The mention of ‘Alpine walking’, puts a lot of people off. They think it’s ‘serious hard-man stuff’, requiring supreme fitness and lots of arcane ironmongery. Nothing could be further from the truth.
It is said that, when visitors started arriving in the area, they pointed to the mountains, asking ‘What are they called?’ The locals, referring to the only useful thing up there, replied ‘The Alps’ … which is a dialect word meaning ‘upland pastures’.
So, when I signed up for a long weekend’s walking with ‘Karibuni’, operating from the French Alpine village of St. Jean de Sixt in the Haut Savoie, they were adamant we weren’t going ‘mountaineering’.
‘Usually, shorts and T-shirts will do.’ I was told. ‘All you need to bring is your boots and a fleece jacket, or something’.
However, they did advise me to invest in a trekking pole, as some of the initial ascents were quite steep. And, being slightly out of condition, I'm glad I did.
Shorts and T-shirts were the last thing I thought about on the first morning, when I looked out of the window at a grey, misty and cloud-shrouded village. It’ll soon burn off, I was told at breakfast, and, surely enough, by the time we set out, there was already enough blue sky ‘to make a sailor a pair of trousers.’ All the previous week, I’d been checking the météo online, and sometimes it seemed they were changing the forecast every time I looked. Truly, in many a mountain area, it is said ‘If you don’t like the weather, wait a minute’. Anyway, I like clouds in my pictures. Clear blue skies are so samey and sometimes boring.
Our first walk took us to a 1700-metre (6000 feet) summit called the Tête de Danay, but most of the path up there was up a wooded slope.
There’s a lot of ‘furniture’ on the top of Tête de Danay. There’s a tall metal cross, that can be seen for miles around, and a view-indicator, to identify the surrounding peaks. But, the most striking thing was the view. We were above the cloud, which was rapidly dispersing, and boiling up the slopes of the surrounding hills, looking almost like the smoke from a brush fire.
We walked along the ridge, along a good wide path. We walked through lush pastures, to the accompaniment of the plangent clangour of the bells on the cows grazing in them.
Many of the farms we passed are only occupied in the summer months. In winter, the cows are herded down into the valley, and the herdsmen go with them, and move into their winter quarters.
At almost every junction in the path, there was a signpost, telling where we were, where the path leads and how long it will take to get there. It’s no substitute for a map, of course, but, it there’s plenty of memory in your camera, taking a picture as you pass will remind you of where the picture was taken, and save no end of fiddling around with caption books.
Presently, one of those signs pointed the way down through the woods to the Lac de Confins, by the shores of which we would take a more leisurely walk that afternoon. But first, we were going to a picnic area, where the hotel chef was going to meet us, with a minibus and some food for lunch.
Unfortunately, the path from there to the lake was blocked, and an explanatory sign announced ‘Arrêt du Maire’. It sounded like a command to the police to take the Mayor into custody, but was actually a note from that authority closing the path, we presumed for forestry operations.
So, we set off back up the hill, which is easier said than done after the chef’s excellent repast. Actually, the ascent wasn’t so bad, but the knee-jarring descent down a wooded, zigzag path on the other side of the ridge wasn’t too pleasant. At least, down in the valley, Karibuni’s minibus was there to meet us. Thank goodness for mobile phones!
On the next day, the minibus dropped us off at the top of a pass called Col des Annes. We were still surrounded by mist, but, as we waited for it to burn off, we had a look around a farm where they made and sold the local Reblochon cheese, which they make from the rich milk from the cows grazing these upland pastures. You come across many of these farms; in France, you aren’t allowed to call your cheese ‘farmhouse cheese’ unless it’s made and sold in a farmhouse.
Our walk today took us along a ridge, then through the limestone pavement on the slopes of a mountain called Pointe Percée. For much of the way, we followed the red and yellow markers of a Grande Randonnée du Pays, the Tour de l’Aravis.
Unfortunately, the chef couldn’t meet us today, but he’d provided us with lunch packs of fresh crusty batons, spread with the local butter and stuffed with Reblochon and another local cheese called Tomme. They just made the description ‘cheese sandwich’ sound so inadequate …
On Sunday, we took a day off … sort of! In the morning, we went to a traditional market in the old part of nearby Annecy. For lunch, we went to the village of Le Grand Bornand, where they were holding a festival to mark the autumnal bringing down of the cows into the valley, and awarding prizes to the animals who produced the best milk and the best cheese.
After lunch, we walked a little way up the hill to a bridge called the Roman Bridge, before returning along a pleasant riverside path to St. Jean de Sixt. It’s not only the weather that provides the contrasts around here, but the nature of the walks. If I may be allowed to quote a cliché, there really is something for everyone here.