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Nick Jenkins : The Opinionated Traveller

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Chamonix and Geneva

Friday, 26 Feb 1999 08:10:22 PST

Well I've had an interesting time in France. I've encountered Veronica the Chilean mountaineer, Pierre the French train robber, avalanches, fires, Danny and Franky (the terror of the Austrian roads) and the inside of a tiny Paris hotel room which could have doubled as a coffin.

Not bad for only three days.

On my way back to London from Spain, I decided to endure a small detour so I could drop in and have coffee with friends of mine, Francis and Danny, who were honeymooning in Chamonix.

From Madrid I took one of those impossibly long train trips across Spain and up through France to Geneva. The route took me from Madrid to Barcelona, across the border to Ceberre and then by overnight train to Geneva via Lyon.

On the train from Barcelona to Ceberre I made a new friend. A fierce French train conductor set upon the girl sitting next to me and drove her to tears. I intervened and together we chased away the Gallic bully.

Afterwards, we started to talk, mostly about what arseholes the French could be. Veronica was Chilean and studying art in Milan. She was also a mountaineer, which gave us a tiny patch of common ground. We sat on a freezing cold platform at Ceberre and swapped stories while waiting for our respective trains.

At about one o'clock in the morning our trains arrived, hers bound for Nice and Italy, and mine for Lyon. Veronica and I swapped email addresses and promised to keep in touch (with the questionable amounts of sincerity) and we went our separate ways.

Cherish the chance encounters you have on the road. You might travel half way around the world only to bump into someone going the other way. You may have nothing more in common than a fragment of a shared language or a loathing for difficult French railway officials but that's enough.

Conversely many people live their lives in big cities where they don't even speak to their neighbours, let alone strangers in the street. Although it may be a cliché, travelling, while taking you further away from home, brings you closer to your fellow man.

After Ceberre there was a long stretch up through France and into the night. I'd not booked a sleeper so was forced to curl up in the a lounge seats in a middle carriage.

At about 4am, I was awakened by a swarthy Frenchman who slipped into the carriage and took a seat at the far end. He was obviously up-to-no-good. We hadn't stopped anywhere for two hours and 4am is an unusual time to swap seats.

I kept my eye on him.

Sure enough, he sat for a minute or two and then moved quietly up the carriage to sit behind a Japanese couple opposite me. After a few moments of surveillance, he bent down and began to rummage around under the seat for their bags.

Two thoughts rab through my head, "Wow! An actual train robber" and "What do I do now?" I did the only thing I could think of. I cleared my throat.

The man sat bolt upright. He stared straight ahead, presumably pretending that he had been tying his shoelaces or something, and then he peered around the darkened carriage trying to see if anyone was awake.

I could tell that he couldn't see if I was awake or not as I was sitting in deep shadow. Suddenly, we raced past a station and in the flash of light he realised that not only was I awake but that I was staring straight at him. As I fixed him with my steely gaze, his blackguard heart obviously quailed and he fled the carriage.

Victory!

But he did come back twice during the morning. By that time I had woken everyone in the carriage and warned them so he got a very attentive reception. He eventually gave up sometime around dawn. When we stopped at Lyon, he strolled through the carriage, muttered something under his breath in French and jumped down to the station. As he passed my window he gave me a little grin and a wave to show that there was no hard feelings.

Cheeky bastard.

I arrived in Geneva at 6am and decided to stay one night before continuing on to Chamonix. I checked into a shiny hotel opposite the station and dropped my bags before going for a stroll in the biting morning air.

The weather was fine, the temperature just below freezing, and people were out walking around the lake. Couples roller-bladed along the promenade and kids were using the pnods as impromptu skating rinks.

Geneva is a pretty city but uninspiring. While the architecture is delicate, the city lacks a focus and seems to be every bit as severe as the Swiss themselves. When I picked up a paper from what I thought was a free news-stand, a woman hissed at me in the street. Only later did I realise that I should have paid for the paper and only the law abiding Swiss would leave their papers unfettered for shabby foreign tourists to thieve.

Later, in my hotel room, I was able to catch a late news bulletin with film of an avalanche that had threatened to obliterate Chamonix, my next destination. Under the shadow of the needle-nosed Aiguille du Midi the tiny town of Chamonix crouched while a thundering white wave descended, only for it to dissipate metres before it reached the outermost houses.

France was out to get me.

The next morning I booked out of the hotel reflecting that, while very nice, it had cost me about the equivalent of four nights in Spain. I navigated the very organised Swiss public transport system and arrived at the smaller western train station to catch a train to Chamonix.

Chamonix is only about an hour from Geneva. The town is nestled in one flank of the Alps, under the Mont Blanc Massif, a range of mountains that are simply incomprehensible to someone from the flatlands of Western Australia.

They rise vertically for two or three thousand metres and overshadow the town with banks of snow that look extremely ominous. Tiny trails dot the hillside and skiers whizz down them at a frantic pace or haul their way up on ski lifts. When I arrived, there was much discussion in the local press about the avalanche earlier in the week but nobody seemed to be letting it interfere with their skiing.

I spent the morning searching out accommodation and eventually found another nice but stunningly expensive hotel room. That afternoon I went and sat outside in a cafe, in the sun and enjoyed a local Savoyard dish, a glass of wine and a black espresso.

In the evening I found my friends in a hotel behind a restaurant in the main square. While we were talking in the foyer, a man rushed in and asked the clerk to phone the fire brigade. Nothing happened so we finished our conversation and agreed to meet the next morning.

On the walk back to my hotel, I passed the 'fire' but all I could see was a small amount of smoke and a large number of firemen. I kept going. Just as I reached my hotel room I heard the hair-raising howl of the town siren and ventured out onto the balcony to see if I could spot the problem.

It wasn't difficult to spot.

Rising at least thirty feet above the roofs of the little town were gouts of orange flame and I could feel the heat even from my distant vantage point. The firemen, even with the assistance of reinforcements from surrounding towns, were unable to control the blaze but managed to contain it.

A crowd soon gathered in the square and the locals said the fire had started in the historic, and wooden, Salle Michel Croz. The Michel Croz had been one of the original buildings of Chamonix. The fire eventually consumed it and four surrounding buildings before burning out.

In the morning, the police were keeping people away from the main square and distraught locals were wandering around in tears while firemen doused the ashes. The damage was horrendous. But it could have been worse.

I left the locals to their grieving and went to see what else the town had to offer.

The major attraction in Chamonix is, of course, the mountains. On one side of the valley is the Mont Blanc massif and the Aiguille du Midi, a precipitous, narrow spire jutting out over the town. On the other side is the lower peak of Mt Brevent and its surrounding range. Since the Aiguille du Midi was clouded in I opted for the shorter route up Mt Brevent.

Although slightly less vertiginous than the Aiguille du Midi cable car, the Brevent telephrique is no less impressive. Standing at the foot of it you are dwarfed by the nearest pylon which seems to have the dimensions of a small office block. From the large shed behind you, a rumbling collection of machinery pushes tiny cabins the thread like steel cables to the first pylon. In what looks like a trick of perspective the cabins dwindle rapidly in size without apparently moving that far and in a matter of minutes they are tiny specks bobbing around the matchstick size pylons on top of the mountain.

As you board one of tiny cabins (they seat only four people) you are struck by the crudeness of its construction and its advanced, dilapidated condition. As the machinery hoists you skyward you are further struck by the frayed ends of wire poking out of the forearm-sized cables overhead, the rattling, poorly locked door and the extremely hard and pointy rocks below.

Eventually however your palpitating heart settles down and you begin to enjoy the scenery. Breath taking does not begin to describe the view.