Food and water

Terme Pre-Saint-DidierWe decided to do something different on my day off, and Leah has wanted to go to a spa in St Gervais. My boss, however, handed me some leaflets from a place over the hills (or through the Mont Blanc Tunnel) in Cormayeur. A bit of a traipse but actually easier to get to as they were offering a free bus service for a limited time. Big saving as it’s €40 return for the tunnel alone. The spa was called the Terme Pre-Saint-Didier and we opted for it. This would make it the third spa I’d been to on my trip along with Cologne and Hanmer Springs.

Glad we did as well. The free bus was almost exactly 15 minutes late at the pick-up point (with the same delay on the return trip), but otherwise it was a great day out. The spa were offering a deal to get cheap tickets for a chairlift up onto the Hellbronner pass but we decided against that as the weather was really poor. For €35 each, we got the full run of the place (which was enormous); towel, sandal and bathrobe; body lotion; and grub. Lots of grub. Lovely grub. Bready products, very good quality fresh fruit, delicious yoghurt and about 6 different fruit (and vegetable) drinks. Available all day as a buffet.

Having a splashThe sheer variety of rooms and so forth was staggering. Leah had a mud bath for an additional €10 and aside from that, everything else we did was in with the cover charge. There was a large outdoor area where we enjoyed the snow landing on our heads as we basked in warm water (with jets). We laughed at a very skinny girl with boobs far too large for her running across the cold ground to one of the saunas. I overheard a couple in one of the steam rooms definitely having more than just a conversation and a civilised sweat.

There were waterfalls, bubble baths, chromatography pools, whirlpool baths, saunas of various temperatures, saunas with various smells (including pine – fantastic – and hay, which was more reminiscent of a hamster cage), steam rooms, a Turkish sauna with scented salt to rub on, hot showers, cold showers, a fire room, an air room with hanging baskets to sit in, a water relaxation room with water beds, a darkened relaxation room with soothing music… the list goes on.

Yes, in places it could have done with a lick of paint (literally – probably moisture getting under the last coat) but other than that it was superb. Clean, well-decorated, well-lit and with very new-looking equipment. You can tell we had a good time, can’t you? My back’s even been better since we’ve been. That won’t last long with the crappy bed in my apartment but never mind.

The Chomoatography PoolWe caught the last afternoon bus back and chilled out for a little as we waited for dinner at the Sap at 20:00. Only when we got there, Pieter apologised profusely as he’s forgotten they had to cater for an additional 12 guests and couldn’t squeeze us in. No problem. As a bonus, the overseas director had told me to take my guest out for dinner on the company when she was visiting. Chris, one of the head chefs, recommended Casa Volaria out past the casino so we walked down there.

Definitely a good choice for Leah, who had some kind of dead sea thing and pasta. I settled on a 300g rib steak that was very well cooked but about 50% fat and gristle. A shame as my starter and dessert were both very nice indeed. Mind, I can’t complain as I pocketed the receipt to shove on expenses. Our thanks to Goran!

The following evening, we did get that dinner in the hotel. The advantage for me was that we had been going on a Tuesday when I’d eaten there before so the menu was the same. This way I got to try another couple of dishes, although we missed sticky toffee pudding night. Instead we had to put up with chocolate brownies. For which I’ve been ordered to get the recipe to Leah. So she was impressed, then.

More chomatographic wonderfullnessNext day was home day for Leah. After a mad panicked dash around half of Chamonix to find our handyman (who’d gone AWOL with the van keys), we set off a little earlier than originally planned. Apparently there was some kind of demonstration closing the tunnel which was causing problems with traffic all around town. I found a rat-run to get us passed it and we raced off to the airport in the brake-less deathwagon. In fairness the brakes worked. If you hammered the middle pedal down, allowed for 2-3 times the braking distance and covered your ears to the grinding sound. Not ideal as the heavens opened on the journey to Geneva. It was raining so much I actually stuck to the speed limit for most of the drive.

Thankfully the rain eased off on the way back, although it came down in town again today. Looks like the season may be drawing to a close. This weekend coming we are taking guests to Geneva and not bringing any more back with us. I will not make any more statements about this reducing the possibility of disaster. Not after last time.

Recruiting followers

I’d been warned about the mountain roads round here so was tempted to get the bus up to where the old road began prior to the St Bernard Pass. Thing is, I’d been told the wrong bus stop so the thing thundered past me without so much as pausing.

I returned to the campsite to rethink my timetable and got talking to a young lad from London who’d pretty much exhausted his backpacking money and decided to try and get home for as little as possible. Well, what’s cheaper than walking? Together, we made it up to the old road and we split up, James intending to get a lift through the tunnel and on as far as he could go towards Geneva. I started hiking up the old road.

Half an hour or so later, a black VW Golf pulled up and James jumped out. It seems the roads ahead weren’t as adviseable to walk on as I’d been led to believe and the German driver insisted I accept a lift. Well, I don’t want to get knocked flying off a cliff so I agreed.

I’m glad I did. Our driver was a Schumacher wannabe and he wasn’t the only one on the road. There was no safe walking path except at th very rare picnic / viewing spots. In fact, there were no barriers of any kind and walking on the inside of the curves would have been tantamount to suicide as cars squealed round the turns.

I jumped out to take a couple of photos at the pass on the top before jumping back into the car for the equally hairy downhill section. There is no doubt in my mind that I would have got squished on that road, plus I’d have struggled at the bottom as there are two long tunnel sections I couldn’t have walked through.

Our driver was heading for Frankfurt and said he could take us as far as Montreux. James definitely wanted to get as far as he could and I was desparate for company after the lonely days in Italy, so I reluctantly decided I’d reroute elsewhere to gain some miles and skip Martigny.

In Montreux, we booked into a nice YHA which included breakfast in the price and popped out for a beer and a burger for dinner. It was great to have the company.

Best. View. Ever.

I picked up some fruit and cakes for breakfast, packed up and followed the hiking trail for Cogne, the next town down. I was only meant to be passing through but I couldn’t help but stop and gape in awe at the scene that awaited me.

The back of the village town has a large grass field laid out before some stunning mountain backdrop. Building is not allowed on the field as it’s “protected” and you can see why if you ever get the chance to experience it under such good weather conditions as I did. Mountains slope down from left and right to for a valley that channels into the distance. Between them, further away than you can believe, is a snow-capped peak with what must be waterfalls spilling down it. Utterly magnificent and impossible to do justice to with a photo.

I found a cybercafe, so I had a quick mail check (thanks for the donations!) before rucking up again and making my way to this evening’s scheduled stop of Aosta. It’s a long, downhill road but there wasn’t much traffic so I never felt unsafe. I arrived in Aosta later than I’d intended, but still in daylight. Sadly it turned out I’d missed a weekend festival – the final act had just about finished – but at least the tourist information was still open to guide me to a campsite for the night.

There I got talking to an English couple on a cycling tour with their 2-year old daughter: Jeanette, Stewart (or Stuart) and little Indigo. I don’t know how they were raising her, but whatever they were doing was working. What a great kid!

I showered (included in the price in this place and felt wonderful!) and joined them for dinner down the road. Great conversation and company – I thank you folks and wish you well on the rest of your travels.

A crash course in mountaineering

Well, this morning’s task was to get across some big hills in the Gran Paradiso National Park. Andrea had given me an old map, which was a huge help, and I made it to the borders of the parkland by 9:30am. By 12:30 I was sat having lunch in Valprato Soana at an elevation of 1113m. Cold pizza, a pastry and Coke were all I could get, but it filled a gap.

I stopped at a tourist information shack and was told that the route I’d picked wasn’t difficult and that I should be in my targetted destination (Lillez) by 8pm at the latest. In a word: ha!

The path to the start of the hiking trail was fine, but the trail itself was incredibly steep and it took over an hour to reach the first plateau. Markings there were sparse, but thankfully some people were building a house there and managed to point me in the right direction.

I moved upwards into a stunning valley and pointed myself at what I thought was the pass through the mountains. Then I noticed the red and white markings led to my right… and upwards. Ever upwards. That’s when I realised I’d barely reached half the height I had to climb to get through the pass.

The higher I got, the worse it got. Shale, pebbles, mud, snow… I did get a magnificent view of some chamoix perched on a ledge above me, staring inquisitively as they do.

Finally, maybe two hours later than planned or intended (or recommended, for that matter), I reached the summit having made full use of the chains bolted to the rock face. A large bell awaited me and I rang it like bonkers, overjoyed at getting to the top. But it wasn’t over yet… The downward slope was as good as unmarked and quite heavily covered in snow with loose rocks underneath.

I eventually made it down with my boots filled with stones. I had to slide down some steep grassy banks as I couldn’t find anything remotely resembling a trail down. Eventually I located a path to a sign marked “Lillaz – 1671m”. One mile! Yes!

An hour later I was still walking and beginning to wonder what was going on. I got to another sign: “Lillaz – 1671m”. It’s not the distance… it’s the elevation. By luck I bumped into a park guide who told me I had one to one-and-a-half hours still to go to get to Lillaz. I was battling against daylight as the sun was already going down and I wasn’t carrying any food. I had to get there.

I finally entered Lillaz around 21:30 and got camped up in a campsite. Lots of people speak French in Lillaz, but not a lot of English. I started to polish the language I’d been taught at school to pay for my camping and to buy some food. Setting up camp cost me EURO9 (4 for the tent and 5 for me, myself) and then I discovered it was an extra EURO1.5 for a shower! So I didn’t bother. Had I realised, I’d have camped in the woods round the back where it’s free.

Dinner consisted of one beer and two crepes – one with Nutella and one with Grand Marnier to help knock me out.

Relaxing in Turin

The last couple of days I have mostly been Couchsurfing, socialising and resting my feet after destroying them on the Walk. I expect to be moving on this evening as I have an offer of accommodation in a village outside of the city, which is great. Turin’s a nice place, the “old capital” of Italy, and the people who I’ve met have been nothing short of amazing. On Wednesday night, at short noticed, a gathering was organised and we all met at a restaurant for dinner. Italians seem to eat even later than the French so we sat down to order sometime after 9pm, chatted and ate and drank till midnight and then staggered home. Of course, this is Italy – the food was outstanding. I’ve met some wonderful people here which makes it all the more difficult to move on. Most are Italians, but also a couple of other couchsurfers from the US, UK and Brazil. Aside from meeting people, I’ve not been much of a tourist here due to resting my feet! Near both Giuliana and Alessandro (my two hosts) is the old Fiat factory, now a mall. The test track for cars is on the roof, and the ramps to get the cars there – like the ones in underground car parks – are still in place inside the mall. Very wacky. A shame you can’t get onto the roof any more, as far as I’m aware. I took a short video of the runway going up in case anyone’s interested.

Legend has it that the original Italian Job was to have a scene filmed on this track, but Fiat refused unless the script ditched the then-British Mini in favour of a small car of Fiat’s own manufacture. A fair request, in honesty, I suppose. The film-makers refused, and instead used the sloping roof of another building maybe half a mile away which is still standing. I’ve been there, and the roof is still in place, though the body of the building is now different. It was rebuilt for the 2006 Winter Olympics and is pretty ugly and red compared to the lovely windows and glass on the structure seen in the film. With any luck I’ll catch the Egyptian museum today. I hear it’s the second largest collection of Egyptian artefacts outside of Cairo, so it should be worth a gander!