The walk from Nice to Geneva over 37 days was one of our first long distance hikes outside Nepal and really showed us the lifestyle.
The French Walk as transcribed from Alisons Notebook
Starts 26 July 2000
Getting to Nice.
Travelled via Eurostar from Waterloo Station to Paris, 3 hours then into the Metro to get to Gare Du Nord for the TGV to Nice. We couldn’t find the composter (ticket machine)for the Metro, so Digby just used brute force through the turnstiles.
French Toilets are around, but you have to pay. 15 francs and unisex entry. Pay at the bank tellers window, take your token and walk into turnstile. (Separate for men and women). But the blokes are pissing into urinal on full display to all going through the turnstile. That’s why French men piss anywhere I suppose, (read Peter Mayles latest book). Common smell of urine in every alleyway and wall corner.
Using the language, quell un ‘Hoot’. I can actually really and truly communicate and the French understand me and reply. Oh bugger, then the problems start. But I did manage several good conversations on the train. One with the owner of a French Poodle. You must have a doggy bag with the dog inside. It should be muzzled (everyone ignores this). You must buy a ticket for the dog, and it must sit on the floor or in your lap. Have some other successful conversations in French, booking into the hotel and trying to book somewhere for tomorrow. Hearing and catching some words but not always enough, so sometimes just catch the gist but often elusive.
The hotel. The lift is so tiny it can’t fit me and Digby both wearing packs. Quite a manoeuvre. Surprised by the hotel actually expecting us.
The beach made of stones with many bodies baking in the sun. Well organised but lots of rules against everything, including no dogs surprisingly. Parasailing, hire mattresses, umbrellas, and drinks available for a price with a restaurant on the beach. Not permitted to bring your own chair. But there was a place for wheelchairs, with canvas spread on the stones and down into the sea. A special wheelchair with fat plastic inflated tyres.
The old Nice with winding alleyways, just like the Thamel in Katmandu. Lots of specialty shops in narrow lanes, 4 stories high. Lots of restaurants and outdoor dining. Many shops shut while owners dine out for lunch. The vibrancy of Sydney, thousands on the streets late into the night. Markets with Africans selling everything. Snake buskers. Quelle Joie di Vivre. The outside dining with squares and pavements full with huge numbers. The internet booth being a long narrow shop with cubicles, 4 for long distance phone while the back 2 offer internet.
The food is fresh cheap and good with lots of fruit shops. Open to the pavement. Huge variety of veges, spice shops and able to select your spices.
Day 5 out of Nice and we are finally in the real “Alpes a la Heidi or Peter and the Goatherd” at Refuge de Longe. I am sitting at a roughly hewn table at 5 pm with the sun still beaming down on me and it is still nice and hot. I am surrounded by about a dozen French walkers, all of whom are doing their best to ignore us. If this was a group of aussies, we’d all be yarning and swapping info but here they are all aloof, sunbaking and reading. With the cows mooing in the distance and cowbells ringing.
A hard day. We climbed 1400m up from the valley and even managed to get lost and take an old path which climbed a further 200 m before descending back to the correct trail. The older markers had just not been hidden very well. A wonderful adventure through a conifer woodland with an understory of wild raspberries, blueberries and strawberries full of flavour. Also met some NZ on the track who had come through from Geneva after 35 days – so we might not make it in the time we have available. They said that they had not booked at any refuges, but had never been turned away.
Had trouble getting any money at St Sauveur. The post office is the bank but she refused to accept any travellers cheques, which meant we have been on a strict budget. We were unable to buy food at Rouse, so we’ve been a bit light there as well, but the refuge can give us lunch for tomorrow and we have enough money to pay them.
Only the French would call this accommodation a “refuge”. The name conjures up a little hut in the mountains – in Australia it would have nothing else- with the wind blowing through the cracks in the walls. The Refuge De Longan has 4 separate dormitories, each with its own hot shower, flush toilet, and pillows and blankets for every bed. Dinner is a 4 course meal, thick soup, a potage of vegetables followed by crusty bread, beef bourguignan and potato and cheese bake, with cheese they make themselves from the 40 cows living on the mountain for the summer. This is followed by a cheese platter and crème caramel. What a piece de resistance. Crème Caramel at 1900m, can you believe it and not out of a packet. Fresh cows milk and catering for 12 people. The following day a petit dejeuner – always a pathetic meal in france and a picque nique made up for us to carry that day. Crusty bread, homemade cheese, pate, apples and chocolates. Quell Joie.
Staying at the Gites d’etape and the refuges is the best way to meet the French who enjoy walking. At the Roya Gite détape run by Lionel we met and socialized with our first Parisians. They were human and very friendly and even spoke English to us (which I had believed Parisians absolutely refused to do). There were 9 of us for dinner that night with the Parisian woman translating we were able to participate in a hilarious conversation about the desert in Central Australia. After some confusion as she used the word dessert and we offered a recipe for pavlova. We told some of our Epenarra stories which blew their minds. Everyone at the table boggling that there could still exist a culture which counted one, two, many.
On the edges of every town, behind the houses, down by the stream, are thousands of vegetable gardens tended by the locals, mainly older people. No weeds, everything staked. Careful rows using all the space. Lettuce, tomatoes, raspberries, spinach.
The vege shops have their produce labelled every day with not only the price but the place of origin. Such a variety. Even mangoes, looking a little the worse for wear. NZ Apples, kiwi fruit.
Eating and losing weight on le GR 5
Oh no! Not another 3 course meal. When you sit down at a restaurant, you choose a menu: the 60 Fr, 100 Fr, 160 Fr etc, and then within the menu with at least 3 items to choose from in each course. So I who haven’t eaten a 3 course meal for years ( maybe the odd one) has been sitting down to 3 course meals every night after trekking. Feeling absolutely full stuffed with wonderful food. You buy wine by the pitcher. There are 4 standards of wine classified by government, so if you buy a pitcher of vin de table (3rd rank) you know you will get a smooth drinkable drop.
I decided to have the Torte framboise – raspberry tart- and it came with a beautiful lemon crème sauce and a garnish of a strawberry and a slice of carambola. What a little refugee in the middle of the franch alps. We were so excited by this little piece of tropical exotica, we asked to see the chef. In pidgin French we tried to tell him we grew the fruit and were interested to know where it came from. – Asia he replied. Wow, all that way! Image the food chain it would take to get it all that way. But No, he was telling us its origin, not where it was grown. Turns out it has been imported to France from Israel. A closer examination showed all its edges to be brown and of course it was tasteless. As so many European fruit tasters at our farm have told us.
Les Chamois et Marmottes
Left the refuge early (7:30!) and were the first to wander down the alpine valley. There seemed to be hundreds of chamois (look like a deer crossed goat) on the floor of the valley. We started a stampede, spectacular charge straight up the scree slope with the whole group moving as one at high speed. The marmots – like prairie dogs or gophers, sitting up like fat cats, screaming a warning and then heading for their holes. They were spread out over the hillsides, like box seats for the valley. The most wonderful animal with character in the alpes. At this time of year they have huge fat deposits, so they ripple as they run. They sit outside their burrow and participate in a complex set of social behaviors: eating, vocalizing warnings, relaxing, grooming, chatting. The burrows have several entrances. They hibernate over winter in their burrow and some do not survive, suffocation, drowning being most common due to snow blocking the air flow or melting to flood the burrow.
A pleasant afternoon at Col de Paletas the walkers bask in the sun on the terrace watching the marmottes, who are basking in the sun watching the tourists.
The Quintessential French Village Restaurant.
Peter Mayle describes a ‘typical’ French village and its bar/restaurant as the centre of village social life, but it took us 8 days into our walk to find it as we had imagined. St Dalmas de Salvage, where we stayed as the only guests in the Gite détape, and ate at Le Petit Chien, 20 m down the cobbled pathway. Sitting with a coffee at lunchtime, and again with a drink before dinner. Village life unfolded before us as the full cast of characters arrived and performed. The friendliness of the owners, a husband and wife, was amazing. They were really impressed with our ‘French” and along with their English we managed some interesting conversations. A discussion of the evening menu, then the recipe book and garlic clove were presented. Did we like aoli as it was planned to be the sauce for the fish this evening. A general discussion of how you make aoli without curdling ensued, the patron rushing out to grab a thermometer to emphasize that the egg and the oil must be at the same temp. Advice in their recipe also said to add a tablespoon of hot water if it curdles. The recipe book had photo of each dish, as well as instructions in both English and French. This meant a lively discussion on good food, with the cook coming out of the kitchen to participate, especially over an anchovy sauce as they commented that in Australia, we could only be using ánchoves en preservative”.
We spent last night in a gite détape in a small mountain valley which is closed over winter because of the snow. Fouillouse. We had settled into our bunks in the late afternoon, when another couple arrived in our room with dog, a very placid Labrador with the hugest brown eyes. “Do you mind if the dog stays in the room”? “No, of course not”. At dinner it just settled itself in under its owners chair and looked out. The four of us plus dog went to bed early that night as we are all walking, the dog and owners are doing a 6 day route in the mountains. At about 11 pm another family arrived and installed themselves in our room. The dog remained curled up in its corner and just let all the noise and fuss pass over it. Not a bark! I couldn’t believe it. Mia would have been going crazy. The next morning, I complemented the owner on his dog. “I have no dog”. Oops. Middle aged Frenchmen tend to look the same.
This morning was our farewell to a group of 3 (mother, daughter, son) Marie 65, Mary early 40’s and Bernard 10 months older. They were following GR52 and for 3 days the tracks had merged and we travelled together, and got to know each other. With our pathetic French and their pathetic English. Mary was a high school sports teacher and very fit. Bernard was a smoker and a little slow on the climbs, but Marie just seemed to keep climbing. What a role model. One day they even cooked us up a cup of coffee for lunch on Col de Vallone on their little gas stove. Farewells involved much kissing on both cheeks – we are adjusting well to the local customs. Marie said she would write to us. Another couple who we were also walking with over these days were really helpful and gave us some good advice which we followed successfully. Hitching a ride from Fouillouse to Malgaset to save the 9km road bash. Having a bit of French above survival level really does open doorways into the culture and getting to know the people. I wish I was a fluent French speaker.
When we stay in a 2 star hotel, we always get a bidet in our room. This is probably how you get the second star. I have always wondered about bidets, and now on my first close encounter, I can only presume that they are designed for washing your private parts while you sit astride the porcelain facing the taps. Why are they considered essential to French culture, and yet Australian culture has done without them for 20,000 years. To answer this question, you need to examine the French shower. A pathetic arrangement requiring you to stand in the bath and hold the hand shower in one hand, while you spray yourself and try to soap up with the other hand. Lose concentration and the nozzle is pointing out the door. In a few places there has been a hook at head height so you can have a normal shower, as if it is a concession to foreign needs. So the French are not used to standing free under a pelting hot shower, something we tend to do at least once a day. That’s why they have bidets and we don’t. They just want to wash their bits and pieces in the bidet and then use the hand shower every other day (or week).
In the remote village of Bouzeyras at the Gite détape there was even a squat toilet, with a hole requiring good aim. It looked like a remnant from the 17th century. The flush mechanism was also faulty and ran continually. Now we are in Ceillac in a 2 star hotel and the toilet is the same model (known here as a la turque) while the hotel is no more than 10 years old. Peter Mayle in Encore Provence comments on the same thing.
I think it was Bill Bryson who coined this term during his epic walk along the Appalachian Trail. As in when something serendipitous happens just when you need it most. Just when you are most lost, most exhausted, most needy or most stressed. We were reintroduced to the concept on day 19 by an American couple from New Jersey who were walking the GR5 from Amsterdam since April. We started swapping stories and discovered that we had both been recipients of Trail magic
The hitchhike from Chateau Queyras to La Chalps and the hitchhike from Fouillouse to Malgaset. Both times it was the third car which stopped and saved us many miles of bitumen bashing.
The tourist office lady did all our bookings for the next 5 nights through the Vanoise. All done in a few minutes with great efficiency, something that would have stressed us greatly.
Lionel accepting travellers cheques at Roya. Remote areas generally cannot cash travellers cheques as they are not regularly updated on rates of exchange. Lionel was just laid back about the whole thing.
At Refuge de l’Orgese
In French a question to us: “What Nationality?”. “Australian”, we answer. Oh good, came the reply, we can talk in English. Betty and Gerard, a Dutch couple, had been to Australia and spent 21/2 months driving around via Alice and Darwin and had even been to Cape Tribulation. A pleasant evening ensued with lots of laughter at our French. At dinner there were 6 of us, another French couple with little English but with Betty and Gerard acting as facilitators, they were able to unite the 6 of us into one conversational and social unit. They had walked the GR5 from Holland through to Nice the previous year.
The journey on foot concept.
What is it about a journey that captures the imagination. That got Bryson to attempt the whole Appalachian Trail or the two who wrote ‘where the waters divide” to walk from Mexico to Canada along the Rockies.
Instead of a whole series of short walks there is a connecting whole that unifies. There is a rhythm, and life becomes much simpler. Every day you are going to walk, you have only the belongings you can carry and you have a whole lot of time to meditate or think about the issues affecting your life. And with a journey on foot, the changes you walk through can be savoured and considered.
It provides a purpose, it emphasises self reliance. You will only get to you destination by your own actions, one foot in front of the other.
But the most important ingredient is a long distance footpath to walk on into incredible landscapes, away from roads.
So it becomes an exciting challenge, a personal quest and a major achievement. Set your goal and start walking.
What day is it today? Vinte sixieme (26th day) adds another milestone. It is interesting to watch peoples reactions now when we tell them that we have walked from Nice. We are now over ¾ of the way to Geneva.
Descending out of the Vanoise from Col de Palet 2270 to 770m at Landry on the valley floor. No Atm as promised by the tourism office at Modane, so we went down to the train station, tried calling a taxi a couple of times but the phone died, but a train was due shortly so we were able to ride into Bains St Maurice and get some money out without any drama. More trail magic.
Day 27 and the need for personal space at the refuges increases. Meeting, mixing and sleeping with 20 strangers , a different group every night is taking its toll. Even though we stayed in a hotel last night at Bains st Maurice, ( a room little bigger than the bed), I find myself sitting removed from the herd who have arrived in the late afternoon at the Chalet de la Balone. A group of 4 young germans, an Italian family, and an aging group of oldies, (snorers for sure). You can pick the snorers at a glance, – male, over 50, with a weight problem. The patron is expecting 20 tonight, it holds 40 when full.
More on Toilets.
I have already made some comments about toilets so this is an extra thanks to the guest logbook at Col de Palet.
Two toilets, “a la Turque”, with the odour of stale urine that seems to come with the model. But these weren’t so bad compared with others we have come across. At Col de la Loisse, when you flushed it the water and contents came burbling up the footrests, flooding the whole floor. You stand aghast in socks and sandals, watching the water lapping the rubber, and struggle to get the door open so you can escape before you have to wade. The second time you go, as an experienced operator, you unlock the door and plan your escape before you flush. But so far the toilet to take the prize would have to be at the Chalet de la Balme. A hole in the floor straight down to the stream underneath. Something out of the 16th century, but at least it was below our water supply.
Oh no! Not Tartiflette again. Our tolerance level in the refuges/gites is declining. Looking forward to a hotel.
23 August 2000
Day 27, 10 days to go. The path has become more crowded and we often meet groups of over a dozen. Spent the afternoon at the Gite dÁlpinage – Plan Maya. When we arrived in the early afternoon, there were over 50 people having lunch. A bit over whelming for us. The gite is run by a family who run cows in the valley over summer. We spent the afternoon watching the world go by. The highway below with a steady stream of cars, parachutists above gliding down the thermals, two horseriding travellers unpacking and tending their horses, one or two hundred walkers going past and about 20 people staying at the gite with us. Over half older men who snore. This has been the biggest trial, sleeping with the snoring which can go all night. Last night I resorted to cotton bud ear plugs and a pillow on top of my head.
Contaminie Mont Joie
News blackout Terminated. Civilization meant that we were able to buy an English language paper with a choice between Times and Herald Tribune. We chose the Times for a more balanced world view and maybe some news of Australia. We rated one small paragraph on p 16 ‘World in brief” “Games in Drag” Sydney. Drag queens will appear in the Olympics closing ceremony in costumes from Priscilla Queen of the Desert, among tributes to Australian Cinema. Organisers denied that they were celebrating gay culture. The main headlines from the front half:
Branson wins his chance to run lottery
One Fat Lady stops the Naked Chef
Mother in Law seduced me, says video bulletin?
Lobster missing feared cooked
Leeds fans arrested for nazi salutes in beer hall.
Was Simpson a lady who lunched Hitler
Star of Potter film not wild about Harry
Wombles recycled by Royal stardom
Little wonder we were consistently thought to be from Austria, as Australia is simply edited out of existence.
We decided to take a rest day here as there was a possibility of a guided climb to the top of Mont Blanc, to be confirmed later in the afternoon. Sadly, the weather shut down again making the climb impossible, so rather than wait for improvement, we press on.
Nothing had prepared us.
As we climbed to the Col de Voza and were passed by 30 people heading in our direction, we should have realised. When the GR5 route stayed as a road, not a footpath as we approached the col, we should have realised. The train whistle echoing through the forest could have warned us. What a sight at the ridge. Civilisation with frills on and of course Mt Blanc, the whole reason for it all to be there in the first place. Two restaurants with outdoor tables and large beach umbrellas, a train line heading on up the spur and a station where you could purchase a ticket up or down. A large hotel modelled along the lines of a swiss chalet as only Walt Disney would have designed it, and thousands of people. In the haze, the mountains seemed to fade. I know when I take a photo to capture the madness and the incongruity, the mountains will not stand out in the photo. Perhaps that is how it should be.
We followed the road that is used to service the ski tows through the forest down to Les Houches. The restaurants are all closed for the summer. Had a drink at the closest bar in town and watched the bus pull in and collect 10 hikers. What a good idea. Checked the timetable but the next one is not for 3 hours. Walked on down through the village and checked in at the tourism office. Yes, the Brevent chairlift is operating and here is the train timetable. Headed down to the station and called a taxi. Somehow we communicated via his mobile and he said he would collect us in 15 minutes. The ride 8 kms into Chamonix provided several special moments. To the left the telecabine disappeared on a long free standing pendulum. Shit, were we going out on that thing? To the right a glacier actually flowing down to the highway, with a petrol station right next to it. ‘The Glacier Garage”.
In Chamonix we discovered that our visa card wouldn’t work at any of 5 atms. A feeling of dread at being abandoned and destitute in the French countryside. It turned out that the ANZ was offline for its 2 am Sunday housecleaning. The next morning the first atm gave us Fr2000.
Another 5 days to our finish with the trail wandering in and out of Switzerland. Lots of cows turning the GR5 into a mudbath. Refuge Vigny is supplied by packmules, but sadly was almost out of food for our arrival. Treated to a genuine Swiss fondue for dinner, right down to the stale bread and cheese heels. The final descent of about 4000 feet to Lak Leman left us with shaky knees and thighs, very glad to settle in to the hotel and celebratory champagne.