Vive La France
Sometime in the afternoon we left Suisse and cycled into France. I haven't seen it yet but I get the impression, the feeling that Melbourne or Sydney could, quite possibly after a prolonged period of involution in the European chrysalis, come to resemble Paris or Rome, but I'm guessing it would take a long time. Longer than I've got anyway.
It's odd, being in France, having thought on, and about the place for so long, to be finally here, cycling up a mountain, observing the arbitrary splendor, the archaic beauty, and yet being observed by everyone, white blonde hair, scruffy beard. A detached observer who remains affianced as a human participant.
Trying to fathom what it is about France that continues to capture global hearts and minds, the country of course being the most visited realm in the world with over 80 million visitors per year, I can understand now that I/we are here. For many it must be Paris, the Louvre, the Eiffel tower, the Arc de Triomphe, for others the countryside, the castles, the architecture and history, yet still others the roads, the Tour de France, or the food, the cuisine, and then there might be those with romantic ideals of romance and old world chivalry, hopeful for love.
But for me, it's the sages, the God's of the literary world that for so many years have formed portraits in my mind that obtuse mortals like me can only dream of ever replicating.
Riding along, Shanna just behind me, these thoughts proliferate in my mind, as for a game, not out of boredom but rather to help ignore the pain in my legs and forget the ache in my stomach I try to remember some of them, but there are so many, and I'm soon confused amidst a world of names, philosophies, centuries and ideologies.
Roland Barthes, Emile Zola, Claude Levi-Strauss, Stendhal, Truffault, Sartre, Derrida, Camus, Balzac, Baudelaire, Maupassant, George Sand, Rousseau, Voltaire, Diderot, Delacroix, Hugo, Godard, Dumas, Gautier, Flaubert, the Goncourt brothers, Daudet, Mallarme. Verlaine, Rimbaud, Gide, Proust, Fournier, Foucault and Rivette.
Maybe you've heard of a few of these, if not I'll happily keep them to myself.
Oh and France was cold, really cold, but the food was deliciously cheap- this combination of words probably makes more sense to a touring cyclist...
When we found a Super Mache, just over the border we couldn't believe our eyes, we were expecting high prices, but I think, after studying the isles for an hour or so, and buying so much food, cakes, creme aux oeufs, riz au lait, fresh bread, chorizo, fruit, juice and yoghurt that I can probably say food is even cheaper here than what it is in Australia. If was Suisse maybe I'd do cross the border with a van every month or so...
Excitedly that night we had our first meal in a French restaurant. A contrasting affair of both great and bad. It wasn't what we expected, but maybe the beauty of traveling is that nothing ever is.
We woke up in the morning and despite the sky still looking ominous the rain had stopped. Unfortunately though the wind was still blowing, and it was cold.
It was hard getting going again, packing up our gear and the tent whilst knowing we'd be riding into a head wind, I tried not to think about it.
Additionally, the bike was still making a worrying grinding noise. If only I could figure out what it is...
Pushing at the pedals as hard as I can, but only going about 10 kilometers per hour. The rain starts, then stops, then hammers down and we get soaked, so soaked that we try putting the tarp up between some trees, even with our rain jackets on we feel wet to the bone... can't believe how cold it is!!!
Maybe we've just gone soft from being in hot climates for so long?!? At one point we have to stop for an hour, the wind is so strong we can't actually ride forwards.
Approaching the outskirts of Lausanne we see a beautiful lake, framed by the mountains which surround it; Switzerland really is a beautiful country, and despite our present struggles on the bikes we wouldn't change coming here for a second. I guess that from the large amount of other cyclists on the roads braving the rain and wind we're not alone with that opinion
Riding around the lake we see a shower, it looks freezing but we drop our bikes and hurriedly strip off behind some bushes. Wowwweee, it is cold, but hey, its definitely worth it to feel clean again.
Au revoir Sion
Leaving Sion to continue cycling across Europe was a bittersweet affair. Whilst Francois and Severine had left the day before to do some high altitude training for a University study, we had gone to the local bicycle shop (thanks heaps to Severine’s mum who drove us there) to pick up our bikes.
Looking at our bicycles, newly serviced and gleaming I was amazed by just how clean they looked. In fact, they looked as though someone had gone over them with a fine toothcomb and a can of polish. Great we thought! Then we looked down at the price of our bikes being serviced, and the two new chains which were fitted to them and were unable to believe our eyes, almost $600 Australian dollars. I racked my brains wondering what the exorbitant cost was for, and tried desperately to read the receipt, much to the annoyance of the French speaking Suisse standing behind the counter. It seems, I learned later, that you do not question the price here, and simply accept with meekness so as not to risk the chance of looking as though any amount, no matter the high cost, means nothing to you or your bank account.
Interestingly when we had first taken the bikes in for a service we were told that the front wheel would need replacing. Francois replied that that was the wheel they had built for him only six months ago, and asked what was wrong with it as there were no obvious signs of a problem. Suddenly there seemed to be no more problems with the wheel. Hmmn.
Anyway, much to the annoyance of the guys in the shop (and the embarrassment of my entourage) I looked down at my bike and spun the front wheel. It rotated around once, and then with a sudden jolt it stopped.
I moved onto the back wheel (a brand new one that they had just built) and did the same. It didn’t stop immediately, but swerved noticeably at one arbitrary point, indicating even to the newbie cyclist that this wheel had a buckle. I showed it to them, much to their reluctance, and was told it was the tyre. Wow, I’ve never heard of that one before I thought to myself.
An hour later, Shanna and Severines mother had left in the car with her bike, the front wheel of my bike adjusted and swinging freely, a $600 dent in my pocket for I’m still not sure what and I was back on my bike and cycling up the mountain through the rain (seven hundred meters climb in altitude- or going up the Mt Dandenong I-20 climb the equivalent of three times). Soon though, I wondered what the new noise was, a constant grating sound apparent with each revolution of the pedals, and began wondering if all that had been done to the bikes was a trip through a car washer (in my imagination I was picturing something like a giant dishwasher with a bike in it).
The following morning we left the Lamon’s beautiful home overlooking the Swiss alps in the mountains of Sion (altitude almost 1300 meters), heading for France. We were sad to leave, remembering fondly our week there, and how much we’d done during this short time with Sev and Francois, in their stunning little corner of the world.
Thanks to a bum steer from me we started heading in the wrong direction and thinking how wonderful the tail wind was. Realising we were going the wrong way we turned around, me with a backpack on my back with mountaineering gear in it ready to send home, and began heading the right way, into the wind towards the beautiful lakeside city of Lausanne.
$115 later and the backpack is off my back and heading to Australia, wow it feels great, not only to get rid off the big pack but also to be riding again. If only the wind wasn’t intent on blowing us back to Sion it would have been perfect!
Through the strongest head wind imaginable we pushed our pedals. Progress was slow, much energy was spent, and then the rain started to fall. It was about 5pm, and we’d just stocked up on food at a supermarket, when we saw an abandoned structure, which would offer protection from the rain. We wheeled our bikes under the big concrete pillars and ceiling, and investigated a big warehouse - it was also abandoned. We cooked our pasta in the warehouse, admiring the graffiti, but as it grew dark decided we’d been happier camping outside with the cold wind.
First sight of the Matterhorn
Distance: 15km of walking, 1500m gained
Today Francois boasted that we'd reach our highest altitude ever on a peak in the Swiss alps. We hoped he was right.
We set off early in the morning for a notorious area in the Swiss mountains that straddle Italy's border known as the Pennine Alps. An hours driving and a couple of stops for fuel later and we were at the Grande Dixence Dam, the highest gravity dam in the world with a wall 285 meters high. Apparently it produces so much hydroelectric power that the Suisse direct much of it to its neighbors in France and Italy.
By the time we'd hiked from the carpark to the height of the dam, 2,365 meters in altitude, I was already sweating profusely. Looking above I noticed the chair lift that was packed with people taking almost everyone else up to the dam, on the way down it would look even more tempting I imagined.
Over the next five hours we hiked through tunnels, across streams, up and along steep yet undulating rocky ridges of screed and falling rock, traversed across several small snow fields, abseiled down a short rock face at 3310 meters and finally we arrived at the glacier that we'd brought harnesses, ropes and crampons for.
It was hot and sunny (even at this high elevation) and we could all hear the trickling noise of the glacier melting under our feet. Concurrently we could also see where the snow changed color, covering a series of holes and gaps that could have fallen through into deep crevasses. I wondered to myself if there was any real way of knowing, and realised how people can so quickly and easily fall to their deaths in places like this.
Harnesses on and ropes attached we crossed the glacier, and after climbing up the steep snow face adjacent we had finally made it to the hut. Soaked in sweat I threw my pack on the ground and looked around, wow, what an amazing view. To one side we could see Mont Blanc, the highest peak in Western Europe, and the massif that surrounds it. To the other side I could see the Matterhorn, probably the most famous mountain in Europe with its spectacular steep four sided pyramid like shape, and its little brother, the White Tooth next to it.
Everyone was starving so we got out our camp stove and cooked some pasta while eating Swiss chocolate, bread with cheese and drinking yoghurt. Then we realised that we had no water. Luckily we found some huge old assorted pots laying about and hiking back down to the snow line we collected some snow to melt down and drink. Thirst quenched and the others set about finding a comfortable spot on the rocks for an afternoon nap.
For a moment I considered doing this, but then my excited curiosity got the better of me and I headed up over some other some peaks, a couple of small snowfields and across a ridge of shale and rock to another higher peak. Climbing amongst the rocks and a small slip, luckily a secure section of rock to hold onto, heart beating a thousand times per minute, wondering if I can make it up, didn't think I could, too wet, steep, slippery, go back now I thought to myself. A minute later and I was at the top. Wow, success, I made it.
This is fun I thought as I screamed out at the top of my lungs, no-one but a bird circling overhead to hear my cries, muffled by wind and space.
We were all a little tired and needed a quieter day, so we headed down the mountain to Sion where we put our bikes in for a service, checked out the markets, visited an old castle on the hill and looked down over the beautiful city. The sun was scorching - temperatures were still in the high 30s, which apparently only happens for two weeks of the year in Switzerland.
But it wasn't all site-seeing, Francois still had something special planned for the afternoon. The way it had been described I thought we were going rock climbing. We each had a harness and I knew we were going up a rock face. But it was better than rock climbing. Into the rock face metal ladder-like rungs had been secured with a thick wire rope running alongside, which we clipped our harnesses to. And we climbed up. Sometimes we had to walk across a wire rope bridge, other times the rock face we were climbing protruded, overhanging over the one below, which made it more difficult, and often it was hard to reach the next rung. But Sam and I both loved it!
At the top it was short walk to a swimming pool where we happily cooled down and looked over the mountains around us...
Into the clouds
Distance: About 13km of walking, 1100m of elevation gained... and lost!
It was nice to sleep in, not have to worry about moving on... And when we arose the table outside the main home was laid ready for breakfast - yoghurt, cereal, fresh bread, jams and hot chocolate... We ate until we were full, preparing our bodies for hiking in the mountains.
We bought some picnic supplies - more bread, cheese, meat and chocolate - and drove up higher into the mountains.
The walk was sometimes difficult, particularly since we still hadn't had a rest day for six days, but the beauty around us made it worth it! We even hiked through steep sections of snow in some places, which is a strange sensation when the sun is beating down on you and you're sweating hard.
The view at the top was amazing. We were at an elevation of 2810m, our second highest after our climb of Mt Agung, Bali.
The walk down was more difficult, our legs now tired and aching from the exertion of weeks of difficult riding. I remembered the pain in the days after Mt Agung and hoped this time wouldn't be as bad...
Enjoying the heights
I was scared. Francois had told us that the final 6km of his ride up to Saint Bernard were tough, and looking down I could see how steep it was. Plus there were few barriers. I was feeling sick looking at the huge drop if I didn't make it around a corner.
So I kept on the brakes, much to Sam's amusement as he laughed with joy while flying down. Francois tried to be reassuring, saying there were only 40km of downhill and we had all day. 40km! If they were like this I would never make it.
But after 6km the gradient flattened out enough for me to take my aching hands off the brakes and enjoy the spectacular scenery around us. Snow capped mountains, cascading waterfalls, trickling streams, small villages with decorated with colourful flowers. Summer in Switzerland was breathtaking.
We stopped at a roadside stall to buy some locally grown, delicious apricots and a special type of cheese, that is not really cheese... Our introduction to Switzerland was all we had hoped.
At the bottom I pedalled hard to keep up with Francois and Sam. I had been under the impression that all we were doing that day was riding down the mountain, But I was wrong. The road inclined up again - I was breathing hard and felt stiffled in the warm clothing I'd layered on at the start of the day. Just as I was about to drop off the back Sam suggested we all stop and remove our warm clothes. Thank goodness!
But once we started riding again the pace was even quicker and my legs ached. I was going to give in, but then I imagined the other two were Schleck and Contador and I was Evans - I couldn't let them get ahead! I had to hold on no matter how much it hurt. This strategy worked and for kilometre after kilometre I clung onto the back of them.
Just when I was about to hit breaking point again we slowed down - Francois had spotted another cycle tourist and decided to chase after him and chat to him. Sam and I continued at a slower pace until Francois caught back up to us, with Lee from England in tow. Lee would come with us for a swim at the lake, picnic and a walk in the afternoon.
The frantic pace continued. But luckily the road was mostly flat. We were riding through the middle of a valley with mountains all around us. Finally the moment came - I couldn't keep up anymore. After 28km of riding as hard as I could I was done. "I can't do it anymore!" I yelled out to the backs of the three riders ahead as the distance between us grew. Sam had noticed before and started slowing down so I could catch back up to him and ride behind him, the other two eventually slowed as well.
And we were there. We'd arrived at the picnic location where we were meeting Sev. It was great to see her again and we chatted quickly - catching up on all that had happened since we last saw each other. The lake was cold, but refreshing after our morning sprint. And the picnic was delicious - different meats and cheeses to try, swiss chocolate... after eating we swam again.
After the swim we took the bikes to Francois's dad's work in the city of Sion and we all squished in the car to drive up a mountain and go for a walk. It was an easy walk, since we hadn't had a rest for days. The track was flat and followed alongside a stream for the first half, then around the mountain for the second part - using narrow metal bridges to cross sections that had collapsed in avalanches. We had amazing views of the valley below and mountains around us, although my legs were quite tired by the time we had finished.
We said goodbye to Lee and he rode off to continue his planned round-the-world, three year journey (which he started a month ago) and we drove up to Lens, where Severine's parents live. We would spend the next week living in the small guest challet on their property.
The challet was beautiful and comfortable, Janine and Ernest warm and welcoming, and for the first time in months we felt a sense of home.
Grand Saint Bernard
Stretching beside the road in preparation to cycle up to the Saint Bernard Pass, one of the highest motorable passes in Europe at 2480 meters in elevation and closed to traffic during the winter, we saw a group of touring cyclists and decided to tag on the back.
Two of them Polish and the other English we had a good chat until everyone was a little out of breath. A couple of kilometers later and we stopped on the side of the road for hamburgers, which it turned out later might have been a mistake...
Just after we started again we found a mountain stream funneling down the side of the road so we stopped to fill our water bottles. The water was cold, really cold, and just filling up the bottles hurt my hands. Despite this I splashed the water over my face a few times, and felt immeasurably better. Not sure if its just me, but I love the coldness of water coming down from a mountain, there is something about it that makes me wish I could drink this water all day... Although, I hear that apparently this wouldn't be all that good for you.
Getting back to the riding. Another 10 or so kilometers up hill and we came to the point were the tolled tunnel section begins for motor vehicles, and the tunroff for the mountain summit begins, snaking around the mountain as far the eye can see.
At this point we were up around 1600 meters in altitude and we began to feel that the weather was getting cooler. Strangely the road began to deteriorate, almost to the conditions in Laos, a third world country, and the cyclists coming down the hill in the opposite direction were having trouble negotiating the rocks, bumps and machinery scattered over the road.
Further up and the road starts to improve, and as we reach 2000 meters in altitude the tree line stops, leaving only green hills, snow capped mountains, glaciers, jutting outcrops of rock and incredible waterfalls and streams.
The scenery is spectacular, so we stop, not just to catch our breath, but to take off our shoes and socks and wash our feet in the cold water, water coming from glaciers above us formed thousands of years ago.
Finally another hour or so later and we're at the top of the Saint Bernard Pass, the border between Suisse and Italy were Saint Bernard built a hospice for travelers that still exists almost 1000 years later.
We cycle through the border, and for the first time nobody says anything or asks for out passports, and just like that we are in Switzerland.
Suddenly feeling famished we lean our bikes against a wall near the hospice when, looking around for something to eat I hear Shanna yell in excitement, 'Francois!!'
We hadn't expected to see them until the following day but as it turned out Francois had ridden up that morning over 70 kilometers from Sion, and was just as tired and hungry as us. Fortunately we were able to shelve our plans to camp somewhere in the mountains as Francois had payed for us to stay at the hostel, were apparently you can only stay if you have either ridden or walked up. Cool.
That night we watched the end of the Tour de France in a cafe and then shared a communal meal with some hikers and young scouts in the old hospice dining hall.
Tucking into the soup with bread, and steak and potatoes in the warm old room, prompted me of something from the past. Although I cant remember exactly what it was, it must have been something soothing, so I sat there, warm amongst the chatter wondering, in search of lost time and memories.
Sam and Shanna Evans are from Melbourne, Australia