Seeking beauty, soliloquies and great heights in Savoie Mont Blanc
Photography by Tom Bunning, words by Jen Harrison Bunning
Think of the Alps and your mind might conjure up pale peaks and wooden chalets puffing merry little smoke plumes from their chimneys. It’s mid-February, or March perhaps, and there you are slotting perfectly into the winter alpine scene: whizzing down slopes, knocking powder from your boots and sipping chocolat chaud with blankets on your knees and the soft sun on your face.
Think of the Alps and you probably wouldn’t picture yourself in the height of summer following gently twisting roads to explore a land awash with lush green fields and flower-filled plains, and speckled with turquoise lakes. The Alps in winter? We had the measure of that alright, but the Alps in summer was an unknown and delicious-sounding prospect.
So in late August we set off to explore the richly contrasting natural beauty of the Savoie Mont Blanc region. We would immerse ourselves gently: first a dip in the magical oasis of one of France’s largest lakes, then onwards in the path of the brave Tour de France riders, winding our way (by automobile, naturally) along the Relais du Chat.
We’d climb the Col du Pré, swing our way up to the l’Aiguille du Midi to gaze upon the terrifying beauty of the White Lady of the Alps and her rocky courtiers, and end up in the shadow of a sea of ice that inspired a literary monster’s lair. This was big game landscape hunting, and we were off.
Nestled in the crook of the long ridge of the Chaîne de l’Epine, Lac d’Aiguebelette is a shimmering emerald wonderland. With wild reeds, gently sloping banks, little golden beaches and waters that can reach 28°C, it’s no wonder that children from the hamlets dotting the surrounding terraced hills often learn to swim before they can walk.
We took a boat out into the middle of the lake where we paused to soak it all in. With no motorised vessels allowed on the water, the only sounds to be heard were those of the reeds whispering in a gentle wind, rower’s oars dipping in and out of the turquoise depths, delighted cries from young swimmers and the odd fisherman’s barque gliding past in search of lake-fish.
We looked down upon the mill-pond water with its reflections of lush green trees and silvered rocks and then cast our eyes skyward to see a trio of hang-gliders flying silently overhead, their bright sails casting shadows on the side of the ridge as they passed . . .
We were off on a mission to the Roselend Dam via the Col du Pré mountain pass. This scenic, twisting road took us through the region’s highest village, Boudin, situated at some 1,300 metres above sea level. The 20-odd chalets that make up this picturesque hamlet are grouped in rows, all clutching the slope’s edge with their faces turned down and out into the valley. Despite being designated as a protected heritage site since the early 1940s, Boudin remains a living and breathing year-round community that’s kept busy by tourism in winter and quietly gets on with agricultural matters the rest of the year. As we wandered past its wooden huts with neatly-stacked wood stores, taking in a 16th century baroque chapel and community bread oven, we imagined life here in bygone days; the harsh, isolating winters no doubt justified by summer’s soft and curving undercoat of greens and golds, embroidered with wildflower meadows and scattered with gently lowing cattle . .
Unlike nature’s pearls of d’Aiguebelette and Bourget, Lac de Roselend has been hewn out of the land by the hands of men, but it’s no less beautiful for that. This 3.2 kilometre reservoir is nestled in the heart of farming country near the foothills of the Mont Blanc massif. Somewhere in its depths lies the submerged hamlet of Roselend, swallowed up by the dam on its creation in the 60s, but this vanished village is the lake’s secret, its innocent surface as smooth and bright as stained glass . . .
. . . We stood in line to board the Téléphérique de l’Aiguille du Midi and looked up at the lines of metal cable spinning towards the skies. It seemed impossible: an extraordinary feat of engineering, but it was as real as can be, and we were going up there. If you’ve a head for heights you might like to look out of the windows as you journey up the cliff face but I must confess that I remained firmly in the centre of the car, eyes squeezed shut and heart in my mouth as we rolled along, jolting over pillars in great swings to the whoops of fellow (quite clearly deranged) passengers. One down, another to go, and this 20-minute torture ride would be over. As we were hustled out onto the platform at the Plan de l’Aiguille (a mere 2,317m) and once again stood in line to face certain death, several variations of I can’t believe you made me do this and many unprintable words were uttered. But then, after one more stomach-jerking ride up into the abyss, we had reached our destination, de l’Aiguille du Midi, a 3842m peak in the Mont Blanc massif with panoramic views of the French, Swiss and Italian Alps.
. . . and then there were the mountains, those great condors of the earth - Dome du Gouter, Mont Maudit, Mont Blanc du Tacul, Matterhorn, Monte Rosa, Grand Combin and, of course, Mont Blanc herself - with their craggy heads cast skyward and ridged wings of rock cascading across the range to touch a fellow giant.
With our heads in those clouds and our feet unsteadily rooted to the ground some 3,700m above sea level, we watched as climbers, swaddled in layers, clambered over the metal gate one-by-one, slowly but surely inching out onto the Arête des Cosmiques ridge and then down to the vast glacial plains below, growing smaller and smaller until they were Lilliputian in scale.
. . . Montenvers lay ‘undiscovered’ until the 18th century when two Englishmen, the bumptious young aristocrat William Windham and the experienced international explorer Richard Pococke, met in Geneva. Tempted by reports of the terrifying, untamed ice fields of Savoye and its inhospitable locals, the pair embarked on an expedition to hunt down those wild landscapes for themselves. In 1791, together with a band of friends, servants, porters and guides, they set out on a five-hour trek up the rocky, overgrown path towards Le Montenvers. What they discovered at the summit had them in raptures; “you have to imagine a lake ruffled by a tempestuous wind frozen up all of a sudden,’’ said Windham, giving the glacier its name, La Mer de Glace, or Sea of Ice. Five years later, local explorers Jaques Balmat and Dr Joseph Vallot went one further and reached the summit of Mont Blanc but, no doubt to the great relief of the tight-knit population of farmers - who had already ‘discovered’ these high mountain pastures and were eking out a tenuous existence grazing their small flocks of sheep - it was to be another 20 years before the climb to Le Montenvers became popular with the masses.
. . . “This is the most desolate place in the world.” So said Mary Shelley when she visited the Mer de Glace together with Percy Bysse Shelley. She had started writing Frankenstein a month earlier while staying with Lord Byron at his Villa Diodati and it is said that her trip to Montenvers and the strange dreams she experienced while staying overnight there, inspired the dramatic scene where Victor and his creation meet.
I suffered a severe teenage pash for Percy B. S., wallowing in fountains mingling with rivers, sunlight clasping the earth, moonbeams kissing the sea etc. etc., before dumping him for the rather more real and troublesome prospect of long-haired boys of few words, cameras and fast cars. Now I barely recognise that poetically enraptured young woman of my past but, as dusk fell and we stood gazing out at the Mer de Glace, some of that doomed brooding poet’s lines came to mind and there, with the pockmarked rocks glowing red around us, a glinting river of ice snaking below, and the looming night swallowing up the last of the light, they seemed not silly nor overly romantic, but dark and earthy and true.
In the calm darkness of the moonless nights, In the lone glare of day, the snows descend Upon that Mountain; none beholds them there, Nor when the flakes burn in the sinking sun, Or the star-beams dart through them. Winds contend Silently there, and heap the snow with breath Rapid and strong, but silently! Its home The voiceless lightning in these solitudes Keeps innocently, and like vapour broods Over the snow.
Abbreviated article, extract from Lodestars Anthology Issue 9: France