and the USA (DeLorme 1:24,000 topo maps). There’s a bunch of free ones for much of the world but they are of such a resolution that they are of no use for the purpose of planning caching trips (or writing blog posts about previous trips). Coverage of the world seems patchy, and I failed to find any reasonable way of making Memory-Map compatible maps from other inputs like Freizeitkarte. That’s not to say you can’t do it, it’s just to say I’ve not had the patience to sit and figure it out.

So, moving on, the second thing you need to make a decent geocaching planning tool is a way of uploading shed-loads of geocaches onto the map. In this case I wasn’t quite sure where to go until I stumbled across some documentation on Google about a macro written for GSAK (which I also use) which outputs content for Memory-Map based on caches stored in GSAK. The macro is written by rutson and it is available as one of the standard downloadable macros from GSAK on their online macro index. I won’t explain how to get there – if you don’t use GSAK you don’t need to know, and if you do use GSAK you’ll know where this is. The macro concerned appears in the online list as “rMMe” (rutson’s Memory Map export).

When I tried this the first time it was fully functional, but I had two issues with it :

  • It allocates icons to cache types in a way I didn’t like – some cache types were missing, the selection criterion for various parameters like “Found”, “Archived”, “Owned” and so on didn’t seem to be complete (Yes, I have some caches that I have found and that I now own, and which have corrected coordinates. The macro wouldn’t allow all of those in one icon).
  • I wasn’t particularly keen on the icons. If you’ve seen the post about Custom Icons you’ll know I like big, bold and clear colours and geometric shapes, so that they are easily discernible against the background of a busy map.

The way to get rid of these issues, as you would expect, was a bit time-consuming.

Cache Processing

The solution to the first of the two problems is evidently to rewrite the processing macro in GSAK to produce a different range of settings that equated to the items I wished to see. I started off with maintaining rMMe’s approach of marking caches that contain a trackable, but ultimately decided that I generally don’t plan on the basis of whether caches contain a trackable or not, so I decided to ignore that parameter. The things I thought to be important to include in the model were :

  • Found Status – this takes priority over the type of cache, as it does on the Groundspeak website – if I’ve found it, I don’t care what type it was any more. Found caches are always shown as smileys.
  • Cache type – Traditional, Unknown, Multi, Virtual, etc – There’s more different types than you think, so I contented myself with all the key types and then use a bucket “other” type for ones that will never occur frequently enough to be of concern (like “Project APE” and “Lost and Found Celebration”) – I chose to represent the type on the icons by using different colours and letters in a square box.
  • Active Status – is it Active, Disabled or Archived? – I represent this status on the icons by adding a grey diagonal bar for Disabled and a red diagonal bar for Archived, but I didn’t bother with Disabled for a “Found” cache
  • Ownership – For caches I own, I add a small green circle to the bottom right side of each icon, including on smileys. There was no need to create an “Owned” variant for some types, because I’ll never own a Virtual, a Webcam, a GPS Maze, a Mega Event or a Giga Event, for instance.
  • Corrected Coordinates – for types where the cache isn’t at the given coordinates (like Unknown, Multi, Letterbox and WherIGo) I add a small cyan circle at the top right when those corrected coordinates have been added to the cache, and not when it hasn’t. This identifies which caches are available to be found and which need some work (either now or in the field). I noticed on the current variant of the Groundspeak site it’s possible to add corrected coordinates to any cache, but it’s meaningless on types other than the four listed here.

Once I’d been through the process of deciding what different icons were needed for each cache, I also included some extra parameters which make the macro more useful for one of my purposes – blogging about historical days out. For those days, it’s often the case that the blog post is written well after the actual day, and sometimes that means the caches are in varying states of disrepair or are archived. I therefore included a “Show All Caches as Active” flag, which makes the macro ignore all the settings about status and just forces use of the “Active” variant of each icon. Occasionally I might like to draw a picture of all caches that someone else might see, i.e. ignoring my finds, so I added another flag to perform a “Show All Caches as Unfound” function. Finally, once you’ve updated the coordinates of a cache on the Groundspeak site and refreshed in GSAK then the coordinates appear to be the corrected ones. This is great for planning, but it’s a bit rubbish if the whole point of the trip was to create a piece of GeoArt (see Val D’Oise Madness, for instance). In that instance the Groundspeak website displays found caches at the given, not the corrected, coordinates, so GeoArt restores itself as you find the caches. To make Memory-Map do that you have to tell it to. The original coordinates are available in GSAK, but you have to choose to use those rather than the corrected ones. So, I added a “GeoArt Mode” flag, which forces use of the original rather than the corrected coordinates – see the third picture above – the one with the Mickey Mouse ears.

The original rMMe.gsk macro file already had the right structure for performing a loop over all of the displayed caches in GSAK and including an output line for them. It also had a small block for drawing the child waypoints out. This meant that all I had to do was to figure out how to change the core of the module to assign a different set of icons, and to apply the various control flags I wanted. That proved to be fairly easy once I’d read through the example a few times. The structure and meaning was quite apparent and quite simple to understand. Result!

Iconography

You can use as many different icons as you can be bothered with creating and programming for. There are some limits to how you do it, but the number can be quite large. The constraints on the icons are as follows :

  • They must be 32×32 pixels in size
  • They must be saved as 256-color bitmaps (.BMP)
  • Pure white (RGB 255.255.255) is treated by Memory-Map as a transparent layer, so if you need something white, pick a light cream colour instead. I found that RGB 255.251.240 gives a decent looking shade

I chose to edit them using MS Paint – it’s easy to use and clear enough for these very simple files. One issue is that MS Paint always allows you to edit in the full 256x256x256 RGB colour-space, so it’s a bit of a lottery whether the colours you’re using are actually available in the 256 colour palette (I couldn’t find a reliable source). The way around that is to pick a colour you like, then save the file as a 256-colour file, and then reopen it. MS Paint corrects any colour you’ve used to something that’s compatible with the 256-colour palette.

Somewhere in the configuration for Memory-Map is an entry which determines which pixel in the icon is placed over coordinates. In mine, it’s set to about 16,16 and I drew icons that are about 20 pixels square in size (always at the top right of a 32×32 frame. This means that, when being drawn by Memory-Map, the icon appears mainly to the top-left of the coordinates. For caches that are directly on a public footpath that’s advantageous, because the icon mainly covers the whitespace above the path on the map rather than covering the path.

Enough with the chat, how do I use this for myself

Here are the things you need to do to set this up.

There are two downloads here. One contains the GSAK macro, the other contains all the icon and configuration files.

  1. Download and unpack the GSAK macro. Install it in GSAK by taking the Macros -> Run/Manage menu option and then hitting the Install button – this produces another dialog where you can browse to this macro file and upload it
  2. Select a database in GSAK that has some caches in it and then Run the GSAK macro for the first time. This will, amongst other things, hunt for an installed version of Memory Map and create the relevant folders for later use. It install rutson’s original icons into the directory but these aren’t used.
  3. Navigate to C:\Users\’Me’\AppData\Roaming\gsak\MemoryMap\icons (where ‘Me’ is the current user) – You should see a bunch of icons and config files. You can delete all of them if you want. rutson’s original version has his icon data embedded in the macro and I didn’t remove this.
  4. Download the .ZIP file with the icons in
  5. Unpack the icons .ZIP into C:\Users\’Me’\AppData\Roaming\gsak\MemoryMap\icons

Everything is now installed, so you’re good to go. You should see my icons being used instead of rutson’s. The key file for this bit of configuration is header.txt – This makes the association between the icon file name and the integer number used to represent it in the Memory-Map upload.

How do I use it?

It’s quite easy. When you run the macro it brings up the dialog below. You can tell I didn’t spend much time tidying it up. I may do that at a later date. The result is that some of rutson’s original features don’t work now (as I didn’t want them).

Key areas of the dialog :

  • At the top left you can select the folder where output files are generated. I’m creating them in the same folder that the icons and input config files are stored.
  • Below that, you can define the name for the output file – it creates a .CSV file. You can use the last name, or the GSAK database name, or choose a custom name.
  • Below this, there’s a number of checkboxes which control the outputs. The names make it fairly obvious what will happen. “Add route?” adds a simple straight-line route from one cache to the next (but as far as I can tell the means of doing this is uncontrollable). “Display Spiders?” shows original and corrected coordinates separately and draws a straight line between the two on a cache-by-cache basis. “Display All as Unfound?” and “Display All as Active?” override the GSAK status for found and active/disabled/archived statuses. “GeoArt Mode?” ignores corrected coordinates and displays caches at the original coordinates (where there’s a difference).
  • On the top right is a group of controls “Links To” which I ignored and don’t use.
  • Below that are three flags that control whether child waypoints are displayed. I have written the macro such that if a child waypoint has the same coordinates as the cache then the display of the child is suppressed – this removes a lot of clutter. If you chose to output the child waypoints, you can further elect whether to suppress output of children for found caches or for disabled/archived ones.

Hitting the Go button on the dialog takes the selected parameters and creates an output file. It then invokes Memory-Map and uploads the created file.

Note then when you load Overlay data into Memory-Map it’s not clever enough to figure out whether there’s already a waypoint with the same name, so you get duplicates if you reload the same caches. I’ve noticed this causing some strange behaviours and it certainly clutters the whole shebang, so my recommendation is that before you run the GSAK macro you should always go into Memory-Map and use the Overlay -> Delete All… menu option to clear stuff away.

You’ll notice if you pull up the Overlay Objects panel in Memory-Map the caches are grouped by cache type and found status. You can double-click items in the side-panel to get the map to centre on that item.

Waivers and Restrictions

The downloads above are, to the best of my knowledge, free of malware. However, I take no responsibility for that. Please scan anything you download (from anywhere, not just from me).

You may make copies whenever and wherever you want. However, if you break it then you own both pieces.

There is no copyright on any of the downloadable material. If you are going to rework it, I would appreciate it if you could credit myself and rutson when you do so. You may not use this material as the basis for a commercial offering. It’s free shareware – please keep it that way.

These materials were written for personal use by myself. You use them at your own risk and I don’t provide a helpdesk. I may update the features and repost occasionally. There is no warranty and I take no liability, under any circumstances.


Tunnelling

Tunnelling

Mr Google advised that we had a very long way to go. We were in the car by 6am because we supposedly had at least 9 hours of actual driving to do and needed to cover 870km just to get to Calais, so with the need to make stops we back-calculated that 12 hours would be our minimum journey time. The reality proved somewhat different, but fundamentally we spent all day travelling.

Getting out of Grenoble at 6am on a Sunday morning was very easy and there was pretty much nothing on the road. I’d planned not to make stops for caches during the day as timings looked tight and I didn’t want geocaching to be the reason for any failure. As a result we proceeded directly through Rhône and Metropolis de Lyon without stopping for a cache, and we found ourselves all the way up at the Saint Ambreuil services near Chalon-sur-Saône at 8am, having already covered 225 of the 870km. That sounded like time for breakfast, so we gave ourselves a decent break, filled the car up with fuel, and had something to eat and drink.

Kas took over the driving here and drove a massively long but very quick stint which got us all the way to Sommesous in another 2 ½ hours. It was only 11:30am and we’d already done nearly ⅔ of the distance.

We didn’t really feel like having a proper meal, so we found a cache and grabbed some thoroughly unhealthy sweet snacks in the garage, which ate mainly whilst sitting outside, and then we got back into the car for another stint. By this time we’d realised we were going to be very early, but decided we might as well get to Calais as soon as we could. There was always the option of getting an earlier train, or so we thought.

We’d got another 350km to go before Calais, which we assumed would be another 3 hours or so. Even with another impromptu toilet stop, we made it to the terminal at 3pm, so three full hours less than Google suggested.

It was at this point that the day started to go downhill at a rapid rate. We weren’t getting an earlier train. Why not ? Because the terminal was so busy that they wouldn’t even let you drive up to the check-in gate unless you were within two hours of your scheduled departure time. So we got directed off site, around the houses a bit, and onto a massive holding area where we were segregated out in approximately one-hour lots.

We sat there for 90 minutes before being allowed through, and then spent another hour getting checked in and passing through the two passport controls. At least we were on the train I’d booked (or so we thought, again).

The terminal building was heaving, as ever. We queued up to grab some pizzas for dinner and then killed a further 20 minutes not buying anything in the duty-free shop before deciding to go sit in the car. 20 minutes after getting in the car we agreed we might be able to blag our way into the holding pen (because they were calling the train two in front of us), so we trundled round and got separated off into a lane for our allotted train. And that’s where we stayed for another 90 minutes. The trains were all running late, because I think they fill them up to the gunwales rather than sending them off on time. The problem on a night like this is that there were so many people who had flexiplus tickets that cars were essentially being bounced off their allotted trains. Anyway, whatever the reason, we eventually got away about an hour after we were supposed to.

All of this put us back into the UK somewhat after 8pm, and we’d realised that we weren’t going to be getting home in time for the Co-Op still to be open. Also, I’d been in the driver’s seat since we left Sommesous, so it was time for a driver change. We stopped at the first lot of services out of the tunnel, having taken a slightly rural route to get there when I missed the mane as we entered the motorway. We grabbed a few snacks and drinks to eat at home and then set off again.

The motorways home were busy, like they always are, and we eventually made it home at around 10:30pm, having driven 1,080km (or 670 miles) over the course of the day. I thought it took a long time to get home from Aberdeen when I’d done it three weeks previously. We’d been travelling for 18 hours and had been out of bed for 19. After a quick snack, Kas and me went straight to bed because we’d both got work in the morning.


Vizille

Vizille

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We started our day out fairly late on this day. Kas decided that going up to the Bastille on the téléphérique the previous day wasn’t strenuous enough, so in the morning she decided to run up it as part of a long morning run. While she was doing that, the girls and me returned to the branch of Paul in Caserne de Bonne for some breakfast. Now we knew the form it was a better experience than the previous morning. Kas joined us as we were finishing, having done her run and gone for a shower.

While we were there, I took the opportunity to go and find a geocache in the gardens outside Caserne de Bonne that I’d been unable to find previously due to it being in a very busy spot. Even this morning there was a guy sitting right on top of where I thought it was – under the end of a bridge. I tried looking from the other side of the bridge and managed to establish the location, but I couldn’t reach it from where I was. The guy seemed in no hurry to move so I decided to go ask him ( or tell him ) what I was doing so he didn’t get spooked by my presence. He didn’t respond. He didn’t seem bothered, to be honest, so I went for it and did the doings. Throughout the whole process he didn’t so much as look. After leaving the site I figured this lack of communication a symptom of a state of being that later turned him into “shouty bloke”, so I ended up thinking it wasn’t such a great idea to go so close to someone who obviously wwasn’t entirely there.

By the time we were all done it was approaching midday. We hadn’t really spent much time thinking about this day beforehand, but the previous day had decided we’d go and try the castle down at Vizille. We’d thought a little about going up into the “proper” mountains but I think by the time we got here we’d done our share of long days in the car, and as a result the enthusiasm for spending a couple of hours each way driving to the mountains was pretty much missing. Vizille promised to be no more than half an hour away. It also had the advantage of being somewhere I hadn’t visited previously on three visits to the city forty years previously, so I had no idea what to expect.

It was easy to park and there was a cache in the back of the car park that I managed to squeeze in while one of the kids was farting about with footwear. The chateau is quite impressive – the biggest in the Dauphiné, apparently, and it’s been kept (or restored) in good condition. A great dollop of irony was introduced in 1984 when a wing of the Chateau was redeveloped as a Museum to the French Revolution, after the castle became government property and was donated to the Community Council of Isère in 1973. The castle has extensive gardens and that’s where we focussed our attention. There are false canals (part of an early water-powered scheme for the town and castle), a parterre and lots of lawns. There was a kids’ playground but Ami wasn’t bothered and Izzy gave up after a few minutes because the playpark was full of children. I guess we probably spend an hour and a half walking around before deciding to retire for an ice-cream. It was a bit cloudy but still very warm and humid.

To get ice-creams we walked out of the front gate of the castle into the town. We found a place that sold granités – we developed a taste for these in Italy on last year’s holidays but it was the first time our eye had been drawn to one in France.

After sitting outside for a bit we decided we’d had enough for the day, so we drove back to the apartment and camped down for a while. I think we were starting to get the “going home” feeling.

We went out for dinner at about 6pm and found a boutique burger joint – nicer than McDonalds but not really a restaurant as such. The burgers were good. From here we moved next door and had a beer while the kids ran around and got wet in a fountain in the street.

We walked back home again and got most of the packing done. We had an early start in the morning and didn’t want to be late to bed and didn’t want to drink much. According to Google, we’d got 870km to drive just to get to Calais and we needed to be there by about 6pm, so we’d planned an early start. Google reckoned we should allow 12 hours. We were in bed by 9:30pm.


Bastille

Bastille

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We went for a lazy breakfast at a branch of “Paul” which was right next to our apartment block. We toyed with the idea of going to the place next door until it became apparent that they didn’t actually have much that would constitute breakfast. OK, so we sat down, and then got up two or three times to try to find a menu or look at what they actually sold, and failed. The girls were in various states of grump or of resignation to having to have something they didn’t want or weren’t sure about. It caused me a bit of a sense of humour crisis – we’re at the point where nobody seems happy. Let’s go somewhere else. So we walked into “Paul” next door and were treated to a grand array of sandwiches and pastries all neatly laid out behind the counter and labelled. Being able to point is much better when trying to order food in a language you don’t speak very well. We grabbed a handful of breakfastables and made our way to their outdoor tables – it was a rather warm day again.

After breakfast we headed off for our primary target for the day – a trip up to Grenoble’s Bastille. This is a prominent feature from most of the city centre, because unlike the Parisian Bastille, Grenoble’s is on top of a mountain. I guess the prison builders in Paris didn’t have the option to put theirs on a mountain, but you get the point.

The foot of the mountain was about 1.5km away from where we were staying, and involved a leisurely walk through the old town centre. This gave us the opportunity for a bit of sightseeing and a couple of geocaches before we eventually found our way to the bottom station of the Téléphérique that leads up to the Bastille. There was another geocache at the bottom station, which I was obviously duty-bound to look for.

The ride up in the bubbles was like sitting in a greenhouse on a sunny day for 10 minutes – it was a bit warm. We got our own back in some small way by completing a virtual geocache that requires you to photograph your thumbs, with a ghost drawn on them, whilst rattling over the one and only supporting pylon on the cable-car. In your face, sunshine ! You’re not going to stop us from acting like children…

At the top the view is fantastic. It was a little cloudy the day we were there, so the tops of the Belledonne massif were a bit hidden from view, but the view over the city towards the south and the view west towards the Vercors was excellent. I loved this place the first time I went up there, maybe 40 years previously, and I loved it again. The fortress has been improved somewhat by the addition of cafes, a couple of new buildings that house little museums, and some excellent information boards which mainly relate to the geological features of the mountains that you can’t really appreciate from the valley floor. Several of these information boards had earthcaches attached to them, so that kept me occupied for a little while. A little too long though, so it seemed. The heat was taking its toll, even up here and somehow Kas had managed to trip up on something and make herself bleed. We beat a tactical retreat from the tops of the buildings and retired to a made shaded bit to collect our thoughts and formulate a plan of action. Our plans generally end up being more acceptable to the majority of the family if they are formulated with the assistance of ice-cream, so that’s how we did it.

The plan involved walking down again rather than catching the bubbles. Downhill is easier than uphill, and there are multiple routes down the mountain which pass through different types of scenery on a theme of “wooded hillside with bastion walls” – we picked the route to the east side, which had a greater quantity of geocaches on the way down. It was slightly further to walk downhill, but it drops you off in a better place. The walk down was entertaining, although the kids were grumpy. It turned out that they were grumpy because the caches were all earthcaches, with nothing to actually find. As soon as we reached ones that had actual boxes to find then the mood picked up quite a lot. Ami enjoyed scrambling up a bank and through some trees to fetch one, and was then doubly pleased when she pulled out one cache that I’d been staring at for a couple of minutes without recognising it.

Once at the bottom we were about ready for a break again, so we stumbled into a nearby bar and had a beer whilst waiting for what turned out to be some beautifully hand-cooked chips. I think it was “La Renaissance” on Place aux Herbes – a pleasant little square in the old town.

From here, the ladies of the house decided they wanted to spend the rest of their afternoon snoozing and shopping, so they wandered off in the general direction of home while I went off for a few more geocaches. For this phase I stayed down in the city centre, checking off a selection of real and virtual caches. I got the routing wrong and walked backwards and forwards quite a lot, but made a pretty decent sweep, including finding one outside the famous Grenoble Helicoidal Garage that we’d failed at earlier in the day due to the presence of some geezers sitting at a nearby table. When I went back, the table was clear, but it turned out the cache wasn’t there anyway. The owner of the bar that owned the cafe table came out to direct me a little further along the street. Once I got there I found the cache immediately, so I decided to celebrate and think him by popping into his cafe to buy a drink.

Subsequent walking took me to a selection of the best bits of Grenoble, including the old Roman walls, the Lycée Stendhal and Place Verdun. It was like a bit of a throwback to 40 years previously – which was the last time I’d walked around central Grenoble. Memories now rebooted and updated to the modern era. I toyed with the idea of walking round to Parc Paul Mistral too, but eventually decided that it was time for a break rather than time for another hour and a half of caching.

We went for dinner fairly early to a pizza place in Caserne de Bonne and, because we were back fairly early, I was able to sit up for a while trying to collate notes from the new personal best I’d set for the number of earthcaches found on the same day. I didn’t finish them though.

Relatively early to bed, because Kas was going to run back to the Bastille in the morning, so she wanted to be in the snoozy zone fairly early.


Grenoble

Grenoble

We left Vallon Point d’Arc at about 10am after a very leisurely start to the day. Kas ducked out of running as it was a “moving” day and we hadn’t packed the night before. We made one final run down to the bakery to buy fresh pastries and then had a quick breakfast before packing everything up. We’d reached the stage of the holiday where we could segregate dirty clothes into separate suitcases. Having done some washing in Luz Saint Sauveur I think we were at about 50:50 still, so we were able to pack two of the suitcases entirely with dirty stuff and then leave them in the car.

On the way out of Vallon we took the northern road, which goes past the Caverne du Pont d’Arc on its way through Bourg-Saint-Andéol and then Pierrelatte on it’s way to the A7, which runs between Marseille and Lyon. We somehow managed to get lost when we got confused about the nature of a large blue line on the map. It was the river, but it didn’t appear to be so, and this is a confusing bit where the Rhône has two channels and we were expecting only one. So we lost a few minutes driving in the wrong direction and then recovering by driving along some distinctly rural routes.

Once we made it to the motorway we headed off pretty quickly to the north and made a short stop at some services near Montélimar. This allowed me to colour in the department of Drôme by finding the “only cache in the services” as well as grabbing some cold drinks and letting the kids run around in the playground and climb on the rope frame for a while.

From here it was quite a quick drive up to Valence and then it took another hour or so from there to get into Grenoble, our destination for the following three nights. We were all parked up and into our apartment by 2pm, which was cool. Lunch was on the agenda next, and we took a walk out to the nearby Caserne de Bonne shopping centre to see what we could see. We saw a place that did cold drinks and fries. They did other stuff too, but they weren’t required.

Grenoble might not seem like the most obvious of places to go at the end of a holiday, but a number of things influenced the decision. Firstly, we’d originally planned to go to Divonne-les-Bains, on the other side of Geneva, because there’s a parkrun there, but a few days before we set off we conclude that we were only planning to go there because of the parkrun – no other reason – and it didn’t feel like a good enough excuse to warrant three nights. Secondly, we’d been pretty much out in the countryside for a fortnight and thought it might be good to finish off with a short city break. Thirdly, we’d sort of figured this was about as far away from Calais as we dare risk whilst still be confident of getting there in a single day.

Finally, and probably most importantly for me, it’s a place I had ingrained in my memory from when I was a kid. One of the first trips I took abroad, and certainly the first I took abroad without my parents, was on a school exchange visit. Somehow the school I was at had come to an unlikely arrangement with the Lycée Stendhal whereby about 30 of our pupils visited them for a couple of weeks in the spring, and then a corresponding number of theirs would visit us in the summer term. It was back in the good old days when everybody was apparently trustworthy, so the sleeping arrangements involved each of us staying with a French family who had a child in the Stendhal for the duration. I stayed with a wonderful family who I won’t name. It turns out that the family father was really rather famous within his sphere of work, although we never really discussed it while I was there. Anyway, my adoptive friend was a little younger than me and was their youngest child. At the time I was about 12, maybe 13. I can’t really remember what year it was. Either 1977 or 1978 the first time I went. I know the second time was 1980 and the third was 1982, but can’t remember the year of the first. I might even have been 1979 the first time, but I don’t think it was that late. Past history, anyway.

I still have quite vivid and very fond memories of the three trips I made to Grenoble and also to the five or six-year period I spent exchanging letters with my new friend. A part of that gig was for both of us to practice our language skills, but to be honest I’m not sure how well I did on that front, because the mother of the family spoke pretty much perfect English. Anyway, I remember very distinctly where they lived, I remember the three tall white tower blocks that are still there, and I remember using the téléphérique to go up to the Bastille (more of that tomorrow). The main thing that lodged in my memory, although the mental images had diminished somewhat, was the mountains. Since I last went to Grenoble I’d subsequently been skiing about 20 times and have visited several other fairly mountainous locations, but in my humble opinion, Grenoble gives the starkest contrast between mountainous country and urban living. The mountains are huge, especially on the eastern side where they rise up into the “proper” Alps of the Belledonne massif. I also remembered a pretty good old town centre. Grenoble’s old centre is small but perfectly formed, and it didn’t seem to have changed all that much.

Two things that definitely weren’t there last time I visited the city were the Caserne de Bonne Shopping Centre and geocaches. Kas took the girls for a walk around the former after we’d eaten lunch, while I wandered off to find some of the latter, thereby completing the department of Isère. This proved to be the final new department for the holiday, although far from the last caches of the holiday. We didn’t really have the time to stop in Rhône or Metropolis de Lyon on the final day, or at least we thought we didn’t, but we’d done enough to join up a circle with various departments we’d cached through in 2016 (see Chamonix). That looked good enough for me as far as this holiday was concerned.

Back at the non-caching activities, I met up with the girls again back at the apartment and we decided to find some dinner by just going out for a walk and seeing what came up. We walked down a few relatively disappointingly empty streets before eventually finding the rather excellent Cafe Quai d’Orsay on Rue Condorcet. They didn’t normally do food on a Thursday evening, but they did have a snacks menu, so we thought we’d try. After a brief discussion between the staff, a guy who we assumed was the owner came forward and offered a selection of things that he could do without needing the chef to be there. OK, so I know that sounds like a really dodgy way to do anything, but the verbally-conveyed menu du jour included burgers and chips, which the kids went for, and carpaccio, which Kas and me both went for. It was really rather good, and was accompanied by a couple of equally nice beers. He managed to rustle up a couple of puddings for the girls too, which was even better. Sometimes when you go “random” like this on a holiday it can end up being rather a disappointment, and other times it can be a bit of a surprise.

It hadn’t been a particularly long day but we decided to jack it in fairly early and get to bed anyway. Kas was off running in the morning at some godforsaken hour.