Sunday, June 4, 2017

Tour du Mont Blanc Day 6: La Fouly to Champex

Tour du Mont Blanc Day 6 - La Fouly to Champex – 7/16/16 – 9.2 Miles

Walking between La Fouly and Champex is the easiest stage of the TMB, a civilized stroll through the Swiss countryside. The stark rawness and challenges that Mother Nature had been doling out took the day off as the trail wandered to and fro, hither and yon, in and out of charming villages in a pastoral mountain valley.

The now-normal morning routine was relaxed, packing completed before breakfast, which we enjoyed in the dining room after a nod to our friends John and Graham. We retrieved our boots from the hiker dungeon (i.e. storage) and walked a block back through town to the only market for lunch provisions.  The pre-made sandwiches were already in low supply (we should have gotten them yesterday when we arrived) and another backpacker was stocking up from the remains, presumably for friends (surely he wasn’t going to eat all that himself). I grumbled but Jim, as always, smiled and good-naturedly took what was left.  At least there were apricots and chocolate bars.

What made it so easy?  The first 10 kilometers sloped gently downgrade, allowing us to keep our eyes open to scenic twists and turns (and TMB markers) through the Swiss Val Ferret where the Drance de Ferret flows.  Sometimes we walked on gravel roadways, sometimes through the forests. The specifics of the route are described succinctly in the Reynolds’ Tour of Mont Blanc so we’ll just enjoy the sights:

The tiny village of Prayon
The TMB follows the wooded causeway of the Crête de Saleina that covers a portion of the lateral moraine of Saleina Glacier.  
Swiss suburbs
Nearing Praz-de-Fort
Okay, not old, but charming

Along the road between Praz-de-Fort and the equally adorable village of Les Arlaches we stopped in a field to have a picnic lunch. Local villagers passed by on bicycles and on foot.  The fields were marked at regular intervals by small wooden stakes and iron water faucets – in reality these were spacious campsites. 

We gathered our gear and resumed our trek.  As we reached Les Arlaches, we met a mother-daughter pair who introduced themselves as Debbie and Claire from Charleston, South Carolina.  They would be a welcome sight for us at the end of the day tomorrow. 
In Les Arlaches, gnomes rule

Another ten minutes’ walking brought us to yet another cute little village called Issert.  The guidebook told us there’s a place for refreshments here, but it’s been less than an hour since our picnic lunch so we didn’t plan to stop.  As we crossed the road in front of the restaurant, TMB trekkers dribbled out to join the trail again – including Cassie and Niki.  We hiked with them the rest of the way to Champex.

The 10 kilometers of easy was over as the TMB turned upward to leave Issert in the valley. There’s a mountain to climb to get to the next valley and the Lac de Champex.

Five kilometers of climbing through the forest with limited views, however gradual, isn’t as much fun as the previous ten except… some very clever Swiss have created the Sentier des Champignons (Path of the Mushrooms), a display of wood carvings of animals both real and mythical, and of course, mushrooms!  Carvings appear at random along the trail.  Poor conditions for photographs because of the dappled sunshine, but Jim tried:
It’s a mushroom, I think

Guidebooks should not be relied on to be comprehensive and if you don’t pay attention you’ll miss something the writers don’t mention at all.  At one switchback turn going up the path, I looked back to see how close Jim was behind me (taking pictures of wood carvings slowed him down).  Just a few yards off of the bend I saw a darkness that at first seemed to be a boulder, but a closer look revealed a cave opening.  Jim arrived, followed soon by Cassie and Niki, and we explored the cave (me staying near the entrance.) 

The amusement of the gallery of carvings was about worn out when the trail reached a vista fit for a postcard (like all of the TMB, I guess).

Almost there!  But the TMB seemed to take forever to reach town, following a wooded path alongside a paved road, then through a parking area to a small service road, and eventually bursting out onto the main drag alongside the lake. 

Lac de Champex 
The town fountain.  Our B&B is to the right, across the road from the red paddleboat station.

Champex has many hostels and hotels to choose from, but I found our unique B&B in a roundabout way while looking at blogs about the Tour du Mont Blanc.  I read about a restaurant that had two rooms above it, but couldn’t find the name in an internet search, so I began looking at all B&B’s in Champex to find a photograph.  Sure enough, the restaurant had changed hands (thus names) but they still operate a B&B upstairs – two rooms with a shared bath and shared living room and…most important… a balcony from which to watch everything happening in Champex! From this magnificent perch we waved to fellow TMB pilgrims as they walked into town.
Café Ptarmigan B&B – our favorite place to stay on the TMB (110CHF including breakfast)
Balcony view to the right
Balcony view to the left
Straight across the lake

After hot showers and fresh clothes, we hand-washed all our dirty hiking gear and hung it on a drying rack provided (so guests won’t hang laundry off the balcony?)  Next we took a stroll along the main street of our newest home-away-from-home.  At a boulangerie we bought huge apple pastries that we ate as we walked, checking out restaurant menus and enjoying the energy of the Saturday afternoon holiday crowd.  Having learned a lesson about waiting until the last minute, we bought provisions for tomorrow’s lunch (cheese, ham, bread, fruit and granola bars – again).  At an ATM we debated on how much cash to get in Swiss francs, ended up with about 100 CHF and 150€.

We crossed paths with Cassie and Niki and invited them to join us for a beer by the lake (our treat, since we enjoy hanging out with the young’uns).  We chatted about topics ranging far and wide, from “where is home?” to dream hiking trips to how international travel gives one a different view towards politics, nationalism, gun control, and so on.  Alcohol and being a long way from home can loosen the tongue!  A snapshot in time, never to be repeated: sitting with friends beside a Swiss lake on a sunny July afternoon.

When the girls went looking for their hostel, Jim and I walked across the street to a restaurant.  As we were being seated, John and Graham passed by the window and we waved them in to join us.  Jim and I shared traditional raclette – the hostess scraped melted portions of cheese onto wooden boards to eat with sour pickles, pearl onions and fingerling potatoes.  She replenished the melted cheese as quickly as we consumed it, until we couldn’t hold any more.

Again the conversation rambled as we learned more about our fellow hikers.  Graham has never been married, John is divorced with grown children.  How did these two become friends?  In salsa class!  Again, I was impressed by John’s phenomenal memory of books and extensive knowledge of European history, and Graham’s revelation that he’s a Tai Chi instructor.  They asked us why Americans love their guns and tolerate so many gun-related deaths.  Hmmm…

Ice cream drenched in Bailey’s put us over the top as we begged the server to bring the bill.  Split four ways, 90€ for Jim and me was almost as much as our B&B (we will regret this tomorrow).  But for us the best part of hiking the TMB is the social interactions, and a good time was had by all. 

Champex was dead quiet on a Saturday night and I felt like I was sleeping in my own bed. 

Miles: 9.2     Elevation gain: 1,755 feet     Elevation loss: 2,093 feet

“Since there is nothing so well worth having as friends, never lose a chance to make them.” ~Francesco Guicciardini

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