Published: June 27th 2008June 27th 2008
How do you get from sea level to the highest point in the Alps? Easy, miss your train to Nimes.
So the plan was to head to Provence Thursday afternoon (friday class was cancelled). Wednesday we went to town and made our reservations for the high speed TGV train to Nimes. We had it written on a piece of paper, checked it on the lady's computer screen to confirm our reservation. Well, on the train to Paris from Rouen, we were looking at our tickets. Departure from Paris was at 11:30 for the TGV, not the 4:00 we thought we booked. Whoops.
So we tried to go where we could (we were on our railpass, so gotta use it that day). Everything south was booked, Bordeux was booked. So we decided to go to Lyon through Dijon. Go into Lyon at 11 pm. There was a hostel in the guide book that we found around 12:30 and luckily they had a place for us. Decided to head to Chamonix early friday, so we caught the 7:30 train. Got a few hours of sleep, had a dorm room with 14 other guys, all part of the experience. Bathroom was pretty
Train from Lyon to Annency, then St. Gervais, finally up to Chamonix. From St. Gervais to Chamonix, the ride is really scenic, up into the mountains. Chamonix is a pretty touristy town. It hosted the first winter olympics in 1926 I believe, so it's kinda designed around that international theme. Lots of shopping and cafes. The alps and mount blanc as a backdrop don't hurt either.
Friday we walked around and did some shopping. Our beachwear wasn't going to cut it at the top of the mountains. Although, it was surprisingly hot in Chamonix, mid 80's, but crystal clear skies in the mornings, perfect weather once again. I found a sweet 5 euro flannel jacket that is actually kinda cool and worked perfect for the top. For the night, we went to the micro brasserie, micro brewery. kinda like a lazlos, but more bar-ish. Oh yeah, the town is overrun with brits, there were more english people there than french. They all come to work in the ski resorts and run B&Bs in the summer. But this place had good beer and some live music in English, so it was fun.
Saturday we caught the first
gondola at 7:30 to the Aiguille du Midi. 47 euros for an all day pass that gave us access to other lifts and a train down the mountain we used later. But with the weather we had, it really didn't matter how much it was. Only about 20 people on the first gondola, everyone was a hiker too. So we went straight to the top (there's a stop halfway) then took the elevator to the very, very top. Just amazing views up there and being first up there we had the alps all to ourselves. 180 degrees of snow capped mountains extending forever. Mount blanc is right there (so close you're like, is that it right there?). The other 180 degrees is the valley below with Chamonix, with other mountains and ridges. So peaceful, serene up there. The sun rising above the peaks, light changing on the mountains. We could even see the Matterhorn way over in Switzerland, just forever.
We took the Helbronner gondola from the Aiguille du Midi over to Italy. It takes you over the glacier to Helbronner, about a 5 km ride i think. Impressive views of the glacier, suspended over it, then a whole
another mountain range on the Italian side. Had some coffee in the cafe on the Italian side.
Lots of people hiking and skiing. People had camps set up on the glacier and others were scaling the cliff under the Aiguille du Midi. It's straight up, and really high. Those people are just plain crazy.
On the way back, we got off at the halfway point to hike across the mountain. It was a great hike, pretty warm, great views, pretty easy. Perfect timing, just snow in a few places. Little streams run down the mountain for most of the way. We ran into some guys playing some alphorns (the ricola horn) on the side of the mountain, really cool. The hike was about 3 hours, over to the Mer de Glace, a famous glacier. The altitude wasn't bad and I wasn't too tired, but the sun just takes it out of you. We took a little gondola down to the glacier where you could walk into it. They cut a passageway into it every year. Pretty neat, but probably not worth it to go out of your way. Inside, they had a place where you could get your
picture taken with a st. bernard dog for 6 euros. It was really cute, but I passed.
After some rest and a shower back in Chamonix, we went out to eat. Had raclette for dinner. It's a huge half round piece of cheese (like 15 pounds) that is put under a heat lamp (like fondue). You heat the top layer, then scrape it off and eat it with various meats and bread. It's a lot of cheese. (we had dinner with the group at a fondue place on Tuesday in Rouen, got my intake of cheese for awhile).
The music festival was that night as well, all over france they celebrate the first day of summer with a music festival. chamonix was packed, about 6 bands placed throughout the city. An orchestra from cleveland was even there. Buy beer from the bars and walk around. Listen to one group for awhile, move on to another. It was pretty cool, some good music too.
Sunday we were going to head to Annecy, but when we got into St. Gervais to connect to our train, figured out we read the schedule wrong. So we decided to head into Switzerland,
the train from Chamonix continues in to Martigny. And it's run by SNCF, so our railpass covered it. Well Martigny was absolutely dead, so we stayed for a hour, got some chocolate and left (and we found out they aren't on the euro yet! not sure what the 'union' means in the EU). The train ride was really scenic though, so it was well worth it. Little swiss villages on the side of mountains, just stuck our heads out the window and took it all in. Kicked back in Chamonix for 2 hours before we caught our train back home. Just hung out in a park, where the paragliders land, and a buolo (sp) tournament going on, little stream rolling through, and a nap under the Alps.
So we thought couldn't have any more bad luck with trains, but sure enough. Made our reservation saturday for the TGV home, some reason the teller booked it for saturday. So we had to talk to the conductor on the train, and he let us on (could've been a big problem, pay for hotel/train next day). No seat though, had to sit in between where the cars connect, no AC, like a
sauna. Made it back though, all part of the experience.
All in all, not a bad detour at all. In the end, i'm really glad we ended up there, definitely worth seeing (if the weather cooperates). As we left, we saw some big clouds moving in... i guess the weather balanced out the trouble on the trains.
There are more photos below