Minding The Gap

Why were we here instead of on the highway?

While heading north towards Geneva, we got off the road and got to see the beauty of the Vaucluse department in the Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur region of France.    It’s a good thing it was so beautiful, because our 3-4 hour drive home ended up taking over 8.

You can see why the Tour de France often rides through here.   In fact, they’re headed through there this week.  It’s near Gap and the infamous Mont Ventoux.  The views of the dams and lakes, and mountain scenery are spectacular.

Vaison-la-Romaine

Vaison-la-Romaine (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

At one time, Vaison-la-Romaine  (which you might remember from the post about Provence’s Ironwork Bell Towers) was the capital for the Voconce people.   It is famous for its ancient Gallo-Roman ruins including a Roman bridge.

The Roman Bridge at Vaison-la-Romaine, Vauclus...

The Roman Bridge at Vaison-la-Romaine, Vaucluse department, Provence, France Français : Le Pont romain de Vaison-la-Romaine, département de Vaucluse, Provence, France (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The bridge is one of five remaining Roman bridges in Provence. It survived a German bomb during the World War II and the Ouvèze River’s devastating floods in 1992.   Vaison has two excavated Roman districts, and an Archaeological Museum.

Stone houses in Vaison-la-Romaine, Vaucluse de...

Stone houses in Vaison-la-Romaine, Vaucluse department, Provence, France Français : Maisons de pierre á Vaison-la-Romaine, département de Vaucluse, Provence, France (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We weren’t the only ones who got off the highway and started taking side roads.  Since it was the edge of the alps, there weren’t many alternatives and the road was packed.  Ironically, it was still less crowded and moved faster than in the south of France.    We entertained ourselves by counting the number of people we saw pulled off on the side of the road answering the call of nature (over 10).

If you’re interested in a French vacation without the seemingly ever-present crowds, this is a part of France for you.  If you’re a Tour de France fan, this is also a part of France for you.  If you like simple bucolic beauty, it’s for you too.

I think the photo below is a viaduct on the Grenoble train line  (Chemin de Fer de La Mure/the Mure railway).  We saw it on the route from Orpierre (with its nice swimming hole in Les Gorges de la Méouge) to Grenoble.   It can be reached easily by road from Grenoble, or by trains on the SNCF line towards Gap.

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St Bernards, A Whole Lotta Love

I love dogs, but I especially love big dogs.   The St. Bernard (also known as St. Barnhardshund, Alpine Mastiff and Bernhardiner) is one of the world’s largest.    They range from 25.5-27.5 inches ( 61-70 cm) and weigh 110-200 pounds (50-91 kg).   The are most likely a cross between Tibetan Mastiffs with Great DanesGreater Swiss Mountain Dog and Great Pyrenees. Initially, they had short hair; long hair coats collect icicles.

Augustinian Monks living in the treacherous St. Bernard Pass (the western route through the alps between Italy and Switzerland) bread the dogs.  8,000 feet above sea level, the pass is 49-miles long and is notorious for its changeable weather and high winds.

The St. Bernard pass was well travelled before St. Bernard de Menthon founded the famous hospice in the Swiss Alps as a refuge for travelers crossing the treacherous passes between Switzerland and Italy around 1050.  There are even remains of a Roman road there.  If you were a pilgrim headed to Rome, this is a likely route you would have taken.  You wouldn’t have been the only one.  Napoleon famously used the pass to cross the alps to invade Italy in 1800.

Image from Stories About Animals on http://www.zookingdoms.com

In the 17th century, St. Bernards were used to rescue people from avalanches and other dangers in snowy alpine passes.    Saint Bernards have many features that make them well adapted to this task.   They can smell a person under many feet of snow.  They can hear low-frequency sounds humans cannot, possibly alerting people to avalanches.   Their broad chests helped clear paths through the snow.  Their large paws helped spread out the weight and worked like snowshoes to keep them on top of the snow.  Their large paws helped them dig through the snow.  Upon finding someone, they lie on top them to provide warmth.

The most famous rescuer was Barry (1800-1812).  He is credited with saving the lives of more than 40 people.  Today, Foundation Barry (named after the famous pooch) works to educate people about and preserve the breed.  They also do alpine hikes with the pups!  Both Foundation Barry and the St. Bernard Museum are located in in Martingy, a village down the mountain from the pass.  Both have the adorable pups on site.

So You’re On A Mountain For The Tour, Then What?

Gendarmes are the French Police.  Unless you actually have to work tracking down hooligans who throw tacks down on the route of the Tour de France, this might just be the best job in the entire force.  Can you imagine getting paid to ride a motorcycle up and down empty mountain roads all over France?  Not too shabby.

After the hike up, people spray paint cyclist’s names on the pavement, picnic and hydrate (and perhaps search for a place to pee).

Then, you wait for the caravan to pass through and wait again.  Since the waiting gives you time to enjoy incredible natural beauty and talk with other cycling enthusiasts, it is actually a lot of fun.   Soon, the helicopters will stream over the horizon like in the movie “Apocalypse Now.”  We hiked up to the mountain to a beautiful spot with a great few of both the mountains and the road leading up it.  We weren’t the only ones who liked the view.

With their giant lenses, they were able to get much better shots of Bradley Wiggins and Team Sky streaming up the mountain.

Normally, the first thing you see roadside is a breakaway group of riders.  They are usually accompanied by police and cameramen (who you can see in the back).  Usually, they follow one another.  Having a rider in front of you reduces the wind resistance allows them to expend less energy.  This gives the peleton incredible power if and when they choose to exert it.

This is how they get pictures for TV.  By the way the US commentators are better than the French ones.  Understandably, French commentators are biased toward French riders.  It’s not that.  They are much less interesting and I learn a lot less from them.  They don’t seem to show much of a sense of humor either.  Thankfully, Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen do the British coverage we get here in Switzerland, but I miss Bob Roll.

Eventually, the last of the team cars go by and the helicopters move on.  After than, there isn’t much left to do except descend the mountain and watch the stage you just DVR’ed.

Just in case you didn’t know, I’m famous.  It is clearly me there on TV with the Detroit Red Wings jersey.

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How To Get On A Mountain For The Tour De France

Today, the Tour de France‘s cyclists are riding the ‘Circle of Death’, a linkage of four brutal climbs.  Tomorrow’s stage finishes atop the 1,615 meter (5,300 feet) mountain, Peyraguedes.  They’re in the mountains baby!

When choosing a mountain stage, remember these golden rules:

  • The steeper the grade the slower they go (providing you with better viewing).
  • The later in the stage, the more spread out the riders.  This means that instead of seeing them in an enormous group, you will see them in smaller groups and be able to pick out specific riders.
  • A mountaintop finish is the ultimate.  Who doesn’t want to see the end of a stage?

Seeing the Tour de France from a mountain was on my bucket list.  I like logistics problems, but getting there can turn into a very advanced one pretty quickly.

The easiest way to get a front row seat at a great spot on a mountain is to do a bike tour.  Be prepared to bike up the mountain.  If you can handle that, it’s pretty darn good.  You’ll have a front row seat at a good spot with a TV (key to knowing what is happening in the tour).  Plus these guys had support an a nice spread laid out for them on the mountain.

Actually, now that I think about it, there is an easier way to get on a mountain.  The easiest way is to have a bunch of money and/or in with a sponsor.  Although you might not be able to get in one with bikes, we saw tons of VIP’s in team cars.

If you want to drive yourself up there, you might just be able to do it if you get up and on the mountains before the road closes (less possible the larger the mountain).  Getting there the night before and camping is a good option.  Loads of people follow the tour with caravans.  The larger the mountain (Col de la Madeleine, Col d’Ausbisque, Col du TourmaletAlpe d’HuezMont VentouxCol du GalibierPort de PailhèresCol de la ColombièreCol des Aravis, etc.), the earlier they arrive.  For large stages, they will arrive up to a week before hand (Europeans tend to have more vacation than Americans), and there won’t be any space left a couple of days beforehand.

Others drive up in cars or vans and pitch tents.  We met people who camped out, but I can’t imagine that sleeping in this van was very comfortable.  On the other hand, those guys were full of pep and didn’t seem worse for the wear.

Still others bike up.  These guys looked like they were having a great time.  Boris and Natasha liked this option because it allows you to see the mountaintop, get some exercise and still sleep in a hotel.

The police had already closed the roads when we arrived at Col de la Madeline. Apparently, police decide to close the road whenever they feel there are enough people up there.   Forced to leave our car at the bottom, we hiked up…9 miles.  We didn’t have much of a choice, but knew we would have to go it on foot at some point.  It’s probably just as well.  On our hike up, we didn’t see many places to park (or even stand) on the side of the road.  As you can tell from our trip though the largest town we passed, the mountain is a little steep and even the roads of this metropolis are narrow.

The only problem with hiking 9 miles up is that what goes up, must go down.  Once the tour passes through, there is a  mass exodus.   It took us about 2 hours to get down.  One hour into it, the tour had gone over the top of the mountain and they opened the roads to vehicles.  This meant that in addition to dodging bikers racing downhill, we started dodging cars and caravans too.  At least we didn’t have to worry about avalanches at this time of the year.

We made it down in one piece and I love the Tour more now than ever before.  Epic mountain.  Epic day.

Checking One Off The Bucket List – On A Mountain At The Tour De France

I have said it before and I’ll say it again.  I love the Tour de France.  Being the dork that I am, I have watched every stage of the Tour for virtually the past decade.   How have I accomplished this feat?  I get the TV to watch the Tour in July.  The rest of the year, I give him the TV the rest of the year to watch all the football, basketball and hockey he wants.  It’s a fair trade.  Watching it on TV, I always dreamed of seeing it live.  Guess what?  It finally happened. On Wednesday and Thursday, I was on mountains in France in a Detroit Red Wings jersey, getting sunburned, and taking in the spectacle.

Watching the tour on TV, you can’t fully appreciate the beauty of the mountains the colors, the helicopters, and the excitement.  You can’t meet the other fans.  They are delightful and quite friendly.  I don’t know of many places where you can meet so many people from other countries in such a congenial environment.  The excitement was contagious and everyone made the most of it.

On the way up Col de la Madeleine, we stopped and bought this wonderful hunk of local cheese out of someone’s barn for our picnic.  Because you have to get on the mountain early before they close the roads, people picnic, eat, drink and are merry.  Everyone was having a good time.

True fans of bicycle racing appreciate seeing these guys and go to great lengths to do it.  My guests (Boris, Natasha and Mr. Peabody) hiked with me 18 miles up and down a mountain to see the stage on the Col de la Madeleine.   Others, biked up to the peak and back down.  Some people camp out on the mountain days ahead of the stage to get a good spot.  The rich and lucky get to ride in the cars (although I can’t imagine the view of the cyclists is that good) or get shuttled to a viewing area with a TV at the top.

Even the trip from one stage to another was exciting for us cycling fans.  We saw NBC Sports cars racing down the highway to Albertville.  Although we had no idea who was inside (NBC Sports probably pays their speeding tickets), since we couldn’t catch them. We’re swearing that it was Bob Roll (who doesn’t love Bobke) in one with Paul Sherwin and Phil Liggett in the other.

It was just amazing to think that caravans travel from distant countries to experience the Tour.  Observers spray paint the name of a relatively unknown cyclist from their region on the pavement.  Some guy from a village in the Netherlands who drove a thousand miles and spray painted his countryman’s name on the mountain.  He’ll be lucky to finish in 45th place.

We have done the All-Start NASCAR race.  While there is huge excitement and the fans are devoted, you have a drunken, often belligerent atmosphere.  The most intoxicated people we met were some nationality censored who offered us beverages, told us some great stories and played us some great music.  Rock on.

We saw last year’s winner Cadel Evans and Bradley Wiggens in the yellow jersey surrounded by team Sky.  We saw all of our favorite American riders: Chris Horner, Levi Leipheimer, big George Hincapie, the hilarious Dave Zabriskie, Tyler Farrar, Christian Vande Velde, and the awesome Tejay Van Garderen (who should be BMC’s GC rider).  I even got to see some of my favorites: Frank Schleck and Fabian Cancellara.   Even going uphill, they whipped by us at amazing speeds.  I was still able to see enough to tell you ladies that Spartacus (aka Fabian Cancellara) is just as handsome in person.

The Winter Wonderland Of Les Mosses

We went to Les Mosses, near Aigle and Chateau d’Oex, in the Lake Geneva region, to watch a sled dog race.  This charming, picturesque, plateau is situated in a mountain pass.  As a result, it is surrounded by mountains. Covered in snow, it is a winter wonderland.  We almost expected music to fill the air and Santa’s elves to appear.

While it isn’t exactly extreme, and doesn’t have much nightlife this resort offers plenty of activities year-round.  It has a reputation as a good family resort.

Pimp my stroller, Les Mosses edition

In summer, it has nice pedestrian, hiking and mountain bike trailsLake Lioson is known for its fishing.  In winter, well, take your pick.

  • There are T-bars all over the surrounding mountains and beautifully uncrowded slopes.
  • It has almost 20 miles (32 km) of snowshoeing trails.
  • We saw cross-country skiers everywhere, enjoying the almost 27 miles (42 km) of scenic trails.
  • Believe it or not divers enter Lake Lioson in the winter for under-ice diving!
  • Les Mosses approaches learning how to ski from the viewpoint that it is also important to have fun, making it popular with families.  As a result, it has a park with a moving carpet, drag lift, short gentle slopes and enormous inflatable frog.  The park has obstacles, figurines and slaloms to encourage play.

 

The Road Through The Alps Into Switzerland’s Lötschental Valley

 

Last weekend, we went to Wilder, Switzerland to see the Tschäggättä and Carnival parade. Wilder is located in the Swiss Alps in the Lötschental Valley.  It is one of the most remote places in Switzerland.  It remained largely cut off from the outside world until the beginning of the 20th century.

 

Courtesy of Mappery.com

 

Even then, the valley remained remote and difficult to reach, especially during the winters. It was so isolated that in the 1932, Dr. Weston Price, an American dentist, went there to find cultures relatively untouched by the modern world.  He included it in his book of nutritional studies across diverse cultures, Nutrition and Physical Degeneration.   At the time, some towns in the valley were accessible only by footpath.

 

 

When Switzerland built a road into the valley, they did it with typical Swiss quality and precision.  It is built into a steep gorge and hugs the side of the mountain.  You can see the road climb up the mountain until it disappears into it.

 

 

We saw the first bit of snow and ice at the first curve.  Coming out of that turn, you hug the edge of the road.  If you aren’t the driver, the views are fantastic (even if the drive is a bit hair-raising).

 

 

The road zigs and zags up the mountain.  Switchbacks abound.

 

 

Switchbacks are courtesy of Google Maps

 

Looking at the map, you can (1) all the switchbacks, and (2) why I am glad that I wasn’t the driver.

 

 

Surprisingly, there are cute roadside picnic spots sprinkled along the way.

 

English: Alpine Ibex near Lauchernalp (Lötsche...

English: Alpine Ibex near Lauchernalp (Lötschental), Switzerland (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

Since this is Switzerland, there are tunnels and covered areas to protect the roads from impassability due to snow.  As you climb back into the valley, the dates on the exterior of the tunnels becomes progressively more recent.

 

 

When we exited the tunnels, we thought the road had been reduced to one lane because the road narrowed.  We were wrong.  Although it may have been slightly more narrow due to the snow, traffic continued in both directions.  There just wasn’t much room for you to put a road.

 

 

We were rewarded for long drive with a fantastic festival in a stunning setting.  It is well worth the effort to get to Wilder.

 

 

We were lucky the weather (and roads) was clear.  In 1999, around 1,000 avalanches crashed down Switzerland’s mountains.   The  Lötschental Valley is an avalanche hot spot.  That year, avalanches made the road impassable and cut the valley off from the outside world.  Tourists and people with health problems were helicoptered out while locals and food were flown in!

 

 

 

 

Mt. Blanc, The Tallest Mountain In The Alps

Him and Mt. Blanc/Mont Blanc/Monte Bianco

Mt. Blanc, Mont Blanc and Monte Bianco all refer to the same mountain.  It has so many names because of its strategic location.  It in France, viewable from Switzerland and forms part of the border with Italy.  The French and Italian names mean “white mountain.”  Other names for it include La Dame Blance and Il Bianco.

Aosta Valley – From behind the protective tape and snow fence on the slopes

It lies in the Alps between Italy’s Aosta Valley and the Haute-Savoie region of France .  The 11.6 km (7.1 mile) Mt. Blanc Tunnel has connected the two since it was built in 1965.

courtesy of EnlightenedTraveler.co.uk

The trip around the alps is long and so the tunnel was an instant success, becoming one of the major trans-alp transport routes.  It costs about $60 roundtrip for a car to use the tunnel.  That does not include the fine you will pay if you speed over 70 km/hr or do not leave sufficient distance between you and the car in front of you.  They are militant about this safe driving because in 1999 there was a fire in the tunnel that killed 39 people.  We felt a bit more at ease traveling through the tunnel knowing that when the tunnel reopened in 2002, it contained additional safety features.

courtesy of railsystem.net

Mt. Blanc’s height is 4,810 m (15, 782 feet) tall.  It has year-round snow.  Its Bossons glacier comprises the largest ice fall in Europe.  It made the news in 2007, when it grew 6 meters!

It is a center for alpine outdoor activities including: skiing, snowboarding, heliskiing, paragliding, snowshoeing, mountain climbing, trekking, hiking, mountain biking and everyone’s favorite pastime of warming themselves in cute cafes.  All of this activity is not without danger and Mt. Blanc averages 100 fatalities a year and many more severe injuries.  Recently, a Russian couple froze to death while attempting to climb Mt. Blanc, a body was found on a black run (he must have snuck in some night skiing), and an avalanche killed a man.  Looking at a video of a Mt. Blanc avalanche on YouTube, helped me to understand their power and danger.

Courmayeur Piste Map courtesy of winter-sports.com

The Aosta Valley, where we spent the weekend, is a paradise for off piste skiing.  Some of our group went off piste.  Having skied a whopping three times in the last fifteen years, I was happy to stick to the reds.

Please note that these pictures are from the Italian side.  Mt. Blanc’s peak is not visible as it is obscured by a lower part of the mountain when viewed from this angle.

Skiing

We’d planned to go skiing over new year’s, but stayed home since we were sick.  The following weekend, we went skiing.  Let’s just say it wasn’t pretty, but it was a heck of a lot of fun.
Four couples piled into two cars and headed off to France.  Since we were surrounded by mountains, we had many choices.  We chose La Clusaz.  La Clusaz is a pretty town with a traditional village feel, skiing for a variety of levels and a lot of runs.  As you can see from the maps, it is not far from Geneva.*
It only took about an hour to get there.  Unfortunately, it took a bit longer when we got into town because everyone had the same idea.
Ski rental is quite reasonable.  Since we went in France, we got to pay in Euros too.   We rendezvoused with the other couples on the mountain and got a quick pic before someone broke something.  Thanks to the Hughes‘ for the picture.  Please note how it was easier for me to twist my body to face the camera than turn around and go the right way.

We have skied before, it’s just been awhile.  A long while.  The last time we were on skis was about 15 years ago.  Full disclosure: he’s skied once in the intervening years…in North Carolina (so it doesn’t really count as skiing).
The mountains are a little larger than they are in Michigan and I had to screw up my courage.  I told myself that I’m not going to spend the winters inside and alone because I live in Switzerland and don’t ski.  If I’m going to ski, there has to be a first time and there is no time like the present.
This is how I looked on my first run down the mountain. Thank goodness Wildcat was there encouraging me. She was very kind not to point like Nelson from The Simpsons and do the “ha ha”.
I was so excited to go skiing that I didn’t really notice the length of my skis at the rental place.  I’m not sure if you can tell from the above photo, but my skis were just about as tall as I was.  Oops.  I was going a little too fast for my skill set.  Once I got to the bottom, I exchanged my skis for some smaller (kid sized ones). After that, things went a bit more smoothly and I didn’t fall quite as much (although Wildcat did put up some good wipeout video on the Hughes’).
The great thing about going skiing with a bunch of foodies is that stopping for a wonderful lunch is mandatory. Just in case our 5 million burgers while we were home during the holidays weren’t enough, both of us ordered “le burger.”  Quels américaines!
My legs got a bit tired part of the way through the afternoon.  I’d “wisely” switched my long training run for the week from Saturday to Friday.  Us ladies were embarrassed because our ski apparel wasn’t as fly as the ladies from Hot Tub Time Machine.
The guys did a few more runs and our brave friend did the blacks on snowboard!  We slinked off the slopes to where we could really shine, the ice rink.
If you want to see video, check out the Swiss Watch Blog.  Cinematic genius.  We look better than the Ice Capades!
* Tour de France fans might recognize the names of some of the towns around there.  The tour has hit more than a few of them.

 

Lauterbraunnen Valley

 
Switzerland is filled with wonderful, amazing, unique diverse places.   The Lauterbraunnen Valley in the Bernese Alps is one of these places.  It is one of the deepest trough valleys in the alps.  The mountains, with their visible limestone, rise directly up on either side of the valley.  They are perpendicular to the valley floor.  Since the valley is only about a kilometer wide, the dramatic cliffs are everywhere you look.
Snowmelt + cliffs = waterfalls.  The Lauterbrunnen Valley is filled with them; there are 72.  The largest and most well known is Staubach Falls.  Others include: Trümmelbach and Schmadrifällen. We drove into the valley at night and could hear the falls.  The next morning we woke up to this view!
The cliffs on either side make it a paradise for base jumpers (just take a look at the second photo to see where the spot where they jump).  While the vertical valley walls may be great for base jumpers, you can imagine what happens when it snows.  Avalanches are a huge danger.  This is Switzerland, they’re prepared.  Avalanche shelters dot the valley floor.
They also attack the problem from up above.  These snow fences were at high altitudes to protect towns.  This one is protecting Wengen (a town just above the valley).
We aren’t the only ones who like this area.  In 1911, J. R. R. Tolkien hiked from nearby Interlaken to the Lauterbrunnen Valley.  The valley’s landscape made a powerful impression and was a model for his sketches and watercolours of the fictitious valley of  Middle-earth‘s Rivendell valley, in his The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings books. It was a setting for the car chase in the 1969 James Bond (George Lazenby) film, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.  It’s the one where Bond escapes from Schilthorn by skiing down the mountain to reach the nearby village of Mürren at its base.