I’d only ever been to Chamonix in the winter, and the girls had never been.
Sounds like a good excuse to go for a good look at Europe’s highest bits.
- Home to Reims
- Run to the Hills
- Aiguille du Midi
- Ups and Downs
- Not Quite to Plan
- Three Countries
- Chamonix Town
- Reserved Nature
- Cutting the Mustard
This post isn’t really a single day post. It covers more than one. Why? Because we’d heard some horror stories about trying to get through the Port of Dover following recent changes to French border controls, involving people having to queue up the A20 for hours on end, weeing by the side of the road, and getting rescued by people handing out free bottles of water. We therefore decided a couple of weeks in advance to drive down to Maidstone the night before, because we wanted to arrive at Dover no later than 9 am for our midday ferry crossing.
The M25 was fairly quiet, possibly because it was a Thursday night, not a Friday, but whatever the reason the drive down was fairly easy. The kids had been in sports club and I’d been enjoying a bit of general idleness involving getting my car cleaned, packing bags, and generally not working. Unusually for us, we managed to get out of the house within a few minutes of us wanting to leave. Things continued to go to plan.
We stayed overnight at a Premier Inn in Maidstone, having booked our usual family room and two breakfasts. We’d planned the following morning to stuff as much breakfast as we could manage and get out of the hotel no later than 8:30 for our 12:15 ferry. We thought either we’d be fine and get the ferry we booked, or there’d be no traffic and they’d let us on an earlier sailing.
We had dinner in the hotel pubstaurant too, partly because we couldn’t be bothered to go anywhere else. It’s a Beefeater, so absolutely none of us had beef.
While we were there, I re-read one of the notes from DFDS and realised that they expected me to be carrying a printed copy of one specific booking confirmation note they’d sent. I was carrying one. You never know in this day and age whether it’s actually needed, given that when I was paying they’d already asked for ( and obtained ) all of our passport details, my car registration and a full breeding history of my grandad’s Jack Russell. But as the email specifically said “you must bring a printed copy of this confirmation” I thought I’d better try to do it. Obviously we weren’t at home, so I couldn’t just print it. Thankfully though, the hotel company’s firewall was prepared to accept an email from me with a PDF file attached, so the receptionist very kindly printed it for me. She didn’t even charge for the paper.
Back at the plot (again), we slept relatively well although the room was warm, and got up for our breakfast remarkably early. Ami was disheartened to discover that our Premier Inn Breakfast didn’t include muffins. She likes the muffins. It did include loads of other stuff though, and she was soon satisfied, as were the rest of us. Excellent !
So off we went down the M20 at 8 in the morning in the general direction of Dover. Technically, it was in the very specific direction of Dover, I suppose. There was very little on the road and we racked up at passport control before 9am, apparently having entered some kind of alternate universe in which we are the only people who own a car.
The “enhanced security” at French border control seems to be now that there’s actually a guy in the hut, and he is required to ensure that the number of people in the car matches the number of passports offered. He doesn’t, apparently, need to check that the passports belong to the people in the car. It was harder getting through the UK control than the French one.
And so to the DFDS check-in desk. “You’re a bit early” they said. “Sorry,” said I “we expected more traffic.” “Would you like to go on an earlier sailing ? There’s one at 10:40” they said. “Does a one-legged duck swim in circles ?” said I.
Even with the earlier sailing we still had an hour to wait before our ferry started to boarding. So we parked up inside our assigned spot and took a very long walk along a very long line of zebra stripes into a small terminal building. It had a Costa Coffee. It also had some toothbrushes, which was handy because Izzy had somehow lost ( or forgotten ) hers.
Back at the car, we were mooching in the car park when Kas noticed a geocaching trackable sticker in the back window of a car in the next lane to us. This lead to a brief discussion with a couple who don’t now do a lot of geocaching but who promised to do more, and to log the trackable from my car. Fair enough.
Getting onto the boat was easy.
We didn’t have lunch on the boat. We planned instead to drive through France for half an hour and have something there. So we had a good old gander at Dover disappearing behind us and then went to sit at the pointy end, as we nautical types say, and watched France approaching. When you are on a ferry in the middle of the English Channel on a clear day you can see both sides quite easily, and it really doesn’t seem very far.
We stopped at possibly the only set of motorway services in France that doesn’t have a geocache, however I didn’t need to “colour in” this department anyway because I’d already done both Pas-de-Calais and Nord on previous trips, such as the infamous trip on the Gigabus to Munich, and the more recent Mega in Valenciennes.
We got sandwiches, crisps, drinks and some salads, and as ever, got the kids more food than they would eat and spent more money than we expected.
Where They Make the Champagne
When we arrived in Reims we managed to check in quickly to the fairly smart Novotel Suites, having very cunningly packed just a single suitcase with enough clothes for the four of us on the two nights before we made it to Chamonix.
Kas wanted to go for a run for an hour (after all, it’d been over a day). So I took the kids and did a few caches, having arranged to meet Kas at the Cathedral. While we were sitting waiting by the cathedral I was accosted by a guy doing some market research about tourism in Reims. It was a little difficult to explain we were just passing though, not because he didn’t understand, but just because he was working his way through a massive questionnaire on his iPad and a load of the questions just weren’t relevant, or seemed a bit grandiose for a couple of hours on a single evening.
Anyway, once Kas arrived, we had time for a quick walk around the cathedral and the palace next door and then tried to find somewhere to get something to eat. We found a cafe on the Place du Forum which was called Le Bistrot du Forum, and had some beer, charcuterie, fromages and chips whilst sitting upstairs and listening to a band playing outside in the forum. It was all quite civilised.
We walked back home, and noticed that the building where we’d done our first cache earlier is the old Allied Supreme HQ and was where the end of WWII in Europe was officially signed. That’s a surprising end to the day.
No, not the Iron Maiden song, just a post about heading from the relatively flat expanses of mid-France up into the distinctly mountainous bits down the eastern edge.
The day began with breakfast at the Novotel Suites in Reims, where we’d been staying overnight. It was a fairly well provisioned continental job, so the kids managed to find something they’d eat and drink.
I was getting increasingly concerned about my right eye. It had been hurting through most of Friday. I’d initially believed (or hoped) that it was just caused by some hayfever, but by Saturday morning it was hurting a lot and had swollen up quite badly on the upper eyelid. The hotel receptionist kindly advised me there was a pharmacy 200m away which opened at 9 am, so I scooted over there with Ami as soon as I’d finished breakfast. The pharmacist gave me some anti-septic eyedrops and told me to use them “up to six times a day” – I wasn’t convinced but thought I’d give it a go for a day, if only because we didn’t have time today for mucking about trying to find a doctor.
We were on the road by 9:30 am.
We made our first stop at the Aire de Perrogney, between Troyes and Dijon, and very conveniently just inside the Department of Haute-Marne – convenient from the point of view of there being a geocache there.
We spent a good hour or so there and had a “full monty” lunch, albeit smaller than the previous day’s lunch, followed by ice creams and a bit of running around. We also filled up with fuel on the way in. We weren’t exactly running on vapours but I also didn’t have enough left to run for another 2-3 hours.
About two and a half hours later we’d made it to 60km short of Geneva and the Aire de Ceignes-Cerdon. We were expecting a full-service stop here too but the restaurant block looked rather abandoned, so we ended up just doing a toilet stop and ice-creams at the garage and wandering off into the wooded area to find a picnic bench. The one we chose was cunningly about 30m away from the geocache at the site, so another easy find and another Department (Ain) successfully coloured in.
From here the rest of the drive all got a bit messy. We’d seriously thought from here that it would take about an hour. It actually took us closer to two hours and we seemed to be continually telling the kids it’s a bit further than we expected. We got there eventually though, and made our way to the rental agency to pick up the keys.
We’d used booking.com to find somewhere to stay. We found it very easy to use this site to find good looking properties in Chamonix, and the agency we were dealing with ( chamonix-location.net ) were very good with providing information. They were also fairly easy to find, even in Chamonix’s one-way system.
Finding the apartment proved to be a little more difficult, partly because the car parking location was a couple of hundred metres away and the apartment itself was on the top floor of the building that houses the cinema right in the middle of town. It required 3 printed photos on the instructions to find the correct building and door, and then the instructions involved climbing two full flights of stairs, turning left, climbing more stairs and turning right. In truth, it wasn’t that difficult, but we made the mistake of attempting to do this whilst carrying four suitcases and about eight assorted smaller bags between two adults and two kids, after having been sat in the car all day. There was a lot of backwards-and-forwards action involved because the kids seem to have lost all ability to carry anything, follow instructions or walk without getting in someone else’s way. Next time, we’ll park up first and then me and one of the kids will make multiple trips between car and apartment whilst Kas settles us into the place.
Once we were settled in we noticed that time was marching on and we needed to find food for breakfast. A quick google revealed the location of a nearby Super U and it turned out this was open until 8 pm on a Saturday, so we dashed off and spent (as usual) a lot more than we expected on somewhat fewer items than we thought. We did manage to find breakfast stuff, fruit and beer though. That’ll do us for now.
For tea we were feeling lazy so we dropped ourselves into an Italian place nearly outside the apartment door. The girls all had pasta and I had pizza.
There was just enough light left to take some stunning evening shots of the Aiguille du Midi before retiring to the apartment to drink beer, snooze and watch the Olympics (in French).
Our first full day in Chamonix began quite slowly for me and the girls. Not so for Kas, she had some running planned and set off at about 8:30am to go find a mountain to run over. We’d arranged to pick her up again from St Gervais les Bains at about 1pm. She was only planning to run 13 miles or so, but because the route took her over the top of the ski domain at Les Houches she was expecting it to take at least 4 hours.
I’d been noticing on the way down to Chamonix that my eye was getting progressively worse and I’d picked up some antiseptic eye drops from a local pharmacy in Reims on Saturday morning, but it didn’t seem to be helping much, so as we’d got a morning of waiting for Kas, essentially, I decided I needed to get it looked at.
We made the assumption that health services might work a little bit like the UK, so planned to drive to Chamonix’s small hospital to see what was what, because in Milton Keynes there’s a walk-in centre that caters for non-critical stuff outside the hours of normal doctors’ surgeries.
As we walked out to the car we noticed loads of people paragliding down off the mountains.
It turned out that the procedure in France is that you dial the emergency health care number (112) free from any phone and they will connect you to someone. I managed to get through a few layers of phone call on the payphone at the hospital before eventually getting connected to the local doctor who was on call that day, Dr Pache-Ville, from Les Houches. Her English wasn’t great but we managed to converse in garbled Franglais well enough for me to establish that I could drive straight to her surgery and see her. So me and the girls did just that. It was, after all, only 10 minutes away. She prescribed me some antibiotic eye drops and cream. Drops to be applied 3-6 times a day and cream every night at bedtime. For seven days. That’ll be €49.50 please.
The “on call” pharmacy for the weekend turned out to be one in central Chamonix, so we drove back into town and walked into the pharmacy to get my goodies. That’ll be another €17 please, including some sterile eye wash that I couldn’t quite understand what to do with.
After all this exploration of the French healthcare system it was time to go and fetch Kas. She’d been doing some running in three dimensions.
The road from Chamonix round to St Gervais takes a half hour or so because it has to go around the mountain that Kas was running over, so we headed off and I got Ami to navigate a little bit on Google Maps to try to get us there. We’d agreed the location to meet Kas at “the church” in St Gervais, but neither of us had any idea what the location would actually look like on the ground.
What it looked like was a church in the middle of a busy little town, quite close to a small square filled with market stalls. We had to do a lap of the town centre before I realised that the car park I’d driven past was the closest parking to the church, but it was both free and underground (i.e. out of the sun). Did I mention anywhere that the weather was warm ? Or “hot” is probably closer to the truth. It had been warm all the way down and the bright, cloudless and warm weather had stayed with us into Sunday morning.
Anyway, back at the plot, there were quite a lot of cafes and restaurants around, so we picked one and sent Kas a text telling her where we were. “Quatre persons” I said to the waitress. “J’attend ma femme”
We ordered a few drinks and then received a menu which indicated we were sitting at the “restaurant” bit and if we wanted to just eat snacks we’d have to move over to the “snack bar” bit. We waited for Kas to arrive and drank our drinks quite slowly before asking about this though. They weren’t exactly busy so it’s not like we were denying anyone else a table.
Once Kas did arrive the kids didn’t seem particularly bothered about eating anyway, so they had a restorative ice cream and we jumped into the car to return to Chamonix for the afternoon’s planned event – a trip up the Aiguille du Midi. Kas had run over the top of a mountain and had needed to run a couple of miles further than planned due to the non-availability of a path in a location where the maps said there was one, so she was a bit kippered and needed a quick wash-and-brush-up first.
Aiguille du Midi does a great impression of looking like a Bond villain’s not-so-secret hideout. It is a spectacularly huge mountain sitting right above the town of Chamonix (2700m above the town, in fact). It is accessible by the two-stage cable car from the town centre. This forms a part of the Chamonix skiing lift system and so can be accessed using one of the multi-pass options. We bought ourselves some 3-day passes and then joined the back of a queue waiting to get up the cable car. It was busy. We were told there was a minimum wait at the top of two-and-a-half hours because it was so busy. We didn’t want to rush back anyway, so we jumped on our assigned car and began the fairly awesome journey up. The first stage takes you from 1,000m above sea level in the town to about 2,400m on the Plan d’Aiguille. You then change to the second stage cable car, which speeds you up and over the now distinctly high-alpine terrain to the head station at about 3,750m. Yes, you read that correctly. The height difference between the town and the mountain is three times the height of England’s highest peak, Scafell Pike. You’re not finished there, though. Because there’s a lift that takes you up a further 70-80m inside a rock pinnacle and up to the upper viewing platform. There are actually two rock pinnacles with buildings on. The cable car comes into the slightly lower one.
The view from the top can only be described as breathtaking. The world of the town below you looks very small, and you are surrounded by much taller peaks. Aiguille du Midi is one of the lower peaks in the Mont Blanc Massif, so everything else up there is higher, including the “big one” itself, which is a full 1,000m higher than the Aiguille du Midi. It doesn’t seem to be, but then I guess that’s the old “small but close” versus “large but far away” debate.
It’s called the Aiguille du Midi ( “The Midday Needle” ) because by all accounts if you stand outside the front of the church in town then the sun is directly over the top of the peak at about midday. I don’t know whether the church was deliberately built where it was to achieve that effect, or whether it was random. And it makes you wonder what the mountain was called before the church was built. It also made me wonder whether that’s midday CET or midday CEST, but then I’m just weird like that. We were unable to put any theories to the test, because the only day we were in the town at midday happened to be the only day when it wasn’t sunny.
We noticed that late in the afternoons the mountains can start attracting a bit of cloud, and today was no exception, so our visibility was drifting in and out a bit, but I think this made the experience better.
Unfortunately, something else that was drifting in and out a bit was Izzy’s breakfast. She seemed to get an attack of altitude sickness. Either that, or she suffers high-anxiety. Entirely understandable from up here. So Izzy and Kas missed out on standing in the glass box, as it was due to close at 5pm. Me and Ami just made it. While we were up at the top part, we also assessed the necessary materials for the earthcache that is placed up there ( Aiguille du Midi ), and did all the requisite photos.
From here we decided to go meet up with Kas and Izzy, who were by now queuing up in the very busy mountaintop restaurant attempting to buy chips. Ami and me arrived just in time to get chips too, and to our amazement, we discovered that the world famous Gardner parking karma seems to work with tables in mountaintop restaurants too.
Izzy didn’t eat many of her chips. She was very pale. Oh dear.
So I dashed back out onto the roof of the restaurant to grab another cache ( L’aiguille du midi ) and take a few more photos before we decided it was all a bit much, and we’d better get Izzy back down to somewhere where the air was a bit thicker. It was a shame really, because she missed out on quite a lot up there, but it is understandable, and I have to admit that I felt a little unsteady up there too.
Sadly, while we were queuing up to leave (and discovering that the cars were running later than we’d been advised) Izzy needed to barf again. This time they didn’t quite make it to the toilets and Izzy’s jumper took a bit of a beating, so when they came back I tried in my best broken Franglais to talk us onto an earlier ride down. The guy was very sympathetic and put us on the next one, although by this time it was only a queue jump of one place anyway.
As soon as we got below the mid-station Izzy started to perk up again and she was OK as soon as we were at the bottom, albeit a bit dirty and in need of feeding. By this time it was 7 pm.
The feeding in question involved crepes at a small restaurant on the main street. Izzy decided she didn’t much like hers though, so she basically just licked the nutella off the top. She had some more stuff at home.
What turned out as a slow morning for me and the girls turned into a fairly spectacular afternoon, and once we got home we made do with a couple of beers, some Olympics coverage in French, and an early night.
Today we planned to take the Chemin de fer du Montenvers up to the Mer de Glace. We didn’t have any plans after that, as we wondered if that would be enough for a day, so we set off suitably armed and arrived at the train station for about 10am. It was a bit busy but not too busy.
The train apparently runs on adhesion with the rails whilst in the stations at both ends and then engages a rack system when climbing or descending, to cope with the gradients of between 11% and 22%. Whatever the engineering situation, it trundles up the mountainside very nicely and provides some great little glimpses of the valley through the trees. When we got to the top we were greeted by some pretty amazing views ( I seem to be saying that quite a lot on this holiday ).
One thing that got me was the apparent rate of retreat of the glacier since I was last here in 1993. When the train station was built in the 1820’s it was at the same level as the ice on the glacier. In the 1980’s a telecabine was built from the train station to allow descent of the 100m drop down to the ice level at that time. There were three steps below the telecabine to reach the ice at the time it was built. There are now 442 steps. Overall the ice is estimated to be lowering at about 25-30cm a year (and has been so since the 1920’s) but the effect is significantly greater here because this is the snout, and this is retreating up the mountainside as well as losing ice from the top, if that makes sense.
Anyway, they are apparently planning to extend the railway line about 700m up the valley to a location where they think they’ll be able to maintain access to the glacier until about 2040. Without entering into a debate about global warming and what causes it, there is no debate that this glacier is retreating significantly. Here’s a couple of comparative photos showing the glacier levels, taken from pretty much the same spot. Obviously the modern-day one was taken in summer, so the usual dump of winter snow on the top of the glacier had gone, but nevertheless you can still see a significant difference in the height of the ice..
From the train station we decided to walk down to the glacier rather than take the telecabine. Specifically, I asked the others if we could, because there is a geocache about halfway down the telecabine run which can only be accessed by walking. I think this gives better views as you descend though, despite it being a fairly rough path.
As we were walking down, we started to pass signs on the rock walls indicating the layer of the ice at various points in time. There was a very marked downward trend. When we got to the telecabine I hadn’t quite realised how many steps down there were. I’d more or less told the kids it was flatish from the bottom of the telecabine, because I don’t remember having to make a huge climb up any stairs when I’d skied down here, but that was 23 years previously so my memory has obviously faded a bit as the 1990 ice level was quite a few steps down, and I skied here in 1993.
So we descended and descended, and then we went down a bit, and then a bit more. After this we lost a bit of altitude and went down a few stairs before descending a bit. You get the picture.
We weren’t really sure what to expect of an ice cave that is carved out of the glacier each year. There’s a few photos available online but you can’t get much of a sense of it. Anyway, inside, it was great. You get a bit wet at the entry point as on days like this there’s always a bit of surface melting going on. Once inside it was pleasantly cool compared to outside, and the ice itself is amazing. What struck me most was the absolute clarity of it. I wasn’t sure what I was expecting – probably more of a mushy mass of compressed snow with boulders in, but apparently above a certain pressure the air gets more and more squeezed out and the ice takes on a beautiful crystal clarity that you can see right through, and the suspended boulders are visible at various points.
Within the grotto they seem to fit various bits or artistic lighting and carve out a few interesting little statues as well as hanging a few photos and information boards about the scientific research that is conducted into the glacier and the movement of the ice as part of the programme of creating the cave each year. It is well worth a visit, especially if you’ve never been inside a glacier before.
After the grotto we climbed back up the stairs but decided to take the telecabine back up to the train station instead of walking up the path again. We weren’t carrying any drinks or food and the kids were starting to fade a bit, so we decided on lunch here. The cafe at the train station is (not surprisingly) tourist central, but they had a decent selection of fresh sandwiches, which we accompanied with some crisps, drinks and ice creams.
Back down in town we weren’t quite sure what to do and Kas had a desire to ingest some caffeine, so we grabbed a seat at a cafe round the corner from our apartment and had a drink. I wanted to go up Le Brévent to grab what is supposedly Europe’s highest wheelchair-accessible geocache (at around 2500m). The girls all wanted to be wearing shorts as they were a bit on the warm side. So after drinks they scooted off to get changed while I rummaged around the base of the church trying to find a different geocache (unsuccessfully).
Le Brévent is the mountain that dominates the skyline on the north side of Chamonix town. It’s quite imposing as the side facing the valley is a traditional near vertical wall at the side of a glacial U-shaped valley. The local citizens have quite cunningly made the ascent fairly easy by installing a gondola and then a cable car. The gondola drops off at a mid-station which is the top of the “easy” skiing in the Brévent zone. The cable car goes all the way to the top and provides access to a single black run which descends roughly back down to the head of the gondola. The cable car is little used tourists in the summer, probably because there aren’t any specific attractions at the top, but my personal opinion is that this location was the most breathtaking of all the breathtaking views we found during the week. You get a better sense of the scale of the Mont Blanc Massif from over here because you are seeing it almost flat rather than the “underneath” view you get from the town. If you walk around at the summit you also get some great views northwards over the mountains that house some of the other northern French ski resorts like Flaine, Morzine and Avoriaz.
The wheelchair accessible cache was easy to find.
From the top we took a wander around and down the north side (along the skiing black run) to find another geocache that was only about 250m away, but which took ages due to difficulty in interpreting the location, the absence of phone signal (for getting the spoiler photo) and the fact that we had to cross a patch of snow to get to it. The patch of snow did provide some entertainment though, and some much needed cooling.
Somehow I’d sort of misread the times for the last cable car down. I was convinced it said 7pm but as we walked onto the top station at about 6pm we were informed by the arriving attendant that this would be the last one. Good job Kas had expressed some “not sure” feelings and we’d decided not to walk on any further or come back later. Our general tardiness meant we had to walk straight from the cable car base station into the head of the gondola to avoid having to walk down that bit. I guess they’d keep it running at least until everyone off the cable car had got in, but you never know.
Back down in town we got cleaned up and made the very long and tiresome trip downstairs to the restaurant right outside the apartment door. Between us we had an assortment of high-carbohydrate foods, and afterwards retired back upstairs again for some beer and Olympics (in French). The end of another excellent day.
Kas started with her traditional morning run. Not a very long one, but it was on the plan.
We got out of the house at around 10:30 and went around to Saint-Gervais-les-Bains in the hope of catching the Mont Blanc Tramway, however when we got there, and got parked up, we discovered that we would have to wait the best part of two hours, until just after 1pm, before we’d be able to get a place. Bleedin’ tourists. Why can’t they all just stay at home.
So we had a communal “bum to that !” and did a quick rethink.
We decided instead to go and try out the Télésiège des Bossons, which takes you up to a chalet and viewing point near the bottom of the Glacier de Bossons, which runs off the Mont Blanc Massif a little to the west of Chamonix town. The chairlift itself is an “old skool” skiing one where the chairs are fixed to the cable permanently, and as a result the overall experience is, shall we say, relaxing rather than speedy. However, on a sunny day in August there are worse things to do than to spend 15 minutes drifting serenely over the alpine meadows and woodlands.
When you get to the top it is a short walk to a couple of viewing platforms that look over the base of the glacier from west to east. I guess when they were built that the glacier was much further down the valley. Right until the early twentieth century, apparently, the glacier used to come right down into the valley. I won’t say it’s a shadow of its former self, because to be honest it still completely dominates the view from Chamonix looking west, especially in the summer when there’s no snow anywhere else around the base. The glacier still comes down well below the treeline, aided by the north-facing aspect of the slope it comes down, but the snout has now receded a few hundred metres back up from the valley floor, and the chairlift now takes you to a point probably a couple of hundred metres below the current snout. It is still close enough for a good view though.
I forgot to mention also that the Bossons area is home to the ski jump hill from the 1924 Winter Olympics, which looks sort of abandoned now, especially given that the public parking for the chairlift is sited at the base of the ski jump’s landing area (below the “K” point).
There is also an abandoned piste running to the east of the chairlift which was used for some events in the FIS Alpine World Ski Championships of 1962. Much of the piste now has small coniferous trees growing in it. It’s obvious where the piste went, because the trees are smaller than those surrounding it, but it couldn’t be used for skiing now.
We had a very pleasant lunch of chips (for the kids) and omelettes (for Kas and myself) at the cafe at the top of the chairlift. We also has some beer. Well, I did, because Kas was driving.
After lunch it was time to move on, so Kas headed off towards the chairlift and I asked if I could walk down a path under the chairlift to grab a couple of geocaches on the way down. One was a bit out of the way down quite a steep but passable path which took me to a point underneath the neighbouring Glacier de Taconnaz. This looped back to a path and then a road which passed through some extremely fine looking houses and on to the top of the ski jump. After this point, I thought I’d just be able to walk down the side of the ski jump to the car park, but sadly it was all roped off and I ended up taking a rather circuitous route to the east through a load of trees and down the road.
We drove back into Chamonix and parked up and then walked straight to the Aiguille du Midi cable car, as we’d decided we’d quite like a look from the mid-station at Plan d’Aiguille. The station was very busy again, which surprised me as I thought it would only really have been busy on weekends like when we went up before. So we queued up and got our tokens for the ride (we already had tickets but had to get an allocated number for the cable car ride. Then we grabbed some drinks and started sitting around for the half hour wait we’d got lined up.
Our half hour came and went and there seemed to be some general Gallic shrugging going on amongst the cable car attendants, after which a load of people started walking away. So I went up to check and they said that they weren’t going to let anyone else go to the top on the basis that a) the top was in cloud so there was nothing to see and b) if they let anyone else go up they wouldn’t be able to get them all back down again before closing time. So they wouldn’t let us go up.
“But I only want to go halfway up” I said. “Yes”, replied they, “but you still need to get down again, along with everyone else. There’s a thousand people up there you know.”
Their advice was to take our tokens back to the pay desk and see what they could do. What they could do turned out to be nothing, because we’d bought a three day pass, and it wasn’t their fault if we couldn’t access our chosen lift on our final day. No refunds, sorry, sod off.
We started wandering off in a grump and trying to decide if there was anywhere else we could go to get some value out of our tickets (there’s plenty, we wish we’d bought a fourth and possibly a fifth day) but at the last second we decided to go and ask again. The attendant who five minutes ago was saying “no” very vehemently seemed to be all sweetness and light again and politely told us we could actually go up, if we wanted, but it would be crap because the top was in cloud. “We don’t want to go to the top” I said. “We only want to go halfway.”
I peered around the side of the building. The top wasn’t in cloud at the time. So I asked for tokens for a cable car ride and she said they weren’t needed any more because there wasn’t a queue now. Errr, maybe that’s because the lift attendants just told everyone they couldn’t use the tickets they just bought, and everyone’s gone home in a grump ? Just saying.
Up at the Plan d’Aiguille, you get treated to a broad area of high alpine terrain with a big cable car station and a small cafe in the middle. Towards the south there is the imposing face of the Aiguille du Midi and the cable car going up to it. To the north there’s the valley and the look over to Le Brévent, where we’d been about 24 hours previously. And over to the west there was a thunderstorm. No, make that three or four of them. Izzy was a bit spooked (because obviously those thunderstorms are going to arrive here before we can leave, and there’ll be lightning, and we’ll all die ) but she calmed down for long enough for us to mooch about, enjoy the views, a bit of far-away lightning and the general coolness, and for me to find the geocache under the cable car station. Not literally under it, but quite close.
The thunderstorms and cloudiness changed the light patterns a little bit after a couple of days of bright sunshine, so I quite like a lot of the photos I took from here. The light looks different and so the colours in the photos look different too.
There was a bit of a queue getting back down and the weather was looking increasingly dodgy, so we crammed like sardines into the cable car back and rushed down. As with the journey up, there was a large number of people who were, shall we say, unlikely to be skiers, and who took great pleasure in screaming and whooping in delight every time the cable car went over a pylon and there was a bit of rocking around. Oh for falling off a log, you’re not at Disneyland !
When we got back we mooched about for a while in the apartment and eventually decided we’d stop in for dinner instead of going out, so Izzy and me scooted up to Super U before closing time to grab some “stuff” – we went for what seems to be our French holiday staple of potato wedges, salads plus whatever looked nice from the butcher’s counter. In this case, what looked nice were some half-spicy beef and lamb sausages and (because Ami probably wouldn’t eat the sausages) some chicken and chorizo kebabs. The guy on the butcher’s counter spoke enough English and I spoke enough French that we conversed reasonably well on the subject of him having sold all the pork sausages earlier, and that the beef and lamb ones were red but not that hot, so the kids would be OK with them. The kids actual feedback was either that they should be hotter or should not be hot at all, because as they stood, they were neither one thing nor the other. Having said that though, none of them survived the meal, so they can’t have been that bad.
When we’d finished all that, the kids were about ready for bed and I was about ready to get my PC out and play with some of my photos for the first time on the holiday, the photos you’ve been looking at on here. There was also some beer involved and, of course, the Olympics in French.
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:
Today was that traditional day in each holiday where we didn’t really do much. The weather was a bit iffy compared to previous days – a bit showery and grey – and we were all a bit pooped after a long day out yesterday.
Kas went out for a short run, then got home and went for a run with Ami, then got home and went for another run with Izzy. Meanwhile I sat in the apartment playing with photos and thinking about how to structure this set of blog posts. I lead such an exciting life.
By the time everyone was back home and cleaned up it was lunchtime. Or, it would have been if we’d had much in, but we didn’t. So we ate a few bits we’d got and then went out for a walk around town.
First of all we went to find the two remaining geocaches in town that I hadn’t yet found. They were easy, especially with four of us looking.
After this we walked up and down the main street looking for souvenirs and Ami bought herself a rather pretty panoramic photo of Mont Blanc.
We also kept passing this fantastic mural, which so far I’d not managed to photograph well, due to absence of daylight. Look at it very closely. The only parts that aren’t painted are the left hand pair of small windows. You can just make out the big glass doors at the bottom. That’s also a painted scene. In particular notice how the artist has painted the size and shape of the balconies to match exactly the real balconies on the front of the building, and how he or she also gives the impression of three dimensions by painting on the shadows.
I think the artist received a number of commissions here, because the outside wall of our apartment also had some similar work, in this case emphasizing that the cinema was inside.
As we were walking back towards our apartment we passed a little sandwich and burger stand on the main street which looked like it had a range of food options to suit us all, so we stopped for a bite. It was very good.
After this, it all went a bit freestyle. Ami had in her mind that she wanted to buy a jacket, but she couldn’t really articulate very well what kind of thing she was looking for, and because Chamonix is more of an outdoor sports kind of place it is fairly underpopulated when it comes to fashion stores. So we tried a bunch of places but Ami wasn’t really that interested. Most of the time I was doing my “bored shopping father” routine of standing outside, taking a few photos and looking at my watch. I’m a bad shopper.
Eventually Ami gave up trying and we walked back to the apartment and spent a chunk of the afternoon playing with our PCs. Later on in the evening Kas shot up to the supermarket with Izzy and grabbed a load of stuff to do pasta for tea, which I duly cooked with Kas’s assistance. And that was kind of all we did, apart from drinking more beer and watching the Olympics in French.
Geocaches found during the course of the day were:
Today started off very slowly for me and the kids but very busy for Kas, as ever. She had a long run to do and planned to run up to the mid-station of Le Brévent and then across to La Flégère before coming back again. She set off before breakfast and was aiming for about 4 hours worth. Apparently the run up Le Brévent was more of a walk, and on the way back down she managed to take a fall and go head first into a rock, resulting in a cut above her eye.
While Kas was out me and the girls began some of the process of getting packed up and cleaning the flat. One of the first things to do was to follow the instructions we were given for disposing of rubbish, such as they were. Izzy and me went for a walk to try to find the massive bins. There proved to be a set just up the road in the car park. So then we went back to the apartment to get the rubbish, knowing now that we hadn’t got far to walk with it. Blimey, I really know how to live some days.
By the time she was back it was nearly lunchtime, not that we had much food in the apartment. So we all got cleaned up and dressed whilst farting about deciding what to do.
What we eventually decided to do was to go up to a nature reserve on the Col des Montets. Well, the bit we went to was on the Col des Montets. Most of the reserve is actually “up the top” behind the back of La Flégère, but we didn’t have either the time or the energy to get up there, given that it was after 2 pm when we left the house. Kas was struggling along with a big wad of dressing stuck to her forehead that looked like she was an extra in a war movie.
I’d noticed there was a short looking walk between two car parks and we decided to go for that. It was actually not a shorter walk than it looked. It was what Americans might call an “interpretive trail” of the botanical variety. Every few metres there was a sign identifying what kind of plants we were looking at. The signs were in French, obviously, so we had some fun with the kids figuring out how to pronounce them, and figuring out what they were. Some we could get because we have some familiarity with the Latin names, but this was surprisingly few. For several others we could read the signs but were unable to figure out which plant the sign related to.
There was also one geocache (Reserve Naturelle des Aiguilles Rouges), which we duly found just before returning to our car, despite the fact that as we were sitting down on the rock it was hidden under a local family decided that this was the best place to stop and have a drink. Oh for falling off a log ! Can’t you see we’re behaving suspiciously here ? Leave us alone, will you.
Back at the car we were a bit unsure what to do next but thought we’d spotted a couple of little pull-offs by the roadside from which we might get a few good photos. At the first one we were able to get some good photos, which was good. When we got back into the car we were having a chat about whether Kas ought to get her head seen to at the hospital because she thought it was continuing to bleed a little bit under the dressing, so we opted for driving back to the apartment so we could have a look at it, and then make our decision from there. It didn’t look as bad as she thought once she’d cleaned it up, so she decided not to go to the hospital. She got told off for that when we got home.
So this left us with little to do in the evening other than pack up most of our stuff and then go out for dinner.
One of the things we did do was to pack up a load of bags with dirty clothes and grab some other items we wouldn’t need again until home (Kas’s running stuff, all the walking boots, and similar) and take them up to the car. This was part of my cunning plan to avoid the debacle we’d had when attempting to carry all the bags in one go between the four of us when we arrived. On that occasion we seemed to have about 8 small bags as well as the four large cases, and we just couldn’t move it all without one of us (mainly me) running shuttles with the big bags. Getting five or six unneeded bags (including two of the big ones) into the car on Friday night was definitely a top plan.
We chose to go to one of the restaurants just around the corner. Kas and me had been eyeing up a raclette all week and this was the night. It was good, all though personally I think we were given a few too many potatoes and not quite enough cruditées and charcuterie. We managed to get enough beer though.
And that was more or less that. I think we had to pack a bit more of the kids’ stuff when we got in. We’d still got a pack of 8 beers in the fridge in the apartmnet but I think we had one each and resolved to take the rest home with us. We didn’t have the capacity, and it was necessary that we were in a fit state to drive the following morning. There was a bit of Olympics in French as ever.
Saturday Morning – Bye Bye to Chamonix
We had to be out of the apartment and handing the keys back before 10am. It was another quite grey day up above with the promise of it getting rainy later.
Because we’d packed a load of bags into the car on Friday evening we had somewhat fewer bags to hump out with us on Saturday morning. We packed them all up whilst sweeping and tidying and whilst trying to stop the girls from making more mess. And as we left we were actually able to carry everything between the four of us, including a couple more bags of rubbish which I carried up to the car park to dispose of.
And so around to the rental agency building, where we dropped the keys and booklets off. We paid for parking for a hour or so because we’d decided to grab breakfast on the way. There was a nice looking cafe right next door to the agency which was one of the “hipster” variety. OK, I’m stereotyping, but the menu was simple but good, involving a range of proper coffees in reasonable sizes, some pastries, and muesli plus a couple of cooked options. The staff were all young and informal and the seating was mainly cushions around over-sized window sills. The tables all consisted of whole sections of tree cut into flat sheets, with legs added. It was one of the best breakfasts we’d had, and I wish we’d found the cafe earlier in the week. It was relatively cheap (by Chamonix standards) too.
And so to the autoroutes. While we were sitting having breakfast it started raining. It was very heavy rain, not namby-pamby drizzle, but proper stair-rods. We continued to be in and out of really heavy rain nearly until we got to Dijon. It didn’t really slow us down much though, but that was mainly because the “slowing down” was caused by an incident on the motorway around the south side of Geneva which caused a bit of a jam.
Once clear of this we started climbing over the hills towards Bourg-en-Bresse, which went fairly smoothly. From here we started heading northish along the A39. We planned (OK, I’d planned) stops at a number of service stations on the way to allow us to find one single geocache in each of the French departments we were passing through. On the cards for today we had Saône-et-Loire, Jura and Côte-d’Or. The final one was easy though, as it’s the department that Dijon is in. That means we have two stops to make, but very conveniently there are service stations in each along the A39. They were only about 70km apart, but what the wotsits ? We’ve got geocaches to do.
The first stop, which was by now conveniently time for lunch too, was at the excellently named Aire de Service du Poulet de Bresse (or, Service Station of the Bresse Chicken). Apparently, Bresse chickens are one of those appellation contrôlée jobs. The approach to the service station includes a roundabout with a massive chicken sculpture in the middle. Being a Saturday afternoon in the school holidays, it was busy and we struggled to find anywhere to park. Lunch was pretty good and we managed to beat a bit of a rush into the queue. I scooted off around the outside of the building in a rain shower to grab the geocache.
The second stop was at the Aire du Jura. We didn’t want to stop and it was busy again, so Kas dropped me off at a relevant point and then tried to find a parking space. She dropped me off at one end of the site and I had to walk past the entrance to the service station buildings and over into some woods on the other side of some weird exposition building that seemed to be a cube decorated entirely with circles. It was about 500m from where Kas dropped me off before I got to the cache site. It was well into the woods but easy to find and well placed with a good hint. Better get back to the car though. This proved quite tricky, as Kas had only just finished going round in circles in the car park and I didn’t have any phone signal, so I couldn’t phone Kas and ask where she was. I found her after a thankfully short time.
So from here we drove the remaining kilometres into Dijon and had very little trouble finding our hotel. It was quite hard work getting into it, though. This was partly because we couldn’t figure out where to stop or where to park and partly because once we did get the keys and access to the car park we then had to circle the block to get back to it, and it was rather a tight entrance. On the bright side though, we only had a handful of bags to carry upstairs.
Where They Make the Mustard
Kas wanted a bit of a snooze and the girls needed to burn off a bit of energy. By now the weather was improving a bit too, with the clouds starting to break up, so I took the girls for a walk (or run, skip, dance, flit, whatever, in the kids’ case). We did a handful of geocaches as we walked around to.
Dijon has a lovely old city centre with some fine old buildings, and it benefits from being pedestrianised. We walked down a shopping street on our way to the Place de la République. Once there, we discovered the dancing fountains. The girls were still bubbling over with energy and I was in no mood to tell them off about running around, so I kind of let them get on with it. The Place de la République has recently been pedestrianised and they’ve replaced all the tarmac with some smoothly shaped local stone (the subject of an earthcache here), and the square was very clean, so I was very happy to allow the girls to just get on with getting wet. Anyway, the weather was now getting quite warm and sunny, having made a complete mockery of our decision to take jumpers with us.
While I was sitting on a stone bench watching the kids getting soaked I met several sets of geocachers, who were mooching around looking for the geocache stuck underneath it. One group helped me find it. Another turned up and I pointed them to the correct end of the bench. As we were leaving I noticed another group who looked really like they were geocachers, and once we stood up and walked away I waited around for them to reveal themselves. Geocachers they indeed were.
From here we walked up to the Place Darcy and Jardin Darcy, where we did another geocache and then noticed the time. It was time to get back to the hotel and wake Kas up.
Kas was sort of awake when we got back, so it was a relatively quick matter to get ready, although the girls had to put on the clothes they’d planned for the following day because the ones they were wearing were soaking.
Dinner proved a bit of a challenge – mainly because it was one of those evenings where we had some conflicts of opinion on what to eat. Izzy had it in her head that she fancied a burger. A few places did them, but Ami didn’t fancy that and Izzy wouldn’t entertain the idea of anything else. We gawped at a whole series of restaurants down the shopping centre. We even sat down at one restaurant in the Place de la République before deciding to move on because the menu didn’t look right and the service seemed very slow. We eventually settled on about the second place we’d looked – a small pub with a limited selection. They did have burgers, and we all had one (Ami went for a chicken one, so not really a burger at all). The food was fantastic. Kas and me decided to drink wine rather than beer for the first time on the holiday.
Geocaches found during the course of the day were:
- AutoStop A39 – Aire du Jura
- L’aire du Poulet de Bresse
- PALAIS des DUCS de BOURGOGNE
- Le carillon muet
- Place de la Liberation-Les Pierres de Comblanchien
- Place Darcy
Miles and Miles of Tarmac
Sunday morning greeted us with overcast conditions and an early start. How early ? It was still dark when the alarm went off. We wanted out before 7am as we’d estimated we had at least 5 hours of actual driving to do to get to Calais, which meant we’d need at least two stops.
We got out of Dijon pretty quickly and headed up the motorway towards Troyes. At Troyes the Autoroute des Anglais begins. Before we got there though we had a scheduled stop at some services to find a cache in the Aube department. It was trickier than planned because a few of them didn’t have geocaches, and the one that did have both a restaurant and a geocache was a location where the cache appeared to be several hundred metres off down a side road. So we plumped for stopping twice, once at a “no services” stop (Aire du Champignol) to grab the geocache (a quick find) and then again at one that had a restaurant to get some breakfast (Aire du Plessis).
From there we decided to experiment with having Ami ride up front while Kas had a little snooze in the back. So Ami rode up front with me all the way from Troyes past Reims and up to the Aire d’Urvilliers, which took us two hours and was the home of our final geocache. It’s in the Aisne department. We made this a quick stop of twenty minutes only, involving a leg stretch, a wee break and some drinks.
Ami stayed in the front with Kas driving but we vowed to swap around before driving into the ferry port at Calais so Kev was up front for the handing over of documentation. We swapped drivers about 30km short of Calais as we passed through the final toll station. There’s always a pull out just after a French motorway toll booth.
Geocaches found on the drive through France were:
As you enter Calais from the A26 you are greeted by a load of double thickness security fences down the side of the road, and unlike when we arrived this time I noticed why. On the east side of the road you get a reasonably good view of the shameful site of the migrant camp. It is massive. I saw a report on the news this week about motorways being blocked by people smugglers in the night and how it’s all getting a bit wild out there. Drivers are currently advised not to attempt to access the port from the autoroutes between midnight and 6 am.
We obviously arrived in the middle of the day – 13:40 to be precise, and in plenty of time for our 3:30 sailing – so we didn’t see any issues with people on the roads, but the sight of the camp is quite distressing in itself.
As we arrived at the various passport controls we saw a sign identifying that there was a 13:55 sailing that was running on time. I thought it unlikely we’d make that, but the nice woman at the check-in advised that yes, there was space on that boat and we had time to get on it, and she was very happy to put us on that boat without extra cost.
The ferry journey home was a bit more choppy than the one out. Not bad, but choppy. This was mainly caused by the wind, and when we ventured out on deck it was quite entertaining, because the decks were wet, the boat was rocking about a bit, and the wind was howling. Getting up and down the stairs was a challenge.
We ate some pretty mediocre supposedly English food on the ferry so were hoping we could get back home without stopping, other than to change drivers from Kas to me as soon as we could. This was simply because we parked on the ferry next to a metal guard rail that sufficiently close that the driver’s door wouldn’t open fully, and whilst Kas could get in and out though the gap, I couldn’t. So Kas drove 10-15 minutes through Dover and then we stopped in the layby access to Samphire Hoe to swap over. Ami jumped in the front again too.
The drive home was slowed by a queue going into the Dartford Tunnel and then another behind an accident on the M25 but we still made it home before 6pm, calculating that it had taken us almost exactly 12 hours of travelling since we’d left Dijon.