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Chris Jones
Ten Days in the Alps

Ten Days in the Alps

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In following with my unofficial, not-written-down-anywhere quest to visit the tall mountains of the world, a friend and I booked a trip to France to see Mont Blanc.

That was the seed of the idea that flowered into hiking around the mountain on both the French and Italian sides. As it’s been with the last few trips I’ve taken to do this sort of thing, we decided to book a trip with G Adventures to make sure the trip was well-planned and turned out well. I’ve never had a bad experience with a G tour and this was no exception. I really enjoy how they plan and run their trips. They always choose excellent local accommodation wherever we stay and their tour leaders are the best. Our guide Juliette was born and raised in the area and spends all her time in the mountains. She really knew how to make the experience fun and entertaining, even while we were grinding our legs up steep trails.

Getting Started #getting-started

To start the trip we flew into Geneva, Switzerland. This is the closest airport to Chamonix, only an hour or so away. It’s a great place to start, to get a little sightseeing in and relax a little before the hiking starts. It was incredibly hot in Geneva as Western Europe was experiencing a heat wave. The temperature was well into the thirties, but the skies were clear and blue. The city was quite busy but it’s very walkable and easy to get around. From our rented apartment a few blocks from the train and bus stations, we could easily walk much of the city.

I wanted to get to the UN Headquarters to hopefully get some interesting photos but it turns out the whole thing is basically closed off and secured. No chance to get up close but it was worth the walk up there to check out the plaza out in front and get a glimpse of the protests and human-rights demonstrations. There weren’t a lot of people around as it was very hot but there were groups of protesters passionately communicating their causes. It’s always a bit jarring to see children laughing and enjoying the water fountains while people close by speak about kidnappings and extra-judicial killings. After spending some time there we made our way to a local Co-op to have lunch on the patio with the UN employees. We might have been the only ones without badges.

After lunch we made our way back downtown to do some more walking and exploring. As it was so hot it was great to have water fountains everywhere we went. Such a small thing but on days like these it was such a relief to have cool drinking water available all over the city. I just kept refilling my water bottle over and over to keep hydrated as we walked and sweated. Eventually we made our way into the Victorinox store to check out the Swiss Army Knives. I ended up buying an official case for my large knife, a cheap escape from a store I could spend a lot of money in. It was also air-conditioned which was a nice relief too.

Classy and clean Geneva
Classy and clean Geneva

Soon we were looking for an easygoing — and relatively inexpensive — place to eat supper. We found a great spot to get a beer and a burger. Not exactly high Swiss cuisine but I was on a budget! After supper we slowly made our way back to our apartment as we had a bus ride to Chamonix the next morning and needed to pack our bags and get ready. We had a few beers in the fridge waiting for us that helped get us going. Everyone talks about the beer and wine in the grocery stores and it’s completely true. A range of choices to purchase along with your bread and snacks making it easy to stick to a budget and still enjoy yourself. After walking so much it was easy to fall asleep, even with the windows open to the street where people apparently never go to bed.

Day One #day-one

Today we made our way to the bus station in Geneva to catch our bus to Chamonix. It was very busy with lots of people going in the same direction so there were two buses heading that way. No big deal as it was all well-organized so we found our seats on a large, comfortable, air-conditioned bus for the quick 75-minute trip down the highway and into the mountains. It was over before we knew it and we found ourselves at the little bus station in Chamonix. With the help of my phone we walked the 15 minutes to our hotel, the small and charming Hotel Gustavia.

Hotel Gustavia
Hotel Gustavia

We made it to the hotel quite early and didn’t think our room would be ready, but it was! That was a very nice surprise as the hotel was quiet and it was a great to time to get to our room, open our bags and put our feet up for a bit. The hotel is right in the middle of the town, perfectly placed for walking to everything. It was also Mont Blanc Marathon race weekend which made the town very, very busy. It wasn’t too bad but it was much busier than we expected! This gave the town a buzz of excitement and activity as runners and their friends and families milled about. It was another very warm day, 33 degrees, so we were content to slowly wander around and see what the town had to offer. We also noticed that the little bar in our hotel had a happy hour special from 4-6pm. This gave us an excuse to head back and relax on the patio and have couple of cold beers in the shade. This was a theme of our time in Chamonix, our fellow group members would join us every day we were there.

As always with G Adventures tours, there is a group meeting the evening before the real fun starts. This gives everyone a chance to meet and get to know each other before hiking as well as get all the information we need from our guide. As mentioned above, our guide Juliette was a superstar. Of the four G Adventures trips I’ve taken I think Juliette is my new favourite. After introductions and information we all headed out for supper together at a nice restaurant a short walk from the hotel. I love it when everything is so close together and I can feel like I’m getting to know the town during my short stay there. Our group was made up of 3 Canadians, 4 Americans, 2 Norwegians, 1 Brit and 1 Australian and we all had stories to share with each other over the week.

Day Two #day-two

Time really felt like it was flying by and before I knew it, it was time for the first hike. We met in the lobby at 8:30 so we could pile into the public bus that would take us to Les Houches, a little west of town. The usual hike route was very busy so Juliette took us on another hike with the same views but almost no people on it. This is where an experienced guide really helps, the ability to make quick changes that provide a better experience. We took the gondola lift up to the top of the mountain where we started the hike. We made our way across the top of the ridge, looking far down the valley to the towns on both sides. Now this is why I do these kinds of trips. Those views! I felt like I was on top of the world. There were many beautiful scenes and lots of photos to take.

High up in Les Houches
High up in Les Houches

We made our way up and down for the morning and stopped for lunch around 1pm. We ate in a small meadow in the shade as it was very, very warm again and enjoyed the rest. The bulk of the hiking work came after lunch. From there it was up and down some steep switchbacks as we climbed the other side of the valley. After 12+ kilometres we finally made it back to the top. From there we took the gondola back to the bottom. That was a relief! We took the public bus back to Chamonix where I had a well-deserved hot shower. After that it was time for a couple of beers at happy hour, a burger for supper and early to bed. I love how easy it is to fall asleep after a long day of hiking.

Day Three #day-three

One of the great things about this trip is that there are rest days sprinkled in. These are perfect for wandering the town, sleeping in, buying a souvenir and taking photos. On this day we decided to simply walk Chamonix from end-to-end to keep our legs stretched out and see more of this beautiful mountain town.

Downtown Chamonix
Downtown Chamonix

It was another hot day so we slowly wandered the town, checked out lots of air-conditioned shops and made it back to the hotel in time for happy hour cold beers. Surprise! What a treat it was to have that drink in the afternoon and catch up with our fellow travelers, many of whom took side adventures like paragliding and hiking up in the mountains. It’s great that everyone could do their own thing on their own schedule. We packed our bags for the morning as we were heading under Mont Blanc via the tunnel to Courmayeur, Italy where we had another hike waiting for us.

Day Four #day-four

After travelling to Courmayeur via the Mont Blanc Tunnel and stopping at our hotel, our second hike of the week is a good 14+ kilometre trek in Val Veny, up from the bus stop — the buses go way into the mountains here, it’s crazy — a slow grind up an old road to where the trail flattens out. As we walked slowly it didn’t feel like it was too much of a hike uphill, but on our way back I really saw how much climbing we did. We made our way to the point of the valley where we headed up again to a nice little mountain hut, Refugio Elisabetta. I didn’t bring a lunch with me so I had polenta and sausage from the kitchen, a classic mountain meal. It was fantastic and just what I needed.

Up high in Val Veny
Up high in Val Veny

On our way back down to the trail we decided to take a side-trail that was still covered in snow. That was a real treat to walk over snow in the mountains on another very warm day. We had races across the snowy sections and some of us made it no problem, while others had more difficulty keeping their balance. I guess that’s a small win for those of us who get months of winter every year!

The rest of the way back down was a test for the other side of our legs, the front. As I mentioned above, it didn’t feel like we walked that much on the slope but on the way down it became apparent. Our legs ached by the time we got to the bottom. We had to wait an hour for the public bus to come back so we took our place in line and rested. The sun was still incredibly strong and hot and the line for the bus was getting long. We knew that there would be problems getting aboard once the bus arrived and that proved to be true. There were quite a few people who didn’t line up who rushed the bus doors to get on before others. It was a bit of a mess to be honest and not a great way to end the hike. Juliette managed to get us all on board by holding some people back and telling others we had been waiting for an hour. I’m always amazed at how selfish and entitled people are but I probably shouldn’t be.

We eventually made it back to town and the hotel. I really needed a shower after all that and a little time to relax. We had a nice bathroom in our room, complete with a light-up shower head. I wonder what kind of parties people have had with that! After getting cleaned up, it was time again for supper. We all met up as Juliette had made the group reservations in a local restaurant, La Terrazza. I had beer and pizza, big shock! It was just really nice to be out with the group and relax.

Day Five #day-five

Another rest day! We decided to take the bus an hour to the Roman town of Aosta to see some history and the beautiful architecture. Another public bus took us the hour along the highway in comfort. It’s such a good way to travel to see the countryside without worrying about renting a car or hiring a driver. And you can’t beat the cost!

Aosta is a Roman town built around 25BC. There is lots to see including a theatre, paleochristian church, archaeological museum and forum cryptoporticus, along with all the more “modern” buildings and shops. We didn’t have a lot of time to spend as we had to catch the bus back to Courmayeur, so we concentrated on the theatre and the cryptoporticus before wandering the narrow tiled streets of the town. The cryptoporticus was especially fascinating as it was underground and very quiet. We were some of the only people there that day allowing us to get a few photos.

The cryptoporticus in Aosta
The cryptoporticus in Aosta

After wandering the streets and checking out a few stores and old buildings we decided to have lunch before catching the bus back for the drive back through the valley to Courmayeur. There was lots to see on the drive as well as the valley sides were covered in chateaus and vineyards. The bus station in Courmayeur was very close to the hotel, but downhill. You really get used to going up and down hills when you’re in the mountains. We all met up again for supper at a local restaurant, L’Etoile where we enjoyed a lovely meal on the patio, surrounded by high mountain peaks.

Day Six #day-six

Our second hike in Italy was a 16+ kilometres walk through Val Ferret, an amazing day-long walk along the path around the Mont de la Saxe with incredible views of the south side of Monte Bianco. We again started with a public bus ride from town up into the mountains. We stopped at the trailhead to put on some sunscreen and then we were immediately walking up. We wound our way up the trail above the trees where we could catch our breath and take in our surroundings. It was incredible.

Starting the Val Ferret hike with spectacular views
Starting the Val Ferret hike with spectacular views

Over the course of the day we went up and down, but nothing too strenuous. It was simply a day of hiking in the mountains, marvelling at the incredible scenery around us. Every way we looked there was something amazing to see. The sky that day was bright blue but there were quite a few clouds, making the high peaks all the more dramatic. These were the kinds of scenes I was hoping for when I started thinking about this trip. Before we knew it, we made it to the Refugio where we could take our packs off and enjoy our lunch. I had also brought along a can of something I had never seen before, Coke + Coffee. I thought it might make my heart explode but I gave it a try anyway and it was a nice refreshing drink! It really hit the spot along with a container of fruit juice and the fresh sandwich we had brought along, made with ingredients from the Carrefour in Courmayeur.

We had done all the altitude hiking for the day, so it was all downhill from there. A couple of hours worth. It was terror on the legs, a dry, dusty, rock trail going what felt like straight down the mountain. It wasn’t long though that we were back in the shade of the trees which helped. Sometimes I think going downhill is harder than going uphill but that’s only because it makes me forget how hard uphill is. Let’s just say they’re both gruelling in their own ways. After what felt like forever going downhill we finally made it to the bottom of the trail, which conveniently found its way right into the middle of Courmayeur. Perfect! It was only a matter of a few blocks to the hotel where a hot shower was waiting.

Once again our fabulous guide Juliette had planned supper for us with a reservation at Pizzeria du Tunnel. She promised us the best pizza we’d ever have.

Some of the best pizza I've ever had
Some of the best pizza I've ever had

Turns out she was right, the pizza was fantastic. Fresh, simple ingredients and fantastic crust. I ate the entire thing, barely taking the time to breathe. I probably could have eaten at least another half a pizza. I’m always amazed at how hungry I get after a long day of hiking. After our large pizzas we were all pretty much done. We slowly walked uphill back to our hotel for a well-deserved sleep. The next day we’d head back to France for the last hike of our trip.

Day Seven #day-seven

For the last full day of the tour we woke up in Italy, hiked the morning in France, had lunch in a mountain pass in Switzerland and made our way back to France for supper. It was an amazing day. We made our way on another public bus to the trailhead. This time Juliette had us get on the bus a few stops before the bus station, a very smart plan as by the time we got to the bus station there was a huge line to get on. We were comfy in our seats but not everyone in line made it on. It’s amazing how popular it is. We headed to the Le Tour area which is very busy in the winter as a ski destination. Instead of taking the gondola to the top like everyone else, we crossed the parking lot and started the switchback hike up the mountain. We slowly made our way up and up, getting high up on the slope. You know when you’re hiking past the avalanche control barriers you’re high up the mountain.

Hiking up high to the Col de Balme
Hiking up high to the Col de Balme

We made our way along the ridge, again taking in the incredible view of the Chamonix Valley, stopping every now and then to catch our breath, take a drink of water, and take a few photos. After 11+ kilometres of hiking high up we made our way to an old customs station on the border of France and Switzerland at Col de Balme. It was quite windy up there so we found a small depression in the ground and settled in to eat our lunches. Even though I had brought a nice sandwich I didn’t feel like eating so I simply drank my Coke + Coffee and fruit juice and rested. Some of the group decided to go up a little higher on one of the peaks while the rest of us relaxed where we were.

After lunch we headed down the other side of the valley to the closest lift station where we took the chairlift down halfway and transferred into a gondola for the final half of the descent. Like all our other hikes, we made our way over to the bus stop to line up to get on board for the trip back to Chamonix. Again it was a jam-packed bus back to town, full of hikers and tourists. It was amazing to me, you’d never see that in Nova Scotia.

Some of the group opted for a more fancy supper out while we decided to do our own thing and find something simpler. We ended up on a patio in the middle of Chamonix, enjoying a simple local burger and beer from the Mont Blanc Brewery. It was again good to relax and enjoy the surroundings. The next day we’d have to checkout of the hotel for the final time, get on a bus back to Geneva and eventually board a plane back to Halifax.

Wrapping Up #wrapping-up

As is always the case with vacations, the time went by much too fast. Even though we were hiking in the mountains and doing a lot of sweating, the days flew by. I guess that’s what happens when you’re having fun and enjoying things. I had never been to Europe before this trip and I had a lot of expectations. I’m glad I decided to do this trip, a mixture of hiking, relaxing, culture and food. The other group members were great and we had lots of laughs along with the unexpected amount of beer we drank. Happy hours on a sunny patio right outside the hotel entrance will do that!

The Road to Purgatory
The Road to Purgatory

Our guide Juliette was fantastic. A real professional and a pleasure to be around. She had 11 hikers of varying ability to look after in challenging conditions and she managed it without a single complaint from anyone. Not just no complaints, but constant compliments and thanks from everyone. She turned out to be more than just a great tour leader, she really felt like a friend to everyone.

The obigatory mountain hiker selfie
The obigatory mountain hiker selfie

I’m not sure when or where my next big trip will be but I hope it’s as fun and entertaining as this one was.