France 2007 Day 6: Abriès to Aiguilles

Published on 29 August 2007 in , , , ,

Whilst the beer, the food, the atmosphere and the service had been wonderful, there was one small problem with the Chalet de Lanza. The plumbing. Water seemed to rattle around the hotel pipes like no ones business – coupled with the loud pumping noise whenever someone on our floor used a sink.

It was most noticeable around 6am when the people in the neighbouring room decided that having a lie in really wasn’t for them, and that they should instead get up and spend huge amounts of time using their sink. Not being the world’s heaviest sleeper, I got a wakeup call I really didn’t want…

Still that should not detract from the fact that after a days rest (or supposed rest), we were back on the trial. After a hearty breakfast served in the hotel’s small dinning room, we parcelled up our stuff, paid the bill for the wine, beer and coffee and we were on our way – making a minor detour via the post office to send postcards back to Blighty.

We were headed via Aiguilles – a neighbouring village which in reality, is just a few kilometres down the road. Of course that’s not the route we were taking, which would see us go up some big hills, but get some stunning views in return for our effort.

The Stations of the Cross

The hills started pretty early on, joining our dear old friend, the GR 58 again as it left Abriès by going up hill. This initial climb gave some stunning views of the town from above, and saw us pass by twelve “Stations of the cross”, lined up on the way to a small church and gite set into the hill.

From there it was up hill some more – passing beehives, a campsite which included a donkey and some unknown spot where Catherine managed to lose her sunglasses.

The ruins of Le Malrif More ruins of Le Malrif

After a hefty climb though, we reached the first stage of the day – the deserted, abandoned hamlet of Le Malrif – it’s ruined stone buildings providing quite a contrast against the landscape. The reason for its abandonment becomes pretty clear when you get there. It’s a place with absolutely no road access – where even a trip to get a loaf of bread would have been a two hour round journey with a steep climb, and along some rocky paths.

Chapelle du Malrif

Principle feature of Le Malrif however is not a ruin – a few years ago, the small chapel – Chapelle du Malrif – was restored and is now in good condition. However it was also firmly locked and the bright sunlight hampered our attempts to glimpse inside. Instead we had to rely on a suitable photograph to get a true view of the chapel’s simple interior.

Near the chapel was also evidence that this abandoned hamlet was getting some sense of life again – the house nearest to the chapel was in top nick, complete with lots of “PRIVATE” signs around its mown lawn. Further on, there was evidence of more building work amongst the ruins – equipment and supplies left casually around, although on this day there were no builders to be seen. Presumably buildings were being restored for holiday homes – isolated spots out of the way for people to relax in. It seems tempting in so many ways…

Stopping was something however, that we couldn’t do. It was time to move on – we still had a long walk to go, along a nice, gentle incline. A path with just one drawback – some extremely viscous mosquitoes which seemed to delight in attacking me. More than once I caught one half way through puncturing my skin. Attempts to bat them away with the old Tilley hat generally failed.

Les Bertins

Respite came just beyond a spot called Les Bertins. This picturesque little area was the quiet before the storm – a lovely, peaceful spot at the foot of a steep and hard looking 500m ascent.

Steep and difficult looking it might have looked, but it actually turned out to be a pretty easy climb. The path zig-zagged gently up hill, giving some stunning views of the paths we’d just walked along.

Looking back at Les Bertins

Off in the distance too was Mount Viso – today regularly covered with clouds which continually thwarted my attempts to get a decent photograph of it.

Mount Viso (sort of)

After what felt like an age (because it was) we crossed over a ravine and onto the second half of the hill walk – and the beginning of an infuriating period of almost continuous false summits. It was one of those stages of a walk where you kept appearing to be almost there, only to turn a corner and find you’ve got another great big steep segment of walking still to do. The flow of people in front of us, continued to grow smaller and smaller in the distance – a stream of ants climbing a giant ant-hill. Because it’s there.

Mount Viso pokes its nose out again

The only reward was the regular views of a cloudy Mount Viso – the odd bit of rock at the summit occasionally poking its nose out – and a wonderful display of alpine flowers which adorned the route, giving bursts of yellows, purples and reds against the green grass.

The ultimate reward however was at the top – the place where all the false summits had been banished from. After an hour and a half long climb from Les Bertins, we were finally there. And what a there it was.

Le Grand Laus

Le Grand Laus is the largest of the three Lacs du Malrif, and a very fine reward for the morning climb. Judging by the steady stream of people picnicking or walking through, it was also a popular spot and an obvious one for us to settle down and chomp hungrily on our piles of bread and cheese.

Paddling in the lake

It being a warm day, and a lovely looking lake, it also had to mean a quick paddle to cool the feet down. Well some things you just have to do…

Having had a good relax, it was time to set off again. In total we’d gone up 1168m, and it was all down hill from there.

It was also time to put the knees truly to the test.

After my knee problems a couple of days earlier, I’d invested in a pair of Nordic Walking poles in Abriès for the princely sum of only €21.

Along the rocky path

I’d always scoffed the users of the poles – an attitude of “if you need two bits of metal to help you get up a hill, you’re not doing it right”. A view probably verging on the arrogant and one which had been wiped out by my painful descent two days earlier. All of a sudden, the idea of spreading my load over two legs and two walking poles had seemed a rather appealing idea.

During the morning’s climb I’d found the poles had been of some benefit – helping to propel me up the steep bits at a faster speed than I would normally have been able to do. Indeed on several occasions, I’d stormed off ahead and had to wait for Catherine to catch up. So far, a result. Going down however would be the true test.

Catherine stands next to the Cairn

That said, the initial descent – along the GR 58 A – wasn’t exactly steep and we walked along, getting some fantastic views, whilst gently going down.

Over the course of a few hours, we managed to go down about 600m with relative ease, however as we approached Aiguilles – our destination for the day – the scale of the final descent was revealed.

Aiguilles in sight

We reached a point called Les Eygliers and could see just where we needed to go. A descent of about 500m and pretty quickly too – down some pretty steep paths which zig-zagged down the hill.

Despite being regularly overtaken by people almost running down hill, we took it a bit slower – passing a woman we’d seen a couple of days earlier near St-Véran who’d had knee problems on that descent (I couldn’t help but note she’d now gained walking poles too, as well as a knee support). For me the poles were working well, and no untoward pains were felt even when we reached a point called La Pause where things got really steep.

Catherine coming down hill near La Pause

Even having hit a really really really steep path, we still had another 200m to go and to complicate things, it had got very rocky. If there’s an opposite of false summits – false bases perhaps – this path had them in abundance. At every point you thought you couldn’t go down any more, only to look out at the view of the town below us and realise that you were still far higher up than you thought possible given how much walking you’d done.

Aiguilles getting closer

After what felt like an eternity, we finally arrived near a small shrine which signalled our entrance into the town of Aigulles. Knackered and tired (well our total descent was 1273m – even if we had only walked 13km, it had still been a long day), we plodded through the village towards our hotel which was unfortunately (for us) positioned right at the opposite end of Aiguilles to where we’d entered. To make things worse, it was up hill.

As was our room when we finally got to the Hotel le Balcon de Combe Rousset – a traditional mountain hotel who had put us up on the third floor. Fantastic views were to be had from our balcony, but that initial walk up those stairs upon arrival felt ridiculously hard.

It had been a hot day, and relaxing showers were in order – which was a bit complicated as the room hadn’t actually got anywhere on the wall to attach the shower to meaning all you could do was just crouch in the bath and hold it above your head. Still it was warm and cleansing. Whilst Catherine was giving herself a good soak, I turned on the TV only to find myself hit with the French (and indeed original) version of Countdown.

Des Chiffres et des Lettres

I watched Des Chiffres et des Lettres in a sort of weird haze – not being able to speak much French reduced my own interaction with the programme to trying to spot the differences between the UK copy and the original. From that I deduced that France doesn’t have a big clock and their music isn’t as good. The host also was no Richard Whitely. And the insistence that the maths rounds were done standing up in a different part of the small studio was rather odd.

Most noticeable though was the inclusion of the audience in the programme. The programme had a slightly odd style of filming the audience (of mostly kids) who were seen playing along with notepads and pens, whispering things to each over, whilst casually glimpsing at the contestants, the board and the camera.

The main conclusion from this viewing however was pretty clear. It doesn’t matter what language it’s in, or what it’s called. It’s just an amazingly relaxing programme.

And with that we retired to the hotel’s terrace to sup La Tormente au Génépi – one of the La Tormente range of local beers which we’d tried several times to try, only to find ourselves thwarted by bars having run out. Génépi is a name given to a number of rare, aromatic plants from the alps which are often distilled into a liqueur. In this case, it had been added to beer, giving a rather sweet but refreshing brew.

Then it was time to adjourn to the dining room where we feasted upon Pizza Maison (featuring anchovies, annoyingly for Catherine) followed by Pousson with beans for me, and the old French vegetarian standby of an omelette for Catherine. The wine – a local red called La Descente – was tasty, although the sediment at the bottom was unexpected. Had I known, I’d have poured it more carefully!

Desert claimed to be crème brulee, however was not what most people in the UK would think of it – being bit soggier, and served with a slice of fruit cake which worked surprisingly well.

However what was most noticable was that yet again on this holiday, we were some of the last people to leave the dinning room. In almost everything you ever learn about France tells you that people spend an eternity over food, yet in every place we’d eaten (bar the Chalet de Lanza in Abriès), the French just seemed to eat their food then leave almost as quickly as possible. In contrast, we’d be there still polishing off the wine and merrily chatting to each other for some time. Maybe the wine was part of that, but hey when you’re on holiday, you might as well enjoy yourself…

Number of different cheeses eaten on day 6
Andrew 3
Catherine 4

For more photographs of this holiday, have a look at my France 2007 photo set on Flickr