Where were we?
Back in the safety and familiarity of St Pierre de Chartreuse.
Where should we have been
This should have been the end of our third week in China. By now we would have visited Xian, Chengdu (where we would have seen pandas) and Lijiang. We would probably now have been in Guilin. We would also hopefully have been very familiar with the vagaries of Chinese trains. And very good at eating everything.
What did we actually do?
After our early morning start to see the sunrise a month or so ago, we thought we would go bigger and better for Midsummer. The Solstice was actually on Saturday but in Harriet’s head Midsummer’s Day is 21st June and in practice there was less than 4 seconds difference in day length between Saturday and Monday. Sunday was, however, forecast to be cloudy, so we nominated Monday for an early start. The intention was to see the sunrise from the top of Charmant Som (1,867m) at 5.29 am.
Alarms went off at 3.30 am and everyone headed into the car (wrapped up warm and armed with a thermos of hot chocolate and a box of biscuits) for the half-hour drive. The skies were perfect: cloudless and studded with stars.
As with many of our well-laid plans though, it didn’t go quite as intended. As we travelled up the road, the clouds came down to meet us. By the time we were getting out of the car we were in thick fog. We know the path well, so following it wasn’t hard, one step in front of the other. Up into the cloud, we went, the pools of light from our headtorches bouncing in front of us. We could hear the jangling of the cow bells but not locate them.
There was an unspoken hope that either the cloud would clear or we would come out above it, but it was not to be. The summit was wet and cold and the view non-existent. The hot chocolate was all the more welcome for it. Sunrise was also, we discovered, not until 5.49.
Having reached the top at about 5.10, we decided not to hang around for a sunrise we were unlikely to see, and as we descended, the skies lightening around us, the sun suddenly broke through.
It wasn’t the sunrise, as such, but it was pretty close and it was very beautiful.
On Thursday we had a better attempt at Charmant Som, climbing it in blinding sunshine before having the traditional slap-up meal at the Auberge du Charmant Som. In previous years we have felt that the walk earned us the meal. It must be a sign of how much fitter we are that we weren’t entirely convinced we deserved it this time.
Later that day, Louise, a local 13-year-old came round to do some language chat with Lucy. It turns out that she is the daughter of the owner of the Auberge where we had been that afternoon. They seemed to get on OK. Mostly in English though.
Harriet did her annual cartwheel. It was fun: she might have to do more.
This week’s runners up for beasties of the week were rather bigger than usual (and further away in one case)…
The actual beasties of the week were also pretty tame. Sheep are still pastured on the high alps here and they are still moved on foot from place to place along the paths and roads. Some had been moved into Debbie and Philippe’s field (not a high alpine meadow, but still) earlier in the week. On Sunday evening we got a call – they’re on the move.
They are accompanied by big dogs, that look beautiful but which, we are told, would attack anyone who came close (we didn’t try) and, rather less obviously logically, a donkey (with a bell) and a number of long-horned goats. The ewes are still lambing, on the hill and unattended, so there were a dozen or so day-old lambs among the flock. These had to be tracked down and lifted into a van as they aren’t strong enough yet for the walk. They, and their mothers, weren’t delighted to be separated. Harriet and Lucy, on the other hand, were very happy to take the opportunity for a cuddle.
We had another accidental walk on Sunday courtesy of the useless new walks book. What was supposed to be a beautiful hour’s stroll to a pass turned out to be a rather dull thirty minutes. So we kept going and were treated to spectacular meadows, flowers, woods and views.
The children weren’t hugely impressed by the additional three hours but were nonetheless very good about the abortive ice cream (the café was useless) on the way home.
Bored with waiting for our tadpoles to do anything interesting, we embarked on a rather speedier biology experiment and are growing cress.
This week’s wildflowers to excite Harriet were Great Yellow Gentians, the last of the Troll (Globe) flowers, Fragrant Orchids (disappointingly un-fragrant), and fabulous Martagon Lilies like something out of the 1001 nights.
We had a fruit of the week too: the wild alpine strawberries that are glowing like sweets in the hedgerows. They’re better than sweets though.
Harriet finally discovered why her feet have been getting so wet on our walks when Sophie pointed out the multiple holes in her six-year-old walking shoes. A trip to Brun Sports in the village sourced her a pair of lovely new ones in an entirely impractical shade of turquoise. Mme Brun also provided an explanation as to why Harriet has been slipling over a lot. The soles had worn entirely smooth…
We had a lovely meal, with ping pong, table football and the Minions movie, with Debbie and Philippe.
Top garden highlight this week were these ridiculously over-pimped (yet self-seeded) poppies.
Ben had a (sort of early birthday) treat on Tuesday, while Harriet and the children had a constructive day at home. Not just a real done-in-a-hairdressers haircut (though that did happen before breakfast), but a big-day-out-on-a-bike. Hiring a gravel bike from the local sports shop (no true road bikes available) he set out to explore some familiar and unfamiliar roads, including some of the areas we had walked on Sunday. 63km, 4 Cols, 1700 vertical metres and the bizarre Voie Sarde (a 17th century path, which enlarged a narrow gorge and greatly reduced the pain of crossing the hills between Dauphiné and Savoie) provided the scenery and adventure for a lovely (if extremely hot) first cycle of 2020. Empty roads, a lovely lunch and a cool off in the pool on a proud return made it all the better.
A warning light came on in the car as we were coming home on Thursday. Just oil needed, but irritating. We pulled in to the only garage in the area (they don’t sell fuel) intending just to see if they would sell us a bottle of oil. They get top marks for service – they came and checked it, did the statutory humming and hawing, decided it couldn’t hurt to put some in, did so, and charged us….nothing.
Inspired by the cave paintings we saw in the Ardèche (ish) we went hunter-gathering for our lunch on Wednesday. We took Magnus’ friend Sam with us too. About half an hour away you can catch (and despatch) your own trout before having it served to you, cleaned and grilled and with excellent chips. When you stop and think about it, it’s a rather odd thing to do – the trout are clearly farmed and then put in the ponds – but it was an idyllic setting, in the shade by the river, and five of us had never caught a fish before. Two of us still haven’t but the lunch was excellent.
On Friday – with the forecast for very hot weather – we went to one of our old stamping grounds: the Cirque de St Même. This is a natural wide and circular valley surrounded by towering cliffs. The Guiers Vif (the twin of “our” river, the Guiers Mort) flows out of a cave in the cliff, down a series of waterfalls and through the valley bottom. It was not, in the end, quite the endless sunshine we were promised: we left early afternoon with thunder echoing off the cliffs and came straight back into very heavy rain, but we still managed a good bit of guddling.
More guddling today when we decided to revisit the “fishes” walk along the old route de St Bruno towards the monastery. We had done this for the first time three weeks ago in very heavy rain with the river pounding its way through the gorge. Today was totally different. In glorious sunshine we paddled in water so clear it seemed impossible. It was bitingly cold but that didn’t stop all six of us getting our toes (and ankles, and knees…) wet.
And Ben and Harriet finally made it into the pool, to great joy and much shrieking from the rest of the family.
How was it?
Lucy: I loved the sheep, especially holding the baby lambs. I liked getting up in the morning and seeing the sunrise. It was really beautiful, I think even prettier than when we saw the sunrise the first time. Just as we were getting in the car to see the sunrise the stars were amazing too. There were so many of them and they were so pretty. I really liked the wild strawberries on our walk. There’s something so energising about that little morsel of sweetness when you put it in your mouth. I enjoyed Cirque de St Même. I always do. I thought the walk today and the guddling today was absolutely amazing. I loved it. I liked swimming as a family together.
Magnus: I liked the sheep, climbing Charmant Som in the sunrise and table football at Debbie and Philippe’s.
Sophie: I loved the sheep because when all the baby sheep were in the car the Mummy sheep would go “maaaaa” and all the baby sheep would go “maaaaa” together like a choir. I liked climbing Charmant Som both times and the sunrise was really pretty. I loved getting Kevin (the teddy Debbie and Philippe gave us). He is a marmot. I also liked playing ping pong and the meal at Debbie and Philippe’s. They are so nice. The fishing was good fun.
Ben: It has been a good week for walks, and I’ve enjoyed each of them in different ways. I am a big fan of walking in beech woods, and the Chartreuse is full of them, even though it often looks to be all fir.
I was relieved that the sun came out on our dawn walk. It had the makings of a TweedtoTokyo classic – looks like a brilliant plan, executed in detail, ruined by factors outside our control.
Getting a haircut has been a bit overdue, and a neater head of hair has been more of a pleasure than it should be.
My bike ride was glorious, and I had been eyeing that route for years, though some saddle adjustment is needed next time – I thought there was something under the carpet when I did morning 5BX sit ups the next day, but it was just a bruised bottom…
Aurora: Fishing, guddling, seeing the sheep, Debbie and Philippe are really nice – I love being with them, getting Kevin, omelettes, making a cake, cleaning the pool, ping pong.
Harriet: My favourite moment of this week was either cuddling the lamb – we had sheep when I was a child and it was amazing how familiar it felt – or sitting on a rock in the middle of the Guiers Mort this afternoon. The water was so extraordinarily clear and fresh and seemed both eternally unchanging, almost solid, and yet endlessly different and alive. Pictures don’t do it justice.
I loved our meals out too. We had a fabulous time with Debbie and Philippe, who seem to have featured large in this weeks post. They have become fabulous friends and we are very lucky to have met them and to have been made so welcome, not just by them, but by so many others in the village. I enjoyed the fishing too – although I wasn’t allowed actually to hold a rod. I am quite proud of how unsqueamish I was about the necessary nasty bits of fishing. (Apologies to any vegetarians). And Charmant Som is always a winner.
Our sunrise expedition was a great example of snatching a victory from an experience that got very, very, close to being an utter disaster.
Aurora: Not having Duplo A and moving rooms.
Sophie: I think I might have lost my Tiktok no bickering streak this morning. And my slight tan has turned into a bit of sunburn.
Ben: I was determined to be positive this morning, and smile, and sail through any complaints about needing to clean the house, but breakfast was a particular needle-fest and it took our walk and paddle up the gorge to settle things down.
I’m not looking forward to leaving here on a permanent basis. Having spent weeks and months (and some particularly bleak days) wanting to be in other places, there feels like so much more to do here before we go. I feel very at home here. I will miss it hugely.
Magnus: All the flies at Charmant Som
Lucy: It was a bit annoying having my period at Cirque de St Même.
Harriet: I’m not sure Magnus is having a great time at the moment. He seems very angry and frustrated and is very resistant to much of what we suggest, be that new foods or walks or even games. I suspect he, and we, will come out of it, but I am finding that hard and not always reacting very well.
As ever, the bickering has been getting to me too, for all that only one of the children has mentioned it this week.
I am disappointed not to be going to Spain. Ben was reluctant and I do understand why, but I just wanted to be in another country. That’s not a reason to take an unnecessary risk, and, as with the Gorge de l’Ardèche (where I was the reluctant one) we are taking the sensible path.
Separately, I feel (dull introspective thought here) that I spend too much time as an observer. I take most of the photos (although I realise I’m in three of the pictures we’ve posted this week) but that means that much of the time, I am not the one doing or living the experiences. It is interesting that my favourite experiences of the last few weeks have all been ones where, for various reasons, I have not been able to hide on the sidelines. Being me, I am beating myself up about this.
How are the tadpoles?
Unbelievably still here, and still tadpoles. We fear that the hot weather and resulting evaporation has made the water in some of the sections of the birdbath much less hospitable. This is a nice way of saying we think that quite a lot of them are dead. But they may, again, just be hiding. The ones in the increasingly murky, but cooler and shadier, sink, seem to be doing better.
What did we eat?
We enjoyed two lovely meals out (with apologies if that feels like gloating to anyone in the UK).
First, our self-caught fish and chips.
And then the always reliable deliciousness that is the Assiette Montagnard and Tarte aux Myrtilles at the Auberge du Charmant Som.
Back at home we were quite chuffed with our home made burger buns.
Lucy and Aurora went baking-tastic and made a fabulous Victoria sponge (which we failed to photograph) and some very large (and very tasty) biscuits.
Tomorrow sees the start of our last full week here, and there will be lots to do to make this happen. We have started booking our stays after Chartreuse, and we will be leaving this wonderful place on 10th July. Our route (North and West in France) is planned, with our departure slightly later than we had originally thought, as we decided not to include a trip to North Spain within our plans. The risks (having problems with getting back into France, Covid uncertainty, not speaking the language – and hence not being able to fix the car or be sure what the ever changing rules are) seemed to outweigh the positives (actually going to another country, being able to find accommodation in Barcelona, churros). We need to book more next week.
Ben has already started washing duvets and bedspreads, with other cleaning (windows, cupboards) planned. It is not all sunshine and mountain views…
There will also be two celebrations. It is Ben’s birthday on Thursday (how bizarre to have had all our TweedtoTokyo birthdays here instead of St Petersburg in April, Mongolia in May and China in July as we expected; when we arrived here we had hoped to be gone by Lucy’s birthday) and we are going to have evening leaving drinks next Saturday with many of the lovely people here who have helped us with so much, and made us feel so welcome.