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Vinon is France's gliding heaven

Régis Kuntz, a former air-traffic controller who heads Vinon-sur-Verdon's gliding platform. (Click to view larger version...)
Régis Kuntz, a former air-traffic controller who heads Vinon-sur-Verdon's gliding platform.
Strong thermals have created a gliding heaven in Provence. (Click to view larger version...)
Strong thermals have created a gliding heaven in Provence.
Provence boasts 300 days of sunshine a year (well, not this year...), splendid scenery, magnificent Roman monuments, great food and a unique quality of life. But some people come to Provence from all over Europe for an altogether different reason: the region's strong and regular "thermals."

Thermals are columns of warm, rising air which occur under specific weather and terrain conditions. In the sunny plains and valleys at the foothills of the Southern Alps, the quality of thermals has created a gliding heaven. "Gliding," says Régis Kuntz, a former sky controller who heads Vinon-sur-Verdon's platform, "is nothing but the art of riding thermals and using them to remain airborne."

Vinon is home to the largest gliding club (600 members) and training centre in France. The small airfield's location is strategic: less than 40 kilometres to the north, small mountain ranges and steep cliffs, like the Montagne de Lure or the rock formation in Les Mées, provide beginners with ideal flying conditions. From Vinon, more experienced gliders routinely do the "Grand Tour," a 1,000-kilometre circuit which takes them all the way to Mont Blanc, Western Europe's highest peak (4,810 metres), and back.

There's no age for gliding. One can get a licence at age 15, and "several people have joined the Club after retiring, at age 60 or 65. It doesn't make much difference, except that it takes them a bit longer to learn the theory."

But don't expect to get a bird's-eye view of the ITER worksite from one of the club's 25 gliders: the area is part of CEA-Cadarache "no-fly zone," whose radius, after 9/11, has been "temporarily extended" from 3 to 5 kilometres. Good neighbours, though, always find a way to accommodate each others' demands. The "no-fly zone" has been slightly truncated to allow tow planes to briefly head south before releasing the gliders.

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