In blazing hot sunshine we started to work our way south. Our destination not yet in the mountains proper but in the Fribourg Pre-Alps. It seems a little unfair to say they aren’t mountains when many of the peaks are over 2000m with interesting jagged limestone peaks and well in excess of the height of Ben Nevis, but it’s all relative. Bigger peaks will be coming later in our journey. This is just a taster.
Charmey motorhome aire
Our stopover was at the lift station of the small ski resort of Charmey, high above Gruyeres. We hoped that gaining a little altitude might reduce the heat, but instead it seemed to increase the intensity of the sunshine.
We drove into the car park and easily found the section marked for motorhomes. It was on a sloping gravel area with bays marked out by logs. Only when we’d parked up and laboriously levelled on this tricky ground did we realise that the services were a little way off in the tarmac area of the car park, maybe we should have used them before getting settled.
Inside the gondola station a helpful lady took our money (another 25CHF per night) and showed me how to get a jeton (for the motorhome services) from the self service cheese vending machine, just in case we needed electricity in the middle of the night. I’m not sure why she thought it might be a thing, maybe more of an issue in winter, but she was keen to be helpful. Or maybe this was just a marketing tactic to encourage us to buy cheese. If so it’s really not needed.
Having paid 25 CHF for the night I was a bit miffed that the services were an extra 5CHF, especially because our drinking water container was already half empty and I didn’t want to pay for 100 litres of water just to half fill a 15l tub. In the end we used one of the many water fountains in town to top up fresh water as and when we needed it.
The idea for the afternoon was a stroll and some preparation for our next day’s activity. We were planning to do one of the local via ferratas (or maybe the plural is vie ferrate given it’s Italian) which was a first for us and we needed to get our new kit out and admire it before it got all scuffed up on the rocks.
After checking out the town, making a note of the bakery, we set our chairs out in the sun (Becky) and shade (Paul). We relaxed as parapenters drifted down from the summit and a flock of sparrows swirled around us searching for crumbs from the motorhomes, landing and taking off in a swirl of chirping. Behind us the gondola station provided a steady clunk clunk background noise.
It must be a very popular destination for parapenting as most of the cars and motorhomes that turned up disgorged their occupants with the outsized rucksacks they use to carry their equipment. Later that evening we saw a group of them hastily trying to pick up the armfuls of fabric and run to catch the last gondola to the top. Sadly they were a few minutes late.
There is plenty to do here and our one night stay became three. The first extension to allow us to rest our tired muscles after the unusual activity of climbing, the second to do some walking and mountain biking. We went back to the bakery and bought a very expensive baguette for 3.50 CHF. We ate it all that day, no letting it go stale at that price.
Nearby a lady turned up with a trailer full of huskies. The five dogs were let out of their trailer and tethered on the edge of the car park. Their yipping was strangely human, a cross between an infant’s cries and a fox’s yowling. They cried when the pack was separated for walking and when food was due. The owner set up a tent each night to sleep in and packed it away each morning. I suppose not many campsites welcome 5 dogs. It all seemed a bit hard work to me.
Our stay took us over a weekend and we saw the resort come to life. The large car park filled up on the Saturday. The bar and the gondola stayed open until 10pm providing entertainment for locals and visitors. People were squeezing themselves into any available space and we wondered if we would be able to get out when one van parked crosswise in front of us, but as the day visitors left everyone readjusted themselves and the parking became less chaotic
On the Sunday the clanging of nearby cow bells (the sound of distant bells is almost constant day and night) announced the descent of a small herd of cows down the road with the queens of the herd bringing up the rear. Traffic came to a standstill as the cows were ushered without any haste around cars. Only the bus continued, with a timetable to keep and presumably plenty of experience, it slowly rolled down the road alongside the cows.
A first Via Ferrata
This was something new for us. We’ve done some climbing in the past (only ever with someone more experienced in support), and I (Becky) did a lot of caving at university. These ‘Iron Ways’ are something we have threatened to do ever since we started our blog, but somehow we just never got round to it.
Before setting out on this trip I had done some research, realised that there are plenty of them in Switzerland, and decided that it was time to give them a go. It’s good to try new things especially as we get into our 50s and there is a risk that we just fall into a routine.
Thought to have originated in Italy in the Dolomites as a way of moving troops through the mountains in WWI, Via Ferrata are climbing routes that are equipped with additional ladders, handholds, footholds and protection to allow walkers with the right equipment to access routes that would otherwise be too steep.
We needed to wear a helmet and a harness with a pair of lanyards especially designed to absorb the impact of a fall. Carabiners on the end of each lanyard clip onto a steel line for protection. Every so often a bolt is secured into the rock and you need to unclip from the line and reclip beyond the bolt. By doing this one lanyard at a time you can ensure you always have at least one carabiner clipped into the line. Things have moved on a lot since I used to go caving and used a ‘cows tail’ of a couple of lengths of dynamic rope to fulfil a similar purpose.
Charmey has a Via Ferrata that is of a middling grade (K3 in the Swiss system) as well as two more difficult routes. We paid for a single trip up to the top gondola station and then had a very short walk to the start of the climb. All the way up we were peering at the peak of the mountain, knowing that it was our destination but unsure exactly how we were going to get up it. The guide book suggested 2 to 4 hours to do the ascent but it didn’t look big enough to warrant such a long time. In the end we took just over 2 hours but it felt like it was over in minutes.
Both of us had a bit of the shakes at first while we got used to the sense of height and exposure, but soon we got into a rhythm of arm stretch and leg push, enjoying some additional fun elements of monkey bridges, a cargo net and a long suspension bridge.
We were buzzing by the time we’d finished, although the adrenaline had obscured some of the details from my memory. We were clear that this was a reasonable grade of Via Ferrata for us.
We then walked down one of the mountain paths all the way to the car park, a steep quick descent that might have been a bit much for muscles that weren’t used to climbing and hadn’t seen significant hills for a long time. The following day we could feel it in our quads and any step up or downhill was a painful exercise. We really wished we’d taken the special offer of a return lift ticket and spa entry. Instead we forced ourselves to take short walks around the town and lower elevations of the mountains as we tried to ease our aching muscles.
A short bike ride.
The Swiss Mobility app and website have proven really useful in our planning. It provides ordnance survey style maps of Switzerland along with some described routes for walks, bike rides and more.
On the Sunday morning before we left we wanted to do a short bike ride to test our muscles before we left for our next destination.
We found that cycle route 2, a 450 mile mountain bike epic, passed through Charmey. We didn’t have any intention to do this ourselves, not even one section, but it did give us an idea for creating a short round trip.
We cycled up the Val Charmey on road until we reached La Valsainte Charterhouse. This is the only active Carthusian monastery in Switzerland and the collection of buildings can only be viewed from outside the walls.
From the monastery we had an off road, mostly singletrack, route back down to Charmey. It was quick, but there were quite a few human obstacles as it’s a shared path and plenty of walkers were out for a Sunday morning stroll.