After exploring some gorgeous places in Scotland and England last year, we decide it’s time to venture further afield and take Hiro the campervan across the sea to Europe this summer. Stu has a book about alpine mountain biking he’s been re-reading and banging on about since Christmas and there’s been a sad lack of snowboarding holidays in recent years. In short, there’s a distinct whiff of mountain-yearning in the air.
And so the Grand Alps plan is born: two weeks, two thousand miles and lots of very big mountains to drool over.
Before setting off, we (but mostly Stu) give Hiro a bit of a 2016 makeover and treat her to:
- a new wooden-look floor – bye bye well-used grey carpet!
- a fridge – essential for cold beers and stinky cheese storage
- a USB/phone charger we can use without draining the van battery – thanks to Stu’s DIY re-wiring!
- tinted windows to keep us shaded from all that brilliant non-Scottish sunshine
- a new cooker with a (hopefully) lower risk of exploding
- a hammock
- a European driving kit complete with sexy high vis vests and GB sticker
- patching up of several rusty holes with fibreglass and paint
- a bike rack big enough for everyone’s wheels
We also, slightly apprehensively, buy a cheapo tablet for Milo to keep him entertained on the long journey. And it was money well spent, he was a total travel trouper.
After much deliberating over our route, we decide against a day of driving down to Calais and M25 fun, and settle instead on the overnight Newcastle-to-Amsterdam ferry to get us into Europe. Then a drive down through the beautifully relaxed borders and vast, flat landscapes of the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg, past windmills, rolling hills and poppy fields, all the way to the French Alps.
Optimistically we somewhat underestimate the drive, resulting in an unplanned midnight arrival at a French ‘aire’ when it becomes clear we’re not going to make it to our destination any time soon. ‘Aires’ are sometimes creepy, but also very handy, free roadside camping spots you can find all throughout France. The miles and miles of driving are instantly forgiven and forgotten, however, at the first heart-skipping sight of the Alps.
First stop is Samoëns, a pretty village nestled among spectacular mountains, the most dramatic of which Milo aptly names “Gorilla Mountain” thanks to its striking resemblance to an enormous rocky King Kong. A silvery alpine river runs through our campsite, Camping Le Giffre, and the skies are busy with floating paragliders. Happy days of mountain biking, cheese eating and glacier exploring follow.
We stumble across the awe-inspiring Cirque de Sixt, a circle of towering cliffs looming above what feels like a secret and mystical valley of roaring waterfalls and freezing ice caves. As we reach the top of the valley, thunder rumbles ominously, as if the mountain gods are warding us off their turf.
We tear ourselves away from Samoëns to journey up winding mountain roads into the clouds of Saint Gervais, near the Alps’ highest peak, Mont Blanc. Away from the crowds of the valley towns, Les Domes de Miage campsite perches high at 900m, giving us amazing views of the snow-capped summits above and the distant valley floor below for ooh, at least five minutes until the rain begins to fall.
As well as some delightful rainy walks in the clouds, we decide to escape the relentless dampness in a traditional mountain restaurant with a roaring fire, where we’re treated to the world’s most epic fondue and glasses of fizz filled with local boozy red fruits, while Milo puts away a plate of chips bigger than his head. “We’re lucky it’s not too summery to enjoy stuffing our faces with winter snowboarding food” I say happily to Stu, through mouthfuls of cheese. I’m very good at finding silver linings.
We also explore Chamonix – albeit minus the famous views of Mont Blanc – and find a great swimming pool and many creperies and ice cream shops. We opt out of a ride on the massive L’Aiguille du Midi cablecar, not wanting to fork out for a trip up the mountain for a closer view of the clouds, although plenty of other tourists seem to be willing to stump up for the experience.
Our sogginess starts to become a little fragrant, so we head back down the mountains to dry out on the warm shores of the vividly blue Lac d’ Annecy. We briefly consider splashing out on a fancy campsite in the hope of finding tumble driers but the formal, barricaded entrances put us off and we head to the relaxed and peaceful Camping le Solitaire du Lac instead, with its lakeside location and leafy pitches (perfect for stringing up many makeshifts washing lines)
With beautiful tree-lined promenades to stroll along, the lake is alive with people enjoying their lucky location. I find myself envying the rich ill folk of the 1920’s, who convalesced from their fevers (and swoons or whatnot) in the grand lakeside hotels here. We accidentally disturb the peace of a sedate, silver-haired boat trip by bringing a sugar-fuelled Milo on board but otherwise have a brilliant time splashing around by the lake.
When the rain inevitably finds us, we wander the narrow streets and canals of the mini-Venice that is Annecy’s Old Town, devouring tartiflette (delicious and very healthy potato, cheese and bacon concoction, look into it) and patisserie that could be mistaken for works of art.
When our time in the Alps comes to an end we bid the beautiful mountains a sad farewell and travel back up to Amsterdam to catch our ferry. With a free day to explore the city we’ve been meaning to visit since our student days, we’re excited about spending some time in this funky city.
In all honesty however, taking a four year old around Amsterdam is a terrible plan! We find ourselves in peak stag party season and the task of steering Milo through party-goers and the iconic (yet cut-throat) Amsterdam bicycle lanes is quite a challenge. Unlike his parents, Milo is unfazed – and particularly loves meeting a group of stags dressed as Smurfs.
Amsterdam’s cool jumble of buildings, bars, cafes and shops is exciting however, and the discovery of chips with satay sauce is a very happy one. Away from the main streets we found lovely little canals to explore, with trendy Dutch design shops to browse, every imaginable food you could wish for (who’d have thought a break from cheese and wine would be welcome), and hundreds of canal boats to wave at.
And so we arrive back home. Perhaps we didn’t have blue skies and clear views every single day (and the irony of the sunny weather we enjoyed on our Scottish trips wasn’t lost on us) – but we did learn to revel in the quiet days when the rain drums on the roof of the campervan and fat droplets race each other down the windows. With our little red kettle boiling merrily on the stove and the floor of the van scattered with colourful Lego pieces, its a lovely place to lie in wait for the clouds to part momentarily and reveal the lofty mountains above. Even stolen glimpses of the majestic Alps are more than worth braving a little drizzle for.
The slow pace of campervan life in a beautiful country with so many delicious things to eat and drink proved very restorative for the mind. If not quite so beneficial for the waistline…
Epilogue: Hiro waited a whole two weeks after our return before her fuel tank decided to fall off. A fact we’re eternally grateful for.