France 2016 - Tuesday, October 04 - Chamonix and Mont Blanc

Day 5: The Mountaineering Mecca of Chamonix

Head towards the Mâconnais and Beaujolais before turning east into the Alps.  A scenic symphony awaits you as you ascend into the high Alps and climb towards Mont Blanc, Western Europe's highest mountain.  Your destination is the fashionable ski resort of Chamonix.  Why not take a spectacular drive into the mountains in the evening for a traditional Savoyard style dinner?  Hotel: Le Prieuré, Chamonix.  Buffet Breakfast.

  

I woke up at five am again this day.  It was unfortunate, but it did give me the chance to write a lot and post pictures to Facebook at least.  This was the day we drove up into the alps.  I was surprised how much this area reminded me of BC and I kept thinking that if I was transported here from home I wouldn’t realize that I was half a world away, except for the signs and roads themselves and everything.

It's a region known for its free range chicken, which makes sense that I found a giant pipe chicken in the centre of a roundabout by a highway overpass.  I found that if I stood in the right place and took a picture with the sun behind one of the pipes, I could get a great silhouette picture.

Somehow at this point I had lost the sunglasses I’d brought with me.  So, at our first rest stop I took the chance to buy some more at the convenience store.  The rest stop again by the way, ridiculously nice being in Europe. 

I was open to getting ones which were more garish than I would ever get at home, being in France and all.  In the end I settled with Joyce’s input, on black and red ones that I liked more and more as I wore them.  I like my new sunglasses. They are French.

This was the day we began our adventures with the broke dick bus.  The day before at some point we all started smelling a particular burning smell, the smell of burning plastic.  This was at the same time the transmission got all jerky and our bus got way too hot on the inside since they couldn’t get the air conditioning to work.  There was a lot of speculation as to what was actually burning that we smelled.  The leading idea was that it was the burning of insulation on electrical wiring.  We were later informed though that it was a fan belt on the motor slipping and getting hot to the point of smoking.  This seemed absolutely plausible to me.

So anyways, the next day we had a shittier older bus.  Insight usually has really spacious seats busses no older than four years old, with seats which slide out into the aisle, wi-fi, and all of the other bells and whistles.  So today we had a far less less posh bus and we were informed that the other one will be repaired after parts arrive from Paris, and that another driver will meet us today or the next day with the repaired bus. Mark claimed that we were going to use this bus instead because he didn't want to risk the dysfunctional bus breaking down as we drove through the mountain passes.  I wouldn’t like that either.

There are some experiences, some moments which you never forget. Plitvice National Park in Croatia was one of those for me, something completely unexpected and which I'll never forget. I've been waiting for another Plitvice moment on this trip and I got it this day.  We went up to the top of Mont Blanc, yes MY mountain. We saw it off in the distance from the winery the day before, then it was the backdrop for pictures during a brief rest stop on the way into the mountains,

and then we got to Chamonix which is a kind of ski town at the base of the mountain like Whistler or something but you know, in the French Alps.

We arrived at the hotel mid-day, and we had a dinner later on with free time in between.  There was apparently a train which would take us up into the mountains, or a cable car a short walk away which would take us all the way up to the top of Mont Blanc, eighth highest peak in the world.  Okay not the top peak, but pretty damn near.  We elected to pursue the latter, and walked across the small town to the base of the mountain.  Fifty-nine euros each later, we were stuffed into a cable car and it began its ascent.

We took the first up to a mid-way platform, and then a second one up to the very top.  I kept thinking they must have filmed a Bond scene here... or that they needed to if they hadn’t yet.

I got a lot more anxious as we went up the second one than I was expecting. We saw flowing glaciers and lamented how much smaller and less extensive they must be now than even 20 years ago.  Later that night Mark told us that when he first started coming here the glaciers came down much further this time of year, halfway to the ground in fact or about twice as far down as we saw them today.  Before long they’ll be gone altogether along with all of the others.

Once actually up on the mountain top I felt remarkably uncomfortable and precarious, even indoors. I kept thinking that the building or mountain was swaying.  It wasn’t of course, this was just the product of acute altitude sickness.  We were forty-eight hundred meters above sea level, and it was doing weird things to our bodies.  Joyce tells me that at that altitude oxygen concentration is twelve point seven as opposed to the regular twenty point nine at sea level, about sixty percent. 

We breathed heavy and there was an anxious tightness in my chest, something I'd never experienced before. 

Oxygen deprived grinning idiots

We saw about a dozen rescue people who we later learned are just always stationed there. 

We could see from our safe positions people all over the mountain climbing, hiking through the snow, parasailing off near the mountain…

we learned the next day that the day before we got a wingsuit guy died jumping off the mountain.  Apparently a surprising amount of people die on that mountain just as a result of how popular and accessible it is (average of a hundred a year), hence the dozen rescue patrol people permanently hanging out up there.

It didn’t help that I wanted to run around up there, from the gift shop, to all the varied look out points… oh, and it was freezing cold up there, like zero degrees cold. It was nice after feeling hot on the bus all day, and it was the only time I actually needed to bundle up a bit on the trip. 

Me touching a glacier?  Probably not, but let's go with that.

We made our way about, taking a ton of pictures, and then before we were ready to go back down we realized that we could go even higher without further charge, a place we’d looked up to from lower down and wondered if we could get up there. 

There was a glass box out the side of the building in this highest section, and I had to go in.  I certainly couldn’t come all this way and not go in the glass box could I?  They pushed black slippers towards me to step into with my shoes, and I walked over to the box.  It was the same thing as when I stepped onto the glass in the CN Tower, you conscious brain thinks no big deal, but your deep brain says ‘Wait.  Think it over.  Are you doing something stupid?’  But you answer no and press through, feeling altogether uncomfortable in that exciting way.

After the box we made our way back down with some worry about getting down in time to make it for dinner.  We were stuffed in on the way down even tighter than the way up, and we caught one of the last cable cars back down.  I took an amazing 4K video of the entire second descent.

We made our way out of the cable car and back across town to our hotel, bumping into the Calgary couple along the way who were out to find dinner on their own since they were skipping out of the group dinner we were going to.  Along the way I also ducked into a souvenir shop and found my stickers and bottle opener.  Score.  Back at the hotel we situated ourselves in our room and then went down to the hotel for drinks before dinner.  I had to try the local brews when I saw they were available. 

The Brasserie Du Mont Blanc Blanche tasted fruity and orangey and while interesting to have tried I wouldn't have ordered another. Instead I ordered the Blonde from the same brewery, in a degree of well-spoken French which seemed to quite impress the Australian couple who had since sat down beside us as we all gathered downstairs to be taken to dinner. 

The Blonde was very good, very crisp, and I would definitely order again.  I was amused that the rest of the trip Joyce kept reminding me that I liked the blondes.  She didn’t seem in on my private amusement thought.

On the way to dinner we went up to highway summit for some reason for picture taking.

I saw Switzerland for the second time in my life from a distance without actually going there.  It's becoming a thing. 

Now maybe I should never actually set foot in Switzerland and just make a point of seeing if from different places on a variety of sides.

The restaurant was Le Labrador for some reason and had a log cabin vibe with all kinds of fake bears and cows and moose.  Odd choice. 

Joyce asked what bear was in French and I answered ‘ourson.’  Mark corrected me that ‘ourson’ was bear cub but just a regular bear was ‘ours.’  Like how I’ll never forget that shark is ‘raquin’ because I couldn’t cough it up in an oral exam in grade nine, I’ll never forget the difference between ours and ‘ourson.’

Our appetizer at this restaurant was our choice of either a salad or a cheese and tomato tart.  It was about this point I started saying to Joyce: ‘YOU’RE a tart…’  I started with the salad and Joyce with the tart, and we switched halfway through.  We do this often so we can have the chance to try both things.  We both agreed the tart was much better than the salad.  Before the appetizer they started us off with some champagne with cherry brandy in it, vaguely reminiscent of the flavoured champagne we had the first night, but clearly a different flavour.  Whatever it was it was a total win and we were sad we only got the one glass.  Then it was all rotten grape juice even though we were asked ahead of time what we wanted to drink and I'd said beer. Whatever.  I had white wine and when I'd drank it they put more in the glass so I drank more. It’s a vicious cycle but I've had far bigger and far worse wine nights. 

Entree was unseasoned and unmarinated beef, pork, and chicken which we had to cook on a just warm electric stone. Mmmkay.

With it was a pretty good scalloped potatoes. 

The meat was okay but bland as I described.  Anette was sitting across from me and I cooked her meat for her, all of which she wanted completely well done.  Dessert was a quite good crème brulée.

It's funny.  So far all of the optional and included dinners so far have had one really good thing about them and everything else that went with it either merely pedestrian or outright gross. There are other benefits to participating in these outings, especially things like the winery dinner, but on balance on a night such as this I suspect we could have made out much better finding a restaurant for ourselves which we really like the look of and ordering what we actually want from the menu.