2017 Travel Highlights

Tour du Mont Blanc

I had a bumper year of travel highlights in 2017, visiting three continents and nine countries: Australia, New Zealand, Thailand, Laos, Myanmar, Switzerland, Croatia, Italy and France.  I was lucky to not only to explore so many new destinations, but also revisit some old favourites.  It was easy to rediscover the beauty, charm and adventure of the world during the year.  So it is pretty hard to limit this list to only ten, but here goes: My favourite 10 travel experiences from the last 12 months.

1. Hiking New Zealand’s forests

In between all the Christmas and New Year madness, one of my favourite things was being able to escape into the lush rich green New Zealand forest and enjoy the beauty.  I was reminded that there’s no place like home, and New Zealand is one of the most beautiful countries in the world.  How lucky we are! We had stunning weather, and it was gorgeous in the bush, just us and the birds.  The perfect antidote for the silly season.

Old Coach Road, New Zealand

Coming through the forest…

2. Luang Prabang

I was completely charmed by this small town in Laos.  I loved the quiet little village with its Royal Palace and gold painted temples.  Being able to visit somewhere that had long been on my wish list was very exciting.  Rising before dawn to walk the quiet streets of Luang Prabang and watch the monks as they quietly collected alms at sunrise was very special.  It was a great way to start the new year.  The delicious food was an added bonus!

Luang Prabang

Monks collecting alms. Dog looking for whatever he can!

3. Sunrise over Bagan

Bagan is an amazing place all by itself – hundreds and hundreds of temples make a beautiful sight.  Most nights we would climb a temple and watch the sun set, while the sky turned the most amazing colours – every shade from pink, to purple, yellow, orange and even deep blue.  However the highlight was definitely a sunrise balloon ride.  Even a 4.30am wake up call didn’t detract from my excitement.  Floating peacefully above the temples, looking down at the villages below while the sun came up was absolutely gorgeous.

Bagan, Myanmar

Magnificent sunset

4. Inle Lake

At first it seemed like a sleepy little lakeside village, but after a few days exploring it became clear that this was a buzzing network of communities.  We visited the market which gave us an insight into the many diverse ethnic groups who gather here to sell their products and stock up for the week ahead.  Then we visited some of the industrious artisan villages – silver makers, weavers, boat builders, cigar makers to name but a few.  At the end of each busy day, it felt luxurious to relax by the pool with a cocktail in hand at our sumptuous accommodation.  My time at Inle Lake was a definite highlight!

Inle Lake

Fisherman, Inle Lake

5. Kalaw hiking

We were blessed with perfect weather – sunny and mild – which make this short hike in Kalaw even more memorable.  However weather aside, the stunning views and the ability to get a behind the scenes glimpse into rural life in Myanmar as we walked through the villages made this a hike to remember.  Experiencing the culture and diversity of these friendly Burmese people, including an overnight stay in a monastery, was very special.

Kalaw, Myanmar

Trekking views….amazing!

6. Rome

I just love this city.  Around every corner in Rome is a surprise – a gracious plaza, crumbling buildings, a beautiful aristocratic house with a wall of ivy, or a majestic church or monument,.  It oozes atmosphere.  Careening around the city and seeing it all from the back of a scooter was exhilerating.  I had so much fun in this wonderful city!

Ancient Rome

7. Dubrovnik

Back in 1998 I was on my way to visit Croatia and Dubrovnik in a van as we travelled around Europe.  However our plans went awry after our pasports were stolen and we instead had to get to Rome for replacements.  Yet getting to Dubrovnik and seeing the beautifully preserved walled city for myself has always remained on my wish list.  I was delighted to finally make it there!  I was blown away by this gorgeous city, not to mention the brilliant cerulean sea, the lush emerald green islands…..and did I mention the wineries?

Dubrovnik

Magnificent views over Dubrovnik

8. The Tour du Mont Blanc

The Tour du Mont Blanc is one of the world’s great hikes, and having completed this for myself it’s not hard to understand why.  The views are absolutely stunning, and it is magical walking with the Mont Blanc massif looming above us.  There was also a satisfying sense of achievement at the end of each day’s hike.  No matter how challenging it had been, it felt fantastic.  I met some wonderful people, enjoyed spectacular views, and I loved every minute of it.

Tour du Mont Blanc

Happy at the top on the final day!

9. Lucerne

How pretty is Lake Lucerne! The lake, the mountains, and the old town centre made this a very easy place to spend a few days and recuperate after the hike.  I went for a run along the shores of the lake, got lost in the cobbled streets, and explored the beautiful old buildings – the old wooden bridges like the Kapellbrücke built around 1365, the Musegg wall and towers which form part of the ramparts built in the 14th century to protect the city.  And then when I needed a break I sat on the balcony in my gorgeous hotel room, enjoying the views over the lake to the mountains.  Life sure is good!

Lucerne Switzerland

Views from my balcony over Lake Lucerne

10. The Vatican & St Peter’s

Visiting the Vatican, and in particular seeing a number of beautiful art works that I had studied many years ago at school was very special.  In particular Raphael’s School of Athens was stunning to see for myself.  The colours were bright and vivid, and my memories of art history lessons came flooding back.

However it was La Pieta in St Peter’s Basilica that truly took my breath away.  The famous Michelangelo sculpture was completed when he was just 24 years old, and depicts a young Virgin Mary with the body of Christ after his crucifixion. I’ve always thought it is one of the most beautiful pieces ever.  I’ll leave you with the description of La Pieta by the art historian and biographer, Vasari: “It is certainly a miracle that a formless block of stone could ever have been reduced to a perfection that nature is scarcely able to create in the flesh.”

Vatican City

La Pieta, by Michelangelo

So that was it, a busy year in every way. I feel extraordinarily lucky to have experienced and travelled so far. I am reminded of all time favourite quote:

“We live in a wonderful world that is full of beauty, charm, and adventure. There is no end to the adventures we can have if only we seek them with our eyes open.” – Jawaharlal Nehru

Here’s to many more adventures and a happy and prosperous 2018 to everyone!

Ancient Rome – the Eternal City

Ancient Rome

Visiting Rome you can choose to visit any number of ancient sites, temples or churches  However one of the best things about the city is that you don’t really have to spend much money at all to enjoy it.  You can wander aimlessly and soak up the atmosphere of the cobbled laneways.  The thrill of stumbling across ancient buildings is part of the city’s charm.  You are surrounded by a rich and diverse history.  The Colosseum, the Forum, the Aqueducts, crumbling buildings or city walls are all around you.  You are living and breathing ancient Rome at every step.

The Colosseum, the iconic image that comes to mind when picturing Rome, has a fascinating history. Inaugurated in 80 AC, as you walking inside, you can just imagine the gladiators preparing to go to battle, cheered on by thousands of spectators, baying for blood!  Games were banned in 404 CE by Emperor Honorius, but the Colosseum continued to be in use. After the fall of the Roman Empire it was abandoned for many years, plundered of its marble and used as a quarry to build churches, temples and basilicas.

Finally in 1744 Pope Benedict XIV banned any further removal of materials from the Colosseum, and it was preserved as we know it today.  A local told me that this was really because the Pope’s procession would pass the Colosseum and it was thought that any further dismantling of it would detract from the pomp and the ceremony of the procession.  Whether true or not, it does make for a fine story!

A visit to the Vatican

Vatican Museums Rome

The Vatican Museum and St Peter’s Basilica is a highlight for visitors to Rome.  It’s an overwhelming feast of the senses, a visual spectacular that simply can’t be missed.  This however means that on a bad day, there will be just you and 25,000 others traipsing through the corridors and crowding around the exhibits. Do yourself a favour and pay the extra money for an early morning visit and beat the crowds. It was the best thing I did.

Vatican Museums Rome

Welcome to the Vatican Museums!

I went on an early morning skip the line tour with Italy With Us.  I had been a bit skeptical, but they really did deliver on their promise of a semi-private tour.  We met at their offices at 7.30am and made our way to the Vatican Museum to get in at 8.00am, one hour before the doors officially opened.  And then we were in!

Vatican Museums Rome

The Spiral Staircase, built by Giuseppe Momo in 1932, is one of the most photographed pieces in the Museum

Then for the next few hours we were taken at a gallop through the maze of corridors and multiple museums.  The vastness of the museums and sheer number of artworks on display was genuinely overwhelming.  As the day wore on, it quickly became busier and more crowded with people, the temperature rising, and as we rushed from room to room, sweat trickled between my shoulders.

Vatican Museums Rome

First visitors of the day to the Gallery of Maps

Yet, despite the heat and the crowds, it is truly magnificent and unbelievably beautiful.  There is an incredible array of riches and beauty on display.  Reaching the Sistine Chapel I was surprised by not only how small it was, but how bright and vibrant the colours were.  Even though I was surrounded by people, standing in the chapel and looking up at the famous ceilings, and painted walls, it was a very special moment.

As we walked through the Vatican museums, coming across artworks that I had studied at school was a genuine thrill.  Bernini’s sculptures, Michelangelo’s frescoes, the Gallery of Maps and the Hall of Tapestries were all stunning.  One of my favourites, Raphael’s School of Athens, did not disappoint and I loved the opportunity to view this with my own eyes.

Vatican Museums Rome

Raphael’s The School of Athens

However for me nothing topped the satisfaction of finally seeing Michelangelo’s La Pieta in St Peter’s Basilica.  This has been one of my all time favourite pieces of art since I studied it at school.  It is spectacular.

Actually all of St Peter’s was amazing.  If I thought that the Sistine Chapel was small, I was blown away by the scale of St Peter’s.  It is huge, vast, and beautiful.

After a few hours I emerged, exhausted and sweaty, back into the bright sunshine of St Peter’s square on a hot Rome summer’s day.  I lingered for a while, walking around the perimeter and looking back towards the Basilica, marvelling at the riches and beauty I had seen.  What a day it had been, a highlight of my time in Rome.

Vatican Museums Rome

Vatican Museums Rome

Vatican Museums Rome

Vatican Museums Rome

Vatican Museums Rome

Vatican Museums Rome

The semi-private tour gave us access to areas closed to the rest of the public

Vatican Museums Rome

Vatican Museums Rome

Vatican Museums Rome

Beautiful bright ceilings, which could have been painted yesterday

Vatican Museums Rome

The statues on the roof are each at least twice the size of a person, which gives you some sense of scale

Vatican Museums Rome

Vatican Museums Rome

Vatican Museums Rome

You have to feel for the Swiss Guards, it was 36 degrees while they were dressed up in their finery

Vatican Museums Rome

St Peter’s Square

Switzerland the beautiful

Lucerne Switzerland

It was my first visit to Switzerland and while it might be a cliche, but it’s beautiful and I was completely bowled over by it.  The mountains, the lakes, the stunning green landscapes or the charming old towns.  It’s fresh, clean, picturesque at every turn.

Zurich

I only a few hours to explore Zurich. I was on my way to Geneva from Dubrovnik, with a few hours’ stopover in Zurich, so headed in to the city on the train to have a look around.

It’s a small city so easy to explore on foot.  It was a very grey and cool summer’s day, but I happily wandered the streets of the pretty Old Town.  I tested my very rusty school girl German, although my most used phrase was “Sprechen Sie Englisch?”, to which they mercifully almost always answered yes.

On a walking tour I explored the Niederdorf, a pedestrian shopping zone in the Old City.  I got lost in the maze of cobbled streets and laneways, filled with boutiques, bars and restaurants.  Wandering some more, I found the Grossmunster, a church built in the 16th century, then clmbed up the tower, all 187 steps, to admire the views over the city.  Across the bridge is the Fraumunster, a church famed for the stained glass windows by Marc Chagall.  Then only a few hundred metres away is the Bahnhofstrasse, a luxury shopping street.  I walked on to Lindenhof, a square with magnificent views over the Limmat river and over the Old Town.

There was just time for a late lunch, and I was in Switzerland after all, so I decided to visit the Raclette Factory to try out one of Switzerland’s most famous dishes.  Mashed potatoes with melted cheese.  Odd but tasty!

Zurich Switzerland

Views over the Limmat, Zurich

Zurich Switzerland

Zurich Switzerland

The Old Town, Zurich

Zurich Switzerland

Views from the Grossmunster, on the Karisturm tower

Zurich Switzerland

Zurich Switzerland

Geneva

I arrived on a dreary wet evening after a day of sight seeing in Zurich and was grateful for a quiet night and a luxurious hotel room at the gorgeous Hotel Rotary.  Saturday morning I was up and ready to discover a new city.   This time I was relying on my school girl French, which thankfully is much better than my German!

It was a glorious day for exploring, but the city was strangely deserted, virtually shut down in preparation for the fireworks festival that evening.  I wandered through the Old Town, climbed another church tower, and enjoyed the beautiful views over Lake Geneva.

My favourite spot though was undoubtedly the gorgeous lush green Parc de Bastions, just below the Old Town.  It includes a number of monuments, giant chess sets, a botanic garden, and elegant tree lined avenues.  It also has the famous Reformation Wall, depicting famous personalities of the Reformation.

Geneva Switzerland

Geneva’s Parc Des Bastions

Geneva Switzerland

The Reformation Wall in the Parc Des Bastions

Geneva Switzerland

Parc Des Bastions, the Reformation Wall

Geneva Switzerland

Old Town, Geneva

Geneva Switzerland

Views over the city from Saint Peters Cathedral

Geneva Switzerland

Saint Peters Cathedral

Geneva Switzerland

Beautiful Lake Geneva

Geneva Switzerland

A beautiful summer’s day, Lake Geneva

Lucerne

After finishing the Tour Du Mont Blanc  I had a couple of days up my sleeve so I headed back to Switzerland, to Lucerne.  I may not have seen much in Switzerland, but Lucerne was easily my favourite.  A small city of just over 80,000 people, set on the shores of the scenic Lake Lucerne, it was the perfect place for some quiet time after the rigours of the TMB.

I stayed at the Art Deco Hotel Montana a short walk out of town, set high on the hill above the lake.  I really loved this hotel, which its huge sweeping over the lake and across to the mountains.  It might have been tempting to stay on the balcony, or park myself at the bar and just admire the view, but I managed to drag myself away and explore the city.

Lucerne Switzerland

Views from my balcony over Lake Lucerne

Lucerne is filled with churches and historic houses, some with beautiful painted frescoes, surrounded by the beautiful lake.  Walking through the old town, a highlight is the stunning Kapellbrucke, or Chapel Bridge, a covered wooden bridge built in the 14th century and then adorned with painted panels in the 17th century.

One of the most fascinating things was the Museggmauer, a city wall with a series of nine towers which formed the old city’s fortifications.  Four of the towers are still open to the public and well worth exploring.

Possibly Switzerland’s most famous attractions is the Lion Monument, a statue of a dying lion carved out of rock.  It commemorates the bravery of the Swiss Guards, who in 1792 died while attempting to protect the Tuileries Palace in Paris during the French Revolution.  Surprisingly poignant, it is described by Mark Twain as “the saddest and most moving piece of rock in the world”.

 

Lucerne Switzerland

Lucerne Switzerland

Lucerne Switzerland

Painted panel in the Kapellbrucke

Lucerne Switzerland

Views over Lucerne

Lucerne Switzerland

Lucerne

Lucerne Switzerland

The Musegg Wall

Lucerne Switzerland

The Musegg Wall, Lucerne

Lucerne Switzerland

The Lion Monument

Lucerne Switzerland

Exploring Lake Lucerne

Lucerne Switzerland

Along the shores of Lake Lucerne

Lucerne Switzerland

Along the shores of Lake Lucerne

Lucerne Switzerland

Lake Lucerne

The star turn is of course the lake itself.  I couldn’t leave without enjoying a cruise on Lake Lucerne.  What a beautiful, peaceful place.  If there’d been more time I would have explored the hiking trails up to the mountains, or visited some of the churches or small villages dotted around the shoreline at intermittent intervals. As always, time eluded me.

Lucerne Switzerland

Boat trip on Lake Lucerne

Lucerne Switzerland

Boat trip on Lake Lucerne

Lucerne Switzerland

Looking back to the city of Lucerne.  You can see my hotel, the Hotel Montana on the top left.

Lucerne Switzerland

Lucerne

Lucerne Switzerland

Exploring Lake Lucerne

Lucerne Switzerland

Lake Lucerne

It may have been my first visit to Switzerland, but it won’t be my last.  With so much more to discover, it’s a small country that is well and truly punching above its weight.

Hiking the Tour du Mont Blanc

Tour du Mont Blanc

Hiking the Tour du Mont Blanc will stay in my memory as one of the highlights of my life.  Starting in Chamonix, France, we walked to Switerland, then Italy before finishing back in Chamonix.  The scenery was amazing, at times breathtaking, and we were fortunate to have a dream run of beautiful summer weather.  The physical challenge of a 170 km walk and ascending over 13,000 metres (more than Mt Everest!), was immensely rewarding. What an unforgettable journey.

Meet the team

Arriving in Chamonix on a Saturday afternoon in mid-August I was eager to explore the pretty mountain town.  Officially called Chamonix – Mont Blanc, this was to be our start point for the two week hike ahead of us.  Set at the base of Mont Blanc, the highest peak in Europe at 4,800 metres.  It was thrilling to look up a the snow-capped summit and the massif towering above us and imagine what was ahead of us.

Arriving on Saturday afternoon and with a few free hours before our initial briefing, we wandered around the town, soaking up the atmosphere.  Summer flowers were blooming in hanging baskets and the river Arve was rushing and gurgling through the town.  It was exceptionally pretty.

Tour du Mont Blanc

In Chamonix

At 6.00pm our group nervously gathered in the foyer of the hotel for our first meeting and to get details about the adventure ahead of us.  There were 14 of us in total: 4x Brits, 4x Americans, 2x Scots, 2x Australians and 2 NZers living in Australia; plus our English guide.  We were an eclectic bunch but soon bonded with our common love of hiking and the outdoors.

Day 1:  Up to Lac Blanc where I discover I have failed to prepare….again

Our morning routine soon became very familiar.  We prepared our lunches of baguettes with a wide choice of local cheeses, ham, cold meat and salad ingredients.  Then we were off to breakfast.  Croissant, eggs, bread, ham and meat, cheese, cereal, yogurt, tea and coffee or juice.  Everyday it was pretty much the same.  Pack our day packs, pack our luggage and take it downstairs ready for the pick up and transfer.

We were ready for our first day of walking, up to Lac Blanc.

As faithful regular readers will know, I have a history of booking trips and not necessarily reading the detailed trip notes and adequately preparing.  There was the biking holiday in Cuba which on one day alone had a 60km cycle ride. I had failed to do any training whatsoever, and hadn’t even ridden a bike for two years.  Then the time I went to Peru for the Lares Trek and was shocked to discover that our hardest day had a 1000 metre ascent at altitude, seeing us climb to 4,800 metres.  Or the challenging Larapinta trail which was much harder than I anticipated…..

This time however I felt ready.  I had even read the trip notes!  I was comfortable with the distances, on average about 15 km per day, and I’d noted the metres ascended and descended.

But……but…..but…..it turns out I had been in denial and was once again hopelessly unprepared.  Somewhat naively I had visions of rolling foothills at the base of the Alps and assumed that the metres ascended were accumulative for the day.  The first day came as a rude shock to discover that there was an ascent of around 500 metres non-stop up a mountain….then a 1000 metre descent down the mountain.  A total of around 8 1/2 hours walking!  There was no gentle rolling countryside at all!

So day one turned out to be a walk through the outskirts of Chamonix.  We took a cable car to the start of the trek before hiking up to Lac Blanc where we had a picnic lunch.  The downwards trek included a steep descent on rocky paths, navigating ladders, before getting a train back to Chamonix and collapsing in a tired sweaty heap.  The views were absolutely stunning, but all I could think was, surely tomorrow wouldn’t be as hard?

Tour du Mont Blanc

Walking near Chamonix

Tour du Mont Blanc

Tour du Mont Blanc

Descending the ladders

Tour du Mont Blanc

Stopping to admire the views – a hazard on the walk!

 

Tour du Mont Blanc

Tour du Mont Blanc

Tour du Mont BlancTour du Mont Blanc

Tour du Mont Blanc

The gorgeous Lac Blanc, a popular day walk from Chamonix. Mt Blanc towers above us.

Tour du Mont Blanc

Day 2: The hardest day, and a frosty welcome to Switzerland

My legs were already burning from the efforts up to Lac Blanc so it was a rude shock to discover that day 1 was really just a warm up.  Today’s climb was more than double the previous day’s ascent as we walked into Switzerland via the Col de Balme.

It was a steep climb that just went up and up.  Would it ever end? It seemed like it would go for hours.  Maybe I would have to set up camp along the way.  But then finally we were at the top, and we were in Switzerland!  It felt amazing, admiring the gorgeous views over France in one direction and Switerland in the other.

However the Refuge at the Col de Balme was…..well interesting to say the least.  There are lots of refuges along the way, the purpose of them is to offer travels accommodation, food, and necessary sustenance for a modest (or not so modest) cost.  The clue is really in the name! However the elderly couple that ran this particular refuge didn’t have one hospitable bone in their body.  They refused to serve some of our group for no reason whatsoever, while others walked out in protest refusing to spend their money with the old couple.  Yet others of us were able to order a bottle of water without incident, it was seemingly random.  We amused ourselves that evening at dinner reading reviews of this particular refuge:

Known to locals as the “dragon lady refuge” due to the charming disposition of the proprietress, it is worth a visit just to see how much wrath you can incur.

And my favourite: Flee this inhospitable refuge run by an old hag as pleasant as a prison door.

After such a frosty welcome it wasn’t hard to leave the refuge on get back on the trail.  From here there was a steep descent into the village of Trient.  A few hours later and we were a sorry bunch – exhausted, blistered, and doubting whether we would survive the rest of the trek.  As we neared the end of our day we gratefully looked down at the village glad to be near the end.   However we had a nasty surprise ahead though, as we discovered there was a sting in the tail. Our destination and accommodation for the evening, Forclaz, was another particularly steep climb for the last 45 minutes or so.

We had ascended 1190 metres, and walked 1060 metres down and were weary .  We were all relieved when Ian, our guide, told us that we had an easy two days ahead.

Although my thighs were burning and I was physically exhausted, the spectacular views were exhilarating. I was elated to be hiking in the mountains again.

Tour du Mont Blanc

Tour du Mont Blanc

Tour du Mont Blanc

Taking corny tourist shots – but views were too good!

Tour du Mont Blanc

Tour du Mont Blanc

At the border – welcome to Switzerland

Tour du Mont Blanc

Day 3 – The Bovine route

So my version of easy and Ian’s version of easy turned out to be a little different.  But even with lots of ups and downs, it turned out to be a much less challenging day than the previous one.

It was exceptionally pretty. We were walking in lush green hills, surrounded by cows and the constant musical clanging of the cow bells.  I discovered that some of the cows were prized fighting cows – something I had never even heard of!  We also stopped off at particularly cute refuge with freshly baked cakes and tarts.  After the previous day’s frosty welcome at Col de Balme it was a welome change to see some smiling, friendly faces.

We finished at the beautiful village of Champex Lac.  We stayed at the Hotel Splendide, which lived up to its name!  Sitting at the top of the valley with spectacular views, and only a short walk to the charming alpine lake, it was exceptionally pretty.

Tour du Mont Blanc

Tour du Mont Blanc

Tour du Mont Blanc

Tour du Mont Blanc

Fighting cow!

Tour du Mont Blanc

A welcoming refuge – as it should be!

Tour du Mont Blanc

A warm welcome at this refuge, a nice change from the previous day!

Tour du Mont Blanc

Tour du Mont Blanc

Tour du Mont Blanc

The pretty alpine town of Champex Lac

Day 4 – Finally it’s easy!

Maybe we were getting fitter and our legs were adjusting to the walking, but it was actually finally easy!  The countryside was gorgeous, with gentle rolling foothills and beautiful lush green meadows. The clang of cowbells our constant backdrop.  We walked through pretty, alpine farming villages and watched out for wild flowers.  It was a beautiful summer’s day, perfect for a hike.  And the views!  Hard not to feel on top of the world.  We finished at La Fouly after a relatively short day, ready for another big day.

 

Tour du Mont Blanc

Champex Lac, early morning

Tour du Mont Blanc

Wood carvings around Champex Lac

Tour du Mont Blanc

Tour du Mont Blanc

Gorgeous little alpine village

Tour du Mont Blanc

Tour du Mont Blanc

Day 5 – Grand Col Ferret and bienvenuto to Italy

I am a slow learner, but day 5 of walking and it finally dawns on me that “Col” means big climb ahead.  I have learned rather belatedly that Col means a mountain pass.  So “Grand Col Ferret” means a really big hill.  This particular one is the highest pass of the walk so the views are completely stunning.  However what goes up must come down, and we descend into a beautiful valley.  We have also arrived in Italy.

Our destination, and where we are based for the next few days is the pretty little village of La Palud.  It sits on the outskirts of Cormayeur,  a gorgeous ski town in the Italian Alps.  La Palud is a picture perfect village with cute houses and a respectable collection of bars and restaurants, all underneath the towering mountains.  This may well have been my favourite place ever.

 

Tour du Mont Blanc

Briefing at the start of the day

Tour du Mont Blanc

Tour du Mont Blanc
Tour du Mont Blanc
Tour du Mont Blanc

Tour du Mont Blanc

Tour du Mont Blanc

Welcome to Italy!

Tour du Mont Blanc

Tour du Mont Blanc

A day off – so up to Mont Blanc

After five days with lots of walking we had a well earned rest day.  One of the options was to take a cable car to Helbrunner then over the glacier to Aiguille de Midi in France, just a stone’s throw from the summit of Mt Blanc.  In fact if you choose you could then take another gondola back down to Chamonix.

It was another stunning summer’s day, so a small group of us decided to head up.  It felt like we were so close, but in actuality it was quite a long stone’s throw – we were at 3,800 metres and the top of Mt Blanc is at 4,800 metres.  On such a beautiful day it seemed so achievable to make it to the top.  There were a number of mountaineers who must’ve camped at the base and were ready to make the ascent up the summit. They looked so close, I could almost imagine making it to top myself!

After a few hours enjoying the views, and simply being in awe of the majesty of the mountains, I headed back down and made my way to Cormayeur.  I then spent quite a bit of time walking around this cute little village.

Later on for dinner a few of us headed to Dandelion, a local restaurant specialising in fresh local produce.  It was spectacularly good!  The night we were there they were showcasing local fresh mushroom and truffles.  Paired with local wine specialtiees, what’s not to like?  So yummy!

Tour du Mont Blanc
Tour du Mont Blanc

The pretty village of Cormayeur

Tour du Mont Blanc

Mountaineers on their way to Mont Blanc

Tour du Mont Blanc

Maybe one day I could climb it?!

Tour du Mont Blanc

Tour du Mont Blanc

Tour du Mont Blanc

Mont Blanc looks so close!

Tour du Mont Blanc

Tour du Mont Blanc

On the Cable Car to Helbronner

Day 6 – Views and more views!

After the rest day we felt refreshed and ready to go.  We started with a short van trip where we were dropped off back at the Tour du Mont Blanc trail. What a day for it, with spectacular views of glaciers after another decent uphill up to the refuge.  We stopped off at the Bonatti refuge, named for Walter Bonatti, the Italian mountaineer and explorer.  The refuge is famous for its hot chocolates so thick and rich you could almost stand a spoon in it.

We then followed a gorgeous contouring path around Mont de la Saxe, back to Cormayeur.   The views were exceptional: glaciers, the southern end of the Mont Blanc massif and the Grandes Jorasses.  It really is breathtaking. But then it was back downhill, where we walked in to Cormayeur.  It wasn’t such a long day, so we had time for a gelato before taking the bus back to the cute village of La Palud.

Tour du Mont Blanc

 

Tour du Mont Blanc

Tour du Mont Blanc

Tour du Mont Blanc

Tour du Mont Blanc

A short stop at the Bonatti refuge for hot chocolate

Tour du Mont Blanc

Tour du Mont Blanc

Tour du Mont Blanc

Tour du Mont Blanc

Tour du Mont Blanc

Views down to the valley

Tour du Mont Blanc

Day 7 – A very long day, we walk back to France

Today was surprisingly hard.  We walked back to France.  This sounds much more impressive than it actually is! It was a very long hard slog to the top of the Col de la Seigne, and very steep.  It was a sunny day, but very cold, as there was a sharp wind coming straight off the glaciers. As always though, the views were breathtaking, which makes up for an awful lot.

We stopped for coffee and hot chocolate at the Elisabetta refuge and had a peek at the dormitories.  This was eye opening!  The dorms had people packed in like sardines.  Clearly Ian was preparing us for our evening accommodation, as he had pre-warned us that the small village where we were staying had very limited facilities.  I am quite sure that he wanted us to see that things could be much, much worse!

It was a long day of walking, but we finally arrived at Las Chapieux, a tiny village only inhabited during summer and with an interesting history.  Because of its position on the border it played a vital role in the resistance in the second world war.  I was right about the simple accommodation though, it was very simple and tiny!  However after viewing what was on offer at the Elisabetta refuge there were no complaints from our crew.

Tour du Mont Blanc

Tour du Mont Blanc

Tour du Mont Blanc

Tour du Mont Blanc

At the start of the day….optimistic it would warm up!

Tour du Mont Blanc

Tour du Mont Blanc

Tour du Mont Blanc

The wet weather gear finally gets a showing – I used it as a wind break to keep warm.

Day 8 – Two Cols in one day… and I lock a cyclist in a toilet

By now my legs had kicked in (finally!) and I was ready for the challenge.  Today was the Two Col day, we had two big ascents ahead of us.  First the Col de la Croix de BonHomme and then the Col de Bonhomme.

At first it really did feel very hard.  We climbed up what seemed a never-ending hill, up a stony, slippery path that at times completely disappeared.  We scrambled up rocky creeks, puffing and panting, with our eyes on a summit that never seemed to get any closer. But reaching the top felt fantastic, and enjoying a freshly made piece of pie and a coffee at the top was extremely satisfying.

After all the climbing up we had a steep descent on an old Roman road to Les Contamines.  It was a gorgeous day and we had made good time, so we stopped off at a refuge and enjoyed the afternoon sunshine.

I had been practising my French, but it’s not that great, so when I asked where the bathroom was and was directed to a shed outside, I wasn’t one hundred percent confident.  When I tried the door nothing happened.  I knocked, however there was no response.  The key was on the outside, so I turned it, but still no luck.   So I finally decided that I had misunderstood and decided just to enjoy the sunshine and some tea, and try again later.

It was about 15 minutes later when someone else in our group who was sitting a little closer to the shed heard some shouts.  He went to investigate and discovered that a cyclist had been locked in the toilet. Oops! I kept very quiet, however there was much hilarity amongst our group that evening at dinner when the full story was revealed.

Tour du Mont Blanc

Lush green rolling hills

Tour du Mont Blanc

We stopped off at a little church near Les Contamines

Tour du Mont Blanc

Near Les Contamines

Tour du Mont Blanc

Tour du Mont Blanc

Tour du Mont Blanc

Tour du Mont Blanc

Tour du Mont Blanc

 

Tour du Mont Blanc

Another rest day – I have a very lazy day

We had another scheduled rest day, this time we were in the French village of St Gervais de Bains.  My fellow hikers headed off on excursions up mountains by cog railway, or went swimming, or other hiking activities.  On the other hand, I decided to have a real rest day.  I went to a cafe for an hour or so, wandered around the town and then went out to lunch.  I still think that I had the best day!

St Gervais de Bains is another very pretty town.  I had been to the information centre and found a map of old Roman ruins.  I took myself on a tour of the town and hunted old ruins from my would be treasure map.  Then I rewarded myself with a delicious lunch at BistrotSerac in the town square, before enjoying a massage at a place across the road from the hotel.  It was a great way to enjoy some down time.

Tour du Mont Blanc

Tour du Mont Blanc

Tour du Mont Blanc

Tour du Mont Blanc

Tour du Mont Blanc

Tour du Mont Blanc

Views from Saint Gervais de Bains

Tour du Mont Blanc

Tour du Mont Blanc

Tour du Mont Blanc

Tour du Mont Blanc

Day 9 – Col de Tricot and a day of drama

We were nearing the end of the hike but there were still a couple of big days ahead of us.  First up was a steep trail up to the Col de Tricot.  There’s no other way to say this – the Col de Tricot was bloody hard.  It was a warm day, and the final hour was a long, hard, hot slog up a very big hill.  What an amazing feeling when we reached the top.  It had been a 1200m ascent, and I think that we were all feeling pretty happy.

All of us perhaps except our guide, Ian. We were sitting at the top eating our baguette sandwiches, enjoying the view, when it became clear that Ian was in intense pain.  We were very worried about him.  Eventually it was decided that he shouldn’t walk any further.  A helicopter rescue was soon underway to take him to hospital.  We joined another group to walk down the hill, and headed downwards hoping that Ian would be okay, until we reached Les Houches, our destination for the evening.

Mark, the Exodus logistics manager based in Switzerland, came to meet us before dinner to give us an update.  Thankfully Ian was okay.  He had been diagnosed with a kidney stone.  However to our great surprise he was being discharged from the hospital and would be okay to guide us on our final day. So just one day to go!

Tour du Mont Blanc

We made it to Les Houches!

Tour du Mont Blanc

Tour du Mont Blanc

Tour du Mont Blanc

Tour du Mont Blanc

Feeling happy at the top

Tour du Mont Blanc

Tour du Mont Blanc

Looking up to the Col de Tricot

Tour du Mont Blanc

Tour du Mont Blanc

Tour du Mont Blanc

Stopping at a pretty refuge

An unexpected rest day and I am The Shining

We had an unexpected free day after the drama of the helicopter rescue from the previous day.  Ian was well enough to walk, although we would have to swap our days around, giving Ian some time to recover.

Ian may have been recovering from the kidney stone, however the next morning he received a shock of a different kind!  As per usual, I was starting the day with yoga. I usually did this in the hallways because the rooms were generally too small, and as it was so early in the morning it didn’t bother anyone.  The style that I practice involves a ujjayi breath, a deep breathing technique which can sound quite noisy (or “like the ocean”!).  I happened to be in one of the final poses, a headstand (or Shirshasana), and concentrating quite hard.  I dimly heard a door open, some footsteps heading towards me, then the words, “Bloody Hell!” just before the sensor lights come on.

Ian, had been discharged from hospital the previous evening and slept in the guide’s room, basically a converted cupboard, so was heading down the corridor to use the bathroom.  Groggy with painkillers, he had heard the noise from the breathing and seen a shape, and gotten quite a shock.  He told me he was reminded from a scene from The Shining!

The rest of the day was pretty relaxing.  We relocated to nearby Chamonix, checking back in to the Hotel Richemond where we had started our adventure.  I decided a long lunch was in order, so went to Atmosphere for lunch on the banks of the river in Chamonix.  It was absolutely superb.

Tour du Mont Blanc

Tour du Mont Blanc

Day 10 – the final push

While our last day was also our biggest uphill push, 6 hours of climbing, an ascent of 1,500 metres, it didn’t feel as challenging as some of our earlier days.  I think our legs were primed and ready at last!  The views were amongst the most breathtaking that we had seen.  We were surrounded by stunning snowcapped mountains, and of course Mont Blanc was towering above us.

It was a gorgeous day, with clear blue skies, and there were many parasailers floating gently above us.  They were so close we could wave to each other and comment on the views!  The day before, when we were supposed to be walking, it had rained a little in the afternoon.  Ian joked that he had arranged a perfect day for us at great personal sacrifice.

After a very long day of climing we finally reached the top of Le Brevent, 2,525 metres high.  The views were amazing, everywhere you looked.  It was a fantastic feeling to reach the final summit, having completed 10 days of the Tour du Mont Blanc.  We celebrated with some bubbles, and then started the steep walk down, to the cable car which returned us to Chamonix.

Tour du Mont Blanc

Tour du Mont Blanc

Tour du Mont Blanc

On the way up

Tour du Mont Blanc

Magnificent views

Tour du Mont Blanc

Parasailing with Mont Blanc

Tour du Mont Blanc

Happy at the top on the final day!

The farewell to Mont Blanc, and baguettes!

Circling Mont Blanc over these two weeks was one of the best hiking experiences I think I will ever have.  As well as enjoying majestic views surrounded by mountains and glaciers, we had walked in three countries and over numerous mountain passes. It was funny thinking back to the first evening.  We were 14 strangers sitting in a room looking around at each other and thinking anxiously of the days ahead. We started as strangers and finished as friends after two weeks of shared experiences, hills and hard upward slogs.

It was the adventure of a lifetime and I would do it all again in a heartbeat.  But I think it will be a while before I eat another ham and cheese baguette!

 

 

Tour du Mont Blanc

We made it!