Thursday, September 10, 2009

Over the hills and far far away

Monday 7 September

OK guys - this day is out of synch - this is really the post for last Monday - the day that things went a little awry!

The day started beautifully and with much promise. We left Les Rhodos after a lovely breakfast. Its amazing the difference in breakfasts that we experience and while it was very continental, Pascal kept the coffee, warm milk, croissants and lovely bread coming. It amazes us how many people there are at breakfast as the hotel was very quiet overnight - no partygoers, no revellers. I guess most people are just happy to be in such lovely surroundings. As we had arrived in the early evening and had just a tad of trouble finding the hotel which was actually on a rural route out of the town, we had not had time to look around.

Waking this morning, the air is amazingly clear with a clarity that is hard to imagine. In the early morning light, the steeple of the church gleams and beckons us. After saying our goodbyes to Valerie and Pascal and leaving some little reminders of Australia, down into the village we go. The church is billed as baroque, but is not gilded and gaudy as some we have seen. Like most other things in this little alpine gem, it is a genuine place that reflects the life of its community.

Just beyond the church there is a little souvenir shop that has reasonable prices. Helen is looking for a new travel buddy as Laura the ladybird is not really photogenic. We find the perfect buddy - Pierre Le Jean Bear! And I find the cutest small MARMOT backpack - I'll never forget my first trip to Europe when I saw one in the wild and nearly drove myself and everyone else crazy cos I didn't know what to call it! I think that a little girl might get it before too long.

The mountains look stunning in the morning sun - the permanent snow (ice) high on the slopes of Mont Blanc glistens in the sun and the clear air allows the myriad of colours up here in the high alps to positively shine. The lady in the souvenir shop is very friendly and when Michael comes in and thanks her for her help in finding our accommodation last night her face lights up and she gives us a free local magazine. Us spending money probably helped as well!

The air up here is clear - really clear. There is a sharpness that seems to accentuate individually all the crisp clear scents, oh, and the mountain smell of cows - got to experience it to appreciate it (or not!) Sinus appears to be a dim memory for those of us who suffer it from time to time. We have watched the cloud nursery over the last 12 hours - those high mountains where little wisps of clouds begin, sometimes dissapate and sometimes coalesce to form small then larger and larger puffs of white cotton wool.

We leave Cordon and head down the valley to pass through Sallanches in the base of the valley where we turn and head towards the famous ski resort of Chamonix, Mont Blanc and the Simplon Pass en route to Italy. We are travelling the road that twists and turns through the valley that squeezes its way between the various ranges in the French Alps. And all the while, we have Mont Blanc towering over us on the right, a steady reassurance that we are continuing in the right direction - a bit unnecessary as there is one road, and only two directions, forwards or back! The scenery is breath-taking. We never tire of it and Helen when she puts the camera down for a little just constantly makes comments.

On the opposite side of the valley to Mont Blanc, the mountains are not quite so high and so at this time of the year, right at the end of summer, they are snow free. They are also of a very different composition. The are below the tree line and so there are a myriad of fir trees - about 6 or 7 different types that boldly cling to the sharp steep slopes. Where the slopes are too steep for trees, you get lots of earth slip, with loose rocks and dirt sliding down to the next small ledge and then sitting there in growing piles. Above this towers sheer rock faces that would no doubt send some of the extreme sports junkies into a frenzy of excitement.

All of a sudden we find ourselves caught in the traffic of Chamonix. Even in summer this town is a-buzz. High above us we see what has become a (frighteningly) familiar sign of the hang gliders silently riding the thermals, round and round and round. And around town we can see the trim, taut and muscle-calved bodies of the summer hikers that you see all around the high countries in Europe. We Aussies like to think that we live in the great outdoors - let me tell you, we don't. Oh sure, we spend out days sitting in the great outdoors, but here where the summer is short and intense, they spend every minute of the day making the most of the amazing opportunities at their disposal. They walk, well, hike or trek is probably a closer description, across the hills and valleys for hours and sometimes days on end. They hang glide, they climb, they mountain bike down the slopes. They really live in the outdoors. And then of course summer is over and they all head indoors for the next 9 months - hehe.

We had not planned to stop, but then again we had not planned anything specific anyway! Helen makes a comment about the cable car and it was then we realised that she had never been up a big mountain, so off the major road we pull, passed all the beautiful people, passed the boutiquey shops and up tight little streets to the cable car terminus. There were two options: we could get the cable car up the mountain, or two cable cars - the first up the mountain and then another across the valley and up to a higher peak.

"In for a penny, in for a pound," was Helen's response to her preference. And so up we go. She sat with her back to the slope, looking out across where we had been, and watching the valley floor falling away from her as we climb the slope, while I the chicken always look up. The Brévent cable car allows you not only to get to the starting point for walks and hang gliding, it affords the most incredible views across to Mont Blanc. The Mont Blanc range peaks at 4810 m, the Aiguille du Midi (3842 m), and then there are the fascinatingly stunning Chamonix needles to one side and the range Fiz Diosaz with the valley below. Some of the most interesting scenery you will ever see!

The day is sunny and high on the plateau and then the Brévent peak, it is intense and I suspect that you would get burned very quickly. After gazing in wonder at the top of the world all around us, Michael takes off to scale to the top observation deck on the plateau, while Helen and I are quite content to have a coffee. Its not long before Michael is down joining us. After about an hour and a half all up, we head back down to the car and set off again.

We left Chamonix and continued up and down the hairpin bends through the mountains. And we continue to pass the crazy crazy cyclists who seem to relish the conquering of these hills. God knows how some of them don't have heart attacks halfway up - I mean there are some seriously toned bodies pushing those pedals, but then again there are also some who look like rank amateurs who don't have the handle on the gears and need apply much more mind over matter to achieve their goal. In fact, some of them look quite unhealthy (read podgy here) and their tight lyrca suits could not hide the obvious - ugh.

The valley through the mountains continues to wend its way along their base. Some times we head up into the passes to cross one peak, only to be greeted by yet more over the top. Up and over the Col des Montets (a mountain pass high in France) and then the Col de la Forclaz back into Switzerland for a while. We see Martigny down in the valley and skirt around its outer edges. It looks very very familiar with its slopes of vineyards and Michael and I realise the that it is all too familiar and dredge back through the memory banks to remember that we had been through here before on the day we visited Evian from Manigod! As we leave Martigny we are hugging the right bank of the Rhône River. Kate, as requested, is delivering us along the back roads - gosh some of them are better described as back back roads!

When we get to Sion, Kate insists that we need to take a ferry. When I programmed her this morning she had told me there was a ferry. But her directions take us not to a lake or a river or anywhere else where we might catch a ferry. It does however, take us to the railway station where we could get a car train through the Simplon range! But, not expecting this, I haven't checked the timetables. Usually with a ferry, you just rock up and wait for the next one to leave. ! So I quickly re-proramme her and we resume our road route. We might have been able to catch a train, but we want to go OVER the mountains so we can see the views!

The Simplon Pass is a high mountain pass between the Pennine Alps and the Lepontine Alps and connects Switzerland and the Piedmonte region of northern Italy. Up and over we go through beautiful forested areas with streams far below us. We traverse half open tunnels that hug the side of the slopes and at one point, a waterfall cascades down over the tunnel providing for a vista through a watery veil - very very beautiful. And its not too long before we are at the top. As with may of these passes, the top provides an opportunity for entrepreneurs to set up restaurants, hostelleries and touristy outlets, and this one is no different!

We are hardly over the Pass when off to the right we see the top of a church, peeking from a valley below. It is really intriguing as there doesn't seem to be a community down there and so we pull over in a rest stop to take a better look. WOW - it is so tall! And off to one side is a long, much lower building that resembles maybe a monastery, maybe a barracks. But the very unusual thing is that these two buildings are out there, isolated, on their alonesome. Wow, this definitely calls for a closer look. I take the next road that leads off to the right and away we go. The buildings are much closer to the road than they looked. And whatever this building it, it is not a church. Its 8 stories high. There are no explanation signs so we have no idea what either of the buildings are. Michael takes heaps of photos though.

And then the day went belly-up.

As I started the car, there was this dreadful asthma-like hacking, coughing noise. The last time I had ever heard anything like it was years ago when my girlfriend, Carmen's car did a cylinder. Whatever it was, it wasn't good! I quickly drove down to the base of the hill where the barracks were and tooted the horn as Michael had disappeared somewhere around that imposing edifice. He re-appeared and I called him telling him there was a problem. A quick look under the bonnet and he (and therefore we) were none the wiser. All I knew was that we had to get somewhere and fast. Helen laughed (as she does when she is anxious). She told me later that my whole demeanour changed. There she was trying to calm me by telling me such things as "Its probably only a blocked fuel line or dirty fuel". But I would not be convinced. This car has been the extension of my arms, legs and breath for the past eight months and I had a horrible feeling coursing through my very being. Yeah, yeah drama queen - but it does
make for interesting reading.

So we crept up from the valley and back on to the highway through the base of the Pass. Its all down hill from here - through a stunning gorge (not that I am taking too much attention) and very downhill! It was about now that the engine warning light came on - intermittently and then persistently. I coast into a Shell service station at Gondo just before the Italian border. The lights were all one, but the only fellow there spoke only Italian and Michael could not make himself understood. So we continue to limp forward. We have to pass through a tunnel that was 2.5 kms long - "One of the longest tunnels in the world", thought Helen "when the engine light is on!" before emerging to pass through the Italian border, manned by one of the gruffest men we have yet to meet. By this point, we are seeing lots of signs for the town of Domodossola and so following my instinct that this might be a larger town, we head for there.

Turns out that we could not have come to rest in a more appropriate location. As we come off the highway we see a sign for a mechanic and Michael goes for help. He brings two non-Italian looking Italians back to the car. They don't understand us until Helen points to the engine warning light in the manual and he laughingly says one word "Caput" and toached the engine. The then mutters Opel (European equivalent of Vauxhall) and points across the road saying what we interpret to be they are closing as he points to his watch.

Michaels now off at a frantic sprint. He comes back a little later to say that the mechanics have gone, one of the office girls speaks some English and we can leave the car there (before 7 pm when the sales staff finish and its now 6:30 pm). And as I said, the perfect location - the Opel dealer is 100 m up the road in one direction and in the other is the Hotel Internazionale. So he heads there - yes they have a vacancy, with wifi connection and he has booked us in. We quickly unload the car at the hotel and he takes it over to Opel.

My god, what an exhausting afternoon.
We head down for dinner as soon as the Restaurant is open at 7:30 pm. Plaza de Toros might not be silver service, but the food is wholesome and tasty given our frantic hunger. We have a strange mix, pasta for starters - Helens with Salmon, mine was gnocchi with tomato and Michael had Penne Arribiata. The waitress then collected the plates and gave us dessert menus, obviously not realising that we had ordered a 'main' meal. Helen and I both had Veal with Limone and Michael had Torneades - all served with chips, no veges or salad! Desserts then followed - Helen and I shared a Creme Catalan and Michael had lemon sorbet.

Up to the room and to very uncomfortable beds - well, Michaels and mine was while Helens obviously gets less use and wasn't too bad she reported. Who cares. We are in civilisation. We are safe. More news on the car tomorrow.

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