Monday, 15 July 2013

Mount Blanc: spring flowers, cheeses and friends

A long weekend in Haute Savoie was energising with three contrasting days of walking culminating in one of the best walks I have ever done. 

I was with Les and Vera, staying in their flat in St Gervais, Haut Savooie, France. Friday was a cool cloudy day. We met up with local friends, Hubert who owns a book shop and art gallery in Sallanches, his brother in law who is a wiry long distance walker just returned from doing the Trans Europe walk to Santiago de Compostella.  and Angelika, a retired management consultant. We walked up though the forest to a refuge where we had a coffee break. We climbed up further  and could see the icy fingers of the glacier de Gowesance before having a long descent into a huge glaciated valley with a summer village on the valley floor. We then descended through the trees to the starting point. That evening we had supper with Hubert and his extended family. He lives in a chalet like home and I enjoyed the evening sun on Mt Blanc from his verandah.  The conversation was mainly in French but Angelika translated difficult bits for me.

On Saturday there was heavy, heavy rain and even the market stall- holders in Sallanches were dispirited.  I shopped for cheese, looking for my favourite local sheep cheese, which has a thick wrinkled white rind enclosing a strong cheese and a other local Beaufort type cheeses made with herbs.  We lunched in a cafĂ© and watched the opening stages of the Tour de France in Corsica where the sun was shining and the landscape was hot and dry – it felt climatically and geologically a long way from the Alps.  The rain cleared a little by the end of the afternoon and we went on another walk through forest by ski runs up to Col De Jeuillet Mist hung over the treetops so it felt an enclosed world. On our return we looked round an ancient hut and farm buildings from the forest dwellers long ago.

On Sunday we walked a circular walk. We started with a steep ascent up to a bowl carved out by glacier and water with steep sides and a refuge on the valley floor and clearly a popular weekend destination with campers.  It was north facing so it was cool and all in shades of grey. We then climbed up the side of the bowl so that we would come out on the south face. This was a steep climb and we went into the snow line. Then we came out onto a beautiful grassy south facing platform with a breathtaking view of the green valley with forest, Alpine habitation and Mount Blanc with few clouds drifting around it.  It was the most perfect place for a Sunday picnic of bread, cheese and French radishes. Angelika prepared these elegantly by scraping the red off the radish and for pudding we nibbled fresh cherries.  We then had a beautiful descent, first a long traverse across a scree slope, Here the rock was bare and one could see the ancient sediments piled up. We then walked across fields of summer flowers with alpine orchids, blue grasses, different gentians and yellow dandelions. We ended with a long walk through a forest with a cool darkness and streams. Skye, the dog even after 6 hours walking wanted sticks to be thrown for her.  I enjoyed the contrasts on the walk, the snow and rock on the shady north face and then the abundance of the summer flowers in the sunny sections.

Haut Savoie feels traditional and mountainous and I think about farmers living lives of transhumance moving up to their summer huts; I wonder how much that happens now? The buildings provide stroking contrasts. Many locals like Hubert and Angelika live in traditional chalets and these are still being built.  But the towns are dominated by modern blocks of flats built for the winter tourist influx of skiers.  The block where Les and Vera have their flat is a huge 1920 Art deco tyro building with an amazingly intricate glass porch. But it seemed sad that no modern chalets being built, iI would like to see modern chalets which could create interesting contrasts.

Geneva looked lovely in warm summer evening light and I reminisced about swimming in the lake.  My flight was delayed and I reached home well after midnight, it was a struggle to get up for work the next day.

Diana Lockwood
July 2013

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