Thursday, 6 August 2009

The descent to Thann

Down and down

We survived the night and were pleasantly surprised by the quality of breakfast available; much more than the usual bread and jam. We made hay whilst we could. Outside the weather didn't look good. Visibility was nothing and it looked like a climb up to the actual summit of Grand Ballon would be a waste of time this morning.

Unfortunately the heating system had been so pathetic during the night that our boots were still damp from the night before. This was going to prove a sore point as we had a long day in front of us.

Our first job was to find the GR5 trail. This we failed to do for the first 40 minutes so we just followed the road down. Down was to be our operative word today as we would descend more than a 1000m to Thann. Eventually as we walked in the drizzle down the hairpin bends we stumbled across the GR5 trail. We saw one couple as we joined the trail here and we saw a small group of hikers a little bit further down and that turned out to be the only people we saw on the trail all day. They must all be fair-weather hikers around here!


Our descent criss-crosssed the road a few times and went through a few woods before we broke out at a junction. It was here that we visited a small chapel to the fallen of the Great War. Still we descended, usually through woods, but with the occaisonal view across the valleys beyond. sometime we caught a glimpse of the Rhinelands in the distance. It was never quite clear ebough to catch sight of the distance Black Forest, never mind the Alps.


We reached Hartmannswillerkopf which is a National Necropole dedicated to a battles in the Great War. It's museum was closed for lunch when we arrived so we walked around and then sat down in the sun for some bread and cheese and apple. The weather had improved a lot as we descended. We'd left the rain and mist behind and it was to get warmer and warmer has we got down further into the valleys.

As we sat here I texted around to find out what train times we had from Thann so that we could get back to Paris this evening. It seems we had a train just after 4pm so that would be our aim. Of course we didn't know how far Thann was or how long it would take ... but it seemed a reasonable objective.


After lunch we left the Necropole and started on the lane going downhill. Unfortunately the GR soon left the road and started to make it;s way uphill! Surely some mistake. This would happen periodically during the afternoon as we would be faced with uphill sections at various points. At one place the trail took us by a ruined castle which we took a few moments to explore and at another the trail took us up over the top of a hill, with a Ferme-Auberge at the top, when it seemed it could just have easily have gone around.


But generally the sensation was down. We kept a good pace going as we wanted to catch that train so it was heads down and quick march. As we came to the final stretch the trail remained level on a contour for several miles. The forest seemed endless and then suddenly a viewpoint appeared. We scrambled out onto the rocks. The valley still seemed a long way below.


Eventually the trail started to descend steeply through the forest. My knees were weak and beginning to hurt. The trail was becoming confused as it crossed many other more local trails, until in fact we lost the GR5 altogether and took a smaller track which we thought was leading down into the valley. Then we lost this track too; I don't mean we were blithely walking through the woods; I mean there were so many trails that it became impossible to figure out which was which. We just kept going down until eventually we popped out of the woods onto what seemed an old railbed which had been paved into a cycle path. It was next to a stream and we turned keft to follow the stream and the old railway into the small town of Thann.

Unbelievably it was a few minutes before 4pm so we just had time to quickly haste through town to the railway station. The little sprinter train duly arrived on time and we enjoyed the half an hour trip to Mulhouse. By this time I was walking in my stockinged feet. They hurt!

In Mulhouse we were shocked to discover that it waas two hours until the next Paris train. Eeven worse was that this train was fully booked and that we'd have to get the one after. Even changing trains somewhere didn't help. The clerk at SNCF was very helpful as he tried to find a way for us to get to Paris; but we still had a long wait.

So first of all we found a bar in the town centre where we could have a couple of beers and watch the end of today's stage in the Tour. After that we found a restaurant overlooking the high street and had a simple steak frites. We only just made it back to the station in time where we jumped the train for the three trip back to Paris. I think we must have crashed out when we arrived back in Paris as I can't remember anything about it!

Monday, 3 August 2009

A trudge in the rain

The Vosges; from Petit Ballon to Grand Ballon

We woke up the next morning in a fug of steam. All our gear had dried as stiff as a stiff thing. No matter how hard we dream of breakfast American style we still face the pathetic bread and jam as is normal in these parts. At least the coffee is good.

Outside the weather is miserable. It's raining and the cloud is down. Visibility is about 10m.

After our barely digestible breakfast we retreat upstairs to lie down and overstay our welcome in the hope that the weather breaks. We are turfed out at 11am and quickly get our gear together and fall outside into the light drizzle. It's not too bad and we depart in a fairly jovial mood.

We start out again on the GR532 and we will follow this most of the day until it joins the GR5. The trail rises and we come again to the still closed Hostel where we spent our first night. It's all new from here.

The trail meanders and wanders up and down but doesn't really gain a lot of height. We are walking through heather and stubby fir trees. There is plenty of fruit about; blueberries, cranberries, raspberries, blackberries and wild strawberries. If it was warmer we might stop and collect some. The weather does clear a little and we are rewarded with some views over the valleys below.


After a while the trail rises again and we come to a part that is marked as a Nature Reserve. We are astonished to learn that the trail is normally closed here and that it opened only yesterday! We wonder who would bother us if we had arrived when it was closed!

However only an hour later the rain begins again but again it's not too bad as we are now walking underneath a deciduous canopy. As the rain starts to get heavier we are fortunate enough to stumble upon a hovel beside the trail. It must be used by hunters. Inside it's dirty and greasy and covered in grafitti. We sit down on sawn off logs and have a bite of lunch. The left-over meat pie from yesterdays dinner goes down well.


We wait awhile until the rain eases off and then continue on our way. Eventually we find ourselves descending and suddenly stumble out of the woods onto a road beside the Lac de Lauch. It's drizzling now as we walk past a ruined Hostel and along the dam in fron of the lake. We briefly chat to a fisherman who seems to be in a good mood but who has caught nothing!

On the other side the trail climbs steeply as we regain the height we'd just lost. At some poit we join the GR5 and then the trail rather boringly follows a small road. Then we meet our only other trail users of the day as we are passed by a small group of very muddy mountain bikers.


Pretty soon we come out of the woods and follow the lane itself up to le Haag. We are right beneath Grand Ballon now, though we can't see the summit, and more importantly a Ferme-Auberge as hoved into view. We stagger in for a very welcome pint, but are disappointed to learn that they have no TV and hence we cannot find out whats happened in the Tour.

After restraining ourselves to a single pint we get back on the road for the final climb up to a Chalet Hotel just beneath the summit. Inside it's dark and creepy. We realise it's the hotel from "The Shining", though we didn't notice and boys on tricycles or twin girls. or rivers of blood come to that!

We manage to get a room which is more or less the size and shape of a cupboard. It's covered in wood panels. Even the ceiling. We spend some time trying to get the enormous radiator to come on. The staff assure us it will eventually get warm. Ha bloody ha! It does get warm, but then the heating goes off at 10pm. Our boots are still damp in the morning.

The hotel is so unwelcoming that after a shower we retrace our steps down the hill to the warm and friendly Ferme-Auberge where we partake of a huge meal. This time we have a bottle of the local Pinot Noir. The only downside is that a) a raucaus party are sharing the room and b) some twat in running shorts and a bare chest comes in sweating horribly and orders a beer at the bar, gross!

After that we reluctantly crawl up the hill back to Jack Nicholson's place and try to sleep as best we can.

Sunday, 2 August 2009

Summer Rain at the Tour de France


Tour de France

Paul and I are camping beside the road at the Col du Firstplan. It's Stage 13 of the Tour and the route goes from Vittel to Colmar. This place is the last climb of the day before a 20km descent down to the finish.


Sleeping overnight was pitiful. First a bunch of Norwegians kept as awake with revelry. Then the rains came. I was locked up tight in my bivvy, though it's not easy sleeping in a coccoon being pelted with rain one inch from your face! Paul fared much worse as he was sleeping out with only a sleeping bag. Inevitably he got drenched. So much so that he eventually got up and walked down the hill to the nearest village and back. This was merely for something to do and a vain attempt to get warm!

I eventually came too about 6am to find the Tour workers had arrived to put up the climb finish paraphernalia. The police were around too and were waking people so that they could move their vehicles. As luck would have it this involved waking the Norwegians! What fun. It took several exhortations from the maintenance crew and the Police before they could be eventually roused. They didn't look too happy. Us? We basked in schadenfreude!

Paul was still soaking wet but was making himself useful by volunteering to help the set-up crew. At first they were reluctant to accept but eventually they relented and he took a hand at building the sign that marked the finish of the climb.


It was a long long day as we whiled away the time until the Tour was due to arrive. The caravan would probably arrive about 3pm and the race itself towards 5pm. We generally just wandered around and visited the people in the trailers and tents. We ate what food we had; mostly bread and cheese, though I later went for a walk in the woods and picked some raspberries.

In return for his work Paul was able to borrow the can of paint the crew had used and we spent a bit of time writing messages on the road.


It was still raining on and off during the day and it didn't bode well for taking photographs. When the caravan finally arrived it was still raining and the people on the trucks seemed reluctant to bother with throwing out the goodies. Our haul was pathetic though we did manage a packet of crackers each!

Eventually the race itself arrived with the first four riders reasonably spread out. I tried my best to get some shots but it was way too dark really. As the fractured peleton came over the hill we recognized some of the riders as they struggled to put on rain-jackets for the descent.

When everyone had gone by we got all our gear together and left to climb back up the Petit Ballon. We were aiming for the Ferme-Auberge where we thought we could find a room for the night and get some decent food as well as dry all our gear off.

The walk itself was not too bad as we eventually climbed above the cloud layer and into the sunshine. The climb took us a couple of hours and we eventually arrived at the Ferme-Auberge. After some negotiations we were finally able to bag a room. It seemed as though they were a bit wary of us at first but because we had already been there twice in the last few days they relented. Ensconced in our room we unloaded all our gear, turned the heaters on full blast and cleaned up in the shower.

We then traipsed downstairs for a gargantuan meal. Soup followed a giant piece of mincemeat pie. Paul asked for extras and was shocked to be given a piece as big as the first! Luckily we were able to save a piece of this for our lunch tomorrow.

After a couple of large beers we crashed out to get some much needed sleep.