Alpineal Tour (leg 2): noble savages in the mighty Dolomiti & the fuckin French Alps
Ich wachte in der Schweiz, in Zermatt. Wir aßen etwas Müsli then backed out of the Swiss Alps to the main auto-straße. We thought to go over St. Bernard pass to get to Italy, but didn't want to backtrack too much & figured we'd save that for later. Passed through some rugged pass back into familiar Italian-speaking territorio. We tried to take backroads to the lake regione but it's not usually so facile o interessante in Italia—mostly crowded semi-suburban roads with rotonda after rotonda lined with unsightly strip malls. So ended up on the autostrada. Ecco la entire route we followed (2158 km of driving in totale):
Pulled off at Como & drove along the lake to Bellagio. Insanely narrow & claustrophobic road hugging the coast of the lago with streams of pazzo side-swiping drivers coming in the other direzione, or trying to overtake within centimetres of you. Stopped in Bellagio for pranzo (risotto with perch from the lake that was rather oily & bland). If you ask me, Lake Como non vale la pena. There are other più bella lakes (like Garda, which we'll get to...).
Took a giro of Bellagio (very turistico & not nearly as bella or ritzy as we expected— they even have this plastic train with cartoon characters running through the streets that makes it seem like Disneyland—everyone in search of George Clooney or his house) & then we put our car on a ferry (rather than circumnavigate circuitously around the fingery lake). Continued on crowded & not so interesting backroads until we got on a small little road over a pass (to Aprica) where things started to get interessante, though it seemed more Swiss or German than Italian (in fact, lots of people in these parts speak German & we were told of towns that would slash your tires if you came from other parts of Italian-speaking Italy).
Continued thru another scenic & isolated pass. It was getting to be sunset. We had nothing really planned this whole trip—just a rough idea we let realize itself. And no sleeping bags or camping gear since we flew easyJet & they allow you to bring little more than a toothbrush on the plane. Eventually we came to a quaint town called Bagalino & found a room with a rickety wood balcony overlooking the paese & montagne. Had tasty fettuccini with porcini (this regione is famous for them), which was good, but strangely in a tomato sauce (guess that's how they do it here). Local vino was good, but a bit dolce for my tastes. Finished off with Fernet (which is populare in these northern regions).
Made a giro of Bagolino after colazione then pushed on. Past a couple of laghi & then down to the shores of Lake Garda, which as i mentioned is more impressive than Como (in nostri occhi)—a big gorge-sculpted lake with waves & lots of wind surfers (it was windy). Stopped at the town of Riva del Garda for a cappuccino & a look around.
Continued north by north-east on more small windy roads, though the region where they grow grapes for grappa.
Large limestone outcrops started cropping up & soon we were in the mighty Dolomites. Back when i was a rock-climber, i used to dream of coming to the Dolomites to climb or at least hike. Now qui siamo. We wound past towering crags & thru alpine forests & meadows, getting a bit lost but non importa, until we got to the town of Canazei. Above Canazei we found a «wellness & walking hotel» called Lupo Bianco. Hiked around a bit before it got dark & then went to the spa which was incredibile—all sorts of saunas, Turkish steam baths, «hydro-massage» jacuzzis, aromatherapy saunas, relaxation room, etc. Totally decadent. The food was good too, had rabbit & polenta & maltagliata pasta.
The forecast was «bruto», as we were warned in dramatic hand-waving fashion, but we set out anyway for a hike. Right away we saw a deer & then the above «rupicapra» (not to be confused with a chupacabra) around the tree-line, leading up to Piz Boè. We were told later that there are only 15 such rupicapre left in the Dolomiti, since a disease wiped out most of the 300 they had before.
The weather was cloudy but non c'è male... until we got up to Pian Schiavane, wherein the terrain startled to resemble a lunar landscape.
As the Meat Puppets said (& Kurt Cobain covered):
Fog & clouds & rain & then sleet started to build up at this point, so not able to capture much on film (my camera was half-dying anyway—on top of the permanent burned in dark spots, now i have to manually jigger the shutter open with my finger & even then i don't usually get it all the way open). We hadn't seen a single other hiker the whole way until we got to the top, where we encountered two Germans completely decked in winter-weather gear. And here we were with shorts & running shoes.
Just as the rain turned to sleet & really started to come down, we made it to the Piz Boè refugio, where suddenly everyone was wearing Dumb & Dumber sweaters & kicking back in front of a fire drinking beer & coffee & playing cards, waiting for the bruto weather to pass. God bless the Italians. We had a cappucce & warmed up some & then went back out, but then it started sleeting harder & the comfort of the hut beckoned us back. So we retreated with tail between legs & had some hearty barley zuppa & hot chocolate & waited for the weather to pass. But it didn't (or we lost patience), so we said fuck it & went back out into the driving sleet. We got soaked to the bone & could barely see where we were going (at one point ended up on this ledge on the side of a cliff with sketchy metal food holds drilled into the rock & an old rusty railing—probably the same railing Sylvester Stallone was dangling from in Cliffhanger (much of which was filmed in the Dolomites)). Or the trail we were on turned into an icy river. At one point j pointed out that my backpack was covered with ice. Made it to the gondola & even though i had been saying how stupid & decadent they were, i swallowed my pride & bought a ticket & we were down to safety within minutes.
And of course the minute we got down below the weather cleared up & our wetness turned to sweat. We walked/ran the rest of the way (7 km) back to our hotel, even though the trail sucked & followed the road or ski runs or was being used by mountain bikers that almost ran us over. The closest route i can find to the one we took is this one, which is 13.4 miles with about a vertical mile of elevation gain, but we took the long route up, thru Pian Schiavane & Torn Berg:
The best part though was that we had the wellness spa waiting for us at the end of the day. We did the entire regiment, in the suggested order. And then a nice hot meal (tortellini in brodo & some sort of overcooked meat dish).
The next morning it cleared up & we could see the mighty mountains covered with snow (still early September, mind you). Could finally see the glacier-covered Marmolada, which we only glimpsed the day before through breaks in the clouds. We took the scenic way south, passing beneath Marmolada & a lake & more pecore.
After we got out of the Dolomites we followed the autostrada to just try to get back across Northern Italy. We thought to stop in Verona, but seemed too much of a pain con macchina, and we wanted to get some distanza behind us. Somewhere along the way we decided to stay in the Piemonte regione, so we headed down south of Torino where all the good food & wine comes from. Ended up in a small villagio near Alba called Scaparoni, where we found a bello agriturismo, Casa Scaparone. We relaxed & hiked around for the rest of the afternoon & then helped them milk their goats, though as verified from the below video, i sadly never quite got the hang of it (embarrassed as i am to admit, considering my life-long reverence & love of goats). (More goat footage on the Goat Rodeo sister site).
While i was busy falling in love with the milking goat (named Premio), j fell for the sad donkey, that also seemed to take to her. They also had some funny dogs, including this one that liked to sculpt art out of his food (& the first dog i've ever seen bury his food like they do in cartoons).
The food at Casa Scaparone was incredibile. We could smell them cooking it per tutto il pomeriggio, so could hardly wait for la cena to come around. We had gnocchi & rabbit & all sorts of delectable appetizers (all sourced from their farm, including the wheat for the bread & the grapes for the wine (a type of dolcetto, which despite the nome, «little sweet one», is not so dolce—one of my favorite Italian wines).
Toured a bit of the Piedmont region on our way back north. Autostraddled around Torino & back up north to the Alps. Rather than tunnel under Mt. Blanc straight to Chamonix, we opted to take the long scenic way over St. Bernard pass into Switzerland (& then back over another pass back to France). Spectacular & rugged alpine scenery. Back to people speaking French & eating beaucoup fromage.
Got to Chamonix & found a chambre with a balcony view of Mt. Blanc & then quickly went back out while we had daylight. In the interest of time, took the planpraz télécabine up the montagne opposite to Mt. Blanc to get a view/perspective. Hiked around some & watched the paragliders taking off from the side of the mountain. Had steak frites at a placed called bivouac, washed down with a nice bordeaux.
Went on a long hike in the Aiguilles range (opposite the valley from Mt Blanc), kind of hard to tell where we went as there are beaucoup criss-crossing trails, but not really an obvious loop trail. And they make you buy these shitty maps that i'd scan in & post online to save you 5 euros, but it's not even worth it. Voici the path we followed (en noir):
For the most part, we zig-zagged our way to Aiguille de la Charlanon. We hardly saw anyone the whole morning until we got up to the pass & met up with an elephant trail coming from the cable car.
At this point the trail was chocked full of late-risers who leisurely take the cable car 3/4 of the way up the mountain & then promenade the last bit (with ski poles & all the right gear du jour) so they can eat some cheese & drink wine in le soleil. Went by three lakes (lac cornu & the lacs noir), stopping at the last to eat some dried apricots & nuts.
The way back down, we followed the gully further east (col de la Gilere) to the refuge de la Flegere, where we had a coffee then slogged the rest of the way down. Not sure how far the hike was, but the elevation gain was about 1500 metres. Had cheese fondue (avec champignons et tomates) at a placed called Le Chaudron that was fantastic. J also had some chanterelle mushrooms that were délicieux. Washed down with a Côtes du Rhône (suggested as an alternative to Beaujolais, which wasn't quite in season).
Put our stuff in the voiture, ate an œuf on a baguette for petit déjeuner (the French sure know how to cook eggs) & then took the cable car to the intermediate Plan du Midi & then the next téléphérique all the way up to Aiguille du Midi (3842 meters). Call me a hypocrite for taking the cable car, but it was our last morning & we only had a few hours & we wanted to see the top of Mt. Blanc, or close enough to it. They say it is the highest cable car in le monde, but that doesn't seem right. 3842 meters is 12,605 feet & it seems i've been on chairlifts in Colorado that go higher than that, but maybe a chairlift doesn't count? And looking now on the internet there are dozens that go higher. But maybe at the time it was built it was the highest. In any event, it is a pretty impressive feat of engineering, especially considering when it was built. Mind-boggling to think how they got all the equipment up there. It's a totally decadent cop out though—man conquering nature to put himself up on a mountain without having to do the work to get there. Again, as the Meat Puppets above said: «... and the work it took was fun» (only if you earn it).
What's triste is the number of so-called climbers using the cable car to «climb» Mt. Blanc. So, how does this work ... the cable car takes you & your gear 1800 meters up & then you only have to walk the last 1000 meters? So, technically you hiked barely a third of Mt. Blanc (unless you start on foot from Chamonix). Decadent as it is, the views were pretty spectacular & worth it.
We took the lift back down to the mid-point & hiked around some & pet some donkeys that come around for handouts from the tourists. Then took the lift the rest of the way & by this point hundreds of people were queued up to take the téléphérique up the mountain. Got our car & then split Chamonix down the valley into mainland France. Had high hopes to take backroads & find a place to eat some fine country cooking, but the only thing we could find open was some American-like buffet place packed with American-looking people coming in American-sized cars (see also the recent NY Times article about Champs-Élysées becoming the next mall of America). We got lost on the maze of suburban backroads past strip malls & mid-level industrial buildings, no one on the streets except the occasional projects with Turkish or African immigrants milling about. Eventually, thru a very convoluted route, going back & forth from France to Switzerland a few times, found our way back to the autostrada & the aéroport.
Shed our trusty (but back-breaking) Ibiza car, then braced ourselves for the easyJet experience (not quite as bad as Ryan Air, which i have already vowed to never take again). Cheap maybe, but life is too short. Had expensive & crap-ass food at the airport. Finished reading The Elementary Particles by Michel Houellebecq, only wishing the whole while i had something else to occupy my time with. What a pretentious load of crap. And why are the French so obsessed with sex? Houellebecq is all over the map in this book—quantum physics, biology, politics, social issues, poetry, etc. (mostly to show off what he knows)—but in the end it all relates back to sex. Or at least Houellebecq tries to relate it all back to sex. And not just good old-fashioned sex, but perverse & repressed & incestuous sexe, stemming from some sort of childhood trauma, from cruel adolescent pranks where French boys establish rank via homoerotic posturing. Is this the norm for all French adolescents? They may be the most sexually liberated country in le monde, but it seems to moi they are for the most part stuck in that Freudian anal-retentive phase (at least as Houellebecq portrays it).
Nice, right? Bon pour tu, Houellebecq. Et:
Ooh, so fucking French, right? Or then he tries to give a touchy-feely edge to his smug crudeness & says shit like:
But hey, i guess i should be thankful the half-brothers didn't have sex (at which point i told myself i'd toss the book). Most of the book could be summed up with sentences like:
This particular ejaculation after he gets excited seeing his mom naked so he jerks off & then a cat sees him jerking it so he takes a rock & crushes the cat's skull. Nice. Real fucking nice. And this Houellebecq fuq is la crème of contemporary French intellectuals? Get over the whole noble savage bit & move on. That's great that you feel liberated enough to speak your mind, but it takes more courage & creativity to know when to just shut the fuck up.
What's funny is we were observing some French families next to us at our last fondue dinner—the men with their scarves smoking & drinking wine, while the mothers fussed over the kids. The absent look on the guys faces said it all to me, that i couldn't quite articulate in my own head... until Houellebecq confirmed it (in the context of a rather sexist man speaking of his son):
I call your misogynist bullshit & raise you a turd. Not that i don't totally agree, that kids are a trap (that's why we choose to not have any, unlike Houellebecq, who fathered an unfortunate son), but it has nothing to do with being a man or a woman, a father or mother. It just has to do with living your life, rather than continuing to propagate such merde.