Saturday, September 26, 2009

Hiking in the French Alps (vacation p. 2)

Capturing the essence of an almost two-week hike in the French Alps on paper is next to impossible. It is easy enough to review plays seen, to describe museums visited, and to detail (as much as we dare) the nightlife enjoyed. But, to describe the sights, sounds, and smells of a hike that sometimes feels totally exhilarating and at other times, absolutely exhausting -- that I find quite impossible.

This year's adventure hike for us was on the Grande Randonnee 5, considered one of the world's premiere hiking trails. In its entirety, the GR5 runs from the Netherlands to the Mediterranean and takes months to complete. The section we did is in the French Alps and runs from Megève, FR (near Geneva) to Menton (two coastal cities from Nice). If we had done the hike point-to-point, it would have taken 5-6 weeks; and we would have stayed in lots of mountain huts, probably carried our own packs, and hiked in parts not as exciting as what we ended up seeing. So, we opted for the 12-day version, where we hiked 7-9 hours each day on the best of the trail options along the 200-mile stretch, staying in small hotels and inns along the way, and shuttling a few minutes each day from our residences to the trail heads. As we often do, we traveled with Mountain Travel-Sobek and with guides certified by the world-renown "Compagnie des guides de Chamonix," a professional guide association that dates back to the first climb of Mont Blanc over 200 years ago.

One of the things that made this particular hike so wonderful is that each day seemed to be distinctly unique and different from all the rest (which really shows up in my pictures). In fact, I have titled each day of the hike with a different theme:
Day 1: Views of the Mont Blanc Range
Day 2: Hiking above Lakes and on Ridges
Day 3: Waterfalls and Glaciers by the Scores
Day 4: Jagged Peaks and the Sound of Streams
Day 5: Massive Outcroppings and Rocky Summits All Around
Day 6: "Scenes from the Sierra Nevada of California"
Day 7: Rocky Trails Hidden in Fog
Day 8: Reflecting Lakes (or, Scenes from 500-Piece Jigsaw Puzzles)
Day 9: Multi-colored Rocks and Boulders
Day 10: Forest and Ridge Hiking
Day 11: Descending to the Mediterranean
(One day in the middle was a rest day, to round out the 12.)

We were fortunate to see lots of bird and animal life during the two weeks. In particular, we had very close encounters with marmots (which look and act like chubby prairie dogs) and chamois (beautiful and shy mountain goats). We also one day saw the endangered and very rare bearded vulture soaring way above with its 8-foot wing span.

Some nights, the inns/hotels we stayed in were surrounded by little more than one church and a few houses (or on one night, totally by itself on a ridge). Other nights, we were in such settings as a 17th- century fortified city, a town of wooden buildings where the second floors had been traditionally used to dry out produce and grains, a town of extremely narrow streets and gutters running down the petite avenues, a resort town on a river with our hotel and its large outdoor patios perched on a hill above, and our final town right on the Mediterranean. One of the moments we will never forget is hearing a long pealing of church bells in one small French town just as Senator Edward Kennedy's funeral was beginning in the USA, a great tribute to a man respected world-wide.

Our days were in many ways very similar, even though the scenery changed each day:
- The alarm goes off and we are up at 7:10 a.m.
- Breakfast at 7:30. Usually cheese, bread and coffee or tea
- Pack lunch at 8:00; finish getting ready (sun screen, e.g.).
- Leave at 8:30 with the two other couples and guide to begin the day’s trek.
- Hike UP all morning (huffing, puffing, sweating), culminating sometime between 1 and 1:30 by crossing a 'col' (a high, mountain pass) -- although on several days we crossed two cols; and on one day, three. Most cols on this trip were in the 8000-9000' height. Our highest two were at 9566' (Col d' Aussois) and 9504'.(Col Blanchet).
- Have a well-deserved and always tasty lunch. (Philippe, one of our two guides, was in charge of lunch food for this trip and out-did himself. We had great variety and many wonderful delicacies and cheeses.)
- Begin our afternoon of descending. On some days, this was extensive and lasted for hours. When the downhill was really steep, most of us found it harder than going up.
- Have a mid-afternoon treat of French chocolate and cookies (yum-yum).
- Get to the van for a short trip to our new hotel, where bags were waiting in our room.
- Wash clothes. (Yes, every day. Socks, shirts, underwear. Rule is, pack only 3 of each for entire trip. Hiking shorts lasted more days and had to washed less.)
- Shower ... and I use the term loosely. In the Alps, and in Europe in general, you will always have a bidet in your room -- Lord knows why -- but you may have just a tub; a tub with spray nozzle but no curtain; a shower that is big enough for a short, 90-pound person; a shower where the water comes in a few drops every minute or two. You get the picture. But in any case, each one felt great at this point in the day.
- Rest maybe 15-30 minutes. Or, maybe 'walk the town' for a few minutes, if there was a town.
- Go at 7 p.m. have a beer or two or some wine before dinner with our fellow travelers at the bar.
- Eat dinner with the group at 7:30.
- Be offered cheese course between 8:30 and 9:00 -- This being after a full meal, some wine, and satisfaction settling in. However, we discovered the French really take their cheese seriously and could not quite understand why Americans did not want to have smelly cheese with bread after an already, often very rich (sauces, butter, cheese, etc.) meal. (As you may see, French is my least favorite cuisine, although many nights we did have wonderful meals, to be sure.)
- Head back to our room by 9:15. Get everything prepared for the next morning.
- 9:30 or so, turn lights out and fall to sleep immediately.

Why, you may ask? (All of our friends and family don't understand at all how two theater queens want to spend time each year on such an adventure -- or 'torture trail,' as they tend to describe it.)

Why? Because we can eat and drink all we want the rest of the vacation and still come home without any poundage gain!

1 comment:

Leon Koh said...

one of best and meaningful blog I have come across .. love reading about your adventures.. keep it up!

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