Today for something different, I’d like to take you on a journey… through the French and Italian Alps. It’s not exactly Christmas in July, but it is “winter in June”. Care to join me?
We’d been driving since mid afternoon, having crossed nearly the entire width of France, and darkness fell shortly before we approached the outskirts of Geneva.
Curious stretch of road, this portion of the A40. As it passes the Genevan suburb of Bossey, motorists are only meters from the Swiss border, while still in France. It stays like this for only a kilometer or two, before coming to Annemasse, where a sharp turn to the right ushers you into the valley traced by the Arve River. You are entering the Pays du Mont Blanc or Mont Blanc country.
As night falls quickly, not only in winter but particularly so in the mountains, we saw little of the mountains that first night, save a line separating black from navy blue, much higher than you’d normally expect to see the horizon.
It was so subtle that the kids, who’d never seen mountains before in real life, were almost more impressed by this “non-view”: Impressed in the sense that it made an impression on them. They could make out no detail so the one and only thing they knew about the mountains, at this point, was that they must be absolutely massive!
A child’s sense of wonder is a beautiful thing to behold. Our youngest, 10 at the time, was beside himself in awe. “How could ANY-thing be THAT big!?” he spouted from the back seat, glued to the window, scanning for any visible cues to help paint a more detailed picture.
“Just wait until tomorrow morning.” I said, from the front.
We got checked into a hotel that would’ve been – in my opinion – overpriced for a family of five who, according to local fire codes (no doubt consistently evoked in an effort to increase revenue) would not be able to occupy a single room, but would require two in stead.
(Gone are the days when three kids piled into one bed, for a quick night in transit.)
Still, the night-staff was able to find a promo-code that we’d have been able to use had we booked online, rather than simply price-checking online and calling in the reservation by phone. He met us in the middle and I was grateful for his efforts.
When we knocked on the kids’ door the next morning, they were already excited by what they saw. Their room had a view directed further up the valley and, while they couldn’t actually see Mont Blanc (being too close to the smaller ridges), they could see mountain tops covered in snow as the morning sun caught their tips, high above the valley.
A snowball fight was the first order of the day.
Being from Canada we knew snow but having lived in western France for a couple of years we were in snow-withdrawal. So while Liz & I packed the trunk, the kids play was signaled by peels of laughter mixed with cries of satisfied victory as the projectiles hit their mark.
“Ha! …take THAT!”
Once in the car, my wife pulled out the yogurts and sweet breads she’d packed, so as to avoid the extra 40€ cost of continental breakfast for five at the hotel.
So began our daylight experience of the mountains.
We exited the hotel, passed the Bossons Glacier and started up the switchback road that would bring us to the Mont Blanc tunnel; nearly twelve kilometers (7.4 miles) of two-lane road hewn out through bedrock, itself kilometers beneath the summit of the mountain that lent its name to this stretch of road.
Twelve kilometers. Through the base of a mountain… Think about that for a moment.
We would drive through 115 tunnels between France and Pisa, our Tuscan destination: the shortest was forty meters (120′) but this one, beneath Mont Blanc, was without question the longest. Kilometer marker after kilometer marker, ceiling light after ceiling light, we advanced. Had we been driving faster it would’ve had the effect of a strobe light, but speed is limited and highly regulated. Any accident in this tunnel would have a grave impact on cross-border traffic and trade, potentially closing the border for days.
When we saw the proverbial “light at the end of the tunnel” we emerged to an Italian border crossing overlooking the village of Courmayeur, entry point to the Val d’Aosta.
It was the first time my wife had been back to her country of citizenship in over fifteen years. My daughter had been to Italy as a baby, but the boys never had. Of course we took a picture beneath the square blue sign, emblazoned with the twelve yellow stars of Europe and, written in a proud but simple arial-like font… ITALIA.
The day was young and only one side of the valley was lit, and slightly warmed, by the rays of the morning sun. The other side of the valley would stay in the shadow for most, if not all of the day.
Winter in the mountain valleys must be tough slugging for people on the shadow-side of the valley. Even as we drove and as the day progressed – noon, 1:00 p.m., 2:00 p.m. – the western and south-western side of the valley to our right, remained in the shadow of the mountains behind them. The “morning” frost on the fields and roofs stayed visible long after it had melted on the sun-bathed side.
In winter there is very little vivid color as you traverse the valley: The cliffs are grey, any evergreen forests are dark green (rendered black on the shadow side), the vineyards adorning a multitude of tiny rocky terraces vary between grey and brown and the houses – with their grey slate roofs – are the color of the earth around them, with the occasional veering off toward shades of pale yellow.
The color of the earth, this describes the Val d’Aosta quite well. The only vivid color that you’ll see, and even then the day must be fine, will be the clear and deep blue sky.
I’m not sure what it is, because there is no evidence of heavy pollution, but some kind of haze hangs in the air in winter. As the sun peers over the mountains to your right, its rays highlight that haze… bands of light that further underscore the darkness of the shadow-side.
End of the Alps
By the time you reach Ivrea, the mountains have given way to foothills which, themselves are yielding to the flatlands which span the eastern Piedmont and lower Lombardy provinces, in particular following the Po River lowlands.
You’ll come into more foothills as you approach Genova, leading to the Apenine mountain range, which invariably means more tunnels, but that, dear reader, is for another post.