Thanks to a lousy key on the laptop, today’s blog post comes, as does George Perec’s novel of absences whose name cannot be typed here, sans a commonly-used letter – a mental challenge to match the muscular one that brought us up here.
We are enchantedly ensconced on the Grand St Bernard col, one of the most spectacular of the Alps, best-known for dogs who bear rum to the desperate, where yours truly (GH) taps away at the keyboard from a cosy nook of the monastery, perched as a beacon of welcome and shelter on the uppermost level of the pass.
To get here, we have pushed hard for 8 days non-stop, at an average of 100 km a day, a desperate race to reach the Alps before the passes close for the snowy season. Our rush was well-judged – barely an hour after we rolled up, a blustery downpour engulfed the monastery, and settled down only to turn to snow as the darkness deepened. Very glad to have chosen to spend our rest day up here and get a cosy room at the hotel attached to the monastery – after three and a half weeks of tent, four walls and a roof are sheer heaven, let alone bed, mattress, duvet, two heaters, table, seats and our own bathroom. Our room overlooks the lake, and though there was not much to be seen when we woke up today…
… the scenery has gradually crept back as the clouds have receded from the crags.
We preceded the Grand St Bernard col by a spectacular warmup run through the Durnand Gorge, to the sound of cowbell concerts that somehow evoked, as much as the Alps, thoughts of our journey’s end and the sound of gamelan heard from afar.
Though strenuous, the extra pass enabled us to cut out a segment of the stressfully busy road that runs most of the way up to St Bernard, but thankfully hares off as a tunnel 6.5km before the top and leaves the old road to cycle-nuts and scenery-lovers. After two days of fully-laden ascents and no rest days for a week beforehand, we were too exhausted to take a photo at the top, so we snapped one shortly after dawn the next day:
But to backtrack over the past week, after Bourges, we sought canals to stave off the tougher slopes that approached as we went southeast and that we would eventually have to tackle. However, there was no way to escape – were we to reach the Rhône Valley and follow that grand waterway to the Alps, somewhere we would have to ascend out of the valley we had followed through Angers and Tours to Nevers. So we took to some slopes that, as the name suggests, were both beau and jolly, and known for flowery, gluggable reds that of course we had to sample (the blanc was also marvellous). As matters turned out, the break from the planes was wonderful: our newly-toned muscles flexed and settled down joyously to some gorgeously backdropped ascents. We took a long-cut up to a forest on the peaks and landed one of our best woodland camps yet.
As we knew from our early trek to the Alps, company of Mr R Lane, the Rhône’s a grand and powerful waterway that knows what needs to be done and does so, no ado.
Barely a stone’s throw from the source, the opaque blue meltwater flows boldly, strongly and very fast, to carve a steep valley down to lake Geneva. Now, we followed the valley up the other way, from just east of Lyon, along some superb cycle track – perfect tarmac and clear posts, that then abandoned us completely at a narrow pass frequented by nutcase, speed-addled car owners, that led over to the land of cuckoo clocks and chocolate (the damned key forces me to resort to sad stereotypes here!).
The motor-laden road was a precedent for the day that followed: all cycle-tourers should take note – the southern edge of Lake Geneva be not for you. Though veloroutes send you on a much longer meander to the north of the lake, and may add half a day’s travel, the narrow road hacked out between craggy rock and water for cars and trucks hurl themselves along on the south bank was not made for humans. By far the worst part of our journey so far.
But had we not taken the short-cut, would we be here now, or would we have had to stop below these jagged peaks to take shelter from the storm? As the utter peace and calm of the eve spreads across the lake and surrounds the monastery, the roar of trucks can be forgotten, and supper beckons.
GH, Auberge de l’Hospice, Grand St Bernard