Sunday, August 5, 2018

Day 0: What We Did Before the Tour du Mont Blanc



Day Zero. As we learned in Europe, everything seems to start at Zero. So, the first floor in Europe is actually the second floor. We even saw elevators with a negative-1 floor, but we won’t go into that. Maybe this is just a classic example of how Americans live in their own world, just like how we had to convert every measurement from the more universally-accepted metric system into feet and miles as a part of our preparation for this trek...



We went to Europe this summer solely to do the Tour Du Mont Blanc (TMB), a 105-mile trekking circuit with an accumulated height gain and loss of something like 32,800 feet. This route circles the Mont Blanc group of mountains in the Graian Alps, which is a section in the western part of the Alps that dips in and out of three countries: France, Italy, and Switzerland (specifically, between the regions of Aosta Valley, Italy, and Savoie and Haute-Savoie, France). This trek was something that we wanted to do for the challenge, the food, the alpine views, and the multiculturalism. Our expectations were surpassed in all categories. I faced my fear of cheese, Wes faced his fear of heights, and we both faced our fear of unpredictability. And I will flat-out state that this was without a doubt physically the hardest thing either of us has ever done, and hell, it was a lot harder than we thought it would be on the outset.  Because of this, it was the most rewarding, beautiful, and heart-fulfilling ten days together.



Really, our journey started a year ago. We could have gone through a tour agency or with an organized group, but we decided to plan it ourselves to keep the costs down and to be able to customize it from start to finish. This was not an easy task. First of all, we knew that we were going during peak hiking season, so we had to make reservations way ahead of time to ensure that we got to stay where we wanted. We did our best to study the route and gauge how much we’d be able to hike on a given day, and then match that up with a nearby accommodation. It was sort of hard to put ourselves there when we were sitting on our couch way back in January, blindly unaware of what the terrain would be like, or the weather, or the condition of our bodies with each successive day, but I’d say that the trekking guide written by Kev Reynolds was very helpful for planning. TripAdvisor was also a useful source for scoping out the various mountain huts and hotel options. Booking was easy for the hotels, but not so easy with the refuges, since they are mostly privately-run. I had to translate webpages (if they existed) and messages from French or Italian to English a few times, and it sometimes it took days to hear back and even more days after that to get a confirmation. Some places requested deposits and others didn’t, so we had to keep good records of what was owed on which night and in what form of currency. Basically, it was a bit of a headache, but once everything was finally set in stone, we could rest assured that we’d have a bed and a hot dinner waiting for us at the end of each day.





In addition to backpacking and taking extended hikes as often as we could, we tried to prepare ourselves culturally, too. We took some French lessons with an animator for the Simpson’s cartoon (yes, seriously) for a short time.  In the days coming up to the trek, we accelerated ourselves by cramming in a bunch of lessons on a language learning app which we both installed in our phones - full disclosure, we enrolled in the 14-day free trial offered by Mango (highly recommended!). I downloaded all of the lessons and banged them out on our outbound flight, mouthing the words, hoping that the Swiss man next to me wouldn’t notice.


So finally, after many months of anticipation, we arrive in Geneva, Switzerland. From here, we would be taking a 1.5-hour bus ride to Chamonix, France, where we were to begin the TMB. By happenstance, France had made it to the World Cup Final, and that game kicked off right as we landed, so we delayed our bus transfer by a few hours and headed into Geneva to view the game with the locals. It was really fun, and we could totally feel that FIFA hype! Allez les Bleus! "Go Blues!"


















We watched the game in Plainpalais on some huge screens. On the cab ride over, our driver had it streaming live on his phone. Everyone seemed to be very into it here. France actually scored a goal while we were in the cab and we all cheered, he in French and us in English. Then, when we popped out of the cab and walked by a bar, we heard a huge raucous again, as another goal was scored, this time by Croatia. The game was super high-scoring! Once in the viewing area at Plainpalais, people were even more rowdy, but not too wild. 









After the game, we had dinner at a place that specialized in tartare. Our last two meals had been plane food, so we were pretty hungry.  We had a salmon tartare and a beef tartare, and these both came with potatoes and salad. We also had an octopus carpaccio and mango passion cheesecake for dessert.


Finally, we got back to the airport and caught our AlpyBus transfer to Chamonix. It was already 10 PM and we totally fell asleep on the bus. An hour and a half later, we were in Les Houches, getting dropped off at the RockyPop Hotel, which is hands down the coolest and quirkiest place we’ve ever stayed in.




















Right when you walk in, you are greeted by R2D2 and See-Threepio. The whole place was geeky arcade-themed, yet comfortable and artsy. I applaud them for the whole concept! Somehow, it works.



The dining area was so interesting also - sort of like Japanese-inspired, yet modern.  It was exciting to climb into these recessed tables until it was time to climb back out - everybody was grunting and groaning and banging their knees on the corners.  Still fun, though.













We were so glad that we came down to breakfast on Day Zero - everything was marvelous.  We could definitely count on RockyPop to fuel us for our first day on the TMB tomorrow.  




We tried everything - every bread, every pastry, and every jam.  I even scooped up some homemade nutella with a celery stick thinking that it was peanut butter (because it was a light brown color) and was pleasantly surprised when it went into my mouth.  Celery stick turned into spoon.




And by "trying everything," I do mean that I gave the cheese a chance.  There were three kinds at breakfast: Tome De Savoie, Meule De Savoie, and Morbier cheese.  We were in the Savoie region of France, so these were the typical cheeses that I was sure we'd see again on the trek.  I was at first pretty doubtful of the cheese, begrudgingly trying a tiny piece of the whitest one, wrapped with some prosciutto.  The flavor was mild and complemented the salt-cured taste of the prosciutto really well.  I found myself eating bite after bite like this, still in shock that I was doing this.  I've been known as a cheese-hater for years, so this was equivalent to having an identity crisis.  Wes was probably singing "Hallelujah" inside, while playing it cool as to try not to jinx it.



The hotel also gave us tickets to ride the shuttle to Chamonix for free.  This shuttle was very convenient, until we misunderstood the schedule and missed the last bus one day... luckily there was a night bus, otherwise we would have had to walk 45 minutes to get back to Les Houches!








Chamonix-Mont-Blanc (usually shortened to Chamonix) is a pretty cool little city at the base of Mont Blanc, the highest summit in the Alps.  Chamonix is a ski resort in the winter and a sporty town in the summer near the junction of France, Switzerland and Italy.  We enjoyed our first "rest day" just walking around, getting our bearings, eating our first bites of French food, and shopping at all of our favorite outdoorswear brands, which happen to have legit storefronts on the main street with big "Soldes" signs in the windows.  It took us no time to learn that this meant, "Clearance."  We couldn't buy too many things though because we'd have to carry everything on our backs for the next ten days.
















































Chamonix was a cool little town, nothing too crazy, but wholly different than anything we have in the States.  Very French, but also very international at the same time.  Everybody there seemed to be a trekker, a climber, a cyclist, an alpinist, or some form of outdoor enthusiast from somewhere in the world.





We went back to Les Houches to chill for a bit and then came back out to Chamonix for dinner at a place called La Moraine.


Here's the menu. Pretty typical French bistro food, not unlike most of the other places that we saw up and down the main street in Chamonix. The prices are also pretty typical of what you'd find around a city.  We were happy to find that once we got out of developed areas and into the mountains, everything was a good 10 Euros less, but tasted just as good, if not with even more generous portions.


Magret de canard poele au miel de Savoie et fruits frais rotis - roast duck breast with honey and roasted fresh fruits




Gratin savoyard - cheesy potato gratin. I couldn't do this... too scary!  Apparently this is very commonly eaten in the Savoie region - we were going to see it again at our first night on the trek.


Quenelle de brochet maison, bisque d'ecrevisses - homemade pike fish dumpling in crayfish bisque


We already knew the French preparation of duck, but this quenelle caught our attention as something new and interesting to try.  It's basically a cake of creamed fish combined with bread crumbs and bound with egg, covered in the bisque.  It was both squishy and fishy, haha!


Due to the language barrier and misreading the schedule, we accidentally missed the last shuttle going back to Les Houches after dinner, but luckily there was a night bus that we only had to wait 45 minutes for.  Now that the trek is over, I laugh to think that we could have easily just walked along the road back to Les Houches without a problem if it had been part of the TMB!


These first 24 hours in Europe gave us plenty of energy and excitement to get out there and see the rest, on foot.  After one more sleep, we would be hitting the trail...ready or not!


Don't grow up, it's a trap.
Go, Blues!

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