When We Dashed Through France and Bryn Became French!

Monday 26th September

Classy Chamonix and Climate Change

One thousand metres up in the Alps lies the ski resort of Chamonix. We drove for an hour or so from Aosta, through the romantic alpine scenery of mountains, valleys, precarious castles and monasteries, and plenty of tunnels. In fact, very little of the road we took was on the ground; it was either in a tunnel or on a viaduct.

Chamonix felt as if it was holding its breath, waiting for the ski season to begin in a couple of months’ time. The High Street was full of outdoor clothes shops (not all of them open), including the smallest Decathlon I have ever seen. (Andy and Lesley have a bit of a thing about Decathlons and they have led us into many Decathlons during this tour – I think they are trying to complete their ‘I-Spy book of Decathlons’). This was a ‘good thing’, as it was even colder today than yesterday, and Wendy and Lesley felt the need to buy bobble hats to keep their ears warm.

By now it was way past coffee time and Café Josephine was a delightful spot for our morning coffee and a croissant. We were so late that we had the last three croissants. Café Josephine is a great example of a fin-de siècle, French café; inside it was all ornate brass and glass and dark wood. Outside there were thick, fleecy blankets on the chairs for customers to wrap themselves up in to keep the chill air at bay. It also won the prize for the most expensive cup of coffee on the whole trip!

Buzzing with the costly caffeine, and clad in hats and puffa jackets, we took the Chemin de fer du Montenvers, the hundred-year-old, rack and pinion railway, to the Mont Blanc glacier, also known as the ‘Mer de Glace’. This is my first ever glacier (apart from taking the rail ferry under the Rhone glacier, and we know what happened then!) and it is the largest in France and the third largest in the Alps at 12km long. At the top we took the cable car down to where the glacier came to in 1985, when the original cable car was replaced by the current one. It was then a climb down 580 steps to where the glacier is today. 580 steps! That is how much the glacier has melted in the last 40 years! All the way down the metal staircase, there were signs showing the retreat of the glacier every year since then. At the foot of the glacier there is a tunnel carved into the ice so we could walk inside. It provided plenty of photo opportunities, with carved thrones and shapes, all artistically lit, and interspersed with displays about the glacier and it’s worrying future.

I came out feeling quite awestruck; both at the magnificence of the glacier and at how fast it is melting. A clear example of the disastrous effect of climate change. The ice at the foot of the glacier fell as snow on the top of Mont Blanc 300 years ago but the glacier is receding at an accelerating pace. In the last three decades it has shrunk by 800 metres and lost 25% of its volume overall.

These photos were taken 100 years apart – the one on the left in 1906 and on the right in 2006

The climb back up the 580 steps really brought home how much of the ice has been lost. Back at the station there is a ‘Glaciorium’, an exhibition about the study of glaciers. Did you know that glaciers have annual lines that can be used to tell its age, like the rings of a tree? The striations were first observed by James Forbes, a Scottish scientist, who visited the Mer de Glace in the 1830s, who was the first to hypothesise that glaciers ‘flowed like sluggish rivers’. These lines are now known as Forbes’ ogives or Forbes’ lines.

As we left the Glaciorum, it began to snow. Only a couple of days ago we were too hot in shorts and T shirts, now it is cold enough to snow (well we are now over 2000m higher up!).

It took a few attempts to find a campsite for this evening as we walked back from the station to the vans (parked for free in the car park of the Carrefour Express – Many thanks Carrefour!). Lesley was using her best French to ring them up, only to find that the first two had shut early for the season. Eventually she managed to find one in Samoens that said reception would be closed, but just ring security when you get there. Which we did. We ended up on a couple of lovely pitches, facing a lake, on the edge of a vast forest activity area, so great for walking the dogs.

Tuesday 27th September

The Town of Pasteur!

Apart from its fabulous location in a forest, by the lake, and the banks of the Giffre river, the campsite, Camping Caravaneige le Giffre, also has great stony pitches. This is important as it has rained all night and is still raining this morning. The sound of the rain bouncing off the van roof, kept me awake most of the night and worrying that we were going to find ourselves awash and bogged down, unable to drive off without a tow from a tractor. As soon as it was light, I jumped out of the van to find that we were on good stony ground, and I had spent the last four hours worrying needlessly.

Part of the difficulty that Lesley had in finding us a campsite last night was that we needed a site in striking distance of the little town of Taninge. In Taninge are the vets that Andy and Lesley use for Enzo when they stay in Les Gets, and we have booked Enzo and Bryn in for their medical checks and worming tablets so that they can return to the UK. We are also going to see if they will give Bryn a European Pet Passport so that we don’t have to keep applying for an Animal Health Certificate every time we want to take him abroad (and paying £100/200 a time for the pleasure too.). As well as having good stony pitches (I wish I had checked that last night) Camping le Giffre is only 15 minutes away from Taninge along a road by the side of the Giffre river, that was very picturesque, even though it was still raining. Well, it all went according to plan. The vet was a very amiable guy who spoke good English and was happy to give Bryn his passport. He gave both dogs a very thorough check over, more thorough than they get at home, pronounced them fit, gave them their worming tablets encased in a golf ball sized lump of pâté, vaccinated Bryn against rabies (he had to have another to satisfy the passport requirements, and we were done. All for the very reasonable sum of €72. So now Bryn has a French passport, does that make him French? Does he have to change his name to Coteau? It’s a shame we won’t see the vet again, as next week he is moving to the island of La Réunion. La Réunion is in the Indian Ocean, but as it is part of France, it is the outermost region of the European Union – that’s a good quiz question! It will be quite a change from the Alps to the Tropics.

From Taninge, we wove around the hills and endless lines of traffic cones, to the town of Dole in the Jura. It rained most of the way and was still raining when we parked up on the towns ‘aire’, which turned out to be a large car park by the side of a canal and beneath a particularly magnificent looking church.

The Dole town website rather undersells its charms. On the page titled “The Top 10 Things to Do in Dole”, there are only seven entries. However, Dole’s main claim to fame is that it is the birthplace of Louis Pasteur, you remember, the scientist chappy, swan necked flasks, mouldy broth? Any way this year is also the bicentenary of Louis’ birth, so they had really gone to town. His image was everywhere. Who knew that Louis’ dad was a tanner? Dole turned out to be a charming place. Again, lots of twisty, turny, narrow streets with medieval buildings interspersed between more modern ones. The canal was the Rhone Rhine canal link and was dug at the beginning of the 19th century by Napoleon who raised the money for the project by inventing the world’s first Public/Private Partnership. He sold off the existing French canals and used the funds to build the new one.

We could tell we were now further off the tourist trail as most of the restaurants were closed. In fact, there were only three open. As we were looking to see if we had missed any, we stumbled across the ‘Dole Fountain’. Trying to find a way back to the main square we went down a particularly gloomy passage, that led to a tunnel under the old walls, which opened out into a cavern which housed the spring (called the Fountain) that had supplied the town with water for centuries. Not many folk will see that as it is not sign posted or even listed in Dole’s Top Ten.

The restaurant we chose turned out to be another of our lucky finds. When we went in there were only a couple of other people, drinking at the bar, but the owner gave us a warm welcome and he turned out to be very friendly and helpful. After he became frustrated with my poor French, he asked if we would rather speak in English, at which he was pretty fluent. He gave good advice about his wines and explained about the local yellow wine, a specialty of the Jura, that is matured for three years and three months before it is bottled. We dined on fondue and burgers and as we did so the place filled up. Clearly the locals dine later than the campervanners.

Wednesday 28th September

Troyes and Laon

Well, it poured all night again. The sound of the rain and the even bigger drops falling off the trees we were parked under kept me awake, but at least I wasn’t worried about getting stuck. I had checked when we returned last night, and the car park was nice and firm. Behind the car park were sports fields leading down to the river Doubs. As Bryn and I squelched our way around them, I was struck again by how much pride, money and effort communities of all sizes in Europe seem to put into their sports facilities. Here there was an athletics field, football pitches and a rugby pitch with flood lights. (Dole’s rugby club goes by the magnificent name of ‘Grand Dole Rugby’ and is based in the outskirts of town).

As it was still raining, there was no point in hanging around, so we headed off to Troyes for lunch. Today we were going to break the back of our dash through France. We had 400km (250 miles) to cover today and a quick stop in Troyes gave us a chance to stretch our legs en route. It turned out to be a longer stretch than planned as I had underestimated how far the carpark was from the centre of town. Anyhow, by the time we had arrived it had stopped raining and so we had a quick look at the older part of the town, renowned for its half-timbered buildings. We had galettes in a Brittany inspired creperie; before we drove to Decathlon.

Andy and Lesley’s fascination with Decathlon was still running hot. They had been compiling a Decathlon shopping list over the last couple of weeks and were keen to fulfil it. Chamonix was too small to stock their full range of products. Troyes has a large new Decathlon store on the outskirts of town conveniently placed right by the motorway junction. Unfortunately, we had again been caught out by the change of seasons. The four of us are still in summer mode but everyone else is embracing autumn and Decathlon was no exception. Paddles and beach shorts had all been packed away in favour of hunting and fishing gear and winter sports. Still, it gives us the excuse to visit the next one.

Laon isn’t a name that many people would recognise, however anyone who has driven along the A26 autoroute will have seen Laon, or at least the mysterious towers that sit on top of the only hill for miles around. We have seen them many times on this fairly featureless route – even the old coal tips add some interest – and wondered what it was. Now we were to find out.

Laon’s campervan aire is alongside the old town walls, and a short amble took us to the towers. The towers are part of the Notre Dame Cathedral, built in the 1155. We have seen plenty of cathedrals on this trip, Venice, Florence, Dubrovnik, Pula, to name but four and Laon’s is a worthy addition to the list. It is not as famous as some and it could never be described as pretty, but it is imposing. This gothic marvel took eighty years to build and is over 110 metres long and 42 metres at its highest inside. It inspired cathedrals across northern Europe, including Chartres, Reims, Magdeburg, Limbourg, Lausanne and Dijon.

Almost 900 years old and still going strong

The townsfolk were gearing up for a big festival at the weekend and there were plenty of innovative decorations in the streets, however it seems as if the restaurants had decided to save their energies for the festival too, by shutting up. There was only one restaurant open and that was a very grand one, opposite the cathedral. They were very happy for us to bring the dogs in though, and brought them water, before they had even asked us what we wanted to drink. Appropriately for our last meal of the holiday, it was one of the best we had, with two trainee waiters at the top of their game.

As we stepped outside the restaurant the Cathedral looked even more spectacular!

And so, to bed! This is our last night abroad, if all goes well, tomorrow we will be home. 

Thursday 29th September

And indeed, it did go well.

And indeed, it did go well.

There was an eerie cloud in the valley below us as we drove away from Laon. We were up and away before the sun had risen. By the time we stopped for breakfast the sun was shining which burnt off the last traces of the mist and ensured we had a smooth journey all the way to the Tunnel sur la Manche. We were able to catch a train almost six hours earlier than planned and despite the worst the M20, M25 and M1 could throw at us we got home in time for tea. 

Many thanks to Lesley and Andy for being excellent companions yet again, and for making our trip so memorable. Here is to next time?

Some figures…

38         days

6            countries

24         campsites

3499    miles

If you are still there, dear reader, thank you for sticking with all this hoopla and nonsense. Here is to the next time?

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