Posts Tagged With: France

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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Tour du Mont Blanc: The final climb

The Auguilles Verte and Drus on the left help frame the dome of Mont Blanc in Sue's photo from Col de Balme.

 

It was our final ascent of the Tour du Mont Blanc, which we began July 13. The thick clouds and rain of Saturday afternoon had cleared Sunday when we completed nearly 33,000 feet of climbing and an equal amount of descent over 10 trekking days.

As we reached the Col de Balme, Mont Blanc's greeting was more powerful than any camera can capture. We looked at the peaks from the Switzerland-France border and were struck by the fact that our feet had carried us 110 miles around the Massif du Mont Blanc and through three countries.

“Every step was worth it,” I said to a Bay Area family we had gotten to know the past few days. We all gazed at the 15,770-foot peak that we had not seen since day six. Meanwhile, we had become acquainted with many other mountains in the Massif.

We had gotten much stronger as the trek progressed and will miss the feeling that we can climb like we have never before. Unfortunately, this will pass when we return to our less strenuous lives in Oregon.

As we complete the circuit tomorrow with a relatively short walk to Chamonix, we will be looking up at Mont Blanc. She and this experience will provide vivid memories forever.

 

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Tour du Mont Blanc: Weather threatens to halt trek

Our view from our hotel room in Champex, Switzerland. A four-course dinner in a grand old dining room capped the day Thursday.

Lac Champex is just a few steps from our hotel. It offers several bars, cafes and stores. Winter skiing is its big draw.

Our hotel in Champex has a commanding view in several directions.

The blue skies of the past five days have gone and there has been a bit of rain, thunder and lightening today, a rest day in Champex, Switzerland. We met trekkers who had to turn back this morning from the next day's col due to lightening. They faced a 200€ taxi to the next town around the mountains.

Our trek Thursday to this 5,000-foot elevation lake town was advertised as the easiest day of the Tour. It was all downhill from La Fouly to about 3,400 feet. We passed through several tiny Swiss villages that were strangely almost deserted. So far, so good.

The guidebook said there would be a bit of a climb to the lake. Well, 1,600 feet was much less than previous days, but the steep trail featured rocks, roots and steep drop offs. We have learned there is very little easy about the Tour du Mont Blanc, except how easy it is on the eyes.

Switzerland is not part of the European Union, but there has been no passport control, even when we checked into our hotel. The Swiss franc is the official currency, but the euro is accepted here. The cashiers all carry huge wallets with both francs and euros. We have been using credit cards to get the best exchange rate.

French is the main language in this part of the country, just as we had gotten used to our Italian greetings.

We are to walk to Trient Saturday, but the weather might make the high cols impassible, mainly due to the threat of lightening. Our plan B is a bus-train-bus combination. We are very much hoping to be able to walk…we want to complete the Tour! (And we are hoping to avoid buses, trains or 200€ for a taxi.)

Help us solve the mystery at the bottom of this post.

Several pallets of supplies await a helicopter delivery to a remote Alpine refuge or hut.

A helicopter picks up one of several loads in Champex.

The helicopter is off, soon to return for the next load.

Today's cloudy view of the Alps from Champex.

This contraption has eight arms and rotates, but we could not figure out what it was used for.

What is this? We saw this machine a few days ago in a remote Alpine refuge that looked like it had once been a horse facility. Do you know what it is? Let us know by clicking on “comment” at the bottom of this post.

 

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Tour du Mont Blanc: Switzerland awaits

 

Our starting point this morning was in the valley far below.

Today, our seventh day of walking and our eighth day on the Tour du Mont Blanc, the trail led us 8,300 feet up and over the Grand Col Ferret and down into Switzerland. It was quite a climb!

Our first two hours of walking delivered us to Refugio Elena, strategically nestled into the hillside and sporting a spectacular view of the Glacier de Pré de Bar. Coffee on the deck and then it was time to push ahead.

The original Refugio Elena was lost in an avalanche in the 1950s. The Refugios are only open for the short summer season.

We made it to the top in time to enjoy the view during lunch.

We pose for a quick photo at the top of the col.

The Tour du Mont Blanc is taking us to dizzying heights, testing us every step of the way. It hasn't been easy, but it continues to reward us.

We wish our new friends a safe journey as they continue their trek.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We've met some wonderful people on our journeys. It's one of the things we like most about trekking.

We met Dutch teachers Micah and Anna last night in La Vachey. This afternoon we walked to our destination of La Fouly together, the (mostly) gentle downhill allowing for easy conversation.

 

 

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Tour du Mont Blanc: Time to return to this amazing trail

 

Look to the left for a slice of Courmayeur on the left after our climb.

The TMB is clearly marked in Italy. It was not so well marked in France.

It was “ciao” to Courmayeur, Italy today after a day of rest in the Alps resort city. The Tour du Mont Blanc has been more than challenging for us, so we needed the break.

Walking into a new country was a new experience on Saturday. We heard “buon giorno” more often than “bonjour” almost immediately and by the time we walked into Courmayeur, it was clear we were no longer in France. We will leave the specific cultural differences for another time, but we noticed them in the city and most definitely along the trail.

Of course, today started with a steep, 2,500-foot climb, but after that it was the easiest hiking day of the Tour so far. We walked about ten miles at 6,500 feet overlooking a steep glacial valley. The Mont Blanc range on the other side seemed close enough to touch. It was stunningly beautiful.

After a steep descent, we found our hotel in another resort town, Levechy, next to a roaring river at the foot of the Alps. A shower and a beer on the deck made for a perfect cap to the day. Dinner tonight in the hotel, part of the package deal.

The warm weather is supposed to hold for at least another day and the guide book says we will have another amazing look at the Tour's namesake as we cross into Switzerland at 8,000 feet tomorrow. That means another steep climb and “ciao” to Italy for now. We will return!

At the bottom of the Italian side of the Alps, if you look closely, is the tunnel entrance. The road goes under Mont Blanc and comes out in Chamonix, France.

This is a closer look at the tunnel entrance.

Sue sits in our shady picnic spot next to the trail. The Mont Blanc range was in the perfect spot.

This was the TMB for much of the day. Few rocks, relatively flat. The first day we have seen such a path on this trek.

Is it the view or the beer that makes the trek worthwhile?

Thank you, Silvia, at Follow the Camino tour company, for finding us lodging here.

Refugios have been so welcoming, allowing us to have our picnic even though we only bought a coffee at their bar. Today, we found one with a most unwelcoming message in each table. We found a warmer place for lunch.

 

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Tour du Mont Blanc: After struggle, the mountain rewards

It was pastoral calm as we began the third day of the Tour du Mont Blanc.

We had a quick snack before heading into the snow zone. We planned for lunch in a bit, but it never happened.

Ah, a little snow at the col looks fun. At the top, all changed quickly. A late winter and snow just last week has made July feel like anything but summer.

 

From my bottom bunk looking out a small window in a wood-paneled room, I see a glacier and Alpine peaks high above. Our home for tonight, the Elizabetta hut in Italy, is at about 7,500 feet, two miles from the Italy-France border.

The only way we could get to this place, as remote as you can get on the Tour du Mont Blanc, is by walking. Sue and I are in day four of the Tour. Day three was beautiful, grueling, treacherous and much more. More than 8,000 feet in elevation change hardly tells the story.

After we had climbed for four hours and 4,000 difficult feet up on Friday, we reached the col (pass) at 8,100 feet, thinking we had 3,000 feet downhill to our refuge, or hostel.

I looked up and could make out moving figures far above, climbing through the snow to another pass.

“I am so glad we don't have to do that,” I thought.

Think again. Two hours later, we had endured slippery snow banks and rocky passages, and were so exhausted that taking photographs was just too much. There were moments when we wondered why we were here.

Today, we had four hours of steep climbing, but very little snow. It took us to an 8,200-foot col, at the Italy-France border, and as we arrived, so did our view of Mont Blanc, at 15,770 feet. It appeared close enough to touch, outlined by brilliant blue sky. While eating our picnic lunch, it was crystal-clear why we were here.

Reg heads up, toward the second col. The conditions got much worse and the camera took a break while we focused on making it to the top.

Day four started after a night at a remote refugio at about 5,000 feet.

 

We were awe-struck at our introduction to Mont Blanc. We are about halfway to the top of the 15,770-foot mountain. It looked much more imposing in person.

A baguette, cheese and Mont Blanc made a perfect picnic combination.

Refugio Elizabetta is a rustic remote outpost on the Tour. Trekkers are packed into the small building, with triple bunks and single mattresses pushed right up against each other. We lucked out with a private room.

Refugio Elizabetta is nearly lost in the Alpine landscape in the photo above.

The Elizabetta offered rustic accommodations, but a good, three-course evening meal.

 

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Tour du Mont Blanc: A circular Alpine trek

 

About a third of the way down, a view of the valley peeks through.

We will be walking the 110 miles of the Tour du Mont Blanc over the next two weeks, with a couple of breaks. The trek circles Europe's highest peak, which is really a mountain range of Alpine peaks, above 15,000 feet.

We are starting in France and will go counter clockwise through Italy and Switzerland, finishing where we started in Chamonix, France. There will be about 68,000 feet of elevation change. It is Europe's most popular long-distance trek.

The clouds have parted a couple times to give us a look at the spectacular mountains that rise above the charming towns below. We are looking forward to the views as the weather brightens over the next few days!

 

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Tour du Mont Blanc: More from Day One

This hut about a third of the way down was our lunch stop. Rustic, to say the least, perched on a cliff, great coffee!

 

Chains provided a security blanket at a couple of places.

 

On a clear day, you could see 5,000 feet down to Chamonix and across the valley to Mont Blanc, at more than 15,000 feet. Clearing weather is in the forecast! At times today, it felt like we were walking in the jet stream.

 

 

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Tour du Mont Blanc: Our challenge begins

 

Sue begins our trek down from Le Brévant.

Reg takes it slow and easy across a snow field at about 8,000 feet.

We were strongly advised to begin our trek with two gondola rides from Chamonix, taking us more than 5,000 feet up above spectacular terrain to Le Brevant, more than 8,000 feet high. Clouds blocked our view across the valley to Mont Blanc and made visibility poor for most of the day.

So, after ascending into the clouds, all we had to do is walk to Les Houtches, about 10 miles away, but more than a mile below. It is impossible to describe how challenging, exciting, tiring, painful, and wonderful it was. We walked across snow fields and hung on to railings and chains as our feet made their way on rocky ledges. Most of the way, each step had to be measured.

The skies held their moisture most of the way, but there were a few episodes of icy rain and we finished with an hour of rain.

We arrived at our hotel after seven hours, exhausted but filled with vivid memories of our first day on the Tour du Mont Blanc. We shall see if we can walk when Day Two begins!

 

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France: Life hums on the sidewalks

We discovered a new area of Strasbourg tonight. Just ahead, on the right, was a string of bars and cafes, some on boats.

A couple of young guys at a French bar ordered this bière on tap!

Notes from France

Does anyone drink and eat at home in France (other than us)? Tonight, after our dinner at our Strasbourg apartment, we went for a long walk. There were thousands and thousands out and about. And it did not seem crowded, although most seats were filled. That's because Strasbourg has more cafes, bars, squares and neighborhoods than people (only slightly exaggerating). Of course, it was the same in Paris. Every day and evening have been like this.

Families and couples. Young and old. College kids. Teen-agers. Walking, sitting at sidewalk cafes and bars. Kids riding carousels, yelling “cou cou!” or “yoohoo!” Some are tourists, but most are not (I have a sense about this.) Is this socializing a reason the French live so long?

There is another side to this coin and it is smoking. So many people, from teens on up, smoking, one cigarette after another. Other than inside stores and restaurants, it is okay to light up. That romantic table outside in the square can quickly be surrounded by smokers. We were able, most of the time, to avoid it when we drank or ate outside, though.

Do you think Europe is becoming more Americanized? We feel as though it is. More English language, spoken and written, especially on menus. McDonald's, Starbucks, Subway, Burger King. Baseball caps, worn by locals, not necessarily Americans. T-shirts with brand names or other words written on the front and back. Hamburgers and fries on most menus.

We don't remember it being this way when we lived in Scotland and visited France 19 years ago. Our trips the past four years have revealed a different Europe. But, we saw much of the same in China in 2007.

On the one hand, some of this makes our travel easier. But … (Anyone want to finish this? We would love to hear from you…add your thoughts in the comment section at the bottom of this post.)

 

 

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