Sun and solitude on a hike through the Alps
Make for the Haut Chablais this summer, says Jeremy Laurance. The air is fresh, the flowers are in bloom – and you'll have the place almost to yourself
Jeremy Laurance is a writer on health issues. He is former health editor of The Independent and the i and has covered the specialism for more than 20 years. He thinks the harm medicine does is under-appreciated, the harm it prevents over-rated, and that cycling works better than most drugs. He was named Specialist Journalist of the Year in the 2011 British Press Awards.
Sunday 20 May 2012
High summer. Day three of a journey through rural France. It's peak holiday season. Here are three things you might not expect to find in the country at this time. First, wild flowers in profusion, banks of them surrounding me wherever I go: deep blue delphiniums, delicate pale-blue harebells, pink-tinged scabious, genipi, buttercups, daisies and thick, velvety green grass. Not the sort of blooms you will encounter in late summer on the scorched-earth shores of the Mediterranean.
Second, few people. On a meandering 16km hike I encountered perhaps half-a-dozen other walkers coming the opposite way. For the most part, my wife and I were alone with the magnificent views.
Third, crystal clear mountain air. Not the sweltering August heat of southern Europe.
If you have to go away in peak season – and many of us have no choice – there is no better place than the mountains. The sun blazes, yet the air is cool, the countryside is still in bloom and everyone else has headed to the coast.
The British have a curious relationship with this beautiful corner of France. In winter, we flock to the Alps for the world's finest skiing, a joy prolonged this year by the best snow for many a season. Then there is an inevitable lull while the snow goes through its unappealing decay into slush, but from June through to September (and sometimes even through October) this area is simply one of the loveliest parts of Europe, yet the British are mystifyingly sparse.
The Haut Chablais is the northernmost part of the French Alps, between Lake Geneva, the Rhone Valley in Switzerland and Mont Blanc. I glimpsed this latter icon for the first time on day three: a cone of pure white snow, gleaming unmistakeably between the rocky peaks of the high limestone massif that surrounded me.
After long 20km treks on the two previous days, with ascents and descents of 800m, we had taken the soft option: a chairlift to the Col de Bassachaux at 1,800m, which delivered the two of us effortlessly and speedily into the relative isolation of the upper slopes.
Around us, Alpine peaks surged in all directions: a frozen, jagged sea. Below, Lac de Montriond shone, the milky turquoise pool along the shores of which I had spent the previous night. Away from the chairlift, the crowds – well, a few groups of holidaymakers actually – thinned out and, in minutes, we had the mountains to ourselves.
The route took us round the side of Mont de Grange, at 2,432m, the highest peak in the vicinity, across meadows, through woods of beech, and fir and silver birch, picking wild strawberries and raspberries as we walked. Above me, chestnut brown and white Abondance cows, looking as if they had come straight from make-up with their dark-ringed eyes, grazed on the lush grass, their bells tinkling across the valley.
Mark, the taxi driver who had collected us at Geneva airport at the start of our holiday, told me that he had been keeping a tally of customers' remarks about the five hotels on this trip. While you trek from one hotel to the next, your luggage is transported so that it is waiting for you when you arrive. Hôtel Le Renard at Châtel had come out on top, admired particularly for the quality of its cuisine.
Sadly, a stomach bug imported from the UK laid us both low for the first night. I took to my bed, sampling no more than (admittedly tasty) chicken soup and pasta prepared by English owner and chef Robert Brown. A tragic waste, which I hope one day, on another journey, to address.
Yet 48 hours later and on the way to recovery, we managed to tackle a half-day walk in the hills above Châtel under ominous clouds which made the savage, gap-toothed peaks look as menacing as a Victorian engraving, with angels and demons poised to swoop. The route notes described an "unspoilt lake" at the top as a good place to picnic, although they omitted to point out that it was bounded on one side by a busy road. Pretty? Yes. Peaceful? No.
Back at the hotel, I drank a glass of cola – my first calories of the day – and admired the float that Robert was building with English friends for the village festival – a bandstand with a white, wicker-fenced lawn, beautifully and lovingly constructed down to the last detail.
Robert's secret weapon as a hotelier, I concluded, was to be thoroughly obliging and helpful. He offered to go to the pharmacy, switch our room, vary the menu, extend our stay and finally to run me down to the next hotel if I was not feeling up to the walk. You don't get service like that in the big chain hotels.
On leaving Hôtel Le Renard, recovered but still delicate, we once again took the chairlift, this time up to Le Morcelan, saving me 1,000 metres of climbing. It is wonderful to sweep up silently over the earth, like paragliding in reverse. At the top, we were almost alone – at 10am, on a Saturday, in August – in the midst of a magnificent panorama. Blue peaks surrounded us on all sides, some dark and brooding under a carapace of cloud. Beneath my feet, wild flowers once more lay in profusion, a patchwork quilt of colours flung across the mountainside. I cannot remember seeing them in such abundance anywhere else in Europe.
I ambled rather than hiked along the path, enjoying the head start gained by taking the chairlift. Later, at the Hôtel Le Chabi in Chapelle d'Abondance, where the slant-roofed Alpine chalets practically disappear behind the weight of scarlet geraniums strung along their balconies, I sat watching the swallows wheeling as the sun lit the rain clouds over Mont de Chauffé. My appetite restored, I ate a delicious dish of chicken with apples in a cider sauce.
Next day, having failed to climb the Mont de Grange earlier in the week, we planned to scale Les Cornettes de Bise – the imposing peak on the opposite side of the valley. The route began with a long, steep haul up through woods to an isolated tarn, Lac d'Arvouin. From there, we travelled on up to the ridge, where the peak was wreathed in cloud. Short gusts of rain swept in, enough to dampen rather than soak us, so we headed down the other side, plucking fat raspberries en route.
The Hôtel L'Abbaye in Abondance, in an elegant Chablais townhouse, had a defiantly traditional feel. The dining room, adorned with quaint murals of smiling cowgirls, was busy with a knowledgeable clientele drawn by the simple excellence of the food and the unfussy, good-humoured service. Here I ate a local dumpling dish called quenelles de volaille, in a thick creamy cheese sauce, followed by loin of pork with green pepper sauce, accompanied by an excellent Cuvée du Patron rouge. For an authentic taste of France, the Hôtel L'Abbaye took the prize.
The best part of this walking holiday, though, was still to come. At 7am on the final day, the sky was a perfect blue and the landscape glistened under the morning dew. We faced a punishing 22km hike and a 1,200m climb. I cheated and booked a taxi to navigate the 4km of country road, saving an hour's walking (and costing €€10/£8). I told myself that it would mean we had an extra hour for lazing in the sun at the top.
From the car park we started on the long ascent to the Lac de Tavaneuse, a saucer of turquoise water suspended high in the mountains. From there we pushed on up to the Col de Tavaneuse. Cresting the lip of the col, a vista opened up that made me gasp. There, directly in front, was the vast Mont Blanc massif, with the whole panorama of the Alps arranged in tiers around it. After two-and-a-half hours of hard grind staring at the toes of my boots as they tramped steadily upward, it was the perfect release.
After resting at the col, I headed up again to the Roc de Tavaneuse and the vertigo-inducing Les Lanchettes ridge, while my wife took the low route. After 90 minutes, we reconvened at Brion, a group of chalets on the far side of the mountain, where I ate hungrily under a burning sun before the last steep descent to the valley.
That night, at the Hotel Alpina, I tucked into a tarte tatin of perfect aromatic sweetness: the fruit tender, the pastry crisp. It seemed I'd rediscovered my appetite for food – and for walking among these extraordinary Alpine peaks and valleys.
Jeremy Laurance travelled as a guest of Headwater (01606 720199; headwater.com) which offers an 11-day independent hotel-to-hotel walking holiday in the Chablais from £888 per person on a self-drive basis. The price includes Eurotunnel crossing, 10 nights' half-board accommodation in comfortable hotels, luggage transfers, route notes, local information, briefing, and a map kit.
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