Tag Archives: France

France v Italy

Friday 19 January 2024 – One of the various activities that Crystal Ski had organised during the week was an outing from the Sauze end of the Via Lattea – Milky Way – skiing area over to the other end of the system: Montgenèvre, which is just over the border in France.  I had the very vaguest recollection that I might have visited there on a previous Sauze holiday, but couldn’t be certain.  Anyway, after a week of getting very familiar with the lifts and runs close to Sauze D’Oulx, I thought that a change would be as good as a rest.

I was slightly, but tellingly, wrong in that.  Read on to find out in what way….

While it’s possible to ski from Sauze to Montgenèvre, it’s somewhat time-consuming and in any case one couldn’t rely on the links being open, as high winds were bedevilling the area, resulting in some critical link lifts occasionally being closed for safety reasons. Crystal Ski had, in any case, organised a coach to take us over, a journey of about 40 minutes, at an extra cost of €25.  The coach was to depart from the Tourist information Office, which was where (you’ll remember) we were deposited on our arrival some days before – a 10 minute walk down through the town, carrying boots and skis.  So about 40 people arrived and checked in with the Crystal team, loaded skis and boots into the loading bays of the coach and hopped on board for the journey.

When we arrived, the reverse process was a little more chaotic, as people tried to unearth their skis and boots from piles of other people’s equipment

but soon enough we were heading for the nearest lift.

Montgenèvre’s skiing in split by the road. The majority of the lifts were on the same side as the coaches, but the Crystal team recommended crossing the road and heading up the other side, the Chalvet area, as this would get the benefit of the morning sun; so I hied myself thither. There was a bit of jostling for position for the gondola ride up but after only a short delay I was headed up the mountain.

At the top of the gondola, there was a very limited choice of activity – ski back down, or choose between two lifts. The nearer of these, a chair lift, was very iced up and not operational, so I headed for the other, a drag lift. As I approached it, it also stopped going, which was a bit dull. There was obviously Something Going On, as a skidoo with flashing lights headed up the track after a few minutes; perhaps someone had had a misfortune? We never knew. After some moments, people got fed up and began to drift away to other parts of the mountain, so of course the lift started again. So I hopped on.

It was a long, long drag lift – and cold. It was difficult to get an accurate idea of temperature, but I suspect it was several degrees below freezing and there was quite a stiff and chilly wind blowing.  As I went up, I looked for evidence of pistes to ski down, and such evidence seemed a bit scant.

(Actually, if you look carefully at the picture above, you can just see that there’s a track in the distance on the left.)

Having reached the top, it was clear that there was only one way down – the piste to a further lift was marked “closed”

and it was here that the difference in style between this resort and Sauze began to be borne in on me. Much of Sauze’s skiing area is below the tree line, which I find very attractive, and which helps when trying to work out which general direction one is supposed to take.  Much of  Montgenèvre’s is above the tree line, and hence very open, making the choice of direction less intuitive.  These wide open spaces are great for people who are looking to ski off-piste, but I wasn’t – it’s fucking dangerous to go off piste by oneself – so I found the area a bit disorienting.  What was even more disconcerting was the discovery that very few people had skied in the area, and so the snow was soft and deep.  Again, expert skiers tend to love this and actively seek it out.  Me? Not so much – particularly since I was on my own, meaning potential problems if I fell and incapacitated myself.  I could just about see where people had skied before and so followed this general direction

but it was hard work for me, as the soft snow highlighted the shortcomings of my technique, and frankly I didn’t enjoy myself hugely.  However, I was where I was, so I blundered about, fortunately without falling or doing anyone else any damage.  Restful, it was not – skiing in this deep stuff saw the one and only time during the week when I actually had to stop and take a breather because I was exhausted. I did, though, eventually find some satisfaction in being able to link a few turns even in the softer snow. I doubt I’d have got many points for technical expertise, but my artistic impression, consisting mainly of swearing loudly when the conditions caught me out, was certainly unique, and I have to admit that the views were pretty good.

At this point – the point at which I could really have done with a rest and a coffee, the other key difference between this French resort and the Italian one I was used to became clear – finding a mountainside restaurant was difficult, because they’re very few and far between and don’t advertise themselves with any clarity.  In Sauze, it is difficult to ski more than a few hundred metres without passing a sun deck that announces the presence of a restaurant or café.  Here, I couldn’t find any such evidence.  Montgenèvre is a purpose-built ski area, and the priority was clearly on getting people skiing rather than relaxing.

I decided to get down to the town in search of a coffee, so skied down and crossed the road.  The other side did feature some trees, but was largely more of the same wide-open space

and even standing by the main buildings, I couldn’t detect anywhere to have a coffee.  Anyway, it was getting close to lunchtime, so I decided that a restaurant was what I should seek.  I got Google Maps out and could see that there were just a couple anywhere near the skiing area, which, again, I thought was odd; I would have expected several to be available.  The first one was packed, but the second one had space, so I sat myself down to a simple, but very good, lunch of steak haché and chips with a beer.

After lunch I skied on the other side, where more people had skied and thus the pistes were firmer – indeed, icy in places.  A couple of the pistes and lifts I wanted to explore were closed, but it was a decent afternoon’s skiing.  Again, there were some fine views to be had

but I found that I had used up a lot of my energy dealing with the morning’s more challenging (to me) conditions, so I stopped skiing quite early in the afternoon, making sure that I had enough time to find that elusive cup of coffee before the 4pm deadline for getting back on the coach home.

The skiing was more varied and more challenging than in Sauze;

but, being a purpose-built skiing operation, I found it less charming.  This is not a view shared by others who were part of this excursion, for whom, the views and the existence of some very easy skiing made for great enjoyment. But I missed the charm – and particularly being able easily to stop for a coffee/beer and a rest. This is, I think, a difference in my current approach to skiing and how I used to go about things; before, I was more interested in covering ground and ticking off all the lifts and runs in an area; now, I’m more engaged by simply being active and relishing the exercise, not minding repeating pistes if I found them enjoyable. The net of this is that, at least for this limited sample of two resorts, I found the Italian experience the more attractive.

I’ve got a couple more posts up my sleeve about this holiday and how I’ve found it, so I hope you’ll check in to read them in the coming days. For now, au revoir!

Camino Day 1 – Would Have Been Better If It Were Clearer

Wednesday 16 August 2023 – My 71st birthday, by God, and what’s my present? Probably the toughest day of the whole Camino Francès!

This was a long day, and this is a long post.  Here’s the tl;dr version if you’d prefer to go out instead.


For the rest of you, here’s how the day went.

Because of the likelihood of having to do lots of tough uphill work in blistering heat, we wanted to leave the hotel as early as we could, an ambition somewhat thwarted when we couldn’t find the hotel room key to return it as we left. Much swearing and checking through bags ensued before we decided to confess our sin to the manager and hope we might be forgiven.  Turns out that we’d left the key in the outside of the door last night, so he carefully removed it and took it downstairs.

Didn’t tell us, though, did he?

Anyway, the hotel breakfast was pretty good

but you might be able to make out that the distant hills were shrouded in mist. We left our bags to be transferred to our destination (in reception every morning by 8am is the rule) and started out.  The town’s streets were eerily quiet after yesterday’s Assumption Day crowds

and we made our way to the Notre Dame gate for the obligatory “This is us starting off” selfie – one of the very few occasions when I will countenance such self-indulgence.

Off we went along the roads

and it became clear that the mist wasn’t about to disappear.  You’ll have read yesterday’s blog so you’ll know that I have been basically bricking it about this day’s walk and particularly the tough climb to the first and, as it turned out, only refreshment stop at Orisson as part of a long and largely uphill journey to our destination, Roncesvalles (Ronceveaux in French).

The serious uphill started pretty soon

but the blistering hot sunshine I’d feared never materialised, as it was very misty.

There were a few peregrinos out

many of whom overtook us as we started, making me feel like I do out on a bike ride when I get overtaken, which is not an uncommon occurence.  However – hah! – when the uphill going got tough, they all seemed to find lots of excuses to stop and chat and adjust things, so we overtook them in turn.  Not that it’s a race. No. Not at all.

The first few kilometres were a steady uphill pull, but then the road steepened and it became really brutally steep, particularly as we left the road for a track.

It reminded me of the gradient I had to deal with on one occasion during a walking holiday in Slovenia in 2016. Then, I had to cope with 40 minutes up such a relentless gradient, and it nearly did for me. So I was delighted to find that, seven years older, but lighter and much fitter, I could cope with the gradient for well over an hour without my heartbeat going particularly high and, more to the point, without finding it at all daunting. This is a major change for me; it used to be normal for me to really hate having to walk uphill.

This is going to make all the difference to this Camino for me.

Mind you, we were lucky with the weather.  The mist made photography a bit challenging, since only rarely could one see anything through the mist;

but on the other hand it was cool, which made walking uphill much easier.

The day was rather like Walker Family holidays over the years, only more so.  The traditional Walker cry is “It would have been better if it were clearer”. In this case, it might have been better if we could see something.


After about two and a half hours we arrived at Orisson

which gave us a rest as we had coffee and sandwiches.  Ordinarily, the view from the panoramic terrace is a thing of beauty.  Today?

Not so much.

After our refreshment break we walked on and the mists cleared for a bit,

then didn’t,

then sort of did, a bit.

We passed a strange-looking cairn

and then the road split.  There was a choice – go downhill or go uphill. Guess which was the correct option? Correct – uphill we went

to the Orisson statue of the Virgin Mary,

where once again the ability to see the view was a transient thing.

All around us in the mist was the tinkling of bells, indicating that there was a lot of livestock somewhere around.

We reached Thibault’s Cross,

where our info asserted that a food truck operated “in the season”. Today, not. Just as well we weren’t depending on it, then.

After the cross, we once again left the road for tracks

This is not a stile I would care to use, personally

and arrived at the Spanish border.

Just beside it is Roland’s Fountain

(Roland was the Frankish military leader at the Battle of Roncevaux Pass in AD 778, by the way).

We carried on into Spain

past an emergency refuge hut

where one could spend the night in extremis – water is provided, and there’s a fireplace and a place to put your sleeping bag.

On we climbed, and, as we did, the mists started to fall away. As we got to the highest point, it was absolutely clear sunshine.

I decided to try to get some aerial photography – video of reaching the top and climbing to pan round to the fabulous view was my plan; I’d even practised it at home.  So I got out the drone that I’d carefully and specifically brought along for this very occasion and whizzed it up.

There was a frisson at one point when a lorry wanted to drive down the path I was standing on, but we carried on – and the clouds came in again so that view was no longer visible.


However, nothing can be done about the weather, so we started down again.

We were above our destination, Roncesvalles, at this point and had a choice of route to get down: the road – less steep but more boring

or the track you see going ahead in this picture – steeper (much steeper, as it turned out) but more wooded and therefore protected from the sun. After some dithering, we took the track, which wound relentlessly and quite steeply downhill

for what seemed like ages, but can’t have been because its total distance was less than 4km.  Eventually it levelled out a bit into lovely beech woodland

which is quite similar to what we’ve seen above the Tillingbourne River on our Surrey walks.

Eventually, we walked sufficiently far down that the mists closed in again.

It seemed to take forever to get down, and we were both feeling that we’d really just like to be there now, thank you very much.  Eventually, we reached civilisation

and walked into a very misty Roncesvalles

Memorial to the Battle of Ronesvalles Pass, apparently

and (eventually) found our hotel, arriving at about 5.30pm, nine and a half hours after we’d left SJPdP.

It became immediately apparent that we’d moved from the ridiculous to the sublime. Inside was very swish,

but actually we didn’t care that much because we were very tired and what we really wanted was a drink. We had a huge room with three beds and a separate lounge area and, importantly, facilities for making tea. Its drawback was that it was on the second floor, and I discovered, when I tried to be a hero and bring both suitcases up all those stairs, that my knees were buggered. It’s happened before after a long walk, but I’d thought that the hundreds of miles we’d walked in prep for this outing might have sorted the problem. But there it was; walking up stairs hurt.

In the end, by the time we’d tidied ourselves up, what we did was to go for a dinner in the hotel, which was a decent meal. I particularly liked the large gins that went with it, I must say.

And that was pretty much it for the day.

The all-important stats (using Relive for the distance and Garmin for the ascent metrics):

Distance walked: 25.3km
Ascent: 1,428m
Descent:  641m
Max elevation: 1,425m

There was no time (or, more accurately, not enough energy) to write things up for these pages, so we basically headed for bed to try to recover in time to do something not dissimilar the next day – fewer kilometres to walk and many fewer vertical metres to ascend (but still some).

I will write about Day 2 at some stage, possibly rolling it into a narrative over several days. Who knows? The only way for you to find out is to keep in touch with these pages, isn’t it?


Arrival to St Jean (or is it St-Jean?*)

Tuesday 15 August 2023 – Farewell, then, to Biarritz, after a very pleasant few days.

The WalkTheCamino team swore that there would be someone to transfer us to St Jean Pied de Port at 11am and so we packed and generally made ourselves ready to leave.  As we were checking out of the hotel a person came in looking for people with a mysteriously foreign-sounding name.  A bit of back-and-forth (very grateful for Jane’s prowess in French at this point) resolved this into agreement that it was us that (it turns out) she should have been looking for (she was mis-reading her script) and so this total stranger walked off with our suitcases whilst the lady managing the hotel at the time struggled to get her machine to agree that our credit was good. But she managed it in the end and we followed our driver to her large Fiat MPV and she set off with us with a great sense of purpose. Thus the drive to St Jean took less than an hour.

On the way over, the surrounding countryside started to remind us what it was that we were letting ourselves in for.

Our arrival at St-Jean-Pied-de-Port (henceforth, for brevity, SJPdP) was similar to ours in Biarritz some days before, in that the transport couldn’t get outside the hotel and so we had to lug our suitcases up cobbled streets to reach the hotel – and, it transpired later, up the stairs to our room. In most other respects, St Jean was rather different from Biarritz. This was the start of our luggage-lugging walk to the hotel.

Our hotel here is the Ramuntxo, and, like Le Petit Hôtel in Biarritz, has a two-star rating. The immediate practical upshot of this was apparent by the absence of anyone to greet us and check us in. There were various helpful notices, among which was one telling the reader that check-in time was 2pm.  It was midday at this point.  Jane managed to coax a lady from her lunch to tell us, in a friendly and polite but firm way, that we should come back after 1400 and that, bien sûr, we could leave our bags unattended in her foyer.

So. We had a couple of hours to fill.  So we went for a walk. Perforce. Obviously.

We started off approaching the Camino’s Welcome Office with a view to taking a look inside to see what it offered. But our timing was off – they basically shut the door as Jane approached because it was their lunch time and they, too, weren’t going to re-open until 2pm.

We carried on wandering the town. This was a pleasure, as despite the very steep hills in the old part of the town

it’s a pretty place, with clearly a huge amount of history to accompany the very traditional architecture everywhere.

SJPdP is a fortified town, with nearly-intact walls and a large citadel overlooking the area. We walked to the northern end of the town, to the St. James gate, which is where those peregrinos who are doing more than just the Camino Francès arrive. This left us near the Citadel, so we went to look around it.

It offers some spectacular views over the town and the countryside.

After a quick look around, we were feeling the need for some refreshment, so we headed down through the town.

Cunning spotting of a niche for a business, eh?

with a plan to investigate the start point for our Camino.  There was some extremely popular entertainment going on just by the gate which marks the start (see later video) so, since we couldn’t get through the throng, we diverted out into the newer part of town where we found a place that would serve us drinks.

Today, Assumption Day, is clearly an excuse for the locals to have a good, festivally, kind of celebration.  As we sat with our drinks, a marching band came past and a trio of musicians playing traditional dulzainas (like Breton bombards only different) and drums struck up across the road.  This is a brief video summary of the three entertainments.

Combined, they gave the place an agreeably festive air.

We made our drinks last until well after 1400 and went back to the hotel to check in. At first blush it looks to be decent enough; the room is small but spotless and there’s a great deal more room in the bathroom than we had in Biarritz, and there’s a fan – ! – so I’m sanguine that we’ll have a reasonably comfortable time of it.

We were peckish by the time we’d checked in, so we wandered back down through the town looking for somewhere that would serve us lunch. In most cases, the answer was “non”; lunch is served until 2pm and then nothing until dinner at 7pm.  This doesn’t really fit with our normal eating strategy, which involves having a late breakfast and then a very late lunch as our two meals every day.  For a start, we’re going to have to start early on our walks in order to escape the worst of the day’s heat, which implies an early breakfast. There’s no way we’ll last until 7pm every day, so we’ll have to hope that ways to keep ourselves fed but not overfed evolve over the coming weeks.

As it happens, we were lucky in that the restaurant where the Basque trio had been basquing busking was prepared to serve us lunch even though it was by this stage 3pm.  So we had an agreeable meal and a couple of drinks there.  We think the place is called Anxo, but it bears no obviously visible name, despite being a very prominent establishment in the square.

The lunch (and the drinks we’d had earlier) gave me an opportunity to collect a number of candid photos of some of the locals.  There were some very, very Gallic faces to capture.

After eating, we felt that such a pleasant meal should be Walked Off.  So we ended up doing the signposted circular walk, which actually means walking round the still-intact walls of the old town.  This is a very impressive walk, not least in the number of steps one has to walk up and down.  Garmin tells me that we ascended 59 metres, which doesn’t sound much, but it’s just about 200 feet, which is 18 storeys according to a quick, non-scientific lookup on the web. So our 1.3 mile journey counted as a good constitutional – and gave us some lovely views of the walls and the town.

See what I mean about the steps?

The other thing we did with our free time was to check out some key locations – the Camino’s Welcome Office (now open), the start point of the walk tomorrow and some idea of what the going was going to be like.

The start point is at the Notre Dame Gate, and one heads south over the river.

You can see that the route trends uphill fairly soon after the start.

After a while, you reach a decision point at which the choice is between the “low” road or the Route Napoleon, which goes higher and is thus tougher, but gives better views.

Left is the high route. The blue sign tells if it’s open or not

You can see the Shell and the banded rectangle which act as waymarks for the Camino

The Route Napoleon goes up from there.

It’s not particularly surprising that it goes up, as there is the not insignificant issue of the Pyrenees mountains to cross, and one might as well start sooner rather than later.

There are a couple of helpful, if ominous, signs.

Our destination tomorrow will be Roncesvalles in Spain, which we are told is 26 kilometres away. There are only two refreshment points between SJPdP and Roncesvalles:  an auberge at Orisson, which is 8km away; and a food truck (which we hope will be there) at 15km.  That first 8km is likely to be tough:

The refreshment stop at Orisson is going to be a welcome sight, I think. It is, however, only part of the story,  The total course for the day looks like this.

(The Orisson refreshment stop is at the 5-mile mark and the food truck at 9 miles.)

For some reason, Day 1 of these walks always seems to be a bastard. It was like that when we did the Cami de Cavalls in Menorca, and, much longer ago, it was like that when we did a walking holiday in Corsica. Perhaps the Great Organiser In The Sky wants us to suffer before we’re allowed to relax a bit?

I wonder what state we’ll be in by the time we get to Roncesvalles? Come back and find out, eh? My plan is not to document every single day of hiking – that would likely be dull and repetitive – but to hit the highlights. Or, in the case of Day 1, possibly the lowlights.

See you tomorrow, when I might be reporting from hospital.


* There appears to be no consensus