Wednesday, October 2, 2019

Rome

I thought about how to make use of the two weeks we have between hiking the TMB and Oktoberfest in Munich.  It makes sense to travel in Italy because Doris has never been there and there are some places I'd like to visit again, like Cinque Terre and Tuscany.  There are a few ways to go from Geneva to Italy:  by train to Milan, and then to other parts of Italy, or fly to somewhere in Italy and start our trip from there.  Eventually I decided to fly from Geneva to Rome and work our way up north to Cinque Terre, Tuscany and Umbria, and eventually to Venice.

I found a B&B through Booking.com that is about 2 blocks from the Vatican.  Vatican Charme is a 4-room B&B in a big apartment building.  It has a another unit downstairs.  Antonella Monti who owns the place runs the place very well.  The inside of the B&B is modern, spacious and clean.  We stayed there for four nights for about US$500.

I've been to Rome a couple of times and the place that sticks to my mind is the Vatican Museum and the Sistine Chapel.  Sure, the Pantheon and Colosseum are nice but it doesn't beat the paintings by the old masters in the Vatican Museum and Sistine Chapel.  Staring at the ceiling at Michelangelo's painting in the Sistine Chapel is an experience you will never forget.  You think you are in a museum or art gallery but you are actually inside a chapel.  It took him four years to complete it.  Unfortunately, photography is not allowed inside the chapel but you can read about it here.

It takes more than 2 to 3 days to see all the interesting sites in Rome.  It has a very long history.  We just went to some of the major ones.  Here are some of them:

Piazza Navona

Piazza Venezia

Trevi Fountain

Inside of the Colosseum
The Forum
A Panoramic View of the inside of the Pantheon

One of the things I did not do was buy advance tickets to the Vatican Museum online.  For some reason I forgot.  It turned out to be a blessing.  If you did not buy tickets online in advance you probably have to wait in a very long line for perhaps 2 hours to get into the museum.  If you buy it online, you probably won't have to wait long to get in.  However, the B&B where we stayed is near the Vatican and there are several agencies bundling selling tickets down the street.  These companies buy blocks of tickets in advance and add a few euros to the ticket price and bundle it with a tour guide.  You don't have to wait in line to get in.  It is usually a big group.  Ours has 24.  They provide a remote headset system which you can hear the tour guide very well.  When I came on a tour about 10 years ago you can hear a lot of static in the headsets.

The Vatican Museum probably holds one of the most priceless collection of museum quality art in the world.  In the old days the church hold so much power that all kings, queens, rich people of Christian countries give their most precious art to the Church or Pope.  Many of these art pieces are never shown to the public.  Even the ones that are shown are masterpieces worth a lot of money.  Walking through the museum is like a walk through art history.  Without a tour guide it is very difficult to understand what you are seeing.  Our guide is an Englishman and he explained the art pieces and the history very well.  Before we enter the museum he explained some of the art in the Sistine Chapel.  He is not allowed to talk in the Chapel.

Ceiling of Vatican Museum hallway

St. Peter's Square

St. Peter's Basilica

Sculpture in the Vatican Museum

Toe sculture 
Rome is a busy place, especially in the summer.  The tourist attractions are widely spread out.  Even though you can walk from one to another, it is quite a walk.  The city has quite a good bus and subway system.  You can buy a bus ticket for 1.5€ from a machine at a bus stop or a convenience market or stand.  The ticket can be used unlimited ride on buses for 100 minutes.  On subways you can only use it once.  If you can figure our the bus routes it may be the most efficient way to cover the city.  Otherwise, just follow the crowd to where they are going.




Sunday, September 29, 2019

Geneva

Geneva is one of those places you hear a lot about but find no reason to visit.  It is best known as the headquarters for many of the United Nations agencies, like World Health Organization, Commission for Refugees, International Labor Organization, etc.  The headquarters for the International Red Cross, World Health Organization, World Trade Organization, etc are also here.  It is also a big financial center and headquarters for many of the famous Swiss watch companies.

Geneva is the closest airport gateway to the Chamonix Valley where we started our TMB hike.  We didn't have time to stop in Geneva before but after the hike, I figured it is worth spending at least a day here.  So I booked a room in the old city that is close to all the popular tourist sites.  After Mountain Drop-off, the shuttle company that took us to and from Chamonix, dropped us off at the Geneva airport, we stored our big suitcases in the lockers at the train station next door to the airport.  It was a very simple process:  picked the locker that is the right size for your luggage, insert your credit card, and get a receipt with a QR code.  It is very important to keep the receipt because you will need it the next day to open your locker.  We paid a base rate of 9€.  The next day when we picked up our luggage, we paid whatever is extra with the same credit card.

Google Map instructed us to take the No. 5 or 10 bus to near to the hotel.  Someone at the train station told us, wrongly, that the train will take us there as well.  The train did take us to the city center of Geneva but it's not close enough to the hotel.  So we had to take the bus to near the hotel and walked about 10 minutes to the Hotel Central.  The hotel is located in an office building, on the 6th floor.  The room is very small.  Good thing we kept our big suitcases at the train station.  The hotel receptionist gave us a bus/train/boat pass that is good for all travels around the city.  Because the hotel is so small it didn't have a dining room.  So we were served a simple breakfast of croissant and coffee brought to our room in the morning at the time we requested.

Night Scene in Geneva

Lockers at the Geneva Train Station

Yellow taxi boats to take you around Lake Geneva

Building where Hotel Central is located on the 6th Floor
We took advantage of the pass by first riding on water taxis to different places around the lake.  First, we went to the other side of the lake where the Botanical Gardens is located and near the United Nations agency offices.  The first thing you see on this famous lake is the Water Fountain or Jet d'Eau.  There are also many beautiful swans swimming around the lake.  We also walked to the United Nations offices where we saw a big group of Sri Lankans protesting the "genocide of Tamils in Sri Lanka."  Tamils are a minority in Sri Lanka and have traditionally been marginalized.  In the square is also the famous Broken Chair which symbolizes opposition to land mines and cluster bombs.

Famous Jet d'Eau on Lake Geneva, with yellow water taxi and white swan

White Swans on the Lake

Broken Chair, in from of the Palace of Nations
The next morning we walked around the lake some more and found the famous Flower Clock or in French, L'horloge Fleurie.


Next we walked around the old city of Geneva with its many old buildings and rich history.

A passageway

A popular square with restaurants

Some of the older buildings

A concert hall
It was a short but nice visit.  One thing you have to remember when traveling around Switzerland is, everything is expensive.  We met a group of hikers from Hong Kong on the TMB and befriended one of the ladies, Liza.  We went to a Japanese restaurant with her for dinner in Geneva.  The cost of a bowl of ramen noodle was about 24€, three times more expensive than what it'd have costs in Phoenix.  

Friday, September 27, 2019

Final Thoughts on Tour du Mont Blanc 2019

It is a huge relief when it's all over.  The day after we finished we relished the opportunity to relax, sleep in, and reminisced about our trip.  We spent two months preparing for it.  No matter how many times you read the notes, maps, books, FaceBook pages, and watch YouTube videos, it is not the same as being there and experiencing it first-hand.

Here are some questions that you may ask?

1.  Was it worth it?   Absolutely!  You can read and talk all you want but until you actually do it, you don't know what it feels like.  Once you experience it, it's yours and you will never forget it.  The pain, views, conversations, people you meet, etc, are embedded in your memories.  It's a nice conversation starter and bragging point.  Not many people have done this hike.

2.  Was it as difficult as you think?  Much more so.  One of the TMB books and some tour companies refer to this as a "walk."  Maybe the European definition of a walk is different from an American's.  This is no "walk in the park."  This is a serious hike with a lot of climbing.  Some sections may have been easy walks but most days you are climbing up or down.

3.  Is this more difficult than the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu or the hike to Everest Base Camp (EBC).  Definitely.  The Inca Trail has some steep climb to higher elevations, a little over 4,000m to Dead Woman's Pass, but it's only 3 days of tough hiking.  EBC has several days of climbing to higher and higher altitudes, ending at almost 5,000m at Gorak Shepp.  But at certain elevation you have 2 or 3 days to acclimatize.  However, if your body can't adjust to the altitude, then you are finished.  So, altitude is your worst enemy, follow by fatigue, which may or may be caused by altitude.  On TMB altitude is not a big issue but fatigue is.  Every day you are climbing and descending the cols (or passes) so every day you are hiking anywhere from 6 to even 10 hours.  You legs get very very tired.

4.  Is signing up with a Tour Company the best way to do it?  I think so.  Of course there were many hikers who simply relied on books.  One of the most popular books I saw on the trail was actually published in 2015.  That means it's a little outdated.  Also the information in the books may have a lot of information but leave a lot to interpretations.  Fortunately, TMB is very well marked and you run into a lot of other hikers on the trail so the chances of getting lost are very low.  However, you still can get lost.  Like we did on the first day.
You can also go with a guided tour but I think it limits your flexibility.  The advantage is you don't have to consult anything; just follow the guide.  Not only that, some tour companies don't actually do the entire circuit.  They offer a 7 or 8 day hike, but only on selected sections of the route.  Some of them are exorbitantly expensive!  So, shop around if you prefer this method.
We like the self-guided tour.  It gives us maximum flexibility, in terms of scheduling and how long we want to hike.  If we want to take the bus, then, do it.  It also makes it a little more challenging because we have to read and figure out some of the routes.  Although the notes by Alpine Exploratory are very detailed, it is sometimes difficult to visualize what it said.  Also, I think the notes were written for younger and faster hikers.  The timing always seems to be faster than what we took.  All in all, Alpine Exploratory was an excellent choice for us.  They gave us very good support.  A few weeks before our hike, we had a video conference call with our contact, Ollie, and asked him a lot of questions.  He answered them all clearly and we felt so much better after that.  While we were hiking they were working in the background ensuring that our accommodations are okay.  That is another big part of what they bring to the table - booking the accommodations for us.  With their contacts and relationships with the refuges, auberges and hotels, we get the best accommodations that are available.

5.  Did you pack enough?  We probably overpacked!  Fortunately, we signed up to get our extra baggage transferred at the hotels and auberges that we stayed in, we didn't have to carry all the weight all the time.  I also made a mistake of bring my big DSLR camera.  I may have used it only once or twice throughout the whole TMB tour.  However, you need to pack for all weather.  We hike in September, which was cooler than in July or August.  But there were days that were hot, probably almost 30C and we were down to our shorts and T-shirts.  There were also days, when crossing the cols, that we ran into bad weather:  clouds, snow, rain and temperatures down to freezing.  Then you need rain jackets and warm clothes.  If you can, sign up for baggage transfer.

6.  How about water and liquids?  We always have two 1-liter bottles each.  Obviously, if the weather is hot you go through them quickly.  We also find that there are many places where there are potable available to refill your bottles.  They are usually mountain spring water.  Luckily, tap water in all 3 countries are potable so you can refill them before you leave the hotel or auberges.  But always carry enough water or liquid.

7.  Did you have enough nutrition on the trails?  There are few places where you can get food on the trail.  Once in a while you come across a cafe or hut where you can buy food.  Bring snacks, energy bags, energy candies, gatorade, beef jerky, etc.  Anything that you will give you an energy boost while hiking.  You'll be surprised how quickly your breakfast is depleted and you need more energy to get going.

8.  Did we prepare enough physically?  We trained in the gym after we signed up for the trip.  It's not ideal but it helps.  We trained in the gym because it was summer in Phoenix and temperatures get up to as high as 45C.  We walked or ran on treadmills and did a lot of core exercises.  This is important because climbing requires you to have a strong core.  Otherwise, you will be using your knees and legs to carry yourself up the mountains.  And that can cause some injury if most of your weight is on only a few parts of your body.  Having a robust back also helps a lot.  If you are not physically in shape you will not enjoy the hike.  Train in higher altitudes if you live in a low-altitude area and do some real hiking in higher altitudes to get your body and lungs prepared for it.

9.  How about sleep?  Sleep is very important, especially if you are older.  We are older than most hikers and therefore, we need as much sleep as possible.  That's why we opted for the "comfy" option and tried to get our own rooms.  Fortunately, Alpine Exploratory was able to get us our own room for most of the places except for the huts.  Bring eye-mask, ear plugs, or whatever you need to shut off the noise and distractions, if you have to sleep in a dormitory-style room.  If you can afford it, get your own private room.

10.  Would you do it again?  Maybe....and not for a while.  Memories of pain and fatigue are too recent.  Also, age is catching up and it gets harder and harder every year.


Monday, September 23, 2019

TMB Day 11 - Planpraz to Les Houches

Instead of lazing around the entire day we substituted what is supposed to be Day 11 for Day 10.  This way we can complete the entire TMB circuit a day early.

After we checked out of the Hotel les Grand Motets in Argentiere we took the bus to the center of Chamonix.  Our plan, as outlined for us by Alpine Exploratory, is to take the cable car to Planpraz and start Day 11 hike from there.  We bought our tickets for the cable car.  Then I started reading the notes again as to what we are supposed to do when we get up to Planpraz.  Suddenly I realized that there is a 1km uphill climb with 180m ascent to Le Brévent.  Looking up at the mountain above us I didn't think it was an easy task.  Then it dawned on me that we could take another cable car from Planpraz to Le Brévent.  I quickly ran back to the ticketing office and told them that I made a mistake.  Fortunately, they allowed me to exchange the Planpraz ticket to one going all the way up to Le Brévent.  What a relief it was to be just hiking down instead of hiking up again, then down.

Cable car station in Chamonix going up to Planpraz, followed by Le Brévent

At the Planpraz station with Mont Blanc in the background
It sounds fairly straightforward.  Hiking down from Le Brévent to Les Houche is about 8km, all downhill.  However, our experience was very different from our expectation.  Some parts of the trail were steep, some narrow, some have a steep drop to the side and where there were no clearly marked trails, steel or wooden steps were put in place for the hikers to get a foothold.  There were also cables on the side acting as handrails where one can easily fall down the steep side.  There were many hikers going in both directions.  Most of them are just day hikers coming up or going back down to Chamonix.  As expected they are more energized than us and were at a much quicker pace.  We often have to give way to other hikers coming downhill.  We also met a few crazy mountain bikers riding down!  I can't imagine what it's like to fall down.


View of Mont Blanc and the Chamonix valley

A rugged terrain with no shade 

Mont Blanc was in view throughout the hike down

Handrails on the side where it's narrow and steep on the side

Another view of the Chamonix Valley

Some parts of the trail have man-made steps

A beautiful day for paraglider

Doris going down a steep and uneven part of the trail.
 Not only was it difficult physically but mentally as well.  We had to concentrate on our footsteps.  Having been hiking for the last 10 days our legs were very tired.  The first part of the trail below Le Brévent was hot because there was no shade.  As we go lower we start to encounter trees, a welcome shade.  The trail continues zig-zagging downhill.  It seems forever.  Just when we think we are almost at the bottom we see that we still have a long ways ahead of us.  Eventually, we came to some buildings and according to our notes, it's called the Parc Merlet (a zoo).  We walked on paved road for a distance and met many cars and visitors coming in the opposite direction.

Then we are on to another trail and again, it seems forever before we saw houses.  We know now that we are just above Les Houches.  Finally, there is a road; ahead is a dam.  As we come to the bridge the train station is ahead.  We checked out the train station.  It's empty.  We thought it will be faster for us to take a train to Chamonix.

Checking our Google map, we had to cross the highway on a bridge, going uphill for about 500m.  Then we saw the steeple of the church where the city center of Les Houches is.  Going around the church, at last, we saw our bus stop.  We took the No. 1 bus to the Mummery stop and walked about 5 minutes to Auberge du Manoir.  Audrey at the reception desk greeted us warmly.  What a relief to be finally finished!  We are exhausted.

Completing the TMB circuit.  Finishing at the church and bus stop in from to fit


TMB Day 10 - Argentiere to Planpraz

Argentiere spoiled us.  Once we are back in civilization and luxury, it's tough to rough it again.

Our next stage goes from Argentiere to Tré-le-Champ for 2.5km downhill and then a steep 950m climb for 4.5km to Lac Blanc.  This is supposed to be a beautiful part of the hike, reaching the famous Lac Blanc.  However, this section also requires climbing steel ladders.  Doris is afraid of them.  Having seen some videos on FaceBook and YouTube, she is nervous about climbing those ladders.

After Lac Blanc, there is a 3km downhill hike to Le Flégére.  Our day is supposed to end there.  However,  the cable car station at Le Flégére is under repair so we can't stop there.  We have to go another 5km downhill to Planpraz, then take the cable car down to Chamonix, where we will spend the night at Auberge du Manoir.  This makes this 10th stage of the TMB an extra long hike starting with a very challenging uphill climb.  I know once we are settled into our hotel in Chamonix it will be hard to get us motivated to climb up the mountain again for Day 11.

Eventually, we made the best decision of this trip.  WE SKIPPED DAY 10!

Sunday, September 22, 2019

TMB Day 9 - Trient to Argentiere

This stage takes us back to the Chamonix Valley, crossing from Switzerland back to France.  The distance is 15km and should take about 6 hours.  The first part of the hike, from Trient to Col de Balme is all uphill, a distance of 5.5km and an ascent of 900km.

After a skimpy breakfast at the L'Auberge de Mont Blanc, we dropped off our bags for transport and start getting ready to walk out the door.  Almost all the hikers are doing the same.  Everyone is heading south on the main paved road.  At le Peuty, about 1km away, there is a campsite, toilets and an information board.  Some hikers are being dropped off by taxis or vans.  They may have been staying at Forclaz because they couldn't find accommodations at Trient.

Hikers heading out in the early morning light

The Refuge du Peuty, providing basic accommodations

Yurt-type tents providing sleeping quarters for hikers
 Right after le Peuty we start our ascent up the mountain.  It's a long section of zig-zags and never seem to end.  We met other hikers, young and old, from all over the world.  We met mountain-bikers coming down from the other direction.  We passed through some beautiful wooded areas and rewarded with views of mountains and valleys.  It is our last glimpse of Switzerland.

Doris crossing the Nant Noir

Start of uphill climb

Views of mountain peaks

Trail going through open meadows
Mountain biker coming down the other direction

View of the valley behind us in Switzerland

Approaching the hut at Col de Balme

Snow-capped mountains and valley in Switzerland
The hut starts to look bigger as we approach Col de Balme.  When we reached the hut we saw many people stopping to rest.  Some are gazing into the Chamonix valley and Mont Blanc itself.  It was a clear day and we could see Mont Blanc clearly.  This is also where the Swiss border ends and the French border begins.  We ran into many hikers that we've meeting the last few days.  We greeted each and chatted and talk about our experience.  There is a sense of accomplishment because we are so near to the end of the hike.

Stone marking the border between Switzerland and France

Looking at Mont Blanc from a distant
Finally it's time for our descent into Argentiere.  We were supposed to descend from Col de Balme to Col des Posettes, then to Aiguillete des Posettes.  Then more descent to Tré-le-Champ and finally down to Argentiere.  A total distance of another 9.5km.

However, we have had enough hiking for the day.  The climb up Col de Balme was tiring.  So we decided to walk slight below Col de Balme and take the ski-lift part way down.  Then we take a cable car down to the town of Le Tour.  From there we took a bus to Argentiere.  This probably saved us about 4 hours.  Our bodies are tired.  We need to save some energy for the last 2 days.

Checking into the 4-star Hotel les Grands Montets was a renewed feeling. It is a luxurious hotel, better than any we've stayed so far.  Our balcony faces Mont Blanc.  We are near a ski-lift so this must be a popular area in the winter.  After a quick shower we were ready for a nap.

Town of Argentiere

View of Mont Blanc from the balcony

Beautiful Hotel les Grands Montets