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Race Report: 2018 Zermatt Gornergrat Half Marathon, Switzerland



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At 10:18am 7 July 2018, under a pure blue sky with the enormous Matterhorn shy behind a bikini-cloud, the gun went off. A few minutes later we were finally released, on a rolling start across the line in the Zermatt half marathon, a point in time I’d been focused on for six months, finally, finally, finally here. We were off!!! Phil and I had shaken hands, wished each other good luck, and were running alongside each other through the chalet-lined streets of the iconic mountain town as folks cheered us on: “HOP HOP HOP”! 13.1 miles of test awaited us, taking us from 1616m at Zermatt up to 2585m at Riffelburg, and I was ready for it, bring it the hell on.

Zermatt Gornergrat Half MarathonIn the holding pen at Zeermatt waiting for the start. Phil had gone rather wild at this point, sprouting hair from his palms, a full-on hill-hunting werewolf! Zermatt Gornergrat Half MarathonWhhhoooaaarrr, almost at the start!!! Zermatt Gornergrat Half MarathonGo, Daft Hats, GOOOOOOO!!!!

Let’s not get too carried away though Jay, as I recall you were more than a tad nervous. Phil ran the race in 2017, with his mate who’d been burned by the altitude and the steepness of the course. The first couple of miles, Phil told me beforehand, are out and back into Zermatt, and are pretty flat. After that it’s about three miles at 10% uphill, on trails leading us up through the forest. I’d done some short sections of 10% on the Col de L’Iseran, and they’d been hard work, I had no idea whether I could keep going for three miles. From there I knew the course opened out above the treeline, with magnificent views, some flatter and downhill sections, and others which were un-runnable, hands-on-thighs at 15% or so. Jules (Phil’s better half) told me the end of the race is a mile like that, up alongside the cog railway, with a couple of hundred meters of flatter stuff at the top so you can run into the finish line.

The Zermatt Half Marathon profile: a bit hilly.The Zermatt Half Marathon profile: a bit hilly. The Zermatt Half Marathon courseThe Zermatt Half Marathon course – it’s only 13.1 miles, my watch was a bit off!

I’ve been running the past few months with an old Garmin Forerunner (a watch with a GPS in it), and had been getting used to the kind of pace I could do on the long hills, the longest being a 9 mile uphill to Les Arcs 1800m, at about 6%, at about 12 minutes per mile. From the off we were swept along, and the watch told me were were doing 8.5 minute miles – too fast – so we eased off a bit. Those couple of miles were over in an instant, the route left the milky glacier river we’d been tracking, and the hill came up at us. I didn’t take a camera with me, so thanks to Phil Russ for the great trail shots be grabbed on the way!

Zermatt Gornergrat Half MarathonLots of hills to hunt on this here joggy joggy!

At the start an announcer in Zermatt had told us to drink, because up here at altitude he said we needed 20% more water than at sea level. I took his advice on board, grabbing water at each of the stations except the last one, which was only a mile from the end. If you fancied it, you could have had sports drink, sports bars, bullion (thin soup), all sorts of stuff. I’d eaten my usual breakfast of oats and nuts, plus a bit of honey as a race-day lifter-upper, 3 hours beforehand, so avoided the food and other drinks, the water did the job. Oh, and a cold sponge went down a treat later on. The sun was in full force, although the altitude increase cancelled it out, and the air stayed beautifully cool.

The first ten-percenter had lots of folks walking, but all those hilly half marathons were in me, in my legs and head, and I was so happy to discover I could jog along without busting my lungs, and steadily got to the top at about 5.8 miles, and off out into the open. Phil had told me to remember to look up, to enjoy what was happening around me, and I remembered his words. The trails were tight in places, with sections of uneven rocks, dust and gravel, tree roots and streams, so some looking down is mandatory if you don’t want to break and ankle, but the scenery and the sensation of running with a pack of people were extra-ordinary. Out of this world, folks, I felt pure joy at it, but kept checking my watch to see how many miles were left!

Zermatt Gornergrat Half Marathon

As the course levelled off for a mile or so, and I could start to run more easily, steadily overtaking folks, being amazed at the marathon and Ultra marathon runners who came flowing past me. Jules later told me my overall position improved throughout the race, using an app tracker the race organisers provided for free, which showed when we crossed a number of timing points along the course. The marathoners had got 13 miles in their legs before reaching Zermatt, from their start further down the valley at St Niklaus, and we’d merged onto the same course as them when we were released to coincide with the leaders coming through.

With that mile over the trail narrowed and kicked upwards for about half a mile. I’d been worried about working out which bits I should try and run, but needn’t have bothered: no-one was running this stuff. Hands went on knees and we all formed a giant caterpillar of plodders, hearts hammering, lungs pulling in as much of the thinning air as we could, just clawing away the trail. Eventually it dropped and we were again released, hopping over rocks, my mind-voice uttering a fair few expletives as I nearly went over! A bloke flew past me at one point, I swear his feet didn’t touch the crazy slabs of rock, respect! Phil told me later on he’d seen a guy along this section being given CPR. He’d stopped to help but the organisers were on it, and a helicopter came in quickly. We’ve not heard if the bloke survived, and of course wish him the very best of luck.

Phil had to stop every now and again to let the pack catch him up.Phil had to stop every now and again to let the pack catch him up.

About 8 miles in, the course actually tracks downhill or level for about three miles, and I’d decided at this point to get my head down and run, as fast as I dared. I figured the last part couldn’t be run anyway, and as long as I could drag myself up there I’d be OK. On one downhill section I was passing a fair few runners, arms flapping about like Animal from the Muppets, when my right foot decided to raise the alarm and a few shooting pains slowed me down a bit, although they didn’t come back and I’ve felt OK since.

Although there were long sections of course with no supporters, there were lots of places with support, and the “HOP HOP HOPs” and “BRAVO” rang in my ears, encouraging me along. A few folks spotted my name on my bib and shouted it out, clapping me through, and I tried to give a thumbs-up to everyone who was helping the runners. As I came through the Riffelalp train station, Jule’s voice rang out from the crowd and she came legging alongside the course shouting encouragement. Ju had an array of cameras set up to grab some great shots, saving us a small fortune on the official race photos! Quad bikes were patrolling the wider sections of trail too, and it felt all along that we were being perfectly looked after.

The 'Jules Personal Mountain Trainer' service running alongside me at RiffelalpThe ‘Jules Personal Mountain Trainer’ service running alongside me at Riffelalp Turning the corner at Riffelalp it took me a second to work out the course had just gone vertical!Turning the corner at Riffelalp it took me a second to work out the course had just gone vertical!

That final section finally appeared, and it is the feisty animal folks say it is. Almost two miles of slogging away trying to walk as fast as you can, heart beating against chest wall, air thin in your lungs, legs threatening to cramp up. I kept alongside the overhang to the railway line, after a bit of shade. It felt like cheating, having to walk, but running was just impossible: I tried a few times but just couldn’t do more than a few strides and took to just trying to pick people off by turning my legs over a bit quicker than them. The watch showed the miles very, very slowly increasing.

The long, long final drag up to RiffelburgThe long, long final drag up to Riffelburg

The point the course gets close to Riffelburg the noise started to increase. Folks around the finish had walked down the course and were shouting us on up the long drag and over the top. The trail narrows but eventually becomes runnable again, sweeping around the hill, past a couple of bag-pipers filling us all with adrenaline again for the arm-raised triumphant crossing of the line. Done it. What a feeling!

The months of effort. The long years my Dad’s suffered with his lungs. The dreadfully sad need to have our dog Charlie put down just over a week before the race. The donations and message of support from friends, family and strangers. It all hit me and after I’d hugged Ju I sat on the hillside, looked out at 4000m peaks, and cried. These runs aren’t really about running. They’re about struggle, and that’s a deeply personal thing for all of us. Everyone out there was running their own race, their own struggle against their own demons, their own problems, chasing their own personal peace.

A short while later Phil ploughed his way up the incline, defying an injury which had stopped him running the 7 weeks before the race. That takes some serious mental strength, and I salute him for piling his way up that animal of a course. I also thank him, once again, for inspiring me to be here in the first place. Phil: you’re a hero my friend!

Here’s Phil on the final climb, you can see down to the valley we had just run up from

Zermatt Gornergrat Half Marathon 2018

And that was it. We watched more runners fighting their way into the finish, supped our 0.0% Heineken handed out at the finish, posed for a few photos and hugged each other. The racer’s numbers have a chip in them which gives us three days of free access to the railway, and Ju had bought a one day ticket allowing her to get up to the finish. We used these tickets to get up to Gornergrat, where the ultra runners were finishing their gruelling climb and being adorned in silver and gold blankets to protect them against the cold. The views up there of glaciers and 40-odd 4000m peaks are sensational, a more than fitting end to a day I won’t forget in a hurry.

I did the run in 2hrs, 37 mins, was 19th in my class and 114th overall, from about 800 runners. I also raised over £1100 for the British Lung Foundation (final donations gratefully accepted here), I’m very happy with that.

If you’re interested in doing the race, I can highly recommend it! The 2019 race is on 6 July, and entries are open. Have a look at the official website, and book early as the half marathon fills up. I’ve photographed a couple of pages from the 2018 race magazine to give you some idea of the logistics too.

Cheers, Jay

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Tour de France by Motorhome – 2018 Stage 10 in Le Reposoir



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Tour de France 2018 Van Avermaet Obviously I am shouting advice to Greg Van Avermaet, who is in the Yellow Jersey and the leader of the whole competition.

Zagan the motorhome is now one of around 150 motorhomes parked up in the small village of Le Reposoir (N46.00986, E6.53626), the population of which is normally around 500 people. You can imagine what a nightmare the owners of the only shop are having when it comes to ordering baguettes. Oh, and that 150 doesn’t count the motorhomes parked up along the route either side of the village, wedged into lay-byes or precariously balanced on hairpin bends. Why are we all here? The Tour de France of course.

Tour de France by Motorhome aire Le ReposoirLook closely above the motorhomes in the aire and you can see the spectators lining the road up the mountainside.

When we arrived on Saturday we were planning on using the service point, then going to find somewhere else on the route to stop in a couple of days, but little did we know that we had chosen a rather special stage to watch, so the volume of motorhomes was higher than usual. This stage was also running the Women’s Tour de France, which is known as La Course. I have no idea why, but women are only deemed able to cycle one stage, and not even one full stage at that. With all the infrastructure already in place, you would think they could run races for men and women on the same day, if not simultaneously. Anyway, enough of cycling politics, which I try to avoid, the main thing was we would be getting two races for the price of one – winner winner.

The race was coming through on Tuesday, so we were surprised at just how many motorhomes were already in place on Saturday. Most of the obvious and flatish areas on the route were already filled, and as the days passed motorhomes were parked in increasingly precarious positions making the most of a blind eye being turned to nearly all parking laws. We did see the gendarmes patrolling the route, probably making sure no one was parked in a way that would impede the race, but otherwise pretty much anything goes.

A couple of hairpin bends above the village was what we called ‘The Flying Motorhome’

The little village of Le Resposoir could not have been more welcoming to this invasion of camping cars. They had people to guide motorhomes into spaces, many of which were by the roadside, on folk’s drives or in business car parks. Some sort of entertainment was laid on every day and a fantastic village fete on the Sunday, which incorporated France winning the world cup. On the Monday we decided to walk the 8 kilometres of the course up to the Col de la Colombière, which would be the last big climb of the stage for the riders the following day. A ‘col’, by the way, is the highest point on a mountain pass, a road which usually winds its way up and down, back and forth through a series of hairpins to keep the gradient low enough to drive up and down.

Tour de France Col du ColombiereWe didn’t paint this, but I was more than happy to stand next to it! Tour de France Col du ColombiereNearly there – helpful markers tell you how much further there is to go, and more importantly how steep it will be.

For the first couple of kilometres the road wiggled its way up the hill overlooking the village. As we walked up, we kept checking the view to find where we would sit to watch the fun the following day. Once the village disappeared from view, there was some nice tree shade, before the road was thrust out into the heat of the sun for the long drag up to the col.

Tour de France Col du ColombiereThe Col is just visible in the V made by the two mountains. Tour de France Col du ColombiereI thought I said we’d avoid cycling politics! Sadly this was painted many times on the road.

The walk up was hot and tiring for me, but as Jay had done lots of running training up moutains like this I think it was a bit easier for him. The various motorhome camps along the way helped to keep me entertained, marvelling at what elaborate set ups they had with flags and paraphernalia ‘acquired’ on previous Tours. Reaching the summit there wasn’t a space inch of space to be had amongst the motorhomes, cars and tents. Yes, some folks follow the Tour by car, pitching up for the night at each stage. I think it probably gives them great flexibility, but I prefer my own shower and loo. As the col was beyond busy we climbed up a path above it, here we sat having a drink and a bite to eat looking out over the mayhem below as buses and motorhomes tried to squeeze past each other on the newly narrowed road.

Tour de France Col du ColombiereThe restaurant at the top fenced off their parking area, we’re not sure if it was friends only or you paid to park, either way they had the best seats around

The walk back down was much quicker and we were back in Zagan in time for a late lunch, with happily tired legs. That afternoon we chilled out in Zagan before going for a walk around the village. We bumped into Chris and Debbie, the only other Brits in the aire, and chatted with them while people sang and a world champion tight-rope walked above us. A Tour de France souvenir stall had opened in the main square, so I finally got to buy a polo shirt that I had been thinking about getting since I saw it on the Le Grand Colombier, where we watched the Tour last year. This time they had my size!

We took a walk out of the village to Le Chartreuse, the nearby monastery, which was only a few hundred metres away but seemed to be in the different world. In the coolness of the evening we sat by the lake in front of the monastery watching the fish swimming around, you couldn’t hear the village celebrations here, which was a nice change. On our way back we stopped off at Paul and Ruth’s motorhome, they had arrived the day after us, so they missed the village fete. The motorhome aire was full, so they were directed down the road towards the monastery. The spot they found was flat, shaded by trees, had space to get their awning out and had a lovely view; maybe next time we’ll have a drive around before picking a spot to stay!

Tuesday morning was finally here, and Jay celebrated it by having a run up to the col that we had walked to the day before. I prepared food and drinks to take with us, and by 10am we were part of the crowds carrying rucksacks and chairs up the mountain to find a space for the day. We picked a spot about half way up which gave us a fantastic view over the village, and up the route to the Col du Romme which the riders would descend before reaching us. We put out our chairs, slapped on the factor 50 sunscreen and began the wait.

Tour de France by Motorhome

I never cease to be amazed by the mish mash of nationalities who gather to watch this sporting event. Flags from many nations and regions gave us a clue as to who people would be cheering for and numerous accents and languages lined the course. For the next seven hours we would all wait for something that will last about 10 minutes at the most.

The first piece of action came around noon with the sound of a helicopter. A small black dot appeared on the horizon over the Col du Romme, the women’s race was on its way. We watched the helicopter as it danced around above the trees following the riders as they descended into Le Reposoir. As the convoy of cars and motorbikes burst out of the trees they had only one cyclist with them, the rest were quite a way behind, spaced out due to the previous climb. We cheered all the riders up the hill towards us and as they passed the children sitting next to us put out their hands for high fives, to everyone’s surprise the riders crossed the road from the shorter path to high five them. I’m not sure I know of any other sport where that would happen mid-race.

La Course 2018 Womens Tour de FranceJay and I cheering on the lead lady.

As the cheers disappeared up the mountain along with the riders, it was back to waiting again. With the road now closed the only traffic was Tour related. Numerous vans and cars sped up the hill all using the same comedy clown-style horn to keep us from meandering into their path. Official vans with open backs sold Tour souvenirs, the sellers held in with a loose harness so they could move around but not fall out. Jay headed back to Zagan to grab some waterproofs as the sky clouded over, so I took the opportunity to buy a Tour de France umbrella – which I am pretty sure is the reason that the skies cleared and the forecast rain never happened.

A flurry of flag waving and excitement was caused by the helicopter filming all the landmarks for the area, including the monastery we’d sat next to last night and our high wire man, who was out again walking over the course. Then again it went quite. That’s the thing about the Tour, there is a lot of waiting around, at least there is on the stages we have watched so far. Both were mountain stages and both times we ended up parked for a good few days before. I suspect if you weren’t bothered about where you stood and just wanted to see the spectacle, you could drive the route the day before or even on the morning and find somewhere on a flat bit – but we warned, they go fast on the flat bits!

Around half past two a huge ripple of excitement swept across the hill. Adults and children alike were up and waving for Le Caravane. All the sponsors of the Tour have weird and wonderful vehicles from which they throw gifts to the crowds lining the route. Usually it’s just rubbish, €0.50 off some chicken nuggets, fridge magnets, key rings, but the crowd go wild, me included, as in among the rubbish you also get bags for life (I love a free bag), hats, food, drinks and t-shirts. Jay stood filming the whole thing as hats and gifts were thrown at him only to be picked up the woman standing next to him, while I was across the road having no luck because it was so packed. We swapped over halfway through and after giving away the bits we didn’t want we ended up with some snacks, a baseball cap, two tubes of glue (would that be allowed in the UK?) and a cycling top – we now support the Direct Energie team!

Tour de France by Motorhome CaravaneHere comes the Haribo section of the Caravane

Tour de France by Motorhome CaravaneTour de France by Motorhome CaravaneTour de France by Motorhome Caravane

As the caravane left, folks sat down to sort through their gifts and the waiting began again. Just after 5pm a helicopter was spotted on the col before ours, then another. We got up and packed away our chairs – the main event was about to begin. Then the helicopters flew back below the horizon, so we stood and chatted to a bloke from Denmark who had stopped off here on his way to Spain for a family holiday; his daughter looked very bored with the whole thing. He explained he was parked in the huge field that had been designated a car park for the village, but wasn’t sure what time he’d get out of it to continue his journey. We had already planned to stay for another night so the massive traffic jam could snake its way off the mountain first.

Finally, the helicopters came. About eight or nine of them circled above filming the various groups of riders who, like the ladies race, had become split up on the previous climb. We waved our England flags and cheered on the riders as one by one they climbed the hill – some clearly needing more effort than others.

Tour de France 2018 AlaphilippeJulian Alaphilippe was way ahead and went on to win the stage. He is French which on top of Bastille Day and the World Cup win was the icing on the gateaux. Tour de France 2018 Van AvermaetObviously I am shouting advice to Greg Van Avermaet, who is in the Yellow Jersey and the leader of the whole competition. Tour de France 2018 FroomeChris Froome kept his head down as he was booed by the crowds, but we still cheered him on. Some riders where chatting as they climbed Tour de France 2018 CavendishI got to continue my Mark Cavendish stalking which I started on the Giro d’Italia in 2015. Sadly he brought up the rear – even with a small Jay on his arm cheering him on!

Then that was it. In a flash it was done. The race carried on up the hill to the col and folks gathered to watch the finish wherever they could.

We then joined the crowds in a mass downhill walk to the town where the partying had begun to celebrate Alaphilippe’s win, or had it actually been going on all day? The queue to get out of the village was already huge, but most had gone by the time we ventured out again around 9pm. The queue for the motorhome service point though, that was another matter.

Would I do another stage of the Tour de France? Yes, but probably not arriving four days before! Even having vast amounts of time available to us, I’d probably chance it and find somewhere along the course much closer to the time. Unless it’s in Le Reposoir again, in which case I’ll be there to join in the fun.

Ju x

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Bastille Day and a Little Football Match – Celebration Weekend in Le Reposoir



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Zagan the motorhome is squeeeeeezed into the aire in Le Reposoir (N46.00986, E6.53626), just below the Col de la Colombière, ready for Stage 10 of the Tour de France tomorrow. He got here a few days early, and it’s a good job he did. Most vehicles on the roads now are motorhomes and campervans looking for a space to park up along the route before the road closes tomorrow. The residents of Le Reposoir have been amazing, they have welcomed us camping-caristers with open arms, and even laid on entertainment.

It’s so packed in the car park there was no point in taking a photo beside Zagan!

When the crowd surged forward to storm the Bastille in 1789, they would have no idea over two hundred of years later their actions would still be commemorated with fireworks and parties. On the eve of Bastille Day (la Fête nationale in French) the village of Abondance held their celebrations, so they wouldn’t clash with Châtel a little way up the valley, where they were setting off fireworks on the 14th. The poster said to gather for a concert starting at 8.45, followed by fireworks at 9.30pm. We wandered over around 9.15pm to catch the end of the concert, but it was still quite light, too light for fireworks. The council at Abondance weren’t daft, the times were to get everyone out for the concert, which carried on until gone 10pm. The local band played everything from the Rocky theme tune to Angels by Robbie Williams, and rounded off with the La Marseillaise, the French national anthem for which the whole village joined in.

We made our way outside past the bar and Barbe a Papa stall at which point Jay laughed. “What’s so funny?” I asked, ‘Barbe a Papa, is Dad’s Beard. Candyfloss is Dad’s beard.’ I was still confused as to me Barbeapapa is a pink splodge of a cartoon character from my childhood, I guess it was made in France and dubbed over for folks like me.

Once outside there was a little confusion as to what was going to happen next, closely followed by a whooooosh. Then a boom. It was fireworks time. Up on the hill above the village a tiny torch could be seen moving in the trees to set off the display. My oooohs and ahhhhhs were mixed with a tear and sadness. This was our first ever Bastille Day celebration, if Charlie hadn’t passed away we would have stayed in Switzerland to avoid the fireworks. He hated fireworks and we did our best to avoid them for him.

Bastille Day Fireworks in Abondance France

The last boom finished echoing around the mountains followed by a short burst of applause in appreciation. Then the music was cranked up and most folks made for their cars to head home. We strolled back to Zagan and settled in for a surprisingly quiet night. The follow morning just after 7am our alarm went off, hang on, we hadn’t set an alarm, and it’s Saturday. So what was the ringing noise?

Our mountain alarm clock

We had a vague plan about where to head to next, so we set our satnav for Le Grand Bornand which hosts a stage of the Tour de France in a few days time. They were also having a firework party tonight, so we figured we  would nip to Le Reposoir to use the service point, then pop to Le Grand Bornand for a couple of nights, then back to Le Reposir service point again, before finding somewhere to park along the final ascent of the Tour stage on Monday. Of course, plans change.

Arriving in Le Reposoir the aire was packed, it’s supposed to take 10 motorhomes but there were at least 25 in here. We parked up and waited to use the service point. As the motorhome using the services finished and moved off, another motorhome behind him started his engine. I waved at him and pointed out that we were next, then turned around to direct Jay over the grey water grate. The motorhome behind me started to move forward then beeped his horn at me, I jumped out of the way and he just missed me. Needless to say that by now we weren’t happy, as another motorhome had pulled up behind the one that had just tried to run me over. So instead of using the service point we decided to leave. Sadly when it’s an event or space is at a premium, we’ve seen how heated things can get so quickly. Already folks were putting tape across patches of land on the route to stop people parking next to them. In the aire a chap saw us looking for a space and manoeuvred his camping chairs out into the space next to him (like in Forrest Gump: “ya can’t sit here, seat’s taken”), which would never have fitted a motorhome in anyway.

As we left the aire Jay calmly told the man in French that what he did was not good because he loves his wife and would not want to see her hurt – how much do I love my amazing husband. The ‘would-be Ju runner overer’ said he had forgotten to put his hand brake on and it was an accident, I guess we’ll never know. As we started to drive away there was another motorhome coming up the lane towards us, a stand off. Then a local man appeared and asked if we wanted to stay, we said we would but the aire was full, he said he would find us a space, and he did. So we’re now blocking in folks, and are ourselves blocked in, but we’re all here. The same man has been guiding loads of motorhomes into spaces around the village, which has now probably more than doubled in population.

Jay went for a run up to the Col and reported back that it was full, as were any obvious spaces along the side of the road. This was Saturday, the tour isn’t due until Tuesday. While Jay was out I wandered around the village and spotted posters for a disco and fireworks on Saturday night, a village fete on Sunday which included the World Cup Final (which France were playing in) and a giant BBQ on Monday. So it looks like we wouldn’t get bored waiting for the Tour. On Saturday night we watched our second set of Bastille Day fireworks, this time we didn’t venture out until around 10.15pm when it was dark enough, and the thunder and lightning had stopped.

On Sunday we were up early to grab some bread for the local shop, just in case they hadn’t ordered in extra supplies for the newly swollen population. Walking through the main square our nostrils were filled with the most amazing smells. Madames were cooking crêpes, and a huge spit was cooking up hams – preparations for the village fête were in full swing.

We walked back to the fête just before noon and ate our way around the stalls for lunch. We had beignet de tartifles, some sort of fried potato, garlic treat, ham from the spit and I managed a Nutella crêpe for desert. A brave bloke walked on a tightrope over the crowd to the church, while below him another chap carved a face into wood with a chainsaw as the local children did a dance in traditional dress.

But the best was yet to come. A woodcutter competition. We got a space right next to the barriers as the contestants pulled on their chainmail socks. Then before we knew it they were chainsawing discs from the top of a pole before hacking down the same pole with a razor-sharp axe, all against the clock and racing each other. By the time it was done we were both covered in sawdust, but it was brilliant.

Several more rounds followed, then other activities such as twin sawing a huge log, and axing ‘twigs’ off a pole. We loved it all, even when bits of wood were flying in our direction. The finale saw two competitors axe down a telegraph pole height, but double the width, pole – with ropes on so the organisers could control which way it fell, yes there was some health and safety, but not much. As the last pole fell, the church clock struck 5pm and the crowd dashed over the road to the local restaurant which had a big screen TV outside. World Cup time.

We’d seen France play a Rugby World Cup Final a few years ago, where wine was supped and nibbles put on at half time. It seems that the football watchers are a slightly different breed, but the atmosphere was amazing. The national anthem was once again bellowed out, then nerves settled everyone into their seats, until the the first goal around 18 minutes in, then the whole place erupted. After that it was a bit of a blur, and I’m pretty sure 95% of those watching still don’t know Croatia scored two goals, they were all too busy celebrating.

Beer to watch the match, wine to celebrate with.

We got chatting to Paul and Ruth from Sheffield, it’s a small world, who have been living the motorhome life for around four months now. Sadly the conversation was interrupted by the match a lot, and we’ll hopefully catch up with them again in the next couple of days, but it was worth it. The noise increased as the minutes ticked down, ‘Allez les Bleus!’ were shouted and the singing began before the start of injury time. At the final whistle the bar cleared, its occupants now jumping into cars and vans hand painted in red, white and blue carrying as many people as they could around the streets, horns beeping, crowds cheering and shouting.

After half and hour or so, the parade made its way into the main square where a band was already playing as part of the fête. The bar was swamped, wine bottles were passed around and drunk out of, and the party carried on for quite a while.

We retreated back to Zagan around 9pm, both totally tired out after an amazing day. Monday is a rest day for the Tour de France, and will probably be one for us too.

Ju x

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Abondance and the Fantasticable of Châtel, Savoie, French Alps



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She's Flying! She’s Flying!

Zagan the motorhome’s been doing too much stuff! Arghhhh! Right, OK, good, I can do this. I can sum this up without boring the hell out of everyone. Hmmmm…

OK, we’re currently sat by a telecabin in the Alpine village of Abondance in France (N46.27627, E6.72100). The ski lift is out of use for the summer, and we’ve been asked to park here as the village’s official motorhome aire is being used for Bastille (National) Day celebrations this weekend. As a general rule, ski stations across Europe make great places to head for in summer, as they often have free parking, no-one’s fussed by motorhome’s being parked there, they’re in beautiful locations, and they’re quite often free. Many of ’em have low cost or free motorhome parking in winter too for that matter!

Motorhome parking by the Essert telecabin station in AbondanceMotorhome parking by the Essert telecabin station in Abondance

The last blog post came to you from Switzlerland, where we had a couple of fantastic nights overlooking the Valais valley and the pure white 4000m peaks beyond. The sensation of cooking tea or knocking up a brew, looking out of the door to my left and getting hit with the view of the monstrous Dent Blanche (the same mountain’s on the medal from the 2018 Zermatt Half Marathon), pumped my blood up and urged me out for another half marathon run up towards the Col de Sanetsch and back. I’ve got a taste for the running now, next up I’m aiming for a full marathon back in the UK then, finger’s crossed, an ultra-distance run or two after that. Watch this space.

Ju knocked out a hill run too - respect! It was warm out there too.Ju knocked out a hill run too – respect! It was warm out there. The distant 4357m Dent Blanche (White Tooth)The distant 4357m Dent Blanche (White Tooth)

Our aim the morning we left was to head back to France. Why so short a séjour in Suisse? Dunno. The low-cost ACSI rate on the campsites were all ending, so the cost for sites was roughly doubling, but there are a fair few places in Switzerland where they tolerate free camping, or even provide official aires. Our rubbish was starting to stack up though, and 60 litre bin bags were coming in at roughly £3 each in Lidl, as they have a special ‘bin bag tax’ on them. You can’t just chuck your black bin bag in the bins, oh no!

A quick aside: Switzerland’s divided up into cantons, a bit like a small version of the US. The whole country pays a ‘federal’ level of income tax, but you also pay additional income tax which varies according to where you live, which canton your house sits in. So someone in an adjacent village on the same wage as you could easily be paying less income tax than you. If they’re married and you’re single, they’ll pay even less. Also, if you own your own home, you have to add a fictitious ‘rental income’ to your wage, and pay tax on that too. Not that all of this is necessarily a bad thing, as the state clearly looks after its citizens, it’s just interesting to me (more about Swiss taxation here).

Where was I? Oh yeah, bin bags. So, until recently the Valais canton didn’t have special taxed bin bags, which weirdly introduced a sort of ‘rubbish tourism’ as surrounding cantons required the heavily taxed bags. Folks would drive into Valais, chuck their bags into the bins there, and head home, presumably laughing manically. Ha! Valais caught up in 2018 though and voted to introduce the bags, which explains why the campsite we stayed at with Phil and Jules were so shirty about handing ’em out.

Anyway, we fancied heading back into France mostly as it’s just SOOOO EASSSYYY to motorhome around here. The Alps are just as beautiful, the food as delicious, the folks as easy-going and the sun as yellow and hot as Switzerland, so here we rolled, via Lidl, where we discovered mixed nuts, wine, rösti (shredded potatoes) and Swiss cheese were cheaper than France, and stocked up accordingly. Fancying a new route, we headed past the Col du Grand Bernard (which Phil and Jules had used to get into Italy) and the Col de la Forclaz, instead heading west over the smaller Pas de Morgins into the Portes du Soleil ski area and down past Châtel to Abondance for the night (N46.28017, E6.71507).

Heading towards the Zorro-slash of the Col de la Forclaz above MartignyIn Switzerland, heading towards the Zorro-slash of the Col de la Forclaz above Martigny – Lake Geneva is off down the valley to the right of this photo A tight bridge on the Pas de Morgins, otherwise it was an easy pass to crossA tight bridge on the Pas de Morgins, otherwise it was an easy pass to cross

Abondance has an official motorhome aire, a free one at that, although the massive €3.50 charge for the service point irked a few of the commenters on our aires database (really? bring your motorhomes to Britain my friends, we’ll immediately fleece you rotten as soon as your wheels stop turning, and you’ll be loving paying €3.50 for a couple of night’s free parking and 100 litres of water back here in France, LOVING IT!!!). Ahem.

The free aire in Abondance, complete with sat TV reception through a gap in the mountainsThe free aire in Abondance, complete with sat TV reception through a gap in the mountains

Anyway, installed in the aire the satellite dish went straight up (don’t judge us, we could give the TV up at any time if we wanted to – honest), and we checked to make sure we could watch the England-Croatia game. TV says yes, so we waited out the afternoon walking around the village, watching sporadic rock falls on a nearby slope, watching a fellow motorhomer walk his kitten on a lead in the aire, craning our necks at a local bloke’s drone which he was using to measure the car park (and he had a chicken statue stuck to the front of his van), and generally being nervous. We all know what happened next, but the England lads did a fantastic job getting to the semi finals; we bow down before their nerve and skill. Onwards and upwards.

Talking of nerve, during the long wait, Ju had spotted there’s a zip wire back up the valley at a place called Pré la Joux, near Châtel – wonderfully named Fantasticable! As part of dealing with Charlie dying, we’ve been working on what we want to do next in life, seeking out the positives, and one of Ju’s goal list items has long been the Zip World zip line in North Wales. Eyeballing photos of the Fantasticable we agreed: this looks even better, and headed the 30 mins back up the valley. It’s high (very high) above the hamlet of Plaine Dranse, and is in fact two zip lines which take you back and forth above the valley, over the trees, chair lifts, mountains bikers and lakes far below. €36 apiece includes two chair lifts to the start of the first wire, and gives you a decent sick-buzz as you look up and see tiny horizontal figures flying through the air far above. Whhoooooaaaa…..

On the way up to Fantasticable. I was feeling a tad ill at this point.On the way up to Fantasticable. I was feeling a tad ill at this point. VTT (mountain bikers) at Pre la Joux, in full-face helmets and with full body armourVTT (mountain bikers) at Pre la Joux, in full-face helmets and with full body armour

If you fancy, and if you and your partners weights fall within certain boundaries, you can buddy up and do the zip wires together. We were right on the weight limit (150Kg for both of us), but decided to do it separately anyway. Up at the top we found zero queue, stared down the valley for a minute, then were ushered in to get weighed and harnessed, helmeted and (for me with me specs) goggled up. Ju got ’em to relax the rules and let her hold our GoPro Hero4, so she grabbed the video below, saving us the additional (eye-watering) €13 each for the official photo.

Ju: calm, happy, ready or action! Me: none of the aboveJu: calm, happy, ready for Fantasticable action! Me: none of the above… The view down the valley the Fantasticable crossesThe view down the valley the Fantasticable crosses at between 80 and 100 kph

Ju was first up, as she was too slow in stepping backwards when we were called. Onto the ‘launch stage’ thing, they took the big metal pulley she’d been given and placed it on the wire, then hooked her on, got her to lay down suspended below the wire and push back with her feet onto a ‘stand’ which pulled the harness tight. They then called the station below on a radio, gave them the weight and name of the person ‘flying’, and attached a sort of triangular flag above her, which we guessed was to manage our speed. After asking if she was ready, a safety line was pulled and with what I’d describe as a ‘happy scream’, she was off, flying!

Ready to fly on the Fantasticable!Ready to fly on the Fantasticable! She's Flying! She’s Flying!

I watched as she turned into a dot, and heard the line buzzing until finally there was a sort of thudding noise, and I was up. At this point the nerves disappeared and I can honestly say the whole experience from that point on was pure serenity. The flight didn’t feel too fast, and I just seemed to float along above the valley, looking down with a sort of detachment at the tiny stuff below, as the air pushed at my face. It really felt like flying, quite an experience! There was some adrenaline when I came into ‘land’ though, as everything suddenly seemed very fast! A kind of ‘aircraft carrier’ mechanism grabs you at the last second and slows you down with a HUMMPPHHH. Cool.

Coming in to land!Coming in to land!

Ju was already being hooked up to the second cable above me, and I dragged the big metal pulley thing up there for a quick exchange (she was very happy!) before she was off again on the longer flight across the valley. I followed a few minutes later and after escaping the clutches of the photo-booth-flogger-bloke we giggled our way down the road to the chair lift where we retrieved Ju’s bag from a locker and headed back to the van, watching the gnarly mountain bikers below negotiating the steep burns and jumps of downhill tracks.

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Back at base, I had a wee run up to the Col de Bassachaux, about 8 or 9 miles, while Ju cut the above video together and uploaded it on the resorts free WiFi. A bite to eat and we headed off back down the valley again, popping into Intermarche to find its car park washing machines were permanently closed before tracking down a Libre Service launderette in La Chapelle d’Abondance. While the washing washed itself, I made a few forays trying to find the towns service point, and failing. A second trip to the tourist information office sorted out where it was, and confirmed we could stay the night.

La Chapelle d'AbondanceLa Chapelle d’Abondance

Washing done we ignored the tourist office and satnav directions along an elbows-in roads through the chalets and shops, and using a map we’d picked up realised we could drive to the roundabout on the edge of the village and come around the back by the ski lifts – the long way so satnav would never choose it. Finally finding other motorhomes we parked up, filled our water bottles from a free fountain, and had a lovely quiet night (N46.292358, E6.783001).

Free motorhome parking at La Chapelle d'Abondance. The service point's over the bridge behind me, should you happen to be stood in the same place!Free motorhome parking at La Chapelle d’Abondance. The service point’s over the bridge behind me, should you happen to be stood in the same place!

This morning we headed back into Abondance, parked up here and walked a few miles up to the trout-filled Lac des Lagnes and back. As a reward we nipped into Le Mont Jorat riverside restaurant for a slap-up 4 course menu du jour, costing us a whole €16 each. We only had a carafe water to drink, which seems to be fairly normal in France at lunchtime as no-one bats an eyelid, so can’t much complain: two baskets of bread, melon and ham, steak haché and egg-rice, a platter of local cheeses then an apple tart with cream. All delicious, and great service. Bob on – well worth a decent tip!

Lac des LagnesLac des Lagnes Ha, what a great bin-fence!Ha, what a great bin-fence!

Phew! Right, that’s it, up to date! I’m signing off folks!

Take it easy, cheers, Jay

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