Posts Tagged With: albergue

Tour du Mont Blanc: Worth every step

The Alps (Mont Blanc on the right) rose like the sun each time we approached the top of the cols, or mountain passes.

Some accommodations required trekkers to stow shoes and boots downstairs.

The Tour du Mont Blanc is complete. As we sit in our Chamonix hotel lobby directly below western Europe’s tallest peak, some reflections:

We knew the weather in the Alps was unpredictable, so we packed rain gear, a warm jacket and lightweight clothing designed for layering. We had two days of overcast and some rain at the beginning, then five days of brilliant sunshine with highs in the 60s, 70s and into the low 80s. Cool nights the entire time.

There was a snowstorm (yes, in mid-July) at one of the passes the day before we went through. Later, we had several days of clouds and some rain, but very little precipitation while we were walking. The last couple of days were clear until late afternoon, when rain, thunder and lightning entertained.

Bookings. We booked our tour through an Irish company (Follow the Camino) and asked for a mix of refuges (hostels) and hotels. We wanted to stay in some remote locations where refuges are the only option. We got private rooms, rather than shoulder-to-shoulder dorms, in the five refuges.

Refuges are rustic, noisier, and not as relaxing as the hotels. They also have shared baths. But, they are great places to meet people. We have met lots of people on this trek and often run into them for several days afterward. Generally, the refuges get quiet by 10 p.m. or so.

The hotels on the Tour are nicer and less expensive than chain hotels in the U.S. Both hotels and refuges have bars and restaurants. They are places to hang out after a long day on the trail. The hotels on the Tour du Mont Blanc have character and the staffs have been very welcoming. All our accommodations included breakfast and eight included dinner. The dinners have been very good, some superb.

The Mont Blanc refuge in Trient was packed with at least 70 trekkers, but we met some great people there.

Le Dahu Hotel in Argentiere had the best bathroom and a great breakfast.

What about clean clothes? We use moisture-wicking athletic wear that dries quickly. We often do some laundry in the bathroom sink, wring it out in a bath towel, and it is dry by morning. In Courmayeur, Italy, the hotel did our laundry for 2€!

What’s for breakfast? Always bread, butter, jam, coffee, tea and juice. Wonderful fresh croissants almost everywhere. Most places had cereal, yogurt, meat and cheese. Two hotels had eggs and most had fruit.

Lunch was usually a picnic on the trail. The usual fare was fresh bread, cheese and fruit, capped with chocolate. We had lunch at some spectacular settings in the Alps. Hotels and refuges offer packed lunches, but we usually shopped for our own.

The cost of the Tour du Mont Blanc is much less than most other European travel, but far more expensive than the Camino de Santiago in Spain.

Luggage transfer: the routine was to have our small orange-and-black bags at reception by 8 a.m. When we arrived at our next accommodation, we would check in and (voila!) the bags were waiting for us. We carried small Osprey day packs with water bladders during the day. One exception: our bags skipped ahead a day when we stayed at the very remote Refugio Elisabetta. We have carried our own packs on prior treks. We figured the elevation change would make it too tough and we were right.

We had climbed about 2,000 feet before having coffee at Refuge Elena, below. We were part of the way to the col when Sue took this photo. This was one of the toughest days, but led us to 360-degree views from the Swiss-Italian border.

We splurged for lunch at a ski lodge a few days ago. Skiing facilities were plentiful around the Tour.

We have not found language to be a major problem. French is dominant, but most of the time people know at least some English. Sue’s study of French this past year has helped.

Many people are doing part of the Tour du Mont Blanc rather than the whole thing at one time. There are quite a few day hikers, especially when the weather is good.

Most go counterclockwise around Mont Blanc, but a significant number go the other way. Hikers usually start in Les Houches, but we met many who started in other places. We started in Chamonix, France, a beautiful and popular resort at the foot of Mont Blanc.

Trekkers readily engage strangers on the Tour. Friendships form quickly, much like the Camino.

Mont Blanc trekkers come from all over world. Europeans dominate, but there are some Americans, Canadians, Asians, and people from other parts of the world. Many travel in groups, some with guides. We are among the older trekkers here. Many seem to be experienced mountaineers and we have seen a number of people running (yes, running!) the trail. They are likely training for the annual Mont Blanc run in August, when some do the entire 110 miles in between 20-plus and thirty hours. There are also a fair number of mountain bikers. We have seen some who push and carry their bikes up several thousand steep feet and then ride down. There are a small number of campers as well.

Almost all refuges allow picnics, especially if you buy a beverage.

Champex, a quaint lakeside village at 5,000 feet, was one of our rest days. Like much of the Swiss part of our trek, places were strangely deserted. Our hotel owner told us the euro's decline has hurt Swiss tourism. It is much cheaper to travel in France, Italy and other countries, she said.

Most people use trekking poles. Sue and I can’t imagine not having them, for many reasons. But, we have seen people doing the trek in running shoes and even sandals. Go figure! Few people on this trek wear hats.

Safety. If you are careful and have proper gear, this trek is safe. There are steep drop offs and the ascents and descents are steeper than we expected. Much of the time, each step must be measured on the often rocky and root-covered paths, which takes a lot of concentration and is exhausting. Some of the water crossings have been challenging, but doable. Some trekkers use crampons over snowy passings. Neither of us fell during the trek, but there were a few close calls.

Not much politics, but we have heard a strong dislike of Donald Trump here. Many have expressed concern and have talked about similar movements in their countries. A Danish high school student asked me during dinner about Trump. “Why do you ask?” I questioned. “Because the U.S. President is the most powerful person in the world and Trump scares me.”

Most of all, the astounding views and the chance to meet so many interesting people were worth every step.

As Reg looked up at the snow, he wondered if we had gotten into more adventure than we expected. This was near the beginning of our trek.

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Up, up and up goes Camino de Santiago

I made instant Starbucks coffee for the three of us in our freezing Castrillo albergue before we headed out at 7 a.m. Wednesday, top photo. Our 13-mile walk to Foncebadon was marked by a pause for coffee at a Brazilian cowboy outpost.

We climbed about 1,700 feet and are near 5,000 feet tonight in a village that has an alpine feel. It snowed here last night, but it melted today. I was exhausted by the time we reached the top and collapsed in a chair while Sue went inside to check out the albergue. She came back a bit later with news she had scored a private room, with heat! Later, we reunited with a young Irishman we had not seen in two weeks.

Thursday, we head for the highest point on the Camino and a stop at a very special pilgrim monument. We have brought along remembrances from home for our contribution.

Only 147 miles to Santiago!


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Camino Santiago takes a turn for the …?

The Camino took an unexpected turn on the last day of April and led us to an unusual destination far outside our comfort zone.

Along with our German friend Gert, we took a detour near the end of our 12-mile day, marked by a steady light rain.

It led to Castrillo de Polvazares, which our guidebook called “a traditional Maragato village with a cobbled Main Street lined with stone buildings providing tourist bars, restaurants and rooms.”

Visually, the town is wonderful, but we soon discovered it was too early in the season for pilgrim accommodations. Then, a Spaniard stopped his car after seeing us in need. Luckily, Gert understands enough Spanish to find out the man was offering to open the small albergue so that we would have a place to sleep.

The albergue, top, and in bottom photo, left.

We were in luck!? He led us down a narrow alley, went up some stairs and banged on a door. After a rapid, loud conversation with a woman inside, he emerged with a key. He led us to a building, through an entry that exuded a rustic charm, and inside to a room that was a very basic kitchen/dining area. Then up the curved staircase to an eight-bed dorm room that would be ours for the night, for €4 each. He turned on the hot water heater (hot showers!), but there was no heater in the room (it was about 40 degrees outside and inside).

After some good laughs at our predicament, we settled in. I toured the village in search of food and drink. I found four restaurants, but they looked too fancy for backpackers. But, we had to eat (er, drink)!

We bathed in the heat of hot showers and headed out. The first place looked out of our league. The next place was closing. The next had just closed. Suddenly, an upstairs door in a nearby building opened and a woman (the same one who provided the key earlier) popped out, asking if we were pilgrims looking for “comida.”

She raced down and led us to the restaurant that was closing. She shouted orders that they must feed us right away. Minutes later, we were seated in a warm room with linen tablecloths drinking vino tinto and eating a superb four-course meal because the staff stayed late just for us.

It is 7:30 p.m. and we are back in our room, huddled in our sleeping bags.

But life on the Camino warms our hearts like we never anticipated.


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A Pilgrim’s Birthday Surprise: Camino de Santiago

In an effort to honor our vow to not walk much more that 12 miles a day, we stopped early in the little village of Vallares de Orbigo. We were first to check in to Albergue Vallares; the only one in town. To our surprise, we found ourselves alone around the dinner table this evening. You've heard it before, but here goes; this was the best meal of the Camino!

Reg and our host, Pablo pose for a quick photo. He fixed us a delicious dinner and we were lucky enough to have it all to ourselves!

We enjoyed a delicious salad; a mixture of lettuce, rice, crab, tuna, walnuts and raisins, followed by a vegetable-beef-lentil stew. We also had bread, wine, water and dessert which seem to be standard fare. All was prepared by our host Pablo (who runs the Albergue with his wife Beleny).


We learned that we are eating and sleeping in a converted stable. Pablo and his wife bought the building (an old barn) three years ago when his construction company business in Madrid dwindled with the economy. He has been fixing the place up, doing much of the work himself between construction projects.

While our companions from last night have all moved ahead, Reg and I have enjoyed our first dinner alone in over two weeks. Happy Birthday!


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Albergues offer contrasting charms: Camino de Santiago

We are heading across the high plains (3,000 feet elevation) toward the mountains, which will dominate the final 150 miles of the Camino until it drops into Santiago de Compestela. The villages here contrast with the medieval villages of the first 200 miles. Temperatures have been in the 40s, with icy wind at our backs. The forecast is for rain tomorrow and some pilgrims are fearing snow when we hit the mountains. Ah, life on the Camino!

Sunday night, our host was Pepe Giner (pictured on menu) who prepared one of the best meals we have had in Spain. Before dinner, we had happy hour in Masarife's village bar with two Americans and a roomful of dominoes-playing local men. We think the odd-looking tower holds water.

I will have my birthday dinner in this albergue in Vollares de Orbigo, which has the feel of a wild-west outpost. The host, Pedro, was most welcoming as he registered my passport.





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Happy Birthday Reg-4/29: Camino de Santiago

The village bell tower provides a home for the birds. Judy,(left) and Verna (right) both grew up together in Texas. As we head for our next stop, we cross over one of the longest and best preserved medieval bridges in Spain dating from the 13th century.

We spent Sunday night in the little village of Vilar de Mazarife where we enjoyed a delicious vegetarian meal with our fellow Pilgrims. We had briefly met Judy and Verna earlier that day along the trail and were pleased to find them sipping a glass of vino in the local bar that afternoon…so we joined them! Friends for over 50 years, they were celebrating their 60th birthday year together on the Camino.

This morning, as we headed down the trail, Judy caught up with us and sang a special birthday song – in Spanish – for Reg…just one more example of how quickly friendships flourish along the Camino.


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Sorry Charlie on the Camino de Santiago


The card game Sorry Charlie was an international hit at our albergue after dinner Monday. After many laughs, the woman from the Netherlands (to my left) defeated Sue in the final round.

None of these has been spotted on the Camino.




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Vino Tinto: Camino de Santiago

We enjoyed our stay in this picturesque village.

We had the best evening meal of the trip at Liberanos Domaine, the Albergue in the village of Rabe de las Calzadas. For just €18.50 each (about $24.00) we had a bed, dinner, breakfast and great company. A quick trip around the village revealed tulips and a stork nest perched atop the town steeple.

We enjoyed an extended Happy Hour with Gert, a German from outside Hamburg. Struggling with blisters of his own, he had a suggestion for me as he filled my glass with vino tinto (red wine). “Sue, I get you drunk…the foot will hurt no more!” Buen Camino!


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A cold, uphill slog: Camino de Santiago

The ninth day of our Camino tested the limits.

On our ninth day we awoke to light rain, temperatures just above freezing and mountains to climb. It would turn out to be quite a test.

Our 15-mile trek from Belorado to St. Juan de Ortega on Friday had two halves. Although the weather was poor, we were in beautiful countryside and found welcoming bars for coffee in the morning and lunch just before noon.

It was all downhill (actually uphill) from there. Nearly two thousand feet of elevation gain to about 4,000 feet with occasional showers, biting cold wind and a seemingly endless trail brought us to St. Juan de Ortega. The guidebook said the albergue was basic and drafty, so we opted for the 10-room hotel across the street in the village of 30 inhabitants. It felt isolated to say the least.

Over drinks and dinner in a small bar filled with character and characters, we heard stories about the albergue's cold showers and frigid conditions.

We had made the right choice.


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