Kas didn’t go for a run on this morning. I’m sure she wanted to, but we’d got other plans, and those plans involved not still being at the apartment at lunchtime, so we got up pleasantly early and headed off out.
“So what are these plans?” I hear you say, “What? What?”
OK then, I’ll tell you.
Chamonix is very close to Italy and it’s also very close to Switzerland, which means it’s one of those very rare places in the world where you can easily find geocaches in three different countries in the same day.
We were out of the house at 9:30 am on this epic quest (OK, not that epic. “Little jaunt” is probably better). It promised to be an interesting day whatever. Interesting also for me to see how noticeable it actually is when you cross between any of those countries. As all of them are members of the Schengen Area then theoretically the border crossings should be barely noticeable.
The first place we stopped was just up the hill before the entrance to the Mont Blanc Tunnel. There’s a big parking area there which allows access to some walks up the side of the mountains and particularly over to the eastern edge of the Bossons Glacier, right across from where we’d been the previous morning. If you’re out geocaching, then obviously the side of a glacier is a great place to go hunting for earthcaches. There were two here and they allowed us to tick off finds in France straight away. You can’t beat a good glacier. Not unless you have a very big stick and possibly some crampons.
To get to the two earthcaches in question we had to make a fairly short looking (300m and 500m or so, according to the GPS) walk along what ought to be a good path. What I didn’t notice was that it was about 200m of climbing as well as 300m and 500m on the flat. It was a bit steep in places. And beyond the first one it was also narrow and a bit precipitous, and because it was “only a short walk” none of us were wearing our walking boots. It was quite pretty though.
You’ll have to excuse the poor quality of photos from this section. When I switched my camera on the first time it said “Memory card not found”, so I thought I’d left it stuck in the side of my PC the previous night. As a result, my photos were taken on my phone, which doesn’t work too well in challenging light.
Of course, when I got back to the car and went straight to the camera bag to extract and insert the spare memory card I keep there, I opened the card slot and noticed there was a card in there. Hmmm ! I’d forgotten that sometimes the camera lies when you switch it back on after having removed and replaced the card. I also noticed that I’d been using the wrong camera case for several months. The one I had with me contained Ami’s spare SD card and didn’t contain my spare battery. Oh well ! At least I can use the proper camera for the rest of the day.
So, back at the car and back at the epic road trip, the next stage was to get through the Mont Blanc Tunnel, the entrance to which was a whole 100m up the road from where we parked. In fact, the place we parked was up the road behind the French customs post and accessing it involved driving past a group of well armed members of Les Rozzers Français.
We had to queue for the tunnel, which I initially assumed might be something to do with security checks for vehicles entering the tunnel, what with the somewhat tense security situation in France, however it turned out that the delay was caused by the amount of time it was taking to fleece the driver of each vehicle. €43.50 ? You’re ‘avin a laugh, surely. But they weren’t.
The tunnel itself is 11.6km long (that’s 7.25 miles if you work in old money) and is pretty much straight once you get inside. It’s only two lanes, so there’s oncoming traffic in the other lane too. It’s remarkably dull to drive through and it gets quite difficult to concentrate after a while because it all looks the same. They helpfully give you guidance on how much separation to leave between vehicles and that helped me a bit as I could focus on how far in front of me the lorry was or wasn’t. The real reason for the delay at the entrance is that they regulate the rate at which vehicles enter the tunnel so that they can avoid there ever being a queue inside it.
When you get to the other side and start driving through Italy, there’s quite literally not much to see. The Autostrada down from the tunnel is mainly composed of other tunnels. Maybe that’s where a lot of the €43.50 goes – on building good roads that allow you to get to the tunnel. After all, a tunnel that bypasses a load of slow winding roads over mountain passes is not much use if you have to drive up a load of slow winding roads to get to it.
Back at an earlier theme, the border was not noticeable at all.
Time was marching on and we’d decided to head down to Aosta to get lunch. On the way into town we filled up with fuel. I had a bit, but not enough to finish off the day, and as we had mountain passes to cross I wasn’t comfortable having to think about how much fuel I’d got. So we stopped at one station on the way into town, but they didn’t take credit cards, so we moved to an Agip station a few hundred metres down the road. They did take credit cards, but they also wanted to serve me, which is a concept I now find totally alien. I just started doing the business and the attendant cottoned on, shrugged her shoulders and went into the kiosk to wait for me to come in and pay. Diesel proved to be the only thing that was more expensive in Italy than in France.
Aosta was a pleasant little town in the centre. Around the outsides, it had the typical arrangement of sprawling suburbs of big individual houses, and then a narrow (ish) band of modern looking apartment blocks. We ended up doing a couple of laps around this area as on the first circuit I was unable to jump my way across three lanes of traffic to get into the car park we wanted. It didn’t help that we didn’t realize it was there, so I wasn’t in the right lane. Second time around we were better prepared.
A couple of hundred metres from where we parked we walked into a pedestrianized street full of restaurants and souvenir shops. Lunchtime then. As it was Italy, we felt obliged to eat pasta or pizza. We stopped at pretty much the first place we found, and it was great. And as the waitress said when we were paying, “it’s not so expensive as France.” She followed that up with “you should come on holiday to Italy next year. The food is better and the mountains are just as good.” From where we were sitting, it was difficult to argue. The main problem for us though, was that none of us really speak any Italian. I guess that could be fixed over the course of a year, but we can get to that later.
After lunch it was time to get back to the grand plan, and to find my first ever geocaches in Italy. There was one a couple of hundred metres away from the restaurant, so I went to grab that while the girls were grabbing an ice cream. We then walked a few hundred metres along the main street to where the Roman settlement of Augusta Prætoria Salassorum is. We did a couple more caches, but we didn’t pay the entrance fee for the Roman site because we were, after all, on a bit of a schedule and it was already about 2 pm in the afternoon, and we still had to get into and then out of Switzerland. We did pay a quick visit into the cathedral though, which was quite good, but arranged back-to-front in comparison to British cathedrals. Mainly, the two big towers were at the eastern end, although the main (and rather grand) entrance was still at the west end. It had the distinct advantage of being cool inside. We could have stayed there all day, except that we also had the options of a nice air-conditioned car and a high mountain pass or two if we wanted to be cooler.
So we left Aosta, but it was nice enough that I’d consider going to the area again, if I had a plan.
From Aosta we drove up to the Great St Bernard Pass on the Swiss border. There’s a couple of good reasons for going that way. It is the closest way to Switzerland from Aosta. It’s the third highest road pass in Switzerland. Finally, and most impressively, various bits of the original Italian Job were filmed here, including the opening sequence with the Lamborghini Miura.
It’s quite a slow but very scenic drive up. Two thirds of the way up you have to remember to not take the tunnel, but to take the road over the top instead. The point where the two roads separate is a long way from the top. The tunnel allows the crossing to stay open all year even though the road up the pass is shut for several months as soon as it starts snowing.
At the top of the pass there’s an earthcache on the Italian side. There was also a patch of snow that the girls found exciting.
As we went back to the car we were sort of wondering which country we were in. It turns out that the photos taken by the lake were taken in Switzerland and all the others were taken in Italy. We figured out where was what because we found a stone marker. So we had to stand and get a photo of us in two countries at once.
From here we drove into Switzerland (all of 10 yards from where we parked), and moved over to the monastery and the home of the big dogs with the barrels of brandy. It wasn’t the home of any cafes or ice creams though, so we didn’t stay long. We grabbed a cache slightly up the hill from the monastery and then started heading our way down the hill. After all, it was past 5 pm and we’d achieved our target of finding geocaches in three different countries.
Before entering Martigny we took the road up the Col de la Forclaz and, because we still needed to feed the kids a second ice cream, we promptly stopped at a cafe on the first hairpin bend and had a quick but expensive coffee and ice cream. There was a geocache nearby. It turned out to be just 70m along the ground but down a near-vertical looking path down through someone’s grapevines. I didn’t fancy it and we did have a couple of other caches on the radar, so we were happy without doing that particular one. The view was quite good, as indeed it was from the next geocache we stopped at.
Anyway, I kind of assumed that the high point of this pass would be the French / Swiss border, but it isn’t. The border is actually some way further on near to Vallorcine and it was the most obvious border of the day, given that there was a sign advising of the revised speed limit, and there was an abandoned looking French customs post.
Geocaches found during the course of the day were: