“A journey is best measured in friends, rather than miles.” – Tim Cahill
Sunday night, Troy and I arrived home from Paris. We got home around 2 am, and I was up first thing Monday morning to fly to Switzerland. Being tired couldn’t slow me down; I hadn’t seen my friend Sam and her family since they had moved from Canada to Switzerland two years ago! Sam met me at the airport and we took the beautiful drive to their home in Gruyères, in the Fribourg region of the country. We drove past Lac Leman (we English folk would call it Lake Geneva, much to the dismay of my Swiss friend, J-M), and I instantly felt like I was home. The tall mountains and calm waters made me feel truly homesick for the first time since I had left Canada.
At the house, it was awesome to be reunited with the Sam’s husband, their kids, and their cat. We sat down for dinner right away so that we could make it to the Medieval town of Gruyères (definitely check out this link as it has beautiful photos and some great historical information) before all of the shops closed for the day. We made it just in time to get some proper Swiss chocolate ice-cream from Chocolaterie de Gruyere, where three of us went for the dark chocolate (definitely the right choice!). My tummy hated me for it, but it was worth it; it was by far the best ice cream I had tasted in my entire life. We had just a few minutes to look in one of the shops and then we walked through the quaint village square complete with shops, cobblestone road, and fountain, all overlooked by the Medieval castle (I thought I had pictures of this but nope, so be sure to check out that link).
The castle itself was closed, but we took a leisurely stroll around the perimeter, taking in the view of the community below, the herd of sheep grazing on the hill (one sheep in particular was quite curious and came over to greet us), and the mountains all around us, like a wide open blanket. The mountains that you see in the background above are the Pre-Alps. The Pre-Alps are made up of an impressive but lesser-known mountain range directly west of the French Alps and at a lower elevation.
It’s times like these that I feel I am no writer: I have no words to capture the feeling of the light filtering through the clouds, casting bright rays on some areas while leaving the others in dark shadow; or the awe of looking up at this massive centuries old castle and its grandeur and then realizing that it is nothing in comparison to the pre-Alps that loom large over everything in sight; or the calm that fills you when the only sounds are quiet conversation with your friends and the cacophony of musical sound of the bells worn by the many sheep that wandered the hills below the castle.
With the sun beginning to take its leave for the day, we made our way back to the house to enjoy a cup of tea on the back patio as the glow of the sunset on the mountains painted everything with a brilliant orange glow. Then, it was time for a shower and early to bed because Tuesday we were getting up early to drive to France!
On Tuesday morning, we woke around 8 to get ready and have breakfast at home before heading out for France. We were bound for Chamonix, a resort area at the base of the Alps where France, Switzerland, and Italy meet (in fact, from the top of the glacier, you can see the tram that comes up from the Italian side of the mountain). We arrived at Chamonix after a scenic drive through Switzerland, crossing into France at an unmanned border. It had much the feel of Whistler, though I suppose that ski resort communities worldwide may share a similar backdrop and energy, with the mixture of private chalets, hotels, restaurants, and tourist shops.
From there, we took two trains to get up into the glacier at Aiguille du Midi, which is at an altitude of 3842 meters and has a breathtaking view of Mont Blanc, the highest summit in the Alps.
This is where the disorder begins, because these pictures are completely not in the chronological order of our day! Some of my pictures are missing, others are out of order, and so I’m approaching this post with.. let’s call it whimsy 😉
Full disclosure: this is not an event I think any of us would choose to do again. The crowd control is terrible: they pack the trams and the mountain as full as they can, so any images you have of a relaxing and majestic ride up in the tram as you take in the changing scenery, or of standing out in the Void to take it all in, well, let those images fade. You have a set departure time, so you can’t stay all day nor leave right away. The reality: the Void (a glass skywalk, 360 degree box built to gain uninterrupted views) is amazing, actually, or at least it would be if you actually got the advertised two minutes to stand in it and breathe slowly as you gaze around you at every angle, but in reality you shuffle in with your slippers, the attendants take a couple of photos (not caring if you or any of your group are smiling, or looking in their direction) and then you are ordered out so the next group can get in. This, after having waited 30-40 minutes to get to the front of the line.
The crowds to get down are much worse. This is where I missed the Canadian/British love of standing in queues to wait our turn the most, because instead of any semblance of a line, you are in a large room with the other hundred plus people who want to leave, and as your times are called, people push and crowd to get to the front while people with other departure times are trying to convince the gatekeepers to let them leave early or late, which slows down the whole process. So, by the end of it it’s fair to say that all 3 adults and both children in our group were more than ready to be down off the mountain.
So now that I’ve lain bare the ugly truth about the tourist side of the outing, let me go back and refocus on the being up there. It was one of the most majestic, peaceful places I have seen, and to be reminded what a tiny spec you are in this wide open tundra, let alone in our vast universe, is a humbling and beautiful experience.
Waiting for the second tram, you get a view of the steep, sheer rock face in front of you, which you are about to travel past in a cable-suspended tram. When you get off the second tram, there are several directions you can go. We started out at the lower platform and stood there as a large, solid cloud hovered behind us before suddenly deciding to depart and leaving us with a clear view of Mont Blanc. One of the amazing things about this spot was that it is the highest point that you can reach in the Alps without hiking, and so to have something this beautiful be so accessible is impressive all by itself.
When we got to this first platform, I didn’t actually realize yet how many places there were to explore. We spent a good amount of time here, breathing in the air and taking in the changing view. The clouds were moving quickly, and so you had to be watching to see pieces of the landscape revealed before the were swallowed up by the cloud again, moments later. Our patience paid off though, as the large cloud that had moved in during our ascent finally parted, revealing the pristine summit of Mont Blanc.
As more clouds rolled in, we moved on to the highest platform, where we joined the line up for the Void and enjoyed the view while we waited.
After coming down from the void, we explored the other pathways and lookouts. And I am SUPER frustrated right now because some of my pictures seem to be missing, including the most amazing one of the ridge that is just outside this tunnel, where we stepped out onto the glacier itself (barely) and where there is a very narrow ridge that the hikers use to descend from Midi down onto the glacier. You definitely need crampons (a metal plate/attachment that you strap onto your shoes for gripping the ice) and proper gear here as one slip would send you straight down the mountain.
From here, I continued along to a walkway that brought me to a lookout on the far side, opposite Mont Blanc. When the clouds lifted, the views were beyond compare. My favourite thing was that because of the numerous walkways and platforms, it was possible to find quiet spots away from the bulk of the crowd where I was able to stand still, breathe it in, and feel both the calm and the power of the mountain.
I know I write quite often about taking deep breaths. It’s because I, like so many of us, want to get beautiful pictures of these places and experiences. We want to share it, and remember it, and find a way to include others in all of the moments that add up to make us who we are. The things is: if you get so wrapped up in finding ways to share it, then you miss out on truly living it for yourself. And so, some days I leave my camera behind; at the very least I make a very conscious effort to stop and say to myself “Stop looking through the lens beyond your own eyes. Take some deep breaths. Look around you. Breathe it right into your soul so deeply that it stays in there forever.” If there is a place in the world that deserves your presences and mindfulness, it is this one.