Summer Holiday in the French Alps? Mais Oui, Merci!
Ah, France. It’s been a busy few months. Arthur’s gig is complete, and we are conveniently close to the Bourgogne, where cycle paths wind through ripening summer vineyards dotted with scenic villages along the Route de Vin. We have no commitments for the next few weeks, hurrah! This doesn’t happen very often, time for a break in the warm summer sunshine.
I tap my way through the maps on Tom, our GPS, looking for a nearby village campsite, when a conspicuous blob of green appears on the left of the screen. Nature!! Uh-oh, our proximity to the Bourgogne also means we are within a days drive of the Alps, and I’m not the only one who has noticed. There on Tom’s screen is a thick red tell-tale, pre-planned route, snaking across the GPS leading from down here in the valley, to up there, on the mountain.
Arthur grew up in the Netherlands, or, en français, Pays-Bas, literally translated, Lands-Low. If you’ve ever met a Dutchman anywhere in the world outside of the Netherlands, I’m guessing it was on Lands-High. Lowlanders are so attracted to mountain-tops, I didn’t even try to plead my case. The apparition I had conjured up of me basking in the sunshine, feet up, book in one hand, chilled glass of Chardonnay in the other quickly evaporated. I pulled out a few layers of merino wool, cranked up the seat-heater, and we began to wind our way toward higher ground.
I have a 4-season wardrobe of merino wool that travels with me to all destinations, I have my seat-heater set to high many months of the year, and I yearn for 25 degrees of warmth. Arthur, on the other hand, is the guy in a t-shirt on a frosty morning, and he positively brightens up at the thought of a walk in the rain. So, as in much of what we do together, we have to find compromise when it comes to vacation. The Alps in summer was not exactly what I had in mind for my holiday in France, but I was willing to give it a go for a few days.
If at all possible, Lowlanders will avoid taking tunnels through mountains, always assuming that there must be a pre-tunnel, single-track hair-pinned hair-raising cobbled “pass” rising to the summit, and more often than not, there is. After a few hours of ascent on a winding goat track, we burst out above the tree-line somewhere around the village of Beaufort. Rather than looking out the window, I had been sitting in a slump, reading through my guide book trying to find some good reason within its pages to be spending my summer holiday in frigid temps (yes, I was sulking). When I looked up, I saw a bright turquoise lake set in a brilliant green meadow littered with wildflowers and stone cottages. I dropped my book. The scene was spectacular.
I jumped out of the van into the chilled air and gazed around looking for something that would indicate a nearby campsite. Ha! Not a chance – the hoards of holiday-makers were in the Bourgogne. No market for campsites up here. Electric wire fencing was a continuous barrier to the meadow, and finding a small, unblocked road leading into the hills, proved futile, so we pulled the van into a nook on the side of the road. Our view overlooked what I can only describe as an alpine bowl, about kilometre wide and a kilometre long, with sides reaching up toward the sky and disappearing into the clouds. All around us were cows. So many cows!
There was some daylight left, so I pulled on more wool and my best wind-breaking jacket, laced up my hiking boots and we headed off to explore. We followed a rushing creek through the meadow, past a vacant stone cottage, and up a rocky hillside trail. I stopped many times to catch my breath and look down into the valley. Electric Blue was far away, a tiny toy on the edge of the bowl. We descended a small hill and came across a local farmer who had come to milk his many cows at a moveable milking station. Arthur spoke to him in French and then filled me in; The farmer came up from the valley every day at dawn and dusk to milk. He was the chief of the Beaufort Dairy Cooperative, a group of 184 farmers. He explained that these were the Beaufort Cows grazing in their summer meadow, their milk used exclusively for Beaufort Cheese. He told us to come back with a jug for fresh milk.
We spent three days here among the cows, hiking higher and higher into the alpine, never tiring of the challenge or the view. One day I slid down a green hill on my bum to find a crevice out of the chilly wind for our picnic, and lay there in the flowers, marvelling that there could be such a gorgeous spot on earth. Each day we drank warm, sweet milk straight from the cows, and awoke to the sound of hundreds of heavy bells donging and clanging as a herd came to check out the curious, bright blue object with the tent on the roof. It was magical.
While Arthur threw himself into the freezing cold creek each morning for a wash. I did not. I put my odor-resistant merino to the test, and after three days, it was time for a plunge into a warm lake. We left the cows behind and wound our way down the mountain to Lac d’Aiguebelette near Annecy. A summery place with sunshine and warm water! I put up my feet, read my book, and sipped Chardonnay while I munched on Beaufort Cheese.
The Alps in summer? I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.
Hover over the pictures (or choose landscape on mobile) for some images of my summer holiday in the French Alps