Friday thought #48 Impressions of Innsbruck

Apologies for the brief hiatus, but the last 2 weeks have been pretty hectic; myself and my boyfriend completely shifting our lives from the French Alps to the Austrian ones, and all the admin and stress that goes hand in hand with it. From furniture arriving to getting the internet connected, and from starting new jobs and learning a new language to most importantly of all, exploring our new home, there hasn’t been a lot of down time.

There will be a lot more to come on Austria, and the reasons for the move, but for now my first impressions of Innsbruck have been rather good:

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The all important Germanic beer at lunchtime outside a mountain hut. As a general rule I don’t even like beer, but Weissbier is different…
Just one of hundreds of secret, deserted and beautiful forest paths the mountains of Innsbruck have to offer
Just one of hundreds of secret, deserted and beautiful forest paths the mountains of Innsbruck have to offer
A local Flea Market; fascinating! It's incredible to see the junk people are selling. But I did manage to get myself a superb town bike at a bargain rate!
A local Flea Market; fascinating! It’s incredible to see the junk people are selling. But I did manage to get myself a superb town bike at a bargain rate!

Friday thought #30 What to do when visiting Chamonix…?

Having visitors is a perfect opportunity to reflect on what you love about a place and why you choose to live there as it forces you to come up with a suitable itinerary that will entertain, occupy and create lasting memories for your guests. Or maybe it’s just me who thinks that visiting guests need their visit planned out step by step? Others may just choose to wing it but the thought of people flying over to visit, and me having nothing planned for them, fills me with horror! What if they have a rubbish time?! What if it’s your fault?! Maybe it depends on the type of visitor, or maybe it’s my love of organisation…! But whatever the reasons, recent visiting family forced me to consider all manner of things such as; where have they already been? What’s the weather going to be like? What can we do in the rain? How much will it cost? How much time have we got? What would they like to do? Do I need to book in advance? What will we eat? What is there to do?! …… And the list goes on and on.

The first few times people visit, it’s easy. You tick off all the main attractions, the cable cars, the famous walks, the viewpoints etc, but once they start arriving for their 4th, 5th, 6th visit, that’s when you start to scratch around for activities and destinations they haven’t already seen. It’s fine when you live there all the time, if it rains you just stay indoors and potter around, but visitors need a holiday, it needs to be a worthwhile visit.

So I’ve decided to compile a small list of activities and excursions I would recommend for non-skiing, non-climbing visitors to do when in Chamonix, all based on my own experience and the reactions of real-life visitors.

* Take the cable car up to the Aiguille de Midi – the 2nd highest cable car in the World! Look up to the highest mountain in the Alps and look across to tumbling glaciers in both France and Italy.

* Take the historic rack and pinion railway up to Montenvers to see the famous Mer de Glace and visit the ice caves.

* Hike up to the magnificent Lac Blanc, either starting from ground level or by taking the Flegere cable car to give a significant head start!

* Take the cable car up to the Plan de l’Aiguille and hike across the high mountain pass to the Montenvers railway station before taking the train down.

* Either snowshoe or walk up to the Vielles Luges restaurant in Les Houches for lunch or just a vin chaud and a bit of people/mountain watching.

* Book a table at the Cremerie in the woods of Argentiere and hike up with head torches for a memorable alpine meal in wonderful, cosy surroundings.

* Drive up to Plaine Joux, facing Mont Blanc, for a perfect view of the whole mountain range, then take a gentle stroll through the forest to the lake before heading back to watch the parapenters literally running off the side of the mountain…

* Spend the day in nearby Annecy, have lunch in the sun or take a swim/hire a pedalo in the beautiful lake.

* Drive through the Mont Blanc tunnel and pop out in Italy to spend the day in a different country eating delicious, cheap Italian food!

* Jump in the car and head off to explore beautiful central Switzerland – Interlaken and the surrounding area at 3 hours drive is well worth a visit.

These are only but a small handful of the things you can do whilst spending some time in the French Alps. If you enjoy the outdoors and appreciate stunning natural scenery then you will never be bored in a place like this, you just need to be willing to alter plans at the last minute as the weather has a knack of hindering even the best laid plans!

Enjoy!

So many options!
So many options!
Toblerone??
Toblerone??
Top of Europe...
Top of Europe…
Who needs an itinerary when the views look like this?!
Who needs an itinerary when the views look like this?!

Friday thought #24 Cheesy winter food!

The winter is well and truly upon us here in the Alps, finally! It’s hovering around -5 celsius during the day, and at long last there’s tons of snow! As much as this means great skiing, for the foodies amongst us it also means an excellent excuse to get stuck in to some proper winter food, by renaming it ‘Winter Warmers’…! Living in the French Alps the obvious choices are tartiflette, fondue and raclette; basically if you don’t like cheese, there’s not much for you!

So recently I’ve indulged in all these cheesy delights, and I’m loving it! The recent raclette was the clear highlight, featuring 3 types of meat, peppers, mushrooms, courgettes and of course the staple raclette cheese! There’s something so special about a meal where you have to cook your own food at the table; in sole charge of what you eat and how it’s cooked. It’s so sociable, so satisfying and so delicious!

Such a simple concept, yet such a winner with friends. Every household should have a raclette set!

Raclette is so good!
Raclette is so good!

Friday Thought #2 Mountains or Beach?

This is an age old question which I’m sure countless numbers of people have asked themselves at some point in their lives. I would be tempted to say that the majority of people would automatically say ‘beach’ simply because they have spent more time on beaches and very little or no time in mountains, but also because our society tells us that beach holidays are more exotic and the obvious choice for a summer break.

Growing up in the United Kingdom it’s safe to say that we don’t get much experience of impressive mountainous regions or golden sandy beaches, our highest peak being Ben Nevis at 1344m and the hottest average summer temperatures hovering around the mid-twenties. Holidays mean ‘getting away’ and we grow up believing that hot places and beaches are the only option worth considering. This is where the rise in low cost airline flights has come from to countries such as Spain, Greece and Italy; people want a cheap escape to somewhere in the sun, and understandably so. Why would you want a holiday to a freezing snowy place if you spend the other 50 weeks of the year grinding away in a rainy, cold city? Most Brits live in landlocked counties and only see a beach once a year on an annual summer holiday; sand and sea are exciting, different and best of all, cheap. To go on a beach holiday a family needs nothing more than themselves and swimming gear, no expensive hiring of equipment or paying elevated prices for lifts or accommodation. In my experience children couldn’t care less and often have no awareness of whether they are staying in a 5* hotel or in a tiny tent on a crowded campsite so it’s easy to see why beach holidays win for a family.

Skiing holidays are viewed as only for the wealthy and privileged, a pastime which is only ever viewed in magazines or on television for the majority of people. It’s too foreign, too difficult and too expensive, why not just get a cheap flight to Spain with your togs and towel and you’re all set for a holiday? But those who have never visited the Alps or indeed any high mountain range I find are often extremely naive. What people don’t seem to realise is that in the summer months the mountains serve a very different purpose. I remember heading out to the French Alps in July aged 18 to work my first ‘summer season’ and several people asking me if I was going to be a ski instructor. I found this hard to understand because firstly even at 18 and having never stood on a pair of skis, I was aware that you probably needed qualifications and experience to be an instructor, and secondly, it was the summer, didn’t people realise that snow is generally a winter phenomenon??

However I imagine this is a completely different story for those growing up in countries with a more temperate climate or surrounded by mountain scenery such as the States or a lot of mainland Europe. Much of these continents are covered in spectacular peaks which their inhabitants grow up admiring and using in every way, and perhaps these people would have little interest in a beach. You can’t climb it, conquer it, travel down it quickly. I think my opinion of how people view mountains and beaches is very much British as this is the main pool of experience that I can draw from. With the exception of a hardy handful, Brits generally don’t grow up roaming the hills and valleys, children will generally choose building a sandcastle over donning a pair of hiking boots and trailing after dad over the Yorkshire Moors. Most people’s earliest experiences of holidays are on the beach in the sun and this is therefore imprinted in to their brain as what holidays are all about.

But I feel people are missing out on what these places of natural beauty are all about and often it takes an inspirational teacher or a school trip to broaden a young mind as to what nature has to offer. How many of us have walked away from the crowds at a beach and simply sat down to admire the tranquility of the waves, or snuggled up on a rugged coastline to watch the ferocity of a storm? In a similar vein, on those annual skiing trips how many tourists avoid the over-crowded mountain restaurants, take a packed lunch and find a peaceful spot to eat where they can really take in the beauty of a mountain landscape? I worry that ‘holidays’ have become such a desperation for over-worked and fed up people that most don’t even consider where they are going anymore. Wherever is cheap and hot, nothing else matters.

So back to my original question, having spent many a happy summer working on the south and west coasts of France, and having had the fortune to experience the East Coast of Australia in all its glory, I love the beach and the sea. I fell in love with the ‘beach’ way of life in Australia, so simple, so chilled, so beautiful. Scuba diving, snorkelling, sea kayaking, it’s all hard to beat, but for me the mountains will always win. They are a geographical phenomenon and awe-inspiring doesn’t even come close. To me they are nature’s greatest achievement and will be there reigning supreme when everything else is long gone. Life in the mountains is constantly varied and I love that there are 4 very distinct seasons, all of which are magical in their own way. Rather than being a miserable, cold, dark period that everyone hates and wishes away, winter is highly anticipated and never long enough. Every year I think I like winter more and then when summer arrives I change my mind, until the following December when my love of snow is rekindled! Being in the mountains in winter, completely alone with not a soul in sight, having pushed your skis uphill for hours, you have truly earned your turns downhill, and in the summer, having got up at first light and climbed a steep, rocky and exposed ridge, standing on the top of that peak looking down at everything below is a feeling that cannot be beaten.

Beach or mountains? I think deep down, everyone is one or the other. It’s important to experience both. I’ll always spend time on the beach and in the sea, but the mountains will always take my breath away.

Mountains win
Mountains win

Getting away from it all and making the most of bad conditions

Living in a well known, massively overcrowded ski resort can become trying at times, especially during the school holidays. Being a non native myself I have no grounds to complain about the influx of expats and tourists in Chamonix, however it does nothing to dampen the irritation of never-ending queues wherever you go, from ski lifts to supermarkets, an endless sea of clueless punters trying to make themselves understood and carrying their skis as if they were a transporting a small child.

Couple this with a pitiful amount of snow falling in December, and the winter season was off to a bad start, with many of the pisted areas becoming so hard packed with artificial snow that it was more like ice skating than skiing.

But it’s not all doom and gloom, once you’ve lived somewhere for a while you start to learn how to escape the crowds and find the places that remain quiet and untouched, even in the busiest periods. Having only discovered the joys of ski touring in the last few years, and the pleasure and solitude it brings, I still marvel at how just a small amount of effort uphill can bring the finest rewards. Often the reward you are seeking is that all important powder stash, or the best snow around that can’t be reached from a piste. But sometimes no matter how heard you search, the reality is that the snow is pretty awful everywhere, and the best you can hope for is a day filled with beautiful views, fine company, a good lunch (!) and most of, total avoidance of those icy, crowded pistes, resulting in a long run down with no-one else around (even if it does involve a bum slide at the end!)

Slightly challenging conditions at the end of a long day!
Slightly challenging conditions at the end of a long day!
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Ah, a whole mountain to ourselves…
It should always be fun…

Les Choucas – the souls of the lost mountaineers

Anyone who has ever spent time in the European Alps will may have spotted the large, black, crow-like birds circling around high above the mountains. The Choucas, native to the French Alps, are an unremarkable bird, keeping to themselves, disturbing no-one, and preferring to prowl around the lesser visited areas, away from the tourists. If you stay still in a quiet place you may find them creeping closer, on the hunt for scraps of food, but on the whole you will only notice them if you turn your eyes skywards.

Yet despite not making much of an aesthetic impact, legend has it that the Choucas circle around the mountains searching for those who have lost their lives, and it is agreed amongst mountain locals that the souls of the dead live on in these birds, remaining in the place they loved, and keeping watch over those who live on.

Indeed there are too many who lose their lives each year in the high mountains, from ski accidents, to a rock climb that goes wrong, to a devastating avalanche. Whether there is any truth in it or not, it is a lovely thought that every time you spot one of these unassuming birds circling ominously above the snowy peaks, you are seeing the spirit of a fallen mountaineer living on.

Two Choucas surveying their world
Two Choucas surveying their world