In Italian ‘via ferrata’ simply means ‘iron way’, and that is exactly what it is; a series of metal cables, staples and ladders enabling people to climb and traverse otherwise impenetrable rock faces. Via ferrata was created in the Italian Dolomites during the First World War as a means to move the soldiers through the mountain environment, but it wasn’t until many many years later that it became a popular sport. There are now hundreds of routes across Europe, and although they are not for the faint-hearted or those who suffer from vertigo (!) they do make climbing much more accessible for aspiring adventurers with little experience or skill.
During a recent trip to Lake Garda in Italy, we headed for the Sentiero Contrabbandieri, an old smugglers’ route high above the shores of the lake. It turned out to be more of an adventurous, and rather terrifying walk with a few sections of cable, rather than a classic via ferrata, but it was brilliant fun, and with stunning views to top it off.
It has been another fantastic summer of adventures, discovery, exploration and visiting new places. A few years back we sea kayaked in Croatia and loved it so much that we just had to do it again. This time Sardinia was the chosen destination; the La Maddalena archipelago off the NE coast to be specific. We had never been before and only heard wonderful things about it. Suffice it to say that it fully lived up to all of our expectations; a real adventure, an incredible place and most importantly, quality time away from work, phones, internet and other people! These days it is so hard to switch off from everyday life and I cannot recommend sea kayaking enough as a complete break from it all.
Of course no trip is without its unexpected events… Wild waves one day left us stranded on an uninhabited island and we ended up having to use our paddles to flag down a passing yacht to hitch a ride back to the mainland…! All part of the adventure, and thank you to the French crew on ‘Le Fleur de Sel’ if you ever read this!
Seven days of paddling, snorkelling, wild camping, sunset watching and generally just being on holiday, it doesn’t take much imagination to plan an interesting alternative to the average summer break.
Moving somewhere completely new can be terrifying, but exploring it can be so much fun! What better way to meet people and explore your new home than through sport? It really does bring people together, makes finding friends so much easier, and instantly gives you so much to talk about and share. Skiing has really been the key for us here in Innsbruck, it’s something we already love, and has provided us with some great friends after such a short time here. Once you’ve shared a powder day, sat and had lunch up a mountain in front of a beautiful view, and laughed your way down a gully that didn’t quite lead where you’d hoped it would, it’s time to sit back and be pretty happy with your decision to take a risk.
This week we’ve been exploring the Nordkette; a huge, south facing ‘freeride’ mountain range separating Innsbruck from the Karwendel National Park. There are 2 cable cars and 2 chair lifts, allowing it to pose as a small ski area, but in reality it is simply there for the off piste, and my oh my is there a lot of it! Fantastic snow, hardly any people and above all, simply breathtaking views all combine to make this a very special place to ski. I think we’ll be spending a lot of time up here!
It’s a commonly discussed fact amongst Brits that ‘70% of Americans don’t even have a passport’. Whether or not this is factually correct nobody is really sure, but it’s one of those ‘facts’ that everybody seems to know, most likely because living in Europe, the thought of not owning a passport is utterly ridiculous.
2 months ago I think I would probably have agreed, how could anybody live without owning a passport? Flying is so commonplace for us Brits, and with our country being so small, to fly pretty much anywhere means to leave the country. Our passports are somewhere close by at all times. For many years I lived in France and worked in Switzerland, so crossed the border twice a day without giving it a second thought. But I must admit that spending some time travelling around the States has made me view the no passport issue in a completely different light.
The USA literally has everything you could ever need with regards to landscape, climate and sports. It has coastlines and beaches, mountains, deserts, lakes, snow and sun; meaning that every sport from skiing to surfing is possible somewhere in the States. Within Europe, if you wish to ski, you need to fly to a country which has mountains and snow, if you want a beach holiday, countries such as Spain or Greece are an obvious choice. People in Europe take it for granted that they can jump on a plane and in less than 2 hours be in a completely different climate, scenery, culture and language. But what they forget is that the entire continent of Europe could fit neatly in to the outline of the USA with an enormous amount of room to spare. The distance from one side of Montana to the other is approximately 560 miles. As a comparison, if you were to start in Milan, Italy, and drive north east for roughly the same distance, you would cross Switzerland, Lichtenstein and Germany, finally ending your journey in Prague, deep in the heart of the Czech Republic. That’s 5 European countries versus not even leaving one of America’s 50 states.
Many Europeans would consider themselves well travelled, worldly people, after all, they may visit 2 or 3 different countries each year. Yet although it would be an impossible statistic to calculate, I would be very interested to know the percentage of Europeans who have never left Europe. I’d guess the vast majority. Europe contains approximately 50 countries (debatable due to questions such as whether to class the UK as one country or 4 separate ones), the USA contains 50 states. I would hazard that most Europeans rarely leave Europe, most Americans never leave America. It’s really not that different. Europe is made up of countries, the USA of states. It’s a big expense and a long journey to leave Europe and travel to Australasia, Asia, Africa or America, so we tend to stay within the confines of the continent. This is presumably no different for Americans. If you live in Texas and want a ski holiday, why fly to France when you have Colorado just a short flight away?
Being in the States also brought it home to me just how unique the European Union is. I completely take it for granted that despite being British, I’ve lived in France for the last 9 years, worked in Switzerland for the past 4, and am about to move to Austria. No visas needed, no green cards and no need to make a special application. You can move around freely within all the countries in the EU, working and living. In no other place in the World does this happen, and we are so very fortunate that we have this available to us.
Put in perspective it becomes a lot more clear why so many Americans would choose to stay within the States. Europeans must simply count themselves lucky that they have such a diversity of cultures at their doorstep and the freedom to move around amongst them, and cut their American friends a bit of slack!
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!
You may or may not have ever heard of the Vallée Blanche, some of you may have even skied it, but regardless of your previous knowledge, the pictures of this stunning ski run speak for themselves. Essentially it is a completely off piste ski trail, 18km long, ungroomed, unpatrolled, and follows an enormous glacier down the Chamonix Valley, marking the border between Italy and France. You enter the Vallée Blanche at your own risk, preferably with a guide, as there are no end of crevasses waiting to swallow you up if you head the wrong way. From start to finish the whole experience is simply breathtaking, in the sense that it literally will take your breath away. I’d say it’s worth learning how to ski if only so you get the chance to do this at least once in your life!
It has to be done on a sunny day as the views are just as important, if not more important than the skiing. To reach the start you have to fight your way on to arguably one of the busiest ski lifts in the World and trying to get a space on it between 8 and 10am is every man for himself, yet as we recently discovered, heading back round for lap number 2 in the afternoon is more than worth the effort. After the pandemonium of the morning, at 2.30pm we had the lift to ourselves, and saw just 2 other people in the distance during the entire run down, easily 2 hours of solitude in what has to be one of the most stunning places on earth. Add to this tranquility the beauty of skiing home at dusk watching the sun creep its way downwards behind the mountains and it all makes for a pretty magical day.