Lake Annecy to Lake Maggiore

Saturday 14th April 2007, Annecy
Our problems accessing our bank account were fortunately short-lived. This morning at Arc-et-Senans we had no trouble withdrawing enough for our needs plus an emergency supply against future disasters. By the time we had returned and packed Modestine ready to leave, it was lunch time and Susanne insisted we eat with them before we left. It has been a very happy couple of days and we felt sad to be moving on but are already looking forward to hopefully returning to assist with the grape harvest in early September before a possible foray down into southern Italy and Sicily.

The day has been quite hot and our route up into the high Jura was beautiful from the second we started. After passing through Champagnole the route rose steadily towards Geneva through grey rock with bubbling streams deep in the gorges below. We passed through Morbier, famed for its cheese, Les Rousses where the sister convent of the one in Champagne-sur-Loue used to be, before following down a wide, steep-sided glaciated valley, the Valmijoux, below the Crêt de la Neige, the highest point in the Jura. The crevices on the northern slopes were still packed with snow but most of the ski resorts were sadly deserted and didn't look as if they had seen much business this year. As we skirted Geneva to the west the jagged mountain peaks towards Mont Blanc reflected white in the sunlight. Around 6pm we arrived in Annecy and are now camped on a pleasant, clean site ten minutes walk from the old town and overlooking the clear waters of the lake. On the far side the bare grey rock of Mount Veyrier rises 1300 metres above the lake.

The view from our campsite, Annecy

We discovered Lake Annecy, in the Haute Savoie, several years ago on our first abortive attempt to reach Venice. It lies at the point where France, Switzerland and Italy meet. We found the old town on the lakeside quite delightful. Incidentally, this region was only annexed to France in 1680. On our last visit we stood on the lakeside at dusk watching the boats leaving the quayside, their bright lights twinkling across the water as they took beautifully dressed diners, the ladies sparkling with jewels, for a supper cruise around the lake. Next morning we were early down to the lake from our inauspicious hotel and discovered a diamond and sapphire encrusted gold bracelet lying near the jetty. Being honest folk we took it to the local police station and asked for a receipt. They refused and told us that if we handed it in and it wasn't claimed it would be sold off and the money would go to the French treasury. We gave our address and said if anyone reported it missing to tell them we had it. (It was pretty obvious it was going to end up in a policeman's pocket if we left it!) They were a bit astonished and told us they wouldn't pass on our address and we should leave them the bracelet, which we refused to do. Nobody ever contacted us about it so Jill has one very nice and very expensive piece of Italian jewellery which she is too afraid to wear in case it gets lost!

Sunday 15th April 2007, Annecy
Down in the old town beside the lake there was a busy market this morning, the narrow, cobbled streets lined with stalls selling the usual assortment of fruit and vegetables, plus charcuterie, cheeses, cooked chickens and regional produce such as honey, breads and ceramics. We were quite taken with buying six second hand white bath towels from Novotel hotels for five euros but have no room for them – and if being truthful, no need either! The new part of the town is jut like any other but the vielle ville is very pretty and full of charm, particularly on a bright, warm April Sunday. The clear shallow river runs through, crossed by hump-backed pedestrian bridges. The mediaeval houses with their heavy shutters stand with their feet in the river and ducks struggle upstream towards the lake. The streets are far too narrow for traffic and today were crowded with families and holiday makers. We sampled the produce – most stalls had cubes of cheese, cooked meat, dried sausage, macaroons and bread to taste – Ian even ate some donkey sausage!

Sunday street market, Annecy

Heart of the old town, Annecy

After a coffee at a crowded terrace beside the market, sheltered from the sun under the arches supporting the ancient houses, we made our way to the lake to watch the pedal-boats being taken out and passengers boarding the pleasure boats for a luxury lunch on the lake. At 56 euros per person it was not something to contemplate and we contented ourselves with a picnic sandwich on the lakeside with a spectacular view of the rugged, snow-covered mountains across the water. Later we walked along beside the lake through grassy parks where families unpacked their picnics of chilled wine, dried sausage, cheeses and tossed salad. Parents were out cycling with their children and entire families spent the day rollerblading together along the lakeside. Ian commented that it had been a long time since he'd seen so many happy, contented faces.

Pleasure boats on the lake with the castle behind, Annecy

Lunch spot by the lake, Annecy

Lakeside park, Annecy

Later in the day we climbed back up past the impressive castle to our campsite where we collected Modestine and drove to the nearby Gorges de Fier. This really is a most impressive site, being a narrow channel worn deeply through the limestone rock at the bottom of which is the fast-flowing river Fier. A wooden footway has been constructed above the river as it sweeps through a gorge so narrow at times it is possible to reach across to touch the cliff face on the far side. In times of flood it is not unknown for the water level to rise up to 28 metres in little more than an hour. The sides of the defile are contorted and twisted where the force of the water has scoured out circular hollows as it has swept through. This gorge is a real banquet! Compared to this, Lydford Gorge in Devon is no more than a light snack!! Beyond the defile the river meanders between a chaos of huge rocks shaped by the force of the river. Of course there is a legend to keep the tourists happy. A tale of mediaeval infidelity between a neighbouring knight and Diana, the lady of the castle. Betrayed by Diana's pageboy the lover leaps the defile on his horse to escape the wrath of the enraged husband. Diana is locked up in the castle tower where she is held captive until her death. Meanwhile the page boy ends up falling to his death in the gorge where some sympathetic fairies construct a huge misshaped rock as his gravestone. It must all be true because we saw the actual stone!

Sorry Jill keeps getting in the way but it helps with scale, Gorges de Fier

The river passes between the rocks, Gorges de Fier

Later we made our way up to the castle itself where from the terrace we had yet more views of snowy mountains though we have been really hot all day and are feeling quite sunburnt.

View from the terrace of the Château above the gorges

Château where the lady Diana was held prisoner by her deceived husband

We returned to the same campsite as last night, almost deserted now that the school holidays are ending. We spent the evening with a glass of wine planning our onward route tomorrow towards Italy.

Monday 16th April 2007, Salgesch, Switzerland
This is a first for the blog. Jill is writing this in the ladies' loo, locked in a cubicle while the cleaning lady is sweeping around outside, no doubt wondering what that funny tapping noise might be! It's the only place around with electricity and as we have no Swiss money we cannot connect to the normal supply to use in Modestine! We had hoped to pass straight through Switzerland and into Italy by this evening but got side-tracked in Chamonix so we only made it half way across Switzerland before dusk. We only have euros but the campsite agreed to accept them for a night's stay, leaving us with no Swiss money to pay for extras such as electricity or even a hot shower tomorrow morning! It's a nice site though, with only a couple of other vehicles here, right on the edge of a tiny lake where the frogs are belting out their unique version of the Wilhelm Tell overture, so we may not get much sleep tonight.

Salgesch is exactly on the boundary between the French and German speaking departments of Switzerland. In fact, according to the map, the reception is in the French sector and the onsite shop in the German one! We've been using both languages this evening and have almost reached the stage of wishing folk "guten soir". It's really a very weird sort of area with signs completely intermingled.

Confused linguistic identity at the campsite, Salgesch

Blessing the motorbikes – in two languages, Salgesch

Days have their ups and their downs. Today has had them both, quite literally! We left Annecy and drove along the lakeside, making our way towards Chamonix and Mont Blanc. Before long there was a diversion sending us from the valley high up into the mountains through forests, up to the snowy peaks and mountain ski resorts. There is snow, but nowhere near enough for skiing and the resorts we passed through looked sadly silent with most of the shops shut, the wooden chalets shuttered and the téléfériques closed.

High up above the forests, with the hillsides covered in bright dandelions, we stopped to explore the mountain village of Crest Voland. Here the general store told us there was no bread left in the village and we'd need to drive right down into the valley to Megève! However, on the plus side, the village was immaculately clean and smart and the gents' urinals were flushed with hot water! In the library we paid a small fortune for an hour on the internet but the connection was so poor it took all of that just to send the blog with no time for email at all.

We continued to Chamonix, stopping for a picnic lunch (without bread) with a stupendous view of the snowy summits of the Massif de Mont Blanc. Chamonix is a small skiing resort, much like many of the others we passed through. It is the chief point of departure for climbers and skiers wishing to access Mont Blanc and its glacier, which descends immediately above the streets of the town. There are several statues to the hardy mountaineers who first conquered the summit and many would-be skiers were wandering desolately around the town with all their equipment hung around them and no snow to use it on. You'd have thought they might have checked before coming really! Street cafes and bars were doing excellent business though and everywhere looked very inviting when you could sit in the hot sunshine and gaze up at the glacier and the jagged peak of the Aiguille du Midi.

Looking down to St. Gervais les Bains on the route to Chamonix

Michel Gabriel Paccard, the first to climb Mont Blanc, 8 August 1786, Chamonix

Mont Blanc with its glacier above the town of Chamonix

It was all so pleasant that it was after 3pm before we left and continued our route into Switzerland and on up to the Col de la Forclaz at 1526 metres, then down the other side towards Martigny. From just below the col the twisting, unfenced road dropped away dramatically offering us a stomach-churning view down onto the town of Martigny, spread out along the valley floor, the buildings just specks below us. We then started a brake-burning descent down countless hairpin bends, a drop of 1200 metres to the valley floor. Our route took us along the valley, across the Rhone and joined up with the same road we took in October 2005 on our return from visiting all our friends in Germany. We are trying to avoid using the same routes but sometimes it is not possible. Just beyond the town of Sierre we discovered this campsite and have spent the evening working out our route to travel on to Italy tomorrow.

From the route up to the Col de la Forclaz

The Rhone Valley and Martigny from the Col de la Forclaz

Oops, someone has just turned out the light in the ladies loo! Perhaps it's time to end tonight's blog!

Tuesday 17th April 2007, Baveno, Italy
This evening we are camping beside Lake Maggiore on a friendly, pleasantly peaceful site with a few other camping cars. The water gently laps the shore beside us as boats return to their moorings and across the water we can see the lights just turning on in the little lakeside towns. It would take just a few minutes to cross to them by boat but a couple of hours' journey by road. The lake is sixty kilometres long and five across at its widest part.

Neither of us has ever been to the Italian lakes so it was unquestionable that we would visit at least a couple on our way towards Venice. So this morning we continued along the Rhone valley towards its glacial source as far as Brig when we turned off to climb up the Simplon Pass. For perhaps the first time we realised that our friend Mike Maguire was right when he said it was a pity Modestine was not a turbo diesel. Had she been so she would, according to Romahome, have gone up the pass like a whippet! She went up very willingly, but needed to stop several times to cool down. We didn't mind, the views were magnificent and we certainly managed to find the snow at last. Right near the top of the pass, at 2005 metres we overtook a cyclist!!! There was little traffic around, mainly heavy lorries as most sane people paid to have their vehicle loaded onto navettes and carried through the tunnel into Italy. It's not the nicest experience for Modestine to have a great hunk of Italian truck sniffing enthusiastically at her tail as she struggles valiantly up through the steep tunnels and overhanging rocks.

Looking back to Brig on the way up the Simplon Pass

As the top, where it was actually cold enough to need our jumpers, we left Modestine to recover and took a walk amidst the snows which are fast melting, even at this height. A few Swiss and Italian skiers were actually out, making the most of what remained but had needed to drive all the way up from their respective valleys to do so.

Modestine takes a rest at the top of the Simplon Pass

Looking back at our route up to the Simplon Pass

Finding the snow at 2000 metres, Simplon Pass

Ian prefers open sandals in the snowfields, Simplon Pass

Going down was easier than yesterday's descent. We turned off to investigate the inauspicious village of Simplon which stands completely isolated from the rest of the world. It must be one of the most remote little towns in Switzerland. Further down the valley we discovered a restored Napoleonic barracks. Originally constructed as part of Napoleon's massive military engineering project to covert the 17th century pack-horse trails into the first route across the Alps suitable for carriages – and French cannons - today it houses a free exhibition chronicling the development and history of the Simplon Pass including the building of the tunnel, competed in 1906, the development of tourism and the recent impressive projects to improve the route.

Napoleonic barracks in the Gonda gorge below Simplon

In the Gonda gorge, below Simplon

We swept down from the pass, out of Switzerland and into Italy. Following fast roads we were quickly here in Baveno where we spent most of the afternoon exploring the little town and the lakeside. Just off-shore are the three little islands known as the Borromeans. They seem, from here, to have beautiful palaces and gardens so tomorrow we will investigate further. Meanwhile, this little town is very pleasant with a small historic quarter consisting of a very Italianate church with a courtyard surrounded by frescoes of the stations of the cross. There is also a monastery and a baptistry that is over 1600 years old. The town feels obviously Italian with sienna and yellow distempered walls and cobbled streets that offer vistas down onto the shining waters of the lake. After the pine forests and bleak snowy mountains of the Alps, the soft Italian landscape, ornate parks with their colourful flowerbeds and bright camellias, comes as a complete contrast.

Borromean Islands seen from Baveno, Lake Maggiore

Church with baptistry to the left, Baveno, Lake Maggiore

Incidentally, for those of you who followed our previous travels, you will surely recall our burgeoning enthusiasm for manhole covers. Ian has now become seriously addicted to this hobby and it has become necessary to ban most of them from the blog. He has now set up a blogsite specifically for these so for those of you keen to investigate the drain covers around Europe, you can view his collection as it gradually develops.