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Published: August 15th 2016
"Please put down ice axes and backpacks". Well, that sign does make you wonder what sort of mishaps have occurred in the Skyway Visitor's Centre lift before people even made it out to the snow! After a great breakfast at Cresta et Duc with immaculate service from a guy who looked just like Hector Elizondo, we walked down the hill in Courmayeur to the brand new Skyway cable car, not really knowing what to expect up on the glacier. It was brilliant blue sky down below, but as we are frequently warned, things can change pretty quickly high in the mountains. I snapped a picture of the ticket booth because it suddenly occurred to me that we hadn't pulled out a wallet in days! That has got to be one of the nicest parts about being in Mick and Jackie's hands on this trip - it's all taken care of. It would have taken us ages to work out which ticket package to buy, not to mention the wait in line because, let's be clear, Frank and I are not naturally early risers and tend to dawdle a bit in the mornings. It's unlikely we'd have made it in time to
avoid the queue before the ticket office opened. Enter Signor Mick - you don't muck him around, and in return he makes life complication free! We were handed our tickets to scan through the gates and then as we stepped into the cable car and took off, the whole valley opened up. The skyway cablecar slowly rotates 360 degrees all the way to the top for the perfect view. I was standing there enjoying myself when James Bond suddenly popped into my head - I fully expected him to ski over us at any minute, just like in the movie. In no time we were at the visitor's centre, which felt very space-age. The building is all glass and angles, but difficult to snap when you are inside, so I'll have to look online for a picture. We stopped for a while on the viewing deck where we watched some people, all roped together, set off on what looked like quite a technical climbing expedition. Another group was actually camped in bright orange tents on the glacier a short way from all the tourists taking photographs. Cate and I joked about telling the kids that the tents were our accommodation.
Crowded into the cable car
I was sure James Bond was going to ski over us any minute!
It would actually be okay camping in snow on a day like today - we were so lucky with the beautiful sunny weather and perfect visibility. I had been bracing myself for the very real possibility of not seeing Mont Blanc, because clear weather seems to be the exception rather than the rule, and we know others who have planned trips only to find themselves in white-out once they got to the top. But not today. The sky was crystal clear and bright blue, and we wandered around in t-shirts not the slightest bit cold. The next stage of actually getting out onto the glacier involved a tunnel which created huge suspense before we emerged in front of a sign warning us of almost certain death, depending on whether you tend toward glass half-empty or glass half-full! Quite confronting for some. In fact, Greg was sent packing by his wife who needed SPACE while she had a minor panic. We were able to giggle about that later and I must say it was quite funny watching watching Greg hot-foot it out of range to provide her with some! (Walking only in other people's footprints of course). There were some obvious
The snowball fight
I wouldn't dob anyone in for starting it
crevasses down below and off to one side which made it quite easy to imagine what would happen if you went sliding just a short distance down the hill. I kept thinking of Hugo carrying his green Auskick football all over Europe in 2011 and what I would have been saying to him if he'd been there today. Anyway, the crevasses you can see are not the ones to worry about - it's those hidden under a layer of snow, which can open up at any time that are the problem. For that reason, we got a very serious safety briefing from our sensible, risk averse guides. Feeling the need to lighten the mood somewhat, one of the boys (I wouldn't dob anyone in) launched a snowball towards the back of the line. I think Jackie must have copped one, because an answer came hurtling back in the other direction while the rest of us ducked! That went on for a while before the need to pose for photos took over. The view was spectacular and I was on an absolute high as I stood and gazed out at it all - we all were. Of course, that elated feeling
might have been altitude, which made my legs feel slightly leaden as I tackled the stairs in the visitors centre afterwards, but it did last all day so I prefer to imagine it was pure emotion. We stopped for a while to have a coffee in the sun on the deck of one of the cafes and were treated to a surprise serenade by a choir of elderly Alpini in their gorgeous hats. Every Alpine unit has its own chorus, and the Alpini are famous for their songs. Apart from being great musicians, they are a seriously tough group of Italian soldiers, known for their tenacity, who are recruited from the alps and the Appenines precisely because they know the terrain and have the skill to operate in cold and snow. The fact that the soldiers in each unit were usually from the same village meant that there were some terrible tragedies in war time. There are stories of whole villages being left without men because a single battalion had been wiped out in combat. The Alpini are so well-respected that at the moment they are guarding monuments in Rome and the Vatican. The ones we met today were very
friendly and happy to have a chat while we sat drinking our coffee in the sun. I was on the receiving end of some jokes after one Alpini dubbed "Mr Charm" put his hat on my head while we were posing for a photo together. The ONLY disappointment of the day is not having as many photos as I'd like because I forgot to change my camera battery last night. I thought about skipping lunch and going down to retrieve the spare battery from the hotel, but was glad Jackie convinced me not to when we sat down in the Visitor's Centre restaurant and saw the view, complete with sunbakers on the deck! Amongst other things, we sampled a new local dish - a delicious crepe which was quite similar to a Croque Monsieur, but baked with a rich béchamel sauce. Yum.
Our afternoon walk today was optional, and I seriously considered taking a book to the "Piscina Alpina" or the beautiful garden bar Cate and Greg discovered yesterday at the Grand Hotel. I am so glad I didn't. The lovely trek began as we crossed a bridge over gushing acqua water, and the views just got better and
Near the start of today's walk
Just stunning, no other word for it
better after that. It was pleasant walking, nothing too strenuous, although of course there were significant uphill stretches and if you chose to take the shortcuts you had to clamber up rocks! (Some people are so competitive). The wildflowers today were amazing - tall stemmed, multi-coloured and waving in the breeze as we wound our way up from the forest up to alpine meadows. It really was like stepping onto the set of The Sound of Music. The views were jaw-dropping at every turn, so forgive me for all the superlatives but it really was that stunning. Just as everyone was beginning to fade, we stopped at a busy mountain refuge for a quick drink under the trees before making our way back down the trail and winding through the 'Toorak end' of Courmayeur to the pretty pedestrian street in the centre of town which leads to our hotel.
There was time for a bit of a rest before getting dressed for dinner. I don't really know that I'd find the restaurant again, seeing I can't even remember its name! I'm feeling annoyed with myself that I don't take more notice of the names of places we go, but
The Tour du Mont Blanc
Jaw-dropping views at every turn
I'm honestly too busy chatting to people and enjoying myself. The meal tonight was spectacular, beginning with the bread which arrived warm and moist from the oven. We do eat a lot of disappointingly dry bread in Italy - I assume as a result of the baskets being pre-prepared for the 'coperta'. The coperta is a non-negotiable service charge which means every time you sit down to eat, a basket of bread and grissini is plonked on the table and a 2 euro charge per head is added to your bill. Nine times out of ten we don't eat it, but at this restaurant, the bread was fabulous. Entree was an absolutely clear tomato broth with tomato foam - served lukewarm, which we all appreciated given the heat of the day. I must investigate how to make it - I think you have to cook the tomatoes without their skins to achieve the clear colour. In any case, it was absolutely delicious, but I loved the meat dish which arrived next even more. We chatted over good wine and had a lovely night before wandering home together afterwards. I love that beautiful late evening blueness in Europe that lingers before
it gets really dark. I do wonder if, in the words of my children, this might have been the best day ever.
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