Tag Archives: walking

France – Christmas in Paris (mini-break Part 2)

<post continued from Paris Part 1 >

Day 3 – South of the River

Tired from our first two days exploring, we were late waking, having slept nearly 10 hours. We must have been properly exhausted, a body and mind overload. We walked south from the campsite, passing a hippodrome flanked by a closed tarmac road inundated by keen cyclists and runners. We caught the metro from Boulogne – Pont de Saint-Cloud to the end of the line at Gare d’Austerlitz and began the long walk back west. We first reached the Jardins des Plantes, adjacent to the Natural History Museum. The grounds were filled with large, wildly colourful and exuberant animal models that brought instant smiles to our faces. Walking here was such a different experience from other places in Paris, one of simple, childlike joy, a haven from the busy roads and towering architecture.

Paris (natural history museum)

Paris (garden bears)

Paris (giant turtle)

We lingered under the warm morning sky, enjoying each vibrant display. There were large groups of students being corralled into the museum as we passed, likely on a school outing. We passed through the inflated body of a huge shark marking the entrance to the adjacent zoo, it reminding us of silly sentences from learning French on DuoLingo such as “Le loup mange le requin”- when could I ever use that, really? We exited the park by a large brightly-tiled mosque and continued on to reach the impressive monolith of the Panthéon in the nearby Latin Quarter. We ate snacks amongst the chatting students lounging and lunching on elaborate timber benches. I eavesdropped on their loud conversations, catching less than a tenth of the words, making me wonder if I’ll ever get a proper hold on the language.

Paris (student area seating)

Paris (pantheon)

We dropped down a the hill towards Le Jardin du Luxembourg, but found ourselves distracted by a display of large, beautiful photos of polar regions that lined the boundary fencing to the park. We followed this exhibition right around the perimeter, loving the poignant quality of the work and dreaming of a return to the wilds of Greenland. Some day. We finally entered Le Jardin du Luxembourg adjacent to the palace, stopping first to glance at a formal pond and grotto. The sky was back to a glorious blue and it was warm in direct sun, so we sat a while at the edge of the gardens and enjoyed a bout of people-watching. It was a welcome oasis away from the crowded bustling streets, and these restful moments revived us for more exploring. We cut across the sparse gardens, heading north into the fray once more.

Paris (resting in Luxembourg gardens)

Paris (place saint sulpice)

Our route north took us through Place Saint-Sulpice to reach another pocket of colourful Christmas Markets in the plaza outside Saint Germain des Prés church. Here we bought some vin chaud to warm our hands as we lazily browsed the stalls. We returned to the banks of the Seine and walked along, passing the Musie d’Orsay, before reaching Passerelle Léopold Sédar Senghor, a bridge replete with love locks, conveniently sold by all the local hawkers. There were many thousands of locks, each with a name or message added to symbolise a thought, love or connection. The idea could be seen as either deeply symbolic and profound or as credulously trite, wasteful littering, depending on your given mood or perspective. But it certainly didn’t seem to be lessening in popularity over time.

Paris (louvre from bridge)

Paris (Wall of peace)

From here we crossed to Tuileries gardens and sat for lunch overlooking the manic traffic wildness of the Place de la Concorde. Huge numbers of blue flashing lights roared past, and we wondered if the Gilets Jaunes had begun protesting again nearby. We crossed back south of river, across stalled traffic, to reach Les Invalides and the École Militaire, and then approached the Tour Eiffel from the south. We made our way through the busy crowds to Trocadéro where we enjoyed the raised, expansive view as we awaited dusk falling and the turning on of lights. This was to be our last magnificent view of central Paris from this trip, a fitting memory for our short days here. Tired, we again caught the Metro back to Pont de Neuilly after dark, then undertook our now usual walk back to the campsite.

Paris (spproaching tour Eiffel)

Paris (eiffel tower panorama)

These two posts on Paris read like a Bret Easton Ellis novel, the long lists of places we visited like the detailed musings of Patrick Bateman. It’s difficult to step back and find a way to encapsulate the trip beyond the obvious linear diary approach. When you factor in the constant stimulation of culture, history, architecture, lights, smells and sounds, it takes a long time for the brain to fully process the experience and then recreate some order from the constant movement and delightful chaos. We walked 23km on our third day – it’s a huge city, and we only saw a small portion of it. Even utilising a pack of ten metro tickets (€14.90 for 10), we covered 64 kilometres on foot over the course of our three days. City breaks, at least the way we always seem to do them, are more exhausting than hiking mountains.

A&N x

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France – Mums, Markets & Mulled Wine – Early Christmas fun with our mums

Leaving the elegant, damp streets of a rainy-day Pau, we drove further into France, homeward bound.  We overnighted in Villeneuve de Marsan at a free aire that offered two free electricity points but there were three other vans already plugged in and we had no splitter, so had to go without.  We walked into the centre of town, it looking scruffy and unloved, but was in the midst of new works to the streets.  It might be very nice when it’s finished.

The next day we cut diagonally to the north east, through beautiful rolling countryside, to return to Pugols, near to Villeneuve-sur-Lot.  This was an area we had grown to know well, having enjoyed a six-week house-sit there at the start of the year.  With fond memories we revisited the local swimming pool and spa for a relaxing morning treat.

That afternoon we called in to visit friends Dave & Kate, near Bergerac, with whom we had previously spent a week completing a rewarding WorkAway.  We had a lovely dinner and catch-up, picking their brains on quirks of life in France and pocketing great tips for the upcoming restoration works we are planning around our French home.

Pageas Christmas - (nicky and mums)

From then we arrived home and settled again into the pattern of decorating and pottering around our house.  The weather was entirely different now, wet and cold, so our focus was back on internal spaces.  Over the course of a few weeks we decorated our living room, kitchen and the second spare bedroom in preparation of two guests of honour arriving – both our mums were visiting for an early Christmas.  We arrived at the airport to collect them where we were greeted with a loud, improvised chorus of “We are the Mother-in-Laws”, repeatedly sung to an obviously practised tune, to the bemusement of local crowds.  We feared that Christmas spirits had already been liberally imbibed and this now how our next days would go.  We got back home quickly so we could begin to catch up.

Pageas Christmas - (Limoges river)

It was almost dark on our arrival home, so after a quick tour and room allocation we closed the shutters, turned on suitable music and settled in for an evening of drinks, food and chat.  The weather was grey and wet, but we sat cosy inside by the fire, catching up.  We had prepared quite a few different dishes, from wheaten bread with smoked salmon, French onion and potato & leek soups, pesto & lentil lasagne, chocolate cookies and lemon sponge.  All these and more were to be tasted over the course of the evening and the next few days.  In the morning we enjoyed a short visit to Châlus to wander around their festive market, along with a visit to the supermarket to stock up on essentials and treats; this short stay was all to be about indulgence, with some token light exercise to justify it all.

Pageas Christmas - (cathedral grounds)

Pageas Christmas - (cathedral plaza)

One morning we headed into the centre of Limoges, the first time we had returned to the historic city centre since our initial visit over a year ago now.  We walked along the riverbank and the mass of grey clouds parted for a few moments to display a wonderful blue sky, lighting up the vista and even warming our faces.  This morning break in the rain allowed us the opportunity to explore the historic quarter, climbing up through the old city walls to the formal gardens and the cathedral.  We later wandered through the under-attended Christmas markets, although it was a mid-week morning so most locals were still at work.  The rain returned briefly for one short burst, but we mostly stayed dry as we explored the shopping quarter, ice rink and all other quirky pockets of Christmas stalls.

Pageas Christmas - (nicky and tree)

Pageas Christmas - (woodland trail)

Pageas Christmas - (woodland walks)

We took the mums for a short walk around the local woodland trails that we know well from our run training.  The autumn colours still dominated the paths and everything looked rich and beautiful, despite the monotone greyness and constant threat of further rain.  We then warmed up again with a bout of present opening, replete with giggles and silliness and new Christmas hats all round.  We enjoyed a good approximation of a traditional Christmas dinner, with turkey, ham and all the yummy trimmings except for Brussels sprouts as they had been surprisingly elusive in France to date.  Stuffed and squiffy, we retired to the lounge to watch ‘A Good Year’, for a small taste of French life, as we polished off more food and drinks.  This was like the ideal Christmas days we remembered –  lazy and boozy.

Pageas Christmas - (pre-dinner drinks)

Pageas Christmas - (mum cheers)

On our final morning we attended a small local Christmas market in the nearby village of Les Cars, filled with stalls of hand-made crafts and local food and drinks.  It was nice to be a small part of a local event, but it seemed under-attended and rather empty, which was a shame for those who had worked hard on their wares.  A few trinkets were bought more from politeness than want, and then we retreated back home, out of the rain, to allow the mums to finalise their packing.  We dropped them off and said our goodbyes, knowing our house was going to be quieter, emptier and less joyful in the coming days.

But at least we have a new distraction to regather our attention – an upcoming trip to Paris to squeeze in before Christmas – the city of lights awaits.

A&N x

 

Spain – Vitoria Gastiez & Nanclares de la Oca

From Gorbeiako Parke Naturala we headed south, starting off with a narrow miss on the tight entrance road, from a crazy impatient driver who was desperate to squeeze past us without waiting for us to manoeuvre and make space.  The side of his car was lined with deep scrapes, signs of a previous mishap, as is our wing mirror now after his latest idiocy.

Not to be outdone, I later had my own driving faux pas – I brainlessly followed our SatNav the wrong way back out of a car-park to a roundabout on a two-lane but, as it turned out, one-way road when leaving a Decathlon store – it only by chance that nothing was coming.

Vitoria Gastiez (cathedral santa maria)

All drama over, we made it to an impressively busy aire in the north of Vitoria-Gasteiz, where we joined a long run of motorhomes at the back end of a huge car-park.  From here we undertook a longish walk into the old town, a little wearily, feeling yesterday’s mountainous 20km in our legs.

We passed thousands of apartments in tall, sprawling blocks, with scruffy communal spaces but no private gardens other than what could be imaginatively squeezed onto the small balcony spaces.  There was lots of commerce, small stores in long rows, no known brands, all looking locally owned and well used.  There were also lots of small bars, accompanied by the constant and distinctive smell of piss.

We arrived at the north of the old town centre where we were able to ride a long conveyor belt up the hill to the imposing 14th century Cathedral de Santa Maria.  There were multiple escalators on other steeper streets too, a modern means of ensuring an ageing congregation can always make it to church.

Vitoria Gastiez (san vincente church)

We followed our noses through lanes and squares large and small, flanked by tall townhouses with enclosed balconies of painted timber, looking more Venetian than Spanish. After some exploring we entered the grand Plaza de España, where we found the tourist office and swiped ourselves a handy town map.

We next stumbled upon the Plaza de los Fueros, a stepped amphitheatre with peripheral spaces created out of tall walls, all corners, niches and dead ends. On paper it may have represented something profound, intellectual, but in reality it was a horrible piece of urban design, deeply flawed, with dark, enclosed spaces designed only for violence or for use as a makeshift toilet.  We were in awe at any council that allowed it to be built.

George Mélès movies and their history were being displayed in a travelling show trailer in the Plaza de la Virgen Blanca.  As it was our favourite price, we had a good look around inside, imagining more simple times when his oftentimes bizarre films would have been seen as wild, shocking, incredible, sometimes scary and always technically brilliant.

Vitoria Gastiez (plaza de la virgen blanca)

Vitoria Gastiez (george meles posters)

Vitoria Gastiez (palacio de la provincia)

We passed several other large churches including the Neo-Gothic cathedral de María Immaculada, then sat a while in the sunny, leafy square in front of the Neo-Classical Palacio de la Provincia. The oval-shaped historic centre was delightful in the sunshine, much more appealing than the surrounding estates.  We returned through a leafy park and alongside a large cemetery.  It was slightly longer, but a much nicer route.

We decided not to stay overnight here, so we abandoned our original plan and moved to another nearby aire at Nanclares de la Oca.  The motorhome bays there were separate from the adjacent car-park and we were the only van in town, so we had our pick.  We had a short walk into town to look around, and buy onions.  We passed an interesting sculpture, a negative of traditional dress without the person within.  We then saw a huge heron nest on the pretty stone church roof as we wandered the side streets, before retiring for the day.  Later, after dark, we could hear the distinct roar of planes overhead, mixing with sporadic traffic noise, but despite the mechanical interference, we slept soundly.

A&N x

Spain – San Sebastián, revisited

We slept soundly, weary from our run, despite the pounding rain bouncing noisily off Benny’s roof.  When morning arrived the deluge had dissipated and the sun was out – it was time to move on. We followed the busy coast road west, slow behind unpassable tractors and cyclists on the narrow roads, in the direction of Spain.  We passed through the pretty looking Saint-Jean-de-Luz, spotting a messy aire tightly packed with manoeuvring motorhomes set in a great central position, before dropping down to cross the notional country border at Behobia.

We had driven this road before, a little over two years ago, and we mused on how much we’d seen and done in the time since.  Benny was almost new then, with less than 3000 miles on his clock, in comparison to the near 29000 miles we have driven now.  We stayed off the tolled motorway, preferring the coast road into San Sebastián, knowing we only had a short drive day.  We arrived at the central aire near the university and were surprised to see it so packed, although many spaces were coned off for large buses to use.  We nabbed one of the few remaining spaces, bought a €3.30 overnight ticket and headed to see the bay.

San Sebastian - (first views of the bay)

San Sebastian - (the main beach)

Despite having been here before, we were again stunned by its easy, natural beauty, regal buildings and sparkling sea. The day was clear and bright, and in direct sun it was scorching, skin blistering hot, unseasonably warm even for Spain.  We had slept through the worst of the predicted heavy rains and were beyond the ugly reach of the nasty hurricane currently battering Portugal and southern Spain; it all couldn’t have worked out better for this visit. We walked to the old town and nosed around the busy tapas bars in the tiny streets, loving the colour and variety.  This trip for us had been built around several interesting 10+km runs, a means for us to experience familiar places in a different way. Part of our plan was to be tee-total for the duration, as we’d been hitting the pop with our new neighbours a little too hard. Nowhere was this self-imposed exile from our tasty lubricating friend harder to endure than in these sociable back-streets tucked behind Spain’s most beautiful bay.

San Sebastian - (view of bay)

San Sebastian - (walking on beach)

The only downside of this visit was realising just how obviously rusty and basically useless our Spanish had gotten in our time away – we need to visit more.  We skipped out of the bars before temptation won us over and instead ate takeaway snacks on the beachfront, soaking up the view and the sun. After eating our fill and enjoying a lazy bout of people-watching, we walked back around the combined length of Kontx and Ondarreta beaches, slowly dragging our toes in the cool waters and dreaming of owning the domed paradise of Santa Clara, with its beautiful solitary house set deep in tall trees, a focus point just off-shore out in the curved bay.  We watched several hardy swimmers cross the wide bay and began making plans to mimic them, mañana.

San Sebastian - (on beachfront)

We awoke the next morning to find a grey blanket had descended, and the air a near-frosty 15 degrees; normal weather service had resumed.  We postponed our swim plans until the afternoon and instead grabbed our bikes for a morning’s exploration.  We rolled along the beachfront again, this time continuing to the bay’s third beach, Zurriola.  We paused near a Conference Centre and watched groups of surfers take lessons.  We saw other groups, carrying boards in pairs, walking in lines towards the water, and we were sure they were school classes heading not for maths or history, but for double surf.  Nearby, other school kids noisily played basketball, choosing dunks over tubes.  We were stopped by fencing at the end of the beach, the route blocked to protect against falling rocks.

San Sebastian - (Zurriola beach)

San Sebastian - (walking through park)

We doubled back and hugged the coast behind the Old Town and Mont Urgull, enjoying the raw power of the breakers smashing persistently into the tall protective walls. We reached a dead end high above our onward path and had to take a glass elevator down to the lower level, just squeezing our bikes in alongside a couple of bemused locals. We headed back to Kontx beach, then south through more residential areas, and climbed a steep hill to reach a park we had noted on a city map. At the gate we discovered that riding bikes was not allowed in Parc Aiete, so we instead pushed our steeds up the leafy, shady hairpin track.  Nearing the top we arrived at an interesting small grotto, before carrying our bikes up a final series of steps to reach a grassy, formally-laid out plateau.

The Palais d’Aiete, a large white building sat here all closed up, looking lonely.  We had hoped for views during our climb, but the bay and beaches were hidden by tall townhouses, so a sea of rooftops was our only prize.  At least we had one reward – a long, flowing descent from the hilltop back to where Benny was parked, passing screaming school kids as we whizzed by.  We had a lazy lunch to refuel from our 20km jaunt around town then cycled back to the beach, this time with rucksacks stuffed with wetsuits, goggles and towels. Our patience had delivered; the air had warmed sufficiently, to 22 degrees, and had convinced us to swim.

San Sebastian - (pre-swim selfie)

At Ondarreta beach there were lockers and hot showers available for €1.50, so we locked up the bikes outside, changed and lockered our gear, then headed to the water.  We passed guys skilfully playing footie-volleyball and a few other swimmers now resting wearily on the sand.  The sea was around 18 degs, clear and blue, generally flat but with the occasional bout of high waves that swelled menacingly from nowhere.  We swam east, parallel to the shore, aiming roughly for the centre of Kontx beach.  With each breath our view was filled by Santa Clara island and Mont Urgull, both framed by a moody, greying sky. Changing our plans we didn’t go ashore as the fierce breakers had grown in intensity and we thought we might struggle to get back out.  Instead we turned around and headed back, staying away from the frothing surf in relatively calmer waters. Nearing our start point we cut diagonally back in, covering only 1km but contented to have finally had our long-desired swim in beautiful San Sebastián bay.

A&N x

France – Our first house-guest, the Birthday Girl

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

LaJourdanie - (alfresco eating)

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

LaJourdanie - (chilling)

LaJourdanie - (By the pool)

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

LaJourdanie - (Birthday cake)

LaJourdanie - (Birthday evening)

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

LaJourdanie - (bubbles arrive)

LaJourdanie - (girls in pool)

LaJourdanie - (time for snails)

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

LaJourdanie - (pool play)

LaJourdanie - (Wheres Wally)

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

Brantome - (by the abbey)

 

Brantome - (lazy lunch)

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

Espace Hermeline - swim lake

 

LaJourdanie - (patio drinks)

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

LaJourdanie - (evening dinner)

LaJourdanie - (pool time)

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

A&N x

French Haute Alps – St Gervais, Les Houches & our upcoming plans

After leaving the wonderful shores of Annecy we drove into the mountains to the nearby town of Thônes.  We found a space in the town’s free aire, then walked around town and looked in their shops, before getting a bottle open and chilling in the warm evening sun.  It was 36 degs this day, and we were already missing the cooling breeze of the blue lake.  We had a slow riverside walk later, when the sun had finally disappeared below the peaks, offering us respite.

Thone - (church)

Thone - (street temperature)

The next morning was market day, and we awoke to find the allegedly dedicated motorhome aire was over-ran with badly parked cars at all angles, blocking the road and a lot of other vans in.  Thankfully we were able to squeeze out and be on our way, leaving several cars to salivate over the additional space we had freed up for them.  We had read a little on the Cascade de la Belle Inconnue, a short hike to a local waterfall spot with a dipping pool, and decided to investigate.  After a few false starts we found the entirely unmarked path and climbed up the steep forest trail, difficult and awkwardly crossing fallen trees and scrambling up pine-needle coated tracks, only to find the feature pool was clogged with fallen trees and debris, like a wild storm had recently ravaged it.  A lower, smaller pool was clear so we had a very refreshing skinny dip under the chilly waterfall to cool off before returning back to Benny.

Cascade de la Belle Inconnue - walk

Cascade de la Belle Inconnue - pool

Originally we planned to stop at the top of the Col des Aravis, but it was so busy and rammed full with other vans that we kept on moving.  We stopped for a bite of lunch in a glamorous Casino Hypermarket car-park in Megève, but the expected services there were not in service, so we had to move on to search for others.  We arrived in the next main town, Saint-Gervais-les-Bains, where we found the aire, a long thin car-park behind the ice rink, perfect for motorhomes.  We were parked quietly out of the way, surrounded by high trees offering some shade, yet it was an easy walk into the town. We doodled down the road, drained in the heat, where we saw a large wedding party all dressed to kill in the central church square, and visited lots of shops so we could benefit from their cooling air-con.

Les Houches (Lac des Chavants)

Later the France vs Argentina World Cup match was on in a local bar, creating lots of yelling, gnashing of teeth and intrigue as the goals flew in. “Don’t cry 4-3 Argentina”.  We passed another quiet evening, snuggled into the foothills of the mighty Alps.  The next morning we made the short hop up the valley to the town of Les Houches, where we parked up in the free aire by Lac des Chavants, in the shadow of Mont Blanc.  We were deliberately moving slowly, biding our time until the start of our next mini-adventure. We walked into the centre of town and back, pausing only to buy new trekking poles, before spending the rest of the afternoon resting in the shade of the light woodland surrounding the lake. It was incredibly hot, and felt strange to be looking at glaciers and snowy peaks in such heat.

Les Houches (village centre)

After one quiet but sticky hot night, we left the free aire at Les Houches and moved only a few kilometres up the road, to settle into a small campsite set on a grassy slope midway between Les Houches and ChamonixCamping Le Grand Champ.  We had a reservation here for a few nights, and had arranged to be able to store Benny for eleven further days, for a nominal fee, whilst we disappeared into the mountains.  The glacial views walking into the site were incredible, but we picked out a shaded pitch with no mountain view, deciding that staying cool was more important.  We would be seeing quite enough of the jagged, snowy peaks in the coming days, so could forego it for now.  We chatted to the amenable owner and she suggested we didn’t need to move Benny to storage, but could remain on the pitch as it was unlikely to be used.  Perfect for us, and would prove much less hassle on our return.

Chamonix (Nicky and flowers)

Chamonix (central street)

The reason the injury sustained to Nicky’s ankle on Puy de Sancy was so concerning to us was that it happened just over a week before we were due to begin our summer main event – the Tour of Mont Blanc hike, or TMB as it is commonly known. We had spent a good portion of our rainy downtime in Cazeneuve, last winter, pulling the trip together.  It is a 170km circular walk with the Mont Blanc Massif at its centre, passing through France, Italy and Switzerland.  Distance-wise, it is roughly equivalent to walking a full loop of the M25, the concrete ring road around London.  But apart from the addition of magnificent mountain scenery, the difference is that the elevation change over the TMB route, up and down, is more than the height of Mount Everest.  In fact there will be over 10,000m of elevation change over the circuit.  It will likely be a tough, yet satisfying, and hopefully very beautiful, challenge.

Gramp Champ - our shaded site

We have accommodation booked at each stage, generally half-board and mostly private rooms, so we are walking the trail the posh way, and self-guided throughout.  We have one bag being transferred between our hotels or mountain refuges, so we only have to carry essential safety items, clothing, water and cameras in our day-packs.  Everything else is taken care of, leaving us to concentrate on the walking and the views. We opted to begin our hike early in the season’s weather window, and to walk clockwise, whereas most favour an anti-clockwise loop.  We will be against the flow of people, but will have a few glorious hours each day of solitude and quiet aloneness before we meet any crowds head on. The high mountain passes, several over 2500m, are still thick with snow in early July, and there has been talk that we may need crampons and ice axes, or at least spikes and poles, to pass them in safety.

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

We are both itching to get started, to discuss the minutiae of each days hiking with Andrew and Rafael, our tour organisers at Pygmy Elephant, and learn exactly what we need to do to ensure a safe, fun and happy circumnavigation of the White Mountain.  Tomorrow we meet them in Chamonix to finalise our plans, then we walk, and walk.  And walk.

A&N x