Saturday, 25 June 2011


The day after we arrived in Chamonix it was forecast to rain – thunderstorms infact.  It rained heavily on and off all Thursday and there were low clouds through the whole valley; so we had no chance of seeing the mysterious Mont Blanc that we had circumnavigated by bike but still not yet glimpsed.  We had a traditional hot cheesey alpine lunch at a restaurant – starter was a hot cheesy dish, followed by tartiflette (another hot cheesey dish); and dessert was icecream!

We wandered along one of the shopping promenades; browsing at the outdoors shops mainly.  I came across a Glacier (icecream shop); and despite having just eaten lunch AND icecream for dessert I just had to try one of these ones as they looked like my favourite italian style gelato.

On Friday the weather was on the improve; just a layer of clouds but no rain.  We bought a 2-day ‘multilift pass’ which allowed us unlimited use of  2 big cable cars, a scenic glacier train, and the famous L’Aiguille du Midi – a series of 2 cable cars that takes visitors from Chamonix (1000m altitude) to the top of a rocky protrusion in the Mont Blanc range (3842m).

We started off with Le Montenvers-Mer de Glace railway.  It took us up to France’s largest glacier, the Mer de Glace (“Sea of Ice”).  I couldn’t believe it when there was a sign pointing to “Ice Cave” and the path led into a tunnel within the glacier.   The glacier is constantly moving (1cm per hour; 90m per year) so each year they bore out new tunnels!!!  I wonder what DOC in NZ would have to say if someone suggested drilling out tunnels for tourists in any of our glaciers….   Inside the ice cave they had carved out little rooms with ice furniture.  In another room for 6 euro you could get a photo with a real St Bernard dog – it looked rather old and fat and bored though.

We then walked the 3-hour alpine “ramble” to the L’Aiguille du Midi mid-point cable car.  This cable car is crazy.  It was built in the 1950’s.  The cable runs up to (what it looks like from Chamonix) one of the highest rocky prominences in the mountain range.  It just seems impossible that they managed to build it.  We shared the cable car up with mountain climbers, and tourists wearing socks with jandals.  At the top the mountaineers inch themselves out onto the snowy ridge to begin their slow and careful cramponed walk down the snowy valley; while the tourists wander around the wood-and-steel balconies jutting out of the rock-face and take pictures.   At the top of the cable car we were well above the clouds, so the view was like from an aeroplane – we could see all the mountain peaks, and the white fluffy clouds below.  It was cold up there, and we got puffed so easily just walking up the stairs.

Back in Chamonix we went straight to ‘my’ Glacier (icecream shop) and got a gelato each…  I think that was after a compulsory boulangerie stop.  It’s near the end of the trip and I am making the most of all the food opportunities before normal life recommences in New Zealand…  (When else in your life do you have a Magnum almost everyday and not feel at all guilty?)

I really wanted to go up the L’Aiguille du Midi when there were no clouds; and the forecast for the next day was for a sunny cloudless day.  So Saturday morning we got up early to beat the crowds and see the mountain range in the morning light.  There were a few clouds – high ones – so the view over the valley and mountain ranges was spectacular.  Unfortunately the very top of the L’Aiguille du Midi was enshrouded with cloud so our view from the very top was limited and it was surprisingly windy up there.

Julie said if I wanted to go up the L'Aiguille du Midi a third time she would let me go by myself...

The next cable car we took was across the opposite side of the valley, the Le Brevent cable, giving a wonderful panorama back towards the Mont Blanc range.  I had been full of beans the day before, but in the warm sun with a lovely view I just wanted to sit.  And eat.   I told Julie that eating was a good excuse to not move. She said usually it’s moving that gives an excuse to eat!

In the afternoon there was one cable car I hadn’t been on and I still had my pass to use!   I dashed up the La Flegere while Julie had a shower at the campsite.  Early on in the trip Julie stopped believing me when I said  “I think it’s only about 20km” or “Less than 5km to go”  or “It’s all downhill from here” or “we are going to run out of gas really soon”.  I guess another thing she won’t believe again is “Lets take a few days off and relax”.

We met up with my work colleague Sally’s sister, Claire, who lives near Chamonix. She has given us some good advice for our route to take to Annecy tomorrow – our last day of cycle touring for this trip!  From Annecy we will take the train to Lyon; then fly to London.  24 hours in London and we fly back to New Zealand, arriving on July 2nd.

Wednesday, 22 June 2011

Epic cycling in the Alps

I had intentionally let our food supplies dwindle so we weren’t carrying excess weight over the col de l’Iseron.  It was on Sunday we climbed the pass, so when we arrived in Seez all the shops were closed; we’d have to wait until the next day to get to a supermarket.  In the morning for breakfast I bought us a croissant and pain au raisin (like a chelsea bun but smaller) each from the boulangerie (the only shop open before 7:30am!); and 2 savoury quiches for lunch.  We halved our last satchet of instant coffee.  I was completely unsatisfied with such a breakfast and promptly ate the quiche as well.

We had a big climb ahead and I wasn’t sure what shops we would find along the way so decided to pop to the big supermarket in town a couple of kilometres away.   One day of having an empty larder and I promptly went to the other extreme – I bought tea, coffee, milk powder, hot chocolate mix (500g as it was cheaper that way); plenty of food for the day; second breakfast of yoghurt and bananas; oats for the next day (I wasn’t sure if there would be oats in Italy) – I’m sure if Julie had come to the supermarket with me she would have stopped me from buying so much.  Especially as we had a 1000m+ climb ahead.

We were on our way to circumnavigate Mont Blanc, passing through Italy and Switzerland before coming back into France.

The day was warm as we climbed up the road to col de Petite Saint Bernard.  It was a fairly easy climb, just very long as the road engineers put in so many long switchbacks.

We reached the top and I pulled out my phrasebook to learn some quick Italian before we crossed the border.  ‘Buon giorno’ for ‘hello’ and ‘grazie’ for ‘thankyou’.  I didn’t know how to greet the people we saw on the border – 'bonjour', 'buon giorno' or  just ‘hi’?

We arrived in a cute little ski village, Le Thuile.  We went to a café for a coffee.  All I knew was spanish “café con leche” or french “café au lait” so I asked the italian woman behind the counter how to ask for a coffee with milk, in italian.  She said “cappuccino”.  Oh, of course.

Sitting drinking coffee in the sun was lovely.  And then post-ride fatigue and hunger set in. We didn’t want to move.  We ate the rest of our bread and bananas and muesli bars while sitting at the café table.  It was early afternoon and we’d ‘only’ ridden 40km, we were planning to go a little further that day.  We looked at the map.  Col de Grand  Saint Bernard (even higher than Petite Saint Bernard) would take us into Switzerland.  We really did not feel like tackling that one the next day; so I suggested we take it easy for a day then go up over the col in two day’s time.  Then we checked the weather forecast: sunny the next day but rain the day after.  Col de Grand Saint Bernard was over 2000m; it would be madness to climb it on a rainy day.  The sensible option weather-wise would be to cross it the very next day afterall.   We had to push on.  It was downhill down the valley for 40km to Aosta, but we still felt tired.  We stopped in another small town and bought a Magnum each.  The rejuvenating properties of the Magnum are amazing.  We continued down the pretty Aosta valley; passing quaint churches perched up high; castellos sitting amidst vineyards; villages terraced up the valley walls.  On the outskirts of Aosta we came to Camping Monte Bianco.  There was a pizzeria just up the road, and a supermarket just down the road. Perfect.

While Julie set up the tent I went to the supermarket to get supplies for our big climb.  We needed serious comfort food so I bought chocolate tartlettes, chocolate muesli bars, a block of chocolate; 6 bananas, some apricots and a big packet of biscuits (I should give lectures on nutrition and cycle touring).  And some cheese.

 The helpful guy at the campground recommended the pizzeria up the road so after 7pm with stomachs ready to eat we wandered up to the restaurant. It had a lovely outdoor eating area with pretty flower boxes.  But it was closed.  Perhaps we were too early.   A dutch couple arrived at the same time as us and we stood around wondering when they would open for dinner.  We decided to wander a little further to really work up our appetites and returned at 7:45pm. Still closed.  Oh.  We walked down the road until we came to another pizzeria, called “Il Pirata” with a pirate skull and crossbones on the sign.  Not quite the quintessential Italian pizzeria I had in mind, but we were not in the mood to shop around further.  We stepped into the near-empty restaurant and the dutch couple were already there.

The pizza was fast and good.

We shared a half litre of wine and had semi freddo for dessert.  Suddenly the wine kicked in and we were almost asleep at the table.  I had to almost make a conscious effort to move each leg as we walked slowly back to the campground.

We got up early for our big day ahead.  Starting from about 600m and climbing to 2469m, this would be our biggest climb in a single day.  We had a large bowl of porridge and two milky coffees and felt ready.  The weather was perfect.  We wasted no time gaining altitude – the climbing started immediately from Aosta, a steady unrelenting ascent. I made the mistake of not putting on sunblock before we left; by 8am I was dripping in sweat.  Sweat and sunblock do not mix; trying to put sunblock over sweat is like mixing oil and water.

I was looking forward to buying some fresh italian bread from a panaderia – perhaps a ciabatta – but when we arrived in the small town before the pass the only bread shop was closed; on Tuesdays.  We had to settle with buying commercial long-life bread with an expiry date the end of July.  We had lunch, including 3 chocolate tartlettes each – they were so good! – and continued on up.

  The main traffic went along a big highway and through a long tunnel (bicycles not allowed)

 so we continued along a quiet narrow freshly paved road through the now alpine terrain.  It was magical seeing the road snaking up the mountain ahead.

We arrived at the top and saw the swiss flags over the border.   I was about to get out my phrase book to learn some quick ‘swiss’ when I remembered they spoke french in this part! There were 2 border guards and I had my passport out ready. They waved us through without even checking the passports.  I was a bit disappointed!   We sat on a rock and looked at Italy off to our left and Switzerland off to our right and ate the whole packet of biscuits with the whole packet of brie.  We had done it!

The first part of the downhill on the Swiss side was magic; old snow on the side of the road, few cars.

 Then we joined up with the other end of the tunnel and had to share the road with all the traffic.  Cycling down through the avalanche tunnels was an experience – there was less air resistance through the tunnel so you could feel yourself speeding up.  It was fairly narrow with no shoulder. Full concentration required.

The 60km (all downhill) to Martigny flew by.  We got food at a little Proxi supermarket – they accepted euros but gave change in swiss francs.  Things seemed a bit expensive so we only got the bare minimum for dinner and food the next day.  When we went through the checkout the woman said “you get a second tin of sardines for free” and she pointed out their special ‘buy one, get one free’ deal on all the red-stickered items.  Our eyes gazed over the store and there were loads of red-stickered items – probably a good thing we were already through the checkout as if we had known earlier we would have ended up with a heavy bag of random twin items!

The forecast was for thunderstorms the next day, worse in the afternoon.  Again, it would have been nice to take a day off but the weather was supposed to be even worse the next day and we didn’t want to be stuck in Martigny – Chamonix was only 40km away and we would spend a few days relaxing there.  We had just one last small climb and we would be back in France.  We decided to get an early start to beat the worst of the weather.   We were up before six and enjoyed our staple of steaming porridge and mugs of coffee.  We were ready to go by 6:40am; a record.  We stopped in at a small shop to get some fresh bread – we had our swiss francs to spend.  We felt like kids in a lolly shop, working out how to spend our 7.30 francs (about $10).  First we got bread for 2.90Fr.  Then I chose a jam doughnut for 1.30Fr – unfortunately I fumbled putting it into the paper bag and it rolled on the floor.  I rescued it quickly before it was trampled and put it safely in the bag.  We had 3.10Fr left to buy some cheese.  There wasn’t much cheese for 3.10Fr; the prices started at about 3.20Fr so we just missed out.  However, if I put the jam doughnut back we would have more options.   Brief hesitation as I remembered how it bounced on the floor before placing it back with its buddies.  Now we had 4.50Fr; and chose some Philadelphia cream cheese.  One franc left; “bananas 0.90 each”.  Done.

It wasn’t until we were on the road that I had a closer look at the map – I didn’t realise our starting elevation was only 400m above sea level – no wonder it was so warm and there were terraced grapevines!

 The col we were cycling over was at 1500m; making this a 1100m climb in 13km – our 4th 1000m+ ascent in as many days.  It was a good thing we a) didn’t know about it last night (would have been too demoralising and b) we had such an early start.

It took us 2 hours to reach the top; we were there by 9:15am, which was encouraging.

  It was a downhill into France and then another climb over the final col before coasting into Chamonix.

Because of the bad weather forecast we promised ourselves we would check into a Gite in Chamonix for a few days – it’s not usually much fun camping in a thunderstorm.  If we thought we had been tired previously; we were knackered now.  It was midday yet we’d eaten ‘lunch’ at about 11am due to our early start.  The Tourist Information office gave us a booklet of all the accommodation in Chamonix – ideally we wanted a place that allowed self-catering – there isn’t much point paying big money to be stuck in a hotel with no access to endless cups of tea! The first Gite we came to the reception didn’t open until 4:30pm; the second and third were fully-booked.  By this stage the sun had come out again and it was humid.  We decided camping would be the easier option afterall.  We chose the campsite with the most facilities listed – WIFI, undercover picnic area, shop.  The campground was beautiful. There was an ‘alpine chalet’ theme with all the buildings painted wood brown, and red flowers painted on the signs.   There is a room with computers with free internet and wireless access; and a cute undercover dining area.  We couldn’t be in a better place.  We had nachoes for dinner and chatted with the french climbers to our left and the british walkers to our right.

We have now cycled over 3700km.

Sunday, 19 June 2011

Conquered: the highest pass in Europe

Not long after we arrived in Valloire ominous grey clouds quickly rolled in and it started to rain.  We managed to get the tents up in the nick of time and then headed in to town to find a warm dry café, preferably with WIFI.  We were directed to a hotel-cum-restaurant-cum bar and settled ourselves into a corner .  I was starving.  It was about 5:30pm and the dinner menu didn’t start until after 7pm.  We ordered a pichet of wine and Eric was going to order a pizza-type thing to tide us over.  The wine arrived and was consumed. The pizza didn’t arrive.  I was getting slightly irritable due to hunger and asked Eric where the pizza was and he said in surprise “oh, I haven’t ordered it yet”.  We then found out they didn’t serve any food until after 7pm.  I simply couldn’t wait that long.  I wandered out into the drizzle seeking a boulangerie fix.  It was closed.  This is a ski town and we are in the off-season even for summer activities so most shops seem to be closed.  Eventually I ended up at the supermarket and skulled 500ml of milk and a banana and felt better.  I also bought some chocolate biscuits which the three of us ate back at the restaurant bar.

The menu had local alpine specialties such as cheese fondue, tartiflette, raclette and other cheese-based meals.  A hot, cheesey comfort-food meal was just what I felt like.  I ordered the Tartiflette – like scalloped potatoes but with bacon pieces in it.  Julie had a big steak with fries; and Eric had a similar hot cheese dish to mine but with a side of cold meats.  Unfortunately the combination of tiredness and alcohol just sends me to sleep and I could barely keep my eyes open at the table; I wasn’t very good company by the end!

The next day we biked up an easy small col then it was all downhill to the main valley which had big highways running along it.  We cycled up the valley in the direction of the famous col de l’Iseron, the highest (road) pass in Europe.  It started to rain as we reached Lanslebourg so we decided to call it a day.   We asked at the Tourist Information which campground had WIFI and a sheltered spot that we could sit under away from the rain.  We checked in to the campground and set up the tents inbetween light showers.  The sheltered spot was at the entranceway to the showers and we made ourselves at home by dragging the plastic tables and chairs out of the rain.  I invited a lone french cyclist to join us for dinner and we had a very enjoyable meal of spaghetti bolognese.  I ordered Eric to go grab his pot please (while he was busy trying to use my computer) and the french cyclist to get his cooker. We were laughing that us girls were bossing the boys and Eric said he was writing a book about how to survive a  holiday with us two girls – he reckoned he was on to page 144….
It rained all night.  The forecast was for rain all day,  though Eric hoped it would clear. The forecast for the following day was excellent – we would wait until then to climb the col de l’Iseron.   Eric suggested if the weather cleared in the afternoon we could go to a Gite (small family-run hostel) 20km up the road, where they provided dinner and breakfast – and we’d be 20km closer to the pass, meaning less climbing on the day. The idea of the gite sounded very appealing as I sat in the windy shelter by the shower entrance. The campground manager caught Julie filling a pot with the hot shower water to do dishes – and he went berserk. He shouted ‘no no no’ followed by lots of french words, including something to do with us using the electricity in the bathroom for the computer and the phone….  The only hot water easily available was in the showers – the rest of the taps were cold; or in the dishwashing area you could insert a token for 6 litres of hot water – and we didn’t have any tokens (and yes, I wouldn’t have bought any anyway!).   The manager then cleaned the shower and toilet block with lots of clangs and bangs – either full of energy or anger - and then our stuff was in the way of his cleaning cupboard… Suddenly I really didn’t want to stay at the campground any longer than necessary.  However it was raining so we weren’t going anywhere until it stopped.  Eventually the rain stopped and Julie and I went to pack our things.  Eric was in two minds about leaving the campsite – he didn’t want to pack a wet tent, which was fair enough.  He also didn’t really want to cycle in the rain and said he would consider going if there was a guarantee it wouldn’t rain again.  However, Julie and I by this stage were psyched to leave – I craved a warm Gite and a homecooked meal and actually felt like getting out for a ride, even if it did rain.  So we did a vote and Eric was out-voted. He was pretty quiet as he packed up and I felt guilty for overriding what he wanted – yet determined that we were doing the right thing.

The ride up the valley was nice.  Eric seemed to cheer up after this jump shot:
  It did rain on and off but never too heavy.  The clouds hung low over the steep mountain sides and there were waterfalls from all the heavy rain the night before. 
  The weather was clearing as we arrived in pretty Bonneval-sur-Arc, a cute village at the end of the valley with stone-wall houses. 
 We checked into the Gite that Eric had booked and as we hung our tents to dry Eric commented “My only regret is we didn’t come here yesterday!”.  All had been forgiven…   Dinner was a choice of cheese fondue or spaghetti bolognese.  As we’d had spag bol only the night before the obvious choice was cheese fondue.  Eric said at these Gites they give generous portions as they are catering to hikers and other hungry outdoors people.  Dinner was served at 7:30 and we were all happily hungry.  The pot of cheese fondue and basket of bread arrived.  We ate the fondue so fast – I guess because we were so hungry, but possibly also because we were trying to keep up with each other!   The pot was finished and Eric said “oh, that wasn’t as much as I was hoping for”.  There were a couple of Italian men across the small room who had finished their meal – but we could see they hadn’t finished their salad, and we guessed they probably hadn’t finished their fondue either.  I jokingly suggested to Eric that he ask the waitress to bring their leftover fondue over to us.  He didn’t, but when the waitress came to clear our plates he asked if we could have more fondue.  She looked very surprised but said yes.  Five minutes later she came back with another steaming pot of melted cheese and more bread.  We tucked in.  More slowly this time and by my third small square of dipped bread I realised that I was actually full.  But we had a nearly full pot of fondue.  I felt I had to make a bit of an effort to finish the fondue since we’d asked for it.   I put away a few more portions of bread and cheese.  Then got an ache in my side.  I rested for a bit and the ache subsided.  I could fit a few more in surely… Julie had stopped by this time.  Eric had the same idea as me “must try to finish fondue!”   By now my abdomen was cramping.

Often I find a cup of tea after a meal helps me digest so I ordered some tea while Eric had coffee.  A whole teapot arrived, just for me.  I finished the pot -  3 cups of tea for one teabag.  Unfortunately I think adding 750ml of liquid to goodness knows how much bread and cheese just exacerbated the problem.  I couldn’t stand up straight due to the funny sensations in my stomach.  I wanted to see the village at night with the mountains in the background and the glow of the orange lights in the church belltower.  While Eric took photos, I walked like an old woman, stooped over, laughig at myself for being such a glutton.  At least I could try to excuse it as ‘carbo-loading’ for the next day.

My stomach fortunately settled overnight and I woke up feeling fine.  Admittedly not that hungry, but at least I could walk upright.  Breakfast was fantastic.   I was expecting the classical skimpy french breakfast of coffee and a single piece of bread, but (maybe because of the fondue episode) they provided loads of bread, and cereal, and big jugs of coffee and hot milk.
There was blue sky and white wispy clouds breezing over the mountain tops.  It was crisp outside, but quickly warmed up as the sun became stronger.
  The ride up to col de l’Iseron was magic. 
  The usual switchbacks meaning a changing perspective all the time; the mountains and glaciers, the green alpine grass, the stone-walled ruins of shepherds huts…..  I don’t think I could get sick of such a view.
   The air got cooler the higher we climbed.  Then a nasty gusty icy headwind started and we put our layers on.  The last few kilometres were steep and with a headwind.  I had 2 socks on each hand over my bike gloves, which made it hard to take photos; or to eat the fruit cake I devoured when I ran out of steam.
We didn’t stay long at the top as it was cold and windy. 
 We had something like 47km of downhill over the rest of the day, and the further down we went the warmer it got.
  We arrived in Seez at about 4:30pm and Eric started making arrangements to get back to Belgium.  The fast trains don’t generally take bicycles, so he was trying to work out the best option.  He went to the train station and discovered there was a night train – leaving that evening at 9:45pm – which did take bikes.  The train would get him to Paris and then he would work out what to do from there.   It was a bit of a sudden change of plans as he had thought he would take a train the next day.  It was 8pm by the time he decided he would take the night train so suddenly we had to eat dinner and get him packed up (he’d already set up his tent) and say hurried goodbyes.   It worked out well having him join us for the week; a few hiccoughs along the way but it all worked out in the end.  It felt a bit funny suddenly being just the two of us once again.