Sunday 21 January 2018

French Alps: Summer beauty in the attic of Europe

Tignes is an extensive and upwardly sprawling resort in the French Alps
Tignes is an extensive and upwardly sprawling resort in the French Alps

HILARY A WHITE

There's something very Irish about choosing to holiday at a ski resort in peak summer, but hear me out. Outside the ski season, France's Savoie region, close to the Italian and Swiss borders, is a wonderland of adventure and jaw-dropping Alpine beauty.

Landing in Lyon was fun. Turbulence of a sort encountered in Hollywood films made itself felt, causing fellow passengers to begin with bouts of nervous laughter before all-out yelps of fright took hold. These gaps between the air currents were negotiated, and after some shunting, the plane landed to audible sighs of relief.

Leaving Lyon's bustling central station, we took a train to Bourg San Maurice in the heart of Savoie, the landscape swelling upwards as we progressed. Silhouettes of peaks were broken only by the odd orange pin of an illuminated church spire on a precipice.

From there, we climbed by car up the curly hairpins to Tignes, an extensive and upwardly sprawling resort built in stages up to the mountain top. Located one valley over from Val D'Isere, it begins as a small village bridged to the main road by a huge reservoir. Further up the winding road you come to Tignes proper, the apartment towers encircling a crystal blue lake around which everything revolves.

The following morning, our gaze was still directed upwards at the jutting noses and chins of the mighty Alps. Glacial meltwater gushed down the rocky faces from high up, and scattered patches of snow clung on stubbornly, defying the strong sun. Here and there, the mountainsides are stubbled with pine trees and green meadow blankets. Imagining such a featured landscape caped in snow for most of the year was difficult. A young golden eagle circled above our sixth-storey apartment before slipping over the ridge. Winter already sounded boring by comparison.

Tignes itself is not really much to look at. A labyrinth of roadways coils itself around clumps of high-rise, restaurants, bars, shops and sports facilities. We quickly realise that there's far too much on offer for one week to allow, so we have to pick carefully. Not wanting to rush into anything, we discuss our options over a gloopy cauldron of molten cheese and mushrooms called fondue savoyarde aux cepes. That night, back on the balcony, we are treated to a spectacular electrical storm which ends up cutting the power. Adolescent whoops and cheers ring out around the resort.

The next morning, we headed down the mountain to the H2O Rafting centre near Landry. We're kitted out quickly and professionally (in French), debriefed (in French) and given paddling directions by our hirsute helmsman. In French. Explaining "Je ne peux pas parler Francais" is met with a chuckle and a shrug. It seems I'll just have to keep up.

"A gauche anterior!" barks our guide. Nine of us are sitting around the rim of an inflatable raft, paddles in hand, and the river is choppy. We're going at a fair pace now, and on course towards a large semi-submerged boulder. I think I know what anterior probably means, but gauche? With little time to work out if this means right or left, I decide to just watch the girl in front of me. This is known in adventure-sports parlance as the "monkey-see, monkey-do approach" and it works a treat.

I eventually got the hang of the lingo, and could enjoy white-water rafting for what it is; a moderate adrenaline rush, as much about the beauty of the leafy, rocky waterscape as it is about rapids and splashes. Fourteen kilometres and one 6.5m canyon dive later, our topsy-turvy voyage ends and we are bussed home.

There's time for a siesta back in the apartment before we hitch down to Les Brevieres, a biscuit-tin Alpine village, for it is Bastille Night and an elaborate fireworks display is kicking off.

Our next mission was to trek out of the Tignes valley, away from the crowds and into the expansive quiet of the Alps. This was more like it. Heidi, or her French equivalent, was nowhere to be seen but nonchalant cattle with gently clanging neck-bells were present and accounted for. Dusty peaks peered down on meadow plains speckled with yellow, blue, pink and violet flowers.

On first sighting an Alpine marmot (a beaver-type mammal) I froze, making "psst" noises at my companion and pointing inconspicuously lest we frighten the shy creature. A few hours later, we were nearly walking on them -- all about, marmots scurried or watched us inertly from green mounds. With the marmot thrill thoroughly evaporated, we set our sights on trying to glimpse the mysterious "bone-breaker" of the Alps, the lammergeier.

We were extremely fortunate to catch three sightings of these huge and mythological-looking vultures soaring slowly along cliff-faces. The third time came as we sat outside our lakeside accommodation, Refuge de la Lac. Positioned at the bottom of a small valley, enclosed by jutting mountain walls, the refuge was a clean, efficient and superbly hospitable rest for our weary limbs. Between its outdoor picnic area and the icy blue lake sat a verdant meadow where cattle and a donkey (relaxing after carrying supplies to the remote encampment) idled and grazed.

While gulping on a cold one, I noticed the toll the sun had taken. I'd sustained a classic trekker's burn just behind the kneecap, and it was starting to sting. I was also losing some elasticity in the skin, a sobering prospect if you have a day's trek home ahead. The refuge staff were well prepared, and produced a tube of Biafine to heal the skin. The area was plastered with the God-sent cream, wrapped in cling film and allowed to work its magic overnight.

Before we head to bed, we settle up. In order to do this, our host must first treat us to a dram of a warming local inebriant. He then notes what we'd like for breakfast and takes a small amount of money in return for a night's accommodation, a hearty and delicious four-course dinner and warm service.

In the morning, we munched on granola and fruit and sipped hot strong coffee as a chamois, the shy Alpine wild goat, grazed at a safe distance. We bid farewell to Refuge de la Lac, and climbed back up and over the plateau.

With the highest of highlands behind us, we finally looked down upon Tignes again. The lake shimmered as tiny cars beetled around it. The familiar sounds of civilisation rang up the slopes, cutting the wild calm of our trek up in Europe's attic.

GETTING THERE

Aer Lingus operates six flights weekly from Dublin to Lyon.

One-way fares start from €55.99. For more information on great fares and schedules, please visit www.aerlingus.com.

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