We have entered the French Alps and they are spectacular! Tucked into a small valley in eastern France, just near where Italy, Switzerland, and France converge, Chamonix is a beautiful town dedicated to skiing, mountain climbing, and extreme sports. Walking through the town, you realize this must have been the inspiration for Whistler or Aspen.
The jagged peaks rise straight up on both sides of the glacially-carved valley, with the L'Arve River running through the middle of town. The mountains soar above the tree line and are snow-capped, feeding dozens of glaciers that stretch down the slopes. While the area is dominated by Mont Blanc, the tallest mountain in Europe at over 15,000 feet tall, that peak is not the majestic, soaring spire you might think, rather, more of a large, domed ice cream cone.
Upon arriving and checking into are hotel (and looking out the windows and patio at the mountain view) we caught an old cogwheel train that takes you on a 20-minute, 3000-foot climb to the Mere de Glacé overlook ( no guarantees on my French spelling!) a 7-mile long glacier. From that point we took a tram down to near the toe of the glacier and then, after defending 400 stairs, entered a cave that is drilled into the glacier. The cave is a roughly 300-yard long loop that is lighted and, while a bit kitchy with carved tables, chairs, etc., quite fascinating. A new cave is carved each year and because the glacier here is receding (like most in the Alps), additional stairs are added each year. I believe that the number ha more than doubled since 1980. The 400-step climb back to the tram and train warms you back up!
The high-point of the trip (pun intended!) occurred when we took the gondola ride up the the Aguille de Midi, or "needle in the middle". The first gondola - packed like a Japanese subway car at rush hour - takes you from the valley floor (elevation approximately 3400 feet) to a point at about 7600 feet ( in 8 minutes) where you catch another gondola to the Needle, elevation 12600 feet. The views are indescribable! Of course, you can then take an elevator up about 60 more feet to the very top of the peak (which I did!). From the main observation deck climbing 3 short flights of stairs to the cafe, the shortness of breath and dizziness you experience are quick reminders of the elevation! While up on the observation deck an old Air France DC3 flew by - below us! You can watch the climbers take off from the peak to either hike down the mountain, or up to Mont Blanc, where many of them then jump off and paraglide to the valley below. This is truly one of the most spectacular places I've been.
Upon descending to the mid-point (7600 feet) Karen and I embarked on the 5 mile lowing hike that eventually takes you back to the cogwheel train stop at the Mere de Glacé. Dropping 1500 feet (net, there is a pretty good, steep climb in the middle) it is not too difficult, but walking in and out of the tree line with the views of the mountains above and valley below, is a great afternoon stroll! When we finished 2-1/2 hours later, we actually stopped at a small "climbers cafe" in town and had a really good burger! (first on the trio, but more about the food in a moment). This gave us enough energy to get in a short 3 mile hike/climb to a beautiful, flower-covered chalet overlooking the valley for a quick before-dinner drink. I wanted to try parasailing, but not enough time. Oh well, maybe next trip!
Speaking of food, this area of France is famous for it fondue. The local version, made with 3 cheeses - Beaufort, Comte, and Emmentaller - is wonderful! We liked it so much on our first dinner with the group, that Karen and I had it again the next night! (hence, the extra hikes!!). They also eat Racolette, which is a cheese and devise. Looking like two stacked, round hot plates with a gap between them, you take a couple slices of the cheese, put them on a metal tray, insert them into the devise until they melt, then you take it out and pour the melted cheese over sliced meets and potatoes. Interesting and tasty, but the experience is more memorable than the meal.
This morning we began our journey south into Provence, with a short stop in Annecy. This beautiful lakeside town is a popular retirement and vacation area. A boat tour around the lake (the homes! Think Lake Washington or Tahoe on steroids), a picnic lunch in the lakeside park, and a quick paddle boat rental to work of more of last nights' fondue, and you have a great morning.
The weather has been wonderful. - mid 70s and sunny, with more of the same forecast for the rest of the trip (looking at reports, we won't expect the same when we get home!). The people in the trip, and the locals we've met have been great. With a week to go, still a few more updates to expand on that.