Monday, 8 September 2014

Hitting the High Notes with Mary and Tim

Briançon's old city and fort Vauban

Although we had a meal in the old city of Briançon the evening we arrived, we had decided to wait to  for our friends Mary and Tim from Wisconsin to arrive before we explored this iconic place properly. The walled old city and the fort that overlooks it is one of a series of 12 UNESCO listed Vauban-built forts that guard the Western, Eastern and Northern borders of France. As UNESCO says, "The work of Vauban constitutes a major contribution to universal military architecture." (Mont-Dauphin is another Vauban fort a short distance to the south of Briançon, adjacent to Guillestre.) Unfortunately, the fort that guards the old city was locked up so we couldn't go inside for a wander around. (This is an example of how things change considerably, regardless of whether the weather is brilliant or not, come the end of August and school holidays are over.) It was still enjoyable wandering around the old city, seeing a house one of the popes had stayed in, looking down into the moat system from the massive walls and then having lunch. Here's a photo of Mary and Tim, pausing under an arch inside the city itself, that could be blocked were the first defences breached by an enemy (if you expand the photo (right click to open new window/tab) you can see the upper fort more clearly in the background) ...

Having a good time?
After a couple of hours walking around we started feeling like lunch, eventually stopping at Le Pied de la Gargouille which Le Routard seemed to think is pretty good ...

Routard ratings ...
We ate inside so we wouldn't have to worry about sucking in cigarette smoke from passers-by and fellow diners on the terrace. This is the view from the front of the restaurant ... 

Briançon: streetscape in the old city
... so when France catches up with Australia's laws on smoking, maybe we'll come back again, sit down and enjoy the view while we eat!

Col Izoard

As we are in the heart of the Haute Alpes and we've been noticing signs pointing to the iconic Col Izoard - which is often traversed as part of the Tour de France - we thought it would be nice to head up there for the afternoon. As expected, we passed plenty of cyclists on the way up. Here is the monument that marks the top of the col ...

Col Izoard monument
One of the hillsides overlooking the col is very appealing to hikers, with a path making a rising traverse - which you will be able to see more clearly if you enlarge the photo below. I wonder if it continues around to the ridge on the skyline and climbs to the top?
A temptation for peak-baggers overlooks Col Izoard
Looking back down the road from the col gives a good idea of the twists and turns the cyclists must negotiate, and a view of the Refuge Napoleon poised just 800 metres below the top ...

The last stretch to the top and the Refuge Napoleon
We stopped for a drink on the way back down and to savour the atmosphere of the place ...
Refuge Napoleon just below Col Izoard
I managed to resist the seductive cakes and tortes that were on display, but only just! (A rare moment of strength reinforced by the idea that I might like to cycle up here someday and I will need to trim down if I am to not only survive but enjoy the experience!)

While we were there the resident donkey wandered over for a visit ...
Just grazing ... on gravel!?
He was a very friendly chap ...
G'day mate ...

... so I let him help me finish my coffee ...
Une peu de la café noisette aux lait pour l'âne
You might have noticed some dark clouds in the background of a few of the photos above. Shortly after we left the refuge a thunderstorm struck and the heavens opened. Although heavy initially, thankfully for the cyclists making their way to the top it didn't last too long.

A Grand Tour of the Erins

When we visited Valsenestre and the Gite Le Bèrenger, Di thought it would be fun to revisit the place with Mary and Tim so the day after our visit to the old city of Briançon and Col Izoard we decided to head take Mary and Tim for a visit. Although, because we are in the mountains, it was going to be a long drive there and back ...
Halfway around the Ecrins ... and back!
... we thought, if we started early, we'd be able to punctuate the journey with a couple of stops along the way. The first of those was the Col du Galibier: one of the most testing climbs in the Alps. The Tour de France often goes over the Col de Lautaret but rarely takes the turn to climb the next, tortuous seven kilometres from there to the top of the Galibier. It is a stunning route. Here is the sign that marks the summit ...
Col du Galibier coming and going
The four of us posed for a photo at the top ...

Here we are!
Like the Col Izoard, there is a refuge just below the top. You can also see a couple of hiking trails leading off into the distance ...
Refuge below Col du Galibier
The views really are breathtaking ...
Col du Galibier panorama

Back to Besse

The first night on our hike of the GR54 was spent at the little village of Besse. We were so charmed by it we thought it would be nice to take a detour up there with Tim and Mary. Here are a few photos to give you a sense of the place ...





By the time we'd visited Besse and arrived at Bour l'Oisans we realised we were running a little late so we had a smartish drive the rest of the way to our lunch destination ...

Valsenestre

At the end of a long, narrow blind valley, Valsenestre is only open during the summer to road traffic - although it is possible to ski up into the village in the winter. It's a charming little spot the centrepiece of which is the Gîte d'étape le Bélanger and its hostess Hélène Pinto. As expected we had a wonderful dinner. Here's the four of us about to enjoy dessert, joined for the photo by Hélène who is bringing us the sparkling wine that is part of that dessert ...
A wonderful lunch topped off in style
Before leaving the village we strolled around a bit. The next few photos are courtesy of Mary. Here's one of some bulbs of garlic drying in the sun ...

L'ail au soleil
... and here's the communal oven, used weekly in times past to bake the village's bread ...

Le four communale
... an old wooden water trough, apparently dating back to 1880 ...

The water is wonderfully fresh ...


... and finally a charming old sundial ...

(Don't tell anyone, but it was actually a bit later than one o'clock)

Pre de Madame Carle and Ailefroide

For our last full day with Mary and Tim we wanted to take them someplace special. We hadn't been up to the Pre de Madame Carle area up above Ailefroide but it was meant to be beautiful and there are a couple of climbs we wanted to see if we could locate.  Here's a satellite image of the area from Vallouise up to Refuge Cezanne so you can see the sort of landscape we're talking about ...

Yes, we're in the mountains
From the refuge we walked up past the turnoff to Refuge Glacier Blanc and on a little ways towards Glacier Noir. Here's a view looking back towards the refuge just after starting out which shows the setting of Chalet Refuge du Pré de Madame Carle (also know as Refuge Cezanne) very nicely ...

The refuge is at the end of a paved road in this stunning environment

Further up the way you get a good view back down into the valley ...

Pré de Madame Carle

If you enlarge the photo you can see the refuge and the road leading back down towards Ailefroide.

Turning one's attention further up valley towards the peaks above Glacier Noir yields another spectacular view ...

Up above Glacier Noir
On the north side of the valley a number of peaks form the valley wall and we think this is the one with the routes on it that we are interested in having a look at towards the end of our trip if all the stars align ...

Sixteen pitches of climbing takes you to the top

After our little excursion up valley we returned to Refuge Cezanne to  find an elderly lady choking on her lunch. Her son and daughter-in-law were trying some ineffectual first aid but it wasn't working and she was getting greyer and greyer by the second. Although the guardian of the refuge seemed to think things were in hand, luckily Di intervened as things got pretty dicky for a moment. Di got her down in the recovery position and suddenly she started breathing again. Phew! That was close!

After this drama we made our way back down to Ailefroide so Mary and Tim could gaze up at the climbers in wonder and we could scope out another climb we have our eyes on. As it turned out there was a party on it so it was easy to see where the line went. If you enlarge the following photo you should be able to see a climber (in the yellow circle I've drawn) wearing a green shirt ...

Et on tuera les affreux
And there you have our past three days. It's been great having Mary and Tim come across from the second home in Ireland to visit us here in the Haute Alpes. Who know when we'll meet again, as long as it's not in thunder and in lightning and in rain!



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