Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Ending the Alpwalk

WE WALKED INTO THE SEA yesterday, ending our long walk across the French Alps.

Well, not really, of course; the boots have been too good to me to treat them that badly. I contented myself with a slight touch of toe to surf; then turned round and walked the three blocks to the flat we're crashing in.

The last day was a surprise to me: I'd expected anticlimax and hours of urban walking; but it was much nicer than that. True: we'd already seen the Mediterranean, and Nice. But the walk from Levens to Aspremont, while tiring because of heat and steep climbing, was in hills and forest: and the walk from Aspremont to Nice took us through surprising country, open and wild, only at the very end dumping us into the top suburbs leading then quickly down to Jean Medecin and the beach.

I'm at another French keyboard so will cite only a few preliminary statistics here -- at my own keyboard; eventually, I'll try to make some sense of this trip, with photos. In the meantime:

Distance: roughly 725 kilometers, or 450 miles
Time: about 210 hours on the trail (rests included) in 33 days of walking; 5 rest days
Averages: 21 km (13.6 miles) per day; 3.4 km (2.14 miles) per hour (rests included)
Elevation change: Haven't worked this out yet; but I've read the walk is the equivalent of four times up and down Mt. Everest; and I don't doubt it.

I took 1,787 photographs during the 38 days of the walk, so some editing will have to be done...

Now we rest two more days in and around Nice, and then fly to The Netherlands to join Lindsey who I haven't seen for 35 days, the longest we've been apart in 52 years!

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Nice, provisionally

Well we are here in Nice, but not quite: we haven't really finished the walk. Increasingly we find it hard to find a bed; and after 20 miles of walking, much up and down, a bed is a nice thing to find.

Today we reached Levens without too much trouble, but found the hotels, gites, and so on all full. Horse show in town.

What about next town; I asked the bureau touristique: also full. It's July; Brits and Nederlanders have filled the beds.

So we took the bus to Nice and crashed in a friend's flat. To,orroz is q dqy of reposem you see hoz this french keyboqrd is zorking:

Monday we take the bus back to Levens and finish the walk legitimately. I'll let you kknoz detqils lqter zhen the keyboqrd speqks english:

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Day 21: Bramans

WELL, WE DIDN'T GET FAR today. It's hot and a little humid and I think somehow being down here in a valley instead of up there in the mountains has somehow made a difference. We walked about five miles altogether; stopped to investigate an archaeological museum, stopped for lunch; and decided to stay at the hotel-restaurant for the night, the alternative being six hours more of walking, to Modane.

An interesting conversation with the hotel proprietor at tea this afternoon. We'd been to the grocery-post office whose sign said it opened at 2:30; but by four it still wasn't open. He shrugged. Around here, signs, they don't mean anything, people open when they're ready to.

Are we in Italy, I asked, or Provence? Worse, he said, we're here in Bramans; around here no one really has to do anything, the houses are empty much of the time; people from Netherlands, England, Paris, wherever, come live here for a few months until they're bored; then they go to Morocco or wherever. The towns are rich, but empty.

And it's bad for the people who really are from here; they aren't rich, but the town is classified as rich; so they have to make the best of it.

So it all becomes clear. These towns on the Arc valley in the Maurienne are hyped in the tourist machinery as "authentic" villages in the past; cars are asked to park on the outskirts; there aren't any neon signs or for that matter much street illumination; all that is just fine with me, but it's pretty artificial.

Of course it isn't really artificial at all. It's a logical way for a village to be: tranquil, clean, pretty. We could all wish our own villages to be so; and if more were, this would be normal, and the nagging feeling something's simply been staged for the benefit of a tourist economy would go away.

Most of the towns these last three days, Lanslebourg excepted, have been pretty small potatoes -- one church; one cafe, one hotel if any. Not too many people in the streets; perhaps it's just too hot. Getting from one town to the next has been fine; dirt roads through fields and forests for the most part; often thankfully in the shade.

Tomorrow we'll hit Modane, and from there take a train to Chiomonte for the day. Then it's up and at 'em: climbing back into the mountains for the push to the next big town of the walk, Briançon. I'll be glad to be back up there.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008


FIRST, A CORRECTION to the previous blog: as Thérèse pointed out, a better URL for the photos is here.

We are now in Lanslebourg, in the valley of the Arc, working our way quickly enough toward Modane. This excites me a little; from Modane we can easily take a train on a day off and cross into Italy to visit the town Lindsey's father was born in. I haven't been there since the winter Olympics, which undoubtedly changed things greatly, and I'm eager to introduce Henry to the town his great-grandfather came from.

The Arc valley is a lower variant of the GR5 that we're taking from Geneva (Evian, actually) to Nice; in a way, perhaps we're cheating a bit. I don't feel too bad about that, since we've already had plenty of climbing: the other day we actually climbed 5,762 feet in one day.

The Arc is billed, in a guidebook I'm using, as particularly interesting historically, for its authentic vernacular architecture and all that. Last night's stop was Bonneval-sur-Arc: a twin city with Les Baux en Provence. Like that village it seems quite inauthentic to me, very much a museum piece, artificial. But pretty enough; and far from the quality of the upper Savoyard places we've been in up to now.

Today's walk was perhaps 20 km and mostly flat, through fields and forest on dirt roads, very comfortable. Tomorrow will be similar: then after the Italian interlude we tackle higher mountains again, and longer days since the distances between refuges will be further. We'll see how that goes.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008


You can see a few photos taken a week or so ago at


Bonneval sur Arc


We crested the highest pass we'll be on on this entire walk today, and it was remarkably easy. The Col d'Iseran is 2770 meters high, and we started from Val d'Isere, nearly 900 meters lower; once cresting it, we dropped 900 meters again, to this town, where we spend the night.

The col itself was a little disappointing, crowded with daytrippers in cars and on motorcycles, with an expensive souvenir shop-cafe and an interesting but unmemorable stone chapel.

But the descent! It took us through a narrow gorge, the torrent far below us at first. At one point the path was only a foot or so wide, with quite a drop to the torrent. Then we came out into a beautiful valley set about with a number of ancient stone "chalets," some of them being refurbished apparently for vacation or weekend use.

There's a lot more I'd like to write, but this blog is getting so confused, what with delays in posting and confusions with keyboards, that I'll stop with this.

If this post works out iti proves that the folding keyboard, Palm web access, and wifi can do the job. If so, I'll try to put some order into this thing.

Monday, July 07, 2008

Day 14: Refuge de la Croix-Bonhomme

A DAY OF RAIN, our first. Oh well. We left a nice cheap hotel in Les Contamines aty about 8 am, walking a delightful road along the bonnant river which had done considerable damage the day before yesterday (all this written some days ago). It was misty but we were drey, walking under trees. In good time we reached the baroque Chapel of Notre-Dame de la Gorge where a number of miracles have apparently been done.

Then we were on a Roman road. XCould this be the Via Alpina? It was steep, for the gorge really strts here, and is well paved with stone, much of it native and undisturbed; and it features a Roman bridge with a fine arch over an amazingly deep and vicious gorge.

The road was a bit of a scramble, and though we were still under foliage th emist was getting heavy. In another 45 minutes we came to a chalet, though, a house featureing a sort of cafe in what might have been its salon or living room, and here a handsome fellow fluent in Italian as well as Frency served us a fine pot of tea, and we lingered over it for a half-hyour.

Oustide it had begun to rain seriously. I'd already put my backpack raincover on: now I drewe on my rain-pants, and we slogged on up the Roman road, finally into quite exposed alpage pastures, to the refute at la Balme, where we had another pot of tea and delicious little tartelettes a myrtille.

From there, though, the walking grew difficult. We were still ascending, across fields braide with freshets, losing our way at one point, finally scrampbling up to a small hut where we cowered with a couple of Brits and a couple of Australians for half an hour.

Chocolate was passed around, desuotorey conversation attempted, and then out again into the rain, walking a traverse now most of the time thakfully instead of climbing, to the true col and, after an hour, our Refuge.

It's big and full. wwe sti at a long table and nurse mulled wine and look out at the mountains which come and go under their mists. DInner will be served in a few minutes, at seven, so I soon stop.

This was our 11th day of walking, and we may have hit our stride: we seem to be keeping up with the guidebook timetable. Today we walked 22 kilometers, just short of 15 miles. We climbed 1280 meters . In the walk to date we have gained and dropped about 14,000 meters, which is to say about 44,000 feet -- it hardly seems possible. We are presently at 8100 feet. And a little tired, but not much, and we feel great.

That written a couple of days ago. Yesterday we climbed 5762 feet, from Landry to the Refuge Pas de Palet, in nine hours walking. Today we're in Val d#Isere; tomorrow Bonneval sur l'Arc: I'll try to post from there.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Day 8, Samoens

IMAGINE TWO LITTLE dots on the "e" in Samoens, whose final "s" is silent. (Like the "p" in "swimming," my father used to say.)

The town is an old one, once considerably larger, then fallen on hard times, now rebounding thanks to tourism. More sports and souvenir shops than bakeries, always a troubling sign. But a nice town nonetheless.

It was here that Marie-Louise Cognac-Jay was born. She founded the Paris department store La Samaritaine. She made a lot of money, as you can imagine; and she put a lot of that back into her native town.

Especially notable is the garden she endowed, la .Jaysinia, small but elegant, part botanical garden, part arboretum, climbing a hill behind the main street. (Practically the only street, when it comes to cafes and businesses.)

There yesterday we noticed a tall thin rather elegant man, say in his fifties, a typically French-looking man I thought with an aquiline nose and piercing dark eyes. He was accompanied by a beautiful Asian woman, very stylishly dressed but not at all excessively, and a very pretty little girl.

When I first saw them he was seated in an armchair that had been carved out of the stump of a failed tree, the girl on his lap reaching up to kiss him, the wife standing by, camera in hand.

We struck up a conversation and the woman admitted she has secretly photograPhed Mac and me, telling her husband that I was him in twenty years. "I hope your next twenty years are as happy as my last twenty have been, " I told him; "with a wife like yours, I'm sure they will be."

They turned out to be Chinese, living in Yunnan; he's here on a professional tour; he's an ethnobotanist working on a project pooling genetic material of useful plants from all over the world. I told him that my mother was born in Shanghai; Mac told him his wife Margery worked as an antropologist in China.

La monde est petite, the French say with their brilliant originality; it's a small world. As we entered Samoens yesterday, Henry and I, in our automobile (commandeered on the road at Les Allamands), who should we find sipping her green tea in the covered market (active only on Wednesdays) but our Austrian, who we first met in the refuge at Bassachaux a few days back.

She travels with a ten-kilo pack containing a little fireplace, utensiles, change of clothing, and notebooks. She always prepares her own food, cooking it over the metal-pot firepit.

She doesn't carry water; just a wooden cup; and she never passes a source of water, trough or tap, without drinking a cup. She walks an hour and rests five minutes; walks four hours and rests one.

She can't weigh a hundred pounds, is slim, muscular, close-cropped, grey, just fifty, and incredibly strong and healthy. Also incredibly good-humored. She too had photographed us and promised to e-mail the result: when I gave her my card, "Oh, you're a writer," she said; "what do you write?"

"Whatever I like," I told her. "I write too," she said, "but books you wouldn't be interested in, about cats and dogs, and how to raise them, and such."

She should write about her walking, I thought; she has much to teach others.

We stay here today, resting up; our next day's walk apparently involves both snow and a ladder or two. I look forward to it.

Days 8-12, from Les Contamines

LONG TIME SINCE contact; sorry. And now once again I work on an unfamiliar keyboard at a slow connection.

The weather has been cooperative; the housing adequate. Today for example an easy walk of ca. 6 hours from Les Houche, reached by bus from Chamonix where we'd stayed two nights, to Les Contamines; a pretty tourist town: tomorrow we have a harder day to La Croix de Bonhomme.

Why two nights at Cha,onix; not my favorite town? Because the day before arriving there we walked a hard day: 10,000 feet of vertical displacement in twelve hours on the trail; two of which were resting.

There's so much to say about this trip: the people we meet, places we stay, the landscape which is truly splendid. Mostly, though, it's left foot, right foot; and I think often about verticality, and different ways of planting those feet, and different muscles, bones, and tendons. An anatomy lesson every ten minutes.

And how to walk on snow, wet stones, and so on; and the difference between walking on the level or down- or uphill; which you do up to about fifteen to twenty degrees; and climbing, which takes over next; and scrambling, my least favorite.

I'm sorry, too, that I'm not able to attach photos; not that photos would do this landscape justice. Much will have to wait for a more favorable technology. For now I just want to assure any who care that we are in as good health as before our beginning this walk; and undoubtedly stronger. But we have a way to go: we've only covered a fifth or so of the distance!