Tuesday 10 December 2019

The Tour du Mont Blanc 7: It’s the Simple Things

What a difference a border crossing makes. I doubt many prefer Swiss cuisine to Italian. Fondue is all very well, but it could hardly challenge bolognese. Nor is rösti likely to beat pizza in world-wide popularity. But then there’s breakfast ...

[La Drance de Ferret Valley] 
After a warm, dry and very comfortable night in our Swiss hotel, we ambled down for a buffet breakfast. And there, among many plates of delicious looking food, was a large serving bowl full of beautiful bircher muesli. There was also a cornucopia of both fresh and stewed fruits, and a wide variety of dairy. Oh how I had missed fruit and yoghurt and muesli! Regardless of how good the cheeses and meats looked, the Bircher was my bliss.

If this focus on food seems a little forced, it’s worth remembering that food is a vital part of home, perhaps even more so when you’re away from home. We’d been walking continuously now for 6 days, we’d been strangers in three strange lands, far from our homes. Seemingly simple things that we usually take for granted, like drinking water, dry clothes, hot showers, clean toilets, comfortable beds, and the enjoyment of food, had barged their way to front-of-mind for us.

After that blissful breakfast, the morning continued on an upward trajectory. Although the cloud hung low, the rain had gone. We left La Fouly and quickly joined a pleasantly graded downward path that offered views across a steep and impossibly green valley. Yesterday’s downpour had enhanced water flow too, and La Drance de Ferret river, the side streams, and the occasional waterfall, all gushed exuberantly.

[A waterfall after the town of La Fouly]

[A steep traverse after La Fouly] 
Gradually the alpine grandeur of previous days gave way to a quieter, more bucolic beauty. Certainly the mountains were still there, but it was as though they’d stepped back to give someone else centre stage. Where we’d been tramping on steep mountain tracks, we now traipsed through green meadows filled with wildflowers, dotted with cattle and goats, and interspersed with exquisite Swiss villages. The heavens joined in, blessing us with large patches of blue sky and bright sun.

[Walking through meadows near Issert] 
We stopped to stare – and photograph – frequently, and to admire the quintessentially Swiss firewood stacks, particularly in the little village of Les Arlaches. Who said passion was just an Italian trait? Clearly some of these Swiss villagers have a passion for neatness and order, and especially when it comes to their firewood.

[One of the wood stacks in Les Arlaches] 
At the village of Issert we crossed the river, and began climbing towards the town of Champex. Before long we’d found a suitably shady spot for lunch, deep in a coniferous forest, and close to an intriguing tunnel. Julie explained this was once a slate mine. All of those slate roof-tiles had to have come from somewhere!

Lunch included boiled eggs. Intriguingly these had been preserved with coloured wax, which brought out Mike’s playfulness. He carefully hid the eggs under logs and behind bushes, and declared an egg-hunt. It may not have been Easter, and tiredness might have prevented some from appreciating Mike’s whimsical humour. But hunger was enough to ensure we all joined in the spirit of the occasion.

[Julie find the right sort of mushroom!] 
And then, as we trudged higher, Julie found a new game for us to play. The forest hid treasures of which we were unaware until she enlightened us. Once shown, we started spotting mushrooms everywhere in the pine-needle undergrowth. Some of them had Julie capering about very happily, especially a variety of highly sought-after edible mushrooms. Some of the others could have made us quite ill, so it was no free-for-all. But with Julie’s help, Keith, Mike and a couple of others got their eye in, and before long Julie had a healthy load of mushies.

For a time we walked on at that relaxed, mushroom-plucking pace. When we weren’t spotting fungi, we were catching occasional glimpses through the trees into the valley below. There, surrounded by a mix of cleared fields and industrial complexes, we could see the sizeable town of Orsieres. Rather than heading that way, we continued to climb towards Champex-Lac, our almost-destination. It sat high above Orsieres, the two towns separated by a formidable switch-back road. By the time we’d reached a lookout point, we were warm and thirsty, and very glad to find a gushing water fountain there. Sometimes it’s the simple things.

[Ian fills up at the fountain] 
After that we veered left, and began the steep descent into Champex, a pretty ski resort town with a plethora of hotels, set alongside the charming Lac de Champex. While our printed itinerary had indicated we’d spend our one-and-only rest day here, Julie had let us know earlier that we would actually be staying “a little out of town”. So after a brief rest by the lake we again hoisted packs and headed for the hotel Relais d’Arpette.

[Still climbing: nearing Relais d'Arpette] 
Need I say that this was uphill from the lakeside town? And so it was an hour or so later, that we finally reached what looked to be a sizeable and comfortable hotel. It had a restaurant and a bar, and there were dozens of patrons relaxing and taking in both beverages and brilliant mountain views, including towards the famed Fenetre d’Arpette. Our feet may have been sore after a week of walking, but once again – in the other sense – we seemed to have landed on them.

[Sunset over the Fenetre d'Arpette] 

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