Spain 3/France 5/Switzerland 1: Girona to Bear (Villars-sur-Ollon, Switzerland)

28/09/18 – 12/10/18 

Part 2: The Alps

I’d never been to The Alps before. I had an idea in my mind of what it would be like from stories I’d heard from others; from photos that I’d seen; and from the workings of my own imagination, and still I was absolutely blown away. The day we spent cycling from Praz-sur-Arly to Chamonix was my favourite day so far and our rest day in Chamonix was ‘an Elbow day’, and we must say a HUGE thank you to Anne for letting us stay in her wonderful, wonderful apartment for two nights whilst she was out cycle-touring and exploring along the west coast of France. I felt so content and peaceful and filled with inspiration and positivity in Chamonix. I also experienced a pang of self-doubt, though, wondering if I’d wasted time and life in not coming here before; I became transfixed with thinking about how I was going to incorporate the mountains and the feelings they invoked into my future.

This leg of our adventure was definitely a two-parter, and it was our stay with Sandrine, just outside of Valence, that marked the start of part two. Sandrine’s home was in the Rhône-Alps and we ate a delicious vegetable gratin looking out of her lounge window at the Vercors, also the name given to the tasty dessert we had which is ice-cream, meringue and caramel. Sandrine also treated us to a local, orange-blossom brioche for breakfast and insisted that we took what hadn’t been eaten with us and it made for a perfect snack throughout the day, filling us with happiness, enthusiasm and thanks.

We cycled around and through a nuclear power complex.  It was intriguing to see all of the different buildings and hear all of the noises!  The painting on this cooling tower (which was blasting out water) was very thought-provoking.
We’d cycled 107km to get to Sandrine’s house, but felt so rested and ready to go the next day and were grateful of a longer breakfast as we waited for a break in the rain. It was almost 90km from Sandrine’s to Voreppe where we stayed with Adrien and his young family and without a doubt we were now in The Alps. We cycled under a fine drizzle all day, but were following a wonderful cycle path along the Isère river that was lined with trees. Although by this point the trees were starting to lose their leaves, the autumnal confetti was still light and so we were protected from the worst of the wet weather. The Isère became increasingly glacial blue and it was so nice to be away from the busy roads and urban areas of the days and week before. 

Helmet happiness...

A drizzly lunch break.

Our stay with Adrien was so upbeat and I won’t forget how he immediately made us feel like friends by doing ‘bises’. His house was wonderful and filled with photos of his young family. The girls were both dressed like princesses and giggled with shy curiosity as we fumbled into their home in our waterproofs and with our panniers. Adrien and Marion were a wonderful couple to talk to and share stories with. They had previously lived in Lyon, but visited The Alps so often that they decided to move to the region. Dinner with Adrien has been hard to beat: a vegetarian twist on Les Crozets that we have since tried to recreate twice. We had chocolate cake for breakfast and waved the girls off to school before setting off ourselves further into the heart of The Alps.

Just as we got back onto the cycle path, direction Grenoble, we hit the 3000km mark. The previous milestone had been climbing a mega hill in the Pyrenees and it was awesome to look back and realise how far we’d come. Before long we reached Grenoble and decided to have an early lunch in le Parc de l’Ile d’Amour (which had a dry toilet: 10 points!). Whilst Olly waxed lyrical about how well walnut-flavoured soft-cheese accompanied a slice of Emmental, I googled Masters programmes at Université Grenoble Alpes. 

The view 3000km from home.

Alternative view!

Lunch spot in Grenoble.

After lunch we left Grenoble, and big cities, behind for a good while to come. The ride became so scenic as we cycled through The Chartreuse Regional Natural Park and along the base of The Chartreuse Mountains. The lightly snow-dusted mountains of the high Écrins were behind us, whilst the mountains in the Chartreuse chain stood resplendent in their warm autumnal colours, drawing us in for photograph after photograph. Suddenly Olly started gesticulating in a manner usually reserved for a serious hole in the road, but this pot-hole was seemingly just above eye-level. “Mont Blanc”, he said, pointing and shouting over his shoulder, “Mont Blanc”. All I could see was cloud. I scrunched up my nose and looked again as the cloud I’d seen magically materialised into the summit of the most majestic of mountains in The Alps. We couldn’t digitally capture it, but it was there right before our eyes. Chatting with David and Marlène, our Warm Showers hosts, later that night, Marlène, who was born and raised in The Alps, said we were lucky to have seen the triangle of Mont Blanc as we had done that day and that it would now disappear from sight until we entered into the next valley. 

Spot Olly!

Our night at David and Marlène’s felt like an evening with old friends as we sat around the fire drinking delicious, local, craft beer and climbing became the hot topic of conversation as David and Marlène had been out at a crag that afternoon. We also talked skiing, cycling, travelling and guessed at the secret vegetable ingredient in Marlène’s chocolate cake. We could neither believe how late it was when we went to bed that night, nor how beautiful the view was as we packed up the bikes the next day and headed further into the mountains. Thanks for an awesome stay.

To Albertville and beyond! We were heading to Praz-sur-Arly and, as Marlène had promised, as we descended one valley and climbed another, Mont Blanc came back into view. The weather was so good! We were so lucky! (And we really realise this now having cycled straight into some terrible storms in north-west Italy.) It was easy-going to Alberville and then after lunch we started the day’s climb. The road was busy and I didn’t hesitate to don the high-vis as we twisted and turned our way up a beautiful gorge and under lots of snow sheds.

Mont Blanc just coming back into view.

Lunch in Albertville


It was a real sense of achievement to reach Flumet at which point we knew we didn’t have too far to go to the night’s campsite in Praz-sur-Arly. As we approached Camping Les Prés d’Arly, an invisible steel band started to play their syncopated rhythm, a noise now so wonderfully familiar and synonymous with being in the mountains. We sourced the sound: a herd of cows, their bells jangling and welcoming our arrival. 

Filled with happy vibes following our three Warm Showers stays, we were excited to be camping again especially as we didn’t need to stay alert for bears as we had during our time in The Pyrenees. It was fresh in the morning, but a wonderful blue-sky kind of cool. We huddled into the reception area to eat our porridge and when we emerged from the chalet there was a hot air balloon soaring high into the air. Our views from the ground were astounding and so I couldn’t imagine how breath-taking they must be from the basket above us. 

And so began my favourite day of cycling so far! We had only gone about 100m when we came across two big supermarkets, which is significant because we had stocked up in Albertville, lugging food up a hill worried that there might not be anywhere once we started climbing. It’s also important because we so often stop for a break or lunch, really chuffed with our spot, only to turn a corner and find a – seemingly – much more comfortable/picturesque/sheltered place. I’m sure there’s a metaphor for life in there somewhere… We pulled into the carpark of the two supermarkets because one was a Supermarché Bio and it was the biggest and best I have ever been in! I still have not forgiven Olly for hurrying me out after only half an hour and some stock cubes later.

All day we cycled towards Mont Blanc and it was just awesome. I was truly awestruck and so was Olly, who had spent a week completing the Tour de Mont Blanc last year. The mountain just kept getting bigger and bigger! Every time we thought we had the best possible view, we’d pedal a few kilometres more and the scene before us became more magnificent. 

Our lunch spot that day was a bench outside of a church with a pointed, alpine spire and Mont Blanc right in front of us. We laid out the tent in the sunshine to dry, and our sleeping bags were airing too for good measure (a little lizard climbed into the hood of Olly’s bag), and just gazed. I remember thinking fondly (genuinely) of my lunch breaks in our (windowless) office at school, but knowing in that moment that I had made the right call to pack away the whiteboard pens and embark upon this adventure. 

We headed down from Domancy into the valley knowing that some serious climbing was in store that afternoon in order to enter the Chamonix Valley. From La Fontaine to Les Houches we just couldn’t believe our eyes. At Vaudagne things started to get emotional! The numerous switchbacks made the climb manageable and fun and every time we turned left, Mont Blanc would loom ahead of us and I’d forget that I was even pedalling (often I wasn’t, I was just stood taking photographs). We descended into Les Houches with our eyes fixed on the mountain and paused to check the map as Olly recalled being in this village to start his walking tour the year before. 

At Super U we bought Les Crozets and Reblochon (and flanbés!) in a bid to recreate the dinner we’d had chez Adrien and then we headed to Anne’s place just outside of Chamonix. Anne’s apartment was on the top floor of a chalet on the fringes of a forest and from her window we could see the Glacier des Bossons. It was unreal. We went to bed that night cosy and so, so content.

The next day was a rest day and a continuation of the brilliant day the day before. We had a chilled out morning (with chocolate muesli) before taking the train into Chamonix for a look around (Olly was scouting out flannel shirts and thermos flasks). It was my first time in Chamonix and I loved being in a town so completely surrounded by mountains, and the weather was beautiful. I think being there in October was good as October is a transition period between the two seasons and as such it wasn’t too busy. We stopped for a rest day coffee at Moody Coffee Roasters: a small coffee house tucked away in the square along the Avenue de l’Aiguille du Midi. It was a perfect pit-stop as window-shopping wasn’t going so well (many shops were closed for lunch = grumpy Olly) and the owners were British and so we had a great chat about what brought us all to Chamonix. The guys at Moody Coffee Roasters were the original (and are the only – I think) coffee-bean-roasting-café in Chamonix. They make great cakes too (and have free Wi-Fi). In a bid to check out a bio store, I left Olly doing flannel shirt research, but returned with WD40 and Essence C: the bio shop were still on their lunch break. We headed back to Anne’s with tiny, ultra-light, packable backpacks from Quechua and I was overjoyed with my bright pink and turquoise number. Olly opted for brown (admittedly very ‘understated cool’). We made the most of our remaining time in Anne’s mountain-themed maison by relaxing and drinking tea and eating biscuits whilst gazing at the glacier. 

The following day was our final day in France which felt quite surreal after our mini tour which had taken the best part of two months. But, today was also BEAR DAY and I was so excited to be reunited with my pal, what with having cycled ‘all the way from Shropshire’, and embark upon some new #dogandbearadventures. If you were to ask me why I’m ‘Dog’ and Bear’s ‘Bear’, I wouldn’t be able to tell you, but I think it happened about three days after we first met. A conversation was had in our halls of residence in Birmingham as we laced up the shoes we’d been told to bring to our teaching training course (they had considered it essential to write that we required our own shoes on a ‘kit list’), and discussed the possibility of zorbing and who we’d most like to imitate as teachers: McGonagall or Snape. I do sometimes forget that Bear is actually called Lucinda.

It was hard to leave Chamonix. We passed through and stopped at Quechua to buy the thermos flasks we’d looked at the day before. It is now hard to imagine life without them! The guy in the shop was really enthusiastic about our trip and gave us some free cereal bars: Olly felt like all of his recent Instagram efforts were finally paying off…! As we left the town that had so captured my heart, a helicopter whirred over our heads and landed right next to us. The whole place just seemed incredible. 

Two passes separated us from Switzerland and Bear, and both were good fun. The first was Col des Montets, which stands at 1461m, and it was here that we had our free cereal bars! We had climbed from Chamonix to Argentières where we were very pleased to find a post box, not only because we made it just in time for Olly to send some postcards home, what with the post being collected at midday and our arriving at five to, but because we had French stamps and this was the last sizeable French town we were passing through. Olly recounted staying at a hostel in Argentières during the Tour de Mont Blanc and we also chatted to a British couple who gawked at our bikes. 

A welcome descent followed down to the Franco-Swiss border and we had lunch at Trient, a beautiful and tiny mountain village with an iconic pink church. After lunch, the only way was up, all the way to the Col de la Forclaz at 1527m. At the top we were rewarded with a good view down into the valley and the town of Martigny where we were due to meet Bear. We were also able to refill our water bottles from a tap offering cold, fresh water and Olly pointed out the windy camp spot he had phoned me from last year. We got chatting to a British couple at the top of this Col too and we briefly shared our stories with them before wrapping up warm, changing gear and heading down, on a twisty road through slopes covered in vineyards, to Martigny. 

Then all we had to do was find Bear, and find her we did. She had given us strict instructions to stay to the right of the river, which, at one point, meant I forced Olly to stay on a very narrow, off-road path instead of following the Garmin’s advice and heading onto the cycle path the other side. Bear called, asked where we were, we said, “Martigny”, she said, “me too”. We heard her before we saw her: “D!” We crossed over a brilliant, wooden bridge, the kind I think I’d hoped to find in Switzerland, and there, looking great in as many bright pink garms as possible, was Bear.