Tag Archives: sports

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

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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 – Haro & La Rioja pueblos cycle

The weather was an uninviting grey, cold and windy, at first light.  In no hurry, we waited a few hours until the rising sun worked its magic on the thin clouds and removed the morning chill. On bikes we tried to leave Casalarreina on a marked, signed route, but as is often the case, the hardest part of any new trail is finding the start.  There were many signs in many directions, but none seemingly pointing the way of the correct route we wanted to follow.

Haro - (nicky cycles past vines)

Haro - (countryside cycle)

With a photo of the route map we ignored the finger posts and backed ourselves instead, and soon we were on empty gravel tracks, enclosed by red-green vines and feeling fully immersed in an ancient Spanish countryside. Dusty hillsides stood tall wrapped with patches of deep green foliage and below them wide fields varying from green to yellow to brown, depending on current use.  Neat rows of box vines, aflame with oranges and reds, lit up the flat, monotone landscape. Church bell towers stood tall, distinctive silhouettes on distant hillsides, helpfully marking each coming village on our chosen wine route cycle.

We passed through each small settlement in turn, circling their proud churches and making the local dogs bark manically. Zarratón, then Rodezno, then Ollauri to Gimileo.  Each village was strategically positioned on a natural, curved mound set above the flat plain, and each brought a warming, breath-stealing hill-climb up followed by a fun, sweeping descent back down the opposite side.

Haro - (tasting the grapes)

Haro - (vines and cut bunches)

Tiny black grapes hung in huge bunches from vines, them smaller than blueberries.  Most grapes had already been harvested, but some remained, whether left or missed.  We tasted a few, and they were sweeter than expected, tiny bursts of juice but with pips that were a quarter of the grape.  The route ahead was cut up in deep ridges and very steep in places, a portent for our upcoming run in similar terrain.

After 15km or so, we were approaching the main town of Haro.  Dating from 1040 CE, historic Haro is the capital of the La Rioja region.  It was scruffy on first approach, sprawling and flat with constant lines of single-storey commercial premises, and from the viewpoint of our bikes it was unclear where the historic centre of town was.  We re-joined the road and eventually found signs directing us to the Centro that led us to the main church and then into the beautiful Plaza de la Paz. The town hall, all flags and wine barrels, defined one corner of this impressive, imposing square that featured an ornate bandstand in the centre.

Haro - (nicky in bandstand)

Haro - (Town hall and wine barrels)

There were a series of bronze statues representing, even glorifying, ordinary local jobs, from shoe-shiner to goat-milker to grape-crusher to wine-bottler.  Roundabouts were decorated with giant barrels and bunches of grapes, the motifs of wine-making always in plain sight, leaving no doubt as to the town’s primary occupation. It reminded us a little of Chateauneuf-de-Pape, in its single-minded approach to promoting its famous wares.

We cycled to the other side of the river where many of the regional producers had visitor centres huddled together. One vineyard’s posh tasting room had been designed by the office of the late Zaha Hadid, so we had to check that out in passing.  We stayed on this side of the river and followed a small irrigation canal back west, through more expansive rows of colourful grapevines. This route led us through Anguciana then into Cihuri, with its old abandoned bridge, once maintained for passing pilgrims by the local monastery.

Nicky suffered another puncture on our return to the outskirts of Casalarreina. Unfixable, we walked back, thankful we weren’t far from Benny.  This likely spelled the end of our cycling on this trip, at least until we reach a larger town with a shop where we can buy a repair kit or spare tubes; we checked the local supermarket to no avail. Kids were playing football in the sports centre adjacent to the aire, but took their frantic, energetic noise back home at dinner time, leaving us again to pass a quiet night in the drooping shade of the tall willow trees.

A&N x

France – Saint-Junien & Saint Pardoux

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

LaJourdanie- (our first veg bed)

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

LaJourdanie- (Well roof - before)

LaJourdanie- (Well roof - after)

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

St-Junien- (nicky with planes)

St-Junien- (aerobatic planes)

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

St-Junien- (classic cars)

St-Junien- (before and after car)

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

Condat-sur-vienne - (race start)

Condat-sur-vienne - (us at race)

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

St-Pardoux - (Running walkways)

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

St-Pardoux - (lake sunset)

St-Pardoux - (causeway to island)

St-Pardoux - (returning to the lake)

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

LaJourdanie- (picking apples)

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

Longer trips will soon be visible on our horizon.

A&N x

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