Tuesday, June 30, 2009

She'll be coming round the mountain, time & time again!

From our little apartment today we set off to explore further up valley in which Les Choseaux (our settlement within the hamlet of Manigod) is situated. You travel along a winding narrow road that hugs the mountainside - but without any sort of a safety rail at all! You can't go too far before every side road ends at a farmhouse. It is surprising to see so many little clumps of homes in such challenging territory - the hillsides are very steep and you need to cut into them for a flat spot before you can do anything. There are lots of goats keeping the summer grass to a manageable level while the cows are away up the summer pastures. And they all want to have a chat!
Many of the farms here sell their dairy products direct to the public - like the creamiest butter and the most wonderful cows and goats milk cheeses. We have found a cheese called Reblochon that is wonderful. A washed rind soft cheese that has the silkiest texture and a taste heading towards a castello.

So, not being able to go any further along these roads, we head down the mountain into Thônes. Compared to Manigod, Thônes is a thriving metropolis! In reality, it is a town with a population of 5,500, tucked away next to its 17th century church tower and dominated by the peaks of la Tournette (2351 m) and Lachat (2024 m). From here it is very easy to access the alpine villages and resorts and the lakes of Annecy and du Bourget. We are getting low on fuel and despite there being a number of petrol stations in town, none of them are manned (aghh - the dreaded lunch hour) and they are operating on an automatic system that will not accept any of our bank / credit cards. So we head up mountain hoping to get fuel at
La Clusaz.

Now I will admit that mountains have always had a magnetic draw for me. Don't ask me how we ended up in Maryborough - one of the flatest towns on the Queensland coast! So I am constantly making little moaning noises (or so Michael tells me!) It is so much an Oh. God. trip. The views are amazing and I just love looking at the evidence of the earth alive with lots of fault lines and folded or upthrust rocks, with landslips and waterfalls. (Yeah, get over it - I'm a geographer and proud of it). We are up near the top of the tree line and the bottom of the snow line.

La Clusaz, like the whole area, offers an amazing array of sports - both in the winter time and in summer. There are more than 90 kms of well graded walking paths up in the mountains. As well as walking (think cross-country or long distance here) there is mountain biking, climbing, via ferrata, paragliding and canyoning - all up in the mountains. Down in town there is pentaque, roller blading, cycling, ice skating and the some. And in the winter there is every kind of skiing, sledding, snow-shoeing, snowboarding etc.

La Clusaz is in every way a resort town. It offers a multitude of accommodation from luxury resorts through to tiny little flats in large buildings right near the chairlifts - all designed to cater for the enthusiast who spends all their day on the mountain (and probably half the night as well!!) It has an alpine aspect with accommodation and retailers crammed together in tight little streets that start up the hillsides - but dont go too far thanks to the incredibly steep slopes. It's from here that we take la telecabine de Beauregard. That is the Cabin Chair up to the Beauregard Plateau in the Avaris range. In the car in front of ours, three BMX mountain bikers set out with their bikes.

Unfortunately for us, the perspex windows of the chairlift are badly scratched - due I'm sure, to all that sporting equipment that gets hauled up the mountain each year. The photos therefore show much of this. This chair lift is even hairer than the one up the Great Wall of China outside Beijing! At times, as are going up almost vertically - I kid you not, the slope is about 80% (not that I am letting go to actually measure anything!) The trip lasts about 10 minutes and due to the fact that many people have to get gear as well as themselves off, it moves quite slowly - which was great for me! We have brought sandwiches with us (Jambon and Reblochon) and sit just outside the chair lift terminal eating.

I am amazed by the mountain bikers! All geared up, they race off down the mountain at breakneck speeds - jumping over jumps and off ramps. The route is delineated by orange tape and I imagine that they change the route fairly often as the damage to the ground is pretty intense and this is, after all, fragile alpine country. And this is not a child's sport, nor one for the feint hearted. Most of the riders we see today are young men in their early to mid twenties. Ah, all that testosterone!

And there are lots of walkers of all ages, sizes and nationalities. Many bring with them their walking poles - something we didn't think of in our hurry to get mountainside - and mine are enjoying their siesta in the car! I see a summer school with about 20 little 5 or 6 year olds in tow off in the distance. What a great way to keep fit. Up here at 1640 m the air is a little thinner and you work harder. Michael takes the opportunity to walk part of one of the paths - but the gravel is too loose for me to risk it without my poles.

And the scenery is magnificent. You can see for kilometres in every direction - across mountains and valleys, down on villages that look so tiny that even ants would be too big for the little houses from up here! I watch in wonder, the nursery that is breeding clouds all the time we are up here. Mother nature - ain't she just the greatest!
Click this link to see live web shots of the Chair lift up to and the area of the Beauregard Plateau.

And like all good things, it comes time to descend from our heaven bound spot up with the clouds and go back to the real world. As we leave we are still looking for fuel - but as it is just after 4 pm (still bright sunshine and now about 31 degrees) we are sure we should be able to find a fuel station open. And on the lower side of La Clusaz we do. Although the pumps are automatique, the door to the station is open. Obviously the attendant gets questioned frequently. As soon as Michael walked in and asked whether she spoke English, the answers came quickly yes, and yes you can pay in here! I am happy now - I really feel quite nervous driving on mountainous back roads with very little settlements and only about 10 litres of fuel left! Even though the distances are not great, the car works extra hard on the grades and turns. We are ready to head for Manigod, but there is still so much to see on the way. Of course, not the direct route for us!!!!

We know that Mont Blanc is just a spit away and we have had tantalising glimpses through the growing cloud cover all afternoon. We head towards Ugine up and over Col des Avarines (Avarines Pass). The road climbs higher and higher to the pass at 1486m. We see a caravan, all on its lonesome a couple of hundred metres higher up the slopes still and wonder what the ??? When we get the binoculars out we see a herd of sheep - talk about the modern day shepherd! You could not see the sheep with the naked eye and you might have trouble even on the photo. A little further along, at the summit there is a small chapel built in 1867 to Saint Anne, Protector of Voyagers - modelled on the dome topped churches in the towns around here and very nicely kept. And I would say that the climbers high up on the rocky ridges high above us would have done well to have visited before they left. The climb just to get to the cliffs is grueling and with our binoculars we can't even see them, but when we stop for coffee, the waiter has a more powerful set that shows them as tiny specks, taking on the monster. And still Mont Blanc hides from us, as though shy.

Once over we top, we travel through a continuous series of hairpen bends (switchbacks) and a number of tunnels, dropping thousands of metres very quickly - almost straight down and sometimes straight through the mountains! Not only are my eyes weary from the sights, my ears are hurting from the repeated adjustments to the change in air pressure. The price of experiencing this awe-inspiring area!

We are now back on the valley floor travelling through small towns and lots of hamlets. Life is busy now - real busy. There is hay to be gathered before the rain predicted for later in the week arrives. The array of machinery that is used is fascinating. Firstly they cut the hay and let it sit on the ground for a few days to dry. Then they use a large mechanical rake that lays it in long lines. Then comes the baler that picks up the hay as it travels the lines, every once is a while pushing out a rectangular squat bundle, or the larger ones throw aside the huge rolled bales. Of course, not all farmers use this machinery and on the smaller plots, you can still see the farming family working together with pitchforks to gather the precious feed for winter.

From Ugine we head for Annecy and Lac Annecy. We skirted around the edge as we came into the area on Sunday, so this is a good opportunity to go have a look. It is getting quite late now. Even though the distances are so short, the roads and steep inclines mean that our average speed is somewhere about 45 kms per hour. But who is hurrying? Not us! Can't say the same thing for the locals who drive taking the most amazing risks on the mountain roads, overtaking on a whim and speeding into corners, at times narrowly missing collisions with us as they hurtle homewards! Yep, you need nerves of steel in this part of France.

Annecy is the capital of the Haute-Savoie department in the Rhône Alps region with a population close to 80,000. It is a busy regional city that surrounds the shore of the lake. The water seems to direct much of the life here and everywhere we look we see people enjoying the panoramic setting. They have the best of all worlds - the backdrop of the mountains of the Massif des Bauges ranges down to their settlements that sit nestled at their base, hugging the shore of the amazingly milky turquoise waters of the lake. We take the opportunity to stop at a larger supermarket and collect provisions for the rest of the week - lots of cheese included! They have such a delicious and affordable range on offer. And some delicious fruit. Michael manages to get figs for €3.95 per kg (that equates to less than $7 a kilo!). And a better range of meat than we can get locally. And veges. LOTS of veges!

As we leave Annecy we are considering if there is time in the balance of the week to come back and have a walk around. We'll see. Its now after 6 pm and the local population, home from work, have hurried to the parks around the waters edge where they can enjoy the sun for a few hours. We need to remind ourselves that for a large part of the year this area gets very short days, many of them snowed in, so we mustn't begrudge them their short but ever so pleasant summer! Local buses around here are driven by more females than males and a lot of them are surprisingly young. The first time I saw one I thought wow! but the more buses I see, the more women drivers I also see. I guess they are gentler on the buses and on the passengers!

We reach Les Choseaux just before 7 pm. Still light, warm and humid. Happy with all we have seen today and the experience of the mountains.

No comments: