Apparently, Canberra experienced quite a few nights in a row below -5 degrees, plummeting to -8 on one occasion. In my last week prior to escaping to the northern hemisphere this felt bearable, safe in the knowledge that I would be heading into summer. Another comfort came from the days, which were utterly gorgeous, clear as crystal and with a hint of spring in the still, sunny, wattle seed air. Such an embarrassment of blue sky riches seemed excessive and, pottering around Red Hill for one last time before the trip, I yearned to bottle just a little of it to take with me.
There was plenty of blue sky above the clouds, I assume, on the longest Sunday ever. Commencing at 3am Sydney time it finished around 11pm Zurich time. This equates to 28 hours, and that’s just the part for which I was, alas for the large majority, awake. Still, it is a means to an end and Zurich was warm with thunderstorms gathering and had giant pretzels readily available for an evening snack.
From Zurich the next day I enjoyed the calm seamlessness of Swiss rail to transfer to Geneva. Heavy overnight rain had given way to cloud and drizzle, with a spot of blue sky emerging to engineer hope, followed by a windy squall to dampen it all. Little was different by the time I rocked up in Annecy, much to the dismay of the French bus station man who was unable to sit down on the wet benches and so instead decided to regale me with tales of the summer holiday travels of his entire lifetime in this area oblivious to the fact that I could barely understand what on earth he was babbling on about. Which part of je ne comprends pas do you not understand?
Things lifted as the last part of my journey took place in English in the comfort of a car and with brightening skies…south to Albertville and then up into the mountain valleys of Beaufort and, finally, after a disjointed 48 hours, Areches. If ever there was an archetype for Quaint Alpine Village Design Course 101 this was it: a central church from which ramshackle chalets radiated up and down the slopes; village life decorated with flowers and fountains, vegetable gardens, and hens wandering the streets; the boulangerie tucked away on the narrow main street alongside the delicatessen; and, should all be quiet, the sound of cowbells emanating from the green meadows around.
The view from our digs could embrace this all and, bathed in sunlight the next morning, my fears that the worrying weather of the Tour de France was a settled summer pattern dispelled like the morning clouds over Le Grand Mont.
A little walk nearby through forest and alongside a tumbling stream felt like it was going to be the first of many, the dappled sunlight a joy but doing little to dry out the oft muddy track. Sunshine was maintained through to lunch time and a picnic baguette in Le Planey avec les familles. A picnic baguette that was wonderful in the main due to the Beaufort within. These cheeses always seem to taste their very best consumed in their area of origin. Like the fish and chips by the sea effect.
Le Planey possesses one of the two summer chairlifts that are sporadically open in the area. Today it was ouvert (apart from a break for lunch, understandably) and propelling people up to around 1900 metres. Views of the mountains and valleys are easily on offer from here, although the very highest, Mont Blanc of course, was now penetrating into the slowly greying sky. It’s no Red Hill, but it sure is pretty.
It was not long after descending that the rain arrived; first a few spots nothing more than a minor irritant, then a steady downpour beating out a consistent rhythm on the trees and chalet roofs. On the plus side, it is good weather to hunker down in a cosy restaurant and eat dishes that involve one or more of the following: cheese, potatoes, cheese, bacon, cheese, onions, cheese, wine, cold cuts, cheese, and a splash more wine. And thus through the magic of sharing I was able to partake in the Savoie triumvirate of Fondue, Raclette, and Tartiflette all in the one sitting. Cue inevitable X-rated cheese shot.
The remaining few days involved plenty more rain and plenty more frustration at the ever-changing cloudscape that could be comfortably viewed from the living room window. There was also, of course, plenty more cheese, the making of which could be viewed in Beaufort, upon dashing from the marketplace to the co-operative in undoubtedly the heaviest deluge of the week. Drying off in the elevator, I swear cheesy aromas had been deliberately piped into it. Either that or a pair of smelly old socks had been inadvertently lost in the escape hatch.
There were further forays into nature to be had and – indeed – further bursts of occasional sun. A trip to the beautiful Lac de Saint-Guerin was a race against time before the sunny pocket was once more filled. Briefly, just briefly, it dazzled in sheer Alpine loveliness, that is turquoise water, bright green meadows dotted with flowers, dark green coniferous forest, and rising, rising, mountain peaks. Peaks from which brooding grey clouds return to deliver their annoying life-giving wateriness once more.
The other chairlift opened on the Thursday and I took that in the dry, walking quite steeply up to a spot called Tete de Cuvy. Nearing 2000 metres here, the table d’orientation promised 360 degree views with Mont Blanc as a centrepiece. But, you guessed it, little is on view when in clouds like this. In the effort-reward ratio stakes, it was a walk that veered a little too strongly into the effort column, so moan moan, grumble grumble.
I shall quit grumbling about the weather even though this is a genetic predisposition of Britishness for which you must please understand. Because, you know what, Areches was a lovely spot with some lovely moments. Yes it was chilly and quite probably colder than Canberra on descending the chairlift, but, at a lower altitude, the sun had poked through for a little while. It was peaceful and calm and glowing and pine-fresh fragrant and all those nice things that occasionally come together into a wholesome whole. I may have been clinging on for dear life on a cold steel coat hanger swaying down a mountain, but it was indeed well worth clinging on to. Hell yeah, I may even let one hand loose to take a picture as I descend, adrenaline junkie that I am.
Safely back in the valley, I was able to calm myself down with a coffee and cake, before the family rejoined and we set off on an afternoon amble in this Alpine idyll. Relatively clement conditions accompanied a meander though the Areches ‘suburbs’, zigzagging their way up the slopes in a series of hairpins, giving way to larger plots and bigger views and farmland pastures with cows. The cows, I hasten to add, were sat down, giving further credence to their weather forecasting expertise.
Their forecast was more a medium range one, for the late afternoon and evening cleared to the clearest it had been and I even wore sunglasses back to the village for a final Tartiflette*. The skies gave hope for one final morning before departure; I could picture gargantuan panoramas under deep blue skies, the white of the Mont Blanc massive shimmering into the air, a landscape of lakes and ridges and rocks and valleys. But the cows were right. Il pleut. Someone really has stolen the French summer. All one can hope is that the 2014 vintage leads to such green pasture to provide the most spectacular fromage yet.
* though I predict Angliflette avec Reblochon de Tesco could be on the cards.