Tag Archives: mountains

France/Spain – Andorra, Camprodon & Olot (part 1)

We finished strimming the garden, reclaiming our pool from winter algae and tiling our cottage bathroom.  With cut hands and tired bodies we threw together some clothes and provisions, locked our shutters and drove south.  We needed a break, and the blue seas of the Costa Brava were calling to us.  Stopping only for a quick lunch at a farm aire whose shop was closed during our short stay, we inched our way along the map on straight roads.  We collided with rush hour traffic around Toulouse, snarled and static, causing us to reach our chosen destination after 6pm.

Auterive - free aire

We parked in the free aire at Auterive, ( 43.351670n, 1.476547e ) on the banks of the Ariège. The aire was pleasant enough, but the town itself, despite its grand historic undertones, looked scruffy and unloved.  A Netto was the sole remaining shop open, and buying milk and potatoes we watched as a disappointed chap had his card declined.  With no other means of payment, he sadly handed back his large basket full of vodka, wine and beers.  That moment of stolen promise, the disappointment, no easy out tonight, summed up the town for us.

After a night where we began re-watching Game of Thrones from Season 6 in preparation of the final instalments, we left early with the intention of lunching in the principality of Andorra.  We were crossing the Pyrenees into Spain and visiting there, especially when it was only 6km out of our way, was the least we could do.  The day began grey and monotone, not the warming blues we had hoped for when heading south.  We followed slow hairpins and narrow roads up into the mountains, climbing steadily through stone villages towards bluer skies and snowy peaks. The occasional car coming down the mountain was layered deep with snow, fresh from a recent dumping.

We turned off towards El Pas de la Casa and soon reached a customs border checkpoint that wasn’t manned and drove straight through.  We parked simply in a huge car-park to the side of a long row of buses and walked up into town.  I had been here once before, on a skiing trip more than twenty years ago.  My memory was hazy yet little seemed to have changed, but I certainly had.  I remembered being impressed then, but soon reached different conclusions this day.  It was full of shops selling tobacco, booze and perfumes, like an open-air departure lounge.  Some shops even had giant Toblerone that I thought only existed in airports.  We walked the grey sludgy streets, avoiding the copious drips from melting snow and smiling wryly at the fact we had planned a trip to sunny climes and sandy beaches and now found ourselves in a seedy ski resort.  But despite our reaction to the resort we availed ourselves of the tax-free shopping, snapping up 4 litres of choice spirits and a litre of port all for less than €25.

Camprodon - roman bridge

We arrived in Camprodon around 4pm, after a winding and tiring drive.  The aire ( 42.312331n, 2.362839e ) was empty of other motorhomes, with only a few other cars as company for Benny.  We headed out immediately for an evening hike/run up to Sant Antoni, a chapel on top of a local hill.  It was only meant to be a six kilometre loop, but we had failed to notice the 425m of height gain it contained, so the way up was more a slow walk through steep forest trails over gnarled roots.  At least we were rewarded with spectacular views over the surrounding countryside from the abandoned chapel grounds before a really enjoyable 4km downhill run back to town, a great leg-loosener.

Camprodon - hilltop view

That night we were awakened around 1am by a huge crashing sound.  Just behind us a boy-racer recklessly driving loops of the circular aire had ripped the entire front grille and right-hand wing off another parked motorhome.  We felt so sorry for them, the fright of the collision must have been incredible.  The assailant made a speedy getaway in the darkness and they were left to deal with the wreckage, the police and the ensuing insurance issues.  Nightmare.

Olot - defensive towers

After a lie-in in Camprodon, we arrived in nearby Olot under an empty blue sky, bright and clear.  We were here to visit the Garroxta Volcanic region and enjoy some day hiking.  We found easy parking just south of the centre, adjacent to the river ( 42.180199n, 2.493597e ) and walked in town from there.  We were hot and sticky in shorts and shirts, yet many locals were still wrapped in duvet jackets or thick woollen jumpers. A quick stop in the tourist office gained us a map of a 2-hour walk of all the sights, including the extinct volcanoes we had come to see.  We set off through the town, finding the base of the nearest caldera, it set in a sea of black volcanic ash, like Tenerife.

Olot - Nicky and Scarlet

The path spiralled around the hillside as it rose, opening up different vistas over Olot and its surrounding countryside. We passed several defensive towers, built in 1845 to protect the town against a repeat of a year-long occupation it suffered after the Third Carlist War.  The 120m diameter Montsacopa crater is unique in the area for having retained its circular form rather than having being eroded by later eruptions or disruptive lava flows.  The rim was once home to three separate chapels, of which only one, Capilla de Sant Francesc, now remains.  It is mostly a ruin, its walled courtyard home to a very modern, sharply detailed cafe that contrasts deeply with the wasting chapel stonework.

Olot - view from volcano rim
Olot - Parroquia Sant Pere Martir

We dropped back into the town and crossed to the next volcanic lump, rising up many steps to pass the monolithic 1950s church Parroquia Sant Pere Mártir.  The path then led around the edge of Volcá Montolivet through shady forest before opening out to a wide vista over the south-west portion of Olot. Here we passed a group of local artists searching for the ideal spot to set up their easels. As we returned along the river, we noticed rows of tents ahead and discovered it was an open air, one day only craft beer festival.  Yes, it would have been rude not to.  There were a dozen or so producers displaying, each with four to eight beers each on offer.  We blagged a few tasters in our new glasses before committing to spend each of our four pre-paid beer tokens.

The sun was blasting, everyone was relaxing and chatting.  The noise of rapid-fire Spanish was almost overwhelming, but a welcome contrast to the tranquil reflection of our walk.  With plans turned upside down, we sat sipping beer and munching chips in the glorious sun, enjoying the cheer. These impromptu moments, unplanned and spontaneous, are what make life on the road special.  Thirsts quenched and keenly aware we had a 10km race in the morning, we tore ourselves away and slowly returned to Benny.  We later moved to a campsite close to the start of our race, Font de les Tries ( 42.189736n, 2.509779e ), a rather scruffy and noisy spot not really set up for short touring stopovers, but we soon made our small corner of it into a cosy nest and enjoyed some afternoon downtime.

A&N x

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Spain / France – Crossing the Pyrénees to Pau

The building traffic noise in awakening Pamolona arrived swiftly, shaking us early from our slumber.  The rain had died down to a soft drizzle and a murky grey smudge of sky filled our view.  We serviced quickly and, after a brief hiccup attempting to exit the aire, we became just another slowly rolling box in the wet morning rush through the city.

Pyrenees - (viewing the road ahead)

It didn’t take long to escape and reach roads of quiet isolation, rising higher into the mountains.  Suddenly we were in an area of deep forest on high hills, exposed rock faces set in an otherwise carpet of green, looking like the Lost World.  We were the only vehicle for miles on an empty sliver of grey twisting itself upwards through the rocky autumnal landscape.  Rich explosions of yellow, like fireworks, created a fleeting, speckled beauty as we drove past. It was a sublime drive.  We had chosen to follow the shortest route back into France, first east from Pamplona then north east via the Puerto de Larrau pass, dropping directly into France and on to Pau.  Or so we thought, at least.

Pyrenees - (beautiful autumn colours)

Patches of snow between the trees and ferns became more numerous as we rose higher.   Later, light snow, almost horizontal in the wind, fell across our path as we cautiously approached the col.  Right at the top, the country border, we discovered that the French had not cleared their side and that thick drifts had already obscured the road ahead. The steep drop-off sides of the narrow road were indistinguishable from the surface, the layer of snow uniforming everything.  No way we were chancing driving down that, even if only for a few kilometres, so we had to delicately turn and retrace our way back down the Spanish side and follow a lower road east, to Isaba.  This was the crossroads point for another mountain col we could attempt, so we stopped for lunch to consider our options.

Pyrenees - (snow lining the road)

Pyrenees - (nearing the col)

Rather than return over the mountain on another narrow pass that may also be shut or uncleared, we decided to turn south, deeper into Spain.  We tracked back to the main road, a trip a few hours longer but much easier and safer driving.  As a reward for our prudence, the road back was lined with even more impressive, colourful trees, a glimmering fire-burst of yellows, reds and oranges.  Over four hours after leaving Pamplona we rejoined the main road only 40km east of the city, a lengthy but beautiful detour behind us.  From here it was all decent motorway back up into the mountains, through a long tunnel rather than a col into France, then a drop down to the city of Pau.

Pau - (tour de france installation)

We headed first to a large car-park with free parking for up to seven days.  From here we crossed to a leafy park, heading for a signed funicular to carry us to the raised city streets, but found it closed.  On the way we discovered a bright Tour de France spiral installation, with illuminated information tableaux celebrating each year’s winner.  We learned that Pau has hosted the Tour seventy times in the last eighty-one editions of the race – acting as a key entry point to the challenging Pyrénees stages.  We stood in the rain and read a few select years, noting the black tableaux for uncontested (war) years and that all of Lance Armstrong ‘wins’ were still included in the display; all very interesting.

Pau - (place royale)

Pau - (hotel de ville)

We climbed up the hill to reach a paved boulevard that looked more like an elegant sea-front.  It offered incredible views out to the valley below and the mountains behind.  We wandered to the Place Royale, with its avenue of squared trees, that led to the Hôtel de Ville.  The town was quiet, everything closed, and it was only now that we remembered it was a bank holiday.  The quiet emptiness added a grandeur as the architecture of the buildings, rather than the commerce they normally housed, became our main focus.  Pau had grand Parisian-like streets, wide and elegant, with lively touches of Art Deco curves.

Pau - (city streets)

Pau - (chateau de Pau entrance)

We walked through and around the Castle gardens, taking in the view over the western portion of the city.  There were very few other visitors braving the rain and we enjoyed the calming peace of our directionless stroll.  We doubled back through more grand streets to see the tall spires of Relais Saint Jacques and the adjacent courthouse set in a large square hosting several statues.  From here we reached a large shopping plaza, glitzy and new, contrasting with the surrounding architecture, but definitely working as a modern public meeting space.  Even in the dull rains Pau continued to impress us.

Pau - (church and courts)

Pau - (palais beaumont)

We returned to the raised boulevard walkway that spanned the length of the centre and again took in the wonderful views south, then we walked east to the far edge of the centre.  A welcome blue sky made a brief appearance as we approached the Palais Beaumont, before the familiar grey descended once more.  We walked around Parc Beaumont, passing empty play areas and lakes, before the returning rain decided for us that our walking tour should come to an end.  We carefully headed down several flights of steep, slippy, leaf-strewn steps to return to Benny for our last miles north.

A&N x

Spain – La Bastida & the Rioja Alavesa Wine Run

We awoke under the gently swaying willow trees in tranquil Casalarreina, had a leisurely breakfast, serviced and quietly disappeared.

We first returned to Haro, parked at their centrally positioned but rather noisy aire and walked into the town to find a launderette.  We decided we couldn’t last the full trip without doing a wash – too many muddy, sweaty runs and cycles and we were both nearly out of clean gear. Whilst our clothes were swimming and spinning we walked around Haro centre again, seeing the Basilica we had previously missed and ending up back in the main wine-centred plaza for a last look.

LaBastida - (main church)

LaBastida - (church plaza)

We collected our laundry, returned to Benny and hopped the short distance back into the Basque Country, through beautiful rows of vines, to the village of La Bastida.  This was the venue for our upcoming run; our next, and last 10km event on this trip. The Rioja Alavesa Wine Run, a hilly jaunt through steep vineyards and dusty barrel-filled cellars, had caught our attention a while back with its wine fair and quirky inside/outside route.

We had arrived a couple of days early, to allow us to explore the town and to ensure we got parked okay, as the town’s usual aire was to be closed to accommodate the wine festival stalls. We parked instead in a large gravel courtyard behind the primary school, right in the heart of the town, with a clear vista to the view-dominating Church of Nuestra Señora de la Asunción.  The weather was bright and clear when we arrived, although it was never warm. The air had a chill and was set to get much worse we were told; dropping to 1 deg overnight and there was talk of heavy rain or even the possibility of snow on race day.  Zut alors!  That was not what we’d hoped for.

LaBastida - (balcony view)

LaBastida - (town view)

LaBastida - (panorama)

The cold wind shook Benny all evening as we hid away inside, and we awoke several times in the night to the familiar pattering of persistent, plopping rain.  We had finally fallen out of favour with the weather gods on this trip – this was going to be a wet, stormy event.  We popped out a few times in brief breaks in the deluge to quickly look around the centre, visiting the tourist office and café, the mairie and church.  We climbed a small hill behind the church that, in a fortunate twenty minute window, afforded us an expansive view across the landscape framed with otherwise elusive blue skies.

LaBastida - (town and countryside)

On the morning of the race we awoke, bleary eyed, to early alarms.   The sullen sky was a lighter grey, and the constantly tiddling overnight rain had stopped, for now.  We ate breakfast then wrapped up warmly for an exploratory walk around the start.  Vehicles were now piling into the huge gravel carpark, and our once empty aire was now home to fifteen other motorhomes or campers and perhaps a hundred cars.  Everywhere there were people chatting, stretching, warming up, readying themselves for the off.  There were three events today – 10km & 20km runs and a 10km walk, allowing all ages and fitness levels to participate and feel a key part of the proceedings.

LaBastida - (event logo)

We returned to Benny, shed warm layers and, nearing the time, returned to the start.  Nicky wrapped herself in a bin bag for warmth.  It was still only 3 degs, with a chilling wind that stripped the heat from you, so we wanted to stay warm until the race began.  We bounced about and ran a few warm-up lengths, never really feeling warm.

LaBastida - (nicky at start)

LaBastida - (before the start)

LaBastida - (on the start line)

Then it began; we gathered at the line and were off on time.  The first kilometre rose up through the town, first up to the church plaza and then very steeply up a narrow cobbled path.  Here Nicky & I parted company and I pushed on, passing lots of slower runners on the uphill section.  The first 4.5km, through beautiful vineyards and rolling countryside, but on torturous gravelled inclines, was a true leg-burning lung-buster.  But knowing that from then on the route was mostly downhill was great motivation to keep working.

Surviving the rises, I then dropped down fast, concentrating on balance and letting gravity do the heavy lifting.  The views were stunning, but the real threat of a deluge never lifted and I was glad to see the rear of the church grounds appear again on the return journey to town.  A few more short but very steep ups and downs on the slippy stones of the hillside streets and a quirky detour through a wine storage facility stacked with thousands of wooden barrels made up the final stretch.  Relying on the distance shown on my watch, I was beginning to wind up a sprint finish with an eye to picking off a few runners in front when suddenly the finish line appeared.  I surprised myself by finishing in 46 mins, but the route was, according to my watch, only 9.2km so I felt a little disappointed to end with gas in the tank and potentially a few places further back.

LaBastida - (finish line)

LaBastida - (nicky after finishing)

The rain began just as I finished, and 2.5 minutes later Nicky arrived so together we ducked under the shelter of the wine festival tent and chatted about our race.  We were rewarded with lovely WineRun wine glasses at the finish, along with drinks, cake and fruit.  We showered and dressed warmly, then returned to soak up the party atmosphere of the wine fair. Our new glasses could be used to try wines from various suppliers with tents lining the square, and vouchers for one free glass and one free tapas were included in our finisher goodie-bag.  This was our first alcohol in eighteen days, and in motorhoming life dry days are like dog years.  We sampled all the providers over the course of the afternoon, as prices dropped from €2 a glass to €1.50 to €1 during the course of the afternoon.  The guitar band played familiar popular songs and we danced in the crowd as pockets of walkers returned in small, jubilant groups.

LaBastida - (enjoying wine tasting)

We hid from the drizzle under the main tent, sipping wine and enjoyed the musicality of the band.  The Awards ceremony for all the race winners, featuring lots of wine as prizes, briefly interrupted the music, then the dancing and celebrations continued for a few more hours.  Cars began slowly filtering out of town again and as night fell we were once again alone in our quiet, expansive gravel courtyard with a prime view of the beautifully lit-up church tower.

A&N x

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

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)

France – Abondance & our first experience of a French hospital

We returned from Zermatt by the same route, the only route really, via Sion to Martigny.  Only here we deviated from our previous path, leaving Switzerland by a different Col as we climbed and wiggled our way to the mountain town of Abondance, back in French territory.  We pulled onto the spacious gravel of the town’s free aire and had our choice of spot, with only three other vans in residence; the large aire could absorb maybe thirty vans.  We were undecided about our onward route, and had many days to spare before returning to sign for our house, so we decided to reduce our travelling time and stop here. Plus, Nicky wasn’t feeling very well and wanted to rest up.  The latter was later to define our time here, as her painful symptoms exacerbated quickly and rest brought little relief.

Abondance (view of town)

Later in the afternoon we had a short hobble around the centre of Abondance, Nicky still suffering with her pains.  We looked in several shops and had our obligatory visit to the church, but the effort was too much and Nicky had to return to bed for a longer lie down.  We passed a quiet night, but the morning brought her no respite.  We could no longer ignore the jabbing stomach pains, especially when a Google of the symptoms brought up a litany of possible, all worrying, causes.  So we shuffled over to the only open doctor in town at 8am, thankfully a walk-in centre where we were the only patients, and paid for a consultation.  The concerned doctor said the pains were not normal and we needed to go to hospital for a scan.  Concerned with us driving a motorhome to the hospital he ordered an ambulance pick-up to come from Thonon-Les-Bains, 30km away, and deposit us directly in their A&E department.

Abondance (walking through town)

Back at our van we packed a bag with some obvious essentials and awaited their arrival.  30 mins later Nicky was, with over-precautionary detail, laid down, wrapped in thin white, cloth and strapped to a folding-leg gurney for transit.  I sat in beside her, holding her hand for comfort as we were driven down the mountain to Thonon.  Midway there, interrupted by the opening of a sliding partition from the front seats, we had a form thrust at us, stating that the ambulance service was a private enterprise and as foreigners we had to pay a spot fee of €240 for the privilege of their service.  A card machine also magically materialised and was soon sucking on our credit card hungrily.  To add further insult, we soon arrived at the hospital, passing through huge swathes of car-parks, all empty and free for hospital visitors.  Benny would have easily been accommodated in any number of the larger corner spaces.

Abondance - ambulance pick-up

But at least arriving at A&E afforded us a modicum of queue-jumping, and we were soon in a ‘box’, an examination room, where Nicky had a cursory chat and examination, all in French, by a very young but thoroughly professional doctor.  Bloods were taken for analysis and we were soon demoted to a corridor space for several hours before a scan opportunity became available.  We had had only one experience with French health care before, when we had to attend a doctor appointment in Villeneuve-Sur-Lot to have the necessary certification form signed allowing us to compete in our SwimRun event at lake Vassivière.  This was a much more stressful day, with Nicky’s constant pain, long periods of not knowing what was happening, when we would be seen, or what the next stage might entail.

Thonon - hospital examination room

We were stuck in a corridor with several very unwell people, especially one poor lady who had serious vomiting issues.  She would retch and splutter and bark much louder than we thought was physically necessary, the noise both distracting and nauseating.  Hours later she was still loudly attempting to evacuate an empty stomach, her dry, screaming rasps painful to both her and us. Another sick patient, perhaps with additional mental health issues, was locked into an examination room next to us and would desperately knock the window to gain our attention, punctuated with occasional screaming and cursing in French.  She would also have terrible periods of mimicking the vomiting lady; each desperate throat-rasping evacuation she suffered was repeated sarcastically, louder and more elaborately-voiced, from the small window of the room.  It was not a good space to relax in, yet we had to spend seven hours here, living with the guttural sounds and the tense, medically unknown and unresolved situation.

Thonon - hospital canula

Nicky was eventually called for her scan, whereas I was denied entry and instead ejected to the public waiting room.  She was wheeled off as I waited outside.  During this time she was left locked in the room with no information or guidance, anxious.  An hour later a kindly passing nurse informed me my wife was back out, dumped again in a nearby corridor.  I found her and we sat another long while, before our young doctor reappeared to explain the situation.  Yes, an obvious inflammation was confirmed on the scan and coupled with the blood test results an infection in Nicky’s gut was confirmed.  Yes, antibiotics will clear it all up, here’s the necessary prescription.  But there was more.  We had to collect prescription off-site, not in the hospital, and it was now late; we had sat, between a small examination room and the busy corridor, for an amazing nine hours in total, since our arrival.  We’d had no opportunity for lunch and had to beg several times even for a refill of our one water bottle.

Abondance (neighbours arrive)

We walked a loop around the hospital but found all buses into town had stopped running at 7pm, so returned to the main reception to request a taxi to town and the exact location of the after-hours pharmacy.  After a long day of waiting, we had another 45 minutes to restlessly sit until the promised ‘in 20 minutes’ taxi arrived.  He took us into Thonon, but to the wrong pharmacy.  Stranded, we asked how much his taxi back to Abondance would be and he quoted over €100, so we declined.  We managed to walk a few hundred metres and find the correct pharmacy.  We picked up the required medication, but it was now pushing 9.30pm in an unfamiliar town.  With limited options we decided the taxi fare back to Benny was better spent on resting up, so we located a central hotel and happily procured a nice room for €69, opposite the bus terminal that would take us back to Benny for €6 each tomorrow.

Abondance (in the aire)

Exhausted from the day’s stress and drama, we sprawled out in our room, so glad to be somewhere other than a hospital corridor. Nicky took the first round of her medication, hoping for quick action.  We’d not eaten since breakfast, other than a shared dry cereal bar, but didn’t have the will or energy to worry about dinner – sleep was more immediate and necessary.  We slept soundly until 9am, even with the heat of our top-floor room. I popped out for breakfast bananas and croissants, the latter fresh out of the oven and beautifully soft; never had croissants tasted so buttery and sweet, or been devoured so fast.  The colourful Thonon markets were in full bloom, but the stifling morning heat combined with continuing stomach pains were too much for Nicky, so we lay supine on a patch of shady grass for an hour, overlooking the glistening Lake Léman as we awaited the next bus back to Abondance.

Abondance (sunset)

We boarded and watched the mountains draw closer, surprised at there being so few customers on the double-sized bus. Forty minutes later we were ejected on the main street of Abondance and walked the short distance back to where Benny was waiting, relieved to be reunited with our own deeply comforting safe space.  Rest and recovery for Nicky was now our key objective for the coming days.

A&N x