The High Alps – Day 43

All I see is white. There is little hope for rescue. Karina has lost her toes to frostbite, and we ate the last of the dogs last night. It fell to me put the faithful trusting hound out of its misery, before sautéing it in a red wine and garlic sauce. The wind howls at us like a banshee day and night, and I find myself longing at each step for a crevasse to swallow me up like it took Sebastian, and put an end to this futility. Only the thought of once more seeing cricket on the village green keeps me going, along with my crystal meth. Tell Fanny to keep her chin up.

***

We had a coffee in one of the rubber-necking cafes on the pedestrianised avenue of Aix-en-Provence, or Exy in Provence as I named it when we got the bill, and contemplated our next move. We could head east along the Cote D’Azur through Cannes, San Tropez, Nice and Monaco to Genoa, or chance the van in the mountains and head north to Geneve. After staring at the road atlas until my eyes started moving in and out of focus, we decided we’d take the high road, as this would let us go through Switzerland then drop back down to the Italian lakes, and we had some friends in Geneve who we could get loco with, Swiss style.

Karina and I had been in Aix before, in a freezing yet romantic December, and though it was a beaut little town. Its warm yellow buildings hid a town of bars and boutiques, student hangouts and street markets, and blokes bickering over boules. Karina checked out the clothes and bought herself a pair of earrings, while I sprayed myself with a sampler bottle of aftershave that hung around me in a cloud of eye-watering musk for the rest of the afternoon.

We cooked up a lunch of our usual beans and rice while parked in the median strip, then decided to take our first motorway to the town of Gap, the theory being that it would be easier on the van than the backroads we’d been holding up traffic along, though the tolls can be quite hefty in France. We headed north into the Rhone Alps, part of the Alps that I’d not traveled through before, and followed up a wide bottomed ex-glacial valley (Im a geo, and I know a wide bottomed ex-glacial valley when I see one) with peaks of folded sandstone in an area of stark beauty. We passed the magnificent fort town of Sisteron, and I asked Karina weakly if we could get her Sisteron drugs, before reaching Gap, nestled in the palm of the surrounding mountain fingers. We stopped here for while, as both the car and my throat needed some lubrication, before we attempted the high road to Grenoble. The town had an artist thing going on in its mall which we browsed down, though none of them were Rembrandt, and I was happy to find no Gap in Gap.

The road to Grenoble quickly turned steep and windy, and the mountains we passed got bigger, though I should point out this was only in comparison to ones we’d encountered previously and that they didn’t visibly gain mass as a result of us transiting their base. After driving around a long cold-looking lake we started to pass a lot of Napoleon references in the street and place names, and inferred that the Emperor with the Napoleonic complex must have passed through here with his Grande Armee at some stage. Coming close to Grenoble, we worked our way higher and higher before going down an exceptionally long steep (12%) slope that I was grateful we weren’t driving up.

Grenoble is a big town, the queen of the Alps, with a big student population and progressive politics. We parked the night just next to the river near the old city, and wandered in that evening. For a Tuesday night it was packed, with veritable enchiridion of funky overpriced bars and haunts. Karina wondered whether they all had to work tomorrow or not. We had a drink in one then settled in to watch some free screenings of a short film festival that was happening in one of the squares. The French shorts were about half short films and half animations. I’ve seen a shedload of movies over the years and consider myself an open-minded film buff, but while the animations were excellent both in their ambition and realisation, the short films were some of the most dreadful self-indulgent tosh I’d seen from somebody given access to a camera: dull with nursery school level narratives. One about some sheila trying to fly a kite on the beach was particular waste of celluloid. Still, it was free…

The next day we continued through the Alps, from Gremoble to Megeve following a steep river canyon most of the way. We van made a couple of paff sounds, like a pissy backfire, so we pulled over and had some lunch while it cooled. It seemed to go away when we continued on to Chamonix. Karina and I have at various times contemplated buying an apartment in Chamonix or Tignes-Val D’Isere and wanted to check out how busy it is in the summer. Chamonix was absolutely chockers with punters, though how many to the week rental Im not so sure. We stayed in a campground in Chamonix-Sud, under the morning shadow of Mount Blanc and the Aguille Du Midi, capped with snow and looking magnificent. We decided to walk up to a waterfall that afternoon. After starting off on the wrong side of the river we had to ford a fast and icy stream then scramble up the steep slope before we could join the main trail. At the waterfall under the slopes of Mount Blanc, we thought about traversing across to the bottom of a nearby glacier, but it was getting dark and the arse-end of the glacier looked kind of dirty from a distance, so we hiked back down then rode out bikes back to the campsite.

The next day was hot, and the parasailers out early, spiraling down the valley trying to catch the thermals. We rode up the valley towards Argentiere. Le Brevant gondola was closed for construction and the Aguille du Midi costs too much, so we decided to take the bikes up La Flegere cable car and ride down. In hindsight this was slightly ambitious given the state of bikes. Mine was a street bike, not a mountain bike, and Karinas bike’s brakes weren’t working properly. The trail down was very steep and coved in loose rocks and gravel. Karina had a couple of small stacks, had we had to walk a few sections. After about a third of the way down we really weren’t enjoying it, so I decided to try one of the walking trails that seemed longer and more zig-zaggy, but less steep. The trail was rideable and encouraging for the first couple of hundred meters, but gradually deteriorated into a very narrow scrambly trail with steep rock sections. We ended up basically having to push, man-handle and carry the bikes down about another 1200m vertical which was very strenuous on a hot day. The first beer we had after coasting back into the centre hardly touched the sides. That night we went into a bar that had free wifi, and met a friendly Australian couple in a bar who invited us back to their apartment where they had a couple of bottles of plonk. We chatted into the wee small hours.

The next day a thunderstorm was brewing and we nursed the van and our hungover heads along the motorway to Geneve.

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