Chamonix, France

The past few months have been a little nomadic. So nomadic that my favourite ugly black knapsack kicked the can and broke on me in Oxford. Normally I’d repair the zipper but it was beyond salvageable with the seams ripping at the end and the mesh front pockets already falling apart. It was this nondescript, entirely black bag with a Yahoo logo on it. Ryan had gotten it 7 years ago as a gift and not being one to let a good knapsack go to waste, I started using it taking it absolutely everywhere with me. Sometimes, I would even fly to Cayman with nothing but my Yahoo bag so it has stood the test of time, capacity and abuse.

Anyways, I went back to Vancouver for about a month in May, headed back to Cayman for a few days and then right back on out to Montreal for a week. The past year, I have been organizing a research conference and it finally came to fruition in June. After helping put on a great conference at McGill in Montreal, I set off to meet Ryan in London where we recovered from jet lag and drank beers standing outside pubs (!). We then headed to Oxford for another conference I had signed up for, drank more beers at quaint little pubs, ate scones and planned our next adventure. Ryan only had one criteria: he wanted to go on a road trip and drive across a country which is how we ended up deciding on France. Basically a few hours on National Geographic and Google searches for mountains took me to links for the French Alps. I was sold on the idea of chateaus on the tops of the mountains that provided food and shelter for hikers. I was even more sold on the fact that you could take one of many networks of gondolas back down the mountain should you decide you wanted to take a break from your epic hike-tour.

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It was probably the second to last night before we left Oxford that we had secured our hotel, rental car, and rail pass to Paris. We knew the height of summer would make Paris just an awful time as it would be filled to the brim with tourists so we opted to drive across the country to the French Alps to do some hiking. I had also been suffering again from severe hay fever so anything to escape the pollen was a go to me. We decided that the drive to the Alps should be split into two so we drove to Dijon first and stayed at a castle-turned-hotel called Chateau Sainte Sabine located between Dijon and Beaune on the banks of the Burgundy Canal. We drove through some beautiful hay fields and stayed IN A CASTLE (I am highlighting this to express Ryan’s excitement). Of course my hay fever was on overdrive going through hay fields and staying in the castle in the middle of the country. Ryan snickered at my lack of foresight on this planned overnight stay: “Great choice May, relieving your allergies by escaping to a hayfield huh?” I wanted to hurt him momentarily but he was driving and I didn’t have a sack of oranges (thanks Wade). The highlight of our hotel, Chateau Sante Sabine was the castle itself. The stairs were old and windy, the architecture very well preserved and the charm of the countryside were definitely in its favour. Ryan made me climb up all of the stairs in the building declaring that he one day wanted a home with steep, wind-y and creaky stairs. One city-girl mistake I made though was to leave the lights on and windows open while we grabbed a drink downstairs. Country. Bugs. Light. When we returned to our room, I went ahead to the bathroom to brush my teeth. I looked out my closed bathroom window and saw a swarm of bugs at the window attracted to the light. “Good thing they’re out there and I’m in here”, I thought to myself smug as a bug. There were thousands of those bastards out there. All of a sudden I heard: “Uhh, May…come here” from Ryan in the bedroom. I wandered over and looked at our bedroom ceiling to see about 10,000 bugs in our room swarming the lights. I don’t mind bugs too much but that number of bugs was just too much to take. It made my skin feel itchy. We called the front desk to come up to see what they could do and they basically stared at us politely through gritted teeth and offered to bring us up some bug spray. They were probably thinking: “F___ idiots!” Eventually after a few warm damp cloths patted against the ceiling for 20 minutes and we (Ryan) managed to kill them all and we slept with our mouths tightly shut for the night.

The following morning we set off to Chamonix and what a drive. The scenery changed from wheat fields to alpine to rip-roaring jagged edged mountains and glaciers in the span of 2 hours. We drove along something that is translated to “the white highway” which runs along the French-Swiss Border. After paying over 100 euro in tolls (1-way!) we realized how expensive road trips in Europe were. Though the roads were impeccable and the road-side rest-stops were a-plenty complete with hole-in-the ground toilets. I laughed once when I read on a website about Dutch people carrying toilet paper on trips, but I laugh no more.

After finally arriving to our destination exhausted from the 2-day commute we checked in to the most fabulous hotel in the heart of the village in Chamonix, France. Our room was right next to the tourist information centre and views of Mont-Blanc, the highest peak in Western Europe. Being low-season in the alpine, we were upgraded to this beautiful suite and Ryan even added that this was the nicest hotel he had ever stayed at. If you know Ryan, you’ll know that’s a strong statement! He is always careful to use the words “nicest”, “best”, and “greatest”…they come as often as solar eclipses ;).

Of course as we had not planned on hiking during our trip because we didn’t have any plans to begin with, we were in the mountains for 3 nights with nothing but light sweaters and runners. It got as warm as 25C in the daytime and as cool as 7C in the evenings. We ended up picking up a pair of cheap hiking boots for 39 Euro and some rain gear. After our first hike we unexpectedly found our first chateau at about 1350m. Chamonix is at about 1000m. It was so charming to find this little hut called Chateau de la Floria . We stopped for some tea, awed at the thousands of ultra-marathoners, marathoners and alpine sprinters up on the mountain for the weekend, and decided to extend our stay by another 2-3 nights. Mountains, runners and crepes? I’m never leaving. Purchasing the hiking and rain gear was probably the best investment we had made on our trip. It made our hikes in the rain so much more comfortable and we explored as much as we could in the short time we were there. I am already planning our trip back.

I hope I’ll write more about this trip soon but I wanted to post this before I forgot all of the wonderful memories we had. Including the time that Ryan realized he had left his laptop charger in Sainte Sabine on Saturday and looking to drive to Geneva, Switzerland on Monday so that we could buy another one since it was where the closest Apple Store was and stores were closed on Sunday. It was the best forced technology cleanse ever (though he still had his phone). Ryan only curled up into a ball and shivered for 6 hours with withdrawal symptoms and didn’t make much mention of complaining knowing that I was absolutely livid about the prospect of driving to another country so that he get the charger which would enable him to continue to work on our trip. We ended up driving to a border town in France an hour away that Monday, got lost and ended up on a windy and deadly looking dead-end cliff. Proceeded to make a 3-point-turn with about a meter between the deadly cliff to our deaths and back down to the main highway (thanks Google Maps).

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