Day 1

Cheese, Lots of it, and Green Liquor

Day 1, Saturday, 21 April 2007 – Here’s a piece of advice, take it, leave it, do what ever you want with it, but do me a favor, at least consider it. Here it is, I’m just going to throw this out there for general consumption and then maybe we can discuss it.

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Here it goes…this is the scene: you’re coming down a mountain and you’re tired, your feet hurt, you can already feel the first blisters, you’re wondering how you are ever going to make it another 880 kilometers to Rome and all you want to do is lie down in that beautiful field of tall green grass sprinkled with white and blue flowers. What ever you do at this point, don’t accept that third glass of the local liqueur. Not even if the very nice guy running the Michelin star restaurant is insisting you have some more of the slightly sinister light-green liquid and you actually think it might help digest the plate of 12 local cheeses you just managed to eat. I did it so take this advice from somebody who knows.

The monks take the liberty of waking the masses by blasting classical music throughout the hospice, which is actually rather huge and sleeps something like 150, at 730. Mayor Massimo and I are already up and ready to go. Quick breakfast – bread, jam, butter, milk with a splash of coffee – followed by even quicker private pilgrim blessing administered by Jean Marie the priory and then snow shoes on we are out door and heading down the mountain.

Massimo plays mountain guide, but also historian and he recounts the history of the mountain pass and how Napoleon’s 46,000-man army (plus animals, arms and all the rest) passed here in May 1800 on its way to battle in Italy.

Perfect weather and beautiful scenery make the trek down unbeatable. After a few hours of crossing the snow we make it to dry ground and soon after we hit the first village, Saint Rhemy. We are meet by Renato, the Rai TV journalist, and his cameraman and then the descent continues. Massimo knows everybody so there are many mini-stops to talk about weather, lack of snow and the health of Croatia’s contemporary art scene (that last one’s actually a guess, the local dialect is a bit hard to decipher).

In Etroubles Massimo gives me a tour of the village’s wonderful open-air museum – 18 sculptures and paintings dispersed throughout the village. He tells me about his effort to shift the town, and eventually the whole valley, away from its reliance on skiing and towards a more sustainable art-filled tourism future. Coming May 20 a Rodin exhibit.

In the village we meet up with the Rai radio troupe (which includes Guido Boleffi and Massimo Lorenzo of Radio Svizzera) that has set out today going north to Canterbury. They will be doing a live radio broadcast on Rai 3 from the road every night from 6-6:45 pm.

Massimo’s 485-person constituency in Etroubles makes it hard for us to leave town as they all have something to say to the mayor. Angela, aged about 75, offers the first swing of the local liquor when we enter her trattoria for a quick hello.

A supposed quick stop at La Clusaz, a hotel and Michelin-star restaurant run by Maurizio that’s just past the Etroubles village line, rapidly turns in to a cheese tasting fest. It’s all washed down with Blanc Fripon, which is made one valley over.

I kindly refuse Maurizio’s offer of coffee and instead get the local liquor, Genepy. I really have to start saying yes to the coffee. Maurizio informs me that Genepy is made from a plant that grows at 2,500 meters (“the last before the glaciers start”). I guess that means that I can drink a second one and it won’t really feel like two quick shots of Tequila even though this is also 40 percent alcohol?

Will we ever make it down this mountain?

Actually, yes. Don Aldo kindly gives me a room in an addendum to Saint Orso church where I’ll be crashing but first dinner with Massimo and Renato. I get my fondue fix, for which my digestive system will be working overtime for days and my veins will be doing their best not to calcify. One more Genepy after dinner, it will help cut the cheese in the fondue I’m told.

Trip details: Gran San Bernard Pass to Aosta. 30K, altitude change: 211 meters up, 2,043 meters down.

State of the route: excellent, well marked most of the way and only 1 small piece on a busy asphalt road.

Weather report: perfect, sun the whole day, 5 degrees C when we left the hospice at 8:15 am and 20 when we arrive in Aosta at 6:45 pm.

Medical report: started okay, but the long descent took its toll on the toes and 3 blisters had formed by Aosta.

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