Friday, 19 July 2013

Grande Ballon to Nyon - Day Eighty to Ninety-Three

With the aid of our thirty-fifth map, we descended the Grande Ballon through grass and meadows. A shepherd led his goats with a whistle down the tourist road as we munched on a pain au chocolat, bought several days prior. On arriving into Thann, where we passed the magnificent church of Sainte Thiebaut, I pushed its weighty door open and stepped inside. The deep, flat tone of the organ resonated through my bones as the tea lights flickered.

Jake and I had decided that a rest day was required. We thus booked ourselves into the cryptically named Hotel de France, bought a truck load of food, whose calories would kill a large badger, and kicked back into a thrilling game of televised football.

The following morning I stirred with a headache, quite likely to have been the repercussions of the two beers I had sunk the night before. My boots sat by the door looking up at me, 'When are we going?' - the feeling was reciprocated.

On the last day of June we left Thann, feeling decidedly out of sorts. We had lost our rhythm and Jake's feet had softened to the consistency of prediluted jelly, not good for a long distance hiker. However, despite the atrocities induced by our day of rest, the day was rescued by, arguably, the best sandwiches ever created, which we ate on Vogelstein Rocks, a spectacular viewpoint which looked south at the dwindling mountains of the Vosges. Passed clumps of wild mint and strawberries, our route took us through a landscape shaped by glaciers. A few paces shy of the Ballon D'Alsace, we pitched our tent in amongst hungry mosquitoes then cowered inside to finish a box of chocolate biscuits.

We left the Vosges mountains on our eightieth day, pursing our long broken shadows through open beech. The day was warm and the skies strewn with bumbling clouds. On one overhead inspection, we noted a wisp of cloud streaked with the sun's spectrum. Totally absorbed in the wondrous nature that surrounded us, I found myself crashing back to reality as we rounded a corner to an expansive lake, an artificial beach boomeranged the southern shore, its sand brimming with near nude bodies of all shapes and sizes. Feeling horribly out of place, we marched through the scene at pace, inadvertently glimpsing body parts that I had long forgotten existed.

For several days the heat of the day had been building, until it reached the point where we were leaving wet footprints in the scalding black tarmac. So when the nimbus came rolling in, we knew a storm was imminent. The thunder rumbled and the rain poured for two days. Insult was surely added to injury as I somewhat ironically missed the waymarker whilst checking the map, thus sending us hopelessly in the wrong direction. On the second night of rain we treated ourselves to a room at Hotel Bienvenue in St Hippolyte. Whilst Jake literally poured water from his boots, I nursed the chafing that had flared up on my 'you know whats', with a heavy dose of soothing Vaseline.

The gargantuan breakfast hindered rather than helped our progress out of St Hippolyte, through out-skirting fields dripping with morning dew. On inspecting a rather splendid calcium waterfall, we bumped in to Janique and Gabrielle, a pair of boisterous Frenchmen, recently retired, on an eighteen day hike through the Jura mountains. We slipped our way up and down the stream riddled path, through gorges lush with ferns and vines; a weathered marker stone signalled our arrival into Switzerland. Following the border stones south, I actively walked on the left hand side of the path in order to absorb as much of Switzerland as possible. Insightful observations revealed that it was much the same as France.

Stone kicking frequented our days; long curling shots that stayed on the track sparked praise, whilst stones in the gutter would be jeered. Late on Thursday afternoon I was so immersed in a reverie that I walked head on into a fallen pine that bridged the path. I stumbled backwards and spent the remainder of the day feeling half drunk.

After a night in our first gite d'etape (dormitory style walkers' accommodation), we left the village of Fesser Viller in thick mist. Fence posts traversed the pastures through the breath-taking translucence. Soon we were swallowed by the forest where the light show continued as streaks of sun cut through the pines and droplet-decorated spider webs clung to every surface. On reaching Goumois, the sun had burnt through the mist and the days of rain were forgotten. The river Doubs led us south, undulating through a gorge thick in beech, hazel and pine. Every surface held a sponge of moss, like emerald snow. The gorge made me think of Wind of the Willows on steroids, with a twist of Lord of the Rings, and a handful of the limestone islands of South East Asia. Whilst making our way through house-sized boulders, Jake anxiously revealed a concern, 'My bottom is definitely getting saggier, I think the weight of my pack is pushing it downwards.'

We climbed the Escelles De La Mort, stairs of death, which needless to say were less morbid than insinuated, before arriving at a wooden shelter, or abri, in which we lit a fire whose smoke was used to mask the smell of our hanging clothes.

We saw a kingfisher in the morning, then shed our clothes for a swim in the icy waters of the Doubs, an act which encouraged the retraction of certain body parts. Incidentally it was one of these retracted body parts on which Jake recorded his one hundredth and his largest tick since leaving Bristol.

We brushed past pincushion thistles and swathes of buttercups, then pitched the tent in a pretty forest at Sur La Roche. That night I was reminded of the perils of fizzy cola bottles as a tiny crystal of citric sugar unlodged itself from the main body of the bottle, falling neatly into my left eye. The pain was outstanding.

The bark of a deer woke us so we rose early and ate a breakfast of tinned ravioli, overlooking valleys whose troughs were filled with mist. Later in the day an old tractor distracted us as we once again missed our turnoff. Two hours later we found the path and were quickly rewarded with our first Chamois sighting, a sort of mountain goat iconic of the Jura.

The blue skies continued as we walked the forty kilometres to Malbuissons. Along the way we admired Joux Castle, which stood proudly upon its hill overlooking La Cluse. It was here that we met Mark, a Dutch chap, hiking the GR5. We walked the rest of the day with Mark, sharing stories and comparing gear. Malbuissons was our chosen meeting point with Brenda, a dear friend from Australia who was eager to meet us on the trail. We sat in a terraced bar for a short while until a white Peugot swung into the car park across the way, bridging two spaces with tires that seemed keen to rebel against the notion of parallel parking. As conversation turned magnificently uncensored, Lea, who worked in the hotel opposite, and who had recognised our lack of accommodation at such a late hour, offered to house us for the night. In fact, it was for the next four days that we shared company with Lea and her family, who radiated kindness, love and laughter. The family, comprising Mauricette, Christine, Iris, Sylvio, Madeleine (or Mamie) and of course Lea, pampered us with splendid food, including a fondue made from Comte cheese, a product of the cows' milk produced on their farm. We visited Orlans, a quaint Juran town, swam in a Swiss lake, and watched the sun sink down over the forest-crested mountains that swept our peripherals. Brenda's departure was, as always, both dramatic and saddening, and included a small child dropping a ceramic ashtray from a window which narrowly missed Brenda's head.

After a sizable lunch, and the opening twenty minutes of The Lion King, in French, we bid farewell to the family and left Malbuissons in the company of Lea and her dog, Charlie (Lea's intrigue had led her to accept our invitation to walk the thirty kilometres to La Source de la Doubs.)

Charlie led us through hamlets and pastures until we reached a forest at the base of La Morond, where we set up camp. With a bottle of rose and a hip flask of cognac, the sun was put to bed over fields of cut grass, ready to be baled.

The next day we climbed the out of season ski fields, plastered with gentians and giant daisies, or margarets as we learnt. From Mont d'Or we could see the snow peaked summit of Mont Blanc above a string of cloud. The tough day of hiking was rounded off with a visit to the local pizzeria in Mouthe, a nearby town. Jake and I ate snails before raising our glasses to Lea and her family, the most wonderful of hosts. Within the next three days the Juran mountains petered out, giving way to flatter terrain. In St Cergue we played boules with the locals, in which the France beat England 11-3.

On a hot, humid day Jake and I stepped onto the shores of Lac Leman, greeted by our grandparents. With two mountain ranges conquered, we looked south towards our third and final traverse. Over seven hundred kilometres of the largest mountains in Europe stood between us and the Mediterranean Sea.

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