There’s more to the Alps than Mt Blanc

On a last minute whim, I booked an Exodus walking holiday at the end of August to the Queyras. I’m sure most of you are already wondering, just like me, where on earth the Queyras is, although the sharper tools in the rack will probably have guessed from the title of this piece that it’s somewhere in the Alps. To be more precise, it’s a relatively little-known (by everyone other than the French) part of the Alps in South-East France, just across the border from Turin, stretching around the town of Briancon and bordering on the other (possibly slightly better-known) national parks les Ecrins and Vallouise. Don’t worry if that doesn’t help much, the main idea is that it’s in the Alps, in France, and quiet.

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The brochure was actually a little bit underwhelming, especially in terms of the photos which really didn’t do this trip justice. What attracted me was a week of fairly strenuous walking in the mountains, with some scrambling thrown in for good measure, in what I hoped would be good weather. A last-ditch attempt to get a bit of sunshine at the end of the summer. Because I’d been expecting to be out of action during August and September due to (yet more) shoulder surgery, I hadn’t planned any active holidays, but since nothing seemed to be forthcoming from the hospital on that front, I decided to search for a last-minute trip and this was one of the few which fitted the bill and still had availability.

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Stunning colours on the hills

As regular readers of this blog will know, I like to push myself physically and mentally on my holidays (I realise for some this is a weird definition of holiday), and fully expected it to fulfil such needs. Of course, I then worried for the remaining couple of weeks before the trip about whether I’d be fit enough, and threw in a few extra spin classes at the gym to be sure. As usual, I needn’t have worried unduly, as I was perfectly fine, even if not the fittest member of the group by a long stretch, and was surprised to find at the end of each day that I still have plenty of energy left and could still have done more ascent or a few more hours. The benefit of having lots of very fit friends is that I always tend to underestimate my fitness in comparison, so it’s always nice to find out I’m not totally useless.

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Ready for action and full of energy!

So anyway, on to the important stuff. What was the trip – and the Queyras – actually like? I hardly know where to start. The scenery in particular far exceeded my expectations. Round almost every corner was a spectacular view with plenty of diversity, from tranquil lakes to jagged edges to slippery scree ascents to rolling pastures. I was particularly looking forward to the scrambling sections, as one of my favourite activities, and on day 2 I was not disappointed. Although the scrambling itself was not particularly challenging, it was still great fun, and the frisson of danger thrown in for good measure on a couple of steep and narrow ridge ascents ticked all the boxes.

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Scrambling fun

My only “criticism” of our guide Yves from France Outdoors (and it’s really not a criticism) was that I like the whole mental and physical challenge of figuring out the best route and manoeuvres myself on the scrambling sections (see my recent post on climbing) rather than being told exactly where to put my feet and hands on every step! Of course, he was only trying to help and to make sure that we got up and down safely. And sometimes it was very useful to have suggestions, of course. I really can’t fault Yves for his splendid guiding on the trip, however. I was particularly pleased to be able to put to good use some of the bouldering techniques I’d learnt from Will on his rock climbing course the previous week. Yves reiterated Will’s constant advice about trusting our feet in his own inimitable (OK, we may have imitated it occasionally when he wasn’t looking) style: “be heavy on your feet, like elephants”. I was fine with this, as I can generally manage to resemble an elephant – much easier than emulating a ballerina anyway. Actually elephants are not at all heavy on their feet and walk on their tiptoes, avoiding pressure on their heels (fun fact of the day). In fact, Yves may not have actually told us to walk like elephants, I probably just added that bit in my head. My years of ballroom dancing taught me all about the importance of foot pressure through the floor and weight transfer, even if I’m still sometimes a bit nervous about trusting my feet on wet rock.  In case you’re wondering, I learnt nothing from ballet classes when I was 6 apart from that I was rubbish at looking like a ballerina but excellent at looking like an elephant. But as usual, I digress.

So back to the Queyras. I was equally not disappointed by the other important aspect of the trip: sampling the French culinary delights and local hospitality. I probably love France more than any other European country (apart from England, but it’s a close-run thing), and speak almost fluent French (it was once, but I’ve forgotten a lot), yet for some reason I never seem to go on holiday there any more. I certainly remembered why I love it so much, especially the more rural parts. We stayed in a number of small gites and mountain huts, each delightful in their own way and a little bit quirky, but all extremely comfortable and with plenty of succulent meat, cheese and vegetables washed down with local red wine. I couldn’t ask for more on that front!

 

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The very scenic Refuge Agnel

What will come as the biggest surprise to regular readers, and/or those who know me in real life, is that there were no unusual accidents or even incidents that befell me or anyone else on the trip. Well, other than the poor chap who was ill on the first day and whom we therefore jettisoned for the rest of the week, along with his wife. (We weren’t that mean really – but they did have to leave us from day 2). And a minor ankle injury for me mid-trip, which thankfully got better after a day of pain). Sorry for the disappointment in the lack of swashbuckling tales of daredevilry, fighting death or even just funny stories (although my mum will be happy to hear that I returned unscathed). I’ll have to go back another time and fall off a cliff ensuing in an exciting helicopter rescue (still never managed that one, but there’s a first time for everything), or at least get attacked by a giant man-eating marmot just to add a bit more spice to the blog, otherwise you’ll all get bored of living my adventurous pursuits vicariously. I’ll try harder next time. We did see lots of marmots, in case you were wondering.

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Some of the death-defying ridges we traversed

I could mention the entertaining characters I met on the trip, but it would be unfair to talk about Alan’s hours of packing and unpacking his bags and creating a floordrobe every night and morning, the snoring dramas (if you’re going a trip involving group sleeping arrangements, it’s par for the course – see my  top tips for staying in a hostel), the daily linguistic definition challenge from yours truly (and the great answers provided), the attempt to send anniversary flowers, the “bee shepherd”, the (poor) attempts at colour coordination on the hill, the stories about shepherd dogs and dragons, and much more. The most important thing I learnt on the trip, however, was never to lick green rocks.

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