Tuesday, 1 July 2014

My last visit to France (this year)

The Roche Parstire, just over 2000m
Just back from Ecuador and now it's a long car journey to the Savoyard to help carry Sam and Lucy's gear back to Thorney. Margaret didn't come (we thought Holly had spent enough time in kennels during June) so I was on my own, which means that every time I arrived at a toll booth on the Autoroute, I have to get out of the car, run round the front, push the button, get my ticket (or pay) and then run back round to the driver's seat and jump in.
It was always a bit of a worry in case there's a time limit on how long the barrier stays up. Being France, where drivers are less than patient, I wouldn't be surprised if there was a 30-second time window, but I always made it back on time and only got hooted at once.
I've driven quite a few miles in France this year and I'm getting quite relaxed and confident about where I am; so much so that, when an accident closed the autoroute near Chambery, I was happy to nip off down a slip road and navigate my way around the blockage. I arrived at Villaret a couple of hours later than hoped, but it was still light, and interesting to see the village in mid-summer, rather than the depths of winter. The main changes are that there's a faint smell of manure everywhere (because the cows are out) and there are thousands of flies. Not quite the Alpine idyll that I expected, but this is an important area agriculturally.
It was interesting to stand on the patio and look across the valley towards Les Arc and La Plagne. Where ski runs came down during the winter, everywhere is now green. Blue runs have turned into foothpaths, golf fairways and tennis courts. All the passes are now open and there are lots of cyclists (and motorcyclists) riding the steep roads.
I'd planned a longer stay, but the trip to Ecuador meant that I had to cut short my stay. We had a couple of days "holiday" before we had to start work packing for a day and then coming home. There were lots of things that I wanted to do but hadn’t been able when the snow was on the ground, but little time, so I had to be selective.
I wanted to go up the Cormet de Roselend, which is a narrow pass leading from Bourg to Beaufort and we did that on our first day. It starts in a deep gorge, which widens as you climb up and the scenery is spectacular. You get amazing views back into the Tarentaise and an opening panorama as you climb towards (and reach) the head of the pass.
The road was fairly quiet, there were a few motorcycles about enjoying the twisty roads and the scenery, but far more cyclists. Sometimes they ride the passes solo, sometimes in groups. Often, a club will have a van waiting at key points, so everyone can get home more easily.
We passed a place called Les Chapieux, which I was interested to see because we had stayed at a refuge there when Sam, Max and I did the Tour De Mont Blanc about 12 years ago. We’d come down from the Col de Bonhomme and stopped at a high refuge for some hot chocolate. When we came out there were three collies waiting for their owner. They were so excited and eager to start work. When he came out, they were off like the wind, heading for the flock of sheep they were herding. It’s fantastic to see a proper working dog in action.
That day had been a little misty and rainy and we’d got to Les Chapieux quite late. The hostel was quite basic – not the nicest place we stayed – but I was keen to see it again. This time, the weather was glorious; it would have been a great day to do a leg of the TMB.
Sam and Lucy at the Barrage de Roselend

Instead, we carried on up the D902 towards Beaufort, but then turned off at the Barrage de Roselend, a large dam which is used for hydro-electric power. Sam and Lucy had planned a ridge walk, which they’d done some weeks before and is a little circuit, ending at the Col du Pre. We stopped off at the Barrage for a look and then drove on for a short way, parking at a lay-by and heading off on a track leading up to the ridge.
The views are marvellous, with Mont Blanc visible through its curtain of surrounding peaks. The ridge we were walking leads up to the line of mountains (much higher) which separates the Tarantaise valley from the Beaufort valley. If you walked up from Villaret and kept going past the fort, this is the line of mountains you’d reach.
I really liked seeing the wild flowers. Spring comes much later at higher altitude and so we were seeing flowers in bloom that had bloomed a month or two earlier at Bourg-Saint-Maurice. I particularly liked the anemones, which were more splendid growing wild in the grass than they were in carefully tended pots back in my garden.
The walk looked quite scary, starting the ridge at a high point called Roche Parstire, which at 2109m was much lower than I’d been during my travels in Ecuador. It was a splendid walk with a little exposure on the ridge – just enough to make it interesting – and we then dropped down a path to double back parallel to where we’d walked on a lower path to the Col du Pré. I’ll say nothing about Sam’s navigation skills except that we did walk further than we needed to. Nevertheless, it was a fine day’s walk and it was great to sit at the Col du Pré on a picnic table in the sun. When we’d been up there a couple of months earlier, the road had been blocked at that point by three feet of solid snow.
Back in the car, we drove down through Beaufort and then on to Albertville, stopping off at the mediaeval town of Conflans, which overlooks modern Albertville. This is a really pretty place and a cafe with a beer capped a fine day.
The next day (Saturday) we were back in Albertville (briefly) on our way to Annecy. I’d bought some swimming trunks (lime green) at Super U so we could swim in the lake. I was assured this would be lovely and warm (not something you’d expect in an Alpine lake) and you could hire a pedalo with a slide on the back to swim from.
Annecy has a massive lake and the town sits at the north-east tip. It’s a nice place, very picturesque, and Sam and Lucy hadn’t lied about the lake – it was warm and also quite shallow even a long way out. I enjoyed my swim, although my Chinese-made trunks were not the best fit and, most interesting, they were made from some kind of magic fabric where a pattern appeared as soon as they got wet.
Sunday was a packing day ready for the long drive on Monday. I think it was quite sad for Sam and Lucy; they’d spent seven months at Maison Blueski in Villaret and the old lady from the farm next door came round to say goodbye and bon voyage. The drive back was uneventful, we made Calais in good time and P&O put us on an earlier ferry (always a bonus). Sam and Lucy were staying at Lucy’s parents’ second home in Ramsgate, I was heading back to Thorney with a car full of boxes and bags, wondering where everything would fit.
Sam has some locum work lined up in Jersey, which should be a good earner, and the plan is that they’ll live with us for a while until he and Lucy find work. Neither of them want to return to working in London.
Lucy and I walking up to the Roche Parstire

Lucy and Sam - iPhone panorama from the ridge. The Mont Blanc massif is to the left, above the lake.