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(During) Home Exchange 3 – West through Cognac region to the Atlantic coast at Royan & Ile d’Olêron

We returned home from Pageas for only one day, and after explaining the basics of our house and pool to our lovely new Dutch house guests and their very excited children, we set off west, through well-known countryside.  Short of Angoulême, we stopped in a free aire in Touvre, which proved to be a much busier stopover aire than we had expected.  Leaving the constant coming and goings in the tiny aire, we set off for a walk to discover the Font de Lussac, the source of the Touvre river.  We walked around the lake formed by the waterworks, as there were no routes across, but it was a very pleasant stroll full of interesting churches, far-reaching vistas, tiny lanes, quirky island homes and the Chateau de Maumont.  It was all very pleasant; a gentle start to the longest of our trips away.

Touvre - (walking tour)

Chateauneuf-Sur-Charante - (Aire de loisirs)

We visited a small swim lake at the Aire de loisirs du Bain des Dames, near to Châteauneuf-Sur-Charente, where we played table tennis (yes, Nicky smashed me as usual) and had a refreshing swim in the river, just before a wide bank of black clouds drifted over and dumped the heaviest rain we’d seen in months.  We ran and sheltered under the short overhang of a closed restaurant’s roof, waiting out the deluge that we knew would finish in a few wet minutes.  We ate lunch then drove on to Domaine Cognac Peyrot François.  There we were greeted by the owner and given a wonderful tour of all the facilities, him explaining the terroir, the harvesting, and the detail of the distilling processes for their range of flavoured wines, pineaus and cognacs.  It was a tour you would normally expect to be paying for.

Domaine Peyrot - (distillery tour)

Domaine Peyrot - (picnic cognac sampling)

They had a special treat for visiting motorhomers.  We were gifted a range of samples on a tray to take back to Benny and enjoy at our own pace, along with descriptive literature.  We decided to taste the aperitifs before dinner, following a deliberate process where we compared notes.  A quiet evening and dinner in Benny, we took a walk into the heavily-leaden vines where we sat on a blanket and enjoyed the remainder of our samples as the sun set behind us.  In front of us a faint white moon rose in the pale blue evening sky, high above a line of tall wind-rustled trees.  We neither saw nor heard anyone as we sipped and critiqued each flavoured wine, punch and cognac in turn, watching the sky turn ever redder.  It was a fantastic experience, deep in the rows of vines where all the magic happens.

Domaine Peyrot - (sunset tasting)

Cognac - (shop advert)

We visited the store in the morning to purchase a few bottles of our favourites, and to offer our thanks for the wonderful experience and tour.  A short, slow drive to the outskirts of Cognac town, first stopping at Base Plein Air André Mermet, with thoughts of running into the centre.  But Nicky had another bout of her reoccurring dizziness, so we shelved the idea of running, and drove to see if we could snatch a place at a small aire in Cognac.  Amazingly, we crossed the Pont Neuf and turned in to find a slot was available, and quickly parked up.  Within one minute, three other motorhomes had passed us with the same hope, and many more would during the next hours.  Several circled around and passed again and again, hoping for a space to magically open up. We had been very lucky.

Cognac - (main streets)

Cognac - (centrre)

After resting a little, we walked to the river Charente to view the Hennessy distillery, and across the bridge into the centre of Cognac.  We asked the helpful staff in the tourist office to organise a doctor’s appointment for Nicky, to ascertain what could be troubling her.  We had an appointment within an hour at a local clinic, and after a modicum of gentle sightseeing, we arrived in the clinic.  The basic tests and blood pressure were all fine, and we organised for fasting bloods to be taken and tested in the morning, so we would be staying in Cognac for at least another day. There were worse places to be.  We returned for the blood test early the next morning, then met the doctor again to discuss the findings.  All readings led to a diagnosis of a viral infection, with rest and time the only solution.

Domaine Tesseron - (field parking)

Domaine Tesseron - (motorbike museum)

Domaine Tesseron - (car museum)

We left our coveted spot by the river soon after, heading north west through vineyard country, stopping at an aire in Burie to fill up with water.  From there we turned north through Migron, to another France Passion vineyard called Domaine Tesseron.  We expected it to be busy, but we were the only visitors and had an entire lawn, complete with lake, on which to make ourselves at home.  We were feeling tired, so after introductions we delayed a tasting until the following morning.  We visited their extensive museum, learning much about Cognac.  One son, an artist, with deep connections to Cuba, was shown photographed with Castro.  A wing of the museum celebrated the sublime connoisseur-hyped partnership of quality cognac and cigars, another rally cars, motorbikes and vintage tractors.

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Saintes - (roman ruins)

We drove through several small villages to get a feel for the region, then arrived to visit Nicky’s friends Lisa & Tom, deep in rural Charente.  After a tour of their house, long catch-up chats and a cooling swim in their pool, we enjoyed a wonderful barbecue with fresh salads and wine.  We met their daughter Amelie and several of their friends.  A little delicate, we all cycled over to marvel at the gîte complex run by Darren & Zara, where we also met Truffle, their chubby dwarf pig.  Nicky had a go on a self-built zip-line in their garden, racing down from a large pirate ship.  It was great to meet up with everyone and enjoy a good night; it was the first time in nearly 20 years, since swim training days in Northampton Triathlon club, that Nicky had seen Lisa.  Hopefully we’ll not leave it so long next time.

Saintes - (shade of pollarded trees)

Saintes - (Gallo-Roman amphitheatre)

After our goodbyes, we drove to the nearby town of Saintes, for a quick city explore.  We parked centrally in a marked aire (45.740604n, 0.626727w) near a large sports centre, and walked in.  A small park, wonderfully shaded by overlapping pollarded trees, led us to Roman ruins alongside a pedestrian bridge leading over the Charente river.  We casually checked out their cathedral and basilica on our way to see their Gallo-Roman amphitheatre, enjoying the easy stroll under a warm sun.  We circled the amphitheatre and were afforded decent views over the structure, so we decided to avoid the crowds, recently arrived on le petit train, and not enter the site.  Instead, we meandered back through busy shop-lined streets, getting a feel for the town and simply enjoying the ambience of the afternoon.

View across to Ile d'Oleron

Ile d'Oleron - (ready for race)

We parked at an aire by the coast, just short of the bridge to Île d’Oléron, once paid but now free. It was busy, and not much of a beach with the tide out.  We woke and left early to cross the bridge to the island.  Traffic was present but light in our direction, but oncoming was simply an incredible mess for those leaving.  At each roundabout reached we opined sadly for the poor travellers stuck in such a solid line, as multiple smaller routes converged on the single exit road.  Then the same at the next, and the next, and we could do nothing but shake our heads at the barely-moving carnage. It was entirely solid for over 12km, as what seemed like the whole island was attempting to evacuate.  We watched a few motorhomes join the back of the snake mid-island and felt they would be better stopping off for a 3 hour tea-break before trying to proceed.  It’s the worst traffic jam we had ever seen in France.

Ile d'Oleron - (start line)

Ile d'Oleron - (Aaron nearing finish)

But we made good progress north, hoping to settle in and see the area around St Denis d’Oléron before our race.  We had plans to join a 12km run around the northern tip of the island, but with Nicky feeling jaded from her virus, I was to be the sole representation for Team Hill.  We stopped first at Camping Municipal Saint-Denis, nearest to where the race would start, but felt it was scruffy and tatty and filled to bursting with noisy families and lots of dogs, so didn’t fancy paying €18 to stay there.  Instead we decided to relocate a little out of town to the cheaper (€12) and much neater Aire de camping car du Moulin (46.027600n, 1.383156w), from where we could easily cycle into the race the following morning.  After a look around the town, we signed up for the race, paid the €12 entry fee and collected my new race t-shirt, a race buff, number and timing chip.  I was good to go, and looking forward to it.

Ile d'Oleron - (cycle to lighthouse)

We had an easy night resting in the van, where we watched the romantic comedy ‘Man Up’ with Simon Pegg.  An early alarm, a rarity for us, dragged us from a deep sleep to ready ourselves.  Next was breakfast, bikes out and a quick doodle into town to warm-up and await the start.  There is something rather special about arriving into a large group of like-minded people all preparing for the same event; running, chatting, stretching, smiling.  We locked up our bikes and wandered through the crowds, glad for the cooler morning, cloud cover and tiny bouts of light rain – perfect running conditions.  Soon we were off through vineyards and along coastal trails, rounding the Phare de Chassiron just after halfway, then back on the eastern coast.  The last kilometre held a final sting –a stretch of deep sandy beach to finish.  I completed the race sub one hour as I had hoped for, just, with a finish time of 59 mins.

Mornac-sur-Seudre - (train des mouettes)

Mornac-sur-Seudre - (Benny in aire with passing train)

After showers and lunch, we had a slow cycle around the same race course, to let Nicky see the coast and the Phare de Chassiron.  Unlike during the race, it was now surrounded by tourists like a dropped lollypop with ants, and we had to dismount and push our bikes to pass through the crowds.  It was nice to revisit the route so soon afterwards, as I found I had missed so many parts of it, being distracted by other runners or concentrating on my own race.  We had planned to move on, but decided instead to spend a second night in the same aire, and cycle more of the island. The next morning, under brighter skies, we visited La Brée-les-Bains, Saint-Georges, Cheray and Chaucre, giving us a decent feel for the villages and terrain of the northern portion of the island.  There were many cyclists everywhere.  Unsurprisingly, the island had a similar feel to Île de Ré, quite touristy and catering for families enjoying short stays.

Mornac-sur-Seudre - (cycling oyster farms)

We ate an early lunch and headed off, hoping that planning our escape at 1pm would mean little traffic, and so it proved.  We cruised easily to the bridge and beyond, escaping Île d’Oléron without delay.  After a brief Intermarché stop to provision, Mornac-sur-Seudre, a member of the beaux village scheme, welcomed us to their free aire.  We raced the picturesque Train des Mouettes on the way, through several level-crossings where they had a clear advantage.  We walked through the village, interesting for its many artisan shops and tidal estuary oyster-farming.  We have long been looking for a seascape painting for our house that we both liked, but here we found a different, but similarly beguiling item;  a cut-metal, colourfully painted turtle that we gifted to ourselves for a wall at home.

Mornac-sur-Seudre - (low tide in the estuary)

We decided to pause here another day, to have an exploratory cycle.  Picking up a map, we chose to start with Route 2, towards La Tremblade.  There were so many cycle signs everywhere that it proved difficult to follow, so we made up our own way.  We headed into the oyster farms, small rectangles of dark water overlooked by colourfully painted huts.  The tide was far out in the estuary, and any remaining fishing boats slumped low on thick mud, far below the decking platforms built to access them.  On our return route, via Arvert, we passed huge swathes of gloomy-looking sunflowers, their darkening heads drooping like a congregation at prayer.  We passed fields lined with neat rows of vines hung thick with bulging grapes, ripe for harvesting.  A few locals were picking wild berries, filling large tubs.

Coastal drive - Phare de la Coubre

We had cycled 36km through villages and varied countryside, but had not yet reached the coast; further exploration in Benny would be needed.  We soon packed up and drove off to do a loop around the coast road.  There were so many cars, parking in the mass of allocated spaces or in long lines on the grass verge.  We passed huge crowds enjoying the coast everywhere, the beach wrapping around the coast for many continuous miles.  We parked on the verge and walked through a forest busy with cyclists to enjoy our first sight of the coast and beach. The beach was a bit scrappy with muddy areas, forest creeping in to one side and the shallow sea a long way out.  We later stopped at a lighthouse, Phare de la Coubre, where we found crowds milling all over, a neater beach hidden behind sand dunes.

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We continued our drive along the coast road, through the busy towns of Saint-Palais-sur-Mer and Royan.  It was definitely August holidays.  We had planned to stop at the aire in Royan, but had a falling out with the payment system, so left instead for nearby Saint-Georges-de-Didonne.  It was much more agreeable and comfortable there, and we settled in nicely under the welcome shade of  a tree.  It was a short walk to the beach, and to another lighthouse, Phare de Vallières.  There was a photographic display in the grounds around the lighthouse, called the Rêves des Gosses, childhood dreams.  The artist captured portraits of subjects in their current workplace, but dressed as they might have looked if their dream jobs had come to fruition.  The juxtaposition was certainly compelling; an astronaut in a tax office, a prancing rock star in a supermarket, a priest in a discount bathroom store.

Coastal waters near Royan

Meschers-sur-Gironde - (fishing huts on coast)

We walked to the central beach in Royan the next morning, along a rugged stony coast let down by gritty grey water and occasional mud.  Geographically it looked a little like southern Portugal, but without the sparkling waters.  We lay on the beach for the morning, reading, people-watching, and dozing.  The beach was so flat that a swim required a long walk and wade before a depth higher than our thighs could be reached.  Rested, we moved on to another aire 10km south, at the town of Meschers-sur-Gironde.  There were two aires very close to each other, and we chose the one away from the marina as it had more space and felt nicer.  We enjoyed an early evening coastal walk, looking at fishing huts on stilts and trying to ascertain the history of their design and use.  We faced a night with a loud party roaring in the adjacent campsite, but a choice bottle of wine from a visited domaine helped us to sleep.

Jonzac - (church)

Jonzac - (mairie)

Garnd Etang de Saint Estephe - (beach swim)

It was time to return home.  We drove east, avoiding any main roads in favour of a direct route, and found some of the smallest and quietest roads we’ve seen.  Re-entering the Parc naturel régional Périgord-Limousin , we stopped at the Grand Étang de Saint Estèphe, our final day away before reclaiming our home and settling back in for the end of summer.  We had an hour at the beach, surrounded by English-speaking kids running wild and building huge castles.  The next morning before breakfast I went for a short run around the lake, lost the path and ended up running many kilometres further than expected through several villages, but it was such a tranquil, fresh morning I didn’t want it to end.

But all things do, as now had our three home exchanges.  We had met three great families, each having enjoyed a fun summer holiday at our home.  We had had three varied, interesting trips away and simultaneously accumulated enough points to secure all the accommodation required for our winter trip to the Australian sun.  Job’s a good ‘un.

A&N x

Spain – El Mas Pinell beach, Roses & Empuriabrava

After leaving the too-perfect beauty of Pals, we needed a new place to overnight.  Despite the lack of warmth, we decided to head back to the coast and spend a night at the beach.  We chose a secluded parking spot at the end of a dusty track at El Mas Pinell beach ( 42.018222, 3.192852 ) and squeezed in between the dog-walking day trippers.  Our chosen route in was a sandy trail, rough and pitted, but we later discovered the much better road in from the north, tarmacked most of the way, that would have saved us a few bumps.   But we were practically on the beach here, thirty seconds stroll from the sea, so all was well. (bar the weather).  We walked the sands, tentatively testing the sea with our toes, but not braving a swim.  At least initially.  After a return to Benny and to fill ourselves with tea and bravado, we returned to the sea for a splash around and the briefest of dips.  The wind ripped the heat from us all too quickly and we retreated back to Benny to regain our warmth.

El Mas Pinell beach (selfie)

El Mas Pinell beach (Nicky in waves)

One by one our single-use beach friends peeled away, and we were alone by early evening.  This left us free to enjoy a sun-setting walk with the soft sound of the lapping waves as our only companion. We collected a few pieces of smooth, white driftwood with thoughts of fashioning door handles or stool legs from them, in some mythical future existence where we become competent at wood-working.  We rose early in the morning and walked our tea mugs along the beach, lapping up the solitude, before making the decision to move again.  We were definitely feeling restless on this trip, unrooted.  We drove away from the coast, via the much better northern road, and turned north to visit the popular tourist town of Roses. We had skipped around it last time we were in the Costa Brava, instead heading straight to Cadaqués.  With no formed expectations we were a little surprised by what we found.

El Mas Pinell beach (morning walk)

We parked easily in a free car-park ( 42.266346, 3.166726 ) near to the walled Citadella de Roses and walked into the centre.  Roses was much bigger than we thought, with an expansive crescent of golden beach lined with all manner of shops and apartments.  It looked much more like the Spain of package tours, Costa del Sol and drunken tourists than anywhere else we had visited in the Costa Brava.  Behind the glossy façade lay a maze of tiny streets and small plazas filled with snacky restaurants and pubs touting for customers.  The car parks were filled with foreign cars, mostly French, Italian and Swiss, with the local Spanish looking to have skipped town for the holidays.  We walked as far as the marina and returned the same way, eyeing up the beach and the frothing sea, but again turning down an opportunity to swim.

Empuriabrava (waterways)

Instead we drove a short way south along the coast to reach the town of Empuriabrava where we parked in a scruffy, quirky free aire ( 42.258463, 3.115425 ) that was almost full.  The marked spaces were over-wide, much too generous, almost like a campsite.  We and two other adjacent vans parked right in the centre of our bays and later found two other vans had sneaked in between us.  There was still ample room for all of us.  We had a short exploratory walk around the nearby streets.  The whole town was based on strips of water, with each house having a road to the front and a boat to the rear, offering a very different feel to anywhere we’d visited before.  The following morning we went for a run through the bright streets and down to the beach, exploring around mini-marinas and curved avenues, eyeing up which style of house we’d prefer from the plethora of choice.

Empuriabrava (run to beach)

Empuriabrava (jetty end)

We ran out to a small marker at the end of a jetty.  The sea was crashing wildly against the rocks, with large waves rolling through the protected narrow opening of the town’s waters.  We watched several small craft try to breach the waves and escape to open sea, only to be repelled back to the calm waters to think again.  One larger vessel, lifeboat sized, bounced strongly through the crests, impressively catching metres of air between each successive wave.  I was glad to be watching rather than on board; the passengers must have been shaken to the core. We continued our run along the beach then back a different route, still gaping at the extent of this mini-Venice.  It was an interesting maze of affluent neighbourhoods and waterways, not at all similar to the tourist trappings of Roses.

A&N x

2018 Highlights, 2019 Plans

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

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

TMB Day 8 (Enjoying the downhill)

Annecy - (first view of lake)

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

Our House - (from the pool)

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

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

Lake Vassiviere (swim exit)

Key highlights of 2018

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

Paris (eiffel tower lit at night)

Key goals for 2019

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

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

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

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

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

DAY 11 - Brevents panorama

Brantome - (panorama)

Randa (Bridge Panorama)

Haro - (panorama)

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

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

A&N x

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 – Saint Pardoux, and our new French house

Note:  We’ve been sans Internet for several weeks as we worked our way through the maze of French bureauracy, so are only now catching up with ourselves on the blog plus, we’ve been busy settling in, as you can read all about in our next exciting update. If you like.

We left Neris-Les-Bains in good form, and after another easy hour west we reached the shores of Saint Pardoux, a large, popular swim lake north of Limoges.  It was busy on this sunny Friday afternoon, with lots of frolicking locals enjoying down-time on the pleasant lake-side beach.  We drove through the extensive parking areas, them looking empty of cars in comparison to number of available spaces, and found the dedicated motorhome aire set in a shady corner of the site.  We picked out a spot and quickly packed for the beach, and made our way to join the crowds.

Saint Pardoux (spacious free aire)

Saint Pardoux (relaxing at Benny)

There were picnickers galore, quiet dippers cooling off, noisy children playing boisterously and jumping off a floating platform, and a few proper swimmers grinding out lengths tight along the buoy-marked edge of the demarcated swimming area.  The longest available length we guessed was around 250m, so decent enough for a training swim.  We soon joined them, wearing rash vests as protection against the hot sun rather than the cold, to swim a few lazy lengths. The lake water was 27 degs, the hottest we’d found so far in France.  After four lengths we decided that was sufficient and lazed on the beach, reading and people-watching.  As the afternoon passed the crowds grew, with more and more weekenders joining the fray and filling up the once generous spaces between sites on the hot sand.

Saint Pardoux (beach setup)

We showered off at the beach and, with the thumping music from the adjacent slide-pool complex ringing in our ears, we returned to Benny for dinner.  Afterwards, we had a quiet walk to another part of the lake and watched a deep red sunset over the now-still water.  We sat under the trees in silence and sipped at wine. Later that evening we moved Benny to help accommodate another British couple who had arrived late. They had parked up in another area of the park and only at 9.30pm had the Gendarmes passed by and told them to move as, despite there being no signs posted, overnighting was not allowed.  With a quick retraction of our awning and a minimal amount of repacking, we rolled back and over on our large pitch, allowing them squeeze in beside us, earning grateful thanks.

Saint Pardoux (sunset drinks)

That night there was to be a blood moon eclipse.  We checked in early but the sky was thick with cloud, although in short patches we snatched the occasional glimpse of the dull, reddish moon not yet being eclipsed.  But by 11pm the cloud cover was breaking up, so we returned to the beach area and continued to watch with patience.  The moon kindly appeared in revealing bursts of bright light, framed by the residues of wispy cloud.  Other spectators had decided on a late swim and now lay out on the lake’s floating pontoon, under the stars, taking in the softly glowing spectacle.  Satisfied, we returned to Benny and to welcome sleep.  Short hours later, a morning bread van visited the aire, beeping softly to attract our attention, and we treated ourselves to soft, fresh croissants and pains au chocolat.

Saint Pardoux (blood moon 1)

We spent a lazy day in and out of the lake and decided early to pass a second night in this fantastic aire.  As we had each evening, we walked back to the beach, a large glass of red in hand, and watched ITV4’s highlight show of the Tour de France.  This was the nearest spot from where we could utilise the much-appreciated free beach WiFi for streaming – Le Tour with a view.  We watched jealously as large gatherings of friends and families set up huge barbeques in various locations around the park.  We had a more modest meal in Benny.  Later we watched a deep red sunset set over a quiet part of the lake with an encore glass of red, thinking what a wonderful resource this place was, all provided by the local council.  We will be returning again to enjoy its warm, cloudy waters and quiet paths.

Saint Pardoux (sunset lake)

Saint Pardoux (selfie cheers)

On Sunday afternoon we drove to Séreilhac, an aire we had visited previously, and one only a few easy-driving minutes from our new house.  We had a quiet evening, equally apprehensive and excited.  Tomorrow morning at 9am we had organised to meet the sellers, agent and notaire, to finalise all formalities and formally collect the keys to our new place.  It’s really all very real now – we will now be, baring catastrophe, new home-owners in France.

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)