Category Archives: 2018 Summer Tour

2018 Highlights, 2019 Plans

Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon? Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?
Mary Oliver (The Summer Day)

2018; another year of memories gathered, activities enjoyed and goals achieved. In some ways it was more of a transitional year, a soft landing leading from constant travel in Benny to a return to a more rooted existence. House-sits and WorkAways helped reconnect us to the idea of motionless living. We regained the love of sitting still, of being a part of a small community. Of creating use from objects, of honest labour, productive acts, holding local knowledge. The coming year has much to live up to.

TMB Day 8 (Enjoying the downhill)

Annecy - (first view of lake)

Everything in our recent travels had been generalisation. We had spent little time anywhere, passing through and glimpsing only a sliver of the life of each place. One blurred facet of one afternoon, one small portion of a village or town, and yet we reacted and drew conclusions from the visit. We judged, we opined, we decided our mood and experience based on the scantest of evidence, the whims of the weather. Destinations were deemed perfect, poor, terrible or terrific on the strength of that short, solitary instant. We jumped to thin, creative judgements of boastful self-indulgence. Our experiences were unique to us, to that time, and, in all honesty, tell others nothing of true value of the place or the people we encountered. These travel-through screenshots represent a momentary mirage, an insubstantial connection as we rudely, uninvited, threaded our lives into those of locals. Nothing is complete, nothing lasts, no description by any tourist day-tripper can capture a place with dependable emotion and clarity.

Our House - (from the pool)

Now, we were settled. We have a base, a home. We are able to make longer judgement on an area, our area, no longer reliant on tentative and superficial first impressions. We no longer need to be presumptuous. We can creep below the surface and uncover a new layer of reality, a deeper understanding beyond the trivial veneer we normally witness. We are no longer only travellers, but residents, and have the right to both observe and absorb at leisure.

Our days are filled with a different type of experience. Different dreams.

Lake Vassiviere (swim exit)

Key highlights of 2018

Completed several house-sits and WorkAway projects, befriending great new people and learning new skills
Attended and completed our first SwimRun event at Lake Vassivière, France
Hiked the Tour du Mont Blanc, a 180km multi-day trek through three countries (France, Switzerland and Italy)
Crossed the longest pedestrian suspension bridge in the world near Zermatt, Switzerland
Bought a home in south-west France, to be our new regular base for future travels.
Participated in three 10km races in the wine regions of northern Spain and two more locally in southern France
Spent the days before Christmas soaking up the festive atmosphere in Paris

Paris (eiffel tower lit at night)

Key goals for 2019

To run my first marathon, with a finishing time starting with a 3. A 16-week training schedule is underway and going well so far. The distance and the time are both feeling achievable, barring injury or other catastrophe. We will see.

To write better, focused pieces, deeper dives into the meaning of travel, beginning with a new Medium account. The focus will be on improving the storytelling rather than simple diary posts following our daily travel exploits. I’m also writing a draft of my first novel, to see where the process takes me, even if the final product is unusable and flawed.

Additional time is to be given over to painting, specifically line & wash watercolours. I’m tentatively considering that the novel above could evolve into an illustrated graphic novel, but time, technique and talent may have a say on that outcome. My aim is to produce paintings I would be contented to see hanging on our new French walls.

To complete all the on-going projects around our new French home. Alongside the typical DIY works, I hope to build a few detailed furniture pieces, design and construct several stained glass windows, and plant a fruit tree orchard. All new skills to learn.

To continue to travel around Europe, with shorter trips to north eastern Spain, Cote d’Azur and the Italian Dolomites already planned, and others under consideration. We are also looking at trips further afield, a few flights of fancy to faraway lands.

DAY 11 - Brevents panorama

Brantome - (panorama)

Randa (Bridge Panorama)

Haro - (panorama)

We have nothing but time, yet we never seem to have enough. To paraphrase The Great Gatsby, life may well be much more successful when looked at through a single window, but we don’t want to sign up to the limitations that implies. We don’t want to expend all our energy on the pursuit of only one goal. We want to dabble in everything that interests us, and that includes many subjects. We may not be capable of achieving brilliance at any one activity without focused dedication, but that’s okay. Enjoying a taste of many things won’t bring excellence, but it will bring interest, satisfaction and stave off boredom. We dabble at kayaking, cycling, running, skiing, open water swimming, chess, free-diving, painting, furniture-making, woodworking, quizzing, gardening, cooking, writing, mountain climbing, guitar playing, piano, beer brewing, sketching, poetry, photography, mathematics, astronomy, theatre, scuba-diving, movies, learning languages, and blogging. We read biographies, science journals, logic manuals, graphic novels, contemporary fiction, Arctic exploration histories, travel monologues, legal opinions, and everything in between. And long may our thirst for the new continue.

We want to be generalists, not specialists. And we want to continue to explore every avenue we can.

A&N x

Spain – River Ebro & Casalarreina

Waking up at Nanclares la Oca we found the overhead planes had now paused but the traffic flow had increased, leaving the humming background noise much the same. With no specific plans for a few days, we were meandering southwards, to be a little closer to our next organised run near to La Rioja’s famous wine region.

We followed the river Zadorra south on a free motorway before suddenly remembering our Wild Swimming Spain book had described a few tempting places in this area. So we quickly looked them up, hopped off at the next junction and were soon parked up on the outskirts of the sleepy village of La Puebla de Arganzón. We walked through the empty stone streets, walls lit in bright sun or hidden in deep shade. We first found a street-level balcony that offered wonderful views over the river and what we assumed was an old mill pond, replete with ducks and egrets. This was the spot. We found another street that led down to the old stone bridge where, courtesy of a weir underneath, the deep pond began.

We had no deep desires to swim today, as despite the occasional bout of bright sun the air had a real sharpness, the chill of winter-coming, and we imagined the water similar. But the setting was beautiful and we enjoyed imagining the thrills of dipping here, in this joyous rural setting, on too-hot summer days.

We drove on, parallel to the motorway on an empty road, only a few easy miles to the next village, Armiñón. We parked on the generous main street and again found the river, hidden away behind grey façades. This was another wonderful looking swim spot, surrounded by tall reeds, overhanging trees and even a concrete platform with a niche to fit a diving board to, it likely stored for winter safe-keeping. There were reddish crayfish exploring the pool shallows and we wondered if they were local, or an invasive species who simply thrived in this region, like us. We watched them squabble a while as they foraged at the edges.

We next planned to stop in Miranda de Ebro, but a police car was blocking the entry road into the aire for unknown reasons, so we decided to keep moving. Chris and Nadine, whom we met at Ulibarri-Gamboa lake, had recommended driving the northern bank of the Ebro, from a nearby dam into the deep mountain gorges, so we now took this advice.

The first few kilometres were industrial lands, all pipework and chimneys, corrugated tin and rusting gates – an inauspicious start. But soon we turned left, off the main road and onto one that closely hugged the river banks. This was a different drive now.

River Ebro Drive - (gorges)

The road snaked like the river, the right side a crumbling cliff face and the left all high gorges, rugged and pitted, their tops hidden in low cloud. The blue-grey river flowed fast beside us, its surface churned confusingly in straight lines, like a boat wake but constantly renewed from below. We passed the dam and continued west, further into the mountainous gorge. We drove 10km more before turning around and retracing our steps along the same stretch, seeing it again from a different but equally engrossing perspective.

Casalarreina - (Aaron at monastery)

The aire was reopened on our return but it was scruffy and rough, so we decided to move on rather than visit Miranda centre. We chose Casalarreina, and we were so pleased we did. The drive there was classic Spain; over steep mountain passes leading to wide open plains. There were grey jagged mountain peaks behind with dusty stubble fields in front, a scattering of occasional tall trees in yellows and reds, masses of dying sunflowers with drooping heads and unending rows of well-tended vines, their leaves beginning to turn orange or red for autumn. This was all so close by yet a world apart from the ugly industrial installations on the outskirts of Miranda de Ebro.

Casalarreina - (Benny in aire)

We easily found the quiet aire in Casalarreina, set behind a walled monastery, each bay overhung by beautiful willow trees. We were the only guests; it was utterly serene. The village had a gentle, calm feel about it, with a small river and tuneful distant church bells. We saw a few locals working on the church walls, some walking dogs and others pushing prams, all seemingly contented. We would be happy to call this our home for a few days.

A&N X

France – Saint-Junien & Saint Pardoux

After our relaxing, relatively speaking, week of birthdays and dinner parties, we continued with our renovations and works.  We were refreshed, attacking jobs with a renewed vigour and keener eye. We ticked off many items but our to-do list continued to grow longer as we discovered other items needing replaced or other projects we suddenly felt excited by.  Ensuring variation in our tasks kept our interest and energy high.  Our focus is on working hard, but we have the freedom to stop, rest, take a day off, have a dip in the pool or try something new when the mood takes us.  We are tied to nothing, our time is ours to use as we wish. We have been foraging, baking cakes, learning music and languages, stone wall building, roofing, planning orchard tree layouts, digging our fledgling vegetable patch.

LaJourdanie- (our first veg bed)

A previously ignored stone chicken shed, with a semi-collapsed roof, surrounded by weeds and with years of thick, compacted rubble inside was suddenly seen as a potential man-cave.  I would sneak away to work on clearing this at intervals between prepping or painting walls.  Looking for more outside jobs whilst the weather was good, Nicky got excited about uncovering the circular stone well set tight on our boundary.  It was almost entirely blanketed in ivy, with a thick carpet of moss on the broken canal tiles scattered loosely around its ineffective roof.  We added its revival to our long list of to-do works.  We dipped in and out of these unessential garden jobs at the whims of mood and weather, enjoying our time outside and the constant, obvious progress that such distinctive clearances offered.

LaJourdanie- (Well roof - before)

LaJourdanie- (Well roof - after)

We had a visit from friends Monica and Ken from our previous house-sit in Cazeneuve.  After a long, enjoyable road trip on their shiny new Triumph motorbikes, they arrived with us early afternoon.  We fell into their easy company, swimming in our pool in the afternoon heat and sipping beers as we caught up.  We later walked around our place, giving them the full tour and garnering their helpful opinions and experiences on the works we are undertaking or planning to do.  We took a leisurely walk along a local grassy chemin to loop around a small lake, before returning for an al-fresco dinner and drinks.  We sat outside until darkness then retired to our lounge and chatted long into the night.  After breakfast we said our goodbyes as they headed off to further explore our region, visiting our recommendations of Oradour-sur-Glane and Brantôme.

St-Junien- (nicky with planes)

St-Junien- (aerobatic planes)

One fine day, as a different sort of effort, we cycled the 30km to Saint-Junien to visit an advertised airshow.  We followed minor roads and off-road trails where we could, waggling our way north all the time. The route was mostly downhill, a very pleasant roll passing through the small hamlet of St-Martin-de-Jussac to the river Vienne where we crossed the bridge into St-Brice-sur-Vienne.  Only then did we face a long, steep climb away from the river to the top end of Saint-Junien to reach the hosting airfield.  We abandoned our bikes and walked into the event, exploring lines of classic cars and obscure farming equipment, cannons and warfare implements, all manner of motorbikes and of course, small acrobatic planes that were the star of the event.  Local flights were available for all who wished it.

St-Junien- (classic cars)

St-Junien- (before and after car)

We checked out the museum displays and small stalls, surprised that the show was not busier.  We read posters describing in detail many planes and their uses, and watched a long queue of people take their turn to experience a virtual reality flying experience.  After a thorough look around and a few cheap sugary crêpes to fuel us, we got back on our bikes.  We took a different route home, simply for variation and exploratory purposes.  We passed through similar scenery and beautiful but hilly woodland paths, before stopping at Saint-Auvent to look in their pretty church.  Soon after, we paused at the étang de la Pouge, a long, thin lake that we hoped might have swim potential.  There were no signs saying no, but with the presence of fishermen, we feared it was not the best location for swimming.

Condat-sur-vienne - (race start)

Condat-sur-vienne - (us at race)

We entered a local 10km race, as something to shake us from our slumber on an otherwise lazy Sunday morning.  We drove twenty minutes to the village of Condat-sur-Vienne where the race would begin, parking in a nearby Lidl car-park.  It was a busy event, popular and bustling, and we felt good to be a small part of such a thriving running community.  The run took us on closed roads and along gravelled woodland tracks, with overhanging trees providing welcome shade from the morning sun.  52 minutes later we had completed our two laps of the marked 5km loop, having enjoyed the wonderful paths and the cheering crowds.  The mayor and other eminent locals presented a wealth of prizes in multiple categories, along with a tombola, using your race number, that gifted bottles of wine.

St-Pardoux - (Running walkways)

After a further few weeks of house-related works, we decided to treat ourselves with another break, this time a long weekend at Saint PardouxWe had visited it previously, enjoying the swimming lake and woodland trails, and it was close by, only 40 mins north of us.  We reached the comfortable aire, much less busy than on our last visit, and picked out a prime spot to relax into.  We knew our way around from before, so it was easy to plan our days here.  We ran each morning, following the coastal woodland trails on soft paths of tree roots and pine needles.  With only one bridge splitting the lake, we faced either a 27km loop of the entire lake, or more local laps around the lake edge and inland backroads.  The latter enabled us to create circular routes of 10 to 12km which suited our running level.

St-Pardoux - (lake sunset)

St-Pardoux - (causeway to island)

St-Pardoux - (returning to the lake)

Post-run, we rewarded ourselves with plenty of beach time, thinking of nothing other than the book in our hand as we soaked up the toasting sun.  We had frequent cooling dips into the cloudy water, but little real swimming.  Still feeling a little disappointed with her swimming performance in this summer’s SwimRun event, Nicky tried out various combinations of trainers, floats and neoprene shorts trying to find the optimal, speedy solution for her.  From the beach I timed her swims from buoy to buoy to ascertain how each outfit fared.  We ventured out for short evening walks, enjoying the burst of deep-red sunsets over the still water and the soothing sounds of calling birds.  Other motorhomes came and went, milling around busily, as we stayed still, unruffled, the calm centre of our restful universe.

LaJourdanie- (picking apples)

Fresh bread, croissants and pastries were available from a well-stocked vending machine behind the tourist building, refilled twice daily, so we had no need to move.  We could have stayed longer, enjoying our running and the fresh, lake-side air.  But we decided to return home after two nights and three days, as we found ourselves missing our house, and jobs not yet began were creeping back into our thoughts.  We were being taken over by a compulsion to work, to keep busy, to better our nest.  We wonder how long the novelty will last, this daily excitement of hard, physical work, so we want to utilise our willingness and drive whilst the determination still exists.  Yet these two nights in Benny, our time filled with runs and swims, re-sparked the interest and excitement of the road again.

Longer trips will soon be visible on our horizon.

A&N x

France – Our first house-guest, the Birthday Girl

We invited Nicky’s mum Margaret to visit us, for the week spanning the occasion of her 71st birthday.  Sorry, 51st, she reminded me.  She was to be our first non-neighbouring visitor to see our new home and we were delighted to pause works and play at hosts.

LaJourdanie - (alfresco eating)

This was her fifth visit to see us since we headed off on our travels back in September 2016.  She first joined us in southern Spain to visit the area around Murcia and Cartagena.  We saw Roman amphitheatres and medieval cathedrals as we explored the back streets of the cities, and had long, peaceful coastal walks ending with sea swims.  Next up was a jaunt to the Lofoten Islands in northern Norway, taking in Viking festivals, wind-swept beaches and wild mountain walks.  When we made it back to France, she enjoyed joining us for a wintery Christmas break at La Reole whilst we were house-sitting, for riverside strolls and mulled wine picnics.  Most recently she joined us for a week at Lake Vassivière to watch our first SwimRun event and enjoyed lots of cooling lake dips alongside us.

LaJourdanie - (chilling)

LaJourdanie - (By the pool)

All very different times, places and experiences.  But this time she was to be the first guest in our new French house.  We had endeavoured to complete the redecoration of one spare room in time for her visit.  Her arrival also gave us an excuse to down tools and enjoy a very welcome and much needed rest from our on-going renovation works.  We drove to nearby Limoges airport and collected our visitor, exactly as we had done before our Lake Vassivière week.  We returned home and, once settled, offered the grand tour of the property with glass in hand.  We explained what it was like before, the works we had completed, began or are planning to do, likely boring in our obvious zeal.  We then sat together on our patio, overlooking our glistening pool, and chatted the day away in full catch-up mode.

LaJourdanie - (Birthday cake)

LaJourdanie - (Birthday evening)

We had dips every day in our pool, with ice creams and bubbles or beers as we relaxed and chatted in the afternoon sun.  We had short, local walks and foraged lazily for plums, blackberries and greengages that were later consumed or baked into yummy cakes.  We lazed in hammocks or dipped our feet in the pool, reading and relaxing.  Later, after an alfresco dinner, we sat outside watching the moon rise over our garden as the sun slowly disappeared behind our boundary trees.  Once suitably dark, we presented a surprise, home-baked birthday cake, made with freshly picked blackberries and replete with candles, to mummy Margaret. The candles, once lit, became dancing sparklers that stubbornly refused to be extinguished despite multiple, breathless efforts from the laughing, excited Birthday girl.

LaJourdanie - (bubbles arrive)

LaJourdanie - (girls in pool)

LaJourdanie - (time for snails)

For lunch one day, as a mini-treat and a new experience, we offered a serving of the very French dish of roasted snails.  The plate served up was not the treat Nicky remembered from her previous work visits to Paris.   These snails were not as tender, instead were more like garlic-flavoured chewing gum.  We chewed them valiantly, but the gastronomic results were definitely not worth the jaw-straining exertion; they would not be remembered as one of our finer kitchen moments.  We spent the afternoon in the pool, staying cool and being silly. We have an inflatable wallaby, called Wally, a legacy from the trip to Australia where we initially caught the campervan bug.  This naughty wallaby liked to hitch a ride on Margaret’s head as she swam along.  We’re not too sure what she thought of it all.

LaJourdanie - (pool play)

LaJourdanie - (Wheres Wally)

One cloudless day we planned a Brantôme trip, an historic town about 40 minutes away.  This was a repeat stop for us, as we had visited prior to returning home a few months before.  The central aire, solely for motorhomes, was the best option for the busy town and charged only €1 for five hours, perfect for a day visit.  Even out of peak season the aire was busy, more than half its eighty spaces filled with visitors.  We walked through the park and into the central canals, pausing to watch enthusiastic kayakers balance then slide over nearly-dry weirs with difficulty.  We explored the tiny medieval streets and busy shops, the artist studios, farmers’ market stalls and troglodyte caves, before returning along the river to the peaceful surroundings of the aire enjoying our picnic lunch with a lovely cup of tea.

Brantome - (by the abbey)

 

Brantome - (lazy lunch)

We had planned two special dinners, with two groups of neighbours, for during Margaret’s visit.  The first was a fully French occasion, with Lionel and Isobel and their three year-old son, Laundrie.  Margaret had previously lived in France for several years and could chat and tell her stories to our guests, making the evening fully inclusive.  We cooked roast duck and all the trimmings whilst Laundrie happily scoffed, between bouts on his mini-tractor, all the honey-roast carrots and ice cream we had.  The second event was more cosmopolitan, featuring English, Welsh and German neighbours.  This time we served lamb with copious amounts of veg and wine, and everything was a louder, more raucous affair.  Both nights were deemed a success, although the stress of hosting and cooking certainly took its toll.

Espace Hermeline - swim lake

 

LaJourdanie - (patio drinks)

One quiet morning we had a visit to Bussière-Galant to check out the swim lake at Espace Hermeline.  We parked up as one of only three visitors, to find the building all shut up and the usual ‘Baignade Interdite’ signs in place.  We walked a loop of the lake on easy forest trails, passing one lonely fisherman, taking in the tree-top activity courses and the long zip-line scooting out over the water.  On returning to Benny we decided to ignore the signs and have ourselves a swim dip.  The water was about 23 degrees, comfortable and clear, and we all enjoyed swimming a few lengths parallel to the beach.  Heading home, we stopped at a large brocante store for a browse, marvelling at the worthless junk that others pay fortunes for, before buying some French novels that were priced by the kilogram.

LaJourdanie - (evening dinner)

LaJourdanie - (pool time)

It was a wonderful week of light adventure, walks and socialising.  We swam and walked, explored and foraged, turning local wild fruits into cakes to share with the neighbours.  We cooked huge slabs of duck and lamb for the first time and enjoyed serving them to the neighbours who had welcomed us to the hamlet.  We visited historic towns and local swim spots and tried snails for the first, and likely last, time.  We bought books by weight, chatted to curious cows in bright meadows, sat on the edge and cooled our feet in the pool as we enjoyed a drink.  All were varied aspects of an easy, fulfilling life of casual leisure; time well-spent, company well met, simple pleasures well earned.

A&N x

France – Pageas and our new French home

Leaving Séreilhac we had only a few miles to travel to reach our destination.  We met the sellers, Pat and Julia, again on Monday morning to take final meter readings and inspect that all has been left as contractually required.  We had a brief master-class in how to look after the pool, hoping we have understood, alongside gaining knowledge about other more familiar aspects of how the house works.  Then we drove to the Notaire and revisited the purchase agreement, signed up and were handed the keys.

It is real.  It is ours.

Our House - (Nicky in pool)

Our House - (breakfast on terrace)

Since then, we’ve been settling into our new French home for about a month.  We are loving it, but there are so many things we want to do, to sort out, to tidy up, to change, to fix, that we need to stop ourselves occasionally and take time to smell the roses.  Each day, from waking at 8am to dinner at 8pm, we work.  We scrub the floors, the kitchen units, the fridge, the walls.  We cut hedges and bamboo and trees.  We build a compost heap to corral all the cuttings in one place.  We clear moss and ivy off old stonework.  We clean out the sheds and ready them for new concrete floors.  We remove all pots, balls, old tiles, bits of metal and discarded tools that litter the site to one busy corner, leaving an area of our garden looking like an abandoned brocante store.  We end our days grubby, tired and contented.

Our House - (Trimming the roses)

Our House - (clearing wisteria)

We replace or renew window handles.  We trim over-zealous plants to regain a semblance of control.  We scrape peeling paint and varnish off sun-bleached doors.  We remove nails and screws and hooks from walls, refiling then sanding down in preparation for upcoming re-painting.  We call all utilities and set up our accounts.  We organise to have TV and internet installed, eventually.  Our hands and arms are speckled with petty cuts and bruises from the fights we’ve had with the garden.  We unpack boxes and decide where our things should be, them looking meagre now in such large spaces.  We pot up lettuce and herbs, to hopefully be ready in a month’s time.  In the glaring heat of each day we sweat and toil, but reward ourselves with dips in our wonderfully refreshing pool at key strategic intervals.

Our House - (cottage lounge)

Our House - (barnside lounge)

We make lists and tick off jobs as we complete them, satisfyingly.  Every third day or so we drive to the outskirts of Limoges with long lists of required items, buying shears and secateurs, gardening gloves, a wheelbarrow, tins of paint, rollers and brushes, wood-stain, furniture pieces, French plugs and adaptors, kitchen cooking items, lights bulbs, large bins, extension cables, pool treatment chemicals, curtain poles, plant seeds, and all the rest.  All the things that we have not had to think about for the previous two years as we doodled around, unencumbered, in Benny.  But mostly we love it, and keep staring, amazed, that this is our space, our garden, our pool, our land.  Our home.  Each night we go to bed exhausted but happy, tired from our efforts but happy in our choices and progress.

Our House - (Benny on driveway)

Our House - (removing walls)

One afternoon we cycled to the nearby town of Pageas to visit the Mairie.  We registered that we had moved in and had many questions answered by the helpful secretary.  We registered our bin delivery (each bin is bar-coded and is weighed and charged per kg of waste) and signed up for a déchetterie card, allowing us to begin removing the discarded items we’ve uncovered.  We cycled one Thursday to Champsac to meet the local Brits at a pub night; a necessary introduction, but not something we wish to make a habit of.  We have run a few of the local paths and chemins, slowly finding our way around the local lands, excited by the variation and ease of off-road trails.  We have immediate access to some lovely running routes straight from the house, although it’s been too hot to go far.

Our House - (from the bottom of garden)

Our House - (cutting the paddock)

We’ve met many of the neighbours, getting rather drunk with them on far too many occasions, considering the short time we’ve been here.  Everyone has been fantastic, helpful and very welcoming.  The house has been measured and drawn up, in anticipation of sorting out semi-major renovations to both bathrooms and the addition of a pool surround.  The future addition of a balcony to our master suite has been sized up, designed and the only remaining item to source is the preferred guarding.  One of our small stone outbuildings has been ear-marked as a potential writing den and hideaway, once it has been tidied up and re-roofed.  One guest bedroom has been fully completed, taking three or four coats to sharpen up, after weeks of filling and sanding and rubbing.  All is going very, very well.

Our House - (weeding the garden)

Our House - (view from balcony)

When we look at what we’ve achieved already, against the time we’ve been here, we are quite amazed.  Our hands are cut and sore, we have a multitude of bites and scrapes, but already a basketful of great memories.  But we are still impatient for more, as we can clearly see the full potential of our home and wish it to be completed.  Orchards, wild meadows, a full vegetable patch, walls rebuilt, a secret garden area for the evening sun – we have plenty to keep us busy.  We are also looking at upcoming trips in Benny, keen for a short break and a new adventure in the Pyrenees or Spain.  Or the Italian Dolomites.  Or Corsica. We shall see how the fancy takes us, as whilst we love spending time in our new house, we do also miss the easy freedom of the open road.

But we have nothing but time.

A&N x

Tour de Mont Blanc – hiking the TMB (a personal reflection)

Tour de Mont Blanc – hiking the TMB (a personal reflection)

Through scratched perspex, we looked down like giants on the rows of tiny buildings and straight roads that littered the flat valley base, carpeting the flat plain in dense, interlocking patterns.  It all became toy-like, insignificant in the deep shadow of the high mountain massif.  Opposite, we watched as the white domed cap of Mont Blanc came slowly into view as we rose higher in our gently-rocking cocoon.  The famed peak would be the focal-point of our next ten days as we hiked a 170km oblong circuit around it, through three countries.  We were both buzzing with anticipation.

We arrived at the top of Plan Praz from Chamonix, France, to begin our trail.  There were others here, colourful, noisy day-trippers, but we saw no one likely to be starting the hike alongside us.  This was unsurprising, as we had chosen both an unconventional place to begin, and were walking the opposite direction to most.  With a little trepidation, partnered with nervous excitement, we followed a dusty path of loose gravel up behind the lift station, gaining height with each forward step.  We felt alive, readied for the challenge, eager to get moving and to begin discovering the path ahead. We were soon engulfed by the tall sides of nearby mountains.  Their dry faces towered above us in grey knuckles of coagulated rock.  Smudges of pristine snow remained set in deep gullies and rubbed high on deeply shadowed slopes.

Around them the earth smoothed to a shrub-speckled plain, and on all sides the horizon was closed-in by snowy peaks, pale in the distance.  We traversed this stony face on a well-used trail, leading through pockets of vivid-green fir trees on narrow, dusty trails. Combined with the remaining blotches of greying snow this created a Christmas postcard feel, jarring in our imaginations with the muggy heat of the late morning air.  In the next valley, deepened with heavy shadows, we could see dots of colour approaching, lined like caterpillars along the obvious snaking path.  These were the groups of tradition-respecting anti-clockwise walkers we expected to meet each day.  We nodded and smiled our way past them, glad for each spark of company but occasionally craving the clear and quiet solitude of an empty trail.

With us walking clockwise, against convention and crowds, we experienced wonderfully alone mornings, full of welcome solitude.  We could stumble and sweat up our morning climbs in peace, without witness.  Around halfway through each day’s walking we began to meet others, usually on a downhill stretch, for us.  We enjoyed these sociable afternoons, brimming with cheery greetings and occasional chats, as we silently, selfishly, revelled in the thought that we had completed the most difficult stretch of our day.  All those we passed had still to face the climb we were now descending from.  On occasion we jogged small stretches of downhill trails, slow in hiking boots, but it was much easier on our knees to fall with rather than fight against gravity.  We were occasionally passed by committed cyclists on fat-tired bikes, belligerently forcing their way up the steep, rutted trails, or joyously falling fast down them.

The circuit contained a continuous accessible beauty, and we never tired of the new vistas each section brought.  Flowering meadows crowded with bell-ringing golden cows, villages of perfect timber chalets decorated with climbing roses, and high mountain peaks topped with snowy domes, scarred with deeply-clawed gullies.  Set above the treeline, in shaded crevices, we stared at the ragged tongues of rough-surfaced glaciers as they prodded menacingly towards the valley floor.  At smaller scales, tiny alpine flowers brightened each path, their tiny star-blues and butter-yellows a reflection not of insignificance but robust hardiness.  We longed for each upcoming change, to see what was next, just as we wished a favoured view could stay with us longer.  Nothing was permanent, yet every change was valuable and worthy.  We soaked up all that we could, breathing in the views alongside the fresh, clean air of the high mountains.

We saw this trip as a break from our normal van life, each night after walking a treat of long showers, clean sheets and prepared food, away from the usual daily chore of shopping, cooking and washing up.  Both the daily freedom of the mountain hiking and the welcoming comfort of the hotels were our reward.  In such clear weather there was no mistaking the path, so we walked free of concern.  Each day, rather than bringing weariness, made us stronger.  We got hike-fit by doing, each completed climb a strong, building session for legs and lungs. We grew to crave every tough rise, the constant sweat and burn of sustained effort and the joyous reward of a newly earned and compelling mountain vista.  Each passing Col brought us the next visual wonder and a new valley to explore on the opposite side.

At Les Mottets, we were sat on long wooden benches, by long tables, in groups of fourteen or more.  Each course was brought out in huge serving bowls or platters to be distributed by each table of guests. We hesitantly plated up what we thought our share, trying to judge a fair portion and not offend our neighbours.  But we need not have been cautious as unending refills were available to any who requested them.  We ate hungrily whilst discussing the trail so far and sharing a sketch of our outside lives with the nearest others.  Our hosts entertained us with traditional organ music from a colourful box, the tunes magically read from punched cardboard sheets fed into one side.  Once sated, the majority retired to a night in the dreaded bed-lines of the cramped dormitory, but we had a coveted double suite.

Despite our private room, we still suffered a disturbed night.  Stiff from sleeplessness, we stepped slowly back into the glaring sun. Our day began with another cloudless sky over a dusty gravelled path that carried us upwards.  We passed supine cows wearing thick leather necklaces hung with heavy brass bells before rising sharply along a series of stony hairpins to reach a grassy bluff, surrounded by a curtain of sheer grassy slopes.  The dusty grey valley turned to green-yellow slopes lined with deeply-worn brown tracks. Minute alpine flowers speckled the grasses with dots of vibrant colour.  We passed idle, furry marmots nuzzling in tall grasses.  We crossed rivers flowing over wavy rocks, worn smooth with time.  We marvelled at the swirling-lined strata under a shallow waterfall, veined with vivid colours, a freak creation of geology and water.  Our rich salty sweat, mixed with sun-cream, all but blinded us as we rose sharply.

Hours passed and the stubborn mountain greens gave way to patches of loose shale, steep and crumbling, and a return to a hard, all-grey landscape.  The only softness found here were the ribbed blobs of last winter’s remaining snow, pristine white, untouched.   A bright sea of hikers was dropping down the opposite slope, giving scale to our path, our only true reference in the monotone greyness.  We stumbled onto a hard-to-see path, denoted only by knee-high cairns stood grey on grey against the discarded shale, and followed this up a long line of tight turns.  Eventually we were led to the snow-capped summit of the Col des Fours, at 2685m. We paused here, satisfied from our efforts.  We took time to savour the moment, breathing in the thin cool air and examining the expansive view.

As beautiful as each vista was, we always felt a constant impatience to keep moving.  We knew we still faced a long downward path to reach Les Contamines.  We dropped off the Col on long stretches of crisp-topped snow, with well-worn deep channels of muddy-brown slush denoting the path.  The kilometres fell away easily as we lost height, passing multitudes slowly slogging their way up to the Col des Fours.  We fell alongside the green-glass river, passed pristine churches and scalloped rock pools of deep, frothing blue, to reach the outskirts of Les Contamines and our boutique Hotel Gai Soleil.  We were treated to a tidy, characterful room with a balcony overlooking the gardens.  The in-house chef prepared us a stylish reinvention of the traditional French raclette, serving salad, potatoes and hot, melted Camembert, followed by a wonderfully tart berry sundae.  The hard kilometres fell away in sudden luxury.

Our days passed in a familiar pattern, each flowing inexorably into the next. We crossed from France to Switzerland to Italy with little change but the daily greetings we shared on the mountain pathways.  Each day we climbed high and each night slept low, secure in small valley settlements or in lonely mountain refuges.  We rose early to breakfast and began walking before the sun broke in glorious rays over the peak-lined horizons.  Days began with a steep return to re-join the main circuit, and the cooler dawn air was a welcome relief as we forcefully regained the altitude lost the day before.  We found the trail became a series of moments, of views, sounds and smells, each vividly distinct yet impossible to separate from the whole.  Everything seen was but a glimpse, an ephemeral whisper of the landscape.

Rising out of Les Houches, the deep shade of the woodland trees brought some relief from the sun’s direct oppression, but offered little respite from the intense heat of the still, close air.  When the wind blew through the branches we instantly felt renewed, revitalised, our repressive tormentor temporarily removed from our burning skin.  The path was formed from gnarled, swollen roots jutting out of dust-brown soil like giant arthritic knuckles attempting to escape a grave.  Grey boulders sat immobile between the roots, forming helpful steps or high barricades to assist or slow our progress.  The dry soil was scalloped in places from the passing of a million boots.  We climbed in silence, and with no view out through the dense trees, we both looked inwards instead, pushing ourselves with a quiet intensity.

The burning satisfaction from our steady efforts kept us striding out strongly.  We rose high, yet were more affected by the intoxicating closeness of the stifling afternoon heat than any achieved altitude. In many ways the higher passes, over 2000m, were a relief to us as they came packaged with a welcome breeze and much cooler air.  We passed by Refuge Bellachat and entered a different landscape, a grassy plateau of bumps and lakes.  This suddenly changed again to a sculpted path of flat boulders, built as steps, weaving through a loose, grey moraine.  Beyond here we reached the crowded lookout at the top of Brévent lift at 2525m, our final climb complete.  With quiet celebration, we began our short descent through snowfields and grey dust to return, days later, to the top of Plan Praz, set above Chamonix.

We completed the walk, our distances measuring a total of 183km including offshoot tails to reach accommodations.  The route may have looked wild, challenging, even escapist on occasion, but it never truly felt it.  We were always close to safety, to other hikers, to the easy comforts of a hotel.  We never thought of ourselves as being alone, isolated, even if experiencing that hint of danger or spark of adventure was something we both deeply desired.  It was a tame, civilised hike, a calm and comfortable multi-day wilderness walk.  It may not have proved to be the difficult, testing physical or mental challenge we had expected, even craved for, but it remains a wonderful route replete with quiet, thoughtful beauty and deeply impressive mountain scenery.  And we can’t rightly fault it for that.

A&N x

Previous posts (of a more chronological nature) from the same trip:
France – Tour du Mont Blanc: hiking the TMB (Part 1)
France – Tour du Mont Blanc: hiking the TMB (Part 2)
France – Tour du Mont Blanc: hiking the TMB (Part 3)