Hors Categorie

If there’s one thing that does have enduring popularity in France it’s months of summer holidays frolicking around the republic, sampling local cheeses and drinking grapes. Some flock to thank the beaches, others wade nonchalantly within Monet waterways, while a large portion head to the hills wrapped in Decathlon. I bring my own Kmart chic to the mountains, but am happy to regularly indulge in the joie de vivre as much as the next Thomas, Ricard or Henri.

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alps01Just when you think you have pretty much seen the French Alps, another gorgeously picturesque valley road veers upwards, speckled with chalets and cyclists, leading to a modest resort town and an inevitable col de something or other once mentioned by Phil Liggett late at night. Saint-Francois-Longchamp is not only pleasingly French sounding but possesses all the jagged scenery and cowbell fields you could hope for. And plenty of those wooden chalets in which to stay avec famille.

There is a sameness to this landscape – it could be virtually any other high valley in the French Alps – but in no way whatsoever is that a bad thing. From the doorstep, footsteps can lead into sunny pastures surrounded by lofty peaks or, equally, the local piscine and boulangerie. All are recurrent, welcome sights.

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alps03As things tended to go, footsteps to the boulangerie were typical first thing, followed by a longer walk somewhere someplace prior to or incorporating lunch. Warm afternoons were generally more leisurely before fun, games, and dinner. Dinner obviously incorporated cheese in several forms… another sameness which is in no way whatsoever a bad thing.

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alps07Trips beyond Saint-Footlong-Champignons included the short climb up the hairpins to the Col de la Madeleine (HC). By voiture this was okay; an electric powered bike might have been doable; but pure pedal power seems like pure crazy. Especially from 1500 metres below in the valley of the Arc. I think if I even remotely made part of this climb without dying I would reward myself with trois boules of ice cream. But I didn’t, so just had the ‘two’ instead.

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Elsewhere, a couple of days of the week in Such-Fancy-Longpants were spiced up with a functioning chairlift. This dangled a steady stream of holidaymakers upward towards Lac Blanc and Lac Bleu. Not all the way up though…the final kilometre or so requiring a little zigzagging and pausing at opportune times for photo breaks.

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alps10The lakes were small placid affairs, ideal for observing the evolution of tadpoles to gourmet cuisine. Marmot whistles vied for attention with miniscule mosses and macrobugs, while the number of baguettes being simultaneously munched beside the water reached epic proportions around one. But then, you could see the appeal; they really were rather charming spots to eat and wile away a couple of hours up high.

Back down in town, summertime life continued with a chunder incident in the pool, horses on the loose, dog walking en masse, and people with shiny balls competing for the finest patch of gravel. The thud of Petanque was only eclipsed by the thud of the Beaufort on the table.

alps11Despite so much to enjoy it was perhaps the final morning where life in the Alps peaked. From the Col de la Madeleine once more, a cloudless sky provided the obligatory view of a glimmering, gargantuan Mont Blanc. It was a steady companion along a gravel track with views over valleys and peaks as far as the eye could see. I had probably been in some of those, and eaten some of their cheese before.

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Pausing at a boarded up wintertime ski spot, a few clouds had started to gather around the mighty massif as they almost always do. Air currents and convection and all that type of stuff; handy for obscuring prominent peaks and flying toy planes. A beacon and turning point, to head for home and leave that poor solitary walker to finally enjoy some peace and quiet!

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You don’t really think of France and burgers and beers, but lunchtime at La Banquise 2000 feasting on the aforementioned was a dream. It kind of seems wrong, but there’s something immensely satisfying about eating a slab of beef coated in melted local cheese and accompanied with the most amazing chips as scrawny people in Lycra huff and puff their way to a mountaintop.

My polka dot jersey would clearly need to be expandable to cater for these breaks, to adjust to the experience of summer holidays in the Alps and everything they entail. At least, from here, the only way is downhill, gravity assisted with extra vigour all the way back to the valley and towards Geneva.

 

Europe Food & Drink Green Bogey Photography Walking

Remain?

I was naturally curious to gauge the reaction of arriving in Europe on one of those British passports. A snide eye roll, a tutting sigh, a stale baguette in the face? But no, such was the tardiness of Easyjet that Geneva airport was practically closed (and, yes, I know, not in the EU). So with haste it was through the Swiss border and across into France.

France. Dawning on a beautiful late summer’s day on which some of its citizens were semi-productively shuffling off to work while those who worked in Switzerland – courtesy of a public holiday – were not. The French also had school, which by a happy coincidence meant a child free day to venture into the Alps with relieved parents Monsieur Alain et Veronique. And inevitably eat cheese.

La Clusaz was a suitable lunch venue, reached via a scenic ride up a valley and into the green pasture chalet-dotted world that is so typique. Quiet streets recovering from the summer holidays led down to a clutch of shops and restaurants. Being lunchtime, the shops were closed and the shop owners in the restaurants, one of which took us in for some lazy refuge. A beer, charcuterie, fondue, tarte aux myrtilles. All inescapably inevitable and delicious.

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I guess if we were keen, had bikes, several blood transfusions and some special Coke cans, we could have worked it off heading up to the Col de la Colombiere. But it was much easier to appreciate from car, rising up from Le Grand-Bornand through some of those chalet-dotted villages, alongside rustic farms and into a precipitous wilderness. Marmots whistled, cyclists huffed and puffed, and the only lump of cloud in the Alps stubbornly hovered and clung to the mountaintops above.

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Descending from here was every bit as if not more fun than the climb. While I’d appreciate the distinct lack of a need to pedal on a bike I’m pretty sure I would lack the bravery. The car itself had plenty of natural momentum to hurtle down the straights and sweep round the bends. Villages and dreamy views flew by. And then we were back into the valley. A big valley with towns sprawled out and “traffic furniture” in profusion. France was leaving school and work, and we had a pick-up of our own to get back for.

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Our school pick-up was without too many a problem. By contrast, another tardy Easyjet plane resulted in another late night pick-up from the airport, as the parents decided to join us for the weekend. Well, a long weekend, since the next day was Friday and the kiddies were still in school. Ahead was the prospect of another tantrum-free sojourn into the mountains, all being well.

fr04And what a lovely tour it was, revisiting some vaguely familiar territory but under glorious skies instead of disappointing murk. First stop was Carrefour, which was a little less lovely, but suitably stocked with bread and meats and cheese, staples that can be lumped together and taken up to the top of a hill in scenes reminiscent of a Peppa Pig episode in which they have a thoroughly middle class picnic.

The hill in question was situated in the Plaine Joux area, topped with wooden tables and lazing meadows, peppered with cows, and surrounded by mountains. If you didn’t want to idle in the sun, several trails could take you to the top of other hills, down into valleys, across farms, or simply round the corner to marvel at the vista in the other direction.

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Down there somewhere in the Vallee Verte, past the evocative Onnion, and wedged into the mountains sat the Lac de Vallon. Placidly reflective, partly in shade from the looming hills, blissfully quiet, it was a pause in the return home. A final beautiful moment before the weekend proper and the chance of greater mayhem. A mayhem that was admittedly delightful, barring one or two moments.

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fr12And so there were walks to parks and more picnics, bouncy castles, lego blocks, hearty lunches, tickle monsters, bustling markets, outdoor petanque, selfies, tired parents and doting grandparents. Oh, and a bit of a premature gateaux anniversaire for a certain someone. It was the final family flourish before saying, again, au revoir. Goodbye. Leave.

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Driving Europe Food & Drink Green Bogey Photography

Nuage magique

In further news not westcountry, here are some more pictures and jumbled words from a recent trip to the Geneva suburbs of France and the French bit of Switzerland. Family connections make such trips possible and while this can raise some minor irritations – think early starts, couch sleeps, tricky post-dinner cheese decisions – there are more positives than negatives. Like family fun at six in the morning, afternoon naps on a comfy couch when all is quiet, and fulfilling post-dinner cheese decisions.

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In addition there is the location, which provides access to two countries and cultures and some very hilly ground. I feel like I have at one explored much and touched only little over multiple visits. New settings emerge like the sun through the lake cloud, while old haunts linger, much like the lake cloud. Thus, in conclusion, the lake cloud is very variable and largely unpredictable in late autumn and sets the tone for the disposition of the day. Linger in cold dreariness or bask in pleasant, warm sunshine. Just be prepared to deal with it one way or another…

1. Disconnect sensory and logic-processing synapses

It looks like a pile of gloom. It sounds like a pile of gloom. It smells like a pile of gloom. It is not necessarily a pile of gloom, though it could be actually. Or maybe not. What is dark and leaden at the start of the 61 bus ride can be clear and airy at the end of it. Now, I know the 61 bus ride feels like an eternity for some, but not so long to make this transition conventional. You think there is no way under the (non-existent) sun that this pile of gloom will shift today, and it does. In the twinkle of a traffic light, your body which was in winter is now firmly in autumn and possibly just absorbing a residual hint of summer.

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Fr03Of course, this is marvellous given such abysmal expectations. You find yourself beside the lake in Geneva all sapphire and topaz crystal. Leaves are ablaze with afternoon sun. A walk up into the old town warms the body further, despite its narrow cobbled streets in the permanent shadow of expensive jewellery shops and even more expensive solicitors. The Saleve – which didn’t exist before – punctures the horizon from the Promenade de la Treille. Children play merrily, students philosophise lazily, lovers embrace amorously. Where is the gloom? None of this makes sense.

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2. Ascension

There is wisdom to be had in the words of Yazz and the Plastic Population. It may take many hairpins and navigation through the inside of a big damp cloud, but go up and you may just end up above the weather.

It was looking doubtful climbing up to a car park in the shadow of Les Voirons, a lumpy ridge rising to highs of 1400 metres. Only in the last few kinks of road did the mistiness glow bright and dissipate. Even then, occasional wisps of cloud hovered over the road surface, as if a smoke machine was spewing out its final puffs from a distant eighties dance-pop-funk performance.

In the clear air, churned up tracks through the forest conveyed a sense of truffle hunting, rabid dogs, and people with shotguns. After piddling about along these tracks for a little while, the only way was to ascend, bay-ay-beee. Up through millions of discarded leaves, into a clearing and views of the sea; a brilliant white sea lapping at the shores of craggy peaks and ice-capped spires. The very top of the Saleve a small desert island floating in this blinding ocean.

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Fr06There was something very satisfying about being above the cloud, in brilliant blue skies, knowing that it was well miserable down there. As if you had stuck two fingers up to the weather and, for once, outsmarted it. Haha, yes weather, you are no match for altitude, mwahahahaaa! All your stupid cloud is doing is reflecting the sun and making me incredibly warm, so that I can cope in a T-shirt. And in making the valleys disappear, you accentuate the purity of the view, the drama and scale of the stunning panorama of the Mont Blanc massif. Yeah, screw you, cloud.

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3. Just eat

Sunday lunches are often best when they are lingering affairs, embellished with hearty food and infused with wine. They are the perfect antidote to grey skies and uninspiring temperatures, a strip of crispy crackling in a pile of over-boiled cabbage. Perhaps in the case of this particularly Sunday lunch it was the heat from the Raclette-melting contraption (it probably has a local name, like raclettesiennierre-de-montagne-lardonass) that generated just enough upward convection to part the clouds towards the end of the day.

Fr09Cue some reluctant shifting of our own lardonasses for a welcome amble in the nearby Swiss section of countryside. Golden light casts a serene glow on everything and everyone. A crispness in the air is refreshing and helps to dilute the strong odours of cheese. The cloud has gone again, and – in such endless skies reaching to the stars – it is hard to believe that it will so easily return.

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4. Try a different country

Okay, so perhaps Switzerland has all of the sunshine, what with millions of fancy penknives slashing at the cloud and all. So, with a free day out to use up courtesy of my rail pass I was able to penetrate deeper into the country and seek out its sunnier spots.

Fr11First, with cloud embedded deep into the valleys, I had to escape up once more. From the town of Vevey, a gleaming commuter train elegantly curves its way past chalets and chateaus to the suburb of Blonay. Here, a change of train (waiting on the other platform, naturally) shifts into a steeper grade through forest and occasional hamlets to Les Pleiades. Nothing much is at this terminus, apart from open meadows, scientific contraptions, and labourers preparing for the winter. But it is a spot well above the cloud, which sits snugly in its lake-filled indent, a luminescent glacier of cotton wool.

Numerous jet trails pierce the clear blue sky and it is warm again. This is the sunny side of Switzerland, all rolling green meadows and dotted villages. Happy to linger, I gradually stroll down, passing a small fromagerie and a couple of holiday chalets a louer. A barn sits empty, the cows having descended for the winter, the sound of their bells occasionally echoing up the valley. I move down too, only from what seems an alpine summer and back to a winter by the lake.

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My original plan was to hop on a boat cruise from Vevey, a sedate and civilised way to soak up the charm of the Riviera towns and the drama of the rising mountains. While some hazy breaks hinted at a clearing it was still predominantly grey; not quite the scene I had pictured in which I lazed contentedly on a wooden deck, the lowering sun illuminating the surrounding mountains. So instead – with free travel at my fingertips – I jumped on a train for twenty minutes to Aigle.

One of the problems with free travel and chronic indecision is deciding what to do with the free travel that you have decided to buy. At Aigle, two tempting options wait and time, really, for only one. Platform 13 and a train to Les Diablerets, Platform 14 Leysin. Both equipped to move upwards and no doubt deliver another hearty dose of gorgeous Swissness. One leaving in four minutes, the other in six…time barely sufficient for decision-making.

Jumping on the first to depart (Les Diablerets), the carriages immediately turned into a tram and clunked through the streets of the town. I caught a glimpse of the chateau on Aigle’s edge, and promptly jumped off at the first stop. There would be no time to visit that as well as Les Diablerets, so I crossed a road and caught the following train to Leysin.

Fr14With the sun now out in Aigle there was less imperative to climb, but the train relentlessly lumbered upwards. Surprisingly there was deception in that valley sunshine, as it became clear once up high that a layer of haze hovered at around 800 metres. The sunny valley was no longer visible, despite it being sunny when down there. What kind of sorcery was this?

Leysin itself appeared to possess charm and utility, no doubt bustling in winter and thriving in summer. In early November things were a little devoid of life apart from clusters of students, neatly attired, mostly Asian, receiving an expensive Swiss education in a school with a view. A few joined me on the train back down, through that mysterious haze which was only visible from above.

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In time-honoured tradition I hopped off the train a couple of stops early, prior to it reaching Aigle level. I had noticed on the way up the glimmering terraces adorned with rows of vines, golden in the peculiar autumn sunshine. The chateau would be visible below, and there must be a walk down, because a carriage of younger schoolkids disembarked here on the way up.

Fr15I have no idea how all those schoolkids assembled on the platform, such as it was: two square paving slabs dangling over one of the walls cascading down in giant steps towards the valley. What looked like some kind of drainage channel passed steeply under the rail track; the only other person to disembark informing me that this was the road-cum-path. And despite this initial steepness, it was a glorious walk, mostly following the small chemins used to transport grapes and labour. Occasional houses adjoined the route, each proudly displaying the name of the vigneron and date of establishment. One or two tempted with open doorways, while outside a couple of workers toasted a hard day’s winemaking with a crisp glass of white.

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Fr17With the light lowering in the clear (???) sky, there was barely chance to visit Aigle’s picturesque chateau before it would be cast into shadow. While sunset time was a little way off, the narrowing of the valley and the proximity of gargantuan mountaintops meant that it would soon kiss this part of the world goodbye. Darkness would return, and with it, the infamous foggy shroud of dank.

5. Suck it up, cheese boy

There is only so much successful blue sky strategising that one can manage, and fortuitous decision-making will eventually turn sour. While I loved practically everything about an overnight stay up from Vevey in the village of Chexbres – king-sized bed, amazing shower, big screen TV with 832 channels in English, French, German, Italian, Spanish, Russian, Arabic, Cornish, Swisshornian – the balcony view was not one of them. Beyond vine terraces and tightly packed village roofs floating in the mist a sparkling blue lake had disappeared.

With a midday checkout I dawdled for as long as possible for things to clear but today was not going to happen. On top of the low cloud, some medium level cloud and then some high cloud, with a few spots of rain and little hope of sun. I faced a cloud lasagne with bits of Switzerland oozing through the layers. Suck it up, cheese boy.

Still, the setting – in the heart of the Lavaux wine region – was very pretty, just that more subdued than the previous afternoon in similar terrain around Aigle. Wine has been grown here for donkey’s years, probably with the use of donkeys on the steep-sided terraces, frisked by slavering monks gagging for their next tipple. Today, a few mechanical contraptions – steep narrow-gauge rail tracks like fairground rides, convoluted water sprinklers, grape conveyor belts – have evolved, but much must still be managed and picked by hand.

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A network of chemins provides gentle and mostly traffic-free walking across appellations, between villages, and – occasionally – directly through the rows of vines themselves. It’s such easy and serene walking that you can comfortably end up strolling all the way into Lausanne. I practically did in the hope that the sun would shine as the hour lengthened. And, towards the end, the milkiest hint of sunlight filtered through the cloud levels, briefly giving the impression of a vast lake below, and high mountains beyond.

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A large patch of blue sky greeted me as I arrived back into Geneva’s train station. It seemed – from my limited recent experience – uncharacteristic that Geneva would be clear while further up the lake it remained damp and grey. Little of the day remained to enjoy it, but the light illuminated the final 61 bus ride back to Annemasse. And it provided a salient reminder that there is only so much you can do to predict, manage, and deal with the infamous wintry shroud of Lake Geneva.

Europe Food & Drink Green Bogey Photography Society & Culture Walking

Ou est l’ete?

fra01Apparently, 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.

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fra03A 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.

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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.

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fra06The 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.

fra07There 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.

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fra10Safely 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.

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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.

Europe Food & Drink Green Bogey Walking

Plymouth – Bristol – Geneva – Perth – and so on…

For once, Devon did not farewell me with blue skies and fluffy white clouds and fluffier white sheep scattered on a carpet of rolling green. Darkness and wind and menacing cloudbursts accompanied the passage of dawn along the A38 and onto the M5. My final footsteps on English soil, for now, were along the sodden tarmac of Bristol airport, urging the cattle onto the plane and out of the rain and towards Geneva. In the tumult I dropped my passport – no, even scarier, passports – without knowing about it. Somewhere between aisle 2 and 3 I reckon, recovered by the air stewards and pronounced out loud. Call button pressed, gratitude expressed.

frawa01Geneva and its French environs were more bronze in grey lake cloud, a backdrop to stock up on cheese and cake and final family time. A bright and brisk Saturday morning was fine for some neutral ambling in the stylishly rustic Swiss countryside, dodging blade runners and cross country concrete skiers and tractors and little boys fleeing on scooters. Dinner was tartiflette, but then dinner usually is tartiflette!

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frawa03The Sunday was a lazy Sunday French style, involving hours of food grazing and gorging on cheese in various states, matching with wines from different parts of the country and conversation from different parts of the planet. From very young cousins to the more senior-oriented, a splendid afternoon and a fine way to say goodbye, even if such times make that even harder.

frawa05Not quite the end for me and my exploring however as my very last day in Europe involved spending a lot of time on a bus which should have been a train to propel me to the visual feasts of Annecy. Wandering the lanes and streets as a grey cold gradually lifted, soaking up a very different ambience, a very different backdrop to where I would soon be heading. From Rue des Chateaus to Quiche aux lardons et fromage, past outdoor stalls selling musty old sausages and caravans of unpasteurised cheese, alongside riverside paths lined with shuttered houses and glowing red leaves, this was the time to soak it all up.

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It was also the time to marvel in the landscape of this part of the world which is unlike any I would soon encounter. Escaping the town proved something of an uphill challenge but soon enough I entered the absolute golden delight of the Foret du Cret du Maure. Now sunny and warming up, strenuous work ensued in an effort to find an overview of Lac d’Annecy and not get lost. Thanks to my phone and maps I didn’t get lost, but apart from a few snatches through the trees, a lake view escaped me. Still, having really enjoyed the subtle, colourful transition from summer to winter over the past few months it was quite wonderful to end it in such a dense explosion of green and yellow and red and brown.

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frawa07Back down at lake level the water was much more visible and, now in the latter part of these shortening days, glowing in the clear afternoon air. This is not a landscape I will see for a while, the lake as clear as a coral sea, the mountains snow-capped white as a pristine beach. An aspect warmly regarded with coats and scarves and hats strolling along a genteel, contented promenade…

…the local time is 5:30pm and the temperature is 35 degrees. So said someone several many hours later in a different hemisphere and season. Welcome to Perth, where the international terminal currently leaves much to be desired. Still, it is Australia and I can be welcomed in with my Australian passport that so nearly went astray. There is a new government but, apart from being significantly warmer, much appears the same as I left it. Taxi drivers still wittle on aimlessly about the toll road or monarchy or carbon tax, everything is still ridiculously expensive, and Perth is still some urban lifestyle paradise masquerading as a city.

frawa09And so to the beach, or to several beaches, or stretches of one long beach over the course of the next two weeks. With a coffee or book or a huge plate of calamari, accompanying a stroll along the waterline, never far from the mind and just fifteen minutes from the body in a car. Goodness me, these Perthites are blessed with their ocean frontage. What is great about it mind is that it is rarely built up; no graffitied Gold Coast hotels casting morning shadows, no regimented wooden loungers and parasols for hire and cheap fake watches for sale, and plenty of space for dunes and parkland between the sea and the expensive show off homes.

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frawa12With baking days and arid winds it seems I have missed Spring completely. There is little sign of the much heralded wildflowers of WA on sight around the city’s parks and reserves; even Kings Park, which remains a delight whatever time of day and year, seems fairly subdued as it accepts its fate of another hot, dry summer. However, there are remnants of suburban Jacaranda lining the streets; having spent springs past in Canberra I had totally forgotten about Jacaranda, and how its elegant green leaves burst into purple flower, transforming quiet streets into a flurry of colour and giving them the smell of a new age essential oils and pointless candles shop.

Not every day has involved lolloping on the beach or sniffing trees, as I gradually reorient myself with the more mundane Australia – from work interludes to soulless shopping malls, from slower internet speeds to expensive, but lush, mangoes. A sign that I have been away a long time is in currency, where I say to myself…oh gosh…that Heston Blumenthal Christmas Pudding is twenty-five quid…blimey…oh wait twenty five dollars, that makes it, well, still quite expensive, but, you know, when shopping for essentials for a trip back across Australia you need a Heston Blumenthal Christmas Pudding with you, along with Marmite, Hellman’s Mayonnaise and Heinz English Recipe Baked Beans. Adjusted much?

frawa13And yes indeed part of my time has involved planning the next steps of this journey through life, at least the next few weeks or so. There is an excitement about returning east, tinged with melancholy of letting go of this isolated idyll of the west. Perth and I have become good friends this year and I feel like we will see each other again sometime in due course. And here I leave even better friends who introduced me to my good mate and nurtured and shared and entertained and sledged and made the whole Perth experience easy to fall in love with. So I prefer to think it’s not farewell old chap nor au revoir, but a very Australian see ya later.

frawa11

Australia Europe Green Bogey Photography Walking

Icefields

Despite being composed of perishing frozen particles there seems to be an inherent allure to the presence of snow and ice. I wonder if Eskimos feel the same way.

Maybe this romantic view is nourished in temperate climes, where snow falls are but an irregular memory of childhood. Something scarce is prized, and I can sombrely recall that when winter rain sweeps in to Plymouth, turning to snow pretty much everywhere but Plymouth, it delivers a fresh pile of disappointment. In Australia, no such disappointment because there really is no such expectation, with only the tiniest, highest pockets of land periodically subject to frozen weather. Still, at least they are generally reliable.

Away from Australia (and Plymouth) I have had the fortune to brace myself for arctic conditions, ghost through flurries of snow, and marvel at sweeping icefields, like a crow from atop a very big wall. Even just across the ditch, in New Zealand, one can appreciate the aesthetic value added by the white stuff, which has carved out its valleys and shaped its lofty mountain spires; peaks on which snow and ice still perches precariously and sweeps down graciously until it feeds into crystal clear rivers of melt water. Ninety-nine percent water and one percent fish, so it is said.

Such attractions are not without peril however, particularly if you decide to sled bungee flying fox BASE jump black raft off them. And because of their allure, they are incredibly popular, the two west coast glaciers – Fox and Franz Josef – a mandatory stop for coach tours, campervans and Apex International drivers everywhere. Indeed, in high season the walk to see the crumbly, dirty dust-coated moraine of Fox Glacier is an orderly procession of ages and nations. The old and overweight defy impending heart attack. Chinese and Japanese and Korean visitors dutifully file their way along for picture stops, wrapped up against the cold. British visitors do the same, basking in shorts. Youngsters scramble without fear over rocks and creeks, and Aussies stride nonchalantly along in thongs. Somehow here the grandeur and spectacle of the landscape becomes a little diminished.

Crowds bustle about just as much on a beautifully clear summer’s morning in Chamonix, France. Here, in an ever narrowing valley at the foot of Mont Blanc, glaciers creep down towards the pine forests bordering the town. The mechanic shrills of souvenir marmots cut through the Gallic hubbub, as people wait for lifts to take them to precipitous heights. Indeed, the Téléphérique de l’Aiguille du Midi takes them up some 2,807 metres in 20 minutes. It’s an alarming rise that leaves you a little breathless, literally and then metaphorically once you are confronted with the dazzling ice world around. Up here the crowds seem less intrusive, limited as they are through access, muted by an oxygen depleted sense of drunkenness, and made minuscule by the perspective of being near four kilometres above sea level; most of the Alps seem to be on view, stretching across three countries in a series of rocky turrets and icy hollows. A rare, and staggering, European wilderness.

 I_alps

Anyone would think I don’t like people given my desire to experience such places without being part of an inevitable tourist procession. Well, let me say that first I quite like some people and secondly I cherish the chance to share some of these places with them. In fact, some of the more memorable moments of life are the random conversations you have with random strangers in random places. Like waiting with like-minded photo seekers for cloud to never clear from mountain tops in the Cascade Mountains, or trying to translate the feverish sighting of marmots from Italian to French to English to a Japanese visitor heading down a mountain railway in Switzerland. It turns out most people are just like you and me, the common bond of the experience overshadowing any differences at that point in time. A smile is a smile in any language.

In fact I’m not immune to being part of a bigger tour group…sometimes it is nice to let someone else take control and just go with the flow, especially when having decisions to make equals indecisiveness. Plus longer tours over days and weeks provide a fascinating ethnographic experience [1]. At the start individuals unbeknown to one another mutter polite greetings and eye one another with caution. A few break the ice with time-honoured inquisitions of where do you come from and where have you been. Barriers break on the first good walk or, more likely, the first few beers. By the end of the night you are BFFs with Darlo from Wonthaggi and within a week you cannot imagine not being with this same group of people, getting on this same bus, stopping at viewpoints, eating meals and sharing a beer or two practically every day. Yeah, cliques may form and these may or may not include the rejection of people initially embraced as BFFs, but the group dynamic remains in a fluidly socially cohesive melting pot of fluctuating hormones and alcohol.

And this, my friends, is an encapsulation of a Contiki tour, albeit a description that is unlikely to be used by their marketing department. For those not in the know, a Contiki tour is a particularly popular way to see the world for 18-35 year olds, especially Australians who have 14 days to see every country in Europe [2]. With a core populace of 18-35 year old Australians there tends to be a significant emphasis on end-of-day drinking, but not without a range of energetic activities and processional sightseeing stops in the day. The relevance of a Contiki tour, and justification for my written meandering, is that I did one once. It was in Canada, with the blue and white bus traversing an incredible stretch of road called the Icefields Parkway. Finally, back on topic.

The Icefields Parkway links the Canadian Rocky Mountain towns of Jasper and Banff. I would love to go back since I cannot recall every instant and every stop, this before the days of blogging and digital photography. And I would love to have my own wheels and take my own time this time around. I seem to remember that along this road, around every corner, there is a panoramic view which you wouldn’t find out of place in a Rocky Mountains 2002 calendar. Bulky grey mountains laced with white rise up from all angles, as glaciers stream downwards, melting into rapids and falls and filling the most incredible blue green lakes. Huge swathes of fragrant pine forest fringe the lakes and valleys, a dark cover for elk and moose and bear.

It turns out the easiest way to spot a bear is to look for the cars and caravans parked beside the side of the road and the coaches slowing to a crawl. Once closer, a telltale sign is the sight of someone with a very big lens snooping around the undergrowth, fringed by other enthusiastic amateurs decorated with silver compact zoom cameras and, I guess now, iPads and iPhones and Surfaces and Robots. No-one seems to figure that the bear might just be interested in the hands and arms and torsos holding these devices, so long as you can get a good shot to post on your wall [3]. The other approach to spotting bears is to have a really nice picnic in a wicker basket and hang about in a national park with an uptight ranger. By contrast, moose spotting is much easier given they are generally roaming loose aboot hooses.

Apart from bears, other highlights of the Icefields Parkway are fluid, from the glaciers to waterfalls and rapids and lakes. During my trip, a ride on the Athabasca Glacier on some huge wheeled contraption afforded an opportunity to walk on ice and clear the head. The wonder of glacial till (or flour) culminates at Peyto Lake, with its incredible colour and picture postcard viewpoint. More subdued but serene is Lake Louise, with a fine grand hotel and gardens at one end, and wilderness beyond, with the seemingly impenetrable Lefroy Glacier a barrier to further exploration. And dotted along the road, at turn-ins and parking stops, are any number of rivers and falls and forests for bears to lurk within.

 Canadian Rockies

(Picture credits here go to my brother. I think I had an old film camera and do not have any pictures in electronic format)

The end of the spectacular Icefields Parkway trip came at Banff, another well-kept resort kind of town. Here, the Contiki tour pulled out all the stops, with a three night layover in some rather charming mountain style lodges. Of course these provided a good opportunity for house parties and sleepovers, but it was nice to wander a little down the street and run into random elk crossing the road. There were also some optional extras – probably sky diving and white water slaloming but I just went on the day trip to Calgary. My abiding memory of Calgary was the raised walkways linking buildings and malls so that people can avoid the metres of snow piled up below over the long winter months. You see snow may be alluring, but I guess it would be a real pain in the arse to live with for half of the year.

The Icefields Parkway was just one part of the trip in Western Canada but probably the most spectacular. I came to realise that Canada and Canadians were rather special and this endures today in friendships, a love of maple syrup and fondness for movies starring John Candy. I wish I could remember more about it, but time hazes memories and written records are scarce. I think back to Canada and it was the first time, apart from those snows that only seem to entrance childhood, that I witnessed the astounding impression that ice can make. It’s perhaps no wonder I have been drawn back, to the Alps of France and Switzerland and peaks and lakes of Slovenia, the High Sierras of California and Cascade Mountains of Washington, the upside down Alps of New Zealand and even the rounded Snowy Mountains of Australia. I am quite happy to enjoy the pleasures of a beach and the proximity of the coast, but what invigorates me, what takes my breath away, are mountains. Mountains that are even better served with ice.


[1] Excuse my sociologically geographical anthropological research terminology that I used once when I did some stuff like about something

[2] Today: breakfast in Paris with a coffee and chocolate stop in Belgium, before reaching Amsterdam for some lunch / clogs / drugs / rooting, and then onto Berlin to buy some wall and drink oversize tankards of frothy beer with serving wenches. Optional sky dive over Denmark.

[3] I’m entirely culpable of this, though I tend to favour pictures of cakes which are typically a lot safer.

Links

NZ glacier country: http://www.glaciercountry.co.nz/

New Zealand highs: http://neiliogb.blogspot.com.au/2013/02/on-high-ground-te-anau-to-franz-josef.html

Aiguille du Midi: http://www.chamonix.net/english/sightseeing/aiguille_du_midi.htm

Le Massif Massif: http://neiliogb.blogspot.com.au/2008/08/fromage-foray.html

Life is a Highway: http://www.contiki.com/

Entrancing on ice: http://www.icefieldsparkway.ca/

Smarter than average: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DPbLJnbRTF8

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Mountain Views

I love mountains! This may be because usually they offer a lookout or two and, frequently, a good, feisty walk or a spectacular trip on a masterful feat of railway engineering. Some are close to home, others far away. Green, red, white, blue; snow-capped, sun-baked, forested, bare; cut by water, ice and wind. Mountains just sit there and beg to be looked at!

Below are a few images from mountains and high points I have captured and cherished. Click on an image to open a slideshow view…

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