The Tour de Mont Blanc Diaries Day 1 – Champex Lac to Ferret and a walk in the woods
Our train from Geneva airport skirted around Lake Lausanne heading for Martigny on a journey that would take us back to Champex Lac, where we had ended our Tour de Mont Blanc walk last year. There’ s a bit of history here, as my friend Julia and I had decided to hike this Alpine trail in stages of a few days at a time and we were back for a third year of what will probably be a four year journey for us both. An elderly man in the seat across the aisle beckoned to me confidentially and spoke first in German, then in English when I looked blank. “What are the three fastest ways to spread news? he asked, looking pleased at his riddle. The answer ; “Telegram, Telephone, Tell a woman”. Not quite knowing what to make of the joke, I smiled politely and gazed out of the window, as the medieval castle at Montreux sped by. Lake Lausaune was so big that we could only just make out the far shore and a haze hung over the water in the warm sunshine.
The journey from Martigny
At Martigny we changed to the local line on the cheerful, red St Bernard Express with the dog on the side that was once used to rescue people in the mountains, although nowadays the helicopter is more in demand. A quick change at Sembrancher which I almost missed, in my desire to take just one more photo, and our train journey ended at Orsieres where we picked up our bus connection to take us up the winding hairpin bends to Champex Lac. The bus was full of primary school children heading home, who were creating a riot all around us, until a stern French aunty told them to pipe down. A long day of travel and we were back where we ended last year, pulling off our boots and putting on our Crocs at the Gite Bon Abri. Not much had changed in the year we’d been away; we had the same 6 bed bunk room to ourselves with red flanellette sheets and duvets and the same supper that started with an aperitif of sweet wine and some home-made cheese straws. The mules were grazing outside, ready for the next day when they might be carrying someone’s baggage up the mountain. The forecast was good and we were all set fair for our few days walking on the Tour de Mont Blanc.
Setting off from Champex Lac
Our first day was planned to be our longest, although the terrain was gentle with not too many steep climbs in altitude. Julia had experienced serious problems with accute mountain sickness (AMS) during our walk the year before, and she had prepared herself to avoid it this year with a large water pouch which she could sip through a tube and some medication (Diamox). Our little joke was that she’d told all her friends that she was on Viagra, as I’d heard somewhere that they are in the same family of drugs and both work by increasing the blood supply!
As we came down the hill at 8.30 towards the lake, all the shops were shut but the fishermen were lined up along the bank. Being conscious of the etiquette of the Tour de Mont Blanc, I must have said about ten Bonjours as I passed them one by one along the path by the lake. I even spotted a few of those naughty children who were causing a riot in the bus out fishing with their dads. We nearly got lost before we had even started, but a little way down the road we picked up the yellow and black diamond TMB signs, and turned into the woods. The walk was cool and shady and the carved wooden sculptures that we’d spotted outside Gite Bon Abri and also on the lake continued with a menagerie of carved wooden animals and other sculptures along the route.
The Sentier des Champignons
A forest sign told us that we were on the “Sentier des Champignons” but although we saw a wooden mushroom sculpture, it was too early for the autumn crop of real champignons. At a bend in the path, the clanging of cow bells warned us that there was a dairy farm in the building below the path, but thankfully no cows blocking the way as we had experienced last year. As the forest cleared, we walked down to the road at the village of Issert, which was full of pretty old houses and took some photos on the bridge that crossed the rushing mountain river. The path skirted along the open meadow and through the small hamlet of Les Arlaches where workmen were repairing the attractive old wooden barns and the houses were in various states of repair. Through gaps in the houses we could glimpse some fertile vegetable patches with orange home grown pumpkins and a large cross marked the end of the village.
A walk through the Alpine meadow
The path continued through an Alpine meadow and next we reached the somewhat larger village of Praz de Fort where we crossed the river again and stopped to have an early lunch on a fallen log overlooking the river, keeping a safe distance from a row of multicoloured bee hives. It was only 11.30 and although we had been walking three hours, the map showed us that we had only walked around a third of our walk for the day, so we couldn’t afford to linger too long. We nearly got lost again among the outskirts of the village where a lot of new houses seemed to have been built and then passed through the forest along a causeway created by moraine left by the retreating Glacier de Saleina, with the light dappling through the pines.
A view of the glaciers at La Fouly
An hour or so later, we approached La Fouly, a larger village that looked as if it saw a lot of visitors in both summer and winter, judging by the numerous cafes, equipment shops and information centre. Had we been looking for a more lively location for our night’s stop this would probably have been it. The village has wonderful views of the hanging glaciers and we settled gratefully into the sunny outdoor terrace of the Auberge des Glacier for a reviving Orangina, surrounded by lean climbing types with wraparound sunglasses. The cafe was full of colour, with orange striped deck chairs set on green astroturf, electric blue sun umbrellas and window boxes full of pink geraniums framing the glacier in the bowl of the mountains.
Eventually we prised ourselves from our deck chairs and mustered the energy to walk the final hour up the valley to Ferret, the last village before the road ran out. We had booked a room at Hotel Col de Fenetre, the only place in town, where we were thrilled by our en suite twin room, a real step up from some of the dorms where we had slept in previous years. The day ended with a cold beer, a meal of pork in mustard sauce, finished by a slice of ice-cream that had a red Swiss flag embedded in it – what a novelty. Today had been long but easy terrain through Alpine meadows and pretty villages. Tomorrow, we would get away from the road and up into the real mountains.
To be continued…..
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More Tour de Mont Blanc adventures from last year
Resources for the Tour de Mont Blanc
We took the train from the station at Geneva Airport buying a combined ticket that covered all the changes and the integrated bus service to Champex Lac. The route was via Martigny where we changed to the St Bernard Express to Orsieres with a brief change at Sembrancher. At Orsieres we waited half an hour for the bus to Champex Lac. The whole journey took around 3 hrs 30 mins and cost 59 CHF one way.
On the first night we stayed at Gite Bon Abri at Champex-de’en-Haut, which we highly recommend, with private rooms and dorm rooms. The cost was around CHFR 76 per person including dinner and breakfast in a 6 bed dorm room and the Gite may be booked in advance by e-mail. The second night we stayed at Hotel Col de Fenetre at Ferret. The twin room with en suite bathroom cost 95 CHF per person including dinner and breakfast. The hotel does not have a website but reservations can be made by e-mailing [email protected] Tel. 027 783 1188
For mountain clothing I recommend mountain sports specialist, Ellis Brigham who have a wide range of waterproof jackets, trousers and other walking gear you might need for a trek on the mountains, which are available both through their website and UK stores.
We used the Cicerone Tour of Mont Blanc guide by Kev Reynolds – we found it to be an excellent guide for both the clockwise and anti-clockwise route with detailed route guide, maps, accommodation information and points of interest along the route.
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