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September 18th 2009
Published: November 21st 2009
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Day 22 (Friday, September 18, 2009)

The original plan for today was to travel from Lyon to Annecy, and then spend the rest of the day exploring Annecy, possibly taking a bike or boat ride to a neighboring village. We had reviewed the weather forecast the night before, and today was to be the last day of sunshine for several days. This was very disappointing as it was tremendously important that we have sun during the two days we would spend in the French Alps , which was to occur immediately following Annecy.

As we woke up this morning and prepared to leave the hotel, we had all intentions of sticking with our original plan. However, very randomly, I made a spur of the moment decision to nix sightseeing in Annecy, and instead spend the entire day in Chamonix, as I figured it would be our only chance of being able to see the mountains since the two subsequent days were predicted to be cloudy. Mike was quite shocked by the fact that I was willing to completely rearrange our schedule on a moment’s notice. Normally, quite a thing would be completely unheard of since I am a control freak who prefers to carry out plans as they have been made; I rarely ever deviate from this.

When I took into account that we were planning on spending quite a pretty penny to ride several gondolas in the Alps, I knew it would be a complete waste of time to do so unless there was some sort of visibility. In addition, of our many days in France, it was truly the most important that at least one of the days spent in Chamonix be sunny, and not just for my own photographic desires. Many of the lifts and gondolas are closed during inclement weather (i.e. rain, snow, wind, etc), so a sunny day with blue skies is one’s best bet at being able to see as much of the mountains as possible.

As a result, from Lyon, we drove straight to Chamonix, which took about two and a half hours. Prior to our arrival in Chamonix, I had already mapped out exactly where we needed to park in order to visit Aiguille du Midi, which is the town’s most popular and scenic lift. After parking the car, we walked as quickly as we could to the ticket office, and then plopped down an astounding sum of 80 Euros ($120 USD) for both of our round-trip tickets to Aiguille du Midi and back (keep into account that we would later pay additional money to ride another gondola into Italy). Although I had already known that this was going to be an expensive day, my heart probably stopped for a few minutes when I saw that total; so much money spent on such a short ride!

Luckily, we only had to wait about ten minutes until the next gondola arrived. Even more lucky, there was only about 15 people in our gondola (I would later learn that this is not a common occurrence; it can hold up to 75, and often does) so we had plenty of room to walk around and take in the views from different perspectives.

As the gondola took off, the scenery around us began whizzing by; initially, we had amazing views of Chamonix and the surrounding countryside, but soon, our attention turned to the massive amounts of rock, ice, and snow. Once we had reached a high altitude, we began to feel a bone chilling wind. Although it was sunny out, it was so very cold, probably somewhere in the mid-30’s. I couldn’t help but smile as I attempted to take in as much of the natural beauty as possible. The visual impact of the experience, along with the sounds that the wind made as it rocked the gondola from side to side, and the soft buzzing noise that the cable made as we worked our way to the top are things that I will never forget. At one point, when we reached one of the pilings the gondola temporarily swung downwards, which made me feel as though I was on a roller coaster. I took a deep breath, closed my eyes, and held onto Mike very tightly when that occurred as it was quite scary!

Eventually, we reached the half-way point of Plan de L’ Aiguille, where we were all instructed to get off. From here, it was just a short walk to the next gondola, which would take us up to the final lift station of Aiguille du Midi. On the second ride, we were rewarded with much better views of the Alps, including a partial view of Mont Blanc, which was unfortunately half-way covered in clouds. Once off at Aiguille du Midi, I really felt the cold; I mean, it was FREEZING. Under normal circumstance, this temperature is something that we would normally only feel during the months of December and January back in Seattle, and thus seemed almost surreal to be feeling in the middle of September. In addition to the bitter cold, we both also noticed the difficulty we were experiencing with breathing. At an altitude of 12,605 feet, this should obviously be expected, but having never felt it before, it was quite a strange experience. We noticed that it was easier to breathe if we took very deep breaths and if we did not walk quickly.

As soon as we got off of the second gondola, we made a beeline for the signs directing us to Helbronner. We had planned on taking a tiny little red gondola (Panoramic Mont Blanc) for 40 minutes across to Helbronner Point, the Italian border station. This too, like riding to Aiguille du Midi, cost quite a bit of money; another 40 Euros ($60 USD) was added to our already over-budgeted day. I tried not to get too upset and chalked it up to an amazing experience, one that I was hoping neither one of us would soon forget.

Although we were easily able to find the entrance line to Helbronner, it was rather confusing trying to figure out where to purchase the tickets from. After speaking with one of the attendants, Mike realized that the tickets to Helbronner had to be purchased back at the information desk. As I waited for him, I noticed that there was no one else standing in line for Helbronner, which I found very strange, especially since Rick Steves had indicated that riding to Helbronner was a “private glacial dream world”, in other words, not to be missed. Regardless, I just hoped that we would have a gondola to ourselves, since they had seating for four people.

My hopes were fulfilled after Mike came back with the tickets and we were able to board one of the front gondolas (they are hooked together in a series of three) all by ourselves! As our ride began, I immediately felt so thankful that we had made the decision to visit Chamonix on this day versus one of the following two. The views from our private gondola ride were out of this world and truly indescribable; although it wasn’t completely clear out, we could still easily make out many of the different peaks and glaciers. The solitude of it all, and knowing that we were dangling thousands of feet up in the sky with nothing but a cable propped up by a suspended pylon protecting us, was truly a surreal feeling. I sat there in my chair, in complete and utter awe of the beauty of the Alps; they were so rugged but gorgeous at the same time with their jagged peaks forming unbelievable shapes of all sorts of sizes. We had a small window that we were able to partially open and take pictures from; although I tried my best, I just wasn’t able to capture the beauty of what we saw that day. We both agreed that riding the private gondola together into Helbronner was one of the most awesome and unique experiences we had ever encountered while traveling and one that will linger in our minds for the rest of our lives.

By the time we finally reached Helbronner, the clouds had already begun rolling in, and the visibility was terrible. I had wanted to use the restroom at Helbronner, but after walking in and almost vomiting at the smell (they had pit toilets since the altitude was over 11,000 feet) I quickly turned around and decided that my bladder would have to wait until we went back to Aiguille du Midi. Even Mike, who normally has an iron stomach, could not believe the stench that emanated from the bathrooms; it was beyond awful and definitely the worst thing I have ever smelled in my life.

On the ride back to Aiguille du Midi, we were once again by ourselves in the gondola. The clouds that had just begun rolling in as we had gotten off at Helbronner followed us for most of our ride back to Aiguille du Midi. Knowing that an approaching storm was rolling in, I was so immensely glad that we had arrived when we did; had we boarded 15 or 30 minutes later, we would not have been able to see the amazing views that we did on the way in.

When we reached Aiguille du Midi, I immediately went to look for a restroom. Along the way, we also climbed a few flights of stairs in order to access a panoramic viewpoint, which was sadly partially covered with those aforementioned incoming clouds. After finding a pleasant smelling restroom to use, we got in line for the ride down to Plan de L’ Aiguille. Since it was much later in the day, there were quite a few people in line with us. Unfortunately, I would soon realize that this entire large group of people would all be getting into one very cramped gondola together. Being someone who doesn’t particularly enjoy the prospect of experiencing claustrophobic situations, I was none too pleased. However, I had no other choice, aside from hiking back down, which would have taken me until nightfall to complete. We were all crammed into the gondola like packed sardines, so I buried my face into Mike’s shirt since I was surrounded by several very stinky hikers who reeked of lovely sweat. Although it probably only took about ten minutes to reach Plan de L’ Aiguille, it felt like forever to me. Once down at Plan de L’ Aiguille, we rushed into the next gondola line to take us back to our starting point in Chamonix. Once again, all of the same people from the first ride, plus a few more who were already waiting, were crammed right back together; at least this time, there wasn’t as many people with strong body odor in my range of smell.

Once back down on the ground in Chamonix, we both took a step back and looked up as far as we possibly could at the mountains, and thought in amazement that we had just been way the hell up there!

We left Chamonix and headed towards Annecy, feeling very satisfied with our decision, especially since it was now cloudy everywhere. We knew that three or four days of rain was just beginning, so we were so thankful to have been able to experience what had in Chamonix.

The rest of the day and night was spent in Annecy, which will be discussed in the next blog entry.

Day 23 continued (Saturday, September 19, 2009)

The first half of this day was spent in and around Annecy, which will be discussed in the next blog entry.

From Col de la Forclaz, we began the long drive to Chamonix. Since we had spent such a large sum of money the prior day on tolls, I wanted to avoid them at all costs. As a result of avoiding the auto routes, we were forced to drive upon the back roads, which involved lots of hairpin twists and turns. I tried, without much success, to sleep through the long two hour drive as my head was constantly being jolted from side to side.

When we finally arrived in Chamonix, it was partially sunny in the town itself, but not so much up in the mountains. As a result, neither one of us felt too guilty knowing that we would not be completing any additional tourist-related things that day; we had the not so enjoyable task of finding a place to do laundry at.

First up however, was finding our hotel Hôtel Les Crêtes Blanches, which proved to be very difficult as most of the main streets were blocked off for some sort of festival that was going on. After the issues we had faced a week prior in Arles with a festival, I was not too thrilled. However, we were able to drive around all of the chaos and eventually made our way to the hotel. After checking in, we promptly walked to our room, and we were quite happy to see that we had a very comfortable bed, although the pillows were wimpy as ever; oh well, I guess we can’t win them all. Almost immediately, we turned right back around and drove to a nearby launderette.

Luckily, there was no one else at the launderette, so we had the whole place to ourselves. We were able to fit all of our clothes into one of the larger washing machines, at the astonishing cost of 10 Euros ($15 USD). We both wondered how in the heck people in Europe can afford to wash their clothes at a laundromat with costs that high; especially knowing that not everyone has their own washer and dryer. In addition to the 10 Euros we spent on washing the clothes, we also spent 6 more Euros to dry the clothes. In the end, it cost us 16 Euros ($24 USD) to wash and dry one load of laundry; beyond absurd.

After finishing at the laundromat, we went back to the hotel to drop off the clothes, and then headed straight to the grocery store. In an attempt to try and make up for the previous days’ budget deficit, we were going cheap this night and decided to buy items to make sandwiches. Prior to going into the grocery store, however, we stopped in at a store across the street called Le Refuge Payot. Inside this small store was a huge variety of food products that were all produced in the nearby region. Items ranged from sausages to cheese to wine; there were so many different things to look at, but since my blood sugar level was running extremely low, we just bought some sausage and pancetta and headed straight out with plans to visit the following day. We then went to the grocery store, purchased the rest of our items for dinner, and then headed back to the hotel. We ate our delicious but simple dinner on the balcony outside our hotel room until the rain appeared. We spent the rest of the evening relaxing in our hotel room.

Day 24 (Sunday, September 20, 2009)

Today ended up being the most wasted day of the entire trip. As soon as I woke up, I felt incredibly sick to my stomach, and although I was nauseous, I still managed to get out of bed and get ready. I was a trooper, and wanted to try my best to get out there and enjoy the today. After sitting around the hotel room for about an hour in a hopeful attempt to feel better, we finally left. Along our walk to the car, I had to keep convincing myself that I felt okay, even though I felt like absolute crap. By the time we actually got to the car, I looked and Mike and said "I tried, but I just can't do it anymore". I was on the verge of throwing-up or passing out, as I knew my body was trying to tell me to go back to bed.

I was quite annoyed and pissed off by the whole situation, but since it was cloudy out, I didn't feel too bad since I knew we wouldn't have been able to ride any lifts even if I had been feeling normal. The only thing we figured that we were possibly missing out on was the luge rides, which are not normally affected by cloudy weather.

We spent the remainder of the day in the hotel room, with me taking a several hour nap and then surfing the internet for the rest of the day while Mike napped on and off and watched TV. In addition to relaxing, I also spent much of my time in the bathroom, which was not a pleasant experience. For as sick as I was, Mike and I both guessed that I had attained some form of food poisoning, especially when I magically felt better almost 24 hours after I first felt sick.

Unfortunately, days like this are unavoidable when traveling, but I was very thankful that my sickness occurred on a non-important sightseeing day. Otherwise, I would have been very disappointed and upset if we had missed seeing anything important.

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