Bonjour! My silence over the last few weeks is explained by a much-needed summer break in the French Alps. For the first time in too long I had the chance to truly r-e-l-a-x.
Due to circumstances beyond my control, I couldn’t take what you’d call “a proper holiday” last year but tried to sustain myself on just one night away. In Redditch. Unsurprisingly, it didn’t really cut the mustard. Redditch is actually a lot nicer than it might sound, particularly if you like sewing-needles. It’s also within easy reach of both the NEC and Stratford-upon-Avon (I caught a wonderful RSC production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream). But I must admit that two activity-packed days away, nice though they were, could not restore me. There is nothing like getting away completely, leaving all your ordinary cares behind, switching off devices and de-coupling from regular distractions, hopefully in a country where you can also enjoy the pleasantly mind-numbing sensation of disengaging from your mother tongue. So, a fortnight in the Alps it was.
I’ve visited the Chamonix area several times with my family, always in summer, always to camp and hike. However, preparing for our Alpine expeditions always entails a degree of stress. Camping and self-catering require a lot of kit which must be carefully shoe-horned into a car without a trailer/roof rack. Then the journey is a bit of a marathon: leaving home before dawn, arriving just before dusk, finally racing to pitch a tent before nightfall, our heads still swaying from 13 hours straight spent in a car on English/French motorways. You might wonder why we put ourselves through it. Good question.
Here is what we did.
Walked several long (approximately 7-hour) hikes with stunning views. Some were beside glaciers.
Some crossed mountain streams.
Some were very high up between (and sometimes right across) patches of nevée (compacted snow).
Some (the via ferrata) required hanging on to iron railings. This was a really easy one.
Many had hairpin bends.
Some had perilously sheer drops (at one of which three of four of us lost our combined bottle so the group turned back). A lot sheltered under canopies of larch, rowan and spruce, springily carpeted in pine needles, sprouting fungi after rain. This last type is probably my favourite; as a rule, I prefer the mossy comforts of wandering below the tree line.
Put up (and took down) two tents in a woodland campsite. The first was a teeny one which is quick to erect in a temporary pitch when tired and travel-weary, and in which the four of us sleep very much like sardines, too exhausted to care.
Marvelled over the great design of the very best rock pegs (ordinary tent pegs don’t hack it in this location).
Watched clouds forming on mountain peaks. It’s amazing to see this part of the water cycle in action.
Fell in love with brightly flecked climbing rope and string (like the stuff on those tent pegs) and linen rickrack (which I found in a shop selling chalet soft furnishings, but resisted buying).
Remembered some French, but can still understand so much more than I can speak.
Bought a small French dictionary. It’s reassuring to have a proper paper language dictionary in your pocket.
Finally read a novel that’s been stranded on my shelf for 7 years: The Jane Austen Book Club (which I expected to be total schlock and chewing-gum for the eyes – that would have been just fine – but was actually rather clever).
Enjoyed our daily bread.
Fought a war of attrition with ants (which found the kitchen area of our tent endlessly fascinating).
Ate countless peaches, nectarines and apricots (so affordable!). Also dry-cured meat sausages and local mountain cheese, mostly cut with a Swiss Army knife and enjoyed on the side of a mountain.
Had one meal out (unless you count the pizzas from the brilliant visiting pizza van), with this spectacular view of Mont Blanc. Just look at that odd, wispy cloud?
Extracted sailing knots from the deep recesses of my physical memory: bowlines and a round-turns-and-two-half-hitches came in very handy making birch log ladders, swings and improvised laundry lines.
Developed a hiker’s tan (my first tan in years, incidentally).
Did not ply any needles (apart from repairing a split seam in a camping chair) but hiked past lots (the dramatically serrated silhouettes of the Aiguilles Rouges and the Aiguilles Vertes), and walked over numberless pine needles, of course.
Looked down on glaciers.
Did not check emails.
Did not log in to Facebook.
Did not check Twitter. But did monitor the tweeting progress of a nestful of five baby redstarts lodged under the eaves of the campsite loos. They were big balls of very vocal dark grey fluff with wide yellow beaks. One baby disappeared, but mum was doing a fine job feeding the rest. No sign of dad.
Did not worry about wi-fi reception (which in French is pronounced “wee-fee”, by the way).
Listened to the slow, sonorous cacophony of a herd of ruminants bearing enormous cowbells as they munched their way across the alpage. Funny that they don’t seem to mind wearing such thick leather collars and carrying those large, heavy lumps of metal.
Marvelled at so many Alpine flowers in their natural habitat (favourites: campanulas, gentians, small pink rhododendrons which coated entire slopes).
Foraged for wild blueberries and strawberries and inspected some fungi (but didn’t eat any – there was room for only so much peril, and the hiking supplied plenty of that).
Here is what I learned.
That we live within geological time and the work of erosion isn’t complete yet, so it’s wise not to get too complacent near cliffs, mountains, glaciers or raging Alpine rivers.
That (bearing in mind the previous point) I really don’t like walking slippery knife-edge ridges in drizzle. And this is the one where we turned back, discretion being the better part of valour and all that.
That the sound of heavy rain on tent fabric lulls some people to sleep but wakes up others (those inclined to worry about tent leakage or flooded Alpine rivers, for example).
That if your style of parenting is to let your baby cry it out, it may not be the most considerate choice to go on a camping holiday (because those types who lie awake in the rain will be lying awake worrying for your offspring too).
That teenage/near-teenage boys play outside very happily in a woodland clearing with sticks, logs, pen-knives etc when computer access is not a routine option, and that even cool 12-year-olds begin to play imaginatively again in the playground of the great outdoors.
That boys of different nationalities very quickly get over any language barrier and shyness and just hang out and play.
That boys are actually capable of doing the washing up! Especially if reaching the communal vaisselle area means walking past (and possibly dipping into) the campsite computer room and snack area.
That things smell less at altitude (we all know this, right? But it’s good to test it empirically) and that mountain cheese/wine/cured sausage may not be quite so appetising back at sea level. Reblochon cheese, j’accuse!
That I like bright flowers in wooden window boxes very much.
And that things that stand still in the Alps will likely be decked in flowers during the short summer season. This includes some of the curious objects deposited by glaciers.
That macaroons can come in a bewildering array of intense colours. Some of the flavours featured here are raspberry, blackcurrant, apricot nougat, blueberry, salted caramel and Black Forest gateau. I didn’t try any so can’t tell you how they tasted.
That a neat log pile is highly covetable.
That I can survive in a town without any second-hand/charity shops (if there are any in Chamonix, they remain very well hidden) or much in the way of sewing shops for a couple of weeks, probably longer.
That July is the very best time of year to see Alpine flowers in bloom.
That Alpine spring water is deliciously soft and sweet in spite of (or possibly because of) having filtered through some very hard rocks.It also looks delightfully refreshing in a half barrel decorated with Alpine leaves and flowers. I don’t know who made this arrangement, but I’m glad they did.
That it’s wise to fold up your telescopic walking sticks BEFORE getting on the telesiège, that it’s better not to look down when riding one, nor to muse on mechanical failure, and that’s it’s possible to sunburn your knees quite badly during a single longish ascent.
That it’s pretty cool to walk on snow in July.
That these legs were made for walking. Though the knees were definitely complaining towards the end of 7 hours, particularly on downhill stretches on rubbly ski runs.
And that there is no more welcome sight on a mountain path than a refuge selling tarte aux myrtilles (blueberry tart) and hot chocolate.
And here’s a French souvenir for you. The splendid Jacques Tati’s Mr Hulot’s Holiday is one of my favourite films of all time, and watching it is almost as good as getting away. Bonnes vacances!