Not having a rigid route plan on our travels means that we get to choose our waypoints as we go. So when Her Worshipful Navigating Troutess & Chief Satnav Queen studied the map and suggested we visit Chamonix, I thought she’d lost it. Chamonix? Isn’t that a ski-resort? Like, in the Alps? With deep icy snow and rutted roads? Very high up? Surely not.
But yes, there it was, lying happily slap bang on a sensible route between where we were and where we wanted to be. So, yes, let’s go to Chamonix, to a small, delightful, riverside, well-wooded, friendly, family-run campsite, the poetically named Camping de la Mer de Glace, within easy cycling distance of Chamonix itself. Bright sunshine and no sign of snow greeted us – although we struggled to view anything on arrival as our eyes were still watering from having paid over 60 euros to get through the Mont Blanc tunnel – the existence of which we’d both managed to miss on the map!
In lilting English, spoken with a fascinating blend of French and Irish accents, we were welcomed by a diminutive Receptionist (who turned out to be the owner) and who – despite the fact that the whole camp was due to close for the season the day after our visit – welcomed us warmly. Included in the simple formalities was an order taken for our choice of delivered bread the following morning and the suggestion that pitch 52 would provide decent views and electric hook-up.
OMG! And that’s not a reaction to the supply of electricity, valued though it always is. In the bright, mid-afternoon sunshine and profiled in majestic high-altitude splendour against yet another cloudless cobalt blue sky, Mont Blanc – royally iced with a coating of brilliant white snow – was just there, in our direct line of sight from the door of the Knumptywagen – and simply breath-taking in its scale, dominance and mountainous beauty.
And the more we looked, the more the snow-capped Alps became a huge wrap-round painted backdrop canvas glimpsed through gently swaying foreground pine-green trees – magnificently unreal in their sheer reality. Bikes are readied so let’s go and experience the novelty of a ski-resort without any snow yet encircled by snowclad mountains. Out of the camp on a forested track which ran alongside a fast flowing and frost-white L’Arve, a river which was – in mid-September – already the harbinger of winter with its glacier-cold aura filling the tree-lined valley through which we cycled.
Chamonix was buzzing. A bric-a-brac street market was just wrapping up and the town was enjoying every attribute we recalled from our own fond memories of well-earned apres-ski sessions. Bars and pavement cafés were thriving; pedestrianised streets were thronged – although there was a strange muteness from the lack of massed clattering ski-boots tromping over cobbles. It was too early for dinner and too late for tea so we sussed out a few restaurants, decided against a beer in the fading sunlight (the temperature was beginning to drop and we were, after all, over 1,000 metres above sea-level) so we headed back to the plugged-in comfort of the Knumptywagen for yet more gazing at Mont Blanc gleaming in the gloaming.
Chamonix was too close and too enticing for us to consider cooking in the Knumptywagen so, as evening fell and having earmarked a possible eatery on our earlier visit, we dug out a couple of well-travelled padded jackets (unused on the trip until now) and set off again on our bikes alongside the now-even-colder river back into the evening buzz of this attractive Alpine town. Well, yeah – our restaurant of choice was indeed a bit touristy – it was in a prime location on the main pavement so we hadn’t expected much else – but a cheerful waitress with impeccable English seated us on the front row, following which she fed and watered us well with gloopy cheese fondue.
Replete and maybe slightly more relaxed than we should have been, we illuminated our bikes as well as ourselves (headtorches are a double-edged sword: brilliant and dynamic illumination but you do tend to look a bit of a prat wearing one) and cycled back to the camp. We both agreed our earlier recce had been well worthwhile as the return journey was conducted in an almost lightless dark-skied blackness through the forest. Which was now littered with camper-vans parked haphazardly wherever vehicular access could be gained. No wonder the camp-site was so quiet – everyone’s here avoiding a campsite fee, but missing out completely on fresh bread delivered to your door in the morning as well as the incredible Alpine views, impeded here by thick-canopied forest.
Which eventually impeded us as well, since we got completely lost in the arboreal darkness, despite our advance-knowledge of the route. Having missed a bridge under the main road and then two subsequent bridges over the river, we were saved by spotting the Mountain Rescue helipad (from where, earlier in the day, we’d witnessed the arrival and departure of one of mankind’s cleverest inventions.) From here we tramped our way back, wheeling our bikes through the undergrowth to find the now seemingly tiny, camouflaged path which lead us back to the campsite and the electrically heated sanctuary of the Knumptywagen.
A blue-skied day; bright stars overhead; alpine freshness in the air; the sound of the nearby river; a small nightcap and a fully satisfied clamber up our little ladder to our sumptuous overcab bed on a lovely campsite in the lee of Mont Blanc. Can you think of a better way to spend a day?