Day 58 - Tue May 31 Annecy, to Chamonix
(Jen) It was a beautiful sunny day when we checked out of the hotel. We had a few hours to kill before we returned the rental car and headed off to Chamonix via train. Turns out Annecy is quite gorgeous when it isn't pouring down rain. We walked from our hotel to a very large open-air market - great timing. I purchased some strawberries and devoured then entire thing in about 10 minutes. We wandered over the lake and were impressed by how clear it was - really really super clear. You could see the bottom wherever you looked. The lake seemed to be about 20x bigger than Greenlake and set up in a similar way with a paved bike path around it and little parks scattered here and there. The view of the lush green cliffs behind it was quite pretty as well. We had of course left our cameras in the car (we're dumb) so we don't have one single picture of Annecy. Sorry.
Back at the hotel we relaxed in the lobby for a bit before returning the rental car. We both read an article in a British Marie Claire magazine about British (and American) grocery stores have resulted in produce and meat that is chock-full of nasty pesticides and other drugs and it's far inferior to the open-air market way of doing things in Italy, France, and other parts of Europe. It was an interesting read that we can now both relate to due to this trip that previously we wouldn't have totally grasped. It is true that while there are small grocery stores here and there in Europe, even the produce in the groceries is in small amounts and seems to be primarily from France - but most locals do seem to buy their produce from the markets that hit their town 1-2x / week. And the produce does look and taste yummy and it isn't glossy and sticky like the produce in the states.... Makes you start to wonder.
So now we've returned the car and we're 20 minutes into our 2.5 hour train ride to Chamonix (it's one hour by car, go figure). We haven't seen the mountains yet so we're hoping for some good views from the train.
(Chris) Boy from the internet the Mariner bats look ice cold. I guess it's always a gamble bringing talent from the NL. We never learn.
Here's the scoop on the car: for 12 days, we put 3000km on it. It took us to a lot of places the train couldn't have (though we do have railpasses so rail travel is free except for the reservation fees). The car costs totaled:
freeway tolls € 80
total €660, or about €55/day, or about €28/day/person
Not a great deal but worth it to us I think. Also when you have a car you can buy a lot of groceries and use them to picnic for several days, which saved us some time and money. We could have done even better with a small cooler.
I'm pretty excited to hit the Alps!
(Jen) So we've arrived in Chamonix and it is truly gorgeous. The mountains are right there (see pictures). You can see a few glaciers and Chris pointed out what looks to be a spot where maybe a ginormous avalanche broke off. The view outside our hotel room kicks butt - we even have a small terrace that faces Mont Blanc (for the bargain price of 65E / night). Turns out after a stop at the TI that only two of the lifts are open this time of year (others open in mid-June & July). Even the luge course seems to be closed except for weekends until June 15th. Bummer! Chris is thinking of parasailing though. It's 90E to go tandem with someone who actually knows what they are doing. Not my cup of tea but it would be fun for him I think. Oh, TI (which is quite swanky) has free WIFI set up so you can sit inside or out and get your fix. Will make updating the site and all that jazz quite slick - and free!
(Chris) Part of the reason Jen is so excited about Chamonix is because she found a small kitten to play with next to the Chalet. Chamonix doesn't look much like the rest of France. The steep-roofed lodges give it more of a Bavarian feel (though keep in mind I've never been to Germany!).
Day 59 - Wed Jun 1 Chamonix
(Chris) We woke up early to clear blue skies and the constant presence of Mont Blanc, the highest peak in Europe. We're at 3,000 feet in Chamonix, and Mt. Blanc more like 16,000 (4810.4m to be exact, and roughly 1500 ft higher than Mt Rainier). The major attraction today is to take a tram up to a view point at 12,500ft (Aiguille du Midi), and then take a funky gondola that seats 4 people from there towards the Italian border (to Point Helbronner), so we can see the Italian Alps. The main odd thing about the gondola is it goes near-horizontal for 5km (3mi), with only 1 lift tower in the middle. Let's say Jen wasn't excited about that part but when it came she was mostly fine. I was more concerned with the hefty E53 price tag each for the single round-trip. Back home I complain about a $70 lift ticket that can be used all day!
The views from the gondola were incredible. You could see numerous glaciers, crevasses, snow fields, peaks (including a close-up of Mt. Blanc and a distant Matterhorn), mountain climbers and rock climbers. I probably snapped way too many photos. I've seen alpine scenery of this type before, but usually not without expending a lot of effort. Here there were loads of senior citizens at 12,500. Funny. Though to be honest we could both feel the lack of O2 walking a few short flights of stairs. The tram was full of mostly French and Japanese tourists.
After our tram ride we had a lousy hamburger lunch, and then got domestic, doing some grocery & drug shopping. I finally found a Dr. Pepper, warm, in the "British" section of the local grocery! I can't wait to chill it. Somewhere...
(Jen) We also signed Chris up for tandem paragliding - 1000 meter drop = ~20 min descent. He goes tomorrow at 1 PM. It's his a-tad-early birthday present.
Day 60 - Thu Jun 2 Chamonix
(Chris) Today's big items on the agenda: paragliding for Chris, pedicure for Jen. The paragliding appointment was at 1pm, and it was a glorious sunny day. I met 2 other rookie paragliders at the bottom of the gondola, a couple (he from London, she from Toronto, on a 5.5 month trek), along with the 3 guides. My guide was named Sean, and he apparently relocated to Chamonix from the UK about 18 years ago.
We rode up to the mid-station, at about 5,000 feet, and immediately broke off into pairs, situated on a steep dirt/rock field that turned much steeper after about 100 feet. Sean suited himself up, arranged the chute, suited me up, and gave me about 1 minute of instruction: "When I say walk, walk forward quickly, chest out. When I say run, start running and don't stop until I tell you, even if we're off the ground!" 3 minutes later we did just that. It took about 30 feet of running/walking to get airborne, and then whoosh! We were soaring up into the sky!
The serenity and views from the paraglider were amazing. We cruised along at about 30 mph, and Sean seemed able to take us higher via finding thermals at will. A few minutes of rising were followed by a giant traverse, out over a huge glacier, and then flying over the town of Chamonix. I took a few pictures from up there. It was also pretty cold with the wind chill, my hands got really cold (which is rare for me). It seemed really easy to control, he let me try a little. I suppose like with other danger sports, you only need to have skills when there's a tricky situation or a problem. I might look into repeating when I get back home.
After Jen's pedicure from a nice Greek gal, we did some grocery shopping (when you buy veggies here, weigh and price them in the produce dept, not at the checkstand - we keep forgetting), some internet (weefee), and then went to dinner at a place that specializes in omelets. The food is funny here, near Switzerland. Many of the main courses have some form of melted cheese. There's a lot of at-the-table cooking (not just fondue, many forms - Jen has ordered a steak served sizzling on a hot rock twice now). And I guess they like omelettes too.
Day 61 - Fri Jun 3 Chamonix
(Jen) We were actually supposed to leave Chamonix today but ended up staying another day. We were planning to take a train from here to Berlin, Germany - but it turns out it takes about 18 hours and 6 different trains with changes in the middle of the night. Instead we opted for buying last minute plane tickets between Geneva, Switzerland & Berlin - but of course next day tickets were horribly expensive so we delayed a day and will fly out tomorrow. Getting from here to Germany has turned out to be far more of a hassle than we planned!!
When we awoke it was yet another gorgeous day. We'd slept in until about 11. Chris is still quite sick with his cold and didn't get much sleep due to coughing. We tried to get cold medicine from a pharmacy, but we just ended up with a cough syrup that induces coughing to get the gunk out of your chest - and then pills for decongestion. I asked for cough suppressant and was told "no no, you want him to cough all that stuff up, he'll cough for 2 or 3 days." I even asked for the "sniffly, sneezy, sore throat, cough, so you can sleep medicine" and he looked at me like I had three heads.
(Chris) Obtaining medicine here is a lot different than in the states. At home you have over-the-counter, which you can get anywhere, and prescription. Here, you have over-the-counter, which is practically nothing and really only found in drug stores (which typically are only open 9-12 & 2-6), not grocery stores. Then there's what the pharmacist can get you, which is a lot. Unfortunately the language barrier becomes a problem, because it's far easier to order a beer than to describe a feeling in your chest. Anyway, the pharmacists apparently all aspire to be amateur doctors, but they have not done a good job at all with my congestion. I tell them I just want to stop coughing long enough to sleep through the night and they look at me like I'm nuts. But on the plus side they can get Jen heavy-duty drugs for a headache without a prescription. ("Do you have Imitrex? Sure no problem, here you go.") Anyway, then there's the doctors, which I've been fortunate (or perhaps stubborn) enough not to see.
(Jen) We have been crazy-lucky with the weather here. The views and feel of the town just wouldn't be the same if it was gloomy. Our only adventure of the day was taking a little cogwheel train up, up, up to the Mer de Glace (sea of ice?) - the largest glacier in France and the 3rd biggest in the Alps. Turns out this particular glacier is making a speedy path down the mountain (compared to other glaciers), moving 1 centimeter / day. There was also a basic ice sculpture exhibit within the glacier. They had tunneled a pathway through the ice about 100 feet deep and then created a rather large room divided into sub-rooms to look sort of like a house. They had sculpted a living room with couch and table, a bedroom, a kitchen sink, etc.
The rest of the day we just relaxed and took it easy. We booked our room in Berlin via Priceline though ... 4 star Marriott hotel for about $92 / night. Not bad given that Berlin is expensive.
(Chris) That night the rain started to pour in Chamonix, along with lightning every 15 seconds or so, and some of the loudest thunder I've ever heard in my entire life - it sounded like the 4th of Jul-Ivar's. It was really quite fun actually, as there was no wind so we could leave the balcony door open to take it all in.