Saturday, August 3, 2019

Surviving the Heatwave

Albertville is best known for hosting the 1992 Winter Olympics, when Kristi Yamaguchi was queen of the ice and the ever-entertaining Italian skier Alberto Tombo hurled himself down the Giant Slalom to cheers of "Tomba la Bomba!" I may or may not have had a little crush on him at the time.

The aire where we stayed for two nights was located right at the walls of the old city, which was perfect for exploring. It was really just a big parking lot, as many of the municipal aires are, but it also had a dump station and fresh water available, all for free, so we had no complaints. We were close to the more posh part of town as well, which made for a nice walk and some window shopping. We were enticed by the smell of roasting chicken, so we bought one. It's about the third or fourth time we have done so and we've been disappointed every time. They are so dry. Bleh! When will we learn?

Our aire in Albertville. See that little blue thing on the right? That’s a “Flot Bleu”. Some are for dumping and fresh water, others have one service but not the other. The grate in the road right in front of it is where we dump the grey water. Just drive over and pull the lever!

On the way down the hill to Albertville.

Albertville was a fun place to walk around and buy dried up chicken.

Before we left Albertville and headed out we made our way to a store called DARTY, which is an appliance store. They carry just about every household appliance you might need, large or small (except Instant Pots, they do not have those). Today we needed a second fan, one that would really help move the air inside Bijou. While Steven made that purchase I went to Lidl next door and stocked up on wine. We love a good two-fer stop!  

Our new favorite appliance store.

Our destination, Plaine Joux, was only 37 miles away, but it was going to take us nearly three hours of fairly intense up and down switchback driving to get there, so we decided to stop halfway and do it over two days in the early mornings when it was cool. Even though the heatwave had not yet arrived, cool mornings were still the best time to handle mountain driving. That turned out to be a perfect plan, as the little mountain village of Combloux where we stayed had some very scenic walking trails. We found a cute café down the hill with an enticing menu so we decided a date night was in order. The trip back uphill to Bijou was a bit of a chore after a steak and a lovely bottle of red, but we made it.  

Amazing views of the mountains from our free overnight stay in Combloux.

Church in Combloux.

Yummy dinner at a café in Combloux.

Dump station, fresh water and gorgeous views. All free. What else do you need?

On the second day we drove to the town of Passy and stopped at our favorite store, the Super U, for last minute items before making the final push up to Plaine Joux. Super U is the closest thing we have to Fred Meyer. I told Steven I was going up and down this mountain one time, so there would be no nipping down the hill for groceries. We were only staying for three days, so we didn't have to carry too much. Haha, famous last words.

Plaine Joux is a ski resort in the French Alps. Many European ski resorts are set up for motorhomers who bring their rigs up in the winter months to ski. I suppose ski resorts in the states might offer the same opportunities, but I wouldn't have driven Scoopy up to one no matter the season. Likewise, I personally wouldn't drive the route up to Plaine Joux in the winter, but there are those that do. 

Parked up in Plaine Joux. We weren’t the only ones trying to avoid the heatwave. It cleared out after a few days.

There are several sections to park, and we chose the area backed up to the forest with a giant mountain looming over us. We had electricity and the water and dump were just a few meters away. Right out our front window was the stunning Mont Blanc, the highest peak in the Alps. At 15,777 feet, it is higher than my beloved Mt. Rainer in Washington state, which is 14,411. Mont Blanc is surrounded by 11 other prominent peaks over 4,000 meters that collectively make up the Mont Blanc massif. We've had some pretty gorgeous views out our front windshield over our years of travel, but I'm not sure any of them can beat this one. 

Our lovely spot overlooking Mont Blanc.

Steven contemplates photographing yet another beautiful landscape.

The launch area for the paragliders overlooked the town of Passy below. This was where they would eventually land.

Cloud drama over Mont Blanc.

The scenery was really breathtaking up at Plaine Joux.

Plaine Joux is also very active in the summer months. There are numerous day hikes, back-country hikes, mountain climbing, biking and so on, but the most popular spectator sport is paragliding. The day we arrived folks were jumping off the mountain one after the other, lined up just waiting their turn. The skies were filled with brightly colored gliding contraptions with pilots strapped in and they were a joy to watch. Then came the heatwave and the coveted upward lift so necessary to paragliders disappeared. All they could do was jump and fly down to the village below, which took about 20 minutes. It was a lot of work for not much reward

Setting up and getting ready to fly.

Life can be hard sometimes.

We did some hiking while in Plaine Joux.

We hiked to nearby Lac Verte. 

Just around the valley, though, in Chamonix, hundreds of gliders were cruising the skies. The heatwave had brought with it some unusual and rare conditions that, on one day in particular, allowed nearly 200 paragliders to land on the summit of Mont Blanc, an unprecedented number. Concerned with the fragile conditions at the top, it took the surrounding villages just a couple of days to pass a law making it illegal to land on the summit.

Yes, all that confetti-looking stuff in the sky is actually paragliders sailing over Chamonix. What a sight!

The heatwave turned out to be a monster and I honestly don't know how we would have coped if we had not been in the mountains. It's not like we could just go check in to the nearest hotel, most of them don't have air conditioning either. We decided we couldn't leave Plaine Joux and head down the mountain until it cooled off significantly, so we extended our stay. Even there we had temps in the 90s in the late afternoons. Our saving grace was that the instant the sun went down, temperatures plunged into the 60s and it took a while for them to reach maximum peak during the days. So mostly we had just a few hours to deal with the most intense heat. A couple of days after we arrived we moved over two spaces to snag what we think it the best spot there. We had shade and a private little sitting area outside where we sat in our chairs with our new fan blowing on us. It worked really well and being outside made the hottest part of the day somewhat tolerable. We sure didn't do much though, or at least I didn't. Steven spent a good deal of time over at the launching pad watching the paragliders. 

A paraglider with Passy below.

Click on the link above to see Steven’s video of the paragliders at Plaine Joux.

When the heatwave finally broke we decided we were quite happy at Plaine Joux and signed up for another few days. Then we did that again and again. In the end, we stayed there for three weeks. I was serious when I said we wouldn't be driving off the mountain for groceries, but as it turned out, we didn't need to, thanks to public transportation. We could catch the 9:05 a.m. bus right outside our door, which would drop us off at the Super U where we would shop. Then we'd catch the 12:15 p.m. back home. We did this a few times and once I went by myself to get a cut and color. Easy peasy! We had a pretty wonderful life at Plaine Joux. 

Our solar drying room!

The amenities there were partly why we stayed so long. There were fairly new, super clean showers, a clean up area where we not only washed dishes, but also hand-washed our laundry. We had access to fresh water and the place where we could empty the schlitterbaun was just a few meters away from where we were parked. Note, I use the word "we" in the Royal sense, it was 100% Steven who did the emptying. 

All in all, for us, it was the perfect place to ride out the heatwave and enjoy a great view to boot!

NEXT UP: Repositioning across France

Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Into the Mountains

In the days following our return from Santiago, Steven and I took time to reacquaint ourselves with Bijou and restock our empty cabinets and fridge. We had been gone from her longer than we had lived in her, so it took us a little while to get resettled. We made a couple of trips to the nearby stores, but otherwise, we didn't walk anywhere. 

When folks along the Camino learned about our lifestyle, we were often asked, "Where to next?" I would cavalierly reply, "The Alps!" having done little research to see what a trip into the Alps actually entailed. When I finally did sit down to do a little research and planning, I suddenly wished I had more experience with driving Bijou, that I was a little more familiar with, and confident in, her braking system. I wasn't worried about the going up part, it was the coming down that had me a little freaked out. But, I had promised Steven some snow-covered mountains to photograph, so there was no backing out now. 

After a week we were ready to hit the road. Before heading up in the mountains, we first skirted right along the Mediterranean Sea in the south of France. Why not spend a few days laying on the beach, we thought. Here's why not - eleventy jillion people. We rolled into town and there was not a campsite to be found. Well, there were actually two sites, but we didn't fit in either one. We barely fit in on the main roads through the campground. I thought I had taken a wrong turn down an alleyway, but no. We were lucky to get out of there unscathed. Suddenly, lounging on the beach wasn't so appealing. We had to drive an hour further east and inland a bit to find a campsite, but what a lovely spot it was. We stayed three days. We intended to only stay two, but I took a sick day because I was suffering from, of all things, vertigo. My timing on this one wasn't so great, but oh well. 

Navigating roads that were more like foot paths in one of the beach campgrounds.

This is us trying to get out of the beach campground. Needless to say, we didn’t stay.

We wound up here for 3 days. A lot more room and no half-naked tourists parading around :)

Our first stop in the mountains was in Sisteron, a beautiful town that has been inhabited for over 4,000 years. Suffice it to say that in that time there has been a lot of conflict, the town has been, at one time or another, invaded, ravaged, plagued, seiged and bombed by various enemies. We apparently arrived at a good time as it seemed fairly peaceful when we visited. 

We drove to the local train station and parked up in the section specifically designated for motorhomes, called an "aire". This literally translates into "area", but there are a lot of different types of aires. We had a perfect view of the citadel perched on the cliffs overlooking the valley. It was glorious, except for one thing, it was damn hot! We have not had to deal with any sort of heat up to now, so we were not really prepared for it. We decided we needed to buy a fan at our next stop. 

What a great view of the citadel we had at the railway aire in Sisteron.

Steven took his drone up for an epic view of the citadel.

We made it up to the grounds of the citadel the next morning. Amazing views of Sisteron and surrounds.

This was our evening view from our parking spot.

Our next stop was Briancon, whose claim to fame is its designation as the highest city in France, at 4,350 ft. Of course there are a ton more villages higher in the mountains, but "city" is defined as having a population of at least 2,000. We stayed overnight in the city aire, but when a huge thunderous storm rolled in, we decided to forego visiting the town. On our way out the following day, we did stop in to a Bricolage, the French equivalent to Ace Hardware, and bought a little fan. 

Every town and village in the Alps has some kind of nod to the Tour de France.

The roads up through the French Alps are some of the most popular in Europe, shared with motorcycles, bicycles, vintage cars and motorhomes. Nothing makes Bijou lose her momentum like rounding a steep curve and coming up behind a group of cyclists. Passing them on switchbacks can be nearly impossible. Nonetheless, we made it to our destination, the Col du Lautaret. At an elevation of just under 7,000 feet, we settled in to what has to be one of the most gorgeous places we have ever boondocked. 

Breathtaking views on the way to Col du Lautaret.

Sharing the road with many cyclists.

Granite peaks towered above us, some bare, others dotted with patches of snow. Mountain streams tumbled down through the lush green pastures. The fields were littered with glacial erratics, boulders of every size and shape spit out by the retreating glaciers thousands of years ago. About the only thing that could make this scene more idyllic would be the sound of cowbells and sheep baa-baaing and, ... oh, hang on, what's this? We stood with our fellow motorhomers, mouths agape, and watched huge trucks arrive one after the other and offload their grass-munching cargo. Hundreds of sheep were sent off to graze, helped along by a donkey, a few goats, a couple of sheepdogs and a modern day shepherd complete with a crook and a cell phone. The sound of bells clanging through the hills was lovely. 

Our boondocking spot at the Col du Lautaret.

That little grassy hill behind me on the right was the only place we could get a connection, we called it “3G Hill”.

Hundreds of sheep arrived one day. It was quite the sight to see!

Steven got up close and personal with his new friends.

We went on a beautiful hike to nearby Glacier du Lautaret.


Selfie by Glacier du Lautaret.

Bijou right at home in the mountain wilderness.

So much epic beauty to photograph!

The Col du Lautaret is not a village, per se, and offers no motorhome-specific services. There are a few shops and a couple of restaurants where cyclists and day trippers stop in for a meal. That is just the kind of place we love, a place where the food is tasty, the wine is chilled and the people-watching is excellent. We went on a fabulous hike to a nearby glacier view then rewarded ourselves with lunch. The temperatures were in the high 60s, low 70s, just perfect for me. Then, just like that, it all came to a screeching halt. It was time to dump the toilet cassette and find some fresh water. Sigh. These little European motorhomes are not made for long-term boondocking. Oh how I miss Scoopy's 40 gallon black tank and 100 gallons of fresh water! I keep telling Steven at the very least we should look into installing a composting toilet. In any case, it was time to go.

Steven happily awaits his wine order after the glacier hike.

From the Col du Lautaret we headed up, up, up, nearly 1,600 feet to the Col du Galibier at 8,668 feet. Just before reaching the top there was a one-way tunnel controlled by a traffic light, and a right hand turn that continued up. I didn't realize at the time that I actually had a choice, that both routes took us to the same place. The difference was that the tunnel went through the mountain and the right turn went OVER it. Had I known that I most certainly would not have made that turn! We climbed all the way to the top, got the photograph and started down. A group of motorcyclists came around a corner and one guy pointed right at me and then tapped the side of his helmet. Yeah, I know. Thanks for the encouragement. 

Marmot darted all across the roads, they were everywhere!

Despite the challenge to get to the top, the views made it worth the climb.

This is the part I dreaded, the downhill.

In between death grips on the steering wheel.

This road is shared with traffic coming up the other way, as well as motorcycles and bicycles.

Getting off that mountain was a bit of a butt-clencher, but we eventually got down, mostly in first or second gear. We only had to stop a couple of times to let Bijou's brakes cool off. I envisioned us flying down uncontrollably, possibly on fire, so when that didn't happen I relaxed a little. Still, I wasn't ready to do it again right away, so we headed to Albertville for a couple of nights. But I knew we had more passes to get over to reached our ultimate destination, a ski resort near Passy, France. If the weather held, we'd get an unbelievable view of the spectacular Mont Blanc. I took a quick peek at weather dot com and holy crap, a monster heatwave was on the way.  

Old town Albertville.


Amazing views of Albertville from the old town.

Up next...Heatwave!