Lausanne

July 16, 2016

It was perfect weather this morning, with the Matterhorn standing like a shiny nail. But today we were leaving the mountains and heading down to Lausanne to meet Caroline for the weekend. We were both awake early, so we finished packing and headed down to make our breakfast. Yesterday we had met an American couple who were taking a year off to travel the world, so we chatted to them for a while about their plans.

We caught the train at 9:30 am and headed down to Visp, where we connected to the Lausanne train. The trip took about three hours and once in Lausanne we found the hostel (Lausanne Guesthouse) with only a bit of guesswork. Caroline arrived shortly after us, having just gone shopping at the Coop, so we had some lunch there at the hostel.

Lake Geneva view

Lake Geneva view

Caroline had read a magazine article about a walking route through the Lavaux wine area near here, so our plan for the afternoon was to take the train to Saint-Saphorin and do that walk. We had a bit of trouble finding Saint-Saphorin on the ticket machines at the train station, but buying them from the office worked out well. It was only a short trip, after which we got off and headed steeply up the hill. There were some signs but it was easy to miss them, which we did. But it didn’t matter because there weren’t that many roads through the vineyards and they all went in the same direction.

Lavaux vineyards

Lavaux vineyards

The views were spectacular looking down over the vineyards and across Lake Geneva to the French Alps. It was sunny and warm, but not too hot so it was a comfortable walk. At Domain Bovy in the village of Chexbres we stopped to taste some of their wine, buying glasses of rosé for Caroline and Rosemary and a white wine for Paul. We sat out on their terrace enjoying the wine, views, and sunshine and it was hard to make ourselves get up and carry on.

Wine break in Chexbres

Wine break in Chexbres

But carry on we did, eventually. We stopped at another place, just a little hut at a corner, and tasted some other white wines but decided we liked the first wines better. The roads continued to lead us through the vineyards until we arrived in Cully; it was a good walk, but it might have been better to do it on a bicycle and Caroline observed it would have been better after 5 pm when the caveaux du vin would have been open.

Caveau sign

Caveau sign

From Cully we took the train along the lake to Montreux, where the Jazz Festival was on. Our plan was to buy some street food from the vendors there and check out free acts and street performers. Unfortunately the food booths were unappealing and there were no free acts, so we walked along the lake shore to see what else was available. Once again nothing appealed to us so we ended up at a restaurant called Café Très. Dinner was very good and nicely presented and the décor of the place was interesting, combining very modern with old traditional ceiling decorations to good effect.

Montreux

Montreux

After dinner we took the train back to Lausanne, checked into our room, and we headed to bed fairly early because we were all tired.

July 17, 2017

It was another beautiful day today, but our last day at the Lausanne Guesthouse so after breakfast we packed up our bags and stored them in the luggage room. Our plan today was to take the train to Gruyères and visit the cheese factory and the castle. A few years ago Gruyères was named the most beautiful village in Western Switzerland, so we were intrigued to see what it would be like.

The trip involved three trains: first we travelled along the lakeshore to Montreux (again) and then we changed to the train which serves the “Montreux Oberland”. It wound uphill through the back yards of Montreux, with ever-expanding scenery, before arriving in an upland agricultural area. After one more short connection we arrived at Gruyères.

Montreux Oberland train

Montreux Oberland train

Once there we walked across the street from the station to the cheese factory. We were a bit early for the scheduled demonstrations so we spent some time in the gift shop. The factory tour was self-guided using a hand-held audio guide; the narrative was told by “Cherry the cow” and it was very informative. We watched as the cheese technician stirred the milk in a huge shiny copper vat, the first stage in making it into Gruyère cheese. There’s a lot more to the cheese-making process, mostly involving sitting in a dark cave. There was probably more to the demonstration than what we saw but it was getting later in the afternoon and we hadn’t had our lunch.

Gruyère cheese factory

Gruyère cheese factory

Cheese technician at work

Cheese technician at work

From the dairy we walked up a trail to the actual hamlet of Gruyères. The village is an 800-year-old medieval hamlet complete with a castle, and you enter through a stone archway into the main square lined with beautiful buildings. Caroline had done some research and knew where we should eat—Restaurant le Chalet—but it was very busy and we couldn’t get in until 2 pm, so we went for a walk around the castle.

Gruyères village site

Gruyères village site

When we finally did get in, Paul and Caroline had the cheese fondue and Rosemary had macaroni and cheese. Our meals were really good and very filling, so no dessert was needed, or even dinner!

Gruyères town square

Gruyères town square

We took a different route back to Lausanne, where we collected our bags from the hostel and then carried on to Geneva, checking into the hostel there. Caroline needed to be at work the next morning so she had booked an extremely early flight back to London, so that was why we weren’t staying in Lausanne tonight.

Mont Blanc from Geneva

Mont Blanc from Geneva

Buildings on Geneva waterfront

Buildings on Geneva waterfront

After a while the two of us went for a walk, along the main road to a large park and then down to the shores of Lake Geneva. When we had arrived in Geneva a month ago we hadn’t realized that you can see Mont Blanc from there, so we were surprised at just how prominent it actually was. Back at the hostel we wrote up our journals and then headed to bed, realizing that this was the end of our holiday.

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Zermatt

July 13, 2016

Today we were moving on again, but the good news was that now we were back on our original schedule: heading for three days in Zermatt. Although our hiking may be cut back somewhat. So after breakfast we packed our bags, checked out of the YHA, and headed across the street to the station. The trip to Zermatt would take about two hours, but we weren’t in any hurry, and the trains went every 30 minutes.

On the way to Zermatt

On the way to Zermatt

It didn’t take long for our train to reach Visp, where we transferred to the Matterhorn Line. This part of the trip was much slower because it was a cog railway and we had to wait several times to cross with trains coming downhill from Zermatt. The clouds were down on the mountains but we had good views of the orchards and vineyards, very orderly and neat as they stretched up the hillsides. We climbed high on the slope, looking down on villages below.

Hotel Bahnhof

Hotel Bahnhof

We arrived at the end of the line in Zermatt by noon, and it was easy to find our hotel. It was the Hotel Bahnhof and of course it was directly across the street from the station. We were early, so we stored our bags in their ski room and went out to buy food for lunch and other meals. The hotel has a beautiful kitchen and eating area, well organized with modern furnishings, so it was going to be a lot easier to prepare our own meals. The Coop grocery store was large and well-stocked, and we bought salad fixings, breakfast food, eggs, and pasta and sauce for our dinners. Total cost CHF 33.75, which would cover us for almost all of our meals.

Climbers’ cemetery

Climbers’ cemetery

Back at the hotel we made our lunch and then put away all of our food in the appropriate places. Paul was still feeling unwell so he slept for a while and Rosemary went out for an exploratory walk. The sun was shining and the Matterhorn was partially visible so she walked to the other end of town to get a better view. While up there she checked out the YHA—we had considered staying there while booking places to stay, but it was far from the town centre and the Hotel Bahnhof’s price was similar so the Bahnhof was definitely the better choice.

First view of the Matterhorn

First view of the Matterhorn

On the way back she stopped and listened to an alphorn quintet and then heard bells ringing and encountered a herd of goats being led up the main street by a young boy dressed in costume. What a lovely sight to see!

Alphorn quintet

Alphorn quintet

By now it was dinnertime, so we went down to the kitchen. Luckily it wasn’t too crowded, so we found a pot to boil water for pasta. We had salad followed by pasta with sauce, which with the addition of some sliced salami made a very good meal. We sat at a table with a lady from England and a man from Germany. He was staying at the hotel to do some climbing, which mainly involved waiting for better weather. We had a good time chatting to them.

Bringing the goats back from their pasture

Bringing the goats back from their pasture

After doing our dishes we decided to go out for a short walk. It started to rain a bit, but it felt good to be back in the mountains again and the weather looked like it would be good for the next couple of days.

July 14, 2016

Last night was too warm for the duvet and too cold without it, so sleeping wasn’t that great. We both agreed that neither of us had slept well. For breakfast we had granola with yogurt and bananas along with some tea. After organizing our lunch we packed our packs and set off up the main street of Zermatt. For the last week we had just been riding on trains and puttering around in towns, so we were looking forward to getting out on the trail again.

Old houses in Zermatt

Old houses in Zermatt

Our plan was to take the gondola to Schwarzsee (“Black Lake”), walk around there for a bit, and then hike down the Matterhorn Trail back to Zermatt. The latter would be 1,000 metres of elevation loss but Rosemary felt that her knee could handle that. It didn’t take too long to get to the gondola terminal, where we bought our one-way tickets. There was no lineup so we went through the turnstile and straight into a gondola car. It was an interesting ride, zooming over the edge of Zermatt and up the hillside.

Soon we came to a station, so we got out of the gondola car. But we soon realized we weren’t at Schwarzsee and that the gondola didn’t end here, so we hopped back into another car and carried on. It was quite evident when we did arrive at Schwarzsee because there was a restaurant there with that word in large letters on its side!

Schwarzsee gondola

Schwarzsee gondola

The weather was very chilly at this elevation, probably close to freezing, and it was windy, so we put on our sweaters. We looked around a bit and then decided to head up a trail to the ridge we could see above us. The Matterhorn was playing peekaboo, with clouds rolling over and around it, and there were a few snowflakes falling. As we climbed it got colder and soon we arrived at the top of another ski lift. There was a bitter wind but we found a rock cairn nearby which gave us shelter to eat our lunch.

Flowers at our lunch spot

Flowers at our lunch spot

The trail we were on would have taken us to the Hörnli hut, which we could see up at the base of the Matterhorn, but the next section involved metal stairs and ramps and the ridge it was on looked a bit sketchy. No big deal for climbers, though, but the route up from the hut looked more like climbing!

Matterhorn approach ridge

Matterhorn approach ridge

So we headed down, stopping at the Climbers’ Chapel at the lake. The chapel is dedicated to “Maria zum Schnee” – Our Lady of the Snows. It’s very lovely inside with a beautifully painted nave, and it is thought that it was built in the early 18th century.

Schwarzsee and the chapel

Schwarzsee and the chapel

Climbers’ Chapel

Climbers’ Chapel

After spending some time at the chapel we decided to go down the trail back to Zermatt. It followed a service road for a while and then we came to a pair of signs which both pointed to the Stafelalp Café. One of them said “Schneller Weg” (faster way) so we followed that sign, but it had us plunging down the hillside. The café, when we got to it, was full of people who didn’t look like hikers.

Sheep staying warm

Sheep staying warm

From here most of our hiking was on trails. After a while we plunged down to a small lake, where a sign told us it was part of the Grand Dixence hydro-electric system which spans three Alpine valleys and has many kilometres of tunnels to move water between the valleys. We went on and on, passing through a few hamlets en route. The hamlet of Z’mutt is over 500 years old and the wooden buildings are huddled very closely together, and the trail winds through the village.

Hamlet above Zermatt

Hamlet above Zermatt

Z’mutt

Z’mutt

Finally after about another hour we were back in Zermatt and we could take off our boots. It was getting close to 5 pm so we decided to have an early dinner. There was nobody in the kitchen so we could make dinner without bumping into other cooks. After dinner Paul went up to the Coop to get a few more food items and then we had showers (no lineup there either) before settling down to relax for the next evening. It was raining outside, which wasn’t in the forecast, and we had been lucky not to have to walk in a lot of rain. But hopefully it will go away by tomorrow.

Wooden statue by the trail

Wooden statue by the trail

July 15, 2016

We woke up to a cloudy day, but after checking the webcams at the ski stations we could see that the mountains were clear. So we assumed that the valley fog would clear up shortly. For breakfast we had eggs on toast, using up the last of our eggs, which was nice for a change.

By the time we finished breakfast the clouds were already clearing. We organized our lunch and our packs and headed over to the Sunnegga funicular station for today’s outing. The trip from Zermatt to Sunnegga took only three minutes in the funicular, and then we transferred to a gondola to be whisked farther up the hill, to Blauherd. The views of the Matterhorn and the surrounding mountains were fantastic!

Matterhorn from Sunnegga

Matterhorn from Sunnegga

Snow from last night

Snow from last night

We had decided to walk down the 5-Seenweg trail which (as its German name says) would have us going past five different lakes on the way back to Sunnegga. At Blauherd it was still cold, not much above freezing, so we put our jackets on. But unlike yesterday it got a lot warmer rather quickly. The first lake we came to was Stellisee, which is very often photographed showing the Matterhorn reflected on its smooth surface. But today the wind wasn’t calm when we got there. So we sat on a bench having a snack while watching a herd of beautiful black and white goats. (“Valais Blackneck” is the name of the breed.) And then Rosemary noticed there were very few ripples on the lake and managed to get the famous reflection shot before the wind picked up again.

Valais Blackneck goat

Valais Blackneck goat

Stellisee and Matterhorn

Stellisee and Matterhorn

We continued down the service road—most of the trail was on unpaved roads—to the next lake, Grindjisee. It was in a lovely depression surrounded by meadows and larch trees, with sedges growing at one end. It was a nice place to eat lunch and there were a lot of people doing that, so we found a comfy rock and joined them.

Grindjisee

Grindjisee

The next lake down the road was Grünsee; it was just off the road in a wildlife protection area, although how useful it is to have a tiny wildlife protection area amid ski runs and service roads and hydroelectric installations and hundreds of visitors daily, it’s hard to say.

Rosemary at Grünsee

Rosemary at Grünsee

To get to our fourth lake, Moosjisee, we followed a proper trail which had us dropping steeply down to a river then climbing up the other side. This lake was actually formed by damming the river, so it wasn’t as picturesque as the others. The trail carried on high above a narrow canyon, leading into a village before climbing uphill to Sunnegga, where our fifth and final lake, Leisee, was located. It was also not the most picturesque of lakes but it did have a manmade beach and a children’s play area, so if the weather had been warmer than probably there would have been some people swimming in it.

Village of Eggen

Village of Eggen

Sunnegga of course had a café so we went in for tea and cake. The cake was a really nice carrot cake with marzipan carrots as decorations. We started to walk up the hill to find the marmot area, but Rosemary was tired and we didn’t know how far up the marmots might be so we turned around and took the funicular back to Zermatt.

Farewell to the Matterhorn

Farewell to the Matterhorn

Back at the hotel we changed out of our hiking boots and decided to go out and do some souvenir shopping; we were limited as to what we could fit into our bags but we did have a bit of space. For us we bought a tea towel and a small bell to be used as a Christmas ornament, and then we bought some cute backpacks to give to some of our great-nieces as Christmas gifts. Luckily once again the kitchen wasn’t too busy so we were able to prepare our dinner in relative quiet, using up most of our remaining food because we were leaving tomorrow.

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Sion

July 11, 2016

Both of us had the cold (or flu?) today, so we didn’t get up until 9 am. But today was a train-riding day so it didn’t matter. After our breakfast of tea and cookies we checked out of the hotel—the desk clerk wasn’t happy about last night’s soccer game—and headed for the train station to buy tickets to go to Sion in Switzerland.

We stood in line for a ticket agent because our routing was a bit complicated, being partially in France and partially in Switzerland. First the French part: we could have had an over-60 discount but today there was a 40% promotional discount so we got that instead. And then we told him that we had Swiss half-fare cards, but that wasn’t one of the discount codes in the SNCF system so he tried to work around that. In the end we paid some reasonable amount of money for our tickets. Fortunately Rosemary checked them and noticed we only had one ticket instead of two for the Swiss part, so we had to go back and buy the second ticket.

Our first train, from Annecy to Saint-Gervais-les-Bains, left 10 minutes late but the driver made up that time and we made the connection to the train through Chamonix to Vallorcine. By now we were well familiar with that route! Then we connected to the Swiss train which went down the valley to Martigny; it was more a gorge than a valley and both the villages and the train clung to the slope high above the river. At Martigny we caught the connecting train with seconds to spare and very soon we were in Sion.

Canton Valais capital building

Canton Valais capital building

From the station in Sion we could see the hostel, so it was easy to find. Check-in time was not until 5 pm, but luckily it was open so we could sit inside and read our books. When we checked in we were given the choice of the twin room we had booked or a 4-bed room which was on the other side of the hostel, away from the train station. It turned out that was a good choice.

Today was laundry day, so our room was soon festooned with damp clothing. The hostel could provide dinner for only CHF 17.50 each, a very reasonable price in Switzerland, so we signed up for that. We got a three-course meal consisting of salad, veggie Thai noodles, and apricot with apricot ice cream. All very good and so handy that we didn’t need to go out to a restaurant.

Eggs are colour-coded in Switzerland

Eggs are colour-coded in Switzerland

After dinner we went out for a short walk, but the hostel is in an industrial area so there are things like tire shops and paint warehouses. But there were also some nice vegetable gardens. We spent some time on our return chatting with three of the other guests.

The weather forecast wasn’t looking too good for tomorrow and at about 9:45 pm it started to rain. That was welcome because it would cool the temperature down, but we hoped it would be finished by tomorrow morning.

July 12, 2016

We got up before 8:30 am this morning, but only because the breakfast buffet ended at 9 am. The buffet was pretty good and we weren’t just eating leftovers. It had rained quite a bit during the night but by now it had stopped, so we hoped to be able to go for a walk without getting wet.

Old market building

Old market building

Although rain was predicted for later in the day, after breakfast we headed out to the Old Town of Sion. Following the walking route on the town map we’d got from the hostel, we went by historic churches and old buildings on the way to the castles. Some of the old buildings date back nearly a thousand years, and most of the people who built them seemed to be bishops and cardinals. The only exception we noticed was Georges Supersaxo, who was described as “homme politique”.

Town hall clock

Town hall clock

The rain started lightly as we climbed the narrow cobbled road up the hill, and by the time we got to the junction between the two castles it was raining quite hard. The clouds were getting lower, too, so by the time we climbed up to the Basilique de Valère our views down over Sion were very poor. We were too early to go into the castle so rather than wait we headed back down to the hostel, stopping at a patisserie to buy quiches and apple turnovers for our lunch.

Château de Tourbillon ruins

Château de Tourbillon ruins

We heated the quiches in the microwave and made some tea to go with our lunch; the quiches were nice and filling but a bit salty for our taste. The rain continued all afternoon so we spent the afternoon watching the Tour de France stage on TV, although it definitely wasn’t one of the more interesting stages. But by 5 pm the weather outside had improved, so we went out for another walk around the Old Town.

Main street after the rain

Main street after the rain

Farm fields above the town

Farm fields above the town

Dinner tonight was salad, sausage, zucchini, and rösti with watermelon for dessert. Tomorrow we would be heading to Zermatt, as per our original plan, so hopefully the weather will be better there.

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Annecy

July 9, 2016

Today was a travel day, so after breakfast we packed up and said our good-byes. We were heading for Annecy; when we originally planned this trip we tried to schedule a visit to Annecy after the ill-fated Tour du Mont Blanc walk. We couldn’t understand why there was absolutely no availability there and then we noticed that we were trying to book for July 14. But July 9 seemed to be a bit better, and we had managed to get the last room in town.

Lac d’Annecy

Lac d’Annecy

Anyway we headed down to the Les Houches train station to wait for a train which would arrive at 10:32 am. But when we got there we found there was a train at 9:32 am and we were in time for that train, so we got onto that one and travelled down to Saint-Gervais-les-Bains. As it turned out a connecting train going to Annecy was already in the station there, so we validated our tickets and boarded it, arriving at Annecy at about 12:30 pm.

Annecy old town

Annecy old town

We had a bit of a problem then, because it turned out that Annecy has two Best Westerns and we didn’t remember which one we had booked. But “Carlton” didn’t sound right and it didn’t take long to find the other one, about five minutes’ walk from the station. Our room wasn’t ready yet, so after storing our luggage we headed into the “vieille ville” to find lunch.

Art installation on the canal

Art installation on the canal

Annecy is a lovely town on the edge of Lac d’Annecy with a canal and the river Thiou going through it. We walked from the hotel down to the river, following the map we had got at the hotel, and then followed the path towards the lake. Within a short distance we found a patisserie, so we went in and had lunch. We both felt better after eating. Then we continued along the path towards the lake; the buildings were painted nice colours and many of them had pretty flower baskets.

The Old Prison, with scaffolding

The Old Prison, with scaffolding

Along the canal we saw several families of ducks, swans, and grebes. The babies were particularly cute. Soon we arrived at the Old Prison, which stands in the middle of the river. Everybody photographs the Old Prison, but today it was under scaffolding. Quelle surprise. So we carried on until we reached the lake. The day was really hot so any spot in the shad was welcome; by the lake we sat on a shady bench for a snack. We decided today warranted an ice cream so we found an ice cream cart, where Rosemary had a cassis-flavoured cone and Paul chose banana. Only €2 for a cone, and they were really good.

Red-crested Pochard

Red-crested Pochard

By now it was getting close to 3 pm so we headed back to the hotel to check into our room. There was definitely nothing special about it but it was clean and had a small but very modern shower. We unpacked our stuff and turned on the TV to watch the end of stage 8 of the Tour de France. An amazing finish, as Chris Froome managed to take off and win solo, totally outsmarting the other contenders.

Golden statue on church

Golden statue on church

Paul had been getting a sore throat which had turned into a head cold, and Rosemary was a day behind, just starting on the sore throat. So we didn’t feel like a fancy dinner at all. Instead we bought baguette sandwiches and some iced tea and sat on a bench by the canal. It was really lovely sitting there for our meal. Once done we walked along the lake shore as far as Sévrier and back, which was a walk of about 10 kilometres.

July 10, 2016

Both of us felt worse this morning, but rather than sitting around the hotel room we headed out to the Carrefour to buy some food. Choosing some nectarines and apple juice we then went to the patisserie and bought two chocolate croissants.

Annecy cruise boat dock

Annecy cruise boat dock

We had decided that hiking in 30°C weather was out of the question, so our plan for this morning was to take the two-hour boat trip around Lac d’Annecy. We found the ticket booth and were in time for the 10:15 am departure; we even had time to sit on a bench in the shade and eat our breakfast. Hopefully being on a boat was going to be cooler.

Boat dock at Talloires

Boat dock at Talloires

At 10 am we boarded and chose seats in the stern under cover, but also open to the breeze if there was one. Considering how many seats there were, the boat was quite empty. The tour stopped briefly at numerous locations around the lake, and occasionally some passengers got on or off. It was quite a nice tour, with explanatory announcements in French and English describing the scenery and buildings that we were going by. Given how we felt, it was the perfect way to spend the morning.

Scenery around Lac d’Annecy

Scenery around Lac d’Annecy

We headed back to the hotel, stopping at the Carrefour to buy sandwiches, and the rest of the afternoon was spent watching today’s Tour de France stage (which was very long) and then some track and field.

High-priced holiday home

High-priced holiday home

Neither of us felt much like eating dinner, but Domino’s was just down the road so we went down there to get a Hawaiian pizza. The location was a hive of activity; they seemed to pumping out a pizza per minute and the guys on their scooters were buzzing in and out. When we got our pizza we walked down to the river and sat on a bench in the shade to eat it.

Later in the evening the final of the Euro 2016 soccer championship was on television, France versus Portugal, so it was a big deal here. It didn’t start until 9 pm and since it went into extra time it was well after 11 pm before it finished. But Portugal won, 1-0, so it was very quiet outside after the game!

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Chamonix and La Flégère

July 6, 2016

Yet another moving day today, so after breakfast we climbed the three flights of stairs for the last time, packed our bags, and then walked back down. We had thought the bus for Chamonix left at 10 am but we were wrong, so we had an hour and a half to wait for the 11 am bus. One of the other passengers for some reason didn’t have border-crossing ID, so we were held up at the bus station for quite a while. Finally things seemed to be sorted out, and off we went, only to be stopped at the tunnel entrance for another ID check. After much discussion and searching of her shopping bags, the police finally let her back on the bus.

Mont Blanc tunnel entrance

Mont Blanc tunnel entrance

When we finally arrived at Chamonix we caught the local bus to La Praz and then took the cable car up to Refuge de la Flégère, where we would be staying for the next two nights. The refuge is just below the cable car station so access was easy, even with an extra bag. They showed us where to leave our boots and then took us up to the top floor bunk room to choose our beds. Of course we were the first to arrive so we chose two lower bunks on the side with small windows.

Chamonix view from La Flégère

Chamonix view from La Flégère

It was lunch time now so we went out and sat at the picnic tables to eat our salami and crackers. From here there was a great view over the valley, with Chamonix filling the bottom, and across to Mont Blanc and the smaller peaks surrounding it. The weather was beautifully clear as well.

After lunch we decided to walk along the Grand Balcon Sud, the route of the TMB. For the most part the trail was fairly level so it was easy going for Rosemary’s knee. There was only one spot which had us going steeply down some steps through a rock crevice, but it turned out to be not too bad. We chatted with a woman who was waiting for other people in her party to catch up, but nowhere on our return trip did we see anyone who might have been in her party. Who knows where they were?

La Flégère from Grand Balcon Sud

La Flégère from Grand Balcon Sud

Back at the refuge we sat out in the sunshine, reading our books and enjoying the view. Dinner wasn’t until 7 pm and a lot of walkers arrived after 6 pm. We were put at a place with a Spanish couple and a German family. We were kind of oddballs because everybody else seemed to be walking the TMB. Dinner was quite good; we had a cold macaroni and tuna salad followed by tartiflette with cold meats and a choice of desserts. All very filling.

Mont Blanc sunset

Mont Blanc sunset

Later as we were writing our journals Rosemary looked out of the window at the sunset on Mont Blanc and she noticed an animal coming out of the forest. It was a chamois! We went outside to watch it, and before long we saw several of them crossing the road below the refuge. But it was getting dark so it was difficult to take good photographs.

Chamois

Chamois

July 7, 2016

It was a bright sunny morning again today, and on the flank of Mont Blanc the sun was glinting off a metal object. Later we found out from another hiker that it was one of the mountaineering huts. We had asked for breakfast at 7:30 am, so we got up at 7:15 am and went downstairs. We were expecting a good spread, but instead it was a pretty scanty affair even by French standards. Not a great breakfast for hikers!

Violets

Violets

For today we had planned a walk to Lac Blanc. It would be 500 metres of elevation gain but as far as we knew it was a good trail. So we hoped Rosemary’s knee could deal with it. We got our lunch stuff organized and emptied Paul’s pack so we could use that as our day pack. The route first took us up to the cable car station and then downhill for a bit before starting the climb.

Mont Blanc reflection

Mont Blanc reflection

Already the day was hot and sunny, but there were gorgeous views of all the mountains. Lac Blanc is a very popular destination and today there were crowds of people going up there, but there were reasonable spaces between the groups. We climbed for quite a while and then came to a lovely tarn with beautiful reflections of Mont Blanc. We rested there because Rosemary was very tired—but that was because of the breakfast, she ate an apple from our lunch and soon felt much better.

Ibex by the trail

Ibex by the trail

Ibex on the snowfield

Ibex on the snowfield

We carried on, gaining more and more elevation, and suddenly we almost walked into an ibex who was lounging in the middle of the trail. Rosemary took numerous photos before we continued on. Finally we arrived at Lac Blanc; there were still a few late patches of snow around, but the lake itself was completely surrounded by snow and it was mostly frozen over. There was a nice-looking refuge there, and on one of the snowfields was a small herd of ibex.

Nearing Lac Blanc

Nearing Lac Blanc

Lac Blanc

Lac Blanc

There was a nice-looking refuge there; it’s on one of the high-level variants of the TMB and to us it looked like it might be a nicer place to stay than La Flégère. Only problem is, the trail to get there includes a ladder with some exposure. When we come back and do the TMB we’ll have to look at that.

Refuge Lac Blanc

Refuge Lac Blanc

We climbed up a hill behind the refuge and found a rock to sit on and eat our lunch. We spotted a marmot not too far away and watched it for a while, and then went back down to the refuge to have some tea and sit on their deck to look again at the spectacular views of the Mont Blanc massif.

Marmot in the rocks

Marmot in the rocks

The return trip went quite quickly since Rosemary’s knee was surprisingly pain-free, which was very pleasant. Back at the refuge we bought drinks and sat outside in the lounge chairs for a while. But that only lasted for about half an hour before we found the sun far too hot, so we had to go and sit inside.

Lounging in the sun

Lounging in the sun

Tonight’s dinner menu was the same as last night’s, although since we were there last night they gave us a concoction of baked vegetables and bacon over bread. Both of us agreed that we would have preferred the tartiflette. We chatted with our table-mates (American women from Olympia) for a while before going outside to see if the chamois would come out again. No such luck, so we went up to our beds.

July 8, 2016

There was a lot of stomping back and forth around 6 am, and outside it was slightly overcast, with Mont Blanc having a bit of cloud on top. We had the usual for breakfast at 7:30 am, said goodbye to our table-mates, and went upstairs to pack up. Outside we could see people striding away on their last day of the Tour du Mont Blanc.

Refuge La Flégère

Refuge La Flégère

The La Flégère cable car had started operating by now, so we headed up the hill and got on the 9 am departure. There were a lot of people coming up, but we had a private ride down. The ride was quick and luck was on our side, the bus to Chamonix was waiting at the stop to take us to the bus station at Chamonix Sud. When we had left the bus station two days ago Paul had left his hat there. That led to sunburn problems, and putting sunscreen on your scalp is a messy business. But fortunately it was in their lost-and-found box and they gave it back.

Next stop was the train station, to buy tickets for tomorrow’s trip to Annecy, where we had booked the very last room in the Best Western (ugh) only a few days ago. We had hoped that the station would have lockers where we could store our packs, but instead we were told that the tobacco shop down the road would keep them for us. Sure enough, for a rather pricey €5 each we stashed them there. Expensive, but still much better than carrying them around town all day.

We had the day to spend in Chamonix, so we went shopping. The “sleeping sheets” which we had been using at the huts here were actually lightweight sleeping bags suitable for tropical countries. They are light, but more bulky than necessary. So we were looking for rectangular lightweight sleeping bag liners. Fortunately there were a lot of sporting goods shops in Chamonix, and we looked in all of them. The lightest material is silk but it’s also the most expensive material, so we ended up with a silk/other blend which wasn’t much heavier. So next year on the TMB we’ll have compact liners weighing only 144 grams.

Now we could head onwards to Les Houches—we had booked tonight’s stay at Gîte Michel Fagot immediately after our disastrous first day on the TMB. The bus dropped us in Les Houches at about 3 pm, and dinner wouldn’t be until 7:30 pm so we went next door to the bakery for a snack of tea and houchards. The “houchard” is a thin cake with chocolate chips and a glaze filling and a thin glaze on top, very tasty, and we figured it must be a local specialty.

At dinner the main course was bruschetta with ham, tomato, and cheese, and the main course was turkey with a coconut and curry sauce accompanied by rice, red peppers, and carrots. Dessert was chocolate mousse with a shortbread cookie. All very tasty. We sat with an Australian couple and an Israeli couple who had just finished the TMB, so we at least supported them in their celebration.

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Courmayeur

July 4, 2016
Today was really the day for nailing down our accommodations. So after packing up our bags we went to the same restaurant where we’d had breakfast yesterday, and then we headed over to the Tourist Information centre. There we burned up several gigabytes of their wi-fi until we finally found a place in Annecy which was both available and not priced out of this world. Between the two of us we finally settled on a hotel which was close to both the railway station and the old part of the town. That took care of July 9 and 10.

Next up was Sion in Switzerland, another recommendation from a forum post. We couldn’t find much there so eventually we settled for the YHA. That would be for July 11 and 12, after which we would resume our regularly-scheduled vacation.

On the way to the bus station

On the way to the bus station

That all took quite a while, so by the time we got over to the Chamonix bus station, the next bus to Courmayeur would be at 12:30 pm. That was fine with us, though. Our journey would take us through the Mont Blanc Tunnel, which was completed in 1965. The tunnel is 11.6 kilometres long and goes directly below the Aiguille du Midi. The whole trip took about half an hour, including lining up to pay the toll (apparently €159 for our bus!) and then driving the regulated speed of 70 kilometres per hour through the tunnel. We also had to stay at least 150 metres behind the vehicle in front; that rule probably came from the devastating fire in 1999 which burned for over 48 hours without stopping and killed about 40 people.

Mont Blanc tunnel

Mont Blanc tunnel

Once out of the tunnel and into Italy, it was only a short drive down the hill to Courmayeur, which is indeed in Italy despite its French name. The houses there are sturdy-looking stone structures with wooden shutters and heavy-duty slate roofs. From the bus station we easily found Hotel Crampon and were soon in our lovely third-floor corner room with a balcony. Great views from our windows in two directions made this one of the nicest places we have stayed at. And the bathroom had plenty of towels, which was good because we had laundry to do.

Hotel Crampon

Hotel Crampon

After the laundry the next step was to go to the Tourist Information centre to get some information on local hiking trails. Nothing really started in Courmayeur but they told us of two possible areas to go to which involved a short bus ride. Hopefully tomorrow’s weather will be as good as today’s!

Courmayeur view

Courmayeur view

We went for a walk around the town, which is quite small and definitely not as touristy as Chamonix on the other side of Mont Blanc. There were nowhere near 100 restaurants, and a good number of the restaurants in town specialized in pizza. We were in Italy after all. So we decided to buy a take-away pizza and a small bottle of wine and sit on our balcony to have dinner. We had purchased some salad and tomatoes to augment our pizza, so we had a good feast.

July 5, 2016

After a lovely sleep we got up and headed down to the breakfast room. Wow, what a great selection of food to choose from! By far the best of the trip. Once we were done we went back up to our room and got ready for our outing.

Martagon Lily

Martagon Lily

We had decided to walk to Lac Combal, since that seemed to be a fairly simple walk which wouldn’t stress Rosemary’s knee too much. So we walked down the hill to the bus station and bought return tickets to La Visaille, which was at the end of the line in Val Veny. There were only a few passengers and the others all got off at the Santuario Notre-Dame de Guérison, so we were the only two going to La Visaille.

Val Veny road

Val Veny road

The weather was fine with only a few clouds and we started off towards Lac Combal along what turned out to be a paved road for almost the whole way. This was fortunate because we had both opted to wear our flimsy walking shoes rather than hiking boots. It took us about 45 minutes of steady uphill walking to reach the lake, and we were passing quite a few of the other hikers. At the lake there was Rifugio Combal, and up the hill beyond the lake was Rifugio Elisabetta, where we were to have stayed while walking the TMB.

Lac Combal towards Rifugio Elisabetta

Lac Combal towards Rifugio Elisabetta

We were astonished to find a small herd of ibex here. They weren’t the big males with the curling horns; those would have been up in the high mountains. This was a herd of a dozen or so females, hanging out at a mineral lick. We really hadn’t expected to encounter them.

Ibex at mineral lick

Ibex at mineral lick

Ibex herd

Ibex herd

We climbed up the moraine to where we could look down on Lac Miage. This lake is actually a set of three or four lakes, in different colours; the highest were siltier and the lowest bluer. Our lunch spot was great because we were sheltered from the cold wind. Once done with lunch we climbed down the other side of the moraine towards the lakes, making a minor detour to check out some old bunkers before returning to the rifugio.

Lac Miage

Lac Miage

Old military bunker

Old military bunker

From the outside the rifugio was pretty dingy-looking, with its rusting metal roof, but inside it was very nice. We sat in the bar and had some tea before heading back down the road. Our ibex were still at the mineral lick so it was fun to watch them for a bit longer.

Rifugio Combal

Rifugio Combal

The clouds were gathering so we tried to hurry down the road, hoping to beat any rainstorm. Neither of us had come prepared for rain so we were glad we reached the bus stop at La Visaille before any significant amount of precipitation fell. But we had 45 minutes to wait for our bus, and it was starting to rain a bit, so we went into the café there and bought ice creams. One thing about the Alps, there’s no shortage of places to get coffee!

Helicopter approaching Rifugio Monzino

Helicopter approaching Rifugio Monzino

We went over to the bus stop a few minutes before its scheduled departure. Then another couple joined us, and another… and then a guided group of 10 or 12 Swedish hikers! Luckily for us we managed to get on board first, so we got seats, but then the Swedish group took forever to buy their tickets. Finally everybody was on board and off we went, down the steep, narrow, and winding road. The return trip went by quickly and we were soon back in our room.

We got hungry at about 5:30 pm so we went out looking for dinner. However the restaurants didn’t agree that dinner at 5:30 pm was a good thing so we wandered around the town for a while. Eventually we got into Pizzeria du Tunnel a bit after 6:30 pm; it was lucky we arrived when we did because by the time we were finished eating people were being asked to wait. The pizzas were reasonably good.

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Chamonix

July 2, 2016

This morning we awoke to thunder and heavy rain. We heard the other people staying in La Ferme du Bon Papa getting up early and leaving; we were sort of glad we weren’t going with them. But sort of not glad. Instead we had breakfast at 8 am, the usual French breakfast of cereal, fruit, yogurt, and bread and jam but very nicely done. Then we gathered up our bags, said au revoir to our hostess, and headed down to the Tourist Information to use their wi-fi and start redesigning our holiday for the next week and a half.

At 9:20 am the bus arrived, so we hopped on and went down to the train station at Le Fayet, near Saint-Gervais-les-Bains. We could take a train or a bus to Chamonix, but before deciding we had a quick walk around the town. As it turned out the bus left first, so we decided to take that. The journey to Chamonix went by quickly because it was on freeways most of the way. It dropped us off in Chamonix Sud, from which it wasn’t much of a walk to the town centre. Although it did start to rain and we had to dodge from one awning to the next.

Upcoming Tour de France stage in Saint-Gervais

Upcoming Tour de France stage in Saint-Gervais

Because we were homeless we made our way to the Tourist Information centre to find a place to stay for two nights which hopefully wouldn’t be too expensive. Of course it was the weekend so the whole town was solidly booked up, but luckily for us there was a small family hotel, Hotel du Clocher, which was very close by. It took a bit of finding but we did find it, and they did have a room available for two nights. At first the room for €92 a night was only available for one night, and we would have to move to a more expensive room for the second night. But after she juggled some of the other guests we ended up with the cheaper room for both nights.

Hotel du Clocher

Hotel du Clocher

The room was small, but it was ensuite and in the centre of Chamonix, so it was good enough. We settled ourselves in and then went out onto the mall to eat our lunch. But we had left our bag of things not needed for hiking at the gîte in Les Houches, and now we weren’t hiking. So we used our guest card to take the train to Les Houches to retrieve the bag. The gîte was closed when we arrived, so we decided to go to the bakery next door for tea. But it was closed too, so we walked about 20 minutes down the road to Le Prarion where the bakery was open. We had tea and pain au chocolat there and sat for a while.

Chamonix with Glacier des Bossons in background

Chamonix with Glacier des Bossons in background

By the time we retrieved the bag and took the train back to Chamonix it was just about 5 pm. We deposited the bag in our room and did some research about places to eat dinner. Chamonix is a major tourist centre so there was no shortage of choices—there must be 100 restaurants in town, or even more. But Café Valentino looked good; the menu and prices were quite reasonable and it was doing a brisk trade so we sat at one of the outside tables. Rosemary had spaghetti and Paul had a traditional Savoyard dish, tartiflette. It’s sort of a cheesy version of scalloped potatoes and it comes with lardons, which we later found out are bits of fried bacon fat. Quite delicious. The service at the restaurant was very prompt, so we were happy.

Doctor Paccard, first to climb Mont Blanc

Doctor Paccard, first to climb Mont Blanc

Back at our room we did a lot of research, trying to fill in the blanks of our holiday. We now have July 2 and 3 in Chamonix and July 4 and 5 in Courmayeur in Italy—we’ll take the bus there and back. So what next? In the end we decided to stay at Refuge La Flégère. It’s on the TMB so we had cancelled it, but it has a cable car going up to it so once up there we could do light day hiking. So that took care of July 6 and 7, and the other four days we’ll worry about later. We finally went to bed at 11 pm.

July 3, 2016

No need to get up early today, so we relaxed for a while then headed out for breakfast. We found a place nearby with a French breakfast (croissant, half baguette, jams, butter, orange juice, and tea or coffee) for €6.80 each, and we sat in their outside seating area and enjoyed both the views and the breakfast.

Paraglider over Chamonix

Paraglider over Chamonix

It was a warm day with clear blue skies over Mont Blanc, so our plan for today was to go up the Aiguille du Midi. We walked the short distance to the gondola and joined the ticket line. It actually didn’t take more than 15 minutes to buy our tickets, but the wait for our ride up was much longer. We had an hour and a half to wait so we went to the Spar grocery to buy some lunch food and went for a walk around the town before returning to the gondola to wait.

Departure schedule for Aiguille du Midi

Departure schedule for Aiguille du Midi

Finally our time came and we crowded in with the other people who had time slot 41. The first gondola took us up 1,300 metres to the Plan de l’Aiguille, where we transferred to the next gondola which would take us to the top. It was cold in the tunnel there and when we went out onto the viewing platform it was cold and windy. So first of all we sat down in the sun, and out of the wind, to eat our lunch. It was quite amazing to think about the people who built the station, with its tunnels and staircases and elevators.

Aiguille du Midi top station

Aiguille du Midi top station

From the platform we had spectacular views over the local mountains, with hardly a cloud in sight. At first we couldn’t find the Matterhorn on the information signs, but after a while we realized that the French call it “Cervin”. It was really neat to see it.

Matterhorn view

Matterhorn view

Next we headed back inside, where there was a tube leading around the outside of the needle. We could see a lot of people climbing up the glacier towards us; it looked like it must be more technical than just hiking, but they didn’t seem to be roped together. We rode the elevator up to the highest point, at over 3,800 metres above sea level.

View down to Chamonix

View down to Chamonix

Nearby mountains and glacier hikers

Nearby mountains and glacier hikers

The new attraction there is “Step Into the Void”, where you stand in a glass box suspended over a thousand-metre vertical drop. Neither of us felt inclined to do that, especially since (convenient excuse) we would have had to line up for 30 minutes in a biting wind. So we headed back through the gift shop, where we bought a souvenir before taking the gondola back down to the Plan de l’Aiguille.

Gentians at Plan de l’Aiguille

Gentians at Plan de l’Aiguille

On the way up we had noticed some marmots here, the first marmots we’d seen on our trip. So we decided to break our journey here. The marmots were nowhere to be seen by the station, so we went for a short walk down towards the Refuge du Plan de l’Aiguille. Whether they were the same ones or not, we did find a couple of marmots in the rocks. We watched them for a while: one was basking on a rock while the other was munching on grasses. Before heading down to Chamonix we bought ice creams and sat on the deck of the small restaurant to eat them while enjoying the fantastic views.

Sun-bathing marmot

Sun-bathing marmot

By the time we got back to Chamonix it was nearly 5 pm and we’d had a good day. We went to yet another restaurant tonight, with a beautiful view of Mont Blanc, and both of us chose the hamburger and chips platter. The meal was huge so no dessert was necessary afterwards. We went back to our room and spent some more frustrating hours trying to find reasonably-priced places to stay. Eventually we gave it up and watched the Euro 2016 soccer game between France and Iceland on TV. Poor Iceland, finally knocked out in the quarter-finals!

Painting on Bureau des Guides

Painting on Bureau des Guides

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