Tag Archives: Hiking

Spain – Guernica & Gorbeiako Parke Naturala

We slept well after our night run in Bilbao and lazily packed up to head the 35 minutes east to visit the rebuilt town of Guernica, or Gernika in the local language.   The morning was light with clear skies, making bright a town with a tormented history.  Not many historic buildings remain due to extent of bombing raids during the Spanish Civil War.

Guernika - Nicky on bridge

Guernika (Henry Moore Sculpture)

Guernika (Central cathedral)

We reached the Parque de los pueblos de Europa, where we walked on leafy paths by a trickling stream, ending in a grassy meadow where several sculptures sat. Henry Moore and local Basque sculptor Eduardo Chillida had both created works to pay homage to the trials of the people of Guernica.  The Moore sculpture was an abstract figure wrapped in shell-like shapes, representing the deep instinct of individuals to seek comfort, refuge, protection, refuge, the primordial urge to feel safe.  It seemed poignantly appropriate.  We passed the cathedral and market square, mostly untouched in the bombings, and walked through the currently empty market square, gently exploring at a slow pace.

Guernika (main square)

We visited the Assembly House of Gernika, the historical seat of Basque power since the Middle Ages.  The highest governing body in the region, the Assembly House is seen as a living symbol of the history of the Basque people.  Its oval Assembly meeting room, plush with red cushioned benches and portraits of previous leaders, is where Plenary meetings of the current General Assembly occur.  Outside, the Tree of Gernika, a symbolic oak tree, is planted within a small formal garden in front of a neo-classical portico.  The ceiling of a large function room tells the history of the oak tree and how it is intrinsically connected to the Basque people, as a place of meeting and discussion.

The old trunk, planted around 1700 CE, is the oldest surviving remains of previous tree incarnations.  It was replaced by a successor in 1860, and that tree lived through two World Wars and a Civil War, surviving until 2015.   The trunk of the old tree, the one planted in 1860 and survivor of the bombing raids, is now stood proud within a circular stone portico in the grounds.  A new tree replacing this historic one was planted in 2015, at 15 years old, as a symbolic continuation of the Basque spirit, renewed by each new generation, but never changing nor faltering.

Guernika (Stained Glass ceiling)

We had thought to overnight in Gurnika and see the celebrated Monday morning market, but it was still early and we didn’t feel the love for the car-park aire, so we headed off south.  We stopped briefly in Artea for a bite of lunch, where we were bravely approached by two 8yo Spanish girls curious about us, and after our first greetings in Spanish we had them practising simple English (Where are you from?  What is your name?) with us.  Less than a mile later we stopped again in Areatza, walking along the river through a pretty square to visit a tourist office that was unhelpfully closed until 4pm. So again, back in Benny and through steep-sided rolling countryside bright with rusty autumn colourings, similar to Limousin where we now live, except with fields here were full of sheep rather than cows.  We reached Gorbeiako Parke Naturala on tiny, single track roads, expecting the visitor centre parking to be empty.  Instead, it was mostly full, with dog and hillwalkers, campers, motorhomers and picnickers all around the ample parking area.  After some deliberation we choose a spot and parked up, then visited the Interpretation Centre for a look at their exhibits.

Gorbeiako Parke Naturala (a brief moment of sunshine)

Gorbeiako Parke Naturala (valley view)

Late at night we could hear jangling bells, and although we could see nothing in the darkness we assumed a large wind chime must be hung in the trees nearby.  We could see no sign of anything in the morning light and it was much later that we decided it may have been a flock of rogue sheep sneaking around, as the flocks on the hills all made similar sounds.  Today we planned to climb to Gorbeia, the natural park’s highest point at 1482m.  We were parked at around 640m, so we only had an ascent of around 850m to contend with.

The route was a rather dull path, a driveable, gravel road for most of the way,  and low cloud prevented us seeing much of a view.  We grasped occasional glimpses of the tree-lined valleys to each side during short breaks in the cloud cover, but only for a few seconds at a time.  We passed a few hardy long-haired horses and a lot of grazing sheep, many wearing the tinkling bells we had heard throughout the night. Combined with the browning bracken, pine trees, prickly gorse bushes with small yellow-flowers and tiny, budding purple crocuses, this could have been any mountain slope in Scotland or Ireland.

Gorbeiako Parke Naturala (summit trig point)

Nearing the top, the cloud got thicker, visibility dropped to tens of metres and an icy wind blasted us from the west.  We added our windproof coats, hats and with hoods up we were still shivering under the wind’s viscous assault.  Exposed and feeling battered, we spent short seconds at the summit, pausing only for a hurried photo with the decorative trig point set below a metal tower structure, then began a hasty descent. Within minutes we escaped the bank of dense cloud and regained solace from the harsh wind, allowing us to begin warming up again.  We jogged short stretches to ease wear on our knees and to aid the warming process.  This descent, by the same route, was memorable only for us finally seeing our first other walkers of the day, near the bottom of the trail – three men with walking poles and wicker baskets, and we thought them likely to be mushroom hunters.

Gorbeiako Parke Naturala (aaron in trees)

Gorbeiako Parke Naturala (the forest)

The centre had told us the walk would be 3.5 hours to the top, and similar to return, but because we didn’t linger, we were up and back in well under four hours.  We enjoyed a well-earned lazy afternoon in Benny, snug away from the wind. A later short pre-dinner walk led us to discover a nearby area of beautifully expressive and wild beech trees, long-fingered, knotted and gnarly, photos of which had initially brought us to this park.  We had nearly missed them, yet they stood in all their wonderful, twisted majesty, set in a thick blanket of crispy copper leaves, only metres behind where we had parked.

A&N x

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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)

Switzerland – Zermatt’s Matterhorn & Randa’s bridge

After the successful completion of the TMB hike, we rested up at Le Grand Champ for a further two rainy nights.  We tasked ourselves with the necessary jobs of laundry, photo-sorting and rest.  But we also had an eye towards our next mini-adventure, so were cooking up a few ideas.  After some deliberation, Switzerland was put on our agenda.

Zermatt (church in Tasch)

We left on a quiet Sunday morning, stocked up in a busy SuperU then headed east towards Switzerland.  We drove back through Chamonix, Argentière and Trient, spotting many places we had recently walked, before climbing up towards Martigny.  A few kilometres and many hairpins later, we were duly summoned into Switzerland with a bored look and a casual swipe of the arm at the nominal border point.  Tall stone terraces bursting with vines and soft fruits, predominantly apricots, lined the steep valley sides. We dropped drastically to the valley floor and on long straight roads made easy progress.  This part of Switzerland was more business than pleasure.  Dominated by light-industrial sheds and strips of garishly-coloured store fronts heavy with parking areas accessed by over-wide roads, it looked much more American than European.

Zermatt (on route from campsite)

Zermatt (on cycle route to town)

We turned off towards Zermatt, heading south through a series of villages on the only road into the valley.  We considered stopping in a cheaper aire in Täsch, nearer to Zermatt, but on inspection it was only the back corner of a car-park, behind a garage on a busy section of road, so we passed on it and doubled back to Campsite Attermenzen to overnight.  The site was an open field, so siting was entirely at your own discretion.  We picked out a quiet spot on a small plateau behind the main field and set up a cosy camp.  As it was only 2.30pm we had a decent portion of day left, so made the decision to quickly grab our bikes out of the garage and go see Zermatt immediately.  20 mins later we were organised and away, assuming the 9km route there would be a simple jolly along a cycle-path by the river.

Zermatt (us at Matterhorn)

Zermatt (Matterhorn and cloud)

It started well, in bright sunshine, rolling through the centre of Täsch, but soon after the track crossed the railway and rose steeply up through the forests on the opposite slope.  We faced a steep, difficult and technical ascent, a narrow dirt trail with gnarly roots, large boulders and overhanging nettles.  Whilst we thought we had had a decent, active summer, filled with swimming, running and hiking, we soon found our fitness for this type of off-road cycling was sadly lacking.  With lungs bursting and legs screaming for mercy, we had to dismount and walk portions of the trail on several occasions, decrying our inability to get up the track on our bikes.  We had underestimated the cycle, judging it by the short distance and not thinking of the height differential.  But we made it into Zermatt eventually.

Zermatt (walking bikes through centre)

Zermatt (happy chappie)

Our first impressions of Zermatt were not great. We had visualised a cutesy ski-resort, wonderfully car-free, all stone, timber and glass, in a comforting cauldron of snow-speckled mountains.  Instead we entered by a rough, debris-strewn building site, both sides of the road lined with dirty piles of stones, discarded bent materials and desolate-looking buildings.  It was a disturbing and rather grim first impression, but we were very soon distracted from it all by our first sighting of the incredibly imposing Matterhorn, standing tall behind fast-moving clouds.  We followed the river and cycled straight through to the southern edge of town for a closer look, stopping near an Activity Park to take in views of the iconic mountain.  Yet even here the parks were lined with red builder’s tape, degrading the view.

Zermatt (central streets)

We pushed our bikes through the glitzy, kitschy, touristy centre, the busy streets lined with top-end branded stores and expensive hotels.  We passed neat churches, almost apologetically nestled into tiny corners, their importance lessened in the face of the new, dominant religion of commerce.  Visitors mingled with quirky locals in national dress, popping in and out of cafés and souvenir stores selling the usual T-shirts and tea towels.  We heard mostly German being spoken, but smatterings of French, English, Spanish and Japanese completed the cultural melting pot.  At one point a herd of long-haired goats were driven through the streets by young teenagers, dodging the constantly buzzing electric hotel taxis, looking more like a scene from Nepal than Switzerland.  We cycled on, passing yet more hotels and shops in traditional timber and stone, with an ever-present snowy mountain backdrop framing each view.

Zermatt (bikes and goats)

We’d been lucky with the weather, as the forecast had suggested thunderstorms in the afternoon.  But grey clouds were now gathering overhead and the air changed; rain was brewing.  We decided to stick to the road going back, and found it a fantastically long, sweeping downhill for most of the way.  We reached Täsch in minutes, flowing at over 50km/hr, definitely enjoying this direction more.  Large, slow drops of rain plopped on us and the smooth road surface as we passed through the town, threatening much more.  We pushed on to reach our campsite with only moments to spare before the main deluge finally arrived, with us safely back under cover.  We packed away our bikes, made tea and chilled for the rest of the evening, feeling glad we had decided to make the effort to quickly visit Zermatt.

Randa (the path upwards)

Randa (mini cairns on path)

We set an early alarm, had a quick breakfast and got our boots on before 8am, as the forecast was for more storms.  We wanted to complete a circular hike, from the nearby village of Randa, and to visit and cross what was reported to be the longest pedestrian suspension bridge in the world.  It was still chilly when we left, the sun slow in rising and not yet having warmed the air.  We first passed through the traditional timber buildings of Randa, enjoying the colourful vegetable patches and hanging baskets decorating the houses.  We filled our water bottles from a spring in the village then started our ascent via a narrow street between ancient timber hay barns.  We rose quickly on steep, rooted paths through the woodland, our legs dealing easily with the gradient after the gruelling miles of the TMB.

Randa (first look across the bridge)

Randa (n + a on bridge)

Randa (Nicky on bridge)

We were all alone when we reached the 500m long Charles Kuonen Hängbrücke, the suspension bridge, so we had the fortunate opportunity to play around and take a few photos and videos.  We then crossed over, apprehensive at one short portion that looked only loosely connected and rather shaky, but made it safely across.  From there we walked further up the mountain to the Europahütte refuge at 2220m, guarded by a huge resting black dog that eyed us suspiciously.  The view from their verandah was quite spectacular, but we didn’t linger.  Instead we climbed a further few hundred metres through a boulder field to reach a classic picnic spot with an unbeatable view of three separate glaciers.  We sat a while, eating apples and soaking up the view with only the sound of calling birds to distract us.

Randa (nicky and mountains)

Randa (picnic with a view)

There was the possibility of continuing around the mountain and returning to Randa by a different route, but instead we retraced our steps past the Europahütte and down to the suspension bridge, this time passing under the northern end and dropping quickly downwards.  Another steep woodland path led us down past a few groups of walkers now struggling upwards, until eventually levelling out in rolling grassy meadows back near to Randa.  We paused a while on a lonely red bench to eat sandwiches and take in the overview of the village.  We said goodbyes to neighbouring horses and descended to the village church, circled the beautifully kept cemetery, then continued back to camp. Our wonderfully fresh morning walk was a hilly 12km, taking the best part of four hours, with almost 1000m of ascent.

Randa (village view from red bench)

Randa (Benny at campssite)

Our afternoon was spent doing little more than people-watching and gentle stretching on the grass, until the dark clouds rolled back in overhead and drove us inside.  It was here we made the decision that it was best for us to move on, and that meant a return to France.  We had business to attend to back in Limousin.  In less than two weeks’ time, our new house purchase would complete, so our slow march westward now begins and our new responsibilities await.

A&N x

France – Tour du Mont Blanc: hiking the TMB (Part 3)

Continued from previous posts:
Tour du Mont Blanc: hiking the TMB (Part 1)
Tour du Mont Blanc: hiking the TMB (Part 2)

Day 9 – Refuge Les Mottets to Les Contamines

We awoke early, ate breakfast before 7, packed and were out walking by 7.35am. It was still dark in the valley, with a low haze that soon burnt off in the morning sun. We followed an easy path to start, passing small glacial lakes and supine cows with wide leather collars supporting heavy brass bells. We then faced a long, steady slog uphill on a winding gravel track, before cutting off to the left to join and then conquer a grassy bluff. The terrain looked just like fells on Welsh mountains, rolling grassed slopes with tiny flowers adding colour.  The path forward rose steeply up dusty shale slopes, passing by wave-formation rocks formed by curvy, coursing waterfalls and groups of calm marmots nuzzling in the long grass.  The long steep shale continued unabated, with almost three hours of hot, sweaty work and several false summits to be defeated; the true top continued to elude us.  We reached a wide plateau before the final climb, filled with snow patches and the first walkers we’d met today.  We managed to avoid most of the snow by keeping to the right and slowly shuffling up a narrow route marked by small cairns.  We continued up this steep, loose shale, breathing hard, all the way to the hardened snow capping that marked the domed top of the Col des Fours, at 2685m.

 

After catching our breath and enjoying the moment, we faced a long descent over red rocks and well-trodden snow, following the easy trail ever downwards.  Various grassy plateaus punctuated these downhills, adding a welcome vividness to the otherwise stark landscape. We soon passed Refuge Bonhomme, a popular stop for walkers on this route, but we were pushing on further.  We ran little portions of the downhill trail as it was easier on our knees than to continually fight against gravity.  Soon we stopped at another popular refuge for snacks and Nicky bought herself a TMB T-shirt as a memento.  We followed a long, dull path constantly downwards, with many walkers slowly clambering upwards to the Col.  Nearing the valley floor, we stopped to examine a colourful display of photographs of Norway set outside a small church, recognising many of places we’d visited to on our travels there last summer.  We crossed a small stone bridge that had smooth, swirling blue pools under, formed by a raging waterfall.  We followed the river into Les Contamines, undertook a quick supermarket shop and then checked-in to the wonderfully boutique Hotel Gai Soleil.  We were treated to a great room with a lovely balcony overlooking the gardens, where we enjoyed beers until dinner. The in-house chef prepared us a stylish take on a traditional raclette meal, with salad, potatoes and hot, melted Camembert, followed by a wonderfully tart berry sundae.  Satisfied, we then retired to our room to sadly watch England lose to Croatia in the World Cup semi-final.

Day 9 - Refuge Les Mottets to Les Contamines

 

Route / Distance:  Refuge Les Mottets to Les Contamines via Col des Fours / 18.59km

Full tracking details of DAY 9 walk – opposite image (courtesy of my Polar Flow watch)

 

 

 

Day 10 – Les Contamines to Les Houches

We ate a leisurely breakfast at 8, in no rush to be on our way today.  We were nearing the end of our walk, and feeling stronger every day.  We understood we had plenty of time to complete today’s trek back to Les Houches.  The town was still and quiet under another cloudless morning sky.  We returned to the church then followed a flowing forest trail alongside the river for a few kilometres before the path diverted and began to climb.  It took us on harshly steep gravel tracks through picturesque tiny hamlets, with pretty rolling meadows and neat timber chalets on all sides.  The path had a quiet charm rather than the spectacular mountains of previous days, with simple alpine views surrounded at a distance by the big peaks.  The path meandered into shaded woodland areas with small waterfalls and past small local churches in tiny villages once cut-off entirely during snowy winters.  We faced a steady climb to reach Col de Vosa at 1672m, where we paused for a while to examine the mountain railway and enjoy views of expansive valley below.

TMB Day 10 (Cute mountain cottage before Col de Vosa)

TMB Day 10 (Balcony beers at Hotel du Bois)

The mountain train line ran steeply up to visit glacier de Bionnassay and back down to the valley floor, centred on a huge hotel complex on the col plateau.  From here we could have caught one of two cable-cars down to the valley floor in Les Houches, but that then would leave a portion of the loop unwalked, our main task incomplete, so downwards on foot it was.  We followed the long, steep descent, again enjoying jogging short portions of the easy trail to utilise gravity and save our knees.  There were many mountain bike trails in this area and we watched a few riders struggle up the steep climbs, alongside a few others not struggling so much as they had electric-powered full-sus downhill bikes, a new sight for us.  The last few kilometres were on the side of the main snaking road, easy walking down close to town.  We found a narrow off-road cutback that led us back on to familiar roads in the heart of Les Houches.  We had our usual pit-stop in a local shop and then on to Hotel du Bois.  we settled into our quite luxurious room with a sunny balcony offering great views of Mont Blanc massif.  Again we treated ourselves to beers until dinner, where we truly enjoyed the treat of steak and chips and crème caramel to finish.

Day 10 - Les Contamines to Les Houches

 

Route / Distance:  Les Contamines to Les Houches via Col de Vosa / 22.01km

Full tracking details of DAY 10 walk – opposite image (courtesy of my Polar Flow watch)

 

 

 

Day 11 – Les Houches to Chamonix

We treated ourselves to a long lie-in as our bag was not being transferred today.  We felt  like with being back in Les Houches we’d already finished, and that this final day of hiking was a separate day-walk, unconnected to all our recent efforts.  We enjoyed a late breakfast (complete with usually elusive bacon) and were out walking just after 9am.  We crossed a bridge over a raging stretch of river before turning right and following a typically root-strewn forest trail.  The path was mostly in welcome shade but the air was still very close and stifling, and we were soon soaked in sweat.  We later faced a tough, unrelenting gradient over tall boulder steps, climbing ever upwards.  We passed lots of others on the trail, going our way but moving slower, as we pushed on.  We were both inpatient to break out of the suffocating heat of the forest and find some cooling air. so were moving fast, working and sweating hard as we went. After two hours we finally escaped the grasp of the tree-line and received our reward of a cool mountain breeze and spectacular views.  We faced a few scramble portions with fixed chains and hand rails to assist, before arriving on a grassy plateau, next to Refuge Bellachat.  The refuge, very disappointingly, would not to give us any water, the first refusal on the whole TMB route.

 

We sat on the grass nearby and ate fruit cake and cooled off.  The path headed ever upwards, over a few small snow portions to reach another wide grassy plateau area, almost like moorland, peppered with narrow pathways in all directions.  The terrain soon changed again to large loose boulders and we slowly rose up a series of tight hairpins to finally reach the lookout at the top of Brévent lift at 2525m. It took us 3 hours 20 mins of hard work to reach here, so we celebrated with an ice cream and coke, reclining in deckchairs with one of the best views of the whole TMB.  We are surrounded by milling crowds, the most on any stretch of the hike, as a gondola lift smoothly transports Chamonix-based visitors directly to this high spot.  We dropped down loose shale and across several snow patches, past lots of rock towers with trainee climbers and paragliders circling above us. We had only 3km further of easy downhill on dull grey moraine to reach the top of Plan Praz, our circuit fully complete.  We walked slowly, both wanting and not wanting it to be over.  We paused here a while to stare at the view and reflect on what the last 10 days had entailed, before catching the lift back down to Chamonix centre.  We caught a bus back to Les Houches to collect our luggage at Hotel du Bois, then walked with our bag the short way back to our campsite and to our patiently awaiting Benny.  TMB – complete!

DAY 11 - Brevents panorama

Day 11 - Les Houches to Chamonix

 

Route / Distance:  Les Houches to Chamonix Plan Patz via Refuge Bellachat and Brévent / 12.58km

Full tracking details of DAY 11 walk – opposite image (courtesy of my Polar Flow watch)

 

 

 

 

 

France – Tour du Mont Blanc: hiking the TMB (Part 2)

Continued from previous post:  Tour du Mont Blanc: hiking the TMB (Part 1)

Day 5 – La Fouly to Refugio Elena

We were up for breakfast at 7am, perky and ready to go. The view of the surrounding mountains was now clear and impressive, set under deep blue skies. From our room we  watched a large balloon release to mark the start of the 42k / 111km mountain Ultra-race. We dropped off our bag then walked out of town along the road, then cut off right to move gradually uphill in grassy fields.  At one point an angry rogue cow partially blocked our route and we had to detour around her aggrieved grunting.  We faced a long ascent but with a steady gradient and a good path underfoot we made good progress. A cyclist passed us going up, looking hot and bothered. We arrived at Refuge La Peule and considered buying lunch, but didn’t as it was not yet 10am and we’d have to carry it. Instead we continued upwards towards Le Grande Col Ferret, passing over five or six wide patches of remaining snow, each with a well-trodden path that was easy to cross. It was cold and breezy as we passed the tall stone cairn at the Col, but we soon dropped down the opposite side, out of the chilling wind, where we found a nice spot to rest and eat snacks.

We had an amazing view of two crawling glaciers buried deep in steep mountain sides, a vista that dominated our route most of the descent.  We passed many people coming up, their heads down and struggling, as we bounced easily along the descent, stopping often to take in the view. We chatted to a few about the route ahead, and what they had yet to face on approaching the Col.  We arrived down at Refuge Elena around 12.30pm, much earlier than we’d expected. We are told we can’t enter our dorm room until 2pm, so instead we order paninis and eat them in the bar, before chilling on a nearby grassy meadow, out of the wind, until 2pm.  The dorm was very new with nice bunks, each with enclosed sides and personal storage units, all neatly done and relatively private.  We showered and had some lazy downtime with beers to wile away the afternoon.  Dinner was served at 7pm, with 5(!) large courses, although that included a rather random apple as a mid-course palette cleanser.  We were stuffed from course 2 onward (spaghetti) but with determination and grit we persisted and ate all that was set in front of us. Later we had a quick, breezy walk outside to look at the sky, and then headed off to an early bed.DAY 5 - Refuge Elena and glacier panorama

Day 5 - La Fouly to Refugio Elena

 

Route / Distance:  La Fouly to Refugio Elena via La Peule and Le Grande Col Ferret / 12.69km

Full tracking details of DAY 5 walk – opposite image (courtesy of my Polar Flow watch)

 

 

 

Day 6 – Refugio Elena to Courmayeur

We had another night of poor sleep, courtesy of a noisy, and very smelly, snorer nearby.  We reluctantly got up at 6.30am, munched through a simple breakfast at 7, packed and were walking by 7.35am. Against some advice we took the gully rather than the road down from Elena, where we soon encountered three portions of steeply sloping snow that we tentatively crossed using poles for balance.  We later heard that someone fell here and had to be rescued by helicopter. From here we dropped to a bubbling river, headed across a small bridge and began the climb back up the opposite side of the valley. There were stunning views of mountains and glaciers as our path wound up through wildflower meadows and larch forests. It was a fantastic running trail once it levelled out, and we were passed by smiling groups doing just that.  We looked on jealously.  We paused at Refugio Bonatti for an hour to sync my ‘memory-full’ Polar Flow watch so we could continue to track our walk, then we bought sandwiches and pressed on.  The kilometres passed quickly, us distracted by the fantastic view and pretty alpine flowers.

Now in Italy, we stopped for lunch with a view, enjoying the downtime and silence, and just in time as soon after we reached the highest point of the day where large crowds had gathered.  From this pass we dropped steeply down to Refugio Bertone, it also consumed with noisy day-tripping walkers.  We then descended quickly through dusty forest trails to reach the outskirts of Courmayeur.  We passed thickly-cut slated roofs and dark timber buildings as our road arrived into the town centre.  We cut through a pretty, manicured park, with many sunbathers and kids playing, to reach Hotel Crampon.  We dropped very satisfyingly into our very nice room where we slowly showered, then headed out for a mini-city exploration.  Dinner was not included in the hotel room tonight, so after a lovely walk meandering through Courmayeur centre and all its shops, we sipped chilled beers in small café and sat people-watching.  Afterwards, we enjoyed some lovely pizza and red wine in a nearby restaurant, then back to our room for packing before sleep.

Day 6 (1) - Refugio Elena to BonattiDay 6 (2)- Refugio Bonatti to Courmayeur

 

Route / Distance:  Refugio Elena to Courmayeur via Refugio Bonatti & Refugio Bertone / 19.55km total

 

 

Day 7 – Courmayeur to Cabane de Combal

We sat our alarm for 7.30am, but even in a lovely double room we had a night of poor sleep again.  Just after the alarm our room phone rang to tell us our bag-lift is here early. Frantic packing ensued.  We got organised and dropped off our bag, then returned back down to find a very yummy Italian breakfast, complete with several cake options. Full to brimming with breakfast cake, we plodded uphill through silent Courmayeur villages then faced a very hard trek up steep shady forest trails for over 3km, working very hard and dripping wet with sweat. The path wound its way under a working gondola lift and we wondered what the smug customers must be thinking of us, struggling up under them as they rode up the mountain in comfort.  The path finally opened out to flowery meadows that formed an expansive, recognisable ski area with multiple lifts dotted about. We refilled our water at the restaurant on Col de Checroit before beginning a long, manageable uphill trek with great views of the Mont Blanc Massif, replete with glaciers.

DAY 7 - Col de Checroit panorama

Nearing the top of the Col, we had to cross several patches of snow to progress.  We passed large groups of students near here, and other campers resting in hammocks. We finally passed the highest point of today at 2434m, where we met Colorado resident Sam and chatted about our lives on the descent.  He was trekking alone and camping wild, a very different and personal experience than what we were doing.  He was also excited to hear about the ease of motor-homing life in France.  We parted ways at a small junction towards to Cabane du Combal as Sam continued on around the TMB route.  We spotted marmots on the slopes, then later two young ibex feeding just outside the cabane.  We checked in, this time in a 3-bed room shared with a French gentleman called Thierry. We walked up a local climb in our flip-flops, to view a glacial lake and enjoyed the vista down the expansive valley, then enjoyed several beers in the sun as we awaited dinner.

Day 7 - Courmayeur to Cabane de Combal

 

Route / Distance:  Courmayeur to Cabane de Combal via the Col de Checroit / 12.63km

Full tracking details of DAY 7 walk – opposite image (courtesy of my Polar Flow watch)

 

 

 

Day 8 – Cabane du Combal to Refuge Les Mottets

Dinner in the cabane was terrible, our first poor food experience on the hike.  We spent a reasonable night in our shared room, then up for a very basic breakfast of bread and jam, but still better than the slop served at dinner.  We were packed and gone by 8am, along an easy gravel road heading to Refugio Elisabetta and beyond, climbing slowly up to the Old Italian Customs House, set just before the French border.  We saw lots more marmots on the path, them either lethargic or unafraid.  We enjoyed some time with the nice Italian museum curator, learning about local wildlife, flora and fauna. We then continued up to Col de la Seigne, finding the cairn area packed with people enjoying the expansive views.  We crossed back into France and stopped for a quick lunch with yet another spectacular view. There were several more snow crossings on this side of the Col too, and one specific one we chose to ignore and forded the river instead as the snow bridge looked very thin and weak.

DAY 8 - Approach to Mottets panorama

From here, we had an easy downhill following hairpins on dirt paths, to reach our accommodation at Refuge Les Mottets. No check-in until 2.30pm, so we very naughtily enjoyed a carafe of wine on deckchairs in a nearby meadow, with horses and donkeys for company, as we waited.  It was very sunny or chilly depending on the changeable clouds.  We slowly drunk our litre of red before checking-in, a little squiffy. We had a very nice double room, well away from the terrible dorm rooms that were just lines of beds, touching side by side, 32 to a room.  We snoozed part of the afternoon then attacked our 5-course dinner with gusto. We enjoyed the food with an accompaniment of traditional and pop music tunes on an organ-grinder turned by our host. Annoyingly, even in our double room we had poor sleep, caused by  doors slamming most of the night.  We both wrote a detailed suggestion note to the refuge to ensure they adjust all the door closers to stop the doors from slamming so loudly, or at least add signs to tell people to be aware.DAY 8 - Col de la Seigne panorama

Day 8 - Cabane de Combal to Refuge Les Mottets

 

Route / Distance:  Cabane de Combal to Refuge Les Mottets via the Col de la Seigne / 11.50km

Full tracking details of DAY 8 walk – opposite image (courtesy of my Polar Flow watch)

 

 

 

Our Tour du Mont Blanc hike synopsis to be continued…

France – Tour du Mont Blanc: hiking the TMB (Part 1)

Disclaimer:  We are finding it difficult to find a way to encapsulate the highs and lows, physically and emotionally, of the overall experience of hiking the Tour du Mont Blanc circuit, so the following three posts are more of a simplified, chronological walk around the loop with us.  We will likely revisit this hike and write a more reflective, compelling post in weeks to come, but for now we will let a simple description, alongside our many vivid photographs, reflect on our days.  

Overview route map for the TMB:

021-13 PASSY-74 - RIR TMB - INC6MM 900X710V 925X720T - GABARIT.i

Day 1 –  Chamonix to Argentières

We started from our tiny campsite Le Grand Champ under cloudy skies and walked along the empty road to catch a free bus into Chamonix centre.  From here we had a steep path up to reach Plan Praz lift, the top of which would form the true start of our TMB hiking loop.  We arrived and started hesitantly,  following the Balcon Sud traversing north east around the slopes, through an expanse of fir trees.  We passed large stone walls, snow breaks we guessed,  with wide spaces between. It became a busy path with many people on the trail, the majority of them coming towards us.  After a few hours, we took an optional variant route to visit Lac Blanc, adding 45 mins to our day, but more beautiful scenery.  It was a tough climb, with many day walkers from Chamonix adding to the numbers. It was slow going as we faced large stepped boulders to climb and bodies to navigate past as we inched our way upwards towards the plateau with the White Lake.

There were occasional small snow fields here, but all well-trodden and easy to cross.  It was a slow, hard climb to reach the lake where we paused for lunch.  We then followed a long path down, passing by another beautiful mountain lake, to find a run of vertical ladders and handrails with the feel of a via ferretta. We watched climbers play on a tall needle rock as we descended the ladders, then we took the wrong route down through a deep forest, a lovely but steep trail signposted to Argentières.  We ran out of water 30 mins from end, having carried over 3 litres but having found nowhere to replenish them,  on this sticky hot and rather draining day.  We finally popped out in Argentières 50m from our hotel, La Couronne, and were quickly gifted a lovely room with a bath – a perfect way to relax with the beers and snacks soon collected from the nearby supermarket. This, our first day, was much harder than expected, and we both had sore legs.  We began to worry that our hiking fitness was not fully what we had expected. This was classed as an easy day on paper, so we were apprehensive over what was to come.

DAY 1 - Lac Blanc panorama

Day 1 - Chamonix to Argentieres

 

Route / Distance:  Chamonix Plan Praz lift to Argentières via Lac Blanc / 14.26km

Full tracking details of DAY 1 walk – opposite image (courtesy of my Polar Flow watch)

 

 

 

Day 2 – Argentières to Trient

DAY 2 - Aiguilette de Possette panorama

There was heavy rain overnight, wild storms that were fun to watch, but it was dry once we began walking.  After a filling 7am breakfast we were packed up and ready by 8am. We headed steeply uphill out of town, found our route and rose quickly through the treeline, passing several campsites with multiple colourful tents.  The path was generally easy underfoot, pine needles and tree roots, but with a solid, consistently steep ascent for over two hours. We were rewarded with breath-taking views of the Mont Blanc Massif behind us, and stopped often to gaze at it in wonder.  We followed the l’Aiguilette de Possette ridge up to 2209m, a beautiful, rolling path with views to both sides, before dropping down into Switzerland, then rising again to reach Col des Balmes.  We paused at an old mountain cabin with a small shop inside, busy with trekkers as a key point on route.  Beyond us we could see lots of winding, dusty downhill paths with grunting and desperate people, heads down and making their way up in what looked like misery.

We bounced down, an easy path in this direction, really a wide gravel track at this point. We passed four hardy bikers heroically cycling up this path on fat bikes, and soon after found the lower part of their route had been very steep, rutted with roots and stones.  We had a long, monotonous drop to reach the valley floor, losing 1000m of height, but with the sound of cowbells and flowering meadows around, fulfilling the required Swiss stereotype. We crossed two lightly-flowing rivers and then walked the length of Trient, passing a bright Pink Church, to reach Hotel La Grand Ourse.  We were unavoidably in a dorm room here, with eight beds. There was no shop in town, but a small bar in the hotel.  We discovered that even with my sunhat on and 50+ cream I still got rather burnt today., but at least there was no sign of the snow we had been told we would need mini-spikes to cross.  We enjoyed some slow beers at 5pm chatting to a US couple hiking as a family of four.  We had a loud, communal dinner at 7, like a Harry Potter feast, where we chatted lots, then everyone was suddenly off for an early bed.

DAY 2 - Col des Balmes panorama

Day 2 - Argentieres to Trient

 

Route / Distance:  Argentières to Trient via l’Aiguilette dPossette and Col des Balmes / 15.46km

Full tracking details of DAY 2 walk – opposite image (courtesy of my Polar Flow watch)

 

 

 

Day 3 – Trient to Champex

We had a poor night’s sleep in our dorm, due to loud snoring by someone.  We were then rudely awoken very early, by a 5.45am alarm set by one of our roomies. At 7am we faced a free-for-all scramble at breakfast, then, to escape the madness, begin walking by 7.35am.  We headed back uphill through dense forests, a quiet trail passing lots of tents, to reach the shops at La Forclaz col, where we looked around but bought nothing. We refilled our water bottles here, then followed an easy path that levelled out, allowing a striding pace, with steep meadows falling away on our left. We faced more long rises on smooth stone and dirt paths to reach the top of today’s main climb, Bovine.  There were flowering Swiss meadows with noisy cow bells everywhere.  We met an Aussie couple at the top of the Col and again at Bovine café where we enjoyed a slice of apricot pie. Our path ahead was blocked by resting cows, so we took an alternative route behind the café through patches of nettles to avoid them.  From here we followed a long, easy drop downhill, meeting hundreds of fellow walkers struggling up the persistent route.

As we dropped, we passed spectacular snowy peaks with waterfalls and rivers running down their face. We felt a little smug as we easily dropped down as others struggled up. We crossed several rivers, much easier than had been suggested to us, and finally broke out of the tree-line onto a flat path about 90 minutes later, still meeting others only now starting up the climb to the Col. We followed a long easy road into Champex, a flat fire track through thick fir forests.  It began to rain as we approached the centre of town, so we nipped into what turned out to be a very expensive supermarket for a few lunch items, before getting decently soaked as we made our way to Hotel Splendide.  We passed by a large lake with some hardy fishermen braving the heavy rains to catch their dinner.  We were checked in by 1pm, enjoying the great view from our lovely double room with a balcony, so glad not to be in a dorm again.  We ate our supermarket lunch and showered, then relaxed and snoozed all through the afternoon. Our luggage arrived later, then we dressed up for dinner at 8, which proved to be a rather posh affair with four courses.

Day 3 - Trient to Champax

 

Route / Distance:  Trient To Champax via La Forclaz and Bovine / 17.33km

Full tracking details of DAY 3 walk – opposite image (courtesy of my Polar Flow watch)

 

 

 

Day 4 – Champex to La Fouly

After heavy rains all through the night, we decided on a leisurely start, enjoying a lovely breakfast at 8.30am.  We then left to begin walking dressed in waterproof jackets due to the light but persistent morning rain, but with shorts on as still quite warm. We had a damp walk downhill through a neatly forested area filled with many carved wooden statues of mushrooms and various woodland animals; a treasure-trove of curiosities. From here it was mostly low-level walking through quaint, ancient villages – we passed wheat drying barns with traditional timber-work and stone-plinthed hay barns. It was all easy walking on rolling paths through the valley, no big climbs or big mountain views, but lots of interesting chalet houses and pretty meadows.  There were gnomes galore at one over-decorated home.  We later faced a few short woodland climbs, but nothing strenuous in comparison to previous days. We passed a huge dry riverbed with massive boulders strewn around that must be entirely wild when in full flood.  We also found a patch of deep, icy snow, kept insulated with a coating of landslide soil, solidly unmelted.  We then passed a tall waterfall, admiring it from a distance, as we approached La Fouly.

We passed a large campsite with climbing walls and tree-top walkways and a dam with raging water control to enter the village of La FoulyHotel Edelweiss was not yet ready for us to check in, so we went for another short walk, completed a small supermarket shop and ate lunch before checking-in. Low cloud darkened the valley, hiding the surrounding mountains, but we could see La Fouly would be a beautiful place if the weather would only allow us to see it. We spent a lazy afternoon with a bottle of red, watching Wimbledon in our room, then had an early dinner beside an interesting English couple from Canterbury who were walking the TMB the opposite direction to us.  We later watched Brazil vs Belgium in the World Cup quarters, then chilled in our room, glad of the restful downtime.  We could hear a noisy set-up was happening outside for the grand start of an Ultra-marathon race in the morning.  This had definitely been the best day for us to have had poor weather and visibility, safely away from the big views.

DAY 4 - Appraoch to La Fouly panorama

Day 4 - Champax to La Fouly

 

Route / Distance:  Champax to La Fouly via Issert and several small villages / 14.03km

Full tracking details of DAY 4 walk – opposite image (courtesy of my Polar Flow watch)

 

 

 

Our Tour du Mont Blanc hike synopsis to be continued…