We packed the car on a September Friday morning and set off in the afternoon with me cushioned into comfort on the back seat, my legs stretched out in front of me using the flattened back of the front passenger seat as a foot stool. Luggage padded the gap beneath my knees. Enduring the inevitable Friday afternoon bumper to bumper jam on the M25 we made it to the tunnel with little time to spare for booking in. We raised eyebrows at check in by driving up to the automated self book-in barrier by mistake and reversing at speed to get to another booth. A serious looking woman with a high viz vest, two way radio and clip board approached the now unoccupied barrier to investigate. After getting a friendly ticking off from the lady at the next booth window (she told us that you should never reverse away from the barrier, instead you have to press the help button or you upset security), we were on our way and avoided any further trouble.
The tunnel crossing was the typically uneventful but quick experience we had come to expect and emerged into the darkness of a French evening following the Close Encounters illuminated ramps and roadways out onto the French autoroute with hundreds of miles (or rather kilometres) of more autoroute ahead of us through the night. Mysterious shapes like pyramids could be seen silhouetted against the dark inky blue night sky of northern France giving way to UFO like displays of flashing blue lights high above the ground. The mundane daytime reality is manmade spoil heaps and fields of energy producing windmills.
My husband took responsibility for all of the driving, which made me feel so guilty, but he stoically ploughed on through the darkness with me staying awake on my bed to chat, hand over food and generally keep him company. The autoroutes are so quiet, even by day, but driving through the night it was a relief to occasionally see another car or a truck as we racked up the miles from Pas-de-Calais, south-east across France, through the vinyards of Champagne country and the rolling hills of Burgundy. The lack of light pollution in rural France allowed the constellations to glow in the heavens. When we stopped at a rest area we were able to marvel at the Milky Way, which is so rarely visible in over crowded, over lit Britain.
We grabbed a few hours of much needed sleep parked up outside a services in the Bresse region. This area is famous for its free range chickens and in that spirit of French regional pride there were fresh (but dead) chickens for sale in the services’ shop. We fell asleep just before dawn and awoke in the mist and weak sunshine of morning surrounded by stretching and yawning camper van inhabitants.
Food and caffeine consumed we headed for the Jura mountains with their elevated roads and tunnels, an opening act for the splendour of the Alps. Suddenly there it was, Mont Blanc glowing in the sunlight against a cloudless blue sky. We pulled over at a rest stop before the final push on to our accommodation for the next week. Two young guys in an over packed Volvo estate drove in behind us and stopped nearby. The driver stepped out while looking at the mountains with joy on his face then performed a Salute To The Sun as if greeting old friends before hugging his travelling companion in celebration.
We headed on to La Fayet, at 580m, before climbing the sinuous road up to the hanging valley housing the old spa town of Saint-Gervais-Les-Bains, at 850m, followed by a further ascent up the side of the valley to the eighteenth century farm house we had rented for a week. This Haute Savoy farmhouse had been inherited by a local man and his wife who lovingly restored and converted it into comfortable holiday accommodation with a privileged view of Mont Blanc. The place was even more wonderful than the website photographs had led us to believe and watching the sun set over the snow cap of Europe’s highest mountain was the cherry on the cake. The fact we were above the evacuation zone was a bonus. Ah, yes, I may have forgotten to mention one very important but less than idyllic detail about our holiday destination.
The quaint Alpine town of Saint-Gervais-Les-Bains is directly in the path of the devastation that would result if the lake inside the Tête-Rousse Glacier was to burst free of its icy prison and send a wall of water, ice, rock and mud into the picturesque valley, scouring away chalets in its path. The mayor of Saint-Gervais-Les-Bains had taken the threat seriously enough to implement an ambitious plan to pump out the water, he had good reason to be concerned. In July 1892 between 80,00 and 200,000 cubic metres of water burst out of the Tête-Rousse Glacier killing 175 people and causing serious damage to the town. Drainage tunnels had been created following this disaster but by 2010 they were not effective in reducing the pressure within the glacier. By the time we arrived work had already started on drilling a hole through the glacier to the water so pumping could begin. Just in case the worst happened before the work was completed, an early warning system was devised that consisted of a red balloon suspended in front of the wall of ice. If the glacier ruptured and burst the balloon, sirens would be triggered across the valley. The mayor’s office had produced maps indicating the danger zones and showing the meeting points for the evacuated residents of each zone. In addition a handy leaflet could be downloaded from the mayor’s office website explaining what action to take upon hearing the sirens.
But as I mentioned, we were far enough up the valley not to have to worry about drowning in our sleep.
We were met at the farmhouse by the owner’s wife who mercifully spoke English because my French is poor and my husband speaks even less. She was friendly to the extent of providing a bottle of wine and having a drink with us before leaving us to our unpacking, a much needed shower followed by post-dinner planning of our ride up the Col de la Colombière on Sunday……